Road Trip: Saving on Highway Travel

Summer’s coming and that means vacation time! With gas prices lower than they have been in the last few years and with airlines gouging you for everything from extra bags to nuts, many people are hitting the highways this year. While road trips are typically less expensive than other forms of travel, there are some ways to lower those costs even further.

Don’t overpack: You may not have to pay for every bag you bring with you, as you would on an airline, but extra and overweight luggage can still cost you if you drive. That’s because extra weight in your car decreases your fuel efficiency. The heavier the load, the harder the engine has to work so more fuel is required. The lighter the load, the higher your MPG. So leave the extras at home and take only what you need.

Give your car a checkup before you leave: Make sure tires are properly inflated to prevent blowouts, flats, and loss of fuel economy. Do an oil and filter change to make certain you’re operating at peak efficiency. Dirty oil and filters make the engine work harder, costing you in fuel. Check the brakes, wipers, and wiper fluid. You don’t want to find out on a rainy day that your wipers don’t work and your brakes are worn out. Check belts and hoses and replace as needed. Repairs on the road can be costly; it’s often cheaper to do these things yourself before you leave home. Basic maintenance is a matter of both cost cutting and personal safety.

Use the cruise control: Keeping a constant speed increases your MPG and reduces your risk of a costly ticket.

Look into the benefits of a roadside assistance program like AAA: If you have a breakdown, towing or repair service can be very expensive. Programs like AAA will defray the cost of towing, flat repair, and gasoline (should you run out). AAA also offers hotel, merchandise and ticket discounts that may offset your cost of membership.

Pack a cooler of snacks: It’s cheaper to buy drinks and snacks ahead of time and pack them than it is to stop at gas stations and convenience stores. If your trip involves multiple nights, simply get more ice for the cooler from your hotel’s vending machine before you head out the next morning. If you can’t take a cooler, stop for snacks at a grocery store rather than a gas station or mini-mart. Grocery prices are much cheaper than convenience stores.

Avoid rush hour: Nothing wastes fuel faster (and frays tempers) than sitting in rush hour traffic. If your route takes you through major cities, plan to avoid rush hour. If you don’t make it, pull over at a rest area or restaurant, eat, nap, and wait it out.

Eat at a grocery store: Fast food can get expensive but many grocery stores now offer salads, “fill a box” type meals from the deli, or even hot cooked meals with sides for a lot less than restaurants charge.

Look for cheap gas: Sites like are great at showing you where the cheapest gas is to be found along your route. No sense paying more than you have to.

Plan your route ahead of time: Take some time to put your trip into MapQuest or look at an atlas to determine the fastest, most economical route. If you belong to AAA, their TripTik service is great at finding the shortest distance and advising you of construction delays. Also, visit the DOT sites of the states you’ll be traveling through. Most have up to date information on road closures and construction projects.

Look for coupons: Most rest areas have coupon books for the local area. You can find some great deals on food and hotels. Some welcome centers even have booking services that can save you some money on overnight accommodations. This is also a great place to score discounts on local attractions.

Know about toll roads: If your trip takes you along toll roads, either plan to avoid those roads or save up some change ahead of time. Nothing is more frustrating than being surprised by miles of tolls and watching your vacation money disappear into the change slot.

Pack entertainment from home: Bring along the portable DVD player and movies, as well as books or audio books (these are also good on overnights in hotels when there’s nothing on TV). If the kids have portable game stations, pack ‘em to avoid the “are we there yet’s.” You can also play group games like Punch Buggy or license plate bingo to pass the time. Other entertainment options like coloring books, cards, pocket games, etc. are also good, and generally cheaper at home than purchased at a souvenir stand.

Carry your coupons with you: If you shop with coupons at home, carry the binder or folder with you. I can’t count the number of times we stopped at a grocery store or restaurant and I said, “Oh, I have a coupon for that. At home.” Now I carry my coupon binder with me and I’m always ready to save.

Consider renting a car for the trip: If you can find a good deal on a rental, you may actually save some money by sparing your regular car the wear and tear of a long journey. A plus: If the rental conks out on you it’s not your problem to fix it. Simply call the rental company and they will bring you a new car and haul away the broken one.

Be safe and smart: Tickets, accidents, and breakdowns can add huge sums to the cost of a road trip. You may not be able to avoid all problems, but exercising caution, watching your speed/obeying all traffic laws, and keeping the car well maintained will go a long way toward avoiding these budget busters.

Road trips are lost of fun and they can be very economical. You can take the simple steps outlined above to reduce the cost even further and save yourself money, aggravation, and the “are we there yet’s.”

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4 Responses to Road Trip: Saving on Highway Travel

  1. Check for alternate routes to your destinations. A scenic route might be worth the journey and might even be lower miles. Most mapping software and websites give you the ‘fastest’ or ‘shortest’ routes but may overlook lesser highways. Also look for day trips along your journey. A road trip can be just as much about the trip as the destination.

    My favorite detour is to visit Multnomah Falls just east of Portland, OR. It adds less than 1 hour drive plus time spent when traveling I-5 but recharges the batteries and is always worth the time spent. Also time spent walking around the falls makes for a break in the trip and i never remember the trip seeming as long even with this time added in.

  2. Kate says:

    Great tips! So many of them remind me of our family vacations when I was a kid… squashed in the backseat with the cooler full of snacks and drinks. But, I especially like the cruise control tip. Not only does it maximize fuel economy, it minimizes speeding ticket risks. You might feel like an old granny as everyone speeds by you, but it’s worth it in the end. After all, it’s all about the little things, using the power of small to improve live one small change at a time.

  3. Bob's Occasional Musings says:

    I do a lot of traveling and this is a great post. I personally feel the cost of a GPS unit is well worth it for the peace of mind it brings while traveling. Being able to find things that are off the road, knowing where the closest gas stations, restaurants, etc, are has been a blessing while traveling.

  4. helen zoya says:

    Nice tips for saving money. I love traveling with friends, I’m gonna use these tips in my next tour.

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