How to Make Your Next Road Trip More Affordable

Gas prices are sky-high, but that doesn't mean a road trip is out of your reach. Here's how to hit the road for less.

The great American road trip is a time-honored tradition. It’s also one of the more affordable ways to enjoy a vacation when money is tight. But how can you keep costs down when inflation—and gas prices—keep rising?

These tips can help you hit the road on a budget without sacrificing fun or comfort!

Get Your Car Checked Out

mechanic working on a car

Before you hit the road, make sure that your car is in tip-top shape. Trust me, it’s much better to know now that there’s a problem than when you’re three hundred miles from home. Getting your oil changed isn’t a bad idea. At a minimum, get your tires checked before you leave.

Consider Roadside Assistance

Speaking of tires, do you know how to change one? Can you even be sure that the spare tire in your trunk is still good? Joining AAA can give you peace of mind while you’re traveling. In addition, a membership gives you access to “free trip-planning tools, identity theft, monitoring, financial services, insurance services and thousands of shopping, entertainment, travel, event and dining discounts.”

Give Your Bank a Head’s Up

Depending on how vigilant your bank is, making purchases outside your home turf could lead to a major headache. Your card might be temporarily locked if your bank believes that it is being used without your permission. If that happens, you’d have to contact your bank to get the card unlocked. Even if your bank wasn’t intending to put a hold on your card, it’s still better to be safe than sorry.

Avoid ATM Fees

woman using an ATM

While you’re dealing with pre-trip banking issues, make sure you know where to access fee-free ATMs. Two or three bucks here or there might not seem like that much, but those fees can add up over time—especially if your bank also charges a fee for using an out-of-network ATM.

Carry at Least $20 in Cash

Don’t assume that you’ll be able to use a debit or credit card everywhere you go. Some businesses—especially in small towns—only accept cash or checks. (Yes, checks!) You might also come across farmer’s markets or festivals where the vendors only take cash.

Make Sure to Pack Your Medications

Although this seems like a no-brainer, it bears repeating: pack all your medications. The last thing you want to do on your vacation is to spend hours scrambling to get your prescriptions refilled. It’s a waste of time and money.

Read More: The Best Coupon Sites for the Biggest Savings

Prepare an Emergency Kit

Young woman with a car emergency kit

Beyond your essential medications, you should pack an emergency kit for your car. Start with basic first-aid supplies, then prepare for any bad weather you might be facing. A flashlight, a spare blanket, and a rain poncho can all come in handy.

While I don’t recommend buying bottled water at gas stations—more on staying hydrated later—you should have a couple of gallons of water stored in your car for emergencies. Read more about the essentials for a road trip emergency kit at Trip Savvy.

Have a Plan, But Stay Flexible

Now that you’ve completed your pre-trip prep work, it’s time to get into the details of choosing your destination and planning your route. Some people prefer to plan every little detail, while others are free spirits who “go with the flow.” Most seasoned travelers recommend finding a happy medium between the two extremes.

One of the benefits of a road trip is spontaneity. If you see a sign for an intriguing attraction, then go for it! A strict timetable and to-do list are for workdays, not vacations. On the flip side, you don’t want to be so relaxed about planning that you end up having to scramble to find a place to sleep. Last-minute decisions often cost more money than careful planning.

Travel in the Shoulder Season

When you go is just as important as where you go. To get the best deals without missing out, I recommend traveling in the shoulder season. This is the period just before or after the high season.

Tourist destinations are less crowded then, and you have a better chance of enjoying good weather than if you traveled in the off-season. Prices for hotels are generally much cheaper, but most if not all of the area’s attractions and restaurants will still be open—something that isn’t guaranteed if you go in the off-season.

Avoid Holiday Travel

Skating in New York City

Regardless of the season you choose for travel, try to avoid major holiday weekends. The worst offenders are usually Christmas, Thanksgiving, Labor Day weekend, and Memorial Day weekend. Beach destinations tend to get overrun during spring break, while you might want to avoid New Orleans or Salem, Massachusetts, on Halloween!

You’ll also find that many independent shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays (and sometimes Tuesdays, too), so plan your route accordingly. Thanks to the internet, you can usually find out if a place you want to go will be open on the day you’re passing through town.

Negotiate a Budget

If you’re traveling solo, then this step is a lot less complicated. Once you agree to let another person (or three) join you on the trip, it’s important to discuss the budget in advance.

  • Gas – Will you take turns filling up the tank or split the cost evenly every time?
  • Accommodations – Do you intend to split the charge by person or per bed?
  • Food – Will everyone be responsible for their own food? If you go to a restaurant, how will you handle the check?

Setting a budget that everyone can agree on can be something of a negotiation. Some people may prefer to travel as cheaply as possible, while others prefer a little more luxury. If there’s an impasse, however, the primary driver should get the final say.

Download a Budget Tracking App

To prevent budget blowouts and future friendship-ending arguments, download a budget tracking app before you leave. Trail Wallet is a highly rated app that will let you see if you’re on target for your daily spending. You might also find that a budgeting app intended for couples—check out our comprehensive list of the best ones—works well for splitting expenses on a trip with friends or family.

Make a Must-See List

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - May 24, 2016: The Field Museum is located on Lake Shore Drive next to Lake Michigan, part of a scenic complex the Museum Campus, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Smart travelers know that you can’t see and do everything in one trip. Rather than overscheduling yourself—and overspending—make a “must-see” list for your trip. For a long weekend trip, pick just two or three things that you want to see or do in order to feel like the vacation was a success.

On longer trips, limit yourself to one or two must-sees for every place you visit. For example, if you’re going to be in Chicago for just one day, choose between visiting the Art Institute or the Field Museum rather than trying to do both. Fear of missing out can exert a lot of pressure while you’re on vacation, but you’re better off choosing just a few things to do rather than spending your entire budget on doing everything.  

Book Accommodations Before You Leave

While I don’t recommend that you schedule every minute of your vacation, it’s a good idea to anchor your trip by booking accommodations in advance. You’ll get the best prices that way. The drawback is that you can’t spontaneously decide to stay longer in a place that you really like.

When you travel by car, you have options for where to stay. The cheapest option is “car camping,” followed by tent camping. Staying in group dorms at a hostel is also inexpensive; booking a private room is more expensive but often cheaper than a traditional hotel. Most hostels have a shared kitchen for travelers. A vacation rental, such as an Airbnb, may or may not be less expensive than a hotel, but if you can find one that offers access to a kitchen, it might be worth it.

Buy Groceries at a Supermarket

woman buy vegetables and fruits in supermarket

Food can either make or break your travel budget. Your worst option is to dine out for every meal. You wouldn’t do that at home, would you? Make dining out a special treat, choosing restaurants that are highly rated—or, even better, suggested by locals—and showcasing the area’s regional specialties.

Your second worst option is to stock up on snacks and drinks at gas stations or rest stops. Prices are always going to be much higher at those places, plus most of your options will be high in sugar, salt, or both. Buying bottled water on your trip is also a waste of money—and it’s bad for the environment. Bring a refillable bottle or two instead.

So where should you get your food? The same place you do when you’re at home! Keeping a well-stocked cooler in your car is a major money-saver. Even if you won’t have access to a kitchen on your trip, you can make sandwiches, salads, and other healthy meals on the go.  

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