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9 Easy Ways to Save Money on a Road Trip

Road trips are officially making a comeback. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Americans are itching to get out of their homes but still want to avoid airports, airplanes, and generally any other place that’s full of other people. (Rightfully so.) These health concerns paired with financial impacts of the pandemic—no one’s really in a position to shell out money for a traditional vacation right now—have made road trips seem more desirable than ever. 

With a little bit of strategic planning, you can minimize costs on a road trip and keep your adventure within budget. Just make sure to bring a face covering with you (depending on where you’re traveling to, you may need one to enter public spaces) and always follow CDC and local health department recommendations for minimizing the spread of COVID-19. That includes not traveling to states or counties that are requesting tourists hold off, and postponing your trip if you think you might be sick.

Here are some of the easiest ways to save money on a road trip.

Tune Up Your Car Before You Leave

Dealing with any minor maintenance issues before you head out can save you a ton of money later on. If you break down in a remote area or somewhere with only one auto body shop, chances are you’ll spend a lot more to get your car fixed than you would have at your local go-to mechanic. Even something like an oil change can be more expensive (and a waste of time) if you have to get it done on the road.

Pack Smart

When packing for your trip, take the extra time to write out a list of everything you plan to do and what you might end up needing for each activity. If you have the space for it, pack it. The last thing you want to do is buy an expensive beach towel at a gift shop when you have five of them sitting at home. The more prepared you are, the less you’ll end up having to spend in a pinch to make sure you have what you need to enjoy your road trip to the fullest.

Don’t Speed

Real talk: Speeding tickets are expensive. And if you get one in another state, you may need to show up in court in that state in the future. By simply following the speed limit and being extra diligent about following the rules of the road, you can avoid getting hit with a huge financial and logistical headache. Driving a little slower will usually get you better gas mileage, too! Also, driving the speed limit will help you get to your destination safely, which is the most important part. 

Plan Your Gas Stops

The price of gas can vary a ton, sometimes even from one side of town to the next. If you’re driving through tourist areas or small towns just outside of popular destinations like national parks, expect gas to be way more expensive than the next town over that’s one step removed from the crowds. By using Google Maps, you can search for gas stations nearby, and oftentimes, the current price is listed right there in the search results. If you know approximately how long it’ll be until you need to fill up, check the upcoming stations and consider stopping a little sooner if the price is right.

Sign Up For Rewards Cards

Most gas stations now have free rewards programs you can sign up for and get some money (sometimes $.05 per gallon) off gas. They’re free to register for, so why not? The good news is that gas is relatively cheap right now—the current average price of gas in the US is $2.18 per gallon. But if you can knock off a couple cents per gallon? Depending on how much driving you’ll be doing, that can start to add up. 

Pack A Stocked Cooler

Fast food may seem inexpensive, but if you’re buying it for every single meal? You’re going to be dropping a lot of money—not to mention, it’s also just not the healthiest option. Before you hit the road, head to the grocery store to stock up on foods that travel well. This will also be more economical than buying the same stuff at a convenience store later on. Some of my favorites: lunch meat sandwiches, apples, crackers and sliced cheese, salami, popcorn, snack bars, and peanut butter sandwich crackers. If you don’t have reusable ice packs, fill up some plastic drink bottles with water and freeze them—they’ll stay cold for anywhere from one day to a week, depending on how insulated your cooler is. If you end up needing to reup your ice, most gas stations sell it for $1-$3.

Hack Your Credit Cards

Before you leave, check out what cashback deals your credit card offers. For example, if you have a card that lets you choose gas as a 5% cashback category, do that. You may also be able to choose specific cashback deals for certain restaurants you plan to stop at on the road. Check your account to see everything your card offers, and choose deals that will fit in with your upcoming plans.

Camp For Free

The US has a ton of public land—lands held in a trust for the American public, and managed  by the federal government—that you can camp on in your car or tent for free. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS) are the two agencies that oversee this land. You can search their websites for nearby free camping areas, but it’s typically easier to look for good spots on user-generated apps—iOverlander and FreeRoam are two great resources that compile user-generated coordinates and reviews. The only caveat is that public land is much more abundant in the western US, and not as easy to take advantage of if you’re east of the Mississippi. 

Avoid Toll Roads

Another great Google Maps feature? You can choose to take a route that avoids toll roads. Sometimes, this option makes your trip much longer, so you’ll have to weigh the time and cost of tolls vs extra gas. But sometimes, you can find a route that’s a similar distance in mileage that lets you avoid tolls at the same time. In some areas of the country, that can save you a nice little chunk of change.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.