7 Money-Saving Tips for a Holiday Road Trip

Group of friends getting the final destination of their trip.

For most people, the holidays are going to look a little different this year: less hugging, more masks, lots of hand sanitizer. In fact, nearly half of Americans say they're going to skip their gatherings altogether.

While it's wise to follow public health guidelines surrounding celebrations, many people will head home for the holidays this year, even if it's to drastically smaller get-togethers. Others may take the time off to get a change of scenery. And many of those travelers may decide to trade in crowded airports for the socially distanced bubbles of their own vehicles.

If that includes you, here are seven tips for saving money and staying safe on your road trip, while still enjoying the journey.

Craft Your Itinerary and Budget

One of the most exciting parts of a road trip is the planning. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Bust out Google Maps and start sketching out your itinerary. You can easily change course by dragging the routed line to see how long different detours would take.

Also super helpful: Roadtrippers, which is specifically designed for picking the perfect route, and Roadside America, which helps you find oddball attractions along the way. Because who wouldn't want to visit the World's Largest Six Pack?

Once you've got an idea of where you're going, it's time to complete the slightly less fun task of creating a budget. You'll need to include gas, lodging, food, activities, parking and tolls; list your estimated expenses in a spreadsheet for quick calculations. (To predict your gas costs, try the Department of Energy's calculator.)

You'll also need to think about how the pandemic will affect your budget and priorities. You'll probably save money on activities, for example, because you won't be hitting up many museums, theme parks or costly indoor restaurants. But you might spend more money on lodging because you won't be staying at hostels or crashing with friends.

After considering all of those factors, make sure your total estimated expenses amount to less than you want to spend. If you need to cut costs, the easiest solution is to shorten your trip by a night or two.

Maximize Your Rewards Credit Card

If you have a travel rewards credit card, chances are it has some features that will come in handy when planning your road trip. For example, your card might offer discounts on hotels, complimentary car rental insurance or inexpensive roadside assistance services. Before hitting the road, read your card's fine print so you can take advantage of any helpful perks.

On a tight budget? Now might also be a good time to redeem your rewards points. If your card allows it, you may get the most bang for your buck by transferring your points directly to a hotel partner. Another good option is booking through your credit card's rewards portal. Although it's easy, redeeming your points for gift cards will usually garner you the lowest redemption value.

Alternatively, if you're in the market for a new credit card, it might be worth considering one of the best cards for gas or travel. You should only apply for a card, however, if you plan to pay the statement balance in full every month. Otherwise, the interest charges will likely negate any rewards you earn. If you're not sure which card to get, you can try using Experian CreditMatch™ to find cards matched to your credit profile.

Check Your Vehicle and Insurance

Once your itinerary and budget are set, you should make sure your vehicle is up to snuff. Check your fluids and tires—and if you've had a "check engine" light blinking for the past six months (no judgment here!), take your car to the shop to see what's going on.

It's better to get issues fixed now, by someone you know and trust, than to break down in the middle of your trip. At that point, you could be forced to take what you could get, and you might also need a tow—which could end up being far more expensive than a pre-emptive trip to the mechanic.

While you're checking the vehicle, check your insurance too. Besides making sure you have adequate coverage, you might want to tack on roadside assistance, or at least see if it's a benefit of your travel rewards card. If you're not satisfied with your plan or price, you can even use this as an opportunity to reduce your car insurance costs.

Embrace the Outdoors

Here's a riddle: What's low cost and made for social distancing? Nature!

This holiday season is the perfect time to enjoy the great outdoors, so search for parks, hikes and picnic spots along your route. Even if it's freezing outside, you could partake in activities such as ice skating or snowshoeing without having to haul a ton of gear.

If you're planning to stay in your home state, see if your state park system has an annual pass, which can save money on multiple visits. Or, if you're traveling further afield, the $80 National Parks annual pass is a great deal. (Those who are disabled or in the military can get one for free, while those age 15 or under receive free park admission.)

Depending on the weather, you can also minimize your road-trip costs by choosing camping over hotels. Use sites like The Dyrt, iOverlander and Free Campsites to find free or low-cost campgrounds along your route, or look for dispersed camping opportunities on public lands.

Make the Gas Last

No matter what type of car you have, gas costs will probably be one of the most expensive aspects of your trip. So do what you can to make the gas last longer: Maintain good pressure in your tires, use cruise control and reduce the car's weight if you can.

You should also be mindful of the way you drive. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), "You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.15 per gallon for gas."

Though you probably can't avoid exceeding 50 mph on your road trip, you can certainly try to avoid aggressive driving. When you're on the highway, the DOE says that speeding, rapid acceleration and braking can lower your gas mileage by a whopping 15% to 30%. Skip the rooftop cargo box, too, if possible as it can lower your gas mileage substantially.

As a bonus, driving slowly and safely will also help you avoid costly speeding tickets. (In Nevada, the most expensive state for speeding tickets, a first-time violation could cost as much as $1,000.)

Become a Snack Queen (or King)

There's something about hours in the car that just makes you absolutely famished. Stave off unplanned (and expensive) drive-thru visits by bringing plenty of snacks.

Some easy, healthy-ish ideas include: trail mix, apples, clementines, ants on a log, popcorn, carrots and granola bars. You can also pack sandwiches or wraps in a hard-sided container.

If your road trip is going to last for several days, bring a cooler. That way, you can stock up at grocery stores and also stash drinks (did someone say iced coffee?). And don't forget a reusable water bottle. The disposable kind are not only bad for the planet, but also your budget.

Download All the Apps

Back in the day, road trips involved pulling out an atlas and hoping for the best. These days, we've got it easy: turn-by-turn navigation, podcasts, restaurant recommendations and more.

To get maximum value and enjoyment from your upcoming road trip, download these apps before setting off—just don't use them while you're driving!

  • Booking.com: Whether you're road tripping in Texas or Tahiti, and whether your budget is big or small, you'll find accommodations on this platform. After completing five stays in two years, you'll also earn Genius Level 2 status, which will get you 15% off at certain properties.
  • HotelTonight: As the name suggests, this app specializes in snagging last-minute hotel reservations. Though its prices are usually comparable to Booking.com, you can sometimes score unexpected deals.
  • GasBuddy: Because of its indispensability to drivers around the country, you've probably heard of this app before. If you haven't, though, just know it helps you find the cheapest gas prices wherever you are, making it a key feature of any road trip.
  • iExit: Driving on the interstate, and want to know what's coming up at the next exit? Ask your co-navigator to open this app; it'll display gas prices, food options and lodging at all the approaching exits, allowing you to quickly decide where to get off.
  • Go Pet Friendly: While not an app, you should check out this site if you're bringing a furry friend on a long-distance road trip. It allows you to search for pet-friendly hotels, restaurants and activities along your route, as well as compare pet fees at different properties.
  • Libby: One of the best ways to pass the time on a road trip is with an addictive audiobook. But buying them can get expensive. Instead, download this app, which offers a seamless way to borrow audiobooks from your local library—for free!

'Tis the Season for … Road Tripping?

When you take a road trip, it's only half about the destination—the rest is about the journey.

So, although this holiday season will be different from any other, the tips above can help you keep your health and finances sound while also creating memories that last.

Just use common sense, watch your budget—and wear a mask!