Deia B is a personal finance and travel blogger at NomadWallet.com.
The weather’s turning milder, and the holidays are just around the corner. Odds are: you’ve got a road trip in your near future. But with millions of other people traveling this time of the year, there are bigger crowds and higher prices everywhere. Before you turn on the car engine, do a little planning to make your dollars stretch further. Check out these money-saving tips for a road trip that won’t break the bank.
A good road trip plan leaves some room for spontaneity, but you should at least know the general route you’ll be taking so you won’t waste time and fuel getting lost. Besides, you may be able to get some advance-purchase discounts on some attractions along the way. Good old Google Maps is a great tool for general route planning, as well as AAA Triptik and Roadtrippers.
It’s a no-brainer to avoid traffic when possible, especially if you’ll be visiting some popular attractions. If you can help it, don’t travel over the weekend like most people do. Instead, start your journey on Thursday or Friday morning, then return late on Monday or Tuesday. Use the Waze app for real-time traffic information so you’ll know which roads to avoid.
On a road trip, nothing is a bigger drain on time and money than a car-related emergency in the middle of nowhere. Take your car to a mechanic before the trip for some maintenance work, like an oil change and tire inspection. Put together a car emergency kit, with items like emergency flares and jumper cables. Consider joining an auto club or adding roadside assistance onto your car insurance policy in case you encounter a problem too serious to fix yourself.
Your smartphone and tablet will probably play a big part in your trip planning. Plus, you need them to contact someone in case of an emergency. Pack a car charger to make sure your essential gadgets will always have enough power. Download the Wi-Fi Finder app in case you need Internet access and your phone data service is not sufficient.
Like many contemporary road trippers, you likely have a GPS in your car for navigation, on top of your other gadgets. But in case technology fails you, bring a paper road map as well. Unexpected accidents or construction can throw a huge wrench into plans, and apps and GPS aren’t 100% reliable 100% of the time. Again, getting lost wastes fuel, and may cause you to miss pre-paid events and hotel stays.
Attractions and Events
Get discount booklets, coupons, and brochures from the visitor centers of the towns you visit. If you’re pressed for time, the local tourism website is worth a look. For country-wide attraction and event listings, use Festivals.com, RoadTrippers, or Field Tripper.
If you’re tackling a long distance, gas will probably be one of your biggest expenses, so budget appropriately by getting an estimate from AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator.
Generally, gas stations along highways are more expensive, so it may be worth your while to drive a little further to save some money. Use GasBuddy so you’ll know exactly which gas stations are cheapest in your vicinity.
Check your credit cards to see if you get any rewards from fuel purchases. You can also get a loyalty card from your favorite gas station chain to get discounts or rebates!
Driving to Save Fuel
There are several little things you can do to minimize your fuel consumption:
Make sure your tires are properly inflated and pack light to improve your gas mileage. Whenever possible, choose to drive when it’s cooler outside.
Drive at a steady speed. According to the EPA, ”quick acceleration and heavy braking can reduce fuel economy by up to 33 percent on the highway.” The EPA also suggests that running your air conditioner on the maximum setting will reduce gas mileage by 5 to 25 percent (yikes!). So if it’s warm out, try to keep the A/C to a minimum, and crack open a window if it gets too hot.
Accommodation Cancellation Policies
If you’ll be pre-booking your stay at a hotel or a vacation rental, read the terms and conditions carefully. Bad weather or a traffic jam can force you to miss your reservations, so choose establishments with flexible policies for cancellation or rebooking.
Making hotel reservations at the last minute has its advantages, as hotels often give big discounts if rooms don’t sell. Get great deals by using Hotel Tonight to book a room for the same day. Even if you’ve made reservations ahead of time, this app can come in handy if you make unplanned stops along the way due to weather or travel fatigue
Not much money left for accommodation? Find and book campgrounds on recreation.gov and Reserve America. If there are no bathroom facilities where you camp, use Warm Showers to find friendly locals who will let you freshen up at their homes.
CouchSurfing is a great way to get free lodging, but according to the U.S. Travel Association, the top reason people travel domestically is to visit relatives. If you’re one of these people, you’ll want to consider spending the night at your relatives’ places.
Convenient as they are, fast food drive throughs and roadside chain restaurants can get boring. To find local restaurants, use a review app like Yelp, which lets you filter search results by distance and price. Also check out the coupons on Groupon and Living Social, where you can often find restaurant deals.
Food & Drinks
Pack filling, healthy snacks like granola bars, fruits, string cheese, cereal, and nuts in the car. Don’t forget breads and sandwich fixings in case you can’t find a restaurant in time for a meal. Bring a cooler to keep everything fresh and if you plan on camping, plan to pack supplies for campfire cooking.
Stay hydrated and save money on beverages by filling up your refillable water bottles whenever you get the chance.
When you need to stock up on food and drinks, do so at grocery stores or farmers’ markets instead of gas stations. You’ll enjoy more options, fresher items and cheaper prices.
Sleepiness is a real threat during road trips. At the same time, stopping at every Starbucks along the way can get expensive quickly. To keep yourself awake, bring an insulated beverage container and fill up on coffee or tea at cafes and gas stations. Alternatively, you can try packing sodas, caffeine tablets or energy drinks.