I’ve spent a good portion of my life traveling, but I’ve only been on a plane for twelve of those trips. That doesn’t mean I’ve only been on twelve trips…heck, I’ve moved more often than that!
But it does mean that most of my sojourns have been rubber to the road. Over the years, I’ve learned how to take road trips even on the tightest of budgets. From all my years of trial and error and applied learning, I bring you these road-wise tips to help you save during your summer travel adventures:
10 Budget Road Trip Tips
There are three main areas that are ripe for saving, plus an additional one if you have kids.
Save on Gas
- Consolidate grocery shopping for at least one month before your trip. If your local grocery store chain has a fuel rewards program, shop their deals and steals exclusively for all of your grocery trips for at least one month prior to your trip. (If your chain allows you to build up rewards over a longer period without them expiring, then consolidate that grocery shopping to one store for a longer period.) The discounts will add up, and you may even get a free tank of gas on your way out of town.The biggest caveat with this one is that grocery chains are regional. Aside from Costco, Sam’s Club, and Safeway Grocers, you’re probably not going to have an easy time finding a fuel rewards program that translates to nationwide discounts. But filling up that first tank at home for a steep discount is a huge help.
- Maximize your credit card rewards. After I finally got over my fear of credit cards, I took a few out for the rewards because I knew I could use them responsibly. I use these cards selectively based on their specific reward programs. For example, the PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card gives you 5x points every time you use it at the pump to put gas in your car. In this situation, PenFed’s card is way more advantageous than my other card that doubles points on every purchase. And it beats the heck out of my debit card–which gives nothing.
- Take a smaller car. If you have more than one car in your household, take the smallest one. While you may think bigger is better in terms of how much you can store for your trip, you’ll end up spending a whole lot more on gasoline as a result. Instead, pare down how much you’re packing. You probably don’t need the half of it, anyway.
- Avoid full-service gas stations. These are more common in rural areas, so if you’re from a metropolitan area, they’ll probably throw you off guard. At a full-service station , they’ll pump your gas for you, which is nice, except that it makes you a little bit of a jerk if you don’t tip. I’m all about tipping generously, but only for services I opt to purchase. If you stop at one on accident, you can avoid this problem by telling them you’ll pump your own gas.
- Print out your directions. This one won’t necessarily save you cash on gas, but it will save you money while you’re driving. It’s all too easy to become reliant on GPS in our day and age, but using the navigation tool on your phone over the course of a long trip will seriously mess with your data usage. You don’t want to come home to a $400 cell phone bill.Plus, printing out directions protects you from getting lost in the middle of nowhere. That happened to us last year on our way home from Myrtle Beach (because I remembered to print out directions for the way there, but forgot to print them for the way back.) We were in the middle of the Virginia mountains and decided to take a scenic detour around a massive highway construction project. Why not? We had our phones! Then our service cut out. In the middle of the Virginia mountains. It was not a quick or fun process figuring out how to get back on track so we could get home.If you don’t want to print, you can always use the download feature of Google Maps.
Save on Food
- Prepare so you don’t have to eat out. This may seem obvious, but the longer your road trip, the harder it is to keep up. A cooler can only keep food for so long. Pack a couple meals in it, but also don’t be afraid to stop and restock at grocery stores, instead of fast food restaurants. Not only will it be cheaper, but it will also be healthier. You can either re-up on cold cuts or get something out of their hot food section. Plus, if you’re using your PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card , you’ll get 3x points on grocery purchases.This is where I would use my phone. When you get off at an exit to get gas, see how close the closest grocery store is. If it’s ten minutes or less away, it’s worth the slight detour in my opinion.
Save on Accommodations
- Stay with friends and family. If you’re making a long trip, you likely have someone in your network that lives between point A and B. Contact those friends and family before your trip to see if they’d be okay with you staying for a night and catching up before you hit the road again. It may even be worth slightly adjusting your planned course if they live a little bit out of the way.
- Offset hotel costs with rewards points. Before I had kids, I’d stay in pretty rough hotels. Okay, motels. Now that I’m responsible for other people’s lives, I have higher standards. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still ways to save, though.If you don’t have anyone to stay with between point A and point B, but want to save without sleeping somewhere shady, use those rewards points you’ve been racking up with your credit card in step two. They can either get you a free stay or seriously reduce how much you pay depending on how many you’ve built up.
- Get more than one driver. And a designated talker. One time my friend and I took a road trip down to Nashville to visit our buddy. She was shocked that I was okay driving the whole way.“No, I’m seriously fine,” I told her. “I just need someone to talk to so I can stay awake.”Again, now that I have kids I’m a little more cautious. Tired driving can be equivalent to drunk driving; it’s nothing to mess around with. We try to have more than one driver as much as possible, and a designated talker to make sure the driver is capable of doing their job while their alternate sleeps.
The more drivers you have, the longer you can go without having to stop at a hotel, as long as everyone gets quality sleep between shifts.
- Consider camping out. No, you don’t have to rough it. Believe it or not, most campgrounds are going to have conveniences like real bathrooms and running water. You may even find shower facilities. If you’re not a tent kind of person, you can specifically plan on staying at campgrounds with cabins or yurts for added comfort. This option comes out much cheaper than a hotel, depending on how much you glamp it up. If you’re driving through Bureau of Land Management areas, you can even camp for free!
Bonus! For the parents.
- Make cheapie distraction bags. If you have young kids, a long car ride can feel even longer. Come prepared with lots of distractions. We have bags that we fill up anew once a day. It staves off boredom, and we always have something in stock in case we hit a tantrum when we refuse to buy them overpriced plastic souvenirs that will be broken in two hours. To see where we get our distraction bag stock for cheap, check out this post.
What are your budget road trip tips? Would love to hear them in the comment section!
This post is in collaboration with PenFed Credit Union.