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Road trips are a rite of passage for many Americans. These driving adventures are full of roadside attractions, eclectic diners and incredible memories. Yet, with high gas prices, many families are understandably reconsidering their vacation plans.
One way to keep your travel plans intact without breaking the bank is to focus on destinations with the lowest gas prices. We let the data speak for itself when determining where to road trip across America for cheap.
The current state of gas prices across the U.S.
As of Dec. 20, 2022, the average gas price is $3.12, according to data from the American Automobile Association. That's down from the record set in June 2022 at $5.02, but is still uncomfortably high — especially in West Coast states, where prices are typically higher than the average. In California, average gas prices are $4.36.
As expected, the average varies widely across regions of the U.S. And one section of the country is heartily below average, ranging from just $2.61 to $2.82: the Southeast. More specifically, the Gulf Coast has the lowest average gas prices in the U.S.
That makes this region a prime target for cheap road trips, and possibly even cheap rental cars for those travelers coming from far-flung locations. Though the costs of getting there and back from wherever you live might not make this as affordable of a vacation as turning left outside of your neighborhood, the region’s low gas prices might still attract those dedicated to a road trip vacation.
Consider driving the GATOR
You may not have yet heard of the GATOR, but this budget-friendly road trip, which runs along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, might just be a route to U-turn toward.
This recommended driving route, more formally referred to as the Gulf Alliance of Tourism Organization Representatives Road Trip, is the invention of Kay Maghan. As the Public Relations Manager of the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism board, she created the regional tourism partnership to "draw attention to the small- and medium-sized towns along the central Gulf Coast that are within a few hours of each other."
Driving the GATOR, road-trippers can experience the local culture unique to the region, including great food, outdoor activities and historical attractions.
And, as Maghan adds, "Alligators."
Here are some highlights along a GATOR road trip:
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama: Tropical Falls at OWA theme park, water park and entertainment district.
Mobile, Alabama: USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park.
Coastal Mississippi (Ocean Springs, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis): Betsy Ann Riverboat cruise on the Gulf Coast.
St. Tammany Parish (Slidell), Louisiana: Honey Island Swamp Tours.
Jefferson Parish (Metairie), Louisiana: Wetland Trace Nature Boardwalk.
Lafourche Parish (Thibodaux), Louisiana: The Bayou Lafourche Historic Live Oak Tour.
Terrebone Parish (Houma), Louisiana: Chauvin Sculpture Garden & Art.
Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes (Lake Charles), Louisiana: Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, one of only 57 so designated scenic byways in the U.S.
How to save money on gas
If your travel guide is dog-eared for another road trip destination in the U.S., there are ways to save money on gas so your vacation plans aren’t derailed. Follow these cheap road trip tips.
Don't buy premium fuel, unless required
As of Dec. 20, AAA's data shows that the average gallon of premium fuel costs $0.77 more than regular gas. On a 20-gallon tank, that's an extra $15 every time you fill up.
A separate AAA study found that 70% of U.S. drivers currently own a vehicle that requires regular gasoline compared to just 16% who drive vehicles that require premium fuel.
You might be overspending if you buy higher-octane gas when it's not necessary.
Inspect and inflate your tires
There’s one quick way to derail a cheap road trip: car troubles.
Before heading out on your road trip, inspect your tires to ensure that there aren't any punctures, bald spots or uneven wear. Inflate your tires to the manufacturer's specifications, which are found in the driver's manual or inside the driver's door jamb.
Avoid idling your engine
Drivers are tempted to idle their engines to keep the car cool inside or to warm up the engine. If you aren't driving, shut off the engine, conserve gas and do a little good for the planet, too.
Remove excess weight from your vehicle
Every extra pound in your vehicle requires your engine to work harder to move it down the highway. Instead, pack light and leave unnecessary items at home — this is one of the easiest money-saving tricks for travel.
Don't accelerate too quickly
Quick acceleration burns extra gas. Rather, use a light touch when accelerating.
Plan efficient routes
Use your GPS to plan your route to minimize mileage and avoid traffic jams.
Take advantage of RV delivery
If is your jam (and hey, it's a smart money move if you want to roll transit and lodging costs into a single budget line item), at least consider RV delivery. Rather than drive from your home state to the starting point of the GATOR, it can sometimes be cheaper to fly or drive your smaller (thus more fuel-efficient) vehicle there, and then have your RV waiting at your first overnight spot.
Find the cheapest gas nearby — and stack rewards
Numerous apps offer local gas prices so you can compare and find the lowest price. Sign up for gas station loyalty programs for additional discounts.
Apps like Upside, TruNow and GasBuddy offer rewards and savings when buying gasoline. There are also loyalty programs specific to gas station companies, such as the Shell Fuel Rewards program, which is free to join.
Here’s how the Shell Fuel Rewards program works:
If you fill up your gas tank at a Shell station with at least 5 gallons six times within three months (essentially twice a month), you earn Gold Status, which earns you an automatic 5¢ off each gallon of gas, up to 20 gallons per purchase.
Even if you don’t shop frequently enough for that threshold, you still earn 3¢ off each gallon.
Unlike credit card points, this is a loyalty program, so you can still use one of our credit card recommendations to pay for the gas while simultaneously earning Shell discounts.
Plus, between now and Feb. 28, 2023, Shell is launching a bonus promotion to celebrate its 10th birthday where you can earn extra gas rewards for participating in online activities on the Shell website like spinning a virtual wheel. Purchases of certain convenience store items can also earn you bonus gas rewards, and the company is encouraging new folks to sign up by offering a 25 cents off per gallon discount after their first fill-up using their Fuel Rewards account (also limited to 20 gallons per fill-up).
These rewards are in addition to what you save from gas loyalty programs and earn from your credit card.
Use credit cards that earn rewards on gas
Certain credit cards offer bonus rewards on gas station purchases. Use these in tandem with the aforementioned gas loyalty rewards programs to double dip on your earnings.
Best credit cards for gas purchases
The best gas credit cards depend on what type of rewards you want to earn. Here's a sample of the rewards you can earn when buying gas on your road trip.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express. Earn 3% cash back on the first $6,000 you spend at U.S. gas stations each year. After that, get 1% cash back. Terms apply.
Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card. Receive 3% cash back on the category of your choice, including gasoline.
Capital One Walmart Rewards Card. Get 2% cash back at Walmart fuel stations.
Citi Custom Cash® Card. You earn 5% on the category that you spend the most each billing cycle, including gas stations. Max of $500 spent per cycle, then 1% thereafter.
Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi. Earns 4% cash back on the first $7,000 you spend at gas stations and on EV charging.
The bottom line
Road trips can be a cost-effective way to travel and see America. You can avoid airport security and flight cancellations while traveling at your leisurely pace. But, with fuel prices much higher than last year, you need to find ways to reduce the cost of gas. Consider choosing a region with low gas prices, like the Gulf Coast, or follow the tips above to make driving more efficient and lower cost in areas closer to home.
Use a credit card that earns gasoline rewards to save money on gas at every fill-up.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card