Borrow / Credit Cards

9 Ways to Use Your Credit Card to Pay Less for Your Next Vacation

Beth Braverman  |  November 27, 2018

What’s one way to make your next vacation even better? Reducing the cost — without compromising on the fun.

Believe it or not, your credit cards actually afford you many ways to do just that. And not just a little bit; being smart about using your credit card on every step of the trip can cut your costs significantly.

Of course, you should only pay for a vacation with a credit card if you know you can pay off the balance in full. But if you’ve got the budget to cover the costs, here’s how that little piece of plastic can save you even more:

Booking the Trip

The average introductory bonus on a travel rewards credit card in 2018 is now 40,556 points, more than double the average bonus in 2008, according to MagnifyMoney. That’s a value of about $400, and many cards offer more. Which is why if you don’t already have a travel rewards card (or if you do but are ready to swap) now’s a great time to snag a large signup bonus.

If you’re a frequent flier with one specific airline, that airline’s co-branded credit card is likely your best bet. You’ll accumulate miles the most quickly that way and get the most value when you redeem. Otherwise, go for a solid, overall travel card with a large signup bonus that will give you rewards as you go like Barclay Arrival+ which offers a 60,000-mile signup bonus, along with 2x miles on every purchase and 5% miles back toward your next redemption. (Note: Watch the annual fees on these cards, and make sure your rewards will trump them.)

You can also save big time by using rewards you’ve already earned to cover some or all of your trip. To be sure you’re getting the best value for your points or miles, run the numbers. Our friends at The Points Guy have a great valuation chart that shows you what your miles and points are worth.

At the Airport

Pay $30 per checked bag? Puh-leeze. Co-branded airline cards waive the charge for at least the first checked bag, and many also waive it for your traveling companions. Your airline-branded card may also get you access to a private lounge and priority boarding, even if you’ve purchased economy seats. (During a longer-than-expected travel delay, quaffing free Pinot Grigio and mediocre cheese cubes can save you from blowing more than you’d like at the airport bar.) Higher-end rewards cards may offer a reimbursement for a few hundred dollars toward airline fees, such as baggage fees or in-flight purchases, each year. Some also cover your Global Entry or TSApre dues. That’s another 100 bucks in savings — plus the time of not having to wait in the regular line. Priceless.  

During a longer-than-expected travel delay, quaffing free Pinot Grigio and mediocre cheese cubes can save you from blowing more than you’d like at the airport bar.

At the Rental Car Counter

Many credit cards — particularly the high end ones — will pick up the cost of insurance on a rental car (as, by the way, will your own auto insurance policies). Check your credit card agreement before agreeing to pay extra for coverage you already have, says Roshni Agarwal, co-founder of The Vacation Hunt.

At the Hotel

If you already have a hotel-affiliated credit card, signing up for the loyalty program may get you double the points. Even if you don’t have a hotel-affiliated card, signing up for the loyalty program could get you perks like free Wi-Fi (a $10 to $15 a day value) or a late checkout.

For Overseas Purchases

Credit cards can offer a better exchange rate on purchases than you’ll find from airport kiosks or elsewhere. Plus, it’s more secure than carrying around cash. Just be sure you’re using a card that doesn’t have fees for international transactions.

On Attractions

Check your credit card rewards portal to see whether there are discounts or special opportunities for events or activities where you’re traveling. American Express and Visa Signature cardholders, for example, can get discounts, preferred seating and early access to Broadway tickets. Some rewards cards also offer exclusive experiences for cardholders.

Dining Out

The additional dining out that you’ll likely do while on vacation is one more opportunity to earn points and save money with your card. Some cards offer extra points for money spent at restaurants—the Capital One World Elite Card, for example, offers triple points on spending in the dining category.

Other programs provide discounts on dining via card-linked offers with specific restaurants. You can register any credit card with the AAdvantage dining program and earn American Airlines miles while eating at participating restaurants.

Even if you don’t have a hotel-affiliated card, signing up for the loyalty program could get you perks like free Wi-Fi (a $10 to $15 a day value) or a late checkout.

For Travel Emergencies

Even the most meticulous vacation plans can go awry thanks to bad weather or medical issues. Many cards offer some sort of travel insurance coverage, including reimbursement for missed flights, lost luggage or travel accidents.


For Big Purchases

Using a credit card to pay for special souvenirs will give you the most consumer protection.“I always charge jewelry on vacation,” says Elizabeth Avery, founder of the travel blog Solo Trekker 4 U. “Then I have a local jeweler at home verify that the purchase contains the gemstones, gold or silver purported by the merchant.”  If you’re buying a large item like a carpet or artwork, for example, and are having it shipped home, your credit card company may cover the purchase if it arrives damaged or gets lost in the mail.

Sounds like a good way to buy jewelry to us!

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