April 21, 2021

Model Desac

It’s Time to Fly

Best Credit Cards for a Road Trip in 2021

10 min read

CNBC Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We may receive a commission when you click on links for products from our affiliate partners.

With the start of spring just a few weeks away and the vaccine rollout ramping up, summer travel is starting to look like a real possibility. Taking a road trip can be a great way to spend quality time with family or friends, and it is a great alternative to flying.

That said, road trips can still rack up quite a bill. You’ll need to factor in the cost of a rental car or maintenance on your own vehicle, gas, tolls, parking, hotel or campsite fees and food.

These expenses can add up fast, especially if you have a packed car. But if you use the right credit card, you can earn rewards on all expenses. Some cards even provide money-saving perks, including car rental discounts or a travel or dining credit, that can offset the cost of your vacation.

To make your next road trip more affordable, consider using one or more credit cards that can allow you to maximize rewards. We reviewed the best credit cards to find cards that can save you money in five categories: car rentals, gas, dining and takeout, groceries and everything else. (See below for our methodology.) So before you hit the road, check out the benefits of using the right credit card.

Best credit cards for a road trip

FAQs

Best for car rentals

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

  • Rewards

    10X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 3X points on travel worldwide (immediately after earning your $300 annual travel credit), 3X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out, 1X point per $1 on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening — worth up to $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

    16.99% to 23.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit for travel purchases
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit up to $100 every four years
  • Priority Pass™ Select lounge access at 1,000+ VIP lounges in over 500 cities worldwide
  • Points are worth 50% more when redeemed for travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Special benefits at The Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection
  • Free DashPass subscription for a minimum of a year when you activate by December 31, 2021
  • $60 DoorDash credit in 2021
  • Complimentary year of Lyft Pink membership

Cons

  • High $550 annual fee, but it can be offset by taking advantage of all the card’s perks
  • No introductory APR
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,231
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,755

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Best for gas

PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card

  • Rewards

    5X points on gas, 3X points on groceries, 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    $100 statement credit when you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days from account opening

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

    0% promotional rate for the first 12 months on balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    13.49% to 17.99% variable on purchases; 17.99% non-variable on balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • High 5X points on gas at the pump and 3X on groceries
  • No bonus category activations
  • Good special financing offer on balance transfers
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $513
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,167

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus.

Best for groceries

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

On the American Express secure site

  • Rewards

    6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, 3% cash back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more and 1% cash back on other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn a $300 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card within the first 6 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $0 introductory annual fee for one year, then $95

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 12 months on purchases, N/A for balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    13.99% to 23.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • High 6% cash back at U.S. supermarket spending (up to $6,000 a year, then 1%)
  • Unlimited 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions
  • Unlimited 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit

Cons

  • 2.7% fee on purchases made abroad
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $679
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,397

Rewards totals incorporate the cash back earned from the welcome bonus

Best for dining and takeout

American Express® Gold Card

On the American Express secure site

  • Rewards

    4X Membership Rewards® points on restaurants worldwide (including takeout and delivery, plus, Uber Eats purchases) and at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X), 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first 6 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • Up to $120 dining credit annually ($10 a month) for purchases made with Grubhub, Seamless and eligible restaurants (after a one-time enrollment)
  • Up to $120 Uber Cash annually ($10 a month) for U.S. Uber Eats orders and U.S. Uber rides (card must be added to Uber app to receive the Uber Cash benefit)
  • Strong rewards program with 4X points earned on dining worldwide and 3X points earned on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com
  • Baggage insurance plan covers up to $1,250 for carry-on baggage and up to $500 for checked baggage that is damaged, lost or stolen
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • No introductory APR period
  • $250 annual fee
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,074
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,969

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Best for everything else

Citi® Double Cash Card

  • Rewards

    2% cash back: 1% on all purchases and an additional 1% after you pay your credit card bill

  • Welcome bonus

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 18 months on balance transfers; N/A for purchases

  • Regular APR

    13.99% – 23.99% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • 2% cash back on all purchases
  • Simple cash-back program that doesn’t require activation or spending caps
  • One of the longest intro periods for balance transfers at 18 months

Cons

  • No welcome bonus, so you can’t maximize rewards during the first few months of card opening
  • Minimum cash-back redemption of $25
  • 3% fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $443
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,213

FAQs

What is a road trip credit card?

While credit cards aren’t specifically branded as road trip cards, many offer versatile rewards and perks geared toward road trips. The best credit cards for road trips offer you the ability to maximize rewards on key expenses that you’ll incur on the road, including: cost of a rental car or maintenance on your own vehicle, gas, tolls, parking, hotel or campsite fees and food.

In addition to rewards, cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offer discounts at popular car rental agencies, like National Car Rental, Avis and Silvercar, as well as rental car insurance and roadside assistance.

Rental car insurance (aka auto rental collision damage waiver) reimburses you for theft or collision damage, while roadside assistance helps you with roadside emergencies, like a jumpstart or tire change. While these perks don’t have a monthly or annual fee, you may need to make a copay for roadside assistance. For instance, the Sapphire Reserve card charges $50 per incident on up to four claims a year.

Premium cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and American Express® Gold Card, also offer annual statement credits toward eligible travel or dining that can help you save even more.

Road trip credit cards are also great year-round. You can use the cards on this list at any time of the year to earn rewards on car rentals, gas, dining, takeout, groceries and more. After all, the best credit cards aren’t exclusive to a specific purchase, but instead are versatile for all of life’s expenses.

What credit score is required for a road trip card?

How to choose the right credit card for a road trip

Credit cards come with a lot of benefits, so many that it can be hard to choose one card. While there’s no one-size-fits-all credit card, there are some simple steps you can follow to choose the credit card that provides you with the most benefit. Here are the steps:

  1. Check your credit score and credit report: First, check your credit score and credit report. This lets you know where you stand and can influence which credit cards you apply for. Most cards on this list require good or excellent credit. You can check your credit score for free with Experian, Discover Credit Scorecard or your card issuer. You also have free access to your credit reports every week through April 20, 2022 at AnnualCreditReport.com.
  2. Decide which type of credit card suits your needs: Once you know your credit score, review what you plan to spend the most money on during your road trip. If you expect to order a lot of takeout and dine at restaurants, choose a card for those purchases. But if you rather buy groceries, opt for a grocery rewards card. Many cards also offer rewards in several categories, like gas and groceries, that allow you to maximize rewards.
  3. Shop around for the best credit card offers: If you still have trouble choosing a card, consider submitting a pre-qualification form online to see whether you may qualify. This can help you narrow down which cards you might be approved for, without any damage to your credit score. Pre-qualification isn’t a guarantee you’ll be approved for a card and submitting an application affects your credit score.

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Our methodology

To determine which cards offer the best value, CNBC Select analyzed 234 of the most popular credit cards available in the U.S. We compared each card on a range of features, including rewards, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available. We also considered additional perks, the application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.

We also estimated how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee. Our final picks are weighted heavily toward the highest five-year returns, since it’s generally wise to hold onto a credit card for years. This method also avoids giving an unfair advantage to cards with large welcome bonuses.

For balance transfer cards, we used a Bankrate calculator to tally the interest rates and fees you could incur if you transferred $6,028, the average balance Americans carry on their credit cards in 2019, according to Experian.

If the average consumer with a $6,028 balance on their credit card pays $200 each month, they will spend $1,911 in additional interest, assuming the average 17.7% APR. And it will take them 40 months — more than three years — to pay off that debt.

With four of the five cards featured on this list, if you take full advantage of the intro APR period and pay $200 per month, you’ll pay less than $450 in interest and cut your repayment time in half to 20 months. That’s a significant savings.

For the cards that offered a rewards program, we also estimated how much cash back you might earn over a five year period. CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company’s data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri’s data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses.

CNBC Select used this budget to estimate how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.

It’s important to note the value of a point or mile varies from card to card and based on how you redeem them. When we calculated the estimated returns, we assumed that cardholders are redeeming points/miles for a typical maximum value of 1 cent per point or mile. (Extreme optimizers might be able to achieve more value.)

When choosing the best balance transfer card, we focused on the card that provides consumers with the cheapest way to pay off their debt rather than the number of rewards they could potentially earn. When you’re in credit card debt, your primary focus should be repayment. Earning rewards should be seen as a bonus, and you don’t want to spend beyond your means in order to earn points.

The five-year rewards total and the interest rate and fees estimates are derived from a budget similar to the average American’s spending and debt. You may earn a higher or lower return depending on your spending habits.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

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