With the economy still on uncertain ground and the weakness of the dollar making foreign travel increasingly expensive, many Americans will be looking for affordable travel alternatives within the United States. For families on a budget, few vacation options can come close to the value provided by a well-planned road trip, particularly now that gasoline prices are more reasonable. How can families stretch their travel dollars even further on their next major road trip? Here are eight tips that can put money in your pocket without detracting from the overall experience.
Use Priceline to Minimize Lodging Costs
Nearly everyone is aware of the savings that are possible using priceline.com and other similar auction sites that allow the consumer to specify a price and bid for the best available lodging. However, few people know how to use Priceline effectively to achieve really big savings. There are many other sites that provide information on the types of hotels within Priceline’s “zone” system as well as the prices actual people have paid for successful bids. My personal favorite is biddingfortravel.com. The consumer can see a listing of all hotels in Priceline’s zones and check to see if others have attempted a bid for the desired dates.
Beyond collecting this type of information, consumers should be aware that often the best Priceline deals are scored at the last minute. Hotels typically give Priceline blocks of unused inventory shortly before a travel date if it looks like they will be unable to fill the rooms at regular “rack” rates. On your next trip, take along a laptop computer or use a hotel’s business center to bid on rooms for the next day. While there may be more uncertainty associated with where you will stay, the savings can amount to hundreds of dollars over a typical vacation.
Minimize Gasoline Costs
One of the major expenses for any road trip is gasoline. While the price of gas may not be above $4/gallon anymore, there is still no reason to pay any more than you have to. Gasoline prices can vary widely depending on local competition and it is very difficult to know where to get the best deal if you simply wait until the gas gauge reads empty and then exit the interstate. A better approach is to use GasBuddy.com to plan your gasoline stops. GasBuddy will allow you to enter the specifications for your vehicle and the starting and ending points for the trip. The system will then calculate the best gas stops based on your fuel needs and route. Since fuel costs can change often, I like to use GasBuddy.com to plan out the next day’s drive when I am on a road trip.Avoid Convenience Stores at Gasoline Stops
You’ve been driving for 250 miles without a stop and pull into a gasoline station to refuel. It’s a fairly certain bet that everyone in your car will get out and buy drinks and snacks in the convenience store attached to nearly every gasoline station. This is one of the easiest ways to waste money given that a bottle of water may cost $1.50 and a candy bar will be at least $1. Instead of paying convenience store prices, stop at Wal-Mart or another big box retailer prior to your trip to stock up on bottled water, soda, and snacks. Each item will be a tiny fraction of convenience store prices. If you have four people in your car and each spends $2.50 at each gas stop, you could easily save $15 to $20 per day.
Most people either love camping or hate it. Those who dislike camping object to the lack of private bathroom facilities, exposure to the elements, and the need to carry a large amount of equipment. What I call “opportunistic camping” can avoid many of these objections. Simply pack a tent and sleeping bags in your car, and leave the rest of your equipment at home. If the weather looks nice and there is an attractive campground nearby, just use it to pitch a tent and sleep there overnight. Eat your meals at restaurants as you normally would. Never camp out more than one night in a row to limit objections to the lack of showers in campgrounds lacking full facilities. While this approach isn’t for everyone, it is possible to save significant money and have fun at the same time.
Ditch the Car in Big Cities
A car is a major liability in most big cities. You will have trouble navigating the unfamiliar traffic and often pay exorbitant prices to simply park your car. While in the city, most people will just leave their cars in the hotel gathering dust. Most major cities have commuter rail stations in suburbs and, with a bit of planning, one can park at a station and take the train into the city. For example, if you are visiting New York City, leave your car at Metropark, New Jersey and take New Jersey Transit into the city for $16 round trip. Parking is $9/day, a fraction of what hotels will charge for parking in New York City. If you are traveling with children, most will consider the train ride a highlight of the trip.
Eat with the Locals
Why eat at the major national chains when you are on the road? While it is true that chains offer the assurance of a predictable meal, it is often possible to save money and have a better experience by eating with the locals. Yelp.com is a great way to discover the best local places to eat, but it is even better to simply ask the people you encounter when arriving in a town or city. Most people are eager to help.
Visit Free or Low Cost Attractions
While the purpose and goals of every road trip will differ based on the preferences of your group, it is almost always possible to plan interesting activities that are either free or very low cost. For example, when you are visiting a state’s capital city, it is often possible to visit the state capitol building and in many cases there are museums and other attractions nearby. National Parks are a wonderful low cost destination for families. The $80/year National Park Pass will entitle you to enter any park in the country. This is a very hard deal to beat when planning a summer vacation, particularly to the Western United States.
Maintain Your Vehicle
This tip almost goes without saying, but there are far too many travelers who do not monitor air pressure in their tires, fail to replace dirty air filters, and never check their oil level. Not only can you save money by simple steps such as inflating your tires and using clean filters but you can also prevent a break down. Even the best planned vacation will be ruined if you are stranded at a truck stop for hours waiting for a mechanic to find the parts required to fix your car. Have your local mechanic check out your car prior to any major trip.
With some advance planning and a bit of flexibility, it is possible to make your next road trip more interesting and affordable at the same time.