How to Save Money on Road Trips

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Driving instead of flying is a great way to save money on travel costs. There are even more ways to save money on road trips.


Depending on how many are in your party, it’s usually cheaper to drive than fly. I know this because my parents packed up the van every year for most of my childhood to haul the seven of us to the midwest to visit relatives.

And while fall may not be the best time to plan a cross-country road trip, it is the season to drive over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house and all that jazz. Sure, some folks may be heading to the airport to take a flight for the holidays or a weekend getaway, but a lot of us simply hit the road when heading out of Dodge.

We know that for our family, driving is a much more economical way to travel to most of the places we want to go. European travel excepted, most of our vacations are within California, so we take the cheaper route and just load up the Scourge. We save on transportation to our destination as well as avoid paying car rental fees once we get there.

Besides taking your own wheels, there are a number of other things you can do to save money on road trips:

Fuel up the night before.

If you fuel up your car before you leave, you’ll have the best chance of finding a great price as opposed to paying higher prices in a more touristy area. You know your town, and you know which stations offer the best prices. (Around here, that’s Costco.)

Check the database at Gas Buddy if you’re not sure where to get the best price in your town.

While you’re at it, make sure the gas cap is sealing properly. A loose or damaged gas cap can cause fuel to vaporize and therefore, be wasted.


Check your tires and fluids.

Properly inflated tires can improve your gas mileage. Check them before you go. You may be able to anticipate other issues by giving your tires a thorough check.

Check fluids (water, oil, brake, transmission, clutch, and windshield wiper) to be sure that you won’t have trouble along your route. Having a smooth journey is safer and less expensive than one that might be tinged with car trouble and service calls.

No one likes to pay for a tow truck on vacation!

Pack light.

It’s tempting to pack everything plus the kitchen sink when you’re taking your own car. But, that extra weight is more to pack and unpack, as well as extra weight to slow down your vehicle and negatively impact your gas mileage.

Take what you need and enjoy a simpler trip.

summer sunset

Leave early.

If we leave our house at 6 am, we can get to my inlaws’ in three hours. If we leave at 10, we’re stuck in traffic all. day. long. Last time we made that mistake, the three-hour trip took seven. It had a negative effect on our moods as well as our gas mileage, and therefore our costs.

Believe it or not, leaving early can save you money. You’ll have the road to yourself; your trip will be quick; and you’ll save money on fuel costs.

Use the Google Maps app.

Avoiding traffic can help you save money. While there’s no perfect way to predict when you’ll run into traffic, using the free Google Maps app can help. Not only does this GPS app talk to you while you’re driving, but it can also tell you how long each prospective route will take you and what kind of traffic you can expect along the way.

Maintain a constant speed.

This kind of goes along with the whole “avoid traffic” thing. If you’re going the speed limit and/or maintaining a constant speed, you’ll use your fuel more efficiently. And if that constant speed happens to be the speed limit, you’ll also avoid a speeding ticket.

Keep that money in your pocket, people. And since we’re talking about road etiquette, please make sure the driver isn’t texting!

A tray of road trip snacks.

Pack food and water.

If you bring snacks, drinks, and maybe even a whole meal, you can save in a multitude of ways. You’ll eat better than fast food. You’ll spend less money. And you’ll be able to eat whenever you want to.

You can keep moving with the flow of traffic and stop at a rest stop later if you don’t want to eat in the car. Either way, bringing food with you gives you more options and helps you save money when on the road.

Pre-Departure Checklist

  • Is your car clean and free of clutter?
  • Do you know where your maps, GPS, and other road trip equipment are?
  • Do you have a roadside emergency kit in your car?
  • Do you have a child emergency kit (aka sick kit) in your vehicle?
  • Do you have a picnic box or bag ready to go?
  • What things could you store in your car to make day trips and errands easier?
  • Has the car been washed in the last month? Vacuumed?
  • How grungy are those carseats? Is it time to clean them?
  • Do you know where the fluids are to refill your car? Do you have extra cans of oil, window wiper fluid, brake fluid, etc?
  • Has your car been recently serviced?
  • Is the gas tank full or empty?
  • Do you know where your suitcases are?
  • Do you have activity bags packed and ready to go?
  • Do you have a file to store passports, copies of birth certificates and driver’s licenses, and other travel documents?

There are plenty of ways to save money on road trips. Some take a little work and preplanning, but they’re worth it in the long run. Plus, money saved means more fun money for your vacation.

How do YOU save money on road trips?

Originally published July 11, 2013. Updated October 27, 2016.

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  1. When travelling along an inter-state highway, and needing a motel, we have found it very worth our while to stop at gas stations and pick up hotel coupon books when we are about an hour or two from wanting to stop for the night. They are sorted by region, have real deals, and we can call ahead and have a room lined up and ready when we arrive, no driving around motels and asking about rates when we’re exhausted . . .

  2. I know you have numerous posts about traveling with kids….traveling and food, etc… you have links to some of them?

  3. These are all GREAT tips! Travelling solo I usually try to stay with people I know. If you are a big family and need a hotel, research not only the cost of the hotel but also a) whether breakfast is included in the price (and what kind of breakfast–The Quality Inn series is usually the best with hardboiled eggs, and you can take an apple or two with you to cut up later) b) whether there is a charge for extra beds. Some places (Holiday Inn?) even have a “kids stay free” option. Happy trails!

  4. We took our then 2 year old and 14 month old on a driving trip to Idaho, and what saved us was packing the cooler with lunch stuff. Then we would stop for lunch at parks, let the boys run about then they would sleep! We also stayed at best westerns, because all the rooms were relatively the same looking,the kids didn’t even know we were in a different place each night.

  5. I second packing food. It’s amazing how much we can spend on meals, during trips. Especially kids meals! My kid is 2, why is his meal $6?? I also like using apps, like Gas Buddy, to find inexpensive places to fill up. Awesome post 🙂

    1. We usually skip the kid meal and have the kids share something. Depends on where it is. My boys are getting too big to share….

  6. Often I will bring a portion of the meal, such as bottled water and a bag of fruit or mini carrots and then we will go through drive thru just for the $1 chicken burgers. This pleases my “not really and sandwich kind of guy” hubby and keeps the cost of eating fairly low and reasonably healthy.

  7. When we go on multi-day road trips where we are staying at a motel/hotel, we bring a crock-pot. Not only do we save money by bringing the crock-pot, but we eat less processed foods and eat way more healthy. My favorite to make is overnight steel cut oats so we have a good, filling breakfast in the morning. We can load it up with fruits and nuts. I figure it saves us between $12-$20/meal. I’ve also made chili. I have 7 great road-trip crock-pot recipes.

    Great reminder about checking tires and fluids. Thank you for the post!