It is time to plan summer vacations. If you are planning to fly to your destination, now is the best time to start setting up price alerts for the plane tickets and signing up for credit cards if you want to use the miles and perks that come with carrying a particular airline card. With an infant, we don’t relish the thought of flying; so this year we’re looking into a road trip for vacation. Just because we can drive to our destination doesn’t mean we don’t have to plan for it. A road trip can easily break the budget too. Here are some of the best tips I compiled to help us keep our expenses low.
PREPARE YOUR CAR
- Do a mini maintenance: Make sure your car is in good condition. Before your road trip, do a mini maintenance to see if your tires are properly inflated. Then check your brake pads, fluids, battery, wipers and the lights.
Keep your destination in mind when you are doing the maintenance. When I was living in Southern California, I never used the wipers more than a few days of the year. So when I went on a short road trip to Big Bear Lake, it never occurred to me to check my wipers. I arrived in the middle of a heavy snow storm and my wipers gave up within a minute. (I learned my lesson.)
- Save money on rental car: Create a separate travel email and sign up for the newsletters of different rental car companies. Look through them once a week and see if there are any good deals you could use. After you book the car, continue this exercise once every few weeks to make sure you still have the best deal.
You could also outsource the task to a site like Autoslash. They will take your reservation and keep checking if the price drops. I like to check the bidding sites like Priceline or Hotwire as my vacation date gets closer as well.
PLAN YOUR TRIP IN DETAIL
Some people like spontaneous road trips; I like to plan. Planning is part of the enjoyment for me. Planning helps me keep my trip within budget and still allows me to discover cool, new places to visit.
Lose your car in big cities: In some cities, the parking can run hundreds of dollars for a few days. Look up the parking rates of the hotels and the parking garages near the attractions before you go. Consider parking in a garage just outside the city and taking public transit too. For example, when visiting New York City, you can save quite a bit by leaving your car in a garage near a transit station in New Jersey and taking the train into the city. Taking your car to every attraction, paying for parking and the tolls in a city like New York will just add needless expense to your vacation.
PACK THE RIGHT GEAR
After wearing flip flops to Chicago in early fall, I learned to pack the right gear. Checking the weather at your destination and packing all the right gear will help you save a lot of money and the need to frantically look for a place to buy winter gear. Think about how you will store these items in the car too, so they’re accessible when you need them.
LOOK FOR DEALS ON LODGING AND MEALS ON THE WAY
- Cook your meals: One of the best ways we save money while vacationing is finding a place with a kitchen. We make breakfast and lunch ourselves, and just eat out for dinner. We have also tried carrying a small electric rice cooker. Find a few great soup mixes at REI or World Market which you prepare by just adding water, cook a small batch of rice, and you have a great meal. If you don’t mind cold sandwiches, you can always whip one up with a stop at the supermarket even if you don’t have any utensils.
- Save money on eating out: If DIY meals are not for you, then start looking at different forums like TripAdvisor and Yelp to find restaurants that offer a good value, especially if you are travelling with kids. Look for restaurants that let kids eat for free. Check out the city’s newspaper and travel brochure for coupons at local restaurants. If you will be dining mostly in a chain restaurant, sign up for their email newsletters to get coupons to use on your trip. It might also be a good idea to start collecting gift cards for those restaurants, either via credit card rewards programs or through discounted gift card sites.
- Save money on lodging: Similar to the rental cars, sign up for deals with the hotels. Call the hotels directly. (Sometimes this will get you the best deal.) If you are not particular about which hotel you get, you can try Priceline or Hotwire. Though for big cities, they are not my first choice of booking because the parking at some hotels can cost up to $40/day and ruin any savings I made by blind booking. You can try sites like betterbidding.com or biddingfortravel.com to make an educated guess on the possible hotels you might win.
SAVE MONEY ON GAS
Map out your optimal route: You don’t have to map a strict route — where’s the fun in that? But it is always better to have a map on hand instead of getting stuck somewhere without cell signal.
Plan gas stops before your leave the house: I have been using Gasbuddy.com for years now. It is a great way to plan the gas stops instead of driving around looking for a cheaper gas station. You can also use GasBuddy to check the approximate cost of the trip so you can budget for it.
Sign up for related rewards programs: Is there one particular chain that you will be using most of your trip? Sign up for their rewards program. You might be able to save few cents a gallon or get some snacks for free at their convenience store.
FIND FREE OR LOW-COST ENTERTAINMENT ALONG THE WAY
If you have the flexibility with dates, look up the free or discounted days in museums and parks, and plan your trip around those dates. Even if you don’t, try googling “free attractions [your destination city]” and that should point you in the right direction. If you don’t have the time to look through all the results, try the AAA TripTik travel planner app or the Yelp app to get you started in the right direction.
What do you do to save money on your road trips?