(This post was originally published in February, 2015. I’ve refreshed the tips a bit to make it more current.)
As the airline industry continues to find new ways to tack on fees for everything from checked luggage to food on the plan, a cross-country road trip becomes more and more attractive as an alternative. Taking a road trip might seem like a cheap vacation option, but it can end up costing more than you think if you don’t plan properly. These are my 10 sure-fire tips to save money on a road trip.
Tip #1 Plan your route in advance
Before you hit the road, research routes and destinations. Knowing where you’re going helps avoid getting lost. Getting lost wastes time and gas. It can be frightening or just plain frustrating as well. The GPS on my iPhone helps with navigation but I don’t always trust it. I bring along a plain old-fashioned paper map just in case. I also like to plan a different route home than the one I took. That way I can enjoy different geography and people.
Tip # 2 Make sure the car is in tip-top condition
Get your tires checked and schedule a tune-up before you hit the open road. This will help you avoid breakdowns that could result in costly repairs with unfamiliar mechanics and quite possibly an unplanned overnight stay while the car is being fixed. There’s nothing worse than having to make car repair you know was easily preventable. I also make sure that my AAA towing card is valid and in my possession.
Tip #3 Leave before or after the rush hour traffic
Try not to drive between 7 am and 9 am or 4 pm to 6 pm and use a bypass route if possible. Not having to sit in rush hour traffic increases fuel efficiency, reduces frustration, and cuts down on the travel time. I try to plan my trip to reduce the number of hotel stays along the road.
Tip #4 Drive Legally
Sometimes you just want to “get there.” However, studies show that fuel efficiency decreases as your speed increases, making trips more expensive for those with lead feet. Since speeding also increases the potential for expensive speeding tickets, it pays to slow down and enjoy the scenery. I use my cruise control to govern my speed.
Tip #5 Pack snacks and food and drink for the car
Pit stops are a road trip must, but loading up on convenience store fare will quickly eat into your budget. Pack your own snacks, soda and bottled water in a cooler, and refill with cheap ice from the gas station as needed. This cuts down on fast food stops or impulse buys at gas stops or rest breaks. (Not everything I bring is totally healthy. I like to have a sugar boost so I have a few goodies also.)
Tip # 6 Check gas prices when you need a fill-up
Saving whatever you can on gas is critical. I use Gas Buddy to check for gas prices. It works well on the road. You simply log into www.gasbuddy.com and type in the city, state or zip code in the search box. It tells you what the price of gas is near your location. Since I have to fill up anyway I might as well get the best price at the location I’m in.
Tip #7 Locate accommodations, meals, and attractions in advance
You are going to get the worst rate on hotels if you look for the hotel at the end of day of hard driving. Instead of last minute lodging plan on where you will be staying in advance. Using hotel.com to find the best rates in the area you are going to need lodging. Use hotel rewards program. This can also help you score free night stays. Look for hotels that offer only the amenities that you will be using. I do like the hotels that offer a hot breakfast. I like to factor in the ease of having breakfast at the hotel before getting on the road again with whatever additional cost if any. Check for AAA or AARP discounts at hotels.
Tip #8 Use coupon programs such as Groupon, Living Social or Restaurant.com.
You can download the mobile apps for all three on your smartphone. I look for deals on accommodations, meals, and activities at my destination. For example, in Las Vegas I saved money on an all-day, sight-seeing tour to Hoover Dam and three ghost towns. I booked and paid for it in advance. I’ve booked one night stays from both Groupon and Living Social for stops along the way. I check with yelp.com for reviews of those local attractions, accommodations, and restaurants in advance.
Tip #9 Surf the internet for deals
The internet can help you save money on virtually everything. Check for coupons on local conventions and visitor’s bureau websites. Check hotel websites directly for seasonal or package deals. You can often get local attraction passes as part of your hotel stays.
Tip #10 Stay overnight with friends and family when possible
This is a great way to catch up with them. Often times I alter my route because I am so close to family or friends that I have not seen in a while. Hotels can be pricey even using coupons or finding the best deals on hotel.com.
What was the best road trip you have even taken? Keep these 10 sure-fire tips to save money on a road trip in mind the next time you plan a cross-country adventure. What are your best tips for saving money on the road?