Smart Ways to Save Money on Your Next Road Trip

toy car on a paper map

Most of us learned in childhood that summer means vacation! A lot of us cherish our memories of loading into the back of our parents’ cars and setting off to visit family, hit up an amusement park, or go to the beach. Once more, it’s summer, and the desire to throw our stuff in the back of our own car and hit the open road is strong. However, the reality is that this is also a summer of soaring gas and grocery prices. I know I’m experiencing sticker shock anytime I fill up the car or buy food, and I’m not alone! People across the country are feeling the same bite. Luckily, this doesn’t mean that a fun road trip just became impossible. With some planning and clever travel hacks, it’s possible for even frugal-minded people to enjoy a road trip to either a favorite destination or a new one. All it takes is a little bit of knowledge and planning to make the road trip of your dreams into a reality.

Plan Ahead

travel accessories on top of a map

Aimless road trips can be a lot of fun but also come with a hefty price tag. The first step to making sure your trip stays true to your budget is deciding exactly where you are going to go. Once you have that information, you can plan your route. Account for places you want to stop, restaurants you don’t want to miss, and even where you might want to spend the night.

  • Trip Calculator: The U.S. Department of Energy offers a calculator to help you estimate how much gasoline for your road trip will cost.
  • IExit: This app is full of information about lodging, gas, food, and attractions at interstate exits around the country.

Get Your Car a Checkup

mechanic repairing a car

A breakdown can quickly turn your dream vacation into a nightmare, but a little bit of prevention can make sure that your car (and your family!) stays healthy throughout your adventures. The best way to ensure this is to take your car to a trusted mechanic in the weeks leading up to your trip. At the very least, you want them to check your fluid levels and your tires (tread and pressure), make sure all of your lights are working (since a ticket is also a budget-buster), see if it’s time to replace your wiper blades, and address any outstanding maintenance like oil changes. If the mechanic finds something, either address the issue or find a different car to take.

Search for Deals on Accommodations

stack of money

Planning ahead gives you time to find the cheapest accommodations along your route.

  • Make sure that when you’re comparing prices, you’re comparing the bottom-line price. The hotel that looks a lot more expensive might be cheaper in the long run if it includes free parking and breakfast.
  • Making reservations ahead of time usually saves you money over just walking in when you find a motel.
  • Sites like Kayak aggregate prices for all of the hotels in an area so you can search them all at once. However, booking directly with the hotel is often cheaper.
  • Consider alternatives like Airbnb, but again, think about your bottom-line cost. Cleaning fees and the like can really add up.

Consider Camping


Camping is a great way to save money and a wonderful way to build memories and enjoy the places where you stop along the way during your road trip. Any gear you don’t already have will be a bit of an investment, but it can still average out to be cheaper than staying in hotels during your travels.

  • Free Campsites: Use this site to find free campsites all over the United States. The campsites are usually very basic, but hey, they’re free.
  • The Dyrt: Apps and websites like this one can help you find paid campsites, which may include luxuries like nice bathhouses and even swimming pools.

Embrace the Picnic

picnic basket

We’ve all got to eat. And on every trip, there are going to be some splurges, be they homemade treats acquired at a farmers’ market or a can’t-miss restaurant that’s totally worth it. The way you work those splurges into your budget is by eating food either from home or that you’ve grabbed at a grocery store the rest of the time.

  • Avoid gas station snacks, which are always overpriced. Instead, pack your favorite snacks in a plastic bin and in your cooler. Replenish them at grocery stores, not gas stations.
  • Stop at a big-box store to load up on single-serving snacks like protein bars, nuts, pretzels, chips, and other grab-and-go options that won’t spoil.
  • A good cooler is a must. Stock it with sandwich fixings, chopped-up vegetables, condiments, and fruit before you leave the house.
  • Look for reasonably-priced grocery stores. A rotisserie chicken, a bag of salad, and a loaf of bread are going to be much cheaper than dinner out for the family.
  • Remember to bring silverware, a knife, and plates. A spray bottle of dish soap is also very handy!

Pack Smart

suitcase with ocean view

One of the nicest things about driving in a car versus flying is that you aren’t as limited in what you can bring. That means you can bring your gear for hanging out at the beach, hiking, caving, or whatever else you will spend your vacation doing. Buying this stuff at your destination is usually way more expensive than buying it at home. I’m not suggesting that you overpack, which will weigh your car down and make it harder to find what you need. Instead, it’s important to pack strategically.

  • Make a list of all activities you are going to do on your trip and the appropriate gear to pack.
  • Don’t forget toiletries, phone and laptop chargers, socks, sunscreen, and other essentials.
  • Is Fido coming along? If so, remember to bring all of his gear, too! Leashes, collars, collapsible water bowls, treats, and food are all easier and cheaper to bring from home.

Remember Fuel Efficiency

fueling up a vehicle

Road trips are a blast. But we’ve all hit that point when we’re tempted to push the gas pedal to the floor so we can get there faster. Don’t do it! Two things really eat away at gas efficiency: high rates of speed and sudden bursts of acceleration. In fact, the best speed for efficient fuel consumption, according to the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality, is 60 mph. Every time you go 5 mph over that, you cost yourself real money. The best way to save money on your trip is to drive efficiently.

  • Set the cruise control whenever possible.
  • Avoid sudden stops and starts whenever possible.
  • Try to schedule your stops so you aren’t driving through cities or suburbs during rush hour.

Be Strategic When Filling Up

gas station

One of the most important tips for saving on gas is to avoid stations that are closest to the interstate. Often, they are far more expensive than other stations in the area.

  • Many map/GPS apps (like Waze) show gas prices along your route so you can find the cheapest.
  • GasBuddy is another great tool to help you find cheap gas along the way.
  • Sign up for rewards or customer loyalty programs for all of the big gas station chains before you go. This can help you save money on your trip.
  • Consider filling up when you get groceries. A lot of large grocery store chains either operate gas stations or partner with gas chains to offer discounts to their customers.

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