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How to plan a fly-and-drive road trip using rewards, points

A twist on an old classic, fly-and-drives offer the fun of a road trip without the grueling hours it takes to reach your destination

Summary

Here’s how you can make your fly-and-drive adventure happen using rewards points.

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Looking for a close-to-home option for a spring break getaway or starting to plan a summer adventure with rewards points? Consider
exploring a new part of the U.S. on a fly-and-drive road trip!

Fly-and-drive trips are a twist on the traditional road trip. Instead of getting in your own car and road-tripping from home, you fly
to a further-afield destination as your starting point and then rent a car to go exploring.

See related:When you should pay a flight with cash, when with miles

Fly-and-drive road trip options

As a fly-and-driver, you can choose a one-way journey: Arrive and rent a car at one location, then return the car and depart from your second location. For example, fly into San Diego, adventure up the California coast and fly home from San Francisco.

Alternatively, you can start and end a fly-and-drive road trip at the same point by booking a simple same location return on both your car rental and plane ticket.

This type of trip allows you to explore a specific region – like flying in and out of Minneapolis and road tripping to explore Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters.

I personally discovered the adventure possibility of fly-and-drive trips while working to visit all 50 states.

While I’ve checked all the states off my list now, the experience showed me there are lots of places to discover that are a simple road trip away from some airport, so I’m still at it.

My last fly-and-drive trip was just last month when my friend Jes and I scored cheap Alaska Airlines tickets to Albuquerque (ABQ).

We explored Southern New Mexico’s national monuments, space stations, hot springs and alien landing sites – using our credit card rewards points to get great deals on hotel stays.

Here’s how we planned our fly-and-drive to New Mexico – and how you can use your rewards points to hit the road.

How to plan a fly-and-drive road trip

1. Arrive at your starting destination on points – or pick a cheap location

Some fly-and-drive trippers want to visit a special destination like a national park or historic landmark, others are willing to explore and find adventure in any location they can arrive to free or at a bargain.

The first time I did a fly-and-drive road trip around New Mexico, I chose it because I had never been to the state and always wanted to see Santa Fe.

The ticket from PDX-ABQ was expensive to purchase in peak season, so I “paid” for it with American Airline miles from my Citi/ AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. The second time I went was simply because there was a $39 flight.

  • Watch for fare sales to discover possible locations. Airlines run sales in line with traditional shopping “holidays” and some offer reduced points sales on award tickets.
  • Use a booking tool to find options for the cheapest destinations to fly to from your starting point. I use Google Flights to search from my home airport to the “United States,” and Skiplagged to search to “anywhere.”
  • If you have Southwest Rapid Rewards points from the Southwest Rapids Rewards Premier Credit Card (or Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferrable to Rapid Rewards), search for a budget ticket on Southwest.
  • Southwest has domestic routes to 40 states, and the points cost will be low because it’s based on the dollar cost of your bargain ticket. Plus, if you’ve already scored the Companion Pass, you can take a friend along for free.

2. Book your car

Wheels are a requirement for a fly-and-drive trip, but they don’t have to cost a lot. Rental cars can be acquired using either points or cash. My personal preference is to always look for a cheap car first. If I can find a car rental for $25 a day or under, I’ll usually save my points and pay for the rental.

  • Use Autoslash to find the cheapest deals on car rentals.
  • Expect to pay more (cash or points) for a one-way rental (i.e., drop off in a different city). If you are flexible and traveling offseason, check out Transfer Car for nearly free rental relocation options.
  • Make a booking when you find a good deal but keep looking until you find a great one. Car rental reservations can be canceled without penalty (unless you’ve prepaid).
  • Pay with a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that offers primary insurance on the rental.

Using Autoslash, I was able to find an unbelievably cheap, all-in rental while in New Mexico for three days which only cost me $76. The Budget
rental (via Priceline) was $111 cheaper than anything I could find searching sites directly, and insurance was covered with my credit card.

See related:Best cards for renting a car

3. Book free accommodation – or use points to wing it

Outside of big cities in the U.S., you’re likely to find roadside chain hotels in the lower to midrange category like the Holiday Inn Express part of IHG), the Hampton Inn (part of Hilton Honors), or the Fairfield Inn (part of Marriott Bonvoy).

These hotels are rarely at capacity (unless it’s a holiday or local event) and are prime locations for using credit card points earned on
co-branded cards.

  • If your flight arrives in the evening, book your hotel for your first night in advance.
  • If you know exactly how far you’ll be traveling each day, you can book hotels in advance.
  • If a hotel is cheap – my rule is less than $80 – pay cash. Use your points for more expensive redemptions.
  • Budget 20,000 rewards points per night for any chain hotel program if you’re relying on last-minute bookings (you may find rooms for 5,000-10,000 points per night, if you’re lucky).

For New Mexico, we pre-booked arrival and departure nights at the ABQ Hyatt Place using points – from the World of Hyatt Credit Card – as our flights arrived late and left early.

We left our other nights to chance as there were plenty of Marriott, IHG and Hilton options in the small cities we’d pass through.

The result was two nights at two different Holiday Inn Express properties for 15,000 points each  – from the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card.

Where would you head on a fly-and-drive trip? Use your points to plan an adventure — the road awaits!

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