Plan a summer road trip without breaking the bank


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Estimating the cost of a summer road trip is a lot like budgeting for any other vacation. The decisions you make — where to stay and where to eat, for example — will determine how much your trip will set you back in the end.

As luck would have it though, road trips are inherently frugal — or at least they should be. When you’re driving around the country instead of flying, you are saving on one of the biggest travel expenses in existence — the cost of airfare. Plus, road tripping offers plenty of ways to save money, particularly if you’re willing to be flexible and creative.

Where do you shower on a road trip?

First things first. As you plan a summer road trip in your head, you may be wondering about the logistics, including hygiene. Where do most people shower on a road trip anyway?

That answer is, it really depends. Budget travelers traversing the country in an RV may have their own bathroom and shower at their disposal, but those driving in a regular car need to make other plans. Options to consider include stopping at campsites for sleeping and shower facilities that you can use for an affordable fee.

Jacob Wade, a budgeting expert and blogger who writes at I Heart Budgets, has been traveling the country with his family in an RV for eight months. Wade says campgrounds provide the bulk of their showers, particularly when they’re staying somewhere with water and sewer hookups. When hookups aren’t available, they may use the public facilities at the campground they’re calling home or go a few days without bathing. So far, their strategy has worked well.

If you’re worried about dealing with expensive campgrounds, make sure to look for affordable options ahead of time. Many state parks let cars enter their grounds for a few dollars, then camp overnight for $20 or less. At Florida State Parks, for example, admission is $5 per car and you can stay overnight for $18. Many of their camping facilities have bathrooms, laundry facilities and showers on-site.

Of course, some budget travelers prefer to stay in a hotel — at least part of the time. To cut down on costs, you can consider picking up a flexible travel rewards or hotel credit card.

What credit card is most versatile for hotels? Some cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® let you earn miles you can redeem for any type of travel, including the cost of hotels or campground fees.

How can I save on gas?

Saving on gas may not be a challenge if you’re road tripping in a Honda Civic, but it could be a pricey problem if you’re traveling in an RV. Wade says he uses an app called GasBuddy to find the least expensive gas along their route. That way, he can stop and fill up at the cheapest station in their vicinity every time.

Another way you can save on gas is by picking up a rewards credit card that doles out bonus points for gas spending. There are many credit cards that fit the bill, but we like the Citi Premier℠ Card since it lets you earn 3x points on travel including gas stations, 2x points on dining and entertainment and 1x points on all other purchases. You can redeem points for travel (including hotels, airfare and more), statement credits, gift cards or merchandise.

How can I save on food?

Wade says finding ways to save on food is one of the biggest challenges his family faces in their RV. They mostly eat organic and there isn’t much storage room, he says. “With limited space and food that doesn’t last long, we end up shopping a few times a week.”

To limit the damage and save cash, Wade says they stick with easy meals like spaghetti and tacos, simple sandwiches and nutritious snacks. “And we always shop by price per ounce to make sure we’re getting the best deal,” he said. In other words, they might buy the biggest container of peanut butter even if it’s more expensive provided the per ounce cost is lower — and they have the room to store it.

This is another area where the right rewards credit card can make a difference. Wade and his wife use cash-back credit cards to pay for all their regular expenses, including groceries. Currently, he’s using a card that lets him earn 2% back on all purchases then redeem points for statement credits to cover food bills plus the costs of gas and campground rentals.

Renting (and insuring) a car for a road trip

Renting a car for a road trip is almost always more expensive than driving your own. However, there are a few ways a credit card could help you cut down costs. First, you could sign up for a card that lets you earn a big signup bonus you can use to cover the cost of the rental. The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is a solid option because you can earn 50,000 miles worth $500 in travel after you spend $3,000 within three months of account opening.

Picking up a credit card with primary rental car coverage as a cardholder perk can also help you save. What credit cards have great perks for car rental insurance? With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example, you get primary auto rental coverage that lets you skip the pricey additional insurance at the rental counter. This coverage is good for the primary cardholder and additional drivers permitted by the rental agreement. It also covers physical damage or theft, towing charges and loss of use charges incurred by the rental company.

Can I use credit cards at toll booths? 

If you do pick up a credit card for your road trip, you can use it for convenience or for earning rewards on the cost of toll booths, gas and more. Additionally, the bulk of credit cards come with fraud protection, meaning you won’t be on the hook for any fraudulent purchases made with your card.

Good reasons to carry cash

However, there are plenty of reasons to carry some cash along as well. In addition to covering tolls when credit isn’t a possibility, you may want to make purchases with small retailers that don’t accept credit (e.g. a bait and tackle shop at a campground) or have cash on hand in case your credit card stops working temporarily.

Remember: Cash is king, but credit cards are way more valuable today thanks to the perks and rewards they offer.

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