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American Road Trips

Best Budget Tips for Your Next Road Trip

Learn how to spend less on hotels, food, gas and fun on a driving vacation

couple sitting in convertible looking at mountains

Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

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Veteran road trippers know how to cut costs on a driving vacation — particularly important in these days of sky-high gas prices and inflation. Consider their top ways to save while planning your next big car trip.​​

Lodging

Campgrounds in county and city parks are affordable, often-overlooked options, says Rob Taylor, the St. Augustine, Florida-based author of The Road Trip Survival Guide. Taylor and his family recently camped at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park in Jacksonville, Florida, for just $28 per night, with a full hookup for their Northland trailer. “Being a city-run park, it had other municipal services, like a Splash Pad, beach access and bike trails,” he says.

To get the best deals, Taylor suggests making reservations for campgrounds and hotels before leaving home. “Last-minute bookings aren’t cheap the way they used to be. In the last two years, you can’t just show up and get a last-minute deal, because there’s less availability.”

If you’re camping or lodging in the national parks, don’t forget about the National Park Service’s America the Beautiful Senior Pass. Amy Keng, 67, an avid road tripper and camper from Dallas, says, “It’s worth its weight in gold. It will get you into campgrounds managed by the government at 50 percent off. In the Grand Canyon, I paid just $9 a night.”

When booking hotels, you can build up points and get discounts if you stick with one or two brands. Taylor says he always tries to book with one of his two preferred hotel brands to earn points for free rooms and get loyalty rates that save him $15 to $50 a night.

For additional savings, book hotels that offer free breakfasts and free parking. The latter can be hard to come by in urban hotels, especially downtown ones, but Theresa Goodrich, the 52-year-old author of The Complete Guide to Road Trips, uses SpotHero to solve that problem. With the mobile app, she books alternate parking near her hotel in advance at a discounted rate. “In Denver, we would have paid $150 to park for three nights at our downtown hotel. Using SpotHero, I found parking a block away and paid just $40,” she says.

And, of course, don’t forget about your AARP Member benefits and discounts.

Gas

It’s hard to remember the last time it’s been so important to save on gas, with prices averaging more than $4 a gallon. You’ll want to save any way you can to keep your road trip budget on track.

Many drivers swear by the free app GasBuddy, which you can use to compare gas prices at nearby stations when you need to fill up. Sometimes you’ll save just a few pennies per gallon, other times considerably more. You can get additional savings with a Pay With GasBuddy card, which functions much like a debit card, with payments withdrawn automatically from users’ bank accounts. On top of what you save by using the app to find the cheapest gas, card users get a guaranteed discount of 5 cents per gallon, and then can activate special deal alerts for increased savings of up to 25 cents per gallon.

“We’ve saved $6 to $10 on a fill-up with GasBuddy,” Taylor says. “On a trip to the Florida Keys, we saved nearly 40 cents a gallon [in total] near West Palm Beach by getting off the freeway and driving about five minutes.”

Another option is the free app Upside, a cash-back program in which participating gas stations offer special deals that can also save you up to 25 cents per gallon, according to the company. You pay with whatever credit or debit card you typically use for gas purchases, then photograph and upload the receipt to the company, which then processes your cash-back request (in some locations, you can just log in to your Upside account). Once the funds appear in your account, which can take up to 10 days, you can transfer them to your bank or buy e-gift cards. Upside also offers discounts from 22 to 45 percent at grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants.

And warehouse retailers such as Costco and BJ’s offer reduced fuel prices at the pump to their members.

Want to improve your gas mileage? Always use cruise control on the highway to stay near the speed limit, not just to avoid speeding tickets but also to save on gas. The faster you go, the more fuel you burn. While gas mileage varies by car, it’s typically optimal at 50 mph, then decreases rapidly at higher speeds, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s fuel economy guide. For cars, it notes, “every 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying $0.18 more per gallon of gas (based on the price of gas at $2.63 per gallon). Reducing your speed by 5 to 10 mph can improve fuel economy by 7 percent – 14 percent.” With gas now at around $4.33, that means every 5 mph you drive over 50 mph means paying about 30 cents more per gallon.

Food

An easy first step for saving on the road: Pack your own water and healthy snacks, to avoid having to shell out for overpriced bottles of water or junk food.

For lodgings, it can be worth paying a bit more for a room with a tiny kitchen, or at least a fridge, so you can either whip up a simple meal or store your leftovers.

Goodrich says she eats in as much as possible on driving trips, and she increases her food savings by enrolling in discount programs offered by local grocery store chains. When she does eat out, she’ll look for discounts on restaurant.com. In Bend, Oregon, she bought a $25 certificate to a local restaurant for $10 (she had to place a minimum order of $30, however). “They’re typically not chain restaurants, so you can eat in a local place you might not have found otherwise,” she says.

AARP members can get discounts at more than 40 chains, and there are many restaurants that offer their own discounts for older customers. IHOP and Denny’s, for instance, each has a lower-priced menu for people 55 and up.


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Activities

For lower-priced tickets to shows, concerts, other events and activities, try online platforms like Goldstar and Groupon. For an upcoming trip to San Diego, Goodrich found a deal through Goldstar that will save her 50 percent on a kayaking tour. And Taylor recently scored 2-for-1 airboat rides in Florida with Groupon.

In many big U.S. cities, you can purchase passes that bundle entrance fees to groups of attractions into one discounted ticket. They include Go City, available in 13 U.S. cities, and CityPASS, which is in 14 cities plus Southern California.

You might also look for special offers on the websites of city tourism departments. Taylor notes that on Chicago’s site, he found a deal that saved him 15 percent on an architectural tour. “The deals are never super enormous, but they really add up,” he says.

Don Nichols, former editor-in-chief of Private Clubs magazine, is a Dallas-based freelance writer and editor.

Also of Interest​

AARP Travel Center

Call: 1.800.675.4318

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