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OOO Travel

Hit the road for an unforgettable trip on a budget

  • 7-min read

With airline prices soaring, more Americans are opting to hit the highway instead. Here's how to save money on your next road trip.

CBS / Giphy

If you’ve looked to book a vacation lately, you know airfare prices are through the roof, and travelers are plagued by delays and lost bags. It’s enough to make you give up your vacation dreams and settle in to binge-watch “Love Island.” But don’t despair! Opt for a road trip instead. When you hit the road, you skip the hassles of flying, and your trip will cost less and be a lot less stressful. And isn’t that the point of vacations? Let us help you plan for a successful journey. 

Before you leave …

The first rule of any good vacation is to plan out the most important details. When you’re taking a road trip, have a rough outline of your destination and where you’d like to stop along the way. Before you hit the open road, make a budget, get your transportation lined up, and think about lodging and food.

Pro tip: If you don’t already belong to the American Automobile Association (AAA), consider signing up. Membership plans come with 24-hour roadside assistance, and you’ll get serious discounts on lodging, food, and entertainment. 

Make a budget

Not to be a downer, but never take a trip without a budget. Road trips should be less expensive than airline travel, but if you’re not mindful, costs can add up. Once you pick a route or destination, estimate how much money you have to spend on gas, food, lodging, and entertainment. It’s smart to build in an extra 15% to 20% for unexpected expenses. To craft a budget, use a road trip budget template

Take care of your ride

The most important element of a road trip is, of course, your mode of transportation. If you own a car, it’s a good idea to have it checked by a mechanic before you leave town. Be sure your oil and washer fluid are topped off and that your tires are correctly inflated. For you car-free city folks out there, you’ll need to rent a car. It’s usually less expensive to rent a car from an airport, rather than a city location. To save on rental cars, check rates with multiple car companies and sign up for their membership clubs. These programs are usually free and give you access to discounts, perks, and upgrades. 

Whatever you’re driving, throw an extra bottle of washer fluid in the trunk. You can thank me later.

Check your roadside assistance

You never plan on getting a flat tire or overheated engine, but things happen. If you have car trouble, it helps to have roadside assistance. These days, many new cars come with an assistance plan, as do some auto insurance plans and car rentals. If you have AAA, they’ll dispatch tow trucks or service assistance. Investigate your coverage and, if necessary, buy a plan before you leave home.

Download maps, in case you don’t have service

Last summer, while driving through Yellowstone National Park, I lost cell service—and access to my Google Maps route out of the park. Of course, this was 2021, so I didn’t have any paper maps in the glove box, and I just kept driving until I found a Park Ranger. By then, I’d driven almost two hours in the wrong direction. The point is, don’t be me. Before you leave home or your hotel, download maps and even take a screenshot of your route. That way, if you can’t connect to your favorite map app, you won’t get lost. While you’re at it, download some podcasts and music too, just in case your 5G goes dark. 

Fill your car with pre-bought snacks and drinks

A traveling truism: The more remote your location, the more you’ll pay for basic commodities. And your choices are a lot more limited, meaning you may not find your favorite Kind Bar or coconut water in a rural gas station in upstate New York.

To save money on a road trip and avoid paying $5 for a bag of Lay’s and beef jerky at a gas station, plan ahead. Fill a cooler with your favorite drinks (non-alcoholic of course) and some pre-cut fruit and veggies. Stock a tote bag with nonperishables such as pretzels, chips and protein bars, and make sure you have plenty of water.

Book ahead

We’ve all been there: After driving all day, you’re desperately searching for a place to sleep, but everything is either full or no place you’d lay your head. To avoid that, plot out your stops in advance and look for deals. Many hotels offer free loyalty programs with access to discounted rates. Your credit card may also give you preferential rates or an upgrade. Check Groupon for specials too.  

Another option is to sign up for an AARP card. Yes, you read that correctly.

AARP isn’t just for seniors. In fact, there’s no minimum age to join and, for $12 a year, you get access to serious discounts. If you’re a AAA member, be sure to check for those discounts too.

On the road

Once you’re on the open road with the wind in your hair, you still need to watch the bottom line. Gas and hotels get expensive, with extras you might not have considered, including tolls, snacks, and souvenirs. But don’t despair. You can still save money if you get organized in advance.

Maximize your money at the gas station

There’s no easy way to say it: Gas is expensive. In California, expect to pay more than $6 per gallon, while in many other states and metro areas, gas prices average between $4 and $5 per gallon. If your car has a 15-gallon tank and gas costs $5 per gallon where you live, you’ll spend $75 per fill up. If you’re taking a long road trip, those costs add up. 

To save on gas, Google “cheapest gas near me” or check free gas apps like GasBuddy. Also, sign up for large gas station chains’ rewards programs, which can shave off several cents per gallon. If your credit card gives you reward points for gas purchases, use that card and at least you’ll get something back. 

Save on toll fares

Tolls are getting more expensive nationwide. Since we all like to avoid traffic and travel in the fast lane, it’s a good idea to sign up for toll programs in advance, such as Florida’s SunPass or the multi-state EZPass, which works in 17 states across the Northeast and Midwest. With those transponders in hand, you’ll soar through tolls, and the charges go directly to your credit card. It can also save you money. EZPass offers discounts over cash tolls, including 30% off on New York State Thruway charges and 60% off tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Find the nearest grocery store

When you’ve polished off your provisions from home, resist the temptation to pull into the nearest convenience store. You’ll pay a premium, and they probably won’t have the things you want. Instead, look for the nearest grocery stores. Maybe you’ll score and find a Trader Joe’s nearby. Either way, you’ll save money on food and have more choices. Don’t worry, you can still buy Twizzlers and beef jerky. No one is judging.

Save on hotels or book with rewards  

If you don’t want to commit to an itinerary in advance, you can still save on lodging on the fly. When you get close to your destination, look online for last-minute deals from major hotel brands. If you belong to their loyalty programs, AARP, or AAA, you’ll have access to discounted rates. If you have credit card reward points, consider cashing them for a free hotel stay.  

Get your motor running

While Europe may be out of reach this year, you can still have an amazing adventure without leaving the country. You might not even leave your state. The point is, road trips can be exciting and reinvigorating. With advance planning, you can save on a road trip. So pull out a map (ok, open up a map app) and start thinking about places you’ll go. Whether it’s the beach, the mountains, or a city, make your plan and get going. The open road is calling.