12 Ways to Save Money (And Have Fun!) on Your Next Road Trip

This site is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as CreditCards.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. What is written in the article is the editor's opinion.

I recently took a road trip from Dallas to Albuquerque to Colorado Springs to Denver – and back to Dallas. It was 1,925 miles and 29 hours of pure asphalt that took us through plains, mountains, and prairies.

I spent time preparing for the week-long journey. And figured how to save cash and have fun on the way. Because that’s a lot of time in a car!

If you don’t plan it right (or at all), you’ll likely spend too much, miss cool opportunities, or generally have a miserable time. And no one wants that. 😾

ways to save on road trips

A little planning = big savings and fun on your road trip

Here are tips to make your next road trip smooth as asphalt.

12 Ways to Save on Road Trips

The great American road trip. There’s breathtaking stuff out there. It’s a beautiful country. And it’s a miracle we can drive all the way across it on highways and interstates.

I usually opt to fly. For this trip, we wanted to drive. But it’s not like we just hopped in the car and left.

Our itinerary from Dallas to Denver via New Mexico

I found ways to save money, earn points, and keep ourselves entertained along the journey.

1. Points for gas

So did you know the Chase Ink Cash is actually a sleeper hit for road trips?

The Chase Ink Cash earns:

  • 5% cash back (5X Chase Ultimate Rewards points) on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year
  • 2% cash back (2X Chase Ultimate Rewards points) on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year

So when I saw this at Office Depot, I snatched up a couple:

Use Fuel Everywhere Visa cards to fill-up at any gas station

They’re Fuel Everywhere Visa cards, and they’re made for road trips.

Boom

You can use them for gas, snacks, oil changes, or anything you can get at a gas station, truck stop, or fuel pump on the road.

How I did it

I got 2 of them for $100 each (the max). There’s a $3.95 fee – but it’s worth it to earn more Chase Ultimate Rewards points. For the 2 cards, I spent ~$208 ($100 + $4 X 2) and earned 1,040 Chase Ultimate Rewards points ($208 X 5).

As a cash back credit, that’s worth $10.40 (which completely covers the cost of the fees). But I value them for 2 cents each when I combine them with a premium Chase card and transfer to travel partners AKA ~$21 or 10% back in value.

Plus, by budgeting ahead, I didn’t have to worry about which card to use.

Note: Sometimes the Chase Freedom has gas as a 5X category (compare it here). And you can fuel up directly without paying extra fees.

The Chase Ink Cash also earns 2X on restaurants and yup, gas stations, so if you don’t want the extra steps, you can still save when you grab snacks and eat on the road.

Save money by comparing

While you’re at it, check out GasBuddy. It shows you gas prices, maps, and charts. Plus there’s a trip cost calculator so you know how much you’ll spend on your trip. An excellent and helpful budgeting tool (also available as an app). 👍

2. Get a toll tag

If you’re gonna be in a toll-heavy part of the country, sign-up for a toll tag and load it up! You’ll earn points if you have a card has travel as a bonus category. And you’ll get discounts over paying cash. Not to mention the time you’ll save.

I found out my Texas toll tag actually works on the Oklahoma Turnpike, so I was all set.

Sometimes they’re unavoidable

Additionally, Google Maps shows you every toll road along your journey. If you don’t want to deal with tolls, mark the “Avoid Tolls” box under “Options.”

Easy peezy

This might add driving time, but save you money. Or in the case of DC to Brooklyn, take the same amount of time.

The choice is clear

I personally hate paying tolls. But I’ll take a toll road if it saves me driving time.

3. Prep your car

Get a tune-up. Change the oil. Fill up your tires with air.

And for heaven’s sake, clean it out. No one wants to sit in a dirty, cluttered car for hours.

Get that nice oil

If you’re going to put major miles on your car (1,000+), spring for the good engine oil.

If your car insurance or credit card includes roadside assistance, go ahead and dig up those numbers. Save them to your phone. You don’t want to be on the side of the road digging through fine print on a mobile website if something happens, touch wood.

4. Prep your house

This is for every trip, really.

  • Unplug your wifi, tv, and everything else you won’t use. Turn off the fans
  • Set your cooling higher or your heat lower – you won’t need it
  • Draw the shades to keep the sun out
  • Make your bed and do the dishes so you come home to a clean place
  • Have a neighbor clear flyers from your door and keep an eye on your house
  • Leave a light on and perhaps a radio playing for safety
  • Board your dog or drop them with a sitter (I personally love Rover)
  • Get self-watering spikes for your plants or ask someone to water them
  • If anything has water in it (a Brita, coffee pot, sink, washer, pet bowl), empty it to prevent mold
  • Consider putting a hold on your mail or have someone pick it up for you
  • Pack perishables as snacks (fruits, cold cuts, juice) or freeze them (meat, bread, etc.)

5. Pre-pay for parking

After all that driving, the LAST thing I wanted to do was hunt and circle for a parking spot in downtown Denver. Noooo thanks.

I used SpotHero to reserve a spot only 2 blocks from our Airbnb. I knew parking would be a nightmare otherwise.

I’m so glad I saved the parking drama and pre-paid. There was a nice discount (about 40% IIRC) and I set the garage address as the destination to make it even easier for myself.

🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻

I loathe having to park in big cities – this really was the MVP. Even better, the garage was covered – so no worries about digging the car out of the snow.

Some hotels have parking garages attached – SpotHero get you a bigger discount than if you pay for parking when you check-in. My new go-to whenever I need to park in a dense city center.

6. Get snacks before you leave

Gas station food is marked up about 150%. Stop by the grocery store and grab some fresh fruit with tough skins (apples, pears, clementines) and nothing too mushy (bananas or kiwi). Protein bars are great. Even sandwich fixins. Whatever you normally like to snack on. Chances are it’s cheaper – and healthier – than what you’ll find on the road.

Although I looove gas station iced coffee. #somethingsneverchange

This is an easy way to save a big amount of cash!

7. Take a Hydro Flask

Yassss! They have water bottles, coffee cups, food containers, and everything else you need to keep hot things hot and cold things cold (or room temp).

hydro flask

I use this for coffee on the go

There are lots of reusable water bottles and thermoses out there. Pick one and get in the habit of using it.

Refill on the go

It’ll save so much waste from plastic and styrofoam from ending up in the world’s oceans and landfills. Every gas station will let you fill up with water at the soda fountain. Plus, you’ll save money on expensive bottled water.

Another plus: hydration! This will add bathroom stops, but it’s important to drink lots of water. You can also rinse it out and use it for coffee, lattes, whatever. I use mine constantly.

8. Plan lunch stops in advance

We knew we’d stop in Amarillo on the way there and Wichita on the way back. So we fired up Yelp and Google Maps and picked a place. That gave us a destination and respite to look forward to.

If you really want to save, and you have a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, you could stop at the warehouse clubs and get a $1.50 lunch deal or cheap pizza. Depending on your route, it might not add too much extra driving. Added bonus: load up on snacks to save even more.

I found it helpful to plan stops in advance instead of winging it. Give it at least an hour if you want a proper meal with table service.

9. Get the Roadtrippers app

This is if you’re planning a slower paced road trip. And want to see all the wacky stops, natural landmarks, and cool local stuff along the way. Basically, if you want to stop and enjoy the journey, instead of zooming straight through.

Find all sorts of neat stops with RoadTrippers

I played around with it and liked the suggestions. It shows you where to camp, outdoor attractions, “weird stuff,” and more. We were of the “just passin’ through” mindset, but I’d consider using this app for a more leisurely trip.

10. Save receipts and split with Venmo

After a while, it becomes hard to track who got this tank of gas, who paid for those snacks, and who owes what.

Our method: stuff all the receipts in the glove compartment with the person’s name written on the top. After we got home, I added it all and we settled up via Venmo.

This is especially helpful if you’re the points fanatic in a group of debit card wielders. Sure, I’ll put it all on my points-earning card and you can give me cash later… 😼

11. Play Heads Up and get the convo flowing

Now for the fun stuff. Heads Up was such a hit, man.

We loved it so much that we played in the hotel room after we got settled. Just pure, silly fun. You put the phone on your head and others shout out hints without saying what the answer is. And it’s all timed. You can also play back a video recording after each round.

Also, Googling “road trip questions” lead to a lot of unexpected conversations, occasional tears, and lots of laughter. Try it!

12. Make a collaborative playlist on Spotify

Another super easy way to keep things flowing during those long stretches of highway.

We each added 40 songs to a playlist and hit “Shuffle.” That way, no one took over the radio and it was completely random. We held our breath in suspense after each song to see whose would play next.

Denver trip tunes

Beats scanning the radio and dodging endless commercial “breaks.” Plus, if you really like a song, it’s all on the playlist – listen and explore when you get back. Also a great way to remember the road trip and think about your adventures. 😺

Just remember, the last 2 options will eat up your phone’s battery life – fast. Bring cables or power banks if necessary. It’s really worth it to have some fun on the way.

Bottom line

Road trips are awesome! With a little planning, you can save big on food and gas, earn points, and have a ton of fun on the way. I found these tips saved me from stressing and added flow and organization on the road. When everything is set, you’re prepared for the whole journey.

Summer (road trip season!) will be here before you know it! Do you have other tips to save money or have fun on the road?

BEST Current Credit Card Deals

See more my favorite credit cards here. Join Ebates and get $10 the first time you shop online to earn cashback!

* If you liked this post, consider signing up to receive free blog posts via email (only 1 per day!) or in an RSS reader and you’ll never miss an update! And thanks for using my links to apply for new card offers!

About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

More articles by Harlan »

Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post. The opinions of the commenters are not necessarily the opinions of this site.

Pingbacks

Comments

  1. Great article. We take Trivial Pursuit game cards to quiz each other as entertainment. Related to your Costco and Sam’s lunch, you don’t have to be a member to eat there.

    Thanks for all of the tips!

  2. Eating hot dogs and pizza at Costco to “save money” misses the point.
    When the hear attack and other health issues strike, the real cost will surface.

    Load up on fruits and vegetables. East salads. heck even buy expensive bananas and apples at convenience stores because they are essential for good health.

    Avoid or reduce processed food during road trips. It clogs your arteries and increased your chances of heart attack, and cancer.

    • Hey Max! I’m definitely in the “eat a salad” camp. But some people still like to have pizza! If they’re going to eat it anyway, might as well save some cash on it!

      Thanks for the reminder to eat healthy! 🙂

  3. Great post – was familiar with some of the apps, but others were new, will download.
    On the Google maps tolls discussion – buyer beware. I have driven DC to NY more times than I can count, there’s no way to get from here to there without tolls. (Even if you subjected yourself to surface roads, you still pay for the bridge to get into NYC).
    That said, there are definitely ways to minimize the tolls without adding travel time. I-295 is a great alternative to I-95 (AKA: The NJ Turnpike), as they run in parallel, only a few miles apart, for at at least 50 miles. This will save you $10 or more of I-95 tolls.
    Toll passes save the day on any road, but if you don;t have them, PLEASE make sure you have extra cash in your pocket. Nothing worse than mapping a trip, thinking all your expenses are budgeted, and then finding yourself at the $17 bridge toll without cash.
    Safe travels!

    • Feel free to recommend other apps – there are so many out there.

      I’d also add it’s a good idea to have lots of change – quarters, dimes, and nickels, because some tolls require EXACT change. So having a variety will help in toll-heavy places.

      And yes, some of those bridge tolls are insane. I believe some take cards, but always good to have some cash on hand just in case.

      Thanks, Marilyn!

  4. Speaking of receipts, do you use software to keep track of those? I got a nice fat letter in the mail from the IRS, and I’m wishing I had really been using something back in 2015, so this process could be much easier. There are so many options out there these days that sifting through it is maddening. I settled on a trial of Expensify (iPhone) for now, but definitely trying to see if anyone has had luck with others. I’m in sales and have a lot of non-reimbursed work-related expenses.

    • I’ve heard of that one. I honestly just use Evernote and sort them into notebooks. It’s so simple to scan the receipts. It does NOT plug into tax software like Quickbooks, so there’s still a manual component to it (adding up the numbers). But I only have to do it once a year, and the tags sort everything, so it’s not too bad.

      I’d love to hear suggestions on this, too!

      • What I’ve found interested in my limited time playing with Expensify, is that if you use their paid service ($5/month), they scan the pictures of receipts for you and do a pretty great job of interpreting the information. The reporting is somewhat robust as well although I don’t have a ton of information I just bought a version of Quicken too, so I’m giving both a try at the same time. It’s tough because you really need to give all of these things the good ‘ol college try before you can tell if they’ll work for you.

        • Yeah for sure. But once you go through that little period, you can be set for a while – so it’s worth it.

          I’ve always heard good things about Quicken. My system is admittedly draconian. One of these days, I’ll download some apps (my taxes are done already this year).

          Oh, I’ve also heard about Shoeboxed if you wanna add that one to your trials! 😉

      • Although I’m also going to try Quickbooks since it integrates with Expensify. I’m going to have a *real* good handle on my finances for the next couple weeks while I use four different systems lol

        • The real power is in the integrations, 100%. If you can find 2 systems that work – and that partner together – that’s solid gold right there.

  5. I have used and both Quicken and QuickBooks. Though Quicken was built for individuals and QB for companies, you could really use either if you’re only doing it to track expenses. (You’ll need QB if you want to create invoices). That said, QB has a great web version – not cheap at $10/mo, but Quicken only has PC and Mac versions available – no fully online option. I understand you can scan receipts and download to Quicken, but if ease of use if the goal, it seems clunky.

  6. In regards to Costco, on my last couple of road trips, there’s usually a Costco within each tank’s distance. I found it great for not only quick lunch breaks, but also a safe/clean bathroom to use no matter where I go.

    Also, to me, the Costco membership is worth it for gas alone. At least in California, the Costco price is usually about 6-12% cheaper than the cheapest gas! I save about $200/year alone just on gas which more than justifies the membership. But this applies to road trips too as I can get everything I need, snacks, bathroom, gas in one convenient place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *