10 Ways to Save Money on a Great American Road Trip

by Darcie Connell on 24 March 2014 2 comments

The United States of America is a massive country — the third largest in the world (after Russia and Canada) in fact. One of the best ways to explore the U.S. is on a good 'ol American road trip. (See also: How to Take Frugal Road Trips)

But with the economy still in a slump and gas prices at $3.62 at publication time (up $0.85 from $2.77 in 2007), what's a traveler to do?

Taking a quintessential American road trip doesn't have to drain your bank account if you follow these ten money-saving tips on an American road trip.

Drive the Speed Limit

According to The Union of Concerned Scientists "Going 65 mph on the highway instead of 75 can cut your fuel use up to 20 percent. " An easy way to monitor your speed is to use cruise control. Not only will it increase your fuel efficiency, it will also prevent any unwanted speeding tickets which can reach over $200 depending on how fast you're driving and the state you're in.

Skip Gas Station Snacks and Fast Food

Gas stations are notorious for luring patrons into their store to use the restroom and spend money on drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. Don't let them tempt you!

Instead, pack a cooler before you hit the road with homemade and healthy snacks and drinks. Some inexpensive and easy to eat items are sandwiches, salads like potato salad and macaroni salad, and trail mix. (See also: Delicious, Healthy, Frugal Snacks)

Another way to avoid these temptations is to stop at an interstate rest area for picnic benches and clean restrooms instead of going to a fast food restaurant or gas station.

Camp

The best part of an American road trip is enjoying the great outdoors. And what better way to experience the wilderness than to camp? National and state park camping fees range from $10 to $50 dollars per night versus staying in a hotel or motel that range from $75 to $200 dollars.

If you don't have camping gear, you can get a bare-bones tent and sleeping bag from your favorite discount retailer for less than $30 each.

Check Gas Prices

Gas prices can vary significantly by location and the gas station, upwards of $0.50 per gallon. Watch gas prices as you drive or check your mobile phone to find the best gas prices. Also, avoid using your credit or ATM card. Many gas stations will charge an additional fee for not paying with cash. (See also: How to Live a Cash-Only Life)

Plan a Route

While it can be fun to drive aimlessly on a road trip, chances are you'll end up paying a lot more for gas, tolls, and accommodations. By planning a route, you'll avoid driving unnecessary distances and can bypass road tolls. Also, you can book your accommodations or campsite ahead of time to ensure you get a room or a spot.

You can pick up free road maps at any visitor center (more on this in a minute) or pre-plan your route with Google maps.

Check Your Tire Pressure (and More)

Before you hit the road, make sure your car is in tip-top shape. Get a tune up and check the oil, water, and tire pressure.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "You can improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure, by 1–2 percent by using the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil, [and] fixing a car that is noticeably out of tune or has failed an emissions test by an average of 4 percent."

Add it all up and you get an estimated 9.3% improved fuel efficiency just by monitoring your car's health and fluid levels. (See also: 6 Tips to Keep Your Car Running Longer)

Negotiate and Ask for Discounts

Just because an item has a sticker price, doesn't mean it's not negotiable. Always ask for specials, discounts, or if a price is negotiable. Many companies offer discounts for students, seniors, military, AAA members, etc.

After all, it never hurts to just ask.

Offer a Rideshare

Part of the fun of a road trip is to push yourself outside your comfort zone and meet new people. So what better way than to offer a rideshare? A rideshare is offering someone a ride somewhere, usually in exchange for gas money. Think of it like getting paid to pick up a hitchhiker.

You can meet and connect with people on Craigslist.org under a specific city's "rideshare" category.

Contact Visitor Centers

Most cities in the United States have visitor centers equipped with helpful staff to help plan your trip, offer coupons and maps, and provide budget-minded options for meals, accommodations, and activities… some even free. So, take advantage of these visitor centers to save big bucks on your road trip.

Don't Be a Tourist

Tourists spend money; locals don't. So even if you're not a local, act like one and save some money along the way. (See also: Tap Into the Local Scene While Traveling)

First, skip overpriced and overrated tourist attractions. Usually you can tell if it's a tourist attraction by the number of billboards they have along the interstate or highway. The more billboards, the more overrated.

Second, don't go souvenir shopping. Who really wants a shot glass or sweatshirt with the name of a city they've never been? Nobody, so forget gift giving. If you must do something, take a picture of yourself holding a custom sign for the person and post it to Facebook (free) or send a postcard ($1) instead.

Third, take a walking tour of the city. Along the way, ask a local what they would do if they had the day off and were working on a budget. Chances are you'll get a handful of fun, inexpensive, and off-the-beaten-path activities.

So even with a down economy, globetrotters can still experience the U.S. by road trip and on a shoestring budget.

How have you saved money on a road trip? Please share in comments!

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Guest's picture

Yes, pack a cooler. Sometimes I drive 10 hours to Florida. Without a cooler, that could mean 2 or 3 stops for food.
I also use rewards credit cards to save 5% on gas.

Guest's picture

Tourists spend money; locals don't. So even if you're not a local, act like one and save some money along the way.