7 tips for a frugal, hassle-free road trip
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Plan your driving vacation in detail
With the airlines assessing charges on everything from blankets to baggage, this year may call for a summer road trip to save money.
“Taking a driving vacation is popular right now because air travel is too costly. Just make sure you plan ahead and take a break that you can afford,” says Deatra Riley, financial education manager for CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling service in Atlanta.
To help you save money, here are some trip tips for packing correctly, preparing your car, planning your route, saving on gas and more.
Finance the trip
Riley says you don’t have to be debt-free to take a summer road trip.
“It can take four to five years to pay off credit cards, and not taking a break during that time can be tough on your kids,” Riley says.
You’ll want to start a savings account prior to your planned escape, and when you have the dollar amount you need, use that first. If you received a tax refund, you can include 10 percent of it but don’t dedicate all your refund to travel, Riley says.
A prepaid credit card can help to keep you within your budget. Just make sure it doesn’t have excessive fees associated with it.
To avoid going into debt, save money with a detailed budget for what you’ll spend on lodging, meals, activities and gas. Include about 10 percent over that estimate for unforeseen expenses like car repairs or medical expenses.
“You should also take some cash in case you run into a place that doesn’t take credit cards,” Riley says.
Another way to save money is to limit your time away to less than 10 days.
Prep your car
You and your family are going to be spending a considerable amount of time in your vehicle so you’ll want to make sure it’s clean, says Berry Ross, an agent for Hertz in Los Angeles.Tires are extremely important. Your tire pressure should match the specs in your owner’s manual. If your tread is low, buy new tires. If the tread wear is safe, then have the tires rotated.Also check the indicators, headlights, and brake and interior lights by turning them on and off. Make sure the horn is working, and check your wipers, brakes, transmission fluid, antifreeze and oil.
“Of course, you’ll want to leave home with a full tank of gas,” Ross says.
If you’re venturing more than 1,000 miles from home, consider renting a car to avoid wear and tear on your car, Ross says. Rental cars already have the maintenance done for you.
Pack the right stuff
Traveling with the right necessities will help to lower the stress and save money on your vacation. Paul Shrater, co-founder of Minimus.biz, retail specialists in all things travel-sized, says you should include maps, flashlights, an emergency blanket, rain ponchos, hand warmers and three days’ worth of water and food. The food can be nutrition bars or trail mix.
Ross recommends an emergency kit as the No. 1 item in your car. You can buy one prepackaged or create your own. Include bandages, gauze, ointment for cuts or stings, aspirin, children’s aspirin and a thermometer.
You may also consider an entertainment device for the children like video games or a DVD player.
If your vehicle isn’t equipped with a GPS, then either buy a portable one or use the GPS app on your smartphone to keep from driving unnecessary miles.
Map your route
When plotting your trip, decide first on the farthest point you want to go, says John King, travel research coordinator for AAA in Bellevue, Wash.
“I like to return on a different route than the one I took,” says King. “That way you … can enjoy the flavor of the geography and the people.”
Decide how many miles you’ll cover each day and plot your route accordingly.
To avoid major road construction or traffic problems, consult AAA maps if you’re a member, consult state department of transportation sites or rely on the phone number 511 (available in most states) for information on what you’ll encounter on the road.
To avoid traffic delays in large cities, don’t drive between 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. or 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and use bypass routes, if possible.
Locate deals on lodging, meals and attractions
If you walk up to the hotel front desk at 2 a.m., you’re going to get the worst rate, says Julie Sturgeon, owner of the travel agency Curing Cold Feet in Indianapolis.
Instead, for last-minute lodging arrangements, check Hotels.com or if you have a travel agent, call and ask her to check the wholesaler database for you.
To get the best price on restaurant meals, look for coupons in the local newspaper or on the local convention and visitor’s bureau website. When you know of a restaurant you’d like to try, you can also follow it on Facebook or Twitter to see if they post deals.
For attractions, Sturgeon says Google is your best friend. In the search box, type the name of the attraction followed by “discount.”
Other suggestions to save money include:
- Read the Cities on the Cheap website for travel route and destination.
- Check to see if the location offers a pass for discounts to attractions in the city.
- Find out if AAA offers member discounts on your vacation route.
- Visit Tripatini.com for travel information worldwide.
Save money on gas
Saving whatever you can on gas is crucial. In late April, the average national price of gasoline was $3.87 per gallon, up $1.03 from a year ago according to the Department of Energy. That’s a big jump.
To find the best prices for gas while on your road trip, log onto GasBuddy.com and enter the city and state, or ZIP code in the search box. It tells you the price of gas near your location.
Ross offers some other suggestions on how to get the best gas mileage:
- Pack the vehicle as lightly as you can.
- Follow the speed limit.
- Avoid aggressive tactics such as rapid acceleration or frequent braking.
- Have the correct tire pressure and tire tread.
- Use a map or GPS so you don’t get lost.
- Rent a fuel-efficient car such as a Toyota Prius Hybrid (50 mpg city-highway combined) or Nissan Altima Hybrid (33 mpg, city-highway).
Secure your house
Before you leave on your road trip, make sure your home looks lived in.
Jerry Davies, spokesman and assistant vice president of media and public relations for Farmers Insurance in Los Angeles, suggests the following:
- Ask a friend or family member to remove fliers and pamphlets on your porch or in your driveway.
- Place a hold on your newspaper and your mail.
- Leave a light on inside the house.
- Set your alarm system.
- Turn off the gas.
- Switch off water in rooms that could potentially flood your home.
- Make sure all the windows are locked.
- Store valuables in a secure location.
- Don’t change your answering machine message to one saying you’re on vacation.
For more information on frugal travel, check out these stories at Bankrate.com.
- Late vacation savings
- Off-season travel saves
- 49 ways to save on travel
- Frugal entertainment tips
- Frugal summer fun
- Ways to score hotel deals