9 credit card tips for full-time RVers

Maximize savings as you wander across the country by leveraging card rewards, loyalty programs and smart budgeting

Rebecca Lake
Personal Finance Writer
Making complex credit topics simple

Credit card tips for full-time RVers

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Joining the ranks of full-time RVers might sound good if you’re drawn to the idea of a nomadic lifestyle.

Twenty-five million people are expected to take an RV vacation in 2018, according to a survey from GoRVing.com. Two-thirds of RVers said it’s the most affordable way to travel.

When you’re planning to spend some or all your time on the road, keeping costs down and managing your money is essential.

If you’re new to the RV lifestyle or you’re a seasoned RVer, these financial tips can make for a smoother ride.

See related: Best cards for gas

1. Start with a budget that matches your lifestyle

Riding off into the sunset can result in a budget that looks very different from what you’re used to. It means accounting for new spending categories: think campground fees, tolls and RV insurance.

Once you’ve worked out your RVing budget, create a system for keeping track of it.

2. Take advantage of budgeting apps

Grant Sinclair, RV enthusiast and blogger at Our Wander-Filled Life, relies on apps to simplify things. He and his wife Bonnie use Mint to manage their budget and the Trail Wallet app to keep track of daily spending.

“We keep a trip budget for all of our long-term road trips of around $150 a day,” he says. “Some days, we’ll go over, some days under, but using Trail Wallet, we’re able to keep track of the overall daily average.”

See related: 6 inexpensive financial tools to help you budget and save

3. Sync card payments

The Sinclairs use a combination of debit and credit to pay for their RV adventures, but their budget system helps them avoid carrying a balance.

“The big thing is to set your credit card statement dates to be all around the time you get paid, so you can easily turn around and pay off the balances,” says Sinclair.

Bill Widmer, travel blogger and founder of The Wandering RV, says he and his fiancée Kayla put bill payments on autopilot to avoid late or missed payments. They also use alerts to monitor credit card accounts.

“As for card activity and due dates, you can just set up your cards to alert you of both these things via text,” he says. “Any time we make a purchase, I get an SMS text on my phone letting me know. It also helps to keep us on top of subscriptions that way.”

See related: Credit card bill autopayments: tips for getting it right

"I like to set aside $100 to $300 per month for future repairs, and at least $100 for savings toward things like surprise fees or other unexpected expenses."

4. Plan for emergencies

One of the biggest pitfalls RVers need to watch out for is not budgeting for RV maintenance, repairs and the occasional curve ball, says Widmer.

“I like to set aside $100 to $300 per month for future repairs,” Widmer says, “and at least $100 for savings toward things like surprise fees or other unexpected expenses.”

5. Bring extra cash – and cards

Lauren Deutsch, vice president of Cars2Charities, says RVing with her parents as a child taught her two important budgeting tips for her own RV travels as an adult: bring along a cash reserve and at least one credit card for emergencies.

She and her boyfriend travel with a Platinum Mastercard from Logix Federal Credit Union with an $8,000 limit. They rely on the card to cover things like breakdowns, flat tires or calling a tow truck in case they get stuck in rough terrain.

“It’s also come in handy when we’ve run out of firewood and when we needed to buy extra food because we made friends camping and wanted to be able to feed everyone,” says Deutsch.

6. Earn rewards on unexpected expenses

If you’re taking along a credit card just for emergencies, why not earn some rewards in the process?

Decide what type of expenses you’d consider an emergency, then choose a card that offers the most miles, points or cash back on those purchases.

You can apply the cash back you earn as a statement credit later to help with paying down an emergency purchase.

Here are a few card recommendations for different emergency scenarios:

 See related: Best cards for groceries

Decide what type of expenses you'd consider an emergency, then choose a card that offers the most miles, points or cash back on those purchases.

7. Get rewarded for everyday travel spending

A rewards credit card can be good for more than just emergencies when you’re RVing part- or full-time.

Widmer uses the American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card for gas and groceries, and the Discover it® Cash Back card to take advantage of the 5 percent rotating quarterly bonus – up to $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter – which in the past has applied to wholesale clubs, restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores.

“Beyond those, it’s also worth considering retail store cards,” he says, from stores that sell camping gear and outdoor supplies.

  • The REI Co-op Mastercard offers a 5 percent rebate on REI purchases and 1 percent back on all other purchases, on top of the 5 percent back you get for being an REI Co-op member.
  • The Good Sam Rewards Visa lets you earn 5 points on purchases at Camping World and other Good Sam affiliates, 3 points on fuel and private campground fees and 1 point on everything else.

These kinds of cards could be a good way for RVers to step up their rewards earnings, but there are some downsides you can’t overlook.

  • Retail store cards tend to carry higher interest rates compared to regular rewards cards. 
  • In addition, you may only be able to redeem rewards at that retailer or its partners, whereas a cash back or travel rewards card gives you more flexibility in how you can use rewards.

See related: Retail Score Card Survey: Customers lured to high interest cards with more rewards

8. Choose a rewards card that fits your spending habits

Sinclair says choosing the right rewards program can be tricky for RVers and it depends on how they primarily get around.

If you only travel via RV, then a straight cash back card would be best, he says. But if you fly or stay at hotels from time to time, you may want a card that offers miles or points instead.

Sinclair and his wife primarily use three travel cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve, which gives them 3 points per dollar on dining and campgrounds – which are considered a travel expense.
  • Chase Freedom, which lets them take advantage of a 5 percent quarterly cash back bonus – up to $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter. They need to sign up every quarter to take advantage of the extra bonus.
  • And Chase Ink Business Cash, a business credit card that gives them 2 percent cash back on gas and dining.

They also keep the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card in reserve, which offers 6 points per dollar spent at U.S. restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations, and 3 points per dollar spent on all other purchases (the card also offers 12 points per dollar spent at select Hilton properties).

They use the points they earn with the card to book Hilton hotel stays for winter trips when they travel without their RV.

As you compare cards, “be wary of annual fees,” says Sinclair. “We easily travel enough to get the value out of the $450 annual fee of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, but we’ve done the math on that particular card. For many RVers, a lesser-fee option, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, might be better.”

"We also make a point to pick up loyalty cards from grocery stores and gas stations and utilize them as well... This allows us to get fuel savings based on how much we spend on groceries."

9. Use loyalty programs to enhance rewards savings

There are several ways RVers can stack rewards or discounts when traveling.

  • Use cash back shopping apps such as Shopkick or Ibotta if you’re making pit stops for groceries or other supplies and pair them with your cash rewards credit card, Widmer suggests.
  • If you have an American Express card, look into Amex offers for added rewards and savings if you’re shopping for RV essentials online, he suggests.

Sinclair uses his Good Sam membership to get a 10 percent discount at campgrounds and on gas at Pilot Flying J stations.

He uses his Good Sam Rewards Visa to also get another $0.03 per gallon discount on gas.

See related: Card-linked offers: Shopping deals you're not aware of

“We also make a point to pick up loyalty cards from grocery stores and gas stations and utilize them as well,” he says. “For example, we have Kroger at home, but have found many other chains throughout the West which [are] Kroger’s under a different name. This allows us to get fuel savings based on how much we spend on groceries.”

Signing up for gas loyalty programs is a smart move since it’s likely one of your biggest budget categories.

“Definitely get gas station rewards cards for Shell, ExxonMobil, Speedway and/or BP Driver,” says Widmer. “Shell is our favorite at $0.03 per gallon savings every time you fill.”

You don’t need the gas station’s credit card to join or earn rewards through these loyalty programs, but getting a gas credit card is another way to stack rewards.

Just remember to consider the APR and how you can redeem rewards to make sure you’re getting maximum value for the long haul.


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Updated: 11-16-2018