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How to save money on road trips

You can’t control prices at the pump, but you can control where else you spend

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
5 min

Soaring gas prices haven’t just made road trips less of a wallet-friendly option; they’ve made Americans reconsider how they’ll spend vacations altogether. While the national average for gasoline has fallen after spiking this summer, overall prices are still elevated — and travelers are feeling pinched.

If you’re looking to hit the road, there are ways to offset the higher fuel costs and keep car travel within your budget. Here are ways to save on everything from food to accommodations.

When you should consider flying over driving

Whether flying or driving will be more cost-effective depends on your destination. “I think the best advice we would give travelers is to compare both,” said Ellen Edmonds, a spokesperson for AAA, who noted that airfares can be impacted by higher fuel costs.

Kerry Mooneyham, owner of the travel agency Midwest Travel Solutions, said that typically on a trip under 700 or 800 miles with more than two people, “it’s always going to be less expensive to drive versus fly.”

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She said online tools such as’s Fuel Cost Calculator can help travelers figure how much gas could cost. Edmonds also noted that AAA’s TripTik travel planner, accessible online or via the organization’s mobile app, allows users to map their road trip to get a rough estimate of what they might spend on fuel.

Economize as you drive

Even once you are behind the wheel, there are ways to cut costs. Edmonds said for most cars, fuel economy peaks around 50 miles per hour. Depending on where you’re driving, if you typically drive faster than that, she recommended reducing your speed to get closer to that range.

She also urged drivers to avoid excess idling. “If you’re going to be stopped for a little bit more than a minute, it’s actually better to turn your car off and then turn it back on,” she said. By doing so, travelers can save fuel.

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Edmonds added that some drivers might fill a car that can take regular gas with premium, thinking it improves performance. “That actually isn’t the case,” she said. “You’re just wasting money.” That said, Edmonds noted, if your car requires premium gas, you need to spring for it. Your owner’s manual will have that information, if you are unsure.

Sanna Boman, editor in chief at Roadpass Digital, said in an email that travelers should take steps to maintain their vehicle, such as keeping tires properly inflated and regularly checking the pressure, which can impact gas mileage. She said not to pack more than necessary “since the added weight will increase fuel usage.”

Shop around for the best gas prices

Tools such as AAA’s TripTik can help users find gas stations and prices along their route, Edmonds said. Travelers can also search for gas using Google Maps or Waze, which display fuel costs at various stations. Insurance company Geico has its own search engine that allows users to find gas stations near a given address with price breakdowns. They can also download apps such as Gas Guru or GasBuddy.

Gas prices change frequently, Edmonds said, and it’s worth checking them throughout your trip. She suggested looking up nearby stations when you get close to a quarter-tank of gas, as any lower than that “is just not good for your car.”

She also noted that gas stations right off the exit of a major highway tend to have higher prices. “So if you go maybe a mile or two down the road, you might find something a little less expensive.”

Reduce food costs

While many highways are dotted with travel-friendly food options, consider packing your own. Before leaving, Boman recommended stocking up on food and drinks that make for easy meals, such as sandwiches, and bringing a cooler with you. Edmonds, too, suggested packing grab-and-go snacks such as trail mix and yogurt.

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“Not only does this save you money,” Boman said, “but it also minimizes stops and keeps you from having to go out of your way to find restaurants, which is especially helpful if you’re traveling in remote areas.”

Emonds said some travelers might cook instead of going out if they are staying somewhere they can do so, and Mooneyham suggested booking a hotel with breakfast included in the rate. “You know, if you’ve got a family of four, you’re saving forty bucks,” she said.

Book hotels early

To save on hotels, Boman recommended against traveling on busy weekends and during peak travel times — with the bonus that attractions won’t be as crowded. If you do travel during those times, she suggested booking as far ahead as possible.

Mooneyham echoed that, noting that during the summer, travelers should reserve accommodations ahead rather than winging it. “It always makes sense to prearrange the hotel instead of just thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll find someplace in Memphis,’ because maybe you will, maybe you won’t,” she said.

Boman added, “If you’re open to alternative accommodations, it’s also worth looking into things like campground cabin rentals.”

Mooneyham said travelers might consider shortening their trip if a given hotel’s rate is too high, staying fewer days in that destination and stopping somewhere else on the way, or finding less expensive lodging. “I think if you’re not getting to do what you really want to do on vacation, you’ve missed the mark,” Mooneyham said. “But there are ways to compromise with yourself.”