Updated on 09.17.14

Minimizing the Cost of Holiday Car Travel

Trent Hamm

Like a lot of people this week, our family is traveling by car to a number of Thanksgiving dinners. As I taught the children to sing recently, “On the interstate and across the bridge, to Grandma’s house we go!”

Of course, when you’re traveling during the holiday season, you’re opening the door to some potential challenges. Winter weather, overcrowded roads, long road trips, expensive stops – it all adds up to some serious time, some serious cash, and some risk for much more time and cash as well.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you some of the preparations we’re doing for this year’s road travels in order to save money and minimize risk.

12 Road Trip Preparations That Wil Help You Save

1. Air up tires

Take the car to the local refueling station. Use a tire pressure gauge to check the pressure in each of your tires (if you don’t have a gauge, ask inside). If there’s inadequate air, use the air pump there to refill each tire up to the recommended maximum found in your manual. If you’re unsure how to do this, most car manuals offer a very useful step-by-step guide for taking care of it.

2. Perform any scheduled maintenance

If I’m going to significantly surpass a scheduled maintenance on the road trip, I get it done before I leave. This usually involves getting a mileage estimate from Google Maps, adding that to my current odometer, and seeing whether or not that new number exceeds when my next maintenance should occur.

3. Caravan

If you possibly can, travel with others in a “caravan” so that, if one individual vehicle has problems, there’s support all around. Driving in a caravan has helped me out more than once – I remember one awful road trip where my son got extremely ill along the way.

4. Provide an ETA to your destination

This way, if you don’t show up on time, they can be aware of your delay and attempt to contact you. Again, this has helped me in the past, as people at my destination were able to realize something was wrong and eventually offer assistance.

5. Visit the restroom before you leave

It’s the Murphy’s Law of road trips: when you think you’ve got everything covered and are making good time, someone has to use the restroom. Remember, as I mentioned above, the more unnecessary stops you make, the more expensive (and longer) your trip becomes, so make sure everyone has used the restroom before you leave.

6. Pack blankets, sand, hand warmers, and a shovel

This is more important for Christmas travel, but I also do it for this trip. I pack blankets to help with situations where we’re in an accident or trapped in a storm – same with the nad warmers. I pack sand and a shovel to help with situations where we might need to get out of a ditch.

7. Pack hearty meals

We pack meals before we leave so that we can eat in the car without having to stop for expensive fast food. We often pack an abundance of food, particularly healthy snacks like unsalted nuts, raisins, and the like, because these serve the dual purpose of sating hungry children while also providing rations in the result of an accident.

8. Pack a charged “911 phone” (and charge your phone)

A “911 phone” is a cell phone without an active contract that is only able to dial 911. Keeping such a phone in the car with you helps in case of a roadside emergency.

9. Pack a change of warm clothes

After a winter trip in which I had to walk almost a mile in sub-zero temperatures without adequate clothing, I’ve started making sure I have at least one change of very warm clothes, preferably coveralls. This is particularly important if you’re traveling in the country on less well-traveled roads.

10. Make a map and check road conditions

This is a tactic that’s more important around Christmas but can still be relevant at Thanksgiving – we’ve been caught in Turkey Day blizzards in the past. Also, before you leave, make sure you know exactly where you’re going and the route to get there.

11. Travel when the roads aren’t busy

We’re traveling during the morning hours for most of our driving, which will avoid most of the traffic outside of towns. If you can, avoid driving on Wednesday evening and Sunday, which are extremely heavy traffic days.

12. Gas up

This isn’t so much a money-saving technique on gas as it is a method to avoid an unnecessary stop at a roadside gas station where, after being cramped in a car, you’re tempted to run inside and, because you’re a bit hungry, you find yourself buying unnecessary stuff. Just avoid the stop entirely and make better time on the road.

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  1. Johanna says:

    “nad warmers”?

  2. Wesley says:

    Typo: ” I pack blankets to help with situations where we’re in an accident or trapped in a storm – same with the nad warmers.” and funny to boot!

    Definitely agree on almost everything said here, especially after having to walk quite a ways once in a winter storm, not fun.

    I always like to throw in a “make sure the kids have something to do before they hopefully fall asleep” suggestion. My family always took lots of books, but none of us got car sick like I know a ton of people do. Good music that the whole family enjoys is a good bet as well. One thing that got me and my siblings through a lot of road trips back in the day was doing some kind of art project, obviously there are limits to what you want to do, but paper and crayons can go a long way to making a trip easier on everybody involved.

  3. Kate says:

    ‘Pack blankets, sand, hand warmers, and a shovel’

    OR… several litres of water and a shelter tarp – in some areas of the world Christmas travel is going to be in 45C weather rather than snow!

    A lightweight anti-hypothermia foil blanket is also a great idea – it can also be used for signalling etc

  4. Greg says:

    For me, it’s better to make a few stops on a trip, to get some exercise and oxygen. That way I don’t get sleepy and unconcentrated. Sometimes I even drink a lot before the trip, so that I have an excuse for making a restroom stop. A stop does not have to be expensive, I can just buy a newspaper or a bag of gummi bears to share with the family.
    And I always pack a map and a GPS so that I can use alternative routes when I encounter a traffic jam.

  5. Michelle says:

    I thought “refueling station” was quirkily funny, then I got to “nad warmers” and cracked up! A most amusing typo…

  6. Johanna says:

    To add to what Greg said: Don’t underestimate the importance of staying properly hydrated. For me, when I try to limit the amount of water I drink on a long road trip, I get tired and headachey very quickly. When I make an effort to drink more water, I feel much better.

  7. valleycat1 says:

    I agree with the others that you need to plan to stop at least every 2-3 hours as a safety measure if nothing else. The driver needs to move around & get a little fresh air periodically. But if you’ve packed your own drinks & food, you aren’t tempted to nab junk, & can just stop at a rest area instead of a store.

  8. Ruth says:

    Indeed, “nad warmers” is certainly a typo. It should properly be ‘nad warmers since it’s a abbreviation.

  9. Kathryn Fenner says:

    Does anyone know how to find ethanol free gas? I find that I get 10% better mileage in my Prius from the real stuff…

  10. Rebecca says:

    Coveralls are a good idea, even when its not freezing, try changing a tire on the highway in a skirt and heels. Nuff said.

    And definitely have enough food and drink, even baby formula to be ok if you get stuck for several hours. last winter some semi trucks stalled going up a large hill on the local interstate because it was slick. Traffic backed up for miles and miles, no one could get off or turn around. Some were stuck for up to 10 hours because the DOT couldn’t get trucks big enough to tow the semi trailers.

    When traveling with little kids, I find that 90 min is about all we can go without a break. We start out with a toy or activity that I brought along esp for the trip, that lasts for about 45 to 55 min. Then we do a snack, gives me about 15 more min. After snack they get a drink, and usually 15 or 20 min after that, potty stop. Every body gets out to use the facilities and run/ jump/ move for 10 min. Then we get back in the car and repeat. It works well for us and I have 3 kids under age 6. If we are going on a trip longer than 4 hrs, I find that every other stop needs to be a bit longer of a break, just so they don’t get crabby.

  11. Leah says:

    I too like stopping for breaks. I bring my own snacks, but I aim for drinking a liter of water an hour. It might add time on to my trip . . . but it does make me get out and stretch my legs. Invaluable for long trips.

    My family listened to books on tape for car trips (when we were in our pickier years, we each had a walkman with our own books on tape). We favored short stories or kids books because you don’t have to listen quite so intently. To this day, my two favorites are “Fantastic Mr. Fox” by Roald Dahl and a collection of James Herriot short stories (about an English country vet, and quite funny).

  12. Greg says:

    Excellent list. I am forwarding it to my daughter who with some guy friends is travelling home for Turkey Day.

  13. kristine says:

    We also did audio books from the library- we tried to find one al could agree on. My kids are teens= The Time Traveler’s Wife was a huge hit.

    We also have the old standby- a list of all 50 states that goes with us on every trip, till we have spotted license plates form all 50 states! Yes- we did eventually see Hawaii and Alaska! Took 10 years, but we did! There was a huge howl in the car when we hit 50. We also play “bingo”, when one child thinks of something to spot (yellow school bus, landmark, etc.) and then they yell bingo! when they see it. The first one gets the point. This game can last 2 hours!

  14. KC says:

    Glad I live in the south as I can ignore most of these. But I do pack a few waters or cold soft drinks. I find I get thirsty more so than hungry. But a good protein snack is handy to keep me pumped up, rather than a carb snack that will make me sleepy.

    I also try to get a good awareness of where there are good places to stop for food, gas and bathrooms (rest areas). I used to drive from Memphis to western NC a lot and it was helpful to know where there was gas and better food choices. Last thing I wanted was to get stuck eating at a Hardees attached to a gas station. Yuck. If I’m going to eat overpriced, unhealthy food it will at least be a guilty indulgence I like, not one I’m forced to have because of geography.

  15. Melissa says:

    Plan ahead so you have time to stop at rest stops. Plan picnics, and some games to do on the grass, or snow! Bubbles for younger kids. Keeps all more awake, and happy, and less stressed. Make it fun, and part of the trip. Getting there is half the fun right? And it doesn’t have to cost much! Make a list of fun things to do in the car before you leave. Go to Dollar Tree and get special toys, and treats for trip only. I love to get little surprises for my husband on the car ride!! Keeps him alert, and he looks forward to it. Don’t forget to save some for trip home. For younger kids, play I Spy, and then give them a treat when they guess. Like one skittle. I give my girls a skittle, and they have to think of something, or look for something the same color. Fun! Gotta plan! For just a little time, planning and money, the car trip becomes part of vacation!!!

  16. Melissa says:

    O yea and almost forgot…gotta keep the nads warm….

  17. Greg says:

    @Rebecca, when we travel with little kids (3 and 5) we try to travel at hours when they can sleep for most of the trip, say depart at 6 pm, arrive at 10 pm.
    When we travel in the daytime, one favourite is a game where one person imagines that he is an animal or an object, but does not say which, and the others have to guess by asking only yes/no questions.

  18. almost there says:

    Sis is flying in so no long trip ‘cept to airport. As for nad warmers perhaps she will see a TSA guy with big hands working to his heart’s content.

  19. michael bash says:

    That’s “convoy”, not “caravan”.

  20. kjc says:

    Nad warmers: best typo of the year! Trent ought to read these comments once in a while.

  21. Janis says:

    For those who might otherwise travel alone, consider sharing a ride. My sister’s family is a 7 hour drive away, and I recently discovered that one of my friends has family in the same area. My friend proposed traveling together to reduce the cost and strain of a long road trip and to avoid air travel (which is more repugnant than ever).

    There are also resources for connecting people who want to ride-share (Craigslist and other sites), but I’ve never used them, so can’t really comment.

    Other suggestions for the safe/frugal traveler:

    1. Water. Make sure you have plenty to drink. It may come in handy for other uses, too. This summer, the spouse and I spent 90 minutes on the side of a highway fixing a problem with our new roof rack. In the hot, summer sun. Good think we packed plenty of water.

    2. Windshield washer fluid. Fill the reservoir prior to departure and bring extra fluid along. Oh, and check your wipers while you’re at it. Invaluable when driving in slushy conditions when trucks and other vehicles deposit salty road spray on your windshield as they pass. This is more of a safety issue than anything else.

    3. Tolls. If you must take a toll-road or bridge, check these out ahead of time, if you can. You may be able to pre-pay at a discount or buy discounted tokens.

    Safe and happy travels, everyone!

  22. Gretchen says:

    Save money by bringing an extra car?

    I guess I’m just thankful I’ve never had to take a long road trip with so many people that’s even an option.

    I’m also in the “drink water, stop frequently enough” camp.

  23. Michelle says:

    Here’s a question, how do you eat a picnic in the winter? We always pack food when we travel in the summer, and we stop at rest stops. How do you do that in the winter when there’s snow on the ground? We really don’t like to eat in the car (3 kids under 5, a BIG mess) and it’s just kind of awkward to take your own food into a restaurant like McDonald’s, where the kids can run around and play. Any suggestions? We have to drive about 10 hours.

  24. Callie says:

    Very useful post. Thanks.

  25. valleycat1 says:

    #23 Michelle – I frequently see people bring outside food into fast food places, & as long as someone in the party buys something (coffee or tea, maybe?) the staff doesn’t seem to mind.

    Snow picnicking would delight my husband (I, on the other hand, am not a snow person) – you’d need something waterproof to sit on & put your food on, warm clothes, & a warm drink if not warm food (thermoses, if you can’t find a roadside rest with fire pits/barbecues). I’m guessing the kids would find it a huge adventure.

  26. Rebecca says:

    @ Greg, Oh how I wish mine would sleep in the car, but they won’t. Actually one will, but he always wakes up after about 20 min and screams the rest of the way home! So we do best when we plan to be home before bed.

    @ Michelle, in WI we have rest stops along the interstate that have a heated building with restrooms and vending machines. Some also have indoor tables for meals. Nothing fancy, but I bring a blanket for the floor or some cleaning wipes to clean off a table to have a meal on. We also eat meals with no utensils, like string cheese, crackers, pre made sandwiches raisins pretzels, carrot sticks so clean up is minimal except for washing hands and maybe a few napkins.

  27. Steven says:

    Learn the route you are going to take, and maybe an alternate in case of accidents. I cannot stress knowing how important it is to have a general idea of where you’re going and how to get there.

    And especially relevant now-a-days… DO NOT FOLLOW THE GPS BLINDLY!!!

  28. lisa Allen says:

    Funny story. Years ago, some friends of ours had to make a long trip from NC to Indiana. We lent them our audiobook of the 3rd Harry Potter. When they actually reached their destination, they ended up driving around until they could finish it! Good audiobooks really help the time pass.

  29. Karen says:

    @#18 – I almost fell out of my chair laughing – thanks!!!!!! That typo was priceless!!

  30. Johanna says:

    #18, #29: What’s so funny about sexual assault?

  31. Interested Reader says:

    It took me a minute to figure out “refueling station” -can someone tell me if that’s an Iowa thing?

    I would suggest that Trent have someone re read what he writes before he posts it, but I don’t think Trent really reads the comments.

  32. Mule Skinner says:

    If you’re going in a caravan (or convoy) you might consider a CB so you can chat with the other car(s). It might amuse the kids too, to talk with the other kids.

    More radical would be to swap some kids around. One of mine switches places with one of yours so they have someone different to play with for a time.

    Now combine the CB with switched kids: My kid in this car can talk with my kid in that car . . .

  33. DOT says:

    Here in Florida I may need to pack the DH some nad coolers for the road trip south… great typo!

  34. Evita says:

    Good article!
    Another nit-pick: it should be “in the event of an accident”, not “in the result of an accident”. No author being immune to typos and errors, Trent needs an editor… :)

  35. almost there says:

    #30 Johanna, lighten up. It was a play on the typo nad warmers. As a retired submariner I am more concerned with the radiation dose rcv’d. See my comments in last Sunday’s WSJ Al Lewis article. I won’t fly anymore.

  36. Johanna says:

    @almost there: I understood the joke. I just didn’t think it was funny. That’s a risk you run when you make jokes about sexual assault – some people don’t find that sort of thing amusing.

  37. almost there says:

    Johanna, how does one combat the sexual assualt against our ever increasing police state except to stop flying? Doing anything other than that gets one arrested or fined and kicked off the flight. Sheeple that fly now know what is going to happen as this has not happened overnight. So they are complicit. Our country needs to rise up as one and say enough, but money talks when one holds it away from the airlines. Humor is often used to make light of terrible situations thereby provoking action to change things for the better. I remember thirty some years ago in Miami Beach listening to “numbered” survivors of the holocaust joke about their experiences as that made it easier to deliver to people who had not been with them.

  38. Johanna says:

    @almost there: Using humor as a means of coping with a terrible situation that you yourself experienced is not the same thing at all as making fun of somebody else’s experience. And even if you’re a sexual assault survivor yourself (I don’t know if you are or not, and it’s none of my business), your joke about your sister falls into the latter category.

    Besides, if the message you were trying to convey with your “joke” was “TSA enhanced patdowns are a terrible overreach and need to be stopped,” that’s not how it came across. What comes across is, “Hey, maybe TSA patdowns aren’t so bad because women probably like being felt up by random guys, heh heh heh.”

  39. J.O. says:

    @ Johanna – You said:

    “I understood the joke. I just didn’t think it was funny. That’s a risk you run when you make jokes about sexual assault – some people don’t find that sort of thing amusing.”

    “Not being amused” is a risk you run when you read free content in the public domain.

  40. kristine says:


    I also find the pat-downs no laughing matter.

    Doing this to a child of 13 (the age it starts) who is just entering puberty, could be downright traumatic. If a child has been sexually molested, (about 1 in 4 girls has been, and 1 in 10 boys), the incident could be a horrible public humiliation, and an additional scar, as they are not allowed to say NO. And the radiation is most dangerous to developing children. I would not allow a stranger to touch my child in that manner, for any reason whatsoever.

    I do not fly much, but now I would prefer to drive across the continent than fly. I do not like my right to travel freely within my own country contingent upon relinquishing my right to refuse unlawful searches. I do not like the trend toward a police state. Those who would sacrifice freedom for security, deserve neither.

  41. Johanna says:

    @kristine: I agree with everything you said. And I’ll add that grown-ups who’ve been sexually assaulted in the past can find the pat-downs triggering as well.

    If the new security measures actually made flying any safer, that would be one thing (although I’d argue that they’d still be unacceptable, since they’re sacrificing one group’s safety for the sake of another’s). But they don’t. If someone willing to give his life to terrorize air travelers actually managed to build a working bomb and get it as far as the airport, he could just detonate it in the airport itself, prior to the security checkpoint. It would have the same effect.

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