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Ten Ways to Save Money on a Road Trip

We’re deep into the heart of summer now. The temperature is rising. Barbecues, beach trips, and baseball games are in full swing. Hopefully, you’ve seen your fair share of fireworks (and hopefully you still have all your digits). It’s that amazing time of year when the days are long, the nights are enchanting, and every new morning is brimming with possibilities. 

But there’s still one thing you haven’t done this summer. You haven’t taken a road trip. What’s stopping you?

Oh, right…the fact that gas is literally more expensive than it has ever been. We admit, at a national average of $5.03, current gas prices don’t exactly scream “Road Trip!” 

I haven’t checked the numbers, but this can’t be good for the beef jerky industry. 

Still, if you’re like me, you’re yearning for the feel of the open road, the enveloping way that music can only feel when you’re barreling down the highway, the thrill of uncovering hidden places, turning moss-covered stones, and adventuring without direction. If life is about the journey as much as the destination, road tripping is a microcosm of everything we seek during our brief time here on Earth.

But still, gas is crazy expensive. So how can you take a road trip to parts unknown this summer without drowning in fuel prices?

Well, of course, you can start by taking advantage of the countless credit card offers out there designed to lower the price at the pump. To learn more, check out our 6 Ways to Save on Gas With a Credit Card.

Or you can read on to check out these 10 ways to save money on your road trip this summer…

1. Get Your Vehicle Fully Serviced Before You Leave

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure, so they say. Take full control of your vehicular costs in advance by getting your car fully serviced by a trusted and affordable mechanic. Use this as an opportunity to change your oil, check all of your filters, plugs and hoses, maintenance your tires, fill up on windshield wiper fluid and anything else that might ensure smooth sailing throughout your trip. And as long as you’re doing that, stock up on a few critical car maintenance supplies like an air pump, road flares, jumper cables, and anything else you might need to keep your car moving. 

Otherwise, getting into a jam on the road could mean paying high towing and garage fees or getting gouged by a local mechanic who isn’t above exploiting a desperate out-of-towner. The more you do to get your automobile in tip-top shape, the less likely you are to find yourself in one of these costly situations. Not only that, but there are immediate financial benefits to ensuring your car is running optimally. As The Local Tourist notes, “It’s not only a safety precaution, but it can also save money on a road trip. Proper air pressure in your tires means better gas mileage, which means less money spent on gas.”

Your car will basically be your home for the duration of your trip. Do your housekeeping in advance. 

2. Set Your Budget

This is another important preliminary step before you put rubber to the highway. Know exactly what your trip will cost, and pack accordingly. Two Wandering Soles advises you to set a budget by breaking down your likely expenses into a few key categories. Create a spreadsheet of your expected expenses including fuel, entertainment, food, accommodations, and “the little expenses that don’t really fit elsewhere — like ice for your cooler, paying for showers (if you’re staying mostly at campgrounds), electricity hookups (if you have an RV), propane, parking fees, tolls, medicine, paying for WiFi, toiletries, souvenirs, gifts, etc.” 

In addition to anticipating and preparing for your costs on the road, this will give you a starting point as you track and adjust your spending along the way. 

3. Plan Your Attraction Visits Ahead of Time

If there are attractions on your bucket list that you absolutely must experience—museums, theater performances, restaurants, shopping districts—identify these destinations in advance. Then, go on a wall to wall search for coupons and discounts online. Join discount clubs like Groupon, where new deals are constantly popping up for attractions all over the U.S. The further in advance you identify and book your top destinations, the easier it’ll be to score great discounts on everything you hope to do. 

You can also reach out to the tourism board or visitor’s center at your destination. Many will have local coupon books that can be mailed upon request. It’s also an excellent idea to stop at the actual visitor’s center upon your arrival to any of these locations. In addition to the array of print brochures and coupons that you can collect for local attractions, you’ll usually encounter friendly and helpful employees. Make sure you ask plenty of questions about local attractions and ways to save during your visit. Ultimately, what you’ll learn out on the road is that the very best way to find bargains and score deals is to ask the locals. 

4. Stock Up on Snacks That Travel Well

It’s easy to spend on snacks every time you stop at a roadside stand or convenience mart. And stopping for meals along the way can add up too. But you can offset these costs by preparing in advance. Team up with your road trip mates and buy your favorite driving snacks in bulk. Insider notes that “Stock up on snacks that will leave you satiated and keep well in weather conditions, like trail mix, jerky, bars, crackers, nut butter, and apples.” 

You can also save a lot of money in the long run by investing in convenient, insulated, BPA-free travel cups for both water and coffee. If you have room in your car, buy a large canister of water from your local big-box store so you can refill. Not only will you save a ton of money on water bottles, but this approach is far more environmentally friendly. 

5. Look for Gas Further Off the Highway

On the subject of making constant stops during your drive, gas is obviously one of the biggest costs you’ll deal with along the way. There’s really no avoiding it, but there are a few basic strategies for lowering the cost, even beyond the credit card deals we noted above.

For one thing, consider putting a little extra effort into finding the best price at the pump. One easy way is to avoid the most obvious options. Those towering signs advertising gas just off the highway are awfully tempting. After all, they offer convenience and quick turnaround. If you’re focused on making good time, you’re probably inclined to take advantage of this convenience. On the other hand, if your objective is to save money, you might consider driving a few miles down the road. 

According to CNN Travel, AAA public relations manager Ellen Edmonds advises that “It’s usually best not use the stations right along the interstate…Drive a few miles drive down the road. Look for residential areas or remote rural areas.”

It’s also a good idea to carry cash. Some of those more remote gas stations may actually charge a few cents less per gallon if you pay using cash. 

6. Visit a Region with Cheaper Gas Prices

If you’re really concerned about the cost of gas, you can actually plan much of your trip around those parts of the country where gas simply costs less. Indeed, an array of factors like population density, remoteness, and topography can impact the cost of gas. This means costs may be vastly different from one region to the next. Certainly, a drive across the South will cost you a whole let less than a cruise up the West Coast. 

In fact, prices can vary quite dramatically just from one state to the next. For example, says CNN Travel, “folks in Georgia and North Carolina might want to consider a road trip in compact South Carolina. The Palmetto State has generally cheaper prices and has beautiful drives in the mountains, along the coast and points in between. And if your road crew can’t decide between the mountains and the beach, the distance between the two is less in South Carolina than its neighbors.” 

This is simply one example. As another example, you can plan a trip to San Diego and pay an average of $6.42 for a gallon of regular gas in California today, or you can plan a trip to Austin and pay an average of $4.69 per gallon in Texas. Before you map out your road trip, check out this real-time index of state-by-state gas prices

7. Be Flexible About Accommodations

In addition to the cost of driving, accommodations will likely be your biggest expense. But there are innumerable ways to lower this cost if you’re willing to be flexible. Obviously, these days, travelers have countless options beyond traditional hotels or roadside inns. Thanks to the emergence of online vacation rental companies, you can book a stay in anything from a grand mansion to a humble yurt. Camping will also typically be among the more affordable options if you have the equipment for it. Always look for a safe and designated campsite if this is part of your plan.

And more generally, keep an open mind as you research your options. You could land a pretty cool stay in a unique and affordable setting. Insider advises that “Booking a room on Airbnb can be an affordable option, while Couchsurfing connects travelers and hosts to provide a place to hunker down for free.” 

8. Stay in a Walmart Parking Lot

And if you’re seriously hard-up for options, you are legally permitted to park your car in a Walmart parking lot anywhere in the U.S. to catch a few hours of sleep. Certainly it would be a stretch to call this an accommodation, but it is an official Walmart policy to permit this type of long-term parking. According to Thrillist, “for those not adverse to shacking up in their ride, Walmart founder Sam Walton vowed to let any weary traveler rest his or her bones in the fluorescent comfort of his store’s parking lots, and the company has—for the most part—stayed true to his original vision. As long as you tell the store what you are doing, it’s totally cool to spend a night (or two).”

Because Walmart parking lots are generally well-lit, attended by security, monitored by cameras and rarely empty, this is actually a fairly safe alternative to staying in a questionable roadside motel. And once again, most importantly, it won’t cost you a dime. 

9. Pay for a Park Pass

If your road trip involves stops at any of the nation’s countless magnificent national parks, you’ll definitely want to get yourself a park pass. For just $80, you could get a full-year pass to all of the National Parks in the nation. KOA passes are also an excellent option because you’ll be entitled to camp on more than 500 affiliated campgrounds around the nation. That covers lodging in a bunch of different regions. So pack a tent and a few key outdoor supplies. You’ll save a ton by sleeping under the stars. 

Living on the Cheap also notes that “seniors and children may be eligible for free or reduced-rate passes. Check for passes and discounts on those passes to save money on your next road trip.” 

10. Make a Few Bucks on the Road

By the way, if you’re not averse to doing a little work while you’re out there, and you have some extra room in your car, you can moonlight as a courier. As long as you don’t mind building your route around an extra stop or two, this kind of work could actually pay for your fuel most of the way.

According to Insider, “Roadie is a peer-to-peer delivery service that functions like ridesharing for stuff and you can earn up to $600 by delivering packages on a route you’re already taking.” That seems like a pretty good deal if you’re already heading that way!


And of course, one of the very best ways to save on a road trip is to sign up for a credit card that is suitable for road trips and travel, which offers cash back or rewards for booking, gas, food, and more.