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Tips For An Affordable American Road Trip

Updated on March 8, 2015

Road trips are one of the great American past times. With a country so big, one would be crazy to not take the time to see it. From the history of the east coast, beaches in Key West, desserts and canyons of the South West there is so much to see. What once was a cheaper way to travel, by car is becoming quite expensive due to 3.50 to 4.00 per gallon gas prices. Although gas is sky high, you can still enjoy our country’s past time. With a little planning and a little patience, these tips can help you enjoy an affordable road trip.

I have recently decided to take a road trip out West with a friend and my five year old son. The plan is 6 weeks and about 8500 miles. There is between 30 and 35 stops, though it will probably change a few times. As I get geared up for my travels, I of course Google some tips. I didn’t find much and the same “Top Ten” were found. So not sure how many, but here are some tips from a weathered traveler, known to my family as the gypsy. I will start with the road trip trifecta, where most of your money is going to go and end with a few random tips. As always, if you have a good tip, let me know.

Gasoline

Well this is one thing you cannot do without. For the price of a gallon of gas, you want to make every drop count. First, before you even pull out of the driveway, an oil change and once over should be done to your car. Not only will this say you time and energy, but money too if it saves you from overnighting parts to some obscure town in South Dakota. Also wouldn’t hurt to keep some extra windshield cleaner, anti-freeze and oil in your vehicle.

Make sure to keep your tire pressure correct, this can turn in to big money as the miles pass by. Same with oil, keep your oil clean to let your engine and gasoline last as long as possible.

Where you buy your gas is also important. You want to stay close to larger cities, though not too close. Ten or so miles outside of major metropolitan areas will have enough competition to keep prices low, without having downtown prices and traffic.

Drive your cars honey spot. Yes that’s right, it is not always fifty five. You should figure out what speed your vehicle wants to go, my optimal gas mileage is usually around 65 or so. Five miles an hour can cost you an extra tank or two of gas, and save you only a few moments. You are not in a rush are you?


Food and Drink

This is another one of those expenses that can get large, very quickly. All you need to do, is plan ahead a bit.

My first tip in this category may sound a bit strange, however you will thank me if your trip is over a week long. Bring an alternative way to cook, like an eye burner or even a small toaster oven. I bring both. Although I will admit that most hotels may not care for it, the ability to cook your own food is invaluable in my opinion. Not only will you save loads of money, you will also feel better not being weighed down by fast food and gas station crap.

Bring some of your own food. There are many reasons for this. Yes, there are grocery stores everywhere in America, however you may find yourself spending too much in obscure places. It may also be very beneficial to have a few things on hand if it is not optimal to go shopping.

Try to make your “restaurant” meals for lunch. One of the greatest thing about traveling is sampling the specials in each area like gumbo in New Orleans. Eating off the lunch menu instead of dinner can give you smaller prices as well as more realistic portion sizes. So experience those delicacies in all the regions you travel with half the price.

Keep a cooler in your vehicle, sized for how much room you need. Ice is available at most gas stations for a buck or two. Bring your own snacks to the beach, your own picnic to the park or rest area on the way. Many places have these nifty little insulated backpacks that are great for packing a lunch on the trail.

Accommodations

Well you have to stay somewhere don’t you? Where you stay will have a lot to do with your comfort level. I can rough it a bit and accommodations are a great place to save some money, as well as try something new. Or relive something old.

Camping is a no brainer. Saves you a lot of money and takes you back to adolescence. There is a million state parks in America and most of the camping is around 20 dollars or so a night. A few places are a bit higher, `but State and National Parks are usually the way to go. Some popular destinations in the heat of summer will be full fast, some web sites state before noon.

Sometimes there will be areas that camping is not feasible or you just want an actual bed to lay your head in. This is a great time to choose who you book through wisely. Hotels.com and other sites offer free nights when you book so many days through them. This can save you hundreds of dollars, depending of course on how long you are gone.

If you are not into pre-booking, you can always try getting walk-in specials. While some hotels will snub your cash, most will not. I usually will check the area on my phone and get an idea of prices. Then, you go to the front and ask them about cash or walk-in specials. There is room for negotiation in hotel pricing, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. I have gotten some awesome rooms for nowhere near the asking price.

Lastly, there may be times that you find yourself in a place that does not have camping options or decent priced hotels. In this moment, the best thing to do, might be to start on to the next destination and pull over at a rest area when you get tired. Always bring pillows and blankets with. The cheapest accommodation, can sometimes be your vehicle.

After your road trip trifecta, the fourth money pit will be activities. You have to find something to do all those days on the road, because the experience is really what it is all about.

National parks are a big thing here in America and they are a great affordable activity for your trip. Most will run between 10 and 25 dollars per car, which will give you access for the next consecutive seven days. To save even more money, there is an all-access pass that can be brought for around 80 dollars which will cover the holder and carload. So if you are planning on more than a few of our great national parks, it would be worth it to get the pass and maybe add a few more parks to the trip. Some of the great parks that I plan on seeing with the pass are Badlands, Petrified Forest, Yellowstone National Park and Sequoia National Forest. There are of course many more wonderful parks to see here in the country, so whatever you are into, there is probably one for you.

When you are figuring out your road trip, try to do some Googling of the towns you are in. Instead of the “Things to do” search, you may have better luck with “free things to do in…” A lot of places will have personal blogs from area residents that will know all the greatest spots. Anything from fossil parks in Iowa (apparently it used to be an ocean floor), marina style boat museum in Seattle or Falls Park in Wichita. Find out from the locals, they will know the best places to go, they will also know the best prices.


In the end, enjoy the road trip. Overestimate for padding and have a great time. Spend the money on what you want and compromise for the things that are not that important. That last twenty bucks might be just what you need for a great hand crafted swan vase (or whatever it is that speaks to you). If you have any other ideas how to save money on a road trip, I would love a few more ways to go farther on my road trip dollars.

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    • Danida profile image

      Danida 

      4 years ago from London

      @kaiyan717: You've put my mind at ease! I'll be sure to get one of those stoves.

      I hope you have fun on your trip! I'd hit Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon, Cadillac Ranch, and definitely drive down a desert road!

    • kaiyan717 profile imageAUTHOR

      kaiyan717 

      4 years ago from West Virginia

      I hope you get to do you American Road Trip, I go in a week and am super excited. One of my travel dreams is to go on your side of the pond and backpack for a few months :) Gyms are not an issue, most parks have hundreds of miles of canyons and trails to explore. Dietary issues is why I suggest a small eye burner or a little propane camp stove.. Most times I buy for a couple days at a time, make up a couple salads in tall containers, dressing on bottom so they don't get mushy. Fresh meat and fish can be accomplished with nightly trips to the supermarket or grabbing ice everyday with a cooler. It is well worth it, I hope you get to do it. Thanks for commenting and reading.

    • Danida profile image

      Danida 

      4 years ago from London

      An American road trip is my biggest dream. I would LOVE to do it in a '67 Mustang too! I love these tips, and I'm sure when the time comes they will be handy!

      I'd love to just drive all over, with no home but the road and the motels.

      There's just one problem with my dream though. I am very dedicated to going to the gym, and I eat a keto diet (no carbs) and very clean foods. It might be very difficult for me to eat fresh fish, steak, eggs, cheese and nuts every day. As for the gym I'm sure there are tons of gyms in all corners of America.

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