Updated March 23, 2015

10 Money Saving Tips for a Road Trip

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We've found the secret to saving money on road trips: A big dose of planning. Okay, that might not be much of a secret, but everything from those junk food indulgences to the stomach-churning cash spent at the pump can be managed -- and often minimized -- with a little advance planning.

The tips below will help you plot out your trip beyond just which attractions you'll see along the way. We hope you'll pocket some extra change for your next vacation.

1. Study your route

Before you leave home, scrutinize your route for potential savings.

Is your GPS telling you to go the most efficient way? Can you avoid toll roads and toll bridges, or will the alternative route’s mileage cost you even more? Using Internet mapping sites or GPS, use the setting that lets you select “avoid tolls,” an option that can usually be found under options or preferences.

2. Make a calculated choice about which car to take

If you are a multi-car family, choose your road-tripping vehicle wisely. While the SUV might be roomier, consider the cost in fuel efficiency, even if it’s only a 5 mpg difference.

On a 1,000-mile road trip, taking the car that gets 30 mpg instead of the one with 25 mpg will result in 20% savings on fuel. This calculator from the Department of Energy helps you compare the fuel economy of your cars.

3. Use hotel smarts

While planning your trip, explore hotel loyalty programs, some of which offer huge savings up front in the form of loyalty points (of course, also check your travel credit card for any points you could use toward your stay). Check social media for deals on the hotels in your budget range and download apps for last-minute bookings. Use this USA Today review of hotel apps to find the one that best suits your needs.

Since road trips can be unpredictable, make sure you can cancel without a penalty when you make reservations in advance. Compare costs across a range of hotels. Low- and mid-priced hotels save you money in unexpected ways with amenities like free parking, free Wi-Fi – and no valets or bellmen to tip.

4. Find the best gas price

Fill up the tank in your local area before leaving to avoid having to track down good prices on the highway or in a tourist area. Web sites and smartphone apps such as GasBuddy will help you locate the best fuel prices along your route, but don’t mitigate the gain by going too far out of your way to save a few cents. Those extra miles can gobble up the savings.

It also pays to check prices as you approach state lines. Gas prices can vary widely from state to state, so you might want to fill up before crossing the line or vice versa. Another way to save on gas: Get a professional tune-up before departure for maximum fuel efficiency from your vehicle.

5. Consider a gas card

You can further trim fuel costs on a long road trip by using a credit card that offers discounts or cash back on gas purchases. Do some research on cards based on your own priorities and spending habits to save 3-6% on fill-ups. Our own gas credit card resource will help you navigate the options. And this calculator from AAA will help you estimate your overall fuel budget so that you can approximate the potential savings with various credit cards.

6. Map out your dining strategy

You’ll be off to a good start by choosing hotels with free breakfasts, and eat your big meal at lunch for big savings on lighter evening meals. You can find even more savings with rewards programs for national chains such as Subway and Chili’s. Purchase discounted restaurant gift cards on sites such as Gift Card Granny ahead of your trip for savings of 10% and more. You can save up to 18% on Wendy’s or 10-15% at Outback Steakhouse.

To find those restaurants (with your coupons and gift cards at the ready), use smartphone apps such as such as Yelp and Urbanspoon.

7. Trim your snack food costs

It’s not just lunch and dinner that hit you in the budget. Snacks and drinks can add up to $20/day or more. By shopping at big box stores in advance of your trip, you can trim that number down to less than $5 with 20-cent juice boxes and 32-cent bags of chips (based on Walmart pricing). Buying a case of water can save you 60 cents or more per bottle, or, better yet, use your own container and buy water by the gallon along the way for even more savings (and less weight). Coffee drinkers, take your own to-go cup and fill up with free coffee at the hotel on your way out.

8. Lighten your load

There’s a reason why race cars are stripped of everything but the essentials. Extra weight will impact a car’s gas mileage at the rate of 2% per 100 pounds. While you might not want to go as far as removing the carpet and stereo, at least empty the car of your junk before you throw your bags in the trunk. Every pound can make a difference. For instance, leave the golf clubs at home if you’re not going to use them during your travels.

9. Get the outside of your car ready for takeoff

Think twice about using luggage or bike racks. An empty bike rack causes enough drag to reduce fuel efficiency by 5 mpg, according to a recent Consumer Reports test. While underway, keep those windows closed to decrease drag and optimize fuel consumption.

10. Slow down - it saves more than just fuel

Driving slower will obviously help with fuel economy, but don’t forget how much you’ll save by avoiding speeding tickets. Although the cost varies by state, the average speeding ticket is $150, according to Esurance. This unexpected expense is a double-whammy. It hits you now and later on as a monthly charge on your car insurance bill. Insurance.com reports that one violation can raise your insurance rates as much as 18%, and two violations as high as 34%.

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