How to save money on a road trip

Budgeting and planning

Before you hit the road, it’s important to plan and budget. Katie Diederichs, who writes the travel blog Two Wandering Soles with her husband, Ben, said that the first steps of a road trip are considering your budget and destination. For a budget-minded trip, think about how long you want your trip to last and how much you can spend each day while still having some money left over for an emergency fund. (Diederichs usually keeps about a thousand dollars on hand in case of emergencies.)

It’s also important to check the condition of your vehicle, she said. She recommends having roadside assistance, and bringing jumper cables and water in case your car breaks down in a remote area. She also recommends getting your vehicle checked and filling your tires with air before leaving, which can save money on gas.

Additionally, Diederichs recommends downloading Google Maps offline before leaving in case you drive through an area with no service and need directions.

Save on gas

Apps like GasBuddy and Google Maps can help you find the cheapest gas in your area, said Kathryn Frazer, a Texas-based content creator who writes Adventures of A + K, a travel blog, with her husband, Adam. “We’ve saved like 40 cents a gallon at some [gas stations], just by going a couple blocks away. You might have to go to a really random area, but you can save money.”

Diederichs also uses Upside, which gives users money back on purchases at certain chains, including several gas stations. Many gas stations also have rewards programs. Frazer uses Shell’s Fuel Rewards program, which gives her five cents back per gallon.

Apps like GasBuddy and Google Maps can help you find the cheapest gas in your area.xreflex – stock.adobe.com

Camping out or sleeping in

There are several accommodation options for every budget. If your car is big and comfortable enough, you can sleep there. Many businesses, including some Walmarts and even some restaurants, allow people to park overnight for free, Diederichs said. Call the business or double check online before staying to make sure it’s permitted. Rest areas are another option, Frazer said. Diederichs uses the apps iOverlander and Dyrt to find places to stay and camp.

If you’re a frequent traveler, it may be worth it to sign up for Harvest Hosts or Boondockers Welcome, which the Frazers use when they travel. These companies charge an annual fee but allow businesses and individuals to register their property as a place where campers and people traveling in RVs can stay for free or in exchange for supporting their business.

Alternatively, Kathryn Frazer said that tent camping or sleeping in your car at a campsite is “one of the best ways to save money on a road trip,” adding that they’re “like $30 a night instead of $100 for a hotel.” Most campgrounds have showers and restrooms, and state or national park campgrounds tend to be cheaper than privately-owned campgrounds, she said.

However, if you prefer a proper roof over your head, Airbnbs, inns, and hotels are clear choices. Diederichs suggests looking at accommodations from a practical standpoint. “You might find a really good deal on an Airbnb or a hotel, but it might be located really far away from the area you want to explore,” she said. “So that’s maybe not going to be a great fit, because you’ll be spending money on gas everywhere.”

When to dine out and when to eat in

Diederichs also suggested booking Airbnbs and hotels with kitchens, kitchenettes, and continental breakfasts in order to save money on food. “That way I can plan which restaurants I really want to eat at. And then for all the other meals, I can maybe do them on my own because I have a kitchen at the Airbnb or a kitchenette at a hotel,” she said. She also likes hotels with continental breakfasts that can serve as breakfast and lunch, so she only eats out once per day. She also suggested food trucks as affordable options.

Diederichs brings cooking staples with her on her travels, such as quinoa, oils, and spices. “When I’m in a destination, I just need to pick up produce, which is sometimes nice to pick up at a local farmers’ market, because it’s an experience,” she said, adding that farmers’ markets are a “really great way to experience a city — kind of get a feel for the vibe, and also not totally break the bank.”

Frazer recommends eating out at unique places and getting special experiences through eating out. On a trip to New England, she sought out apple cider donuts, maple creemees in Vermont, and lobster. “That’s something we couldn’t really do in other parts of the US as much — so prioritizing those experiences that you can’t really have elsewhere,” she said.

Getting out

The Internet makes finding those experiences much easier. “We have like a million tabs open and we’re just researching things, Googling for things like ‘free and cheap activities,’” Kathryn said. Google Maps is also a great tool for planning your trip. Diederichs adds color-coded pins to a map whenever she hears of an activity or restaurant that interests her. From there, she can start to see future road trips taking shape.

Kathryn and Adam Frazer often look on Reddit to find out what locals are doing. Diederichs also looks at tourism and travel websites. Neilsen and the NH Division of Travel and Tourism curated several road trip itineraries for the different regions of the state. The tourism websites for Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine also have road trip guides and travel-by-car ideas.

“Coming out of the pandemic last year, we started curating [road trip itineraries] for the summer season, just because we knew people kind of wanted to be in charge of their own traveling and their own transportation,” Neilsen said. The itineraries proved to be very popular.

Some of the best activities don’t even require you to leave your car. The Frazers took advantage of scenic drives like the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. “The Kanc” is free, and there’s even a free app that provides a guided tour of the highway, Neilsen said.

However, if you’re looking to get some air, the outdoors have a lot to offer. State parks may charge an entry fee around $4 or $5, according to Neilsen, but other activities are free, like New Hampshire’s rail trails — a series of old railroads converted into paths for walking, hiking, biking, etc. They pass through the entire state, and there are several inns and lodging options along the way. Neilsen suggested biking between them — which could help reduce the inevitable car sickness and gas prices for road trips.

The Frazers use AllTrails and other blogs to find hikes and affordable activities. For example, they visited Mount Mansfield in Vermont, and visitors could either drive to the top of the mountain, ride a gondola, or hike. Kathryn and Adam opted to hike, which was the least expensive option — and they saved around $20.

Diederichs also suggests looking for events such as free music performances in parks, free outdoor movies, and things that you may not initially think about when searching for activities.

However, remember the point of your trip is to have a good time. So don’t let the stress of budgeting and planning take over. “I wouldn’t be so focused on your budget that you forget to have fun,” Diederichs said.


Dylan Dhindsa can be reached at dylan.dhindsa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DylDhi.

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