Road trips are generally thought of as the frugal vacation option. But despite the money saved on airline tickets and fees, road trips can be pricey, too.
Between gas, food and lodging, the expenses add up. The good news: A little technology can go a long way. If you’re planning to hit the road this summer, here are some ways your smartphone, and some key road-trip apps, can help you save.
(Note: All apps mentioned are free, unless otherwise indicated.)
1. Avoid toll roads
If you’re unfamiliar with a city, you might find yourself unexpectedly trapped on a toll road. Google Maps can help you avoid this. When you plug in your destination from Point A to Point B, the app automatically populates a list of routes for you. If the route includes toll roads, the app will tell you. To avoid toll roads, simply select “route options,” and then select “avoid tolls.”
And there are options for road trips abroad, too.
“ViaMichelin has a whole suite of apps to help you avoid the eye-wateringly expensive toll roads in Europe,” says Jeff Wilson, host of Real Rail Adventures on Public Television.
2. Save money on gas
“The Gas Buddy app is a popular tool to help travelers navigate to the best-priced fuel in their area,” says Kendal Perez, frugal living expert and blogger at HassleFreeSavings.com.
When you’re on the road and ready for a pit stop, you can simply open this app and find which nearby gas stations offer the best prices.
Gas Buddy is probably the most popular app for gas savings, but it’s not the only one in the game. Here are a few other apps that can help you save money on gas:
- SmartFuel: SmartFuel claims to offer “the most accurate prices available,” as it uses gas price databases.
- Route4Me: Finds the most efficient route for multiple destinations.
- Waze: Designed to help you avoid traffic jams.
3. Find discounted lodging
Depending on the length of your trip, you may need to stop to rest your head. Perez suggests Hotel Tonight, an app that finds last-minute hotels at deeply discounted prices.
“These rooms are offered up to 70 percent off because hotels would rather have occupants at a lesser rate than an empty room,” Perez says. “You don’t want to end up at your destination without a nice hotel room to catch up on some ZZZs.”
The available hotels range in class from “Luxe” to “Basic.” What’s more, you can use a referral code from a friend and receive a $25 discount when you book your first room. Your friend will also receive a discount.
If you’re in a more rustic mood, consider checking out FreeCampgrounds.com to find free or cheap camping spots, Wilson says.
“We tend to stay in national forests, and now many NFs have their own apps, listing camping and other recreation opportunities,” he says.
Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” feature might also be helpful for on-the-go lodging. Thomas Nitzsche of ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions suggests using it in tandem with the website, Bidding for Travel.
That site maps hotels and tells you their star rating, giving you a better idea of what you’re bidding on. It also discloses winning bids from other users.
“I have picked up high-end hotels for as little as $40 a night and cars for as little as $9 a day,” Nitzsche says.
4. Make frugal food stops
During your road trip, you’ll likely want to stop for food. Perez suggests using your smartphone to help you browse Yelp reviews and discounts.
“You can also use daily deals in local areas to save 40 percent to 60 percent off dining. While you can buy vouchers from Groupon and LivingSocial on the go, make sure you’re using a secure Wi-Fi network before hitting ‘buy.'”
To save even more money, you can search for nearby grocers, Wilson suggests.
“We use Google Maps to find a good grocery store or deli, then use Google Maps to find a park where we can eat. In the old days, we used to have to get off an exit and drive around for a while to find the grocery and park, wasting time and gas.”
5. Explore cities for less
Your phone can help you frugally navigate metro areas during your trip, too.
- Parking: SpotHero helps you find discounted parking in major cities.
- Shopping: Perez suggests the Coupon Sherpa app, which allows you to search for available coupons nearby.
- Landmarks: Perez adds that the Roadtrippers app points to nearby landmarks, making it easy to plan free or discounted activities. Wilson says that TripAdvisor offers free city guides that you can download and access offline.
- Restaurants: Again, apps like Groupon or LivingSocial might come in handy when searching for food. Nitzsche tosses the Restaurant.com app into the mix. The app lets you search for discounted restaurants, based on your location. “Using this tool can provide deep discounts, but it works best in larger cities where there are more participating restaurants and better selection,” Nitzsche says.
6. Find free Internet
To stay online on the road, consider using an app like Wi-Fi Finder, which, as its name suggests, helps you find free and paid Wi-Fi spots nearby. WeFi is a similar app. It offers a list of over 100 million Wi-Fi hot spots globally. Some of these hot spots are in rural areas.
Your smartphone can be a helpful tool for keeping costs down during a road trip. Of course, there are a few precautions to keep in mind when using your device on the go.
“Make sure you bring along your charger to keep your phone juiced, and also be aware of your data limitations,” Perez says. “You don’t want to pay overage fees for overuse during your road trip.”