An impromptu road trip can sound exciting and spontaneous. But if you’re wondering how to save money on a road trip, a little bit of planning can go a long way.
While a road trip can be a low-cost way to travel, keeping expenses in check often means deciding where you want to go, the vehicle you’ll take, where you’ll be stopping on the road trip, and your overall budget.
Here are some easy ideas for road-tripping on the cheap.
1. Choosing a Fuel-efficient Car
If you choose cars to take, go with one that is large enough to be comfortable and gives you the best gas mileage.
You can use FuelEconomy.gov’s Trip Calculator to determine which car will cost you the least in gas. This tool helps estimate fuel consumption and its cost for a particular route using a specific car.
2. Driving at or Below the Speed Limit
This cautionary measure can help you save money in two ways. For one, you’ll be less likely to get pulled over and slapped with an expensive speeding ticket.
For another, observing the speed limit can actually reduce your gas consumption. In fact, you can save 17 cents a gallon on highways for every five miles per hour you slow down.
3. Packing Your Car Wisely
You can also cut your gas costs by placing items inside the car or trunk rather than piling them on your roof. This move can increase your fuel economy by as much as eight percent in city driving and up to 25 percent on highways by reducing drag.
If you’re out of room in the car, using a rear-mounted cargo box or tray instead of a roof rack can improve your fuel economy by up to 12 percent.
4. Setting a Road Trip Budget
When you start talking about the road trip, you may want to roughly map out where you want to go, how long it’ll take to get there, and if you’ll need hotels or motels. From there, you can calculate the approximate cost of gas (FuelEconomy.gov can help), tolls (try Tollsmart ), food, and fun.
5. Bringing Your Own Food and Supplies.
Packing a cooler with water bottles, drinks, hand-held snacks, and sandwiches before leaving home is a proven frugal traveler trick. You can save a sizable chunk of cash by not having to buy drinks and snacks at rest stops, vending machines, and drive-throughs.
You’ll also have a quick solution the next time someone in the car wants to pull over because they’re hungry.
6. Signing Up for an Electronic Toll Account
Depending on which state(s) you are traveling through, you may save a fair amount of money on tolls by getting your car’s region-appropriate quick pass (or transponder). For example, drivers with EZ-Pass in New York can save about 30 percent on tolls.
7. Avoiding Tolls Altogether
When your road trip isn’t on any set schedule, you may want to take the scenic route and completely avoid tolls. You can do this by setting your GPS app to “avoid tolls.”
If you’re in a location with pricey bridges and highways, your savings could really add up. However, you should ensure that avoiding tolls doesn’t take you so far out of your way that you’re spending much more on gas.
8. Looking For Hotels That Offer Free Breakfasts
If you’re comparing two hotels in a similar price and quality range, one way to save on road trip expenses is to choose the hotel with a free breakfast.
Not only will you probably get a large, filling meal, but you might even be able to take a piece of fruit or cereal box as a snack for later on in the trip.
9. Packing Reusable Water Bottles for Everyone
You’ll no doubt get thirsty while driving and sightseeing, and buying water or drinks can put a major dent in your road trip budget.
Ensuring everyone in the car has a large reusable water bottle (or two) to fill up at rest stops and restaurants can help you avoid spending money on drinks and create less plastic waste.
10. Buying a National Park Pass
If you’re going to be road-tripping across the U.S. and visiting a few National Parks, consider getting an America the Beautiful pass.
The pass (which costs $80 per year and $20 for seniors) covers entrance, standard amenities, and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle (up to 4 adults) at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites.
11. Hitting the Grocery Store
Once you’ve run out of your cooler meals and snacks, consider re-stock up at a local grocery store while en route, so you don’t have to resort to rest stops and fast food for the rest of your trip.
This is also a good strategy if you stay at a hotel for a few nights. Making good use of a hotel kitchenette and fridge can help you avoid eating out for every meal.
12. Pre-booking Your Hotels
Spontaneity is great, but if you’re looking to save money on accommodations, it can be wiser to book ahead of time and stick to your plan. You can often secure a better rate by booking in advance (and online) than by showing up without a reservation or booking last minute.
13. Looking Beyond Hotels
Your first thought when looking for roadside accommodation may be cheap hotels or motels. But you sometimes find a better deal (or a nicer option for the same price) using a home rental site, such as Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, or FlipKey, especially if you’re staying for more than one night.
You could explore the CouchSurfing Travel app or let friends on Facebook or social media know you will be traveling to their area to see if they have a recommendation on where to stay for a good price.
14. Planning to Visit Free Attractions
Part of the fun of a road trip is to enjoy the journey and scenery while en route to your final destination.
As you travel (or before you go), research free attractions, such as a hike, walk on a beach, or a free museum, on your route for times when you need to stretch and take a driving break.
You can also look for festivals and local events by checking out the online events calendar for the towns you’ll visit that day.
15. Planning Gas Stops in Advance
Getting stuck in a big city with a tank close to empty can be costly. To avoid overpriced gas, use a gas app like Gas Guru or Gas Buddy, which can help you compare prices and find affordable gas anywhere.
16. Setting a Daily Spending Limit
You can use your overall budget to get a rough idea of how much you can spend on the road trip each day. This can help you avoid blowing through your whole travel fund before the end of the trip.
A spending plan can also let you know when you can splurge a bit and when you’ll have to reign it in with a meal, activity, or lodging. You may also want to set aside some of your budget for the unexpected, such as the car getting a flat and needing to be towed or discovering the cheap hotel you planned to stay in is a total dump.
17. Entertaining the Kids on the Cheap
Kids tend to get bored, tired, and antsy on a road trip. To avoid giving in to impulse toy purchases, you may want to bring along their favorite toys and pick up various new ones at the dollar store before you leave.
Good choices include coloring books and games they can play in the car that won’t create a mess. Consider borrowing audiobooks or DVDs from the library to give yourself an hour or so of quiet.
18. Searching Online for Local Coupons and Passes
It can be worthwhile to research online coupons and discount codes for local attractions and restaurants at some of your scheduled stops.
Consider checking Groupon or LivingSocial for deals and steals. Sometimes booking online ahead of time saves you money, and it’ll give you a reason to try to reach a specific destination by a certain day.
19. Saving on Alcohol
Sipping a cold beer or glass of wine at a local bar at the end of your long drive might be the perfect way to unwind.
But alcohol costs can quickly add up on a road trip vacation. Consider buying a few local beers or a small bottle of wine that’s native to that area to enjoy in your hotel room. You’ll save money on tipping too.
20. Volunteering at a Festival
Yes, you read that correctly. Some festivals and special events offer discounts or free admission to volunteers. You can look up events taking place in the town you’ll be visiting and reach out to the event organizer to see if they need help.
21. Signing Up for a AAA Membership
An auto club like AAA can save you time, money, and hassle should you run into car trouble during your trip. What’s more, a membership (often around $4 to $7 a month) gives you access to discounts at hotels, restaurants, and many retailers nationwide.
22. Traveling During the Off-season
Visiting National Parks when the kids are back in school can help save money on lodging and activities. If you’re planning a road trip to a destination like Disney World or Disneyland, you may find better deals if it’s not during spring break or other school breaks.
You can often save money by visiting warm weather locations during “shoulder seasons.” This is the period between a destination’s low and high tourism seasons when hotels’ prices tend to be lower and crowds tend to be smaller at popular attractions.
23. Doing Some Camping
Outdoorsy road trippers might enjoy setting up a tent at a free or low-cost public campsite (You can find out more on the Bureau of Land Management site.)
This can save you a lot of money on hotel costs, provided you don’t go out and buy a lot of expensive camping equipment.
If you don’t have any camping gear, you may want to consider renting equipment from an outdoor specialty store or asking a friend who regularly goes camping if you can borrow their equipment.
24. Eating Out for Lunch Instead of Dinner
If there are special restaurants you want to try without breaking the bank, consider going there for lunch. You might get a slightly smaller portion than you would if you ordered it off the dinner menu, but the price will likely be more affordable.
25. Taking Advantage of Loyalty Programs
Booking with the same hotel chain as often as possible and signing up for their member loyalty (or “points”) program may net you a free night after a few stays.
Travel booking services like Expedia, Travelocity, or Hotels.com may offer discounted rates and free nights for loyal customers.
A car trip might sound much more affordable than traveling by plane. However, gas, food, and accommodations can add up.
One of the best ways to cut road trip expenses is to plan your trip and research deals, coupons, and discounts ahead of time. Packing wisely and loading up on drinks, snacks, toys, and activities can also help cut costs once you’re on the road.