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Money-saving tips for the road

Updated on March 30, 2007

How to do a road trip on the cheap

The cost of a road trip has gone up significantly in recent years due to increased prices, especially fuel prices. The road trip is far from dead, though. Here are some ways to do a road trip on the cheap.

Fuel

One of the most obvious expenses, now that gasoline routinely flirts with $3 per gallon in many parts of the country. It is hard to avoid paying these higher gas prices, but there are some ways to at least cut back on the pain a little bit.

Fuel prices vary from one town or state to another. Airlines are well aware of this, and use it to their advantage. If Baltimore has cheap fuel prices, they will top off a plane while it is in Baltimore, even if it still had half a tank or more remaining. That way, if the plane's next stop is in a city with expensive fuel, it can forego buying any fuel there and still have enough in the tank to make it to the next city.

Road trippers can do the same, to a certain extent. The difficulty, of course, is figuring out whether the gas prices in a particular area are "cheap", or whether they will be even cheaper an hour down the road. You can get a good idea of what constitutes a low price by watching the gas station signs as you drive along, but it still amounts to guesswork. There are some general trends that can be helpful in predicting fuel prices in different areas, though:

  • Large metro areas (like Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, and New York City) tend to have higher fuel prices than smaller cities. This may have something to do with emission regulations, and additives they have to put into the fuel there. Regardless, it generally helps to fill up before you enter a very large city.
  • Very small towns, with only one or two gas stations, usually have higher gas prices than medium-sized towns.
  • The cost of transporting the fuel to the station makes up part of the price you pay at the pump. So, if a place is hard to get to, the fuel prices there will usually be higher.
  • If you are in a remote area where there is a 90-mile gap between gas stations, the prices at each end of that 90-mile gap are going to be more expensive. It's simple supply and demand. Don't fill up at the "last gas for..." station; fill up 2 or 3 stations before that.
  • The east and west coasts have higher prices than inland areas.
  • Truck stops along interstate highways almost always have the cheapest fuel prices.

Food

Forget packing light. When trying to save money, I pack everything, including the kitchen cupboards.

It is always cheaper to prepare your own food than to eat out, and it is always cheaper to buy drinks and snacks at a grocery store rather than at a convenience store. So, load a suitcase or box with non-perishables, and load the ice chest with drinks and food from the refrigerator. You can save money, time, and your waistline, since most people eat more at restaurants than at home. Sure, checking out the local cuisine can be part of the fun on a road trip, but you probably do not want to do it for every meal.

Some good foods to pack: sandwich fixings are the easiest, since they don't have to be cooked. Fruit is a portable and healthy choice-especially bananas, which are cheap and don't require refrigeration. You might also include a camping stove, or at least a lighter, and some campfire food, because there is another way to save money on the road: camping.

Lodging

Some might balk at any sort of "roughing it", but hotels can be a major expense on long trips, and car camping is a good way to cut back on those costs.

I carry a tent, sleeping bag, and a padded cot. The latter I bought for $40 or so at Wal-Mart, and provides a place to sleep about as comfortable as your standard motel bed. Sure, you give up some luxuries like TV and perhaps a shower, depending on where you camp, but you are still better off than travelers 150 years ago.

And, if you end up sleeping in your car at an interstate rest area, there is always the option of paying a few bucks at a truck stop to use their shower. I've never been brave enough to try that, personally, but it is an option.

You don't have to "rough it" too much to save money, though; I usually alternate nights spent camping with nights spent at a hotel or with friends and family. And I normally stay at some pretty cheap hotels, which leads to my final tip: always ask to see a room before you agree to stay at a hotel/motel. If you check around, you can usually find a cheap hotel with pretty decent accommodations. But I have been to hotels that have some good rooms, along with some not-so-good rooms. If you ask to see a room first, they will give you the key to a good room, because they want to get your business. If you then decide to stay the night, the good room you saw is the one you get.

So, even if you have stayed at a hotel in the recent past and found it to your liking, you should still ask to see a room before checking in again. Just a little advice from someone who learned the hard way.

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