Road warriors, rejoice! With gas prices hitting a seven-year low earlier this year1, there's no time like the present to rev your engines for a weekend getaway or extended vacay. (Cue the movie montage: the convertible top’s down, the wind blows through your hair…) Yet, what seems like a budget-friendly jaunt when you pull out of your driveway can quickly become pretty pricey, even with reasonable fill-up costs at the pump. Keep costs down by avoiding these five road trip mistakes:
Mistake #1: Giving a Thumbs Down to the Tune Up
Worst-case scenario: You're on the side of the road with a smoking engine or pancake-flat tire … 87 miles from the nearest gas station. Better-but-still-bad-case scenario: You're burning through more fuel (and money) than you should be. Tuning up your car can improve gas mileage by an average of 4 percent.2 Same for under-inflated tires—though the savings aren't quite as significant, at an improvement of about 0.6 percent on average. But since every penny counts, don't blow yours out the tail pipe
Mistake #2: Fueling Up Just Anywhere
Stop settling for the nearest nozzle when there could be a cheaper one right around the corner. How to know? Well, there's an app (or two) for that. Lisa Rowan, lifestyle expert at The Penny Hoarder, recommends downloading the GasBuddy or Waze apps, which clue you in to the cheapest gas prices in the neighborhood. "The cheapest gas prices in town could be two blocks over, and you won’t have to waste time or money driving around to compare prices,” Rowan says.
Mistake #3: Ignoring Hotel Websites
We all know travel aggregation sites are the cheapest places to book hotels, right? Not so fast. In the past year, hotel chains have announced that they will give better prices to people who book with them directly rather than booking through Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity. The reason? Hotels are tired of paying commission to middlemen and losing business to Airbnb. But that doesn’t mean you should skip the travel sites altogether. Instead, use them in tandem with a hotel website to compare and find the cheapest room. “Travel aggregator sites make the price-comparison process way less cumbersome,” says Rowan. “I recommend travelers use them to create a shortlist and then check in with each hotel directly to see if there are special rates or discounts available.”
And if you clock at least a few trips a year at a hotel, definitely join the loyalty program (it’s usually free!). From complimentary Wi-Fi to room discounts, “the rewards can rack up quickly,” says Rowan.
Mistake #4: Snubbing Free or Low-Fee Lodging
Lodging is not only the most expensive line item on any road-trip travel budget—it's also the one with the most savings potential. Often, travelers don't take full advantage of all the cheap options out there. And saving money doesn’t have to mean checking into some super cheap hotel that gives you the willies, either. (Bates Motel? #nothanks). Couchsurfing.com, for instance, allows you to connect with a network of vetted hosts offering up their sofa for no charge. And there's always the great outdoors: If you've already got the gear, camping can be an economical way to see the country without emptying your wallet. One bonus of hitting the open road instead of flying is that hauling your tent isn’t a hassle! Check for free sites along your route with FreeCampsites.net or free (and cheap) options with USCampgrounds.info.
Mistake #5: Buying Every Meal on the Road
Sure, the drive-thru seems quick and economical, but those McNugget® receipts add up fast. Before you leave on your trip, take a spin through your favorite grocery store to stock up on cheap basics like fruit, granola bars and sandwich fixings (PB&J!) to store in a cooler, so you can occasionally make lunch or dinner while en route. "If you make a pit stop at a local park or campsite, you can enjoy your meal in the fresh air,” Rowan suggests. Break out the blanket and enjoy the scenery—you’ll also avoid spilling strawberry jelly on your steering wheel.