5 Tips for Saving Money on the Road

Ah, the open road.
Ah, the open road.
Kohei Hara/Riser/Getty Images

"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?" asks Carlos in chapter three of Jack Kerouac's breathless adulation of the road trip, "On The Road." The book's answer is everywhere and anywhere, from New York to L.A. to the deep South to South of the Border to Des Moines, where, in Kerouac's opinion, lived the prettiest girls in the world. And always, "burn, burn, burning like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."

Not only did Kerouac's characters travel fast and far, but they traveled cheap, mostly via hitchhiking and other not-to-be-recommended, dirt-bag shenanigans. In this day and age, the cost-saving strategies of "On the Road" would be offset by the high costs of emergency room visits and astronomical interest rates on bail bonds.

So instead of using "On the Road" as a road-trip budget guide, how about following our top 5 cost-saving tips to ensure that when you "lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies" you pay like a dirt bag but travel like a prince [source: Kerouac]?

5
Eat from the Grocery

Beware of fast food and shun the gas station snacks. These will empty your wallet faster than you can say "I call shotgun." Instead, bring a cooler and load it up with econo-size snacks at local grocery stores along the way.

And don't forget the power of the dinner sandwich. Dining (and especially drinking) from the grocery aisles is much cheaper than eating out. For example, at $5.99 for a 9-ounce tub of turkey, $2.39 for a loaf of bread, $4.99 for sliced cheese, and $2.99 for mayo, that's $16.36 for about 11 sandwiches, or about $3 per two-sandwich dinner [source: Pricible.com]. If you like your meals hot, bring a camp stove. You can grill up hamburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches for much cheaper than if you pulled over at a diner.

That said, a little realism goes a long way. If you know you won't actually cook every meal on your road trip, plan and budget for a more realistic meal schedule. Maybe a diner meal a day will chase the culinary boredom away?

4
Sleep Cheap or Camp
Are you bringing along your pets? Plan ahead for lodging.
Are you bringing along your pets? Plan ahead for lodging.
Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Making reservations ahead of time may crimp your Kerouac style, but it will also save you money. Instead of pulling in to a hotel desperate, look online for deals before you go at sites like Roomsaver.com and Travelcoupons.com. This is doubly important if you're road-tripping on a holiday weekend, when making reservations beforehand may not only ensure the best price, but can also protect you from having to spend the night in the backseat of your car.

Better yet, camp. If you're willing to rough it, consider pulling off the road in a national forest or Bureau of Land Management area and unfurl your bedroll wherever you see fit (after checking on restrictions and permit requirements with the local Ranger District or Park Service Office). The Web site Boondocking.org lists GPS coordinates of free campgrounds around the United States.

Or even better, visit a Web site like Couchsurfing.org, Airbnb.com or Tripping.com, where weary travelers connect with willing hosts. In addition to sleeping for free, you'll do your part to make the world a slightly friendlier place.

And by the way, cheap showers can also be found at truck stops.

3
Know How to Save on Gas

Unless you're carpooling cross country in a Prius, the gas pump is going to give you a headache on your road trip. That sloshing noise? It's the sound of your bank account (or credit card) pouring into your tank.

Here are some tips that will help ease pump pain:

  • Don't wait until the weekend to gas up -- prices are higher on weekends and holidays.
  • If you insist on paying for staying, find hotels that offer gas discounts -- usually in exchange for joining their frequent stay programs.
  • Make sure your GPS is set for the shortest route, not necessarily the quickest.
  • There's an app for that. Get FuelFrog, GasBuddy, or a similar app that compares nearby fuel prices. Also, make sure your navigation app shows traffic. There's nothing like sitting still in a traffic jam, while your engine burns through your wallet.
  • Tune up before you go -- replace the air and fuel filters and make sure your tires are properly inflated. A tuned car is a gas-efficient car.
  • If you insist on eating fast food, park and go inside -- standing in line wastes much less gas than idling in line.
  • Don't top off the tank. Every year in the United States, 147 million gallons of fuel evaporate from overfilled gas tanks [source: Travel+Leisure].
2
Recreate for Free
Take advantage of state and national parks for cheap ways to entertain yourselves.
Take advantage of state and national parks for cheap ways to entertain yourselves.
©iStockphoto/tarabird

The more you plan, the less you pay (as long as you stick to the plan). For example, checking the local papers and visitor's bureaus of the towns you'll be passing through can shake out valuable coupons. Facebook, Twitter and coupon sites can also be useful.

Likewise, instead of depending on roadside attractions like the $100 gator wrestling class at Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca, Colo., to meet your recreation needs, plan ahead to take advantage of frugal entertainment along the way. A good stop for frugal options is Recreation.gov, where you'll find inexpensive suggestions for fun like hiking and visiting museums. Depending on your route, you might consider pre-purchasing a national park pass or other recreation discount passes.

Speaking of your route, consider doing enough research to make a shorter trip fun. While 750-mile days, just you and the open road, may sound fun at first, most road trippers agree that they get old quickly. Short driving days are cheap days, especially if you can combine them with inexpensive recreation like natural and/or historical sites.

1
Drive Frugally

The ultimate road trip is without rules. That's why you're out there -- the yellow line stretching to the horizon in both directions. OK, that's not all true. There is one rule: Don't rush. Rushing makes a leisurely road trip not at all leisurely. It also makes your trip more expensive.

For example, each mile an hour you go over 60 is like paying an extra $0.10 per gallon of gas [source: PlanetGreen]. Likewise, trust your cruise control -- it is your friend put on this Earth not only to promote blood flow to your right heel but to staunch the flow of dollars from your wallet. In addition to inducing vomit and/or aggravating the need to pee, alternately slamming the gas and the brake is like having a leak in your fuel tank.

Then there's the age-old debate: windows down or AC? Windows down creates drag, but the AC uses power. (This was even the subject of a MythBusters segment.) Basically, while opinions vary, general consensus is that at highway speeds, you're better off running the AC, while at speeds below 45 to 50 miles per hour (72 to 80 kilometers per hour), you're better off with the windows down.

Here's another alternative: Drive when it's cool. By reeling in miles in the early morning and evening hours, you can avoid both the drag of open windows and the power suck of AC.

Finally, consider renting a car. In 2011, AAA estimated the cost per mile of driving an SUV at $0.76, if you drive 15,000 miles (24,140 kilometers) a year [source: AAA]. Now multiply this by the average miles/kilometers per day you'll drive. Compare this to a rental price: daily charge plus gas. Which is less? If renting a car is cheaper than driving your own, go for it -- knowing that at the end of your trip, your own ride won't be sullied by the smell of chili dogs and gas station espresso drinks.

For more information on budget travel, visit the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Catchpole, Karen. "Gas-saving road trip tips." Travel + Leisure. May, 2011. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/gas-saving-road-trip-tips/1
  • Doell, Linda. "Save money on a road trip without giving up the fun." Daily Finance. May 19, 2011. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/05/19/save-money-on-a-road-trip-without-giving-up-the-fun/
  • House, Laurel. "Road trip? 10 easy ways to save gas and money." Planet Green. March 18, 2011. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://planetgreen.discovery.com/travel-outdoors/road-trip-10-ways-to-save-gas-and-money.html
  • Lauziére, Geneviéve & Schaller, Bob. "The art of the cheap road trip." Roadtrip America. Dec. 19, 2004. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://www.roadtripamerica.com/travelplanning/Cheap-Road-Trips.htm
  • Moon, Alice. "How to plan a cheap roadtrip." USA Today. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://traveltips.usatoday.com/plan-cheap-road-trip-12155.html