When it comes to travel, taking a road trip is typically a cheaper option than flying. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to let your on-the-road expenses get out of hand. Between the cost of gas, food, hotels (for multi-day trips), and even car repairs, road trips can end up costing more than you might expect. The good news is, there are all sorts of ways to save money on a road trip.
In fact, for the rest of this article, I’m going to cover more than a dozen of the best ways to lower your on-the-road expenses.
So whether you’re getting ready to trek across the country tomorrow, or you’re just entering the planning stages of your next family trip, keep reading.
1. Plan Your Trip In Advance
To put it simply, the earlier you plan your trip, the more opportunities you will find to save money. So, start planning well in advance.
This way, you will be able to research deals and plan where to stay, what to eat, and when to stop for gas.
Create a budget and, if you really want to go crazy, create a calendar/schedule.
The reason a budget and schedule can save you money is that they help prevent you from making last minute decisions on where to eat or when to stop for gas.
Why is this significant?
Because without a pre-determined plan, you will likely end up picking the most convenient options—which also tend to be the most expensive.
Gas stations and restaurants know how to take advantage of hungry or under-fueled tourists with higher prices. By researching in advance, you can find and plan for cheaper options.
Additionally, you should plan the route you will take in advance so you don’t get lost and can maximize your time on the road. Plus, in rural areas, the exits are farther apart, and you can’t just turn around on the freeway. Seriously, one missed exit and you could end up spending an extra hour in the car back-tracking. If you ask me, that’s just wan unnecessary waste of time and gas money.
Traveling can be stressful and exhausting–especially with a long drive. So if you want to save money on a road trip, make sure to plan ahead.
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2. Make A Packing List
As part of your planning, make a packing list to make sure you will have everything you need.
You don’t want to get caught needing to buy something you already own but forgot at home.
We have all been there or know someone who’s forgotten a swimsuit on a trip and ended up purchasing an overpriced tourist suit in the gift shop of the hotel. (Ouch!)
Besides your swim suit, try not to forget toiletries, towels, sunglasses, sunscreen, aloe vera, water, and other items that you see lining the shelves of overpriced gift shops.
Make a list before you go, and make sure everyone in your group has a copy, so you don’t have to make last minute shopping stops for a much-needed item.
3. Get Your Car Checked Pre-Trip
Make sure at least a week, but preferably two weeks, before you take off you take your car to get examined. A lot of mechanics offer a pre-trip check for free. They’ll check things like your brakes, tires, steering, fluids, lights, wipers, and alignment to make sure you’re safe while you’re out on the road. Check out Brakes Plus, Les Schwab, Good Year, or DiscountTire.
Even if you have to throw a couple hundred dollars toward your car before you leave, this can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in the long run. After all, if something goes wrong, you will likely pay more to get your car fixed on the road.
Not to mention the lost time and stress it will cause your trip.
Out in the middle of nowhere, your options for mechanics will be limited and they will probably overcharge because they know you are desperate.
And, just in case, make sure to pack some emergency equipment in case you do get stuck on the side of the road. Make sure you have a spare tire and the equipment for changing it, jumper cables, a safety light, flashlight, extra clothes, food, and water in case you get stranded.
4. Take Reusable Water Bottles And Gallons Of Water
You might be surprised how much water you go through on a road trip. Especially if the hot sun is beating down on you in the car, or you plan to spend time hiking, on the beach or outdoors, you will need a lot of water.
Bring reusable water bottles that you can fill up in a hotel or gas station. Also, we recommend bringing a couple gallons of water for when you’re on that long stretch of road in the middle of nowhere and a bottle of water is $6.
Additionally, whenever you stop to eat or go through a drive through, be sure to ask for a glass of ice water.
While some restaurants may charge you a fee for the price of the plastic/paper cup, most restaurants provide them for free.
5. Bring Your Own Food
Road trips require road snacks!
In fact, I’d go as far as saying that a road trip isn’t complete without a good selection of your favorite snacks.
This is not only a fun tradition but also can save you money because you won’t be spending $5 on a small bag of candy at the gas station every time you stop.
We recommended stopping at Sam’s Club, Costco, or Walmart to buy snacks in bulk, that way they last the whole trip.
You can also bring food for breakfasts and lunches on the go like fruit and muffins, ingredients for PB&J sandwiches, and even some home-baked cookies. (What, you don’t eat cookies for breakfast on a road trip?)
We also recommend taking a cooler to keep food and drinks cool.
Bringing a few meals can easily save you $10-$30 a person. And the best part is, you don’t have to slow your progress by stopping for food. As an added tip, if you decide to stop for a lunch picnic at a rest stop along the way, don’t forget paper plates, plastic ware and napkins!
6. Cook Your Own Food
Similarly, you can choose to cook your own food and save even more money. If camping, you may want to bring skewers for hot dogs, a Dutch oven for cobbler and unlimited dishes, or tin foil for tin foil dinners.
If you’re staying in an Air B&B or hotel try to get accommodation with a kitchen. Then you can cook food there. Additionally, if your road trip will last longer than a few days, rather than packing all your food at the start you can stop at a local Walmart near your hotel and buy just enough food to cook while you’re there.
7. Choose To Camp
Hotels can easily be one of the most expensive parts of your trip.
To save money on accommodations, find camping sites instead. Seriously, this is a great way to save money on a road trip, as there are tons of free and cheap campsites across America.
Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has BLM land across the country that is either free or cheap to stay at. You’ll need to check their website to see what’s available near where you are traveling.
Y may have to go without some amenities like a kitchen, private bathroom, and electricity, but camping is still one of the cheapest way to road trip!
8. Use Cruise Control And Stick To The Speed Limit
When you have hundreds of miles to go on a long road trip, it can be tempting to speed through it.
Do everything you can to resist this temptation by setting the cruise control and watching your speed.
There are two reasons cruise control can save you money.
First, cruise control is proven to be more fuel efficient so you will save money on gas. One study found that cruise control is up to 20% more fuel efficient.
That can easily save you $50 to $100 on gas–depending on your car’s fuel efficiency and how many miles you are driving.
Second, cruise control will keep you going the speed limit. In an unknown area, you can easily fall prey to speed traps. If you want to save money on a road trip, the last thing you want is to get pulled over for a speeding ticket. Coming from personal experience, those puppies can cost hundreds of dollars. Plus, they take critical time away from your progress on the road.
If your car doesn’t have cruise control, just make sure to avoid speeding up and braking quickly or starting and stopping your car frequently, which will use more gas.
In other words, make fewer stops, and drive a consistent speed to increase your fuel efficiency.
Additionally, make sure your tire pressure is good—as properly-filled tires are one of the best ways to improve your fuel efficiency.
9. Find Cheap Gas
Besides increasing your fuel efficiency, you can also aim to find the best deals on gas.
Gas prices can vary, and you can bet that the gas stations closest to the freeway will be the most expensive.
Use apps like GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas stations near you.
10. Find Free Parking
Just like gas, parking costs can really add up.
If you’re traveling through major cities, you can easily expect to pay $10 to $20 a day on parking. Therefore, avoid parking at your hotel in major cities because it will likely be more expensive. Or at least call your hotel in advance to find out if they charge for parking.
Additionally, some accommodations only come with one parking spot, so if you have more than one vehicle make sure to check in advance, so you don’t get caught with last minute fees.
If you have to bite the bullet and pay for parking in the city, try to park and walk or use public transportation the rest of the day so you don’t have to keep moving your car.
Electric scooters or bikes like Lime or Bird are also a fun, popular way to get around a city. However, those can add up too, since you pay for the minute. Just make sure to use them smartly and always park them and end your ride when you’re done.
Other than cities, you can still be charged for parking in parks and more.
During your planning, research places you can park for free. Another way to use free parking to save money on road trips is to find somewhere with free parking to sleep overnight in your car. Walmart parking lots, Casino parking lots, rest stops, and even churches may be options for free overnight parking.
This is a bit extreme for my liking, but I know plenty of people that opt for sleeping in their car on a long road trip. And there’s no denying, it is a great way to save money!
11. Find Free Activities
If you want to save money on a road trip, try to find and plan free activities for you and your fellow travelers.
Ideas of free activities include: hiking, going to museums, visiting lakes and parks, or just exploring the city.
If you want ideas specific to where you are traveling, just Google “free things to do in (city)”.
Additionally, you can check out cheap activities like State and National Parks. Free activities can be just as fun as paid things, so take advantage of them on your next road trip.
12. Look For Coupons/Deals
Before you hit the road, take some time to look for deals or cheap activities.
Groupon is a great resource to find major deals in any city for restaurants and activities. Plus, using Groupon you can see reviews and get an idea of what other travelers recommend or don’t recommend.
You can also try to pick up brochures from your hotel or an information center, which may contain coupons. Plus, brochures give you an idea of what’s available in the area.
13. Avoid Road Tripping On Holidays And Weekends
Most people plan road trips around major holidays like Independence Day, Memorial Day, or Labor Day. However, we recommend avoiding those days if possible because it’s more expensive to travel on holidays.
Tourist areas are always pricey, but on holidays and weekends, shop owners and restaurants tend to up their prices. Plus, there will also be bigger crowds, which translate to longer waits, more traffic and generally less space.
If you can avoid road tripping on popular holidays you can save money on overpriced food, accommodations and souvenirs.
14. Split Costs With Friends
Road trips are not only more fun with friends, but traveling with friends is also cheaper because you can split the cost of food, accommodations and gas.
Generally, the more the merrier, but obviously there is a limit to your car space.
Larger vehicles will fit more people for splitting costs, but they also are less fuel efficient, so you’ll have to spend more on gas. Additionally, the more people you have, the more accommodations will cost (unless you’re camping).
The ideal amount of people for a road trip is about four to five, because it’s a large enough group to split costs, but still small enough to fit in one vehicle.
If you want to incorporate more traveling into your life, but don’t want to break the bank, I hope these 14 ways to save money on a road trip help you accomplish both!
I guess the only question left is, where will you be road tripping next?
Be sure to drop your favorite destinations in the comments.