Love Road Trips? How to Save Money While You Cruise the Country

A couple take a drive at sunset.
Getty Images

Sick of paying for parking when you’re in a big city? Get an oil change instead.

That’s what frugal duo Mike and Lauren did to save on parking fees in the Windy City. As reported on Lifehacker’s Two Cents blog, the couple was passing through Chicago on a road trip, and they wanted to park while they explored the city. But the idea of paying through the nose to have a place to leave their car turned them off.

So, they got smart. Rather than spending money on an all-day parking lot, they took their car to an auto shop and got an oil change. For $30 bucks, they had somewhere to leave their car all day and got a little car maintenance done at the same time.

We loved this hack so much, we thought we’d check out some other outside-the-box ideas for saving money on a road trip:

Do Your Own Tune-Up

If you’re the sort who likes to get your car checked out before hitting the road for a long trip, you could find yourself facing some big repair bills. When Mike and Lauren got their oil changed in Chicago, for instance, they were informed their car also needed new brakes. The mechanic’s quote to do the job? $374.

Rather than spending big bucks to have a pro do the work, they decided to learn how to change brakes themselves — and saved over $300.

Pack Your Own Snacks

Road trips are easy excuses to grab food on the go, but the more you can make at home and pack for the trip, the more you’ll save.

For instance, skip that start-the-trip visit to a fast-food joint or coffee shop by making this yummy breakfast sandwich suggested by Mike and Lauren, which is both cheaper and faster than hitting up the local drive-through.

Avoid ATM Fees

Grabbing money on the road can be a pain, especially when you’re having trouble finding an ATM for your bank in an unfamiliar city. With ATM fees recently climbing to record highs (a whopping $4.35 per transaction, on average), you’d do well to avoid other banks’ ATMs whenever possible.

Plan ahead by taking out enough cash to cover costs you can’t charge to your credit or debit card (such as some older parking meters). When you do need to hit up an ATM, withdraw more than you think you need so you won’t have to visit another one.

You can also check if your bank is a member of a no-fee ATM network such as AllPoint or Moneypass. If you’re a service member (or related to one), you may be eligible to sign up for an account with USAA, which will actually reimburse you up to $15 a month for fees incurred at other banks’ ATMs.

Or, if you’re driving up to Canada, avoid foreign transaction fees by signing up for one of these travel-friendly cards.

Earn Money While You’re Gone

Plan on being on the road for a week or more? Why not consider renting out your home (or a room in your home) while you’re away?

By listing your space on a site like Airbnb, you can earn money while you’re on the road — and if you rent for no more than 14 days each year, you don’t even have to report the income.

Skip the Hotel

If you’re traveling through decent weather or climates (this wouldn’t work in Colorado in the winter, for instance), consider foregoing the cushy hotels and camping out along your journey. Use some of these strategies to save money on camping. You’ll get a real feel for the areas you’re driving through, rather than sleeping in the same sterile hotel rooms in each state.

Your Turn: What are some of your favorite tips for saving money on road trips?

Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.