Tips for saving money on a road trip

Having spent many of my post-college years both (a) totally broke and (b) living on the road, I know very well the financial perils posed by the seemingly-cheap road trip. In order to help you avoid some of my same mistakes, I offer what I’ve learned … most of it the hard way.

Fuel efficiency matters!
Remember when Barack Obama said Americans should pay more attention to their tire pressure? Well, it’s true. Check your tires before you start your trip and each time you stop for gas, and be sure to air ‘em up if they’re running low. (Be careful not to overpressurize your tires, though. Your car’s owner’s manual should contain information about the appropriate pressure range, and most tires are marked as well.)

Also, don’t overload your car with heavy or bulky stuff that you’re not likely to use — extra weight, or odd-shaped things like surfboards stuck to the car roof, increases fuel costs.

Drive the speed limit.
It’s a sad fact for us adrenaline junkies, but according to fueleconomy.gov, “Each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas.” Gas is one of the biggest road trip expenses, so anything you can do to minimize it is worth considering. Plus, it’ll keep you from snagging a speeding ticket, which is a definite road trip bummer.

Get to know your National Parks!
They’re not just for Ken Burns documentaries — the National Park system is there for people to use, and one thing that a price-conscious road-tripper can always use is a cheap place to sleep.Even at the most popular parks, like Yellowstone, camping fees start at only $12/night — a lot cheaper than you’ll find at any motel, and with better scenery too. Some parks do have a vehicle entry fee, so it’s also worth investigating the National Park Service’s Annual Pass; at $80, it pays for itself after four nights at Yosemite.

Check out hostels.
If your travels are taking you to more urban locations where camping isn’t much of an option, make reservations at hostels instead of hotels or motels. For a single bed they usually run about $20-$25 per night or, if you’re traveling with a group of people, you can all share a room instead of hanging out with strangers. It’s worth noting, however, that hanging out with strangers has its perks — when you’re in an unfamiliar place you can swap tips and often get some good advice.

To see if there are hostels in your area, check out Hostels.com or Hosteling International.

Bring your own food.
The single biggest waste of money on a road trip is road food. Instead of hitting up pricey restaurants or unhealthy fast food, swing by a grocery store and pack snacks for yourself.

Carrot sticks, apples, protein bars, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all keep well — and they’re cheap and healthy to boot.

Check the Internet.

Pro tip: To avoid parking tickets in large cities, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to feed the meter.

If camping isn’t your thing and you’d rather not dole out the cash for a hostel, well, it’s the Internet to the rescue! Social networking sites like Facebook make great directories, so if you’re trekking to visit San Francisco, why not search your Facebook friends and see if anyone you know has moved there recently? You never know who might be eager to see you again.

And if your social networking sites are a bust, don’t forget sites like couchsurfing.com. It can seem a little disconcerting to crash on the couch of someone you’ve never met before, but chances are pretty good that they’ll not only be happy to have you (since they volunteered for it) — but they might even be willing to play tour guide.

Avoid parking tickets.
The biggest headache of a road trip is usually also the thing that makes it great — that is, your car. Parking tickets are a particular concern if you’re visiting an urban area, where popular, touristy neighborhoods are often targeted for parking enforcement. And just because there’s not a meter on the street doesn’t mean the parking is free: many cities are moving towards parking pay boxes, which are usually spaced one per block and require you to pay and place the printed receipt somewhere visible in your car.

Pro tip: Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to feed the meter, and don’t count on leniency just because you’ve got out-of-town plates — many cities and towns rely on tourist parking tickets as a regular revenue stream.

Plan, plan, plan.
The great beauty of the road trip is its flexibility and potential for spontaneous adventure. However, some careful planning can be a fiscal lifesaver on the road.

When you’re figuring out a route, be aware that things like toll roads and mountains will increase your driving costs; if you have particular weaknesses for things like outlet shopping or antiquing, steer clear of towns that are likely to lure you into big spending. Also, do some research and see if any of your destinations are hosting special events that are likely to raise lodging and parking costs — even the sleepiest small town can charge steep prices when the state fair is in town.

Set a budget and stick to it.
The easiest way to stick to a budget is to avoid using plastic. A credit or debit card is useful for getting gas on the road, but beyond that, figure out how much you want to spend each day on food and sundries and use cash to help yourself stick to it. An easy way to do that is to have an envelope for each day of your trip; inside the envelope is the amount you’re allowed to spend that day (not including gas and lodging), and once that’s been tapped, consider yourself cut off.

And if that’s hard for you, just remember: the road trip is all about adventure and self-discovery (On the Road, anyone?), not kitschy souvenirs, and nothing you buy will be as fun or as enduring as the stories you’ll have when you get home.

Saving money on a road trip isn’t that hard. And remember: the more money you save on this road trip, the more money you have for another road trip!

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