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How to save money on your next summer road trip

woman wearing rolled up jeans sticks her feet out of the car window while on road trip
June 08, 2017

By Maggie Jenkins

Summer is here and the time is right for a road trip.

Packing up the family truckster can be a fun, budget-friendly alternative to a big-ticket vacation abroad (though, if that’s your thing, you can definitely find ways to stick to your budget while traveling internationally).

It’s still important to be mindful of your spending, otherwise the costs for your once-thrifty road trip can start to add up. We’ve put together some cheap road trip tips to help you save money on the four major cost categories for your next highway getaway.

Food

  • Pack your own snacks and drinks for the car, and even enjoy a picnic lunch at a rest area or park during one of your pit stops. Gas station goodies and fast food fare, while convenient, aren’t the most economical. 
  • If you absolutely must splurge on a gas station soda, opt for a fountain drink; they’re much cheaper than the plastic bottled variety.
  • Seek out coupons (or Groupons) for dining options around your final destination.

Gas

  • Before you hit the road, get a tuneup and make sure your tires are properly inflated. This can save you on gas money, and it will help provide peace of mind that your car can handle the miles ahead of you.
  • Pack as light as possible – the added weight can decrease your miles per gallon – and map your route in advance so you don’t waste time, energy and/or money getting lost. Need some help? Check out AAA’s TripTik travel planner. (As a backup, you might want to bring a good old fashioned paper map, especially if you’re traveling in rural areas where cell/GPS coverage can be spotty.)
  • Find the cheapest gas options with the GasBuddy app and avoid refueling in city centers where prices are almost always higher.
  • Watch out for lead foot syndrome. According to the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, cars reach the best fuel economy at 60 miles per hour. (They also estimate that every 5 miles per hour over 60 mph costs an additional 26 cents per gallon.) Use cruise control on the highway to help maintain a consistent speed.

Lodging

  • If you’ll need to make an overnight stop en route to your final destination, find hotel deals before you leave rather than leaving it up to chance wherever you stop. Look for hotels with flexible cancellation policies (because you just never know), and if you’re traveling with a four-legged friend, make sure the hotel has a pet-friendly policy.
  • If you’re in a pinch and need a last-minute hotel, use an app like HotelTonight or Booking Now to find discounted day-of accommodations.
  • It’s summer, so why not forgo hotels altogether and find a scenic spot to camp? Or, you can look at Airbnb or VRBO options.
  • Oh, and don’t forget about parking! For example, driving to Chicago can be a great, relatively easy road trip from many places in the Midwest, but downtown hotels and certain Airbnb neighborhoods can gouge you on the parking prices.

Entertainment

  • Find free activities. The options abound: state and national parks, beaches, tourist attractions that don’t charge admission, etc.
  • In the summer, there are plenty of art shows, festivals and community concerts to choose from almost anywhere you travel.
  • If you’re planning to splurge on some paid excursions, do research beforehand and try to find deals like multi-museum passes or theme park admission coupons.

Maggie Jenkins is the PR and Social Media Specialist at Alliant. She began her career as a sports journalist for newspapers in Utica, N.Y., Des Moines and Cincinnati before moving to Chicago in 2009. Maggie is a six-time Chicago Marathon finisher and a lifelong creative writer with a passion for comedy. Her mom instilled in her a great sense of fiscal responsibility, and her big sister told her to throw that responsibility out the window every once in a while in the name of life experience. So far, that combination of financial advice has worked out pretty well for her.