How to Save Money While on a Road Trip

Road trips are great, but with gas prices so high, they can be expensive. What can you do to save some dough along the way?
Road trips are great, but with gas prices so high, they can be expensive. What can you do to save some dough along the way?
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Ever since the automobile became widely available in the early 20th century, road trips have been America's go-to way to travel. Just put your finger on the map and go: For the price of a tank of gas, one can travel at leisure to any number of exciting destinations. Ever seen the red rocks in Moab? The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco? What about the big city lights of Times Square in New York City? No matter which destination fires your fancy, a road trip allows you to travel at your own speed and stop at will to explore along the way.

With gas prices in 2011 hovering near $4 per gallon, however, the good old American road trip has become less and less of a bargain and more of a wallet-buster. Some tourist attractions and destinations are going so far as to offer incentives to offset the high cost of gasoline. In New York's Adirondack Mountain region, businesses like the Fort William Henry Hotel have been known to offer packages that include a $20 gas card and a buy-one-get-one-free dinner [source: Smith]. In spite of high gas prices, however, car travel remains one of the more affordable and efficient ways to travel. After all, airlines have to deal with increases in fuel costs, too. When gas prices go up, so does the price of plane tickets.

So, apart from trading your mini-van for a hybrid, what can you do to save money on a road trip? First, you can maximize your fuel economy by following all the great advice you'll find on travel sites like AAA.com, ViaMichelin.com, Frommers.com and countless others. These tips include keeping your tire pressure at the manufacturer's recommended PSI, removing excess weight from your vehicle and using cruise control to maintain a steady speed. Paying attention to fuel economy will only save you so much, however. In this article, we'll explore a couple of other great ways to save money on road trips. First up, let's talk about ways to avoid toll roads.

Avoiding Toll Roads on a Road Trip

Skip the toll roads to save money on your trip.
Skip the toll roads to save money on your trip.
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Americans' ancestors dumped tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxation without representation. Now you too can stick it to the man by eschewing toll roads for more scenic routes. Tolls can be a significant road trip expense. Those of us unaccustomed to paying tolls will receive a rude shock when we reach for our customary .50¢ at a toll like the Delaware Turnpike. That particular toll fee has risen to $4!

Why pay tolls when a myriad of new technologies make it a cinch to avoid them? Here are just a few technologies for a toll-free trip:

  • Internet Mapping Sites: Avoid tolls with the check of a box on Internet mapping sites like Google Maps, MapQuest and others. Just input your start and ending destinations, click "Show Options" (Google) or "Driving Options" (MapQuest) and check the box to exclude toll roads.
  • Automobile GPS Systems: Whether your car came with a GPS unit or you purchased yours from a third-party manufacturer like Garmin or Motorola, most modern GPS systems allow drivers to program routes based on avoiding toll roads.
  • Phone Apps: Printed MapQuest directions tend to get sat upon, lost or covered in chocolate fingerprints on road trips, and not everyone can afford a fancy GPS system. Luckily, your smartphone puts GPS and Internet mapping in the palm of your hand with a myriad of phone applications, many of which enable the ability to program or seek out routes that avoid toll roads.
  • Maps and Guidebooks: If new-fangled technology fails you, many printed atlases, guidebooks and maps mark toll routes. With a little ingenuity and a sharp pair of eyes, you should be able to map out a toll-free route easily to almost any destination.

Now that you've saved money getting to where you're going, let's talk about how to pinch pennies once you arrive. Free places to stop on road trips are up next.

Free Stops on a Road Trip

Beaches are great for inexpensive road-trip fun.
Beaches are great for inexpensive road-trip fun.
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America is jam-packed with free and low-cost things to see and do; you just have to know where to look. A few free road-trip destinations include:

  • The Beach: Pack a cooler of sandwiches, toss some towels in the backseat, and drive to the coast for a day of sand and surf. Though you may have to pay a fee to park, most of America's beaches are free and open to the public.
  • Free Music: Almost anywhere you go, someone is putting on a free show. Find free music coast to coast, from Naumburg Orchestral Concerts in New York City's Central Park to Alameda South Shore Center's Summer Beats concert series in Alameda, Calif.
  • Neighborhood Festivals: Really dive into the character of a place by attending the annual festivals small towns and big city neighborhoods put on each year. Admission is often free and buys an afternoon of complimentary music, arts and crafts shopping, kid's activities, parades, sporting events and unlimited local character. Large cities like Atlanta play host to a number of free neighborhood festivals including the Inman Park Festival, the Decatur Arts Festival, the Dogwood Festival and many more. Smaller towns spend all year gearing up for a big blowout, like the Northwest Raspberry Festival in Lyndon, Wash. Festivals.com is a great resource for finding these events.
  • Museums: Many museums offer free admission on select days. For instance, you can see works of art (from Picasso sculptures to Wedgewood China) for free at NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art's Free Fridays.

Perhaps some of the most famous free stops you can make involve the streets themselves. From Route 66 (Chicago to Los Angeles) to the Pacific Coast Highway in California, the sights along these iconic roadways range from historic to hair-raising. Along the way, you'll find myriad towns to explore -- each with its own unique history, culture and character. So, what are you waiting for? Get started on planning your next road trip now.

But before you hit the open road, you might want to take a peek at the handy links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • "A Brief History." NaumburgConcerts.org. (July 4, 2011) http://www.naumburgconcerts.org/artist.php?view=bio
  • Smith, Michelle R. "High Gas Prices Put the Brakes on Road Trips." MSNBC.Com. April 22, 2011. (July 4, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42708983/ns/travel-seasonal_travel/t/high-gas-prices-put-brakes-road-trips/
  • "Summer Beats Concert Series." AlamedaSouthShoreCenter.com. (June 4, 2011) http://www.alamedasouthshorecenter.com/go/mallEvents.cfm?eventID=2145387304
  • "Travel and Tourism Spending Growth Slows in First Quarter 2011." Bureau of Economic Analysis. June 21, 2011. (July 4, 2011) http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/industry/tourism/tournewsrelease.htm