How to Get the Most Out of Your Road Trip on a Budget

By Rachel Morey

Road Trip on a Budget

There are few vacations so romantic and freeing as the American road trip. Fortunately, this type of getaway can be inexpensive, as well. Here are a few tips for keeping your mind, body, and wallet happy during your next road trip on a budget.

Stay Flexible

A road trip is about much more than simply getting from point A to point B. It’s all about what happens during the journey. Before you decide to road trip your way across the United States, adopt a laid-back state of mind about the adventure. There’s no place for rigid expectations, here.

Decide What Type of Road Trip You'd Like

Are you searching for the best burger in the Midwest? Do you want to tour as many zoos as possible? Are you making your way to a music festival?

Think of one main thing you’d like to see or do each day of the trip and use Google Maps to plot a rough outline. This will help you determine whether your goals are achievable. For example, if there’s a 17-hour drive between two of your stops, you may be happier if you can find something to do in between those two stops so you don’t have to spend so many consecutive hours on the road.  

If you or your traveling companions have a student ID, bring it along. Many museums, concert venues, and movie theaters offer discounts or free admission for students.

Consider Food

Fast food is expensive. Eventually, you’ll not only grow tired of the same basic fried and beige food groups, but your body will stage a revolt. 

Avoid the drama completely by thinking about what you’ll eat and drink on the road. You’ll save money (and your stomach) by packing some simple non-perishable snacks. Make sure you have room in your vehicle for one medium-sized cooler and keep it stocked with bottled water on ice. Choose snacks that won’t melt in a hot car or freeze solid if left in the vehicle overnight.

Don’t eat at gas stations. The food is notoriously bad, and the snacks are expensive. Use an app like Waze or Google Maps to find a conveniently-located grocery store. Buy sandwich ingredients and fruit, then treat your traveling companions to a relaxed picnic in a nearby park.

When it’s time to eat in a proper restaurant, lean on the Yelp app for advice from fellow travelers and information about how much it costs to eat at various places. The Groupon and LivingSocial apps often have high-value money-saving coupons for restaurants that you can search by location.

Pay Attention to Gas Rewards

Many gas stations offer rewards programs that allow you to save at the pump. Shell's program lets you save 30 cents a gallon on your first five trips to the pump and then 10 cents going forward. Also, drivers can save 10 cents per gallon (up to 20 gallons) for every $100 spent on fuel with BP’s Driver Rewards program.

Purchasing gas this way means you'll likely need to keep an eye out for a certain gas station chain, as opposed to stopping just anywhere for gas... which can be annoying. You can also consider the Pay with GasBuddy program, which serves as a debit card at most gas stations nationwide. It'll just take your gas purchase right out of your checking account and helps you to save anywhere from 5 cents to 20 cents per gallon depending on the type of membership you choose.

Plan Ahead to Avoid Mid-Trip Repairs

Before you leave for your trip, make sure your mechanic checks your car for problems. A bad wheel bearing 800 miles from home could ruin your road trip and destroy your budget. Let the shop know you are planning a road trip so they can pay special attention to your brakes, the condition of your tires, and details like your windshield wiper blades.

Check with your car insurance company to find out if you have roadside assistance. If not, find out if you can add it. With most insurance providers, this extra service costs just a few dollars each month.

Pack a small vehicle emergency kit. Include extra windshield wiper fluid, a few quarts of oil, an empty gas can, a full-sized flashlight, jumper cables, and reflectors.

Pack Smart

Bring extra phone charging cables and a car charger for cell phones. Consider bringing several charged cell phone power banks as a backup, as well. One of the great things about a road trip is that you can pack more stuff than if you are traveling by plane. Take advantage of the extra space by packing things that you’ll be glad to have.

Even if the weather is hot, pack a sweatshirt or sweater. Air conditioning in the car will be nice and cool and you may want to cover up. Bring along tennis shoes so you can walk longer distances comfortably. If you pack carefully, you can avoid having to spend your vacation budget on things you left at home.

A well-planned road trip on a budget offers the ideal opportunity to enjoy the scenery and sights while staying well within what you can afford.

Editor's Note: This is the third post in a four-part series, "Drive Safer Memorial Day to Labor Day," which focuses on keeping teens safe on the road this summer. Read our first post here, and our second here. Visit for the best road courses in America.

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