- Freelance writer Meagan Drillinger and her partner have been road-tripping across the US since May.
- While working on the road has its perks, Drillinger says the lifestyle ended up being more costly than expected.
- She’s gotten creative with accommodations and figured out how to eat and get gas as cheaply as possible.
This year has seen many Americans eager to hit the road for domestic vacations during the pandemic. But with demand comes a spike in prices, and between hotels, gas prices, dining, and activities, the cost of a road trip can quickly rack up if you’re not careful with budgeting.
At the end of May, my partner and I packed our car up and decided to hit the road. It’s the end of August and we’re still going, with no plans to stop anytime soon. We both work remotely, and we’ve picked up tricks for life on the road to save money. Here’s how.
1. Get creative with your accommodations
The No.1 money suck on a cross-country road trip are the accommodations — especially in recent times when the majority of travelers are staying domestic. Airbnbs saw a 35% increase in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same time last year.
Since we’re on a $2,000 a month budget for accommodations, we’ve gotten creative. We joined Trusted Housesitters, a site where we’re verified and vetted through a closed network of homeowners who need people to watch their homes or pets while they’re away. We also rely heavily on Hotels.com and use a free membership account to unlock special prices and collect rewards.
Lastly, we also use Kampground of America (KOA). A caveat for the true outdoors people: KOA is *not* camping. You’ll see more campervans than you will actual tents or backpacks, but the cabin rentals at the KOA sites are clean, enclosed, and often have electricity and running water. Becoming a KOA member costs $33 and saves you 10% on every booking. On average, KOA cabins range from $54 to $250 depending on the time of year, and tent sites can range from $24 to $80 per night.
2. Find cheap gas
There is no road trip without gas. Unfortunately for 2021 road trippers, gas prices have surged. Sill, there are ways to still seek out cheap gas — we use GasBuddy, an app that shows all the gas stations and prices in the area, either in a list or on a map, so you can see just how far you’d have to drive to save a few cents on the gallon. A few cents here and there may not seem like much, but when you’re operating on a budget and using gallons a day, every dollar counts.
Another bit of advice is to always keep the tank above a quarter full. This has nothing to do with saving money, but it can certainly save you once you start hitting the wilder sections of states where gas stations are few and far between.
3. Drive economically
Driving sensibly saves money. Aggressive driving (read: speeding) wastes gas. In fact, speeding can both lower your gas mileage on the highway and as well as in stop and go traffic.
Another suggestion is to turn off “toll roads” on Google Maps. The E-ZPass toll between New York City and Washington, D.C., for example, is about $35 — each way. Avoiding toll roads often doesn’t add that much time and can save you at least a few tanks of gas in dollars.
4. Eat what you bring
You don’t have to skip every recommendation, but you may want to narrow it down to a “can’t miss” restaurant list to stay on budget.
Pack a cooler of breakfast essentials, sandwich fillings, protein bars, and water to ensure you’ve always got something on hand for when hunger strikes. It also helps to become a loyalty customer at a particular grocery chain like Safeway or Kroger to get special deals.
5. Stick to weekdays and don’t (necessarily) plan ahead
On average, it can be cheaper to check into hotels on Sunday because leisure travelers are typically heading home and business travelers don’t check in until Mondays. Camping over the weekend and saving hotels for the weekdays can also help you save on rates. Plus, if you don’t mind being last-minute, there’s typically more savings when booking accommodations the same week as your stay.
Regardless of how long you plan to spend on the road, these best practices will be sure to serve you and save you money.