This summer, my family is going on a very long road trip to multiple national parks, a stop at Disneyworld, visits with relatives, and many little side trips and journeys along the way. We are going to see large parts of the United States and do it all in an automobile.
No matter how we slice it, it’s going to be fairly expensive. Fortunately, Sarah and I have already planned out a bunch of tactics to bring down the cost of such a road trip.
Air up the tires before we leave. A quick stop at the gas station enables us to fill up our car tires to the maximum recommended air pressure before we depart. Every one PSI on any one tire improves our fuel efficiency 1/8 of one percent.
So, let’s say all of our tires are running 10 PSI low. That simple move of airing up the tires – taking maybe three minutes at the start of the trip – improves our fuel efficiency by 5%. Over a 3,000 mile road trip in a vehicle that would otherwise get 20 miles per gallon, we get 21 miles per gallon. That saves us about 9 gallons over the course of the trip, which, at a price of $4 per gallon on average, adds up to $36 for five minutes of effort at the start of the trip.
You should make sure that your maintenance schedule is up to date on your vehicle, too. Doing this before you leave can make your car run a bit more efficiently, but it can also save you in terms of helping you avoid a disaster three states from home.
Research each location in advance. A big part of our road trips is stopping at free roadside attractions. We love finding things like the world’s largest twine ball or the Field of Dreams or a grotto made out of rubbish as we’re driving around.
Before we go anywhere on a road trip, I’ll study resources like Roadside America to find unusual roadside attractions. If they’re free, they can provide a nice rest and excuse to stretch our legs while showing us something interesting and unique without hitting our wallets.
For example, we’ll be driving through Illinois on this trip, so I’ll look up the Roadside America map of Illinois and check out all of the stuff along our route. There is always a free thing or two that looks interesting. I’ll make a note of all of those things (and their approximate locations), then move on to the next state.
Stops like these break up a day wonderfully and turn a dull road trip into something much more interesting.
Plan your fueling. Use a tool such as GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas near you. If there’s a cheaper station ten miles down the road in the direction you’re already going, it’s worth going there.
Even more important than that, know the gas prices in each state. When you cross a state line, new gas taxes come into effect, causing the average gasoline rates to either jump or fall (at least a little). This table shows you the average cost of gas in each state, so as you approach a state line, study this table a bit and figure out if it makes sense to fill up before you cross the state line.
Plan your trip to avoid toll roads. When you’re traveling a long distance, toll roads can really eat up your cash. Use a GPS unit or a map planning program to avoid toll roads entirely. This might add a slight amount of distance to your trip, but it can easily save you $10 in tolls on a day’s drive.
Book lodging directly. If I can identify a hotel I want to stay at using an online site, I’ll then call the hotel directly and ask for a cheaper rate.
Let’s say, for example, I find a room at Hotels.com for $89 per night. Knowing that Hotels.com will take a cut out of the deal, I’ll then call that hotel directly, ask to speak to the manager, say that I found a deal at Hotels.com for $89 a night, and ask if I can book directly with them for, say, $79 per night.
In terms of the total deal, the hotel makes more money that way and you spend less money that way. I actually booked three hotels for our vacation using this very method, saving $10 or $15 each time.
If you’re at a hotel, take advantage of it. On some road trips, night stops might occur at a hotel. If it does, take advantages of the services offered there.
Hit the continental breakfast. Even if it’s just fruit and coffee, stop by and get some. This can provide a light – and more importantly free – breakfast. If the hotel offers more, take full advantage of it. I usually check with the hotel staff first, but if they approve, I’ll grab extra containers of milk and/or juice for the cooler.
Fill up your cooler at the ice machine. You did bring a cooler, didn’t you? It’s an essential part of a road trip. Hotel ice works perfectly, too, and if you’re already there, the ice has no additional cost (unlike ice from a gas station or grocery store).
Take the local paper and tourism guides. Those always seem to provide an interesting free thing to do that day that we hadn’t thought of. Many hotels have a free local paper available in the lobby and almost every hotel has a selection of guides and pamphlets describing local events and attractions. I’ll usually ask the front desk if they have any suggestions as well.
Stop at a discount grocery store each morning. Rather than eating meals on the road, we make a stop at a discount grocery store, like Fareway or Aldi. Each morning, we’ll stock up with a loaf of bread and the basic elements of a simple lunch, packing away the cold stuff in the cooler.
That little stop might cost us $10 or $15, but it’s far cheaper than having the entire family stop for lunch at a restaurant, which can quickly add up to $30 or more. Plus, we can grab snacks if necessary, which are far cheaper there than at a gas station. A day without such a stop might end up costing us $50 in food and other incidentals, while a grocery store visit might cost us $15 or $20.
Take full advantage of rest stops. We only stop at gas stations if we absolutely have to in order to fuel up. On the other hand, whenever we pass a rest stop, we ask everyone if they need to use the restroom.
At a rest stop, not only can everyone use the restroom and stretch their legs for free, we can use the water fountains to refill water bottles, keeping our beverage costs low.
Whenever a “Rest Stop Ahead” sign appears, ask around the vehicle and see if anyone needs to stop. It might save you a stop at a gas station later, which can be full of temptations and unnecessary expenses.
The thing I like about all of these tactics is that they don’t detract from the vacation in any way, but each tip shaves off some expense, making the overall trip less expensive without costing us a bit of enjoyment.