Staycation savings: Earn rewards on local summer entertainment

How to save on restaurants, movie theaters, theme parks, camps and more

Constance Sommer
Personal Finance Writer
Writes about personal finance, health care and other topics.

Staycation savings with credit cards

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Summer’s coming. Is your spending strategy ready?

From paying for camp to seeing that new blockbuster movie, there are plenty of ways to spend money this season even if you never leave town.

If your summer includes a staycation, you can turn some of that spending to your advantage, by being thoughtful about which credit card you use and when. The right cards, and some sleuthing, can unearth bargains in your backyard.

Here are some top summer staycation spending strategies.

Ways to use your cards to save on summer 'staycations'

Dining out

Pick a card that offers bonuses on restaurants

It’s been a hot day. Better to go out than turning on your oven and heating up the kitchen. But do you have a credit card that gives you rewards for eating at restaurants?

  • The Uber Visa card offers 4 percent cash back at sit-down and fast-food restaurants, bars and on UberEats, the company’s meal delivery service.

  • If it’s travel points you’re after, check out the Chase Sapphire cards. The Reserve offers 3 points per dollar spent on restaurants and the Preferred, 2 points per dollar spent. When redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, each point is worth 1.5 cents or 1.25 cents per dollar respectively.

  • In 2017, Chase Freedom featured restaurants as part of its rotating categories – which can earn 5 percent cash back on combined purchases of up to $1,500 – in the third quarter, from July through September. Check the Chase quarterly calendar in mid-June to see if restaurants will be part of Chase Freedom’s Q3 rotating categories again in 2018.

  • See “Best cards for restaurants” for more options.

Dining programs and marketplace promotions

Are you a member of an airline’s frequent flyer program? If so, the airline may have a dining program.

  • In West Los Angeles, for example, United Airlines’ MileagePlus Dining offers members 3 miles per dollar spent at restaurants ranging from Japanese to vegan to Southern barbecue. Other airlines that offer dining programs include American, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest. See “Boost rewards with airlines’ dining programs” for further details.

  • Some hotel loyalty programs also offer extra points on dining, including Hilton Honors and IHG.

  • Do you use Yelp? The online business review service offers up to 10 percent cash back at select restaurants for customers who sign up and authorize a credit card.

  • Groupon has a similar program called Cash Back Deals – all you have to do is link your credit card and claim a deal. Depending on the restaurant, you can get up to 50 percent cash back on your first purchase and 10 percent or more thereafter.

Museums and amusement parks

Your can get free access to popular attractions or help you skip the long lines at some of your children’s favorite theme parks – if you pick the right card.

  • Bank of America and Merrill Lynch debit or credit card holders can get free general admission for one on the first full weekend of each month at dozens of museums around the country. The list includes the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Newseum in Washington, D.C.; and the Portland Children’s Museum in Portland, Oregon.

  • Discover cardholders can bypass the entrance lines at Six Flags amusement parks.

  • If you have a card such as Chase Freedom that gives you 5 percent cash back on grocery purchases from March to June – on up to $1,500 in combined purchases – consider purchasing passes ahead of time to your favorite local park in the gift card aisle at the supermarket, said Matthew Goldman, founder of Wallaby Financial, which helps consumers maximize credit card rewards.

  • Try thinking like a tourist. When Tracie Fobes, who blogs at PennyPinchinMom.com, wants to go somewhere fun with her three children, she shops for deals at the tourism site of their hometown, Kansas City, Missouri. She also heads to online coupon sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial to look for discounted offers in her area. A check of Groupon for Kansas City found aquarium tickets marked down to $13 from $16 and a two-hour AMF bowling and shoe rental deal for four guests discounted to $34 from $113.82.

Stack up cash back, coupons and promotions

Stack your savings by purchasing coupon-site deals through your card’s shopping portal by linking specific offers to your card or by shopping through an electronic-rebate website.

  • The Chase Ultimate Rewards shopping portal, for example, is currently offering 4 percent cash back on Groupon purchases and 3 percent cash back on Living Social purchases.

  • As of mid-May 2018, Discover Deals is offering 5 percent cash back on Groupon purchases – all you have to do is log into Discover deals and link to the offer of your choice.

  • As of mid-May 2018, Ebates is offering 9 percent cash back on Groupon purchases.

Adventures and excursions

Some credit cards offer cardholders premium experiences in exchange for points – and you don’t need to travel far and wide to take advantage of these opportunities if your card offers experiences in the city where you live.

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred provide cardholders experiences options including intimate music concerts and the chance to meet players for pro sports teams such as the New York Knicks or Rangers.

  • Starwood credit card holders can bid on auctions for unique experiences, such as one in June 2018 for a private dining experience and a kitchen tour for two people at two-Michelin Star restaurant Smyth in Chicago.

 

Video: Exclusive credit card rewards experiences

The value of these experiences is in the eye of the beholder. A private dining experience at sought-after Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry was sold for 100,500 points. For comparison, Starwood points holders can fly round-trip from New York City to London for 45,000 points.

So, if you don’t have a ton of points and you’re hoping to redeem them for future travel, auctions and experiences might not be the best ways to use them.

Goldman, of Wallaby, disagrees. “Some of the access [to these experiences] is unique, and that’s valuable,” he said. “A good use of points is whatever you want to use them for.”

Going to the movies

The summer season is awash with blockbusters your family won’t want to miss, but going to the movies can get pricey quickly. Fret not. Your cards may come to the rescue.

  • Buy tickets ahead of time, at a discount. Members of Costco and AAA can purchase discounted tickets to major movie theater chains – and if you’re a Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi cardholder you could earn up to 4 percent cash back by purchasing them at Costco (2 percent for paying with the card, and 2 percent for being a Costco Executive member). 

  • You can also head on over to Gift Card Granny and other gift card online outlets, where discounts as great as 27.9 percent could be found late April on AMC gift cards.

  • Check the rotating category on your cash back card. Movie theaters were one of Chase Freedom’s rotating categories that could earn 5 percent cash back from July through September 2017. The 2018 rotating categories for Q3 will be released mid-June.
"A good use of points is whatever you want to use them for."

Maximizing the grocery store

If you stay in town, you’re going hit the supermarket at some point – or even more frequently than during the school year if you have children as they will spend more time at home. Make this another occasion where you can supercharge your wallet this summer.

  • Apps such as Ibotta and Checkout 51 ask you to scan your receipt when you leave the store, then give you cash back on items you just purchased. Fobes, the Kansas City mom, says she generally earns $8 to $10 each time she shops; at $100 or more, she asks for her cash back. From Checkout 51 that means a check; from Ibotta, a gift card or money deposited into a PayPal or Venmo account.

  • And don’t forget to pay with a card that offers cash back bonuses on grocery purchases. Options include Blue Cash Preferred® from American Express and Citi Double Cash Card.

Financing summer camps at 0 percent

You’ve got to get the children out of the house so you can work, but that project you counted on to pay for camp was postponed until July. One option: Charge the summer camp tuition to a credit card with a limited time, 0 percent interest rate.

  • Citibank’s Simplicity card offers new users 0 percent APR on new purchases and balance transfers for up to 18 months.

  • Other no-fee cards that offer lengthy 0-percent introductory offers on purchases include Chase Freedom Unlimited (15 months), Blue Cash EveryDay® Card from American Express (15 months) and Capital One VentureOne Rewards (12 months). 

Whichever option you’re considering, before you apply, first make sure you have a plan for how you’ll pay back that summer camp expense.

See related: Score summer festival savings using your rewards credit card, Extend your summer for last-minute beach trip on points


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Updated: 11-14-2018