5 easy ways to save money on your summer road trip

It’s road trip season! Here’s how to save on everything from snacks to gas.

Update 7/6/21: Check your state’s health guidelines and the guidelines of any states you plan to visit before hitting the road. 

Nothing says summertime freedom like the classic American road trip. All you have to do is download your playlist, hop in the car, and go. Whether you want to hit a theme park, stroll the streets of New Orleans, or hike a mind-blowing national park along the way, these tips will help you save on food, fuel, lodging, and more.

Cheap eats

For road snacks, skip the gas stations and rest stops, which are pricey and low on healthy choices. (Pork rinds, anyone?) A simple alternative: Plan ahead and get your snacks at a grocery store. You’ll have a far bigger selection, and you’ll pay less. Keep your food fresh and your drinks cool in a soft cooler—handy for a picnic pull-off at a scenic viewpoint, an unplanned hike around that lake you just passed, or just much-needed hydration and nourishment for the driver.

If a proper sit-down meal (of the fast-casual roadside ilk) is more your speed, you can buy discounted digital gift cards for restaurants via an app like GiftCardGranny. If you pay the check from your phone, you can sometimes save more than 20%. If you’re traveling with kids, keep their spending in control by giving everyone a reasonable limit. This will prevent them from running up your bill by ordering every dessert on the menu. (Hello, whoopie pies!)

Fuel economy

Lots of road trippers use the community-powered Waze app for directions and traffic updates. But did you know that Waze also crowd-sources gas prices? Search for stations before your tank gets too low so you have time to pick the cheapest pumps. The Google Maps app will also show you gas prices for most stations right on the map. If you prefer to use a different app or your own GPS device, try the GasBuddy app to find the lowest price per gallon. Bonus: GasBuddy’s loyalty program lets you save on every gallon you purchase through the app.

If you have a rewards credit card that offers cash back on fuel (often 3% to 5%), be sure to use it. You can save even more by maximizing those miles-per-gallon. Four easy ways to stretch your gas dollars:

  • Get an inexpensive tune-up before you go.
  • Avoid using cruise control on hills.
  • Stick to the speed limit—yes, you.
  • Keep each of your tires filled to the manufacturer-recommended pressure.

On a long road trip, these steps can save you a lot of money.

Lodge for less

Sometimes, procrastination is your friend. Hotels around the country (and the world) post last-minute vacancies on the HotelTonight platform at discounted rates. The listings are typically in metropolitan areas, so if you’re in the sticks, a site like Hotels.com is a better bet. It offers eleventh-hour deals and, for frequent customers, one free night after you book ten. Pro tip: Search with your phone, not your laptop. Hotels target mobile users with especially good deals.

Save on sightseeing

Do a little online research in advance to see which attractions fit you and your road-tripping crew, and maybe land some sweet discounts. A simple search like “What to do in Raleigh, N.C., with tweens,” or “Things to do in New Orleans with senior citizens,” will return a slew of posts from sites big and small. Some may even have exclusive promo codes or recommendations for discounted package deals.

If you plan ahead, some attractions offer cheaper tickets through their website or social media channels. You can also try authorized resellers, membership-based associations like AAA or AARP, or location-specific flash-sale sites like Groupon.

Prefer to just gas up and go? Scour those racks filled with flyers at your hotel. You might turn up discounts for popular local spots. And ask the concierge (or manager) if you can get a discount booking through your hotel.

Heading to the big city? Circling endlessly to find cheap parking can be a real buzzkill for you and your fidgety passengers. Instead, use a parking app like SpotHero, which lets you reserve discounted parking spots in garages and lots in advance.

Fly and rent on a budget

If you need a plane to get to the start of your road trip—maybe a 19-hour drive from Philly to Fort Lauderdale just isn’t your thing—apps like Hopper can help you save big. Enter your destination and travel dates, and you’ll get an alert when the airfare drops and it’s time to buy. Hopper also tracks hotel rates. For rental cars, try apps like Kayak or Expedia, which search multiple travel sites to turn up the best deals. They can also help you find a flight or hotel.

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