29 Road Trip Tips for a Fun and Frugal Vacation

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Cruising down the open road is a great way to get away from it all.

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Planning a road trip can be a cost-effective way to travel too — that is, if you do it right.

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.

29 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 the costs of expenses like gas and lodging.

You can literally cut your costs in half by road tripping with a friend. It’ll also make the long distance 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 very different budgets.

2. 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.

3. 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 your car’s owner’s manual on hand.

4. 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 traveling via rental car, the rental car company may offer roadside assistance service as an add-on.

Three sisters sit in the back seat while staring at a road map.
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5. 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.

The main expenses you’ll encounter will include:

  • Gas
  • Lodging
  • Food
  • Entertainment/activities

You’ll also want to put money aside for parking, tolls, souvenirs and other miscellaneous things that will come up.

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.

6. 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.

7. Save Money on Gas

Fuel will be a significant chunk of your road trip expenses. Some tips to save money on gas include:

  • Using price comparison apps like GasBuddy.
  • Signing up for rewards programs at gas stations and grocery stores.
  • Using a fuel rewards credit card.
  • Choosing regular-grade gas rather than the premium option.
  • Opting to fill up in small towns instead of at gas stations right off the highway or in big cities.
  • Making sure your tire pressure is where it needs to be and go have a good seal on your gas cap.
  • Keeping your speed steady as opposed to accelerating or decelerating often.

8. Use Cruise Control

Staying at a steady speed increases fuel efficiency. Plus, using cruise control can help you avoid getting any speeding tickets.

A couple use their navigation system on their phone while driving.
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9. 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 so you’re not idling in rush hour traffic.

10. 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?

11. 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 is 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.

12. 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.

13. 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’s 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.

A father jokingly touches his son's cheek as they pack their vehicle for a road trip.
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14. 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 travelling to a cooler climate, make sure you pack a decent 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 a must.

15. 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.

16. Bring Your Own Drinks

There’s no reason to spend $2 for a bottle of water at a gas station. Bring bottled water — or 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.

17. 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 get food from the grocery store and fix some of your 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 someone’s home.

18. 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 so you’re not subjected to the wait staff’s attempts to upsell you.
  • Sign up for the restaurant’s app or loyalty program to get special offers and discounts.

19. 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 travelling 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.

20. Don’t Overpay for Parking

Parking downtown in a major city can get pricey. Cut costs on parking by:

  • Using a parking app like BestParking or SpotHero.
  • Leaving your vehicle at a park-and-ride for free and taking public transportation to get to the city center.
  • Comparing the price of parking with the cost for a ride share.
  • Setting an alarm on your phone so you don’t end up parking past your allotted time and paying more.
A family camps in the woods.
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21. 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 campsite that doesn’t charge fees, 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.

22. 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 a national parks pass. It 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, 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 charge no admission.

23. 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.

24. 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.

An RV rides along the road at sunset in the desert.
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25. 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, check out this article which compares several national RV clubs.

26. 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. Save money by:

  • Comparing costs on sites like Kayak, Travelocity or Booking.com.
  • Downloading the HotelTonight app for last-minute deals.
  • Join a hotel chain’s loyalty program.
  • Taking advantage of your credit cards rewards points.
  • Staying at a hotel outside the city center for cheaper rates.

27. 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.

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.

Local newspapers are a great source for discovering free happenings in the places you stop.

28. Skip the Guided Tours

Save money when exploring a new city by fashioning your own tour rather than paying to have a tour guide 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.

29. 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 senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

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