The Ultimate Road Trip: A Helpful Guide to Saving Money on the Open Road
Is there anything that says “summer” more than a good old-fashioned road trip? Whether you’re looking to experience our vast and beautiful country first-hand or just want to save a few bucks versus flying, there are many advantages to hopping in your car and hitting the open road for your next vacation. However, while road tripping is usually a frugal option for most families and individuals, there are a few ways you can keep costs even lower.
As someone who’s endured more than a couple 24-hour non-stop drives from California to Missouri (and who recently returned from a solo road trip to Canada), my wife and I have gathered a collection of tips and tricks that have helped us save money along the way. Without further ado, here are some of my favorite ways to be thrifty on the road and still have an amazing time on a long drive.
Before Your Trip
Plan Your Path and Visits
There are two types of people: those who like their road trips to be meticulously planned and those who like the spontaneity of hitting the road and seeing what happens. If you fall into the former category, this section is for you. By planning ahead and setting your course, as it were, you can often add a little extra fun to your itinerary.
Summer is a season truly made for road trips as hundreds — if not thousands — of festivals and other events are hosted across the nation. So while you could do a no-frills straight drive to your destination, those with more time may want to plan their route and timing to these happenings. Not only does this offer some frugal fun but also serves as a great way to experience different parts of our great nation.
On the more practical side, it’s always a good idea to get an idea of where your drive will take you. For example, while snow is rarely a concern in summer, you probably want to know what arteries you can take to avoid issues (construction, storms, etc.) along the way if need be. If you’re like me, you’ll also want to look for options that avoid tolls without taking you too far out of the way. On that note, you’ll also want to have some small bills and change at the ready just in case.=
Check Up on Your Vehicle
If it’s been a while since you’ve performed preventative maintenance on your vehicle, you may want to stop by the mechanic before setting off on a long drive. After all, nothing’s worse than breaking down on your voyage and getting stranded in the middle of nowhere — especially in the summer heat! That’s why you’ll want to look into necessary services like oil changes or even tire replacements to ensure your trip goes smoothly.
Depending on what your car needs, you may be able to save a few dollars when getting it into shape for a road trip. For example, you may be able to change your own oil instead of having to pay a premium at a local shop. That said, if you’re not very mechanically inclined, you may still want to have your vehicle looked at by a professional so that they can look for any brewing problems you’re unaware of.
This might sound silly, but it’s important to double check that you’re currently insured before setting off on a road trip. Yes, you should always have auto insurance if you own a car, but mistakes do happen and coverage can lapse. I’m going to plead the fifth on whether something of this nature has ever happened to me, but just know it is possible.
In addition to your typical insurance, you may want to consider becoming a member of AAA. As someone who doesn’t even know how to change his own tire, my AAA membership offers me great peace of mind at a very reasonable price ($58 a year for the standard membership). Although I’ve thankfully never had to summon AAA on a road trip, I have made use of my membership while in-town — ever lock your keys in your car? Plus, many locations from restaurants to hotels offer special discounts to AAA members that can really add up.
Snacks and Coolers
With nothing to do but drive for several hours at time, it’s inevitable that road trippers will eventually experience what experts refer to as “the munchies.” While some amateurs might rectify such situations by raiding the snack aisle at their first gas station stop, I’m here to tell you that there’s a better way!
Before I set off on any road trip, I always make sure to bring along some snacks and drinks I can enjoy along the way. This starts by picking up a case of water, which may be the most essential pre-trip purchase. First of all, I’ve often found that I can get a 24 pack of bottled water at Walmart for the equivalent price of two 20-oz bottles at most gas stations. Additionally, my wife and I have actually been working on the same case of water we’ve had for three road trips running — it just lives happily in our backseat and is there when we need it.
As far as snacks go, some of my favorites include Chewy bars, pretzels, and fruit snacks, all of which have generic versions that can be purchased for fairly cheap. I also recommend picking up some gum, both because it’s delicious and because it can often serve as a pick-me-up when you’re starting to get a bit groggy on the road. Lastly, be sure to grab some napkins (or take a few extra from a fast food stop on the way — I won’t tell) as you’ll never know when they’ll come in handy.
If you want even more thrifty food options during your drive, you might also consider bringing along a cooler. While it will take up a decent amount of your back seat space and require you to purchase ice, it does give you the potential to safely keep sandwich meats and/or other “real meal” fixings that can serve as a cost-saving (and probably healthier) alternative to fast food. Although my wife and I have never bothered with this step, families and other couples may find the road trip cooler to be an indispensible part of their entire experience.
On the Road
As part of your planning process, there’s a good chance you already have your hotels/motels chosen and booked. However, if you’re willing to take a chance, you could actually save money by waiting until the day of. Thanks to apps like Hotel Tonight, Priceline, Hotwire and many others, you can often score a great rate on a room by booking on the same day.
To pull this off, what I’ll typically do is start with a goal city — an area I’m confident I can reach before getting too tired and needing to stop. Sometimes I’ll know this city ahead of time while, in other cases, I may choose my destination around lunchtime. Once I determine where I want to stop, I then hit up these various apps to see what types of rooms are available.
What’s really helpful is when the apps provide you a map of the hotels in a given area so I can choose one near the interstate. However, if you want to gamble a bit more and perhaps save an even greater amount of money, Hotwire allows you to book rooms basically sight unseen in exchange for a discount. In this scenario, you’ll be given a general area of where the hotel is, a star rating, and some customer reviews to make your decision. Should you decide to book, you’ll immediately be charged and the name of your destination will be revealed.
I’ve actully done this on numerous occasions but have also used Priceline and Expedia to select a more exact location as well. It really just depends on my mood and how much I can save. However, if you’re really good, you can sometimes compare the listings on the various apps in an attempt to pinpoint what your Hotwire selection will be before it’s actually unveiled. I’ve successfully done this a few times and can report it will make you feel nothing short of godlike — or at least Nostradamus-esque.
No matter how much of a road warrior you are and how long you can personally keep driving without stopping, there will come a time when your vehicle will demand you pull over and refuel — literally. Depending on what kind of mileage your car gets and how long of a drive you’re in for, gasoline could likely take up the largest chunk of your trip budget. Additionally, fuel is one commodity that can vary greatly in price depending on where you go, making it difficult to save if you’re flying blind. Thankfully, in this modern era, there are now ways to locate the best fuel stops and prevent getting ripped off.
Personally, my favorite road trip app is GasBuddy. This free application compiles crowdsourced data to help you find the cheapest and most convenient options along your route. Over the years, this app has only gotten better and now boasts all kinds of filters you can sort stations by including brand, amenities, fuel type, and more. It also now updates distances in near real-time so you know if you’re actually approaching a station or heading the opposite way (this was an annoying problem in the old days of the app). Finally, I should note that GasBuddy includes some fun gamification as well, allowing you to earn points and badges for reporting prices and even use those points to enter gift card giveaways.
If you don’t want to download a new app, Google Maps has integrated some of GasBuddy’s functionality and can highlight gas stations on your route along with their prices. When you’re on a trip, simply tap the magnifying glass icon and then “gas stations” to have it display various locations along the way. While this function is helpful, I do still prefer to use GasBuddy as it lets me know if there are better prices further down the road.
On a similar note, another way to save money on gas is to refrain from procrastinating on filling up. First of all, having your car nag you for gas while you drive through an empty stretch of road is annoying at best and horrifying at worst. Then, when you finally do make it to the first station available, you’re stuck paying whatever (potentially outrageous) price they’re asking. Instead of subjecting yourself to such gouging, I recommend scouting stations when you reach about a quarter of a tank. This will present you with many more options and allow you to find a better price. Furthermore, while this may amount to more stops if you’re on a long trip, the wiggle room and flexibility this method provides you may actually let you economize your stops by coordinating meals or other activities with your fill ups.
You know those fast food coupons that often arrive in your mailbox or with your newspaper? One thing you might not realize about them is that many are actually valid nationwide. As a result, for large chains like Burger King or McDonald’s that are practically guaranteed to appear along your route, you can often get great deals on some cheap eats and keep your costs down. Similarly, if you have any manufacturers coupons, those are also likely to be accepted pretty much anywhere along the way.
Of course, there are plenty of other coupons you can take advantage of on your trip as well. For example, during my recent road trip to visit a friend in Toronto, Ontario, she was able to nab us discounted tickets for an hour-long cruise on Lake Ontario thanks to Groupon. With that in mind, while you’re looking at different events to hit up on the way to your destination or once you arrive, you may want to also check out sites like Groupon and LivingSocial to see what other deals you can take advantage of while you’re away. Just be sure to mind things like expiration dates, blackouts, and other restrictions that could spoil your plans.
Road trips are a quintessential American pastime that, in my estimation, have only gotten better in recent years. With more fuel-efficient vehicles, apps that lead you to the best gas stations, and (of course) the Internet allowing us to find cool things to do pretty much anywhere in the country, hitting the road can not only save you significant coin compared to flying but also offer an abundance of fun along the way. Plus, by packing your own snacks, bringing along some coupons, and booking your hotel nights at the last minute, you can end up saving even more. Happy road tripping!
Also published on Medium.