37 Road Trip Tips for Your Next Budget Vacation
Cruising down the open road is a great way to get away from it all.
Taking a road trip can be a cost-effective way to travel too — that is, if you do it right. Even with gas prices what they are, driving is still cheaper than flying in most cases and especially for families.
If you’re planning a road trip, be sure to take advantage of gas rewards programs. Of course, these savings opportunities are dependent on the destination and how far you travel.
The costs you’ll encounter on a road trip tend to sneak up on you, unlike the upfront sticker shock of a plane ticket. But no worries — there’s a lot you can do to save money on a road trip.
37 Cost-Saving Road Trip Tips
1. Consider Road Tripping With a Friend or Two
Traveling solo has its benefits, like not putting up with someone else’s music for hours on end. But taking a road trip with others means you’ll have someone to split expenses like gas and lodging.
You can literally cut your costs in half by road tripping with a friend. It’ll also make the driving more bearable. Just make sure it’s someone you can tolerate being cooped up with for a long period of time.
Also, discuss expectations for the road trip ahead of time so you’re both on the same page. You don’t want to wait until you’re on the road to discover that your travel companion prefers staying in nice hotels and visiting museums in each city rather than camping and going on hikes. Those are two very different types of trips with two vastly different budgets.
2. Set — and Stick to — a Budget
Part of the joy of hitting the open road is that feeling of freedom and planning ahead to set a budget can seem antithetical. But you’ll be glad you did when you’re on your way home and you haven’t spent extra cash.
The main expenses you’ll encounter will include:
You’ll also want to put money aside for parking, tolls, souvenirs and other miscellaneous things that will come up.
3. Do Your Own Car Maintenance
Before you hit the road, make sure your car is in tip-top shape for the journey ahead — and back. Getting a tune-up from a trusted mechanic is great, but if you’re able to do the labor yourself, you can save some cash.
Don’t forget to check the condition of your spare tire and make sure you have the tools you’ll need to change a flat tire. Watch online auto repair videos before your trip for pointers on how to change a tire or do your own oil change.
4. Have a Roadside Emergency Kit
Even if you’re a super cautious driver, you can’t predict what might happen while on the road. Your emergency kit should include the following items:
- Jumper cables or a car battery charger
- Flares or reflective cones
- A cell phone charger
- A flashlight with extra batteries
- A basic tool kit
- A first aid kit
- A blanket
- Water and snacks
It’s also not a bad idea to make sure you have the owner’s manual for your car on hand.
5. Make Sure You Have a Roadside Assistance Service
If your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere or you get into an accident, your emergency kit will only take you so far. That’s why it’s beneficial to have a roadside rescue service.
Before you sign up for a new membership service, like AAA, check to see if you currently have roadside assistance through a service like OnStar or your car insurance. If you’re renting a car, the rental car company may offer roadside assistance service as an add-on.
6. Have a Plan Mapped Out
You don’t have to have everything planned out to the minute — after all, you want to be able to make a spontaneous detour when you see a billboard for a quirky roadside attraction. (Those unexpected stops can be the best part of road trips.)
However, it’s good to plan ahead so you have a general idea of where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. That way you can budget for the trip and give yourself time to save up to cover the costs.
Since plans may shift while you’re on the road, you should make sure you know the cancellation policies for hotels, Airbnbs or campsites you reserved ahead of time — or tickets you booked.
7. Download a Road Trip Planning App
Speaking of planning, sometimes the forethought stage of the trip can be almost as rewarding as the actual experience — almost.
To help you plan, download a free road trip planning app like Roadtrippers, which allows you to save your favorite places, find historic locations on your route and layer categories like “breweries near hotels.”
If you’re sticking to one area of the United States, the quirky Roadside America app is only $3.99 for a la carte regions. With this app, you can discover all the weird, one-of-a-kind roadside attractions you’ll be talking about for years.
8. Choose a Destination You Can Get to On a Tank of Gas
The closer your destination, the less money you’ll spend on your road trip. If you’re just itching to get away and aren’t after a cross country journey, select a destination within a day’s drive and hit the road.
9. Save Money on Gas
Fuel will be a significant chunk of your road trip expenses. Some tips to save money on gas:
- Check price comparison apps like GasBuddy.
- Use a fuel rewards credit card, gas rewards programs and grocery fuel rewards programs.
- Choose regular-grade gas rather than the premium option.
- Opt to fill up in small towns instead of at gas stations right off the highway or in big cities.
- Make sure your tire pressure is where it needs to be and have a good seal on your gas cap.
- Keep your speed steady as opposed to accelerating often.
10. Use Cruise Control
Staying at a steady speed increases fuel efficiency. Plus, using cruise control can help you avoid speeding tickets — a surefire way to blow your road trip budget.
11. Take Full Advantage of Your Navigation System
Your navigation system doesn’t just tell you how to get to your final destination. You can use it to alert you to tolls — or help you avoid them — and to find alternate routes to bypass congestion on the road.
12. Drive During Off Peak Hours
You can save money on gas by maintaining that sweet spot speed and not idling in traffic. Plan to get the bulk of your driving in between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. or — if you’re a morning person or a night owl — before 6 a.m. or after 7 p.m.
13. Download Maps
Cell service can be spotty on road trips, so if you’re relying on Google Maps or another navigation app like Waze, it’s a great idea to download the map to your destination so you can still get around while you’re offline.
Maps.me is another option that lets you download maps. Of course, you could also use a paper map but how many people carry them around these days?
14. Have All Your Key Documents
Make sure you have all your important documents with you, including your license, passport (if driving across country borders), registration, proof of insurance and roadside assistance information. Also, make sure everything is up-to-date and easy to access in the car.
This may sound like an obvious travel tip and not necessarily something that’ll save you money. However, you’ll avoid a pricey traffic ticket if you get pulled over only to realize your license has expired or you didn’t renew your registration.
15. Entertain the Kids With Free Road Trip Apps
You don’t need to invest in a portable DVD player or buy a bunch of new toys to keep the little ones entertained during a long road trip. These 11 free apps for kids are a great solution to keep them distracted.
16. Go Screen Free
If you’re looking for some time to connect with a travel buddy or your family without the interference of screens, you can create your own fun by playing classic road trip games.
Before you leave, write down the titles and rules of a handful of games and pick one out of a hat. Games aren’t just for kids!
17. Download Audiobooks and Podcasts
After a while, you’ll want to switch things up from listening to the same songs on your phone or whatever is playing on local radio.
There are many options to score free or cheap audiobooks — including your local library. If you’re signing up for a new platform, however, make sure to take advantage of free trials. Just don’t forget to cancel your trial later if you don’t want to be charged.
And if you want to check out a personal finance podcast while you’re on the road, we’ve got a few recommendations.
18. Pack Effectively for Your Entire Trip
You can’t bring your whole closet with you, but make sure you’re bringing all the essentials so you don’t end up needing to buy clothes or gear on the road.
For example, if you’re traveling to a cooler climate, make sure you pack a jacket. If you’re going somewhere rainy, bring an umbrella. If you’re heading to the coast, remember to take a bathing suit. And while you may be able to rewear the same jeans or hoodie for multiple days before washing, packing extra underwear is always a good idea.
But if space is tight or you prefer to travel light, remember you can wash out essentials in the hotel sink, or even a bowl if you’re camping. Hang dry and you have clean, fresh clothes.
19. Bring Your Own Snacks
Convenience store snacks add up quick. Avoid this expense by bringing your own goodies with you.
You can purchase your favorite snacks in bulk to save money and separate them into individual resealable bags. Make sure to include some healthier options, so you’ve not surviving off cheese puffs and chips the entire time. If you bring a cooler, you can take snacks like grapes and carrot sticks.
20. Bring Your Own Drinks
There’s no reason to spend $2 for a bottle of water at a gas station. Bring bottled water, filtered water bottles or your favorite drink of choice, so you stay hydrated for less.
Powdered drink packets, instant coffee and tea bags also come in handy during road trips. Many restaurants don’t charge for a mug of hot water, or you could travel with an electric tea kettle.
While we’re on the subject of drinks, throw your own booze in the trunk and cut down on bar costs. Instead of imbibing fancy — and pricey — cocktails or craft IPAs at the bar or brewery, enjoy your own libations while watching the sunset at a campsite or at an outdoor space at your hotel.
22. Make Your Own Meals
Just because you’re away from home doesn’t mean every meal has to come from a restaurant. You’ll cut down on your expenses significantly if you look for freebies like breakfast included with your stay and bring groceries for some meals.
There’s more you can cook over a campfire than just hot dogs and s’mores. Some campsites and parks have access to grills. If you’re staying in a motel, you might have a microwave and mini fridge. Or your digs may include a small kitchenette or full kitchen if you’re staying in a nice hotel or a house.
23. Save on Restaurant Meals
Just like when you’re at home, there are going to be times on your vacation when you just don’t feel like cooking. Here are a few strategies to keep costs low when dining out:
- Go during breakfast or lunch instead of dinner.
- Take advantage of happy hours or other specials.
- Order appetizers rather than entrees.
- Use coupons or search for deals on Groupon.
- Get your order to go to avoid upselling temptations.
- Sign up for the restaurant’s app or loyalty program to get special offers and discounts.
- Eat like a local and seek out less touristy — and less expensive — meals.
24. Let This Free App Save You $340/Year on Gas and Food
It’s no secret that the cost of living is on the rise — especially when it comes to everyday expenses like groceries, dining and gas.
But an app called Upside can help you earn real cash back every time you dine or fill your tank — to the tune of $340 per year for frequent users.
The Upside app uses a map feature to show you local gas stations where you can beat the pump price by as much as 25 cents per gallon. Regular users earn an average of $106 per year on gas alone.
On top of that, Upside can help you earn an additional $234 each year with cashback offers at thousands of restaurants and grocery stores, making your everyday expenses even more manageable.
Just download the Upside app and create a free account, then browse the map to find participating locations. Claim an offer, pay normally with the physical card that’s also linked to your Upside account and follow any additional steps in the app
Upside will keep track of all your cash-back earnings. You can cash out any time via your bank or PayPal account, or exchange them for a gift card for brands like Starbucks and Amazon. You’ll get your money in two days or less.
Join the millions of people who earn more than $300 annually just for buying what they need. Download the Upside app to get started — it’s completely free, and gets you cash back at more than 50,000 businesses.
25. Avoid ATM Fees
It’s smart to have some cash on hand during road trips in case you go any places that only accept cash or tack on a fee to use a debit or credit card. Make sure you have enough cash before you leave town (and don’t forget a couple rolls of quarters for tolls or doing laundry).
You can avoid ATM fees if your bank is part of an ATM-network, like MoneyPass or Allpoint, where you can use other institutions’ ATMs without a surcharge. You’ll also want to notify your bank that you’ll be traveling so they won’t freeze your account due to suspicious activity.
Another way to get around ATM fees is to get cash back when making purchases at stores with your debit card.
26. Don’t Overpay for Parking
Parking downtown in a major city can get pricey. To cut costs on parking:
- Use a parking app like BestParking or SpotHero.
- Leave your vehicle at a park-and-ride for free and taking public transportation to get to the city center.
- Compare the price of parking with the cost for a ride share.
- Set an alarm on your phone so you don’t end up parking past your allotted time and paying more.
27. Go Camping
You’ll save money by sleeping under the stars rather than staying at a four-star hotel — especially if you’ve got camping gear or can borrow some from a friend. If you can find a free campsite, that’s even better.
You’ll keep your camping stay below budget by checking for discounts, timing your trip to avoid the busy season and skipping the on-site camp store.
28. Skip the Camping Gear and Hotel Costs
If you have an SUV or minivan with seats that fold down, you can make a comfy place to sleep with blankets and pillows. As long as the weather is nice, you can enjoy the low price of campgrounds without actually sleeping on the ground.
29. Buy a National Parks Pass
If you plan to camp at or visit a few national parks throughout your road trip, you can save money with an annual pass. A national parks pass costs $80 but you’ll avoid paying entrance fees at multiple parks and it’s good for the whole year.
An senior pass is only $20 for the year or $80 for lifetime access. There are also free passes for military members, veterans, fourth-graders, people with disabilities and volunteers.
You can also save money at national parks by going during free days throughout the year or visiting parks that don’t charge admission.
30. Couch Surf
Skip lodging costs altogether by crashing on a friend or family member’s couch. If you don’t know anyone you can stay with, you can connect with people on the Couchsurfing app.
31. Get Free Lodging Through WWOOF
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, is an exchange program where you volunteer to work on farms in exchange for free room and board. If you don’t mind engaging in a little manual labor during your road trip, you can cut costs on lodging.
32. Join an RV Club
Enjoy deals on campgrounds, fuel and more when you join an RV club. If you’re taking a recreational vehicle on a road trip, there are several discount RV clubs that may work for you.
33. Don’t Overspend at Hotels
While you’ll spend more at hotels than camping or couch surfing, you can still find ways to stay for less. To save money on hotels:
- Compare costs on sites like Kayak, Travelocity or Booking.com.
- Download the HotelTonight app for last-minute deals.
- Join a hotel chain’s loyalty program.
- Take advantage of your credit cards rewards points.
- Stay at a hotel outside the city center for cheaper rates.
34. Engage in Free Fun
Keep your trip entertainment expenses low by finding free things to do throughout your trip rather than getting sucked into expensive tourist traps.
Local publications and tourism bureaus are a great source for discovering free happenings in the places you stop.
35. Turn Up the Activity and Turn Down the Cost
Hiking and biking are good options if you want to keep active (and you’ve got a bike rack for your vehicle). If you have kids, hit up a playground or set up a picnic in the park.
If you like to walk but aren’t really a nature lover, take up urban hiking as a way to explore cities for free. Urban hiking is a great way to take in architecture and really get a feel for a city.
36. Skip the Guided Tours
Save money when exploring a new city by fashioning your own tour rather than paying a tour guide to show you around. Do a little research before you go to create a list of places you want to see. You could also crowdsource recommendations via social media or download a walking tour app like GPSmyCity.
37. Make Your Own Souvenirs
It’s nice to grab a few mementos to remember your trip. They don’t have to all come from pricey gift shops though.
Photos make the perfect free souvenirs. You can create your own digital album or photo slideshow — or you can have your pictures printed out later.
You can also save items like guidebooks, ticket stubs or restaurant to-go menus so you can make a scrapbook. If you’re buying souvenirs from a gift shop, you might want to opt for something like postcards or bumper stickers rather than a snowglobe or sweatshirt if you’re trying to keep costs low.
Nicole Dow is a former senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Contributor Veronica Matthews writes on lifestyle topics from North Carolina.