Although driving is a cheap alternative to flights, the cost of a family road trip can add up. From overpriced hotel stays to gas station snacks, you could end up paying more in “travel fees” from driving than you would outright buying a plane ticket. However, when the drive is long—and the funds are low—you could save big with just a little planning.
Whether you’re traveling for a holiday, weekend getaway, or cross-country vacation, here are our top 10 tips for spending less on a road trip.
1. Plan ahead and make a budget
The first step to saving money during any trip is budgeting. Start by establishing how much you want to spend per day, and breaking down the expenses you might rack up during your trip.
Some things to consider putting on your budget planner:
- Hotels or lodging accommodations
- Activities and entertainment (museum, zoo, or movie fees)
- Parking and toll fees
- Miscellaneous or unexpected costs (in case of maintenance fees)
Once on the road, budgeting spreadsheets like Tiller can help you stay on top of your budget by keeping track of your spending. You can also save money by planning your route in advance. Map the drive out ahead of time to maximize your gas mileage while avoiding tolls and entrance fees.
2. Pack snacks and drinks
Don’t pay $20 for a bag of chips, trail mix, and some beef jerky sticks. Instead, bring your own snack and drinks. One little bottle of soda from the gas station might cost you $2 when you could buy a 12-pack for $4 or $5 on sale at the grocery store. Stock up on you and your family’s favorite snacks at a discount or wholesale grocers before the ride.
If you have young kids try this fun snack idea! Buy a few clear tackle boxes, which you can find for about $4 at Walmart or Target, and fill each section with assorted mini cookies, popcorn, chips, nuts, crackers, etc. You can even make a game out of it by assigning each section of the box a number and letting your kids pick their number, and randomly associated snack, every hour.
3. Bring or cook your own meals
During a 4-night domestic trip, Americans spend an average of $108 on food per person, reports ValuePenguin. This is significant compared to the approximate $24 it costs vacationers to prepare their own meals during that same stay.
Rather than blowing your entire vacation budget on rest-stop sandwiches and drive-through McDonalds Happy Meals®, bring your own food. Invest in a durable insulated cooler, take a trip to the grocery store, and you’re good to go. Be sure to stock up on non-perishable foods, and plan out your meals ahead of time so you can eat things that might go bad earlier in the trip.
Depending on the length of the car ride, packing meals will save you lots of money. That means you’ll have more to spend dining out once you arrive at your destination.
4. Study up on fuel economy
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s gas-saving tips, the average driver can improve fuel economy by roughly 10% by driving sensibly, using cruise control, and removing excess weight, among other simple measures. In some cases, just keeping your tires properly inflated can improve gas mileage up to 3%.
Other ways to make your gas last involve using a planning app like GasBuddy. There you can arrange your trip and find the cheapest gas stations along the route. Or if you have a gas credit card, you can plan your trip to make sure you earn fuel credits when you fill-up. By just signing up with the app, you can save .05 cents per gallon, so it’s worth checking out before your next long ride.
Also, if you’re a part of a fuel points program, like the one offered by Kroger, a road trip is a great time to redeem your rewards.
5. Research hotels and accommodations
If you already splurged on a nice room at your destination, you’re not going to want to spend $200-$300 a night for a room you’ll stay in for less than 12 hours. You can find reputable places to stay and save money on hotels if you do your research.
Map out your overnight stops and use sites like OneTravel to find out what hotels offer the best rates at each location. Try choosing a hotel with a kitchen or kitchenette to cook your home brought meals. A lot of hotels also offer free breakfast, which you should definitely take advantage of.
You can also consider other accommodations. Airbnb often provides cheaper one-night alternatives to traditional hotels, along with possible amenities such as free television, wifi, laundry, and a fully furnished kitchen or kitchenette.
6. Use coupons
Couponing is a universal money-saving tip and can help you in all aspects of traveling. Sites like RetailMeNot and Honey.com can help you find discount codes for various hotels, souvenir shops, and everything in between. You can also look for newspapers with coupons sections or ask local grocery stores for free coupon books. Then you can even save on the meals and snacks you bring from home. If you’re not a meals-in-the-cooler person, coupons can especially help you save at restaurants and fast-food chains.
7. Find free or low-cost parking
One of the worst things about driving through major cities is parking. Not only is it nearly impossible to find, but it’s always way too expensive.
Next road trip, try using sites like Parkopedia to compare parking prices in various areas. You can filter your search based on the dates and duration you’ll be parking for to find the best match. The site also allows you to book certain spaces ahead of time, which can often be cheaper and a time saver.
ParkMe is another great resource for finding inexpensive parking. It offers the same features as Parkopedia but might cover different locations, which means it’s worth checking out both sites.
When it comes to parking just remember the most convenient lot might not always be the cheapest, so explore your options and you’ll be sure to save.
8. Camp out
While it’s certainly not a hotel, camping can be a low-cost and fun experience for you and your family. A campsite rental at a national park or other public campgrounds typically runs between $10-$20 a night, according to Trip Savvy. Usually, you’ll have access to hot showers, picnic tables, and restrooms. Check out the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) website to find the best public areas with free camping. Private campgrounds are also an option, but they’re notably more expensive.
However, don’t go the campsite route unless you already have a tent and camping equipment. Otherwise, you’ll cancel out any savings with a pre-camping shopping spree. If you have friends or family who camp, ask to borrow their gear instead.
9. Study up on basic car maintenance
Although no one wants to pay for unforeseen circumstances, accidents happen. With this in mind, if you learn how to do some basic car maintenance, you could save big in the event of an emergency. Make sure you know how to change a tire or your car’s oil before the trip, so you don’t have to blow your budget on surprise pricey repairs on the road.
If roadside assistance comes free with your insurance, car, or credit card, be sure to take advantage of these programs as well.
10. Don’t get a speeding ticket
You don’t want to save a bunch of money on hotels, gas, and snacks only to get busted with a $300 speeding ticket. Keep in mind a traffic ticket can also raise your car insurance premiums. Make sure you’re staying alert and aware of traffic signs and speed limits as you travel. Keep in mind that different states might have different traffic laws, so study up before your drive.