10 Frugal Road Trip Tips

by Barbara Weddle
Frugal Road Trip Tips

My spouse and I travel around the country a lot and these lesser-known frugal road trip tips help us save significantly.

Sure, everyone knows that having your car serviced before a road trip saves on gas and oil. And, sure, everyone knows that membership with AAA provides not only money-saving vehicle services, but also saves on dining, shopping, hotels and more.

But are you aware of some lesser-known ways to save on road trips? I’ve been traveling around the country for years, and I’ve come up with some good ways to save substantially on road trips.

1. Use hotel coupon guides.

One way I save big is with hotel coupon guides. I get great lodging discounts by picking up hotel coupon guides at the welcome centers just across state lines. When my husband and I drove to Savannah, Georgia from our home in Wisconsin one year, we saved more than $300 on lodging by using coupon guides. We stayed at quality hotels with many amenities and clean and attractive rooms.

Coupons can also be accessed online (check TravelCoupons.com). Also, ask motels/hotels for special AARP rates or senior citizen rates; these may not apply, however, in conjunction with coupon guides and it is wise to use coupon guides over other discounts

If you check into your motel/hotel late, say after 8:00 P.M., ask for a reduced rate.

2. Plan one long trip rather than multiple shorter ones.

If you have friends and/or family spread out all over the country as I do, bundle family visits into one big road trip rather than several smaller, individual trips.

When I needed to attend a grandson’s graduation in Houston, for example, my husband and I first visited a son in Kentucky. From there, we visited my husband’s old army buddy in Memphis, took in Beale Street, and stopped off in Oxford, Mississippi before driving on to Houston. After the graduation, we drove I-10 to Big Bend National Park, checked that out, and then turned north and drove through New Mexico, returning home (Wisconsin) by way of Rapid City, SD, where we visited another son stationed at Ellsworth AFB.

As we saw family (and lodged with them) and took a vacation trip in West Texas and New Mexico all in one big swing, we saved a bundle on gas and rooms and we took advantage of no one because we normally stay with them anyway.

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3. Use a AAA approved repair shop if possible in case of a mechanical issue.

Remember that breakdown repairs on the road can cost twice as much because you’re at the mercy of disreputable repair shops, so try to locate a shop that is AAA approved (even if you don’t belong).

If you have a smartphone, bookmark RepairPal.com to quickly search for reputable service centers if necessary.

4. Consider any chronic but non-life-threatening health problems you have before leaving home.

I am prone to urinary tract infections that require an antibiotic prescribed by a physician. As these UTIs are apt to flare up from sitting in a car for a long period of time, I arrange with my physician ahead of time for him to call in a prescription at a pharmacy in the town I am in should I need one. This eliminates expensive hospital visits in unfamiliar cities merely to obtain a prescription.

For example, once, in Columbus, Ohio, I went to the hospital with a painful UTI. The total cost of the visit came to over $800. My insurance paid the bill, but we had to pay the $50 deductible, a sum we wouldn’t have had to pay had I had an arrangement with my doctor to call in a prescription for me.

5. Compare gas prices before filling up.

Use a gas station locator app on your smartphone (GasBuddy.com, for example) to compare gas prices in the area where you are.

Checking locations beforehand saves you on gas because you’re not running around looking and thus wasting gas.

If you don’t have a smartphone, you can compare prices online before you leave home if you know what cities you’ll be gassing up in.

If gas prices suddenly skyrocket before your trip, consider postponing it if possible until prices return to normal.

6. Travel off season.

Hotel prices are usually substantially cheaper out of season.

Off-season also often means fewer tourists and discounted attractions. 

7. Eat at no-frills restaurants along the way.

And take advantage of the continental breakfasts offered at your hotels/motels.

If you prefer an occasional meal at a pricey restaurant, eat during the lunch hour (before 2:00 P.M.) as the evening meal (after 5:00 P.M.) is often double for the same menu. My husband and I, not big eaters, order meals to split.

8. Avoid shopping in big tourist areas where purchases are usually expensive.

Also, instead of buying over-priced souvenirs, consider seashells from a beach, rocks/stones from the Appalachian Trail, or cotton bolls from the South as free souvenirs.

Be creative. If you draw, do sketches as souvenirs; if you’re an amateur photographer, take photos as souvenirs.

9. Take advantage of perks.

If you like to visit National Parks and you’re at least 62, purchase a lifetime national park pass for $10.

Take advantage of all senior citizen perks, like special room rates, etc. Military and government personnel usually qualify for special discounts also.

10. Stock up before leaving home.

Be sure you stock up on soft drinks, snacks, aspirin, heartburn tablets or other items you might need before leaving home so that you aren’t forced to purchase them at gas station convenience stores or other high-priced stores along your route.

Reviewed May 2023

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