Are we there yet? 5 money-saving tips for a frugal road trip

Coolers, cheap gas, a car checkup and other tips for enjoying your next road trip on a budget.

When traveling with family or friends, it’s hard to beat the memories you’ll make on a road trip: taking in panoramic views, cruising through coastal towns, stopping at roadside fruit stands. Experiencing life on the road—at least for a little bit—can really put things into perspective.

But those memory-making experiences can turn sour pretty quickly if you don’t plan ahead. Who wants to be stranded 20 miles from civilization and paying for a costly tow truck, all because you forgot to map out when and where to fill up your gas tank?

With proper travel prep and financial planning, you’ll have only fun memories of your road trip for years to come—instead of guilt for that time you way overspent.

Four friends wearing backpacks gather on a beach holding surf boards.

How do you save money on a road trip? It’s easier than you might think. Check out these five tips to make your next vacation a frugal road trip:

1. Plan your trip in advance

In order to have a road trip on a budget, it’s good to have a realistic expectation of what the trip will cost. The best way to save money on a road trip is to plan, plan, plan. “Do your research ahead of time, and estimate your trip costs in advance,” says Desmond Henry, CFP® at a financial planning firm in Topeka, Kansas.

If you want to plan ahead, look to how other people have managed frugal road trips by checking out travel review websites. “You can go into the reviews and see other travelers’ tips for a destination that you’re going to,” Henry says. “Maybe you have a lot of people that are saying ‘don’t pay extra for this,’ or ‘instead of parking in that parking lot, if you park a few blocks down, there’s a free shuttle.'”

“Do your research ahead of time, and estimate your costs in advance.”

Desmond Henry, CFP®

J.R. Duren, a personal finance analyst at a consumer product review website, finds it beneficial to get a head start on planning a road trip on a budget to give his family more options of things to do. By comparing prices of various activities ahead of time, you can figure out how to stretch your vacation dollars further—and know how much you need to save for those non-negotiable activities.

“If you want to give yourself and your kids the best experience, start planning ahead and set a savings goal,” Duren says. “The last thing you want to do is be stressed out on the vacation because money is running out.”

2. Get your vehicle checked out

Before you depart, make sure your vehicle is in tip-top shape so you can travel without worry of an unexpected breakdown. Otherwise, you may end up paying for repairs that cost much more than routine and preventive maintenance—and during times when you’d rather be out sightseeing and enjoying your vacation.

As you prepare for your frugal road trip, take the vehicle you will be traveling in to a reputable auto repair shop or dealer’s service department for preventive maintenance, says Richard Piatt, a certified credit counselor with a credit counseling service in Des Moines, Iowa.

If you happen to need a standard oil change before your trip, many service centers will offer a free multi-point checkup of your vehicle and examine fluid levels, the battery, tire pressure, brakes and more. You can tell the auto shop that you’ll be traveling and how many miles you plan to clock on your adventure.

Even if your car has been checked out and is ready to go, you’ll also want to be prepared in the event of an emergency on the road. Be on the safe side and equip your car with emergency supplies like a flashlight, first aid kit, drinking water, food for passengers and pets, battery booster cables, tools to change a flat tire and emergency flares or reflectors.

3. Download travel apps

There’s an app for everything, including those that can be used as a way to save money on road trips. Fueling up at the gas station could be a big part of any road trip budget, so consider leveraging apps that can help locate the cheapest gas stations. “The gas station that is right off the highway is typically the worst place to get gas,” financial planner Henry says. “They always seem to be the most expensive.”

For a frugal road trip, you’ll also want to consider route-planning apps to help identify what you’re up against on the road, from construction-related slowdowns to common speeding checkpoints to accidents blocking traffic. “These could really put a damper on a trip and waste gas,” credit counselor Piatt says.

Several apps also provide information about amenities available at nearby exits, from restaurants to rest stops. Otherwise, you may end up wasting gas—and money—by aimlessly meandering, or you could find yourself settling for something over-budget when there is a more cost-effective option nearby. “It’s nice to know what’s coming up to avoid getting off the exit and having it be a dead end,” says Bonnie Sewell, CFP® at a financial planning firm in Leesburg, Virginia.

A couple sits in a car look at a mobile device.

But be careful going with the default route if ways to save money on road trips are more important to you than saving time. “Most of these apps that try to keep you on the fastest route will keep navigating back to the toll road,” Sewell says. You may want to choose a route that steers clear of tollways if you’re looking to avoid additional costs and keep your road trip on a budget.

4. Eat on the cheap

Another way to take a road trip on a budget is to pack your own food and beverages in a cooler rather than relying solely on eating out. Piatt says if a family of four eats at a fast-food restaurant, the tab will likely be at least $20. If your family eats one fast-food meal a day over a two-week time period, “you’re talking about [at least] $280 just in eating fast, unhealthy food,” he says. If you’re grabbing fast food twice a day, you’re up to more than $560.

If food is your thing, experiencing the local cuisine will be an important part of your travel. Henry recommends doing some light grocery shopping for breakfast and lunch food and then dining out for dinner to be a frugal foodie. He personally makes a point of staying at hotels that offer complimentary breakfasts and fully takes advantage of them as a way to save money on road trips.

“If you can knock out one free meal a day for your family, that’s huge savings,” Henry says. “We’re also not shy about grabbing a piece of fruit for a mid-morning snack.”

“You typically can find a whole apartment or whole home rental that’s cheaper or equivalent to what you’d pay at a hotel. You get the added benefit of having your own kitchen, which can save you money on food. It’s fun to go out and shop at local supermarkets and farmers markets.”

J.R. Duren, personal finance analyst

5. Find affordable accommodations

Consider staying at a vacation rental for your road trip on a budget. “You typically can find a whole apartment or whole home rental that’s cheaper or equivalent to what you’d pay at a hotel,” Duren says. “You get the added benefit of having your own kitchen, which can save you money on food. It’s fun to go out and shop at local supermarkets and farmers markets.”

You can also try booking a last-minute hotel room if you’re feeling spontaneous. “Nothing replaces walking into a hotel, talking to the manager on duty and saying, ‘We’re thinking about stopping for the night. What’s your best rate?’ You might have to be prepared to leave if the rate isn’t good and see if the next hotel is more accommodating,” Sewell says.

Enjoy your road trip on a budget

Taking a vacation with your family or friends doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, it shouldn’t. With some mindful research ahead of time, you can map out a frugal road trip that the whole family will enjoy.

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