After traveling thousands and thousands of miles, I’ve learned lots of ways to save money on a road trip.
Growing up, our vacation transportation was the family vehicle. Airfare was a bit too pricey, so if we wanted to take a trip we jumped in the car. To this day, driving is still one of the more affordable ways to travel.
However, gas, food, and accommodations add up. That’s especially true when you take epic road trips like Mr. TLT and I like to do. Not only do we have day-to-day expenses, but we also can’t work as much while we’re on the road. (Traditional work – the actual trips are writing research, so technically they’re work. But, I digress…)
To keep getting our road trip fix, we’ve found tons of ways to cut expenses and save money on a road trip without cutting into the experience and enjoyment.
From road trip food to finding cheap hotels, here are nearly forty tips and tricks that can help you save money on your next road trip adventure.
Would you rather read this later? Download a free PDF of this guide:
There may be affiliate links in this post, which means we may get a small commission. It’s at no extra cost to you and helps keep TLT free. Everybody wins!
How to Save Money on a Road Trip
SAVE MONEY DRIVING
1. Get your vehicle checked out before you go
Getting your vehicle checked is a requirement before leaving on any road trip. It’s not only a safety precaution, but it can also save money on a road trip. Proper air pressure in your tires means better gas mileage, which means less money spent on gas.
By getting fluids, filters, etc., checked, you’ll make sure your vehicle is running at optimal performance and there will be less likelihood of car trouble.
Speaking of before you go, make sure to check out these comprehensive list of road trip essentials so you’re totally prepared for your adventure.
2. Do the speed limit
I know, I know. That’s no fun. BUT, the faster you drive, the more gas you burn, and the more gas you burn, the more cash you use. Set your cruise control and take your time. Roadtripping is about the journey, right?
3. Avoid Tolls
If you’re driving in rural areas, tolls won’t be a problem. However, if you’re driving around or near large urban areas, they might be. It’s hard to take a cheap road trip when you’re dropping dollars every few miles.
How to skip those extra expenses? There’s an option to avoid tolls in most GPS systems. Set that before you go and you won’t have to worry about it.
Unless you’re in Oklahoma. On our 6,479.5 mile trip to San Diego and back we hit one toll – ONE – and it was in Oklahoma. Fortunately, it was a whopping $0.13.
4. Plan Your Route
This is one guideline I’ve been known to ignore. I mean, when you find out there’s a singing road twenty-five miles the other direction, you go, right?
However, if you can plan your route ahead of time, you can avoid backtracking or driving further than you need, which saves you what?
Saves you gas. (It’s a theme.)
5. Sign up for gas discount cards
Most of the major gas brands have free discount card programs. Sign up for them to save money on gas and concessions. Even if it’s a chain that doesn’t operate close to home, it’s free and could save you some money on gas during your trip.
6. Use Gasbuddy
Gasbuddy is one of my favorite favorite favorite apps. I use it at home. I use it on the road. I use it any time I might possibly need to put gas in a vehicle.
What is Gasbuddy?
It’s a website and app that shows you gas prices in almost real-time. If you’ve ever pulled over to fill up your tank only to see a station a few miles later with much cheaper prices, you’ll understand why this comes in handy.
Another reason I love it is because of Pay with Gasbuddy. Instead of being a credit card, the card is tied to your bank account. When you use it at participating stations you’ll get a discount on gas and the fee will come out of your bank in a couple of days.
It often works in conjunction with branded discount cards, so you can save even more. For example, we’ve used our Shell card to save three cents a gallon, then paid with the Gasbuddy card to save another few cents.
Pay with Gasbuddy doesn’t work with all brands, nor can you use it on Native American reservations or at a warehouse club. Which is why it’s also a good idea to…
7. Get a warehouse club membership
We have Sam’s Club and Costco near us, so we have memberships to both. Mainly because gas (always gas!) is SO MUCH CHEAPER. By twenty to thirty cents a gallon.
You can also save on tires and Costco has travel deals. Plus, there’s the whole buying-in-bulk-is-cheaper thing.
This one depends on your individual needs and location. If you’ve got a warehouse club near you, check to see if it makes sense for the rest of the year as well.
8. Heading to a city? Take public transportation.
If your road trip destination is a major metropolitan area, consider finding inexpensive (or at least cheaper) parking for the length of your stay with Spothero or Parkwhiz and then using public transportation.
In cities like Chicago, it can be much easier to park and use busses and trains than it is to drive and search for parking. Street parking can often be difficult, hotel parking is outrageously expensive, and valet parking is time-limited (and expensive).
9. Drive somebody else’s car
If your vehicle is older, it might be a good idea to rent a car. While it could cost more for the trip itself, you won’t have the danger of your car breaking down in the middle of nowhere.
10. Skip car rental insurance
If you do rent a vehicle, the rental insurance can probably be skipped. Most likely your existing car insurance will cover any mishaps. Check with them first, please!
This is not legal advice in any way, shape, or form. You
must check your own policy before electing to rent a car without additional
HOW TO SAVE MONEY ON FOOD ON A ROAD TRIP
Want to know how to spend a lot on your road trip? Eat every day. That’ll rack up faster than you can say “Feed me, Seymour!”
Since you do actually have to eat, here are some ways you can keep your expenses lean while filling your belly. This includes a mix of BYO and finding ways to save on local cuisine.
11. Do not eat fast food
Seriously. Or at least really really try to avoid it. A stop at McDonald’s for two people is around $15. Do that every day, one meal a day, and after a week you’ve spent over $100 on food that doesn’t sit well with your stomach, your waistline, or your wallet.
It adds up quickly.
To put that into perspective, a National Parks Access Pass is $80 for the year. You could get into every National Park for an entire year for less than it would cost you to eat a Big Mac every day for a week.
12. BYO snacks
If you’ve ever bought snacks at a gas station, you know how pricey they are. Plus, even though road trip snacks have no calories, it’s still not a good idea to live on Fritos and Pringles (don’t tell my husband I said that).
Pack your own snacks and you can stave off any hangry episodes as well as save money on a road trip.
For our epic road trips, I make a bucket of trail mix and throw in a couple of individual serving containers so we can eat while on the road. We also have containers of grapes, string cheese, apples, and other healthier handheld snacks.
13. Use a good cooler
A good cooler can mean the difference between shopping for groceries every other day while you’re on the road and the ability to stock up before you leave.
We have a Coleman Xtreme and absolutely love it. We camped on our honeymoon in 90-degree heat, and on day three the frozen chicken broth I’d packed was still frozen. On another trip, our brats took four days to thaw. It was pretty cool eating sausages from Wisconsin while camping in the Badlands of South Dakota!
Since you won’t have to search for stores you can spend more time exploring. Plus, especially if you’re visiting popular tourist destinations, groceries can be more expensive on the road.
14. BYO lunch
It’s a good idea to stop at least every couple of hours on a road trip, if not more frequently. Make one of those stops your lunch break. We packed wraps, nut butters (Betsy’s Best has some delicious options!), fruit, vegetables, hummus, salsa, and salad.
TLTip: If you’re going on a shorter trip, cut up your lettuce and store it in a container with a damp paper towel. Dice up any salad toppings you’d like and store them separately, and put dressings in small containers. Voila! A healthy lunch on the road.
15. Cook some of your meals
If you’re camping, you’ll presumably be cooking many of your meals.
However, you don’t need to camp to cook on the road. You can stay in hotels with kitchenettes to prepare some of your meals. You can also cook at rest areas and parks. To do so, you’ll need some basic equipment:
- Propane stove – we have the basic Coleman Triton
- Cutting board and knife (great for DIY cheese and charcuterie!)
- Reusable utensils (fork, knife, spoon)
- Reusable plates
- Iron skillet or versatile pot/pan – I love my Lodge combo set
TLTip: If we’re camping a lot, we’ll plan to stay in a hotel with a kitchenette every few days. That gives us the opportunity to clean out our cooler and refill and freeze our water jug.
16. Skip Coffee Shops
I’m a coffee drinker. I need my coffee every morning. What I don’t need is to spend $5 every morning on a cup of my daily fix. If you’re not staying in a hotel with a coffee maker, or if you don’t like their coffee or are camping, bring your own coffee, a French Press, and a kettle.
If you’re a tea drinker who prefers loose leaf like my tea-snob husband, get a collapsible tea steeper or individual bags that you can fill yourself. Pro tip: those bags work for coffee, too.
17. Don’t buy bottled water
DON’T DO IT. I know it’s convenient, but a) those bottles take up a LOT of space and b) they’re horrible for the environment.
Get a refillable water bottle and keep a gallon (or more) container of water in the car to save money on a road trip. Start the trip with a frozen gallon of water in the cooler and you’ve got an efficient, space-saving way to keep your food chilled and store your water.
18. Pack a growler
If you like beer, bring a growler! Visiting local breweries is one of my favorite ways to learn about a place. Not only do I get to try new beers, I get to meet the locals.
You can bring a glass growler, or my personal favorite is the uKeg from GrowlerWerks. It’s pressurized, so you can fill it in Deadwood, South Dakota, and have delicious, still carbonated beer at Devils Tower, Wyoming.
19. Get grocery discount cards
Check into the grocery store chains where you’ll be and see if they have discount cards. It’s often worth the five minutes (or less) it takes to sign up. Some of them will have gas stations, too. That’s an easy way to save money on a road trip.
20. Eat out at lunch
If there’s a restaurant you want to check out that’s open for lunch, it’s often cheaper than it would be at dinner.
21. Find out where the locals eat
Locals know the best places, and they also know which are overpriced and which are reasonable. Ask the locals where they go out to eat.
22. Find happy hours
Happy Hours aren’t just for cocktails. Many have discounted appetizers and small plates. Check local publications to see if there are listings, or if there’s a restaurant or bar you know you want to visit, check its website or call ahead.
23. Plan meals so you won’t have leftovers
When you do eat out, servings can be HUGE. Leftovers can be a challenge to store and reheat, so consider sharing meals if you’re traveling with others or sticking with the appetizer or salad menu.
If I’m cooking my meals, I try to make extra for dinner and plan the next day’s lunch around it. For example, if I make chili over the campfire, there will be either chili dogs or a salad with chili for lunch the next day.
24. Stay in hotels with free breakfast
Staying at hotels and motels that provide free breakfast cuts out your expenses for one meal of the day. Just be sure that you’re not paying more for that hotel than you would if you stayed at another one and either got breakfast out or made your own.
25. Stay in hotels with kitchens
I’d mentioned staying in hotels with kitchens above. Most of the time these kitchenettes will consist of a refrigerator and freezer, a microwave, and a stovetop. They’ll also have pots, pans, and all the utensils.
26. Search on restaurant.com
Restaurant.com sells certificates at a discounted rate. For example, you can get a $10 certificate for just $4.
There are restrictions, of course. There’s almost always a minimum purchase required and they’re usually for dine-in only. They’re often restricted on the weekends, too, so make sure you read the fine print.
SAVE ON ACCOMMODATIONS
Besides eating, your accommodations can be the biggest expense of any road trip. Here’s how to cut back so you can save money on a road trip.
27. Go camping!
Part of the reason we camped sixteen out of thirty-five days on our Northwest road trip was because it is so much cheaper to pitch a tent and cook over a fire. Our most expensive campground was $35, and our cheapest was free.
If you’ve never camped before, I wouldn’t recommend trying it solely to save money on a road trip. See if you can borrow equipment from your camper friends first and test your interest at a local campground. If you like it, then you can get all the paraphernalia required.
Related: Best campgrounds in the Midwest
If, like many of my friends, you think camping is a hotel without room service, these other options will be more your speed.
If your dates are flexible, check TravelZoo first. They find deals all over the world.
You just plug in where you want to go and the number of people and search for their current deals. You can keep the dates open, or you can choose specific days.
Some deals are discounted rates, and others include add-ons, like parking or room service.
While you’re on the site, you can also find deals on attractions, shows, restaurants, and more.
If you’re really flexible and price is a big consideration, check Priceline Express Deals. This is a great option to search for where to stay on a budget.
You plug in where you’re going and when, and Priceline searches for deals up to 60% off.
The only catch is, you won’t know which hotel it is until you book it. However, you will see how many stars a hotel has, what brands of hotels are included in that category, how other travelers have rated it, and what kinds of amenities you can expect. It’s one of our favorite ways to save money on a road trip.
Groupon is known for discounted spa visits and attraction tickets, but they also have deals on travel and hotels. You can search by location or interests.
31. Earn points to save on future stays
No matter where you stay, find out if there’s a loyalty program and sign up for it. They’re usually free.
I sign up for all of them and if I can, book through Expedia. You can attach your loyalty numbers to your Expedia account. Plus, Expedia has its own rewards program.
As you book hotels, or flights, or cars, you’ll earn points. Expedia Rewards converts those into a dollar amount that can be used on future bookings. At the same time, you can be earning miles (or points or whatever they’re called) in other programs. It’s a win-win!
32. Skip big tourist areas
This is all about supply and demand. When more people want to stay in a place, there’s less availability and higher rates.
For example, a motel in Arco, Idaho, cost us less than $40, but a motel in Portland, Oregon, would have cost us $200. Fortunately, we found the last campsite on the coast on a strip of grass in an RV park (it was also the most expensive one of our trip!).
SAVE ON ATTRACTIONS, TICKETS, AND MORE
But wait, there’s more! Here are a few additional ways to save money on road trips.
In addition to getting paper maps and using their TripTik service to help plan your trip, AAA offers discounts at many hotels, attractions, rental car agencies, and restaurants. If you’re old enough (55+), AARP does as well. Both are great ways to save money on a road trip.
Roadtrippers is a cool tool that helps you plan your road trip, and Roadtrippers Plus, their premium service, offers special deals. The service is $29.99 a year, and we’ve got a special $5 off code: BTR5QTP.
Related: Here’s how to use Roadtrippers app and website.
35. National Parks Access Pass
If you’re planning on visiting United States National Parks, consider getting the Access Pass. For $80, you can visit every National Park property for one year for free. If you’re 62 or older, $80 will pay for a pass that’s valid for the rest of your life, or $20 for a pass that’s good for a year.
36. Get Your Guide
Get Your Guide is known the world over as a place to buy tickets for attractions, tours, and all sorts of sightseeing fun.
While the ticket prices aren’t necessarily discounted, you can see many of your options in one place and how they’ve been rated by verified users.
37. TripAdvisor & Viator
Another way to find multiple things to do based on your budget and user ratings is to use TripAdvisor.
They own Viator, so when you book directly through TripAdvisor, you’re booking through Viator. We tested it out on a visit to San Diego and it was easy-peasy.
38. Save on local theater and events with Goldstar
Goldstar is a service that offers discounted tickets, often at half the price or comped. They’re in cities all over the United States, including Wichita, Scottsdale, and all the major metropolitan cities like Chicago and San Diego.
Not only do they have discounts for theater, but you can also find cheap tickets to cruises, walking tours, and special events.
All-in-all, signing up with Goldstar is a great way to save money on tickets and attractions.
Want more road trip tips? Check out these 50 AMAZING Tips on Planning for a Road Trip + free e-book!
These tips are some of my favorite ways to save money on a road trip. What are your tips for road tripping on a budget? Let us know in the comments!