How to Save Money on your U.S. Road Trip

by Stephanie Withers

I absolutely love to road trip and I do it as often as I can, but I also have to make sure that when I’m traveling, I follow the strict budget that I set up for myself because, well… I’m broke! In this post I’ll highlight all the tips I’ve picked up over the last twelve years of road tripping that can show you how to save money on your U.S. road trip.

I totally understand trying to balance budget constraints with an intense desire to travel. Growing up, my family was pretty broke. While it was hard life, one thing that it taught me was the art of frugality. You find ways to get everything you need and do everything you want to in the cheapest way possible. That’s why you’ll find lots of budget and savings advice peppered throughout my blog. Let’s get down to it, huh?

I absolutely love to road trip. I also have to make sure that when I'm traveling, I follow the strict budget that I set up for myself because, well... I'm broke! In this post I'll highlight all the tips I've picked up over the last twelve years of road tripping to show you how to save money on your U.S. road trip. #usatravel #usroadtrip #roadtripusa

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How to save money on gas.

Gas accounts for a lot of your road trip budget (especially if you’re traveling broke like me!), so I like to do everything I can to keep those costs to a minimum.

Helpful fuel apps

  1. Gas Buddy – This is a great app that uses your location to list all gas stations -and their prices- in your immediate area. You can also search based on amenities like restrooms, restaurants, or a car wash. This app has gotten considerably useful over the years, adding features that allow you to pay for fuel with your Gas Buddy app, saving you a few cents per gallon each time. You can also rate gas stations, upload photos, and alert other users after you. All of these features and more make this a super handy app to have ready all the time – not just on a road trip.
  2. iExit – Road Trippers love this app. Ever been driving down the highway and end up passing an exit that has everything you need because you couldn’t read the signs in time? Well… I have and it sucks when the next exit isn’t for ten miles and there’s nothing there but a disgusting old gas station. iExit uses your location to tell you what’s available at the upcoming highway exits like gas stations (also lists gas prices, but doesn’t offer fuel discount), restaurants, lodging, rest areas, coffee shops, and more. You can even search for what kind of restaurant you want to eat at (Mexican, Italian, etc.) and it’ll let you know what’s available on your route. SUPER handy app.

Take care of your vehicle

Keep up with oil changes and make sure you’re using the right kind of oil recommended by your car’s manufacturer. This makes a big difference in the performance of your vehicle.

Taking care of your tires is super important! Seriously, check the air pressure in your tires before a long drive. I use this little tool – it’s super cheap and you can store it in the glove box. If your tires are low on pressure, it can add strain on the engine and take a toll on your gas mileage. Also, making sure your alignment is right makes all the difference, lessening strain on the motion of your car and making it more fuel efficient.

Do the speed limit. No one likes this suggestion. But seriously, stick to a comfortable speed for your vehicle and use cruise control if you’re willing and able (I personally hate any features of a car that makes it feel like it’s driving for me, so I refuse to use it). We don’t want to rush anywhere. Road tripping is all about slow and intentional travel! And those speeding tickets sure do add up. I’ve only ever gotten one speeding ticket and it cost me a whopping $150 bucks that I hadn’t budgeted for… learn from my mistakes!

Earn some rewards

Fuel rewards are an awesome way to save money on your U.S. road trip. There are a few different kinds of way to earn rewards on your fuel purchases.

  1. GasBuddy – Like I mentioned in the app section above, GasBuddy has a “Pay with GasBuddy” option where they send you a card, kind of like a debit card, that connects to your bank account and you use it to pay for gas. You’ll instantly save 5 cents per gallon at stations all across the country. There are a few already discounted stations that won’t accept the card, but it’s a short list. You can find that and more information here.
  2. Shell Rewards – You can also do the same with Shell. Sign up for their rewards program and save 5 cents off per gallon at any Shell station. They have other reward incentives like earning 10 cents off when you spend $50 or more at restaurants, bars, or clubs and those discounts can be stacked. Learn more here.
  3. Get a cashback credit card. Some credit card companies offer cash back per dollar on fuel purchases, groceries, travel expenses, and more. Check out these Bank of America offers.
  4. Grocery Rewards – Some grocery stores like Giant and Kroger offer a discount at their own gas stations after you spend a certain amount. Giant used to give me 10 cents off per gallon for every $100 spent in their store. They also had coupons every few months where you could earn even more. Check your local grocery chains.

How to save money on food.

The cost of food can really add up. When I travel, restaurants and bars aren’t incredibly important to me. I like to save up a separate pile of fun money to cover restaurant expenses because they can quickly add up and take a HUGE chunk out of your itinerary budget. So, let’s talk about how to save money on the food for your U.S. road trip.

My #1 super obvious tip for saving money on food for your road trip?

Bring your own

I like to take the money that I was going to spend on food for that week anyway and purchase a variety of non-perishable food items. Things that aren’t too messy and can feed me in a pinch. Get yourself a cooler and shop for things like:

  • canned beans
  • tortillas
  • bread
  • peanut butter & jelly
  • those bags of 10-minute rice to cook on my camp stove
  • a jar of salsa
  • nuts & seeds
  • KIND bars
  • pasta
  • canned veggies
  • avocados, apples, bananas, grapes
  • bottled water
  • condiments
  • Gatorade

I’m vegan, but for those of you who aren’t you can pick up tuna packets, CLIF bars, canned white meat chicken, canned spam, and more.

Helpful apps to save money on food

  1. Foodtripping This app works with your location to show you better alternatives to fast food options in your area. Like farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and healthier restaurants. By shopping at farmers’ markets, you can get fresh and healthy food for a fraction of the price of grocery stores all while supporting local businesses.
  2. Ibotta If you do shop at grocery stores, make you get some easy money back. With Ibotta, select coupons from the stores you shopped at, scan your receipt, and BAM. Money back. You can cash out after saving $20. My husband and I use this app every time we go food shopping.

Eat like a local

If restaurants, bars, or breweries are your thing, check out Groupon and LivingSocial for local deals wherever you travel.

I highly recommend eating at local restaurants rather than chains. They usually have great portions for low prices and you’ll get a better taste of the local cuisine that’s made with love.

Besides, if you’re eating a cheesesteak at a place called Philly Cheesesteaks in the middle of Omaha, I can 100% guarantee you that you’re not getting the real thing. Go for the real thing – every time.

How to save money on trip accommodations

If 5-star hotels are the only place you’re willing to lay your head at night, you’re on the wrong blog. I like to sleep cheap -as cheap as I can! So, if you’re feeling open-minded and ready for adventure, keep reading this section.

Free accommodation

There are a few really cool ways to find free places to sleep if you’re more open-minded and willing to try something new. Staying with locals or volunteering for a project is such a great way to meet new people and get involved in the community.

  1. If you love meeting people everywhere you go or getting advice for what to see in a city from a local, then I highly recommend Couchsurfing.
  2. If you’re more of an introvert that doesn’t mind roughing it a little, you could try boondocking which is free camping on public lands. This is a really cool post that tells you how to find free camping spaces.
  3. Workaway– is kind of a work exchange program – on a farm, in a hostel, and various other projects. You’ll volunteer a few hours of work in exchange for a place to stay. Some jobs pay and each job is different.
  4. WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is exactly what it sounds like – volunteer some time helping organic farmers across the country in exchange for room and meals.

Cheap accommodation

These options are less expensive than hotels and a great way to save on your road trip budget. But they add up quick, so I think it’s best to use a combination of all three of these options on your extended trips.

  1. Book a hostel. Hostels are instant community. You reserve a bed in a shared dormitory (or rent a private room – those exist), but you share the property with other travelers. There are shared bathrooms and eating spaces. It’s a really cool way to meet new people from all over who are exploring the same cool place that you are. Each hostel is different – some are themed, some have fun events for its guests like happy hours or pizza nights. For $20-$40/ night, it can’t be beat.
  2. If you’re looking for less primitive camping options than boondocking, book a campground. There are 61 gorgeous National Parks in this country and over 10,000 State Parks. Their camping offers vary from primitive sites, RV hookups, cabins, restrooms, and gift shops.Click here to book your next campsite.

Hotels and rented rooms

Alright, I admit it. Sometimes you just NEED a hotel room. Like after you’ve been camping for a few days and you’re really disgusting and just need a hot shower. Or if you try to camp in Mississippi in August and you get chased out of the state by mosquitoes…. juss sayin’.

  1. Get yourself a good deal! Find your hotel, guest house, B&B, or igloo on Booking.com and you won’t pay any booking fees. They also offer a price match guarantee, so you find it cheaper somewhere else, you let them know.
  2. Check out Airbnb. I stayed in my first Airbnb in Gettysburg, PA and it was absolutely amazing. I loved it. Depending on the home you’re renting, it could be considerably cheaper than a hotel. Airbnb hosts also offer rented rooms and in-law suites.
  3. If you want an entire house to yourself for vacation, check out Homeaway.

How to save money on road trip fun.

Now for the good stuff. We’ve scrimped and saved on fuel, food, and a bed, so now we get to splurge on the fun! But of course you want to fit in as much fun as you possibly can with the rest of your budget, so let’s talk about how to save money on tours and activities for your U.S. road trip.

Book now on Viator
  1. Check out Viator to find awesome deals on tours and activities – from ghost tours, to scavenger hunts, to historical walking tours, and so much more! In their words:
“We know that travel plans sometimes change and this is why most tours and activities can be cancelled for a full refund as long as travellers cancel at least 24 hours in advance! – Check individual tours details for eligibility.”

2. Also check Groupon and LivingSocial for fun activities. My husband and I got 50% off admission to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

3. If you’ll be loading up on museums and public attractions in a major city, check and see if CityPass is available there. They can save you up to 50% on admission prices. Also take advantage of free or donation-only museum days.

4. Use the Roadtrippers interactive map to find a variety of super cool places that are around you. You can change the settings to look for particular things – hikes, offbeat attractions, historical markers, etc. Use it to find free activities!

Using the Roadtrippers app helps find fun things to do along your route.

5. Ask a local. Whether you’re using Couchsurfing or not, you can always ask the locals in the restaurants, bars, or other public areas what they would recommend you check out. Ask about any cool free things that are in their area like street art, public parks, a street performer, or whatever else. They know better than anyone!

The Wrap-up!

There are so many little ways to save money on your U.S. road trip…and all of those little ways could add up in to big savings! So, pick out a few and save as much as you can so you can travel farther and longer. Have fun out there!

Is there an awesome money-saving tip that I’m missing? Comment below and let me know!

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