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How to save money on road trips

Cameron Huddleston
28 June 2013

(Photo: Phillip Capper | Flickr)
(Photo: Phillip Capper | Flickr)



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Planning a road trip this summer? Hopping in the car and heading across the country can be a fun way to see the sights. But road travel isn't always as inexpensive as it might seem. You avoid the high cost of airfare, but your savings easily can disappear on other costs. There are several ways, though, to keep spending under control when you're on the road. Here's how to save money on gas, food, lodging and entertainment.

Gas. With gas prices averaging about $3.60 per gallon, this expense will quickly eat into your road trip budget. There are plenty of ways to keep gas costs under control, though. For starters, you can use a free gas app such as GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas prices near you. Then use a rewards credit card that will let you earn cash back on gas purchases (see our picks for the best gas rewards cards. You also can save money by buying discounted gift cards for gas stations at sites such as Cardpool, CardCash and Gift Card Granny. These cards tend to go quickly, so sign up for e-mail alerts to be notified when they're in stock. Also look for discounted gift cards for Walmart or grocery stores that have gas stations.

Food. The best way to save money on food is to pack sandwiches, snacks and drinks in a cooler and to stop at grocery stores along the way to refill your supply. To make it fun for kids, you can buy a few trinkets at the dollar store and put them in bags along with their food to replicate kids meals from fast food restaurants. For meals out, check Groupon and other daily deal sites for restaurants offering discounts in the cities you're visiting. You also can get discounted restaurant gift certificates for local restaurants from Restaurants.com and discounted gift cards for chain restaurants at the gift card sites listed above.

Lodging. If you don't mind roughing it, you can save a lot by camping rather than staying at a hotel. Recreation.gov can help you find campsites managed by federal agencies. If you're traveling solo, you might even be able to score free accommodations through the Couchsurfing site or app. which connects members with people willing to spare a couch for the night for free. Otherwise, you can use the Priceline Negotiator app to bid on hotel rooms and secure discounted lodging. The benefit of the app is that it lets you see winning bids for accommodations near you and offers "Tonight-Only Deals" (iPhone, Android). Also see How to Get the Best Deal on a Hotel for strategies you can use to snag a low price.

Entertainment. Plenty of cities have free offerings. The AAA TripTik Travel Planner and AAA Mobile App let you enter a location and get a list of attractions, events and entertainment in the area and details (including cost) for each of the offerings. The free Yelp app also can help you find public parks, museums and other attractions. Cities' tourism sites can be a great source of information about free offerings. And daily deal sites can help you land discounts on activities and entertainment.

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