Road Trip Tips: researching and planning to pinch pennies

Let’s face it: road trips are becoming less and less common in America. We’ve got (near) record-high fuel prices, a pressure on us to work more and take less time off (thanks, recession) and more entertainment options than ever before close to our homes. Put simply, road trips aren’t nearly as easy to take as they’ve been in the past, but they’re just as awe-inspiring today as they’ve always been.

If you’ve been looking to burn a few weeks of banked vacation, spend a bit of quality time with your family, see a few long-lost relatives elsewhere in the country and mark one or two more of your Bucket List items off, there’s no better way to accomplish all of that than by packing your Winnebago (or whatever vehicle resides in your garage) and hitting the highways. Despite what you may believe, you just might have enough in savings to pull off your dream road trip, and we’ve got a few tips beyond the break that’ll save you bundles along the way. Just be prepared to put in the legwork during the “planning” phase.Plan your routes around family and friends

Lodging is undoubtedly one of the biggest expenses when it comes to making a road trip happen. Sure, some of you may be able to rough it in tents along the way, but for families who need amenities like hot breakfasts, showers and actual bedding, there’s no quicker way to drain your road trip account than by shacking up in the Embassy Suites each night. Our suggestion? Plan your stops around friends and family who won’t mind you staying a night or two. Asking distant relatives to use their home for over three days can come across as demanding and imposing, but most anyone with a soul will let you crash for one or two days. If planned right, you can stay a day with a friend for free (or a small — and recommended — donation) and then the next night in a hotel. If you repeat this one-and-one strategy, you’ve just cut your hotel costs in half, all while getting the opportunity to catch up with folks that probably mean a lot to you.

Stop eating out so much

It’s a fact of life that we all must eat. But choosing to eat at a restaurant three times per day is murder on the bank account. We recommend stocking up on groceries from the outset, using healthy snacks and fruits to fill your belly during the day in order to bridge the gap between breakfast and supper. If you keep yourself occupied during the daylight hours, it’s even easier to get by on a granola bar and banana while waiting for a serious meal at night. Even cutting out one full meal per day can save you a significant amount over the course of your trip.

Drive something with great fuel economy

Unless you’re planning a trip through blizzard-like conditions, you should really choose your Corolla over the Commander when embarking on a multi-thousand mile trip. Over the course of the journey, using a car that gets 35MPH on the highway instead of one that’s lucky to get 20MPG can save you hundreds of dollars in fuel costs. You’re probably saying that you just can’t fit everything into your “small car.” We’d suggest packing lighter, and using those aforementioned stops at houses to wash your clothes.

Flying to your start point? Search for nearby airports

Planning to start your trip in Minneapolis and eventually make your way down to the Dakotas? Don’t just blindly book airline tickets to MSP. allows your to search nearby airports, and better still, you can do your own research to scout out lesser-known airstrips within driving range of your intended origination point. We were planning such a trip recently, and we found that we could save over $100 per ticket by flying into Madison, Wisconsin. That’s just 4.5 hours away by car, and it gives us an even greater excuse to explore the Badger State.

Renting a car? Do your research

We recently embarked on a Southwest road trip which started in Las Vegas, Nevada. Believe it or not, there are literally scores of car rental outlets in Sin City, and the vast majority of them aren’t connected to McCarran International Airport. Car rentals get really, really interesting (and expensive, too) when you have a drop-off location that’s different than your pick-up location, and prices vary wildly from carrier to carrier and location to location. For this example, we wanted to leave from Vegas and drop the vehicle off in San Antonio eight days later.

We spent hours scouring the web’s best price searching engines ( gets our recommendations), and what we found was downright astounding. This same itinerary could cost us upwards of $1,500 or as little as $598 depending on the company and the pick-up location, and that was searching for the cheapest car class across the board. There’s simply no avoiding the “one-way drop fee” that skyrockets the cost of a rental car if you don’t drop it off at the same location that you picked it up at. It’s a sad fact of life, but if you use these other tips to save in other areas, this fee becomes a wee bit easier to absorb.

We eventually found that Hertz, in this particular situation, was the cheapest option. But when picking up at McCarran International Airport (which is actually a shuttle bus ride away from the airpot — not exactly the epitome of convenience), the cheapest we could rent a Toyota Corolla for the eight days was around $800. Hertz has around a dozen other rental outlets scattered about the City of Lights, most of which are within hotels and casinos. We put our request into each and every Hertz hotel / casino location in Las Vegas until we found the cheapest one: The Riveria. For reasons unknown, this pickup location — just minutes away from the $800 LAS lot — was over $200 cheaper for the trip.

We should also mention that essentially every car rental company adds a fee (usually around 10 percent, sometimes higher) to your rental when picking up at an airport facility. If you can somehow get away from the airport and pick your ride up at a satellite facility, the cost savings can be tremendous. Obviously, each and every scenario is different (another search of ours found Hertz to be the most expensive option, as an example), so it’s on you to research the options intently. We’d also recommend renting the smallest car that’ll fit your needs in order to get the best gas mileage — you’re about to roll some for hours on end each day, and you could use the MPG improvement.

Take a GPS system

This day and age, you’d be crazy to take off without a GPS. TomTom even has a feature on its newest units (IQ Routes) that intelligently finds the most fuel efficient route when you plug in your destination, and beyond that, not getting lost saves you both time and money. And it keeps you sane, which is always a good thing on a vacation. These are also fantastic for plotting spontaneous trips during the day; on our recent journey across the Southwest, we found ourselves with more time than expected on one given day. We knew that US 163 was a must-see, so we simply plugged in “Bluff, UT” from our current location at the Four Corners. The GPS routed us back into Utah where we could easily pick up our desired highway and head down to Monument Valley State Park.

A secondary option here would be a smartphone with a great mapping system (any Android-based phone or an iPhone comes to mind), as these provide great visuals and can jar your memory of off-the-wall places that you’d like to visit. And besides — visiting beautiful sections of America just to gaze costs little or no money.

Take advantage of the National Parks

We can’t shout this loudly enough: whatever country you’re in, the National Parks are there for your enjoyment. They’re your parks, and your tax dollars are paying for their preservation. The least you could do would be to stop by and see how your monies are being spent. On a more serious note, National Parks currently stand as some of the cheapest entertainment options on the road today. Many parks are free to enjoy, while most are under $15 for a five to seven day pass. Even the few that are over $20 (Joshua Tree National Park comes to mind) are easily worth it, and considering that two theater tickets in any mid-sized city will run you more than that for two hours of enjoyment, you can see that there’s still a great deal of value in the National Park system.

Our personal experience is this: I don’t really remember exactly how much fun I had at Busch Gardens two years ago, but I can tell you for sure that I spent over $130 on two people just to get in and not starve while I was there. I spent under $40 on a trip to Grand Canyon National Park (including gas from a family’s home that was two hours away), and I’ll remember those images for the rest of my adult life. It’s incredibly simple to burn a whole day inside one National Park, and chances are you’ll wish you had even more time once you’re there.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]