25 Ways to Cut Costs on a Road Trip

By Diana Kelly Levey · April 24, 2023 · 11 minute read

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25 Ways to Cut Costs on a Road Trip

Summer is full of simple pleasures: baseball games, barbecues, beach reads, and that great American classic, the road trip. Whether you are heading to a national park or a local lake, on a wine-tasting getaway, an antiquing jaunt, or just to hang with your college roommate, a road trip can be exciting, easily wrangled, and spontaneous.

But if you’re wondering how to save money on a road trip, a little bit of planning can go a long way to keep costs under control.

Learn how to minimize expenses when you head out on a summer road trip, from deciding which vehicle to use, where to get gas, how to eat on the road, and more. Here, 25 easy ideas for road tripping on the cheap.

1. Choose a Fuel-Efficient Car

If you have a choice of cars to take, you may want to go with one that is large enough to be comfortable but also gives you the best gas mileage. This is true whether you are using your own wheels or renting a car.

You can use FuelEconomy.gov’s Trip Calculator to determine which car will cost you the least in gas. This tool helps estimate fuel consumption and how much it will cost for a particular route using a specific car.

2. Drive at or Below the Speed Limit

This cautionary measure can help you save money in two ways. For one, you’ll be less likely to get pulled over and slapped with an expensive speeding ticket.

For another, observing the speed limit can actually reduce your gas consumption. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can save 18 cents a gallon on highways for every five miles per hour you slow down.

3. Pack Your Car Wisely

You can also cut your gas costs by placing items inside the car or trunk rather than piling them on your roof. By reducing drag, this tactic can increase your fuel economy by as much as 25% on highways according to one benchmark study.

If you’re out of room in the car, using a rear-mounted cargo box or tray instead of a roof rack can improve your fuel economy by up to 9%.

4. Set a Road Trip Budget

When you first start talking about the road trip, you may want to roughly map out where you want to go, how long it’ll take to get there, and if you’ll need hotels or motels. From there, you can calculate the approximate cost of gas (FuelEconomy.gov can help) and tolls (try Tollsmart ), as well as food and fun.

Once you’ve established an overall budget for the trip, you start creating a travel fund.

5. Bring Your Own Food and Supplies

Packing a cooler with water bottles, drinks, hand-held snacks, and sandwiches before leaving home is a proven frugal traveler trick. You can end up saving a sizable chunk of cash by not having to buy drinks and snacks at rest stops, vending machines, and drive-throughs.

You’ll also have a quick solution the next time someone in the car wants to pull over because they’re hungry.

6. Sign up for an Electronic Toll Account

Depending on which state(s) you are traveling through, you may be able to save a fair amount of money on tolls by getting the region-appropriate quick pass (or transponder) for your car. In New York, for example, drivers with EZ-Pass can save about 30% on tolls.

7. Avoid Tolls Altogether

When your road trip isn’t on any set schedule, you may want to take the scenic route and completely avoid tolls. You can do this by setting your GPS app to “avoid tolls.”

If you’re in a location with pricey bridges and highways, your savings could really add up. You may want to make sure, however, that avoiding tolls doesn’t take you so far out of your way that you’re spending a lot more on gas.

8. Look for Hotels that Offer Free Breakfasts

If you’re comparing lodging options in a similar price and quality range, one way to save on hotel costs and on road trip expenses in general is to choose the hotel with a free breakfast.

Not only will you probably get a large, filling meal, but you might even be able to take a piece of fruit or cereal box as a snack for later on in the trip.

9. Pack Reusable Water Bottles for Everyone

You’ll no doubt get thirsty while driving and sightseeing, especially in summer, and buying water or drinks can put a major dent in your road trip budget.

Making sure everyone in the car has a large reusable water bottle (or two) to fill up at rest stops and in restaurants can help you avoid spending money on drinks, and also create less plastic waste.

10. Buy a National Park Pass

If you’re going to be road-tripping across the U.S. and visiting a few national parks, you may want to consider getting an America the Beautiful pass.

The pass (which costs $80 per year and $20 for seniors) covers entrance, standard amenity, and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle (up to 4 adults) at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites.

Just remember that summer is primetime for many parks, from Yosemite in California to Acadia in Maine. If you need lodging, book early.

11. Hit the Grocery Store

Once you’ve run out of your cooler meals and snacks, consider re-stocking at a local grocery store while en route so you don’t have to resort to fast food or a pricey local restaurant for the rest of your trip.

This is also a good strategy if you’re going to be staying at a hotel for a few nights. Making good use of a hotel kitchenette and fridge can help you avoid having to eat out for every single meal.

12. Pre-Book Your Hotels

Spontaneity is great, but if you’re looking to save money on accommodations, it can be wiser to book ahead of time and stick to your plan. You can often secure a better rate by booking in advance (and online), than by showing up without a reservation or booking last minute.

13. Look Beyond Hotels

Your first thought when looking for roadside accommodation may be cheap hotels or motels. But you sometimes find a better deal (or a nicer option for the same price) using a home rental site, such as Airbnb, VRBO, or FlipKey, especially if you’re staying for more than one night.

When booking lodging, it can be smart to use a travel credit card or a cash back rewards credit card, since every swipe can help you earn points, miles, or cash back that you might apply to future trips.

14. Plan to Visit Free Attractions

Part of the fun of a road trip is to enjoy the journey and scenery while en route to your final destination.

As you travel (or before you go), you may want to research free attractions, such as a hike, walk on a beach, or a free museum, on your route for times when you need to stretch and take a driving break.

You can also look for festivals and local events by checking out the online events calendar for the towns you’ll be visiting that day. You might also check out Meetup.com and see what kinds of local groups are gathering for experiences and outings.

15. Plan Gas Stops in Advance

Getting stuck in a big city with the tank close to empty can be costly (and driving in circles looking for a gas station when you’re en route to the beach is no fun either). To avoid overpriced gas, you may want to use a gas app like Gas Guru or GasBuddy, which can help you compare prices and find affordable gas no matter where you are. This hack is an easy way to lower your gas costs.

16. Set a Daily Spending Limit

You can use your overall budget to get a rough idea of how much you can spend on the road trip each day. This can help you avoid blowing the money you’ve saved, wherever you may keep your travel fund, before the end of the trip.

A spending plan can also let you know when you can splurge a bit and when you’ll have to reign it in with a meal, activity, or lodging. You may also want to set aside some of your budget for the unexpected, such as the car getting a flat and needing to be towed, or discovering the cheap hotel you planned to stay in is actually a total dump. Also factor in some summer road-trip treats: You’re likely to be stopping for ice cream here and there and maybe even a lobster roll.

17. Entertain the Kids on the Cheap

Road trips can help you afford a family vacation since you sidestep pricey plane tickets. But remember that kids have a tendency to get bored, tired, and antsy on a road trip. To avoid giving in to impulse toy purchases, you may want to bring along their favorite toys and also pick up a variety of new ones at the dollar store before you leave.

Good choices include coloring books and games they can play in the car that won’t create a mess. You might also consider borrowing audio books or DVDs from the library to give yourself an hour or so of peace and quiet.

18. Search Online for Local Coupons and Passes

It can be worthwhile to research online coupons and discount codes for local attractions and restaurants at some of your scheduled stops.

Consider checking Groupon or LivingSocial for deals and steals. Sometimes booking online ahead of time saves you money, and it’ll give you a reason to try to reach a specific destination by a certain day.

19. Save on Alcohol

Sipping a cold beer or glass of wine at a local bar at the end of your long drive might sound like the perfect way to unwind.

But alcohol costs can quickly add up on a road trip vacation. Consider buying a few local beers or a small bottle of wine that’s native to that area to enjoy in your hotel room. You’ll save money on tipping too.

20. Volunteer at a Festival

Yes, you read that correctly. Some festivals and special events offer discounts or free admission to volunteers. You can look up events taking place in the town you’ll be visiting and reach out to the event organizer to see if they need help. Summer is full of events like these, from concerts to craft fairs to food festivals.

21. Sign up for a AAA Membership

An auto club like AAA can save you time, money, and hassle should you run into car trouble during your trip. What’s more, a membership (often starting at around $5 a month) gives you access to discounts at loads of hotels, restaurants, and many retailers nationwide.

22. Travel During the Off-Season

Yes, summer can be the most welcoming time of the year to hop behind the wheel. But visiting national parks when kids are back in school can often help save money on lodging and activities. Planning a road trip to a destination like Disney World or Disneyland? You’ll likely find better deals if it’s not during a spring break or other school vacation.

You can often also save money by visiting warm weather locations during “shoulder seasons.” This is the period in between a destination’s low and high seasons of tourism, when prices for hotels tend to be lower, and crowds tend to be smaller, at popular attractions.

23. Do Some Camping

Outdoorsy road trippers might enjoy setting up a tent at a free or low-cost public campsite. You can find out more on the Bureau of Land Management site.

This can end up saving you a lot of money on hotel costs, provided you don’t go out and buy a lot of expensive camping equipment.

If you don’t have any camping gear, you may want to consider renting equipment from an outdoor specialty store or asking a friend who regularly goes camping if you can borrow their equipment. As noted above, summer can be prime time for basking in some of America’s natural beauty, so book your campsite early.

24. Eat Out for Lunch Instead of Dinner

If there are special restaurants you want to try without breaking the bank, consider going there for lunch. You might get a slightly smaller portion than you would if you ordered it off the dinner menu, but the price will likely be more affordable.

25. Take Advantage of Loyalty Programs

Booking with the same hotel chain as often as possible and signing up for their member loyalty (or “points”) program may net you a free night after a few stays.

Travel booking services, such as Expedia, Travelocity, or Hotels.com, may also offer discounted rates and free nights for loyal customers.

Recommended: Getting the Most Out of Credit Card Rewards

The Takeaway

Planning a summer vacation? A car trip might sound much more affordable than traveling by plane. However, gas, food, and accommodations can add up.

One of the best ways to cut road trip expenses is to plan out your trip and research deals, coupons, and discounts ahead of time. Packing wisely and loading up on drinks, snacks, toys, and activities can also help cut costs once you’re out on the road.

Ready to start planning and saving for your next road trip? Consider signing up for a SoFi Checking and Savings® account.

SoFi Checking and Savings has a special “vaults” feature that allows you to separate your savings from your spending, while earning competitive annual percentage yield (APY) on all of your money and paying no account fees. You can even set up a separate vault for your travel fund.

SoFi Checking and Savings: The smart, simple way to save for your next trip.

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