Updated on 03.16.07

The Long Trip: Five Ways To Save Money On A Multi-State Road Trip

Trent Hamm

A few months ago, I wrote about four techniques for saving money on road trips: performing maintenance before you leave, minimize your distance, pack snacks before you leave, and research gas prices before you leave. These are useful for planning your trip in advance, but here are five additional ways to maximize your cash while you’re actually on the road.

Use your cruise control. This is an effective technique in multiple ways. Not only can you lock in your speed to ensure that you aren’t ticketed, keeping your speed near the speed limit on long legs also improves your gas mileage.

Settle in behind a large vehicle. Get in behind a semi, get your speed roughly matching theirs, and pop it into cruise control. You’ll really cut down on gas mileage because the large vehicle in front of you cuts down on wind resistance, thus requiring less energy use to maintain the speed you set.

Require that all passengers use the bathroom when you stop. This minimizes the chance that little Joey has to use the bathroom about fifteen minutes after you get back on the interstate. Even if everyone in the vehicle is an adult, if you stop, everyone gets out and uses the bathroom. Even if it extends your stop by a minute or two, it saves time in the long run if it prevents a stop.

Avoid cities at rush hour. If your planned route takes you near the core of a large metropolitan area near rush hour, plan another route, even if it’s suboptimal, to avoid that urban center at that time. In the past, I’ve gone more than 50 miles out of my way simply to avoid a leg near O’Hare in Chicago at about 5 PM.

If you do need snacks, stop at a supermarket. You’ll save a huge chunk of money on food at the grocery store versus a convenience store, plus the selection is substantially better for choosing healthier items. If you’re concerned about time, have the driver dump everyone out at the grocery store and then pick them up after fueling.

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  1. !wanda says:

    Driving behind semis makes me feel unsafe because I can’t see around them.

  2. George says:

    While you certainly can dramatically improve gas mileage by following closely behind a large truck, you’re also dramatically increasing your chances of getting into an accident (since you can’t see what’s ahead of the truck, as !wanda notes). You also increase the likelihood of getting rock chips and windshield chips/cracks by following close behind a large vehicle.

    IMHO, the gas savings from tailgating just aren’t worth the tradeoff in safety. I’d rather drive with nothing but open road ahead of me – it’s far more relaxing, and that’s what a vacation is supposed to be about.

  3. akl168 says:

    It’s a little irresponsible encouraging folks to stick their noses behind a semi to save gas. We already have enough bad drivers out there.

  4. carter says:

    “Settle in behind a large vehicle”

    This is just simply reckless. Folks, please do not take this advice. I’ve seen no less than three personal finance blogs advocate this lately. Do not try to save a few dollars by tail-gaiting.

    This practice is *at best* discourteous (and illegal in most states) and worse, highly dangerous for everybody you share the road with.

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Look, you should always use the two second rule when driving – that’s the standard of safety. Following another vehicle at that distance, though, is well worth it – I’m not talking about tailgating at all.

  6. Tim says:

    in order to get the draft benefit of a semi, you have to be too close…far closer than the 2 second rule. the 2 second rule also only applies at slower speeds and during optimal driving conditions.

    second, do not use the cruise control. the gas savings is pretty much neglible and using cruise control is more dangerous. by using the cruise control, you are not an active driver, and you become complacent. also, foot placement is not optimal for emergency braking.

  7. snappyfrog says:

    As a trucker, let me advise you to not drop in behind a big rig to save fuel. If you are less than 2 seconds behind, you can not see where you are going or what is about to happen in front of me! If I have to panic stop….

    If you are around 2 seconds behind me, the turbulence from my truck will actually decrease your fuel economy.

    Please don’t do this. My attention needs to be focused forward, not trying to find your shadow to see if you are still there.

    Your friendly trucker,

  8. Brett says:

    I just got back from a multistate trip. My tip would be to avoid speeding tickets. I got one that set me back $160. Ouch. We were doing so well on our spending until then….

  9. janewilk says:

    You may want to re-think the cruise control idea, too. I never paid much attention to gas mileage and how my driving affected it till we got a Prius (and the little videoscreen that tells you your MPG minute-to-minute!). Cruise control decreases my MPG dramatically, because the engine has to really rev to maintain the speed up hills, etc. Anyway! I do appreciate the tips, but this one doesn’t work for me.

  10. Brad says:

    “slipstream surfing” behind semis is wreckless, but if you have an air-cooled engine in your car (I do in one), then it can also result in an overheated engine.

  11. Barry says:

    I have to chime in and agree with most of the others… trying to save fuel by staying behind a truck, even 2 seconds behind, is not a good idea. If nothing else, as others have mentioned, it reduces your look ahead capacity by effectively blocking a large portion of what is “up ahead”. It’s just not worth the added risk of an accident.

  12. Bruce says:

    Trent: It looks like no one is voting for the “drafting” trick to save gasoline. Why not consider re-writing this article and removing that tip. You could replace it with my favorite for saving money on long trips: “Getting dad and mom to send me a plane ticket!” I loved the other ideas though.

  13. Restless says:

    @janewilk: We took a 5000 mile trip through Texas and New Mexico last year in my brand-new Acura and used cruise control extensively. I got two miles per gallon better mileage than the EPA’s estimates for highway mileage. I’ve seen the same in our Camry and my old Grand Prix.

    Granted, it takes more umph to get over hills, but unless the grade is really high your momentum and a few hundred RPM for fifteen seconds is better than hitting the gas and you’ll get a lot of that energy back on the downhill slope, anyway. If your car has to really labor on a moderate hill, you might want to get a mechanic to take a look at it.

  14. Docah says:

    I love the supermarket idea, something that hadn’t occurred to me before. A lot of supermarkets have pre-cooked hot meals now, letting you be much more healthy in your choices than a fast food place built into a gas station.

    To the people who said don’t use cruise, that’s a very poor recommendation for MOST people. Most people vary speed by as much as 5 miles per hour and it costs them as much as 2 mpg over a tank of fuel. I’d cite the source, but i can’t find the article today.

  15. Jon says:

    The benefit of drafting is significantly reduced at slow speeds because the power needed to overcome air resistance varies with the cube of velocity. Driving 60 mph instead of 80 mph will require about 60% less power to fight the air.

    That said, I think some people are being a little hysterical about the dangers of driving. In moderate traffic people routinely have less than 1 second following distance. Some people are safe with that, others are talking on their cell phones or feeding their kid and are not safe even at 2 seconds. Why not leave it up to the judgment of individual readers about whether it’s something they can handle?

  16. Dexion says:

    No, don’t drive behind a semi, besides from feeling like you’re about to lose control of your car at any given second because of the loss of airflow coming infront of you.

    You can’t see traffic and cant plan your next move and if that semi has to stop fast you’re going to turn your car into a go-cart.

  17. Susan says:

    There are also companies where you can sign-up to ‘deliver’ cars. They try to match where you are and where you’re going and you get a free tank of gas with it. A refundable deposit is required, but if you have a family or a few friends makes for a frugal trip and keeps the miles and maintenance off your car. http://www.theinnovativetraveler.com

  18. Brian Amend says:


    I use cruise control and think it is a great idea as long as the roads are dry.

    Otherwise, cruise control, water (or ice/snow), and physics can orchestrate disaster.

    See Snopes–search “cruise control” there or go to link I’ve put down as “my” website (though of course it’s not).

    Thanks, Brian

  19. steven says:

    I am a big rig driver (semi) to all that read this it is a bad and unsafe idea to travle behind us. Reason number 1 we cant see you if you r too close so we dont know that you are there. True it will reduce you drag or air resistance, it may cost you your life i am pleading with everyone please don’t. If i see an emergancy and have to stop suddenly you and your car can end up under the trailer the fuel you save is not worth your life.

  20. steven says:

    One way to save money on fuel is to check and make sure your tires are properly inflated to reduce rolling resitance. Avoid getting off freeways and going threw towns going threw towns can burn more fuel buy stopping at lights and stop signs. Use your AC rather having your windoow down. One more way is that dont us your AC unless nessary and keep your windows up.

  21. MALE DRIVER says:

    Stop ripping the advice of pulling in behind a semi truck. I can tell you that I do this a lot. But I am very alert to my surroundings. I’m not eating a burger, checking my hair, talking/texting on the phone. All of my attention is on driving my car. I have “NEVER” been in any kind of an accident. Heres a tip. Dont do it if you can’t handle it.

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