8 Tips for Planning an Affordable Road Trip

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This family is gassed up and ready for their affordable road trip.

If you love a road trip but your budget isn’t as endless as the horizon, don’t worry, you can still keep your vacation dreams on track. Use these 8 tips for planning an affordable road trip that won’t break the bank.

Choose affordable activities.

Find activities that don’t empty your wallet – most destinations have local diversions you can enjoy for free or at little cost.

City and regional parks offer free concerts, summer theater, hiking and biking trails, and kid-friendly spaces such as splash pads. Be sure to check your destination’s online visitor guide for free activities around town.

Lower your transportation costs.

Thanks to traveler-friendly apps like GasBuddy and Google Maps, it’s possible to cut the cost of driving substantially. GasBuddy will alert you to the lowest gas prices available based on your GPS location, while the “Avoid Tolls” route option on apps like Google Maps helps you find the cheapest route.

Skip the hotel.

If you’ve never tried renting a vacation home, you’re missing a whole world of affordable vacation comfort. A stay in a rental can save you 50% or more on a traditional hotel. Plus, you’ll be getting much-needed privacy and space after being cramped in a car for hours. Look for online vacation rental listings direct from homeowners, allowing you to choose the location and price range that works for you. Many rentals come with amenities you won’t get at a hotel like a full kitchen, free Wifi or washer/dryer combo (key to freshening up your road trip outfits).

Dine for less.

Eating out three meals a day can be pricey, but it’s easier than you think to cut the cost of dining while on your road trip. Since most vacation rentals include a kitchen, shop local for fresh ingredients for at least some of your meals. Likewise, premade picnics eaten at a roadside park are sure to be less expensive than fast food. Save your dining dollars for a few special restaurant meals built into your budget.

Visit lesser-known cities.

It’s wonderful to visit NYC or San Francisco, but it can also be a budget breaker. Exploring smaller, lesser-known cities could save you hundreds in vacation dollars. Decide what you’d like to see, do and experience on your trip and then search for cities with those attractions. If they’re popular vacation sites, cross them off the list and see what’s left.

Instead of exploring Florida’s Route 1 all the way to Key West ($2642 for an average week’s vacation rental stay), stop off a bit earlier in Key Largo ($1641/week). A great example on the west coast is choosing charming San Clemente ($1591/week) over hot spot San Diego ($2003/week).

Travel off-season.

It’s no surprise that you can save big by traveling to popular destinations off-season. That doesn’t mean a beach trip in the dead of winter, but it does mean doing a little research about peak-season prices. Going a couple of weeks before or after peak season can help you save considerably.  Home rentals in hotspots like Cape Cod, the Gulf Shores and Panama City Beach can be up to one-third cheaper in September and October versus peak summer. 

Ask for the gift of travel.

Do your friends or relatives always give gift cards for special occasions? Ask for Visa gift cards you can spend anywhere. Shopping, eating or filling the gas tank with gift cards can pad your vacation budget, big-time.

Split the costs.

Do you have a friend on a limited budget who also loves to travel? Consider sharing the cost of vacation rentals, rental cars, fuel and other vacation expenses.

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Split the cost of this Austin, TX rental for major savings.

Take, for instance, this hip Austin house on FlipKey. It’s newly renovated, sleeps up to six people, and is two miles from downtown.

You’ll be paying $250 per night to stay solo. Split between six friends, though? That’s only $42 per person to live in luxury. That’s ashtray money.

Just remember that sharing the costs doesn’t have to mean sharing every minute together. You’ll stay saner on your road trip if you build in time apart.

Joe Laing is the marketing director for El Monte RV, a nationwide RV rental company. Laing has been on the road working within the travel industry for more than 20 years and greatly enjoys exploring the outdoors.