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If you’re trying to save money on travel, deciding to take a road trip instead of a flight can be a great start. Road trips give you more flexibility in your schedule and more freedom in your itinerary, and the savings can be significant, especially if you’re traveling with a few friends or family.
But you'll still have to open your wallet on the open road: The cost of food, gas and hotels can really add up. Here are a few ways to save money on the journey ahead.
Pack the snacks and cooler
As appealing as the familiar golden arches of the nearest McDonald’s look, the truth is you know what a Big Mac tastes like, and it’s not doing your wallet or waistline any favors. Save money on food by strategizing which meals are worth eating out and packing food for the rest.
Get your road trip snacks at the grocery store, instead of the gas station, so you can buy cheaper and more economical bags of chips, pretzels, candy and maybe even some fresh fruit. For lunch, pack sandwich ingredients like peanut butter and jelly or cold cuts and cheese. Don’t forget jugs of water or soda to save on the drinks, too.
Taking a cooler for the car could also be a game changer. Not only will it keep your snacks and drinks cold, but it also gives you the ability to store some leftovers from the meals you do eat out.
When you decide to eat at restaurants, make sure you charge your meals on a credit card that gives you extra rewards for dining. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which earns 3 points per dollar spent at restaurants, will help you gather points you could use toward future travel. You might even be able to earn bonus points by enrolling in a dining rewards program and using your card at certain restaurants.
Download your maps and music
One surprise expense for road trippers could actually be your phone bill. Unless you’ve got an unlimited-data plan, things like navigation apps and music streaming can devour a huge chunk of your monthly allowance.
Luckily, there are easy ways to get around your cell phone’s data limits. Download Google Maps for offline use or take a screenshot of the directions, so you’ll know where to go without a data-draining blue arrow tracking your car’s every move. At the very least, turn off the navigation for long stretches on the highway and turn it back on when you need more detailed directions.
It wouldn’t be a road trip without a playlist of sing-along tunes, podcasts or audiobooks, but make sure you download the playlist offline, so it won’t use up your data. Plus, you won’t ever miss a beat when cell service is spotty.
Get an E-ZPass
The fees on toll roads can really slow your roll, so find out if you can save money and get through tolls quicker with an E-ZPass or a different type of transponder. Some toll roads and bridges actually give discounts to people who use this electronic type of payment. These are sometimes necessary for you to be able to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes, another time and money-saving tactic for getting around cities when you’re traveling with multiple people.
Plan your gas stops
A little planning goes a long way toward saving money on gas. Use an app like GasBuddy to check out area gas prices and try to time your route so that you’ll avoid big cities and congested highways during rush hour. The stop-and-go traffic will make your trip longer and eat up gas quicker.
If you’ve got a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, use it on the road. Or, like your restaurant spending, you can also use a credit card that offers gas rewards. The Wells Fargo Autograph℠ Card, for example, will give you 3 points per dollar spent at gas stations.
» Learn more: How credit cards are fueling bigger gas savings
Find accommodations with parking
There are a lot of different ways to save on accommodations, but the best advice for the average road trip enthusiast (especially in cities) is to find free parking. It’s not always included with hotel room rates, and Airbnbs don't always offer it. Save yourself the annoying daily parking fees, the worry of getting parking tickets and the stress of trying to street park every night by finding a place to stay that includes parking.
Eager and adventurous road trip travelers might also be able to save on accommodations by camping, instead of booking a hotel or Airbnb. The website freecampsites.net has some good tips for finding public lands that will let you pull over and stay the night for free.
Visit free attractions
The road trip is all about the journey. Make your stops more affordable by visiting free attractions when you need to stretch your legs. Bring a soccer ball for the kids so they can play at a local park, playground or beach. Go on a hike. If you’re visiting multiple national parks in one trip, consider getting an annual pass to save on the entry fees. Look up free museums or festivals.
» Learn more: How to find cheap things to do in any city
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 2023, 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