Editor’s Note: As the pandemic evolves, travel rules can shift at a moment's notice. Be sure to read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before you book, and again before you travel.
Road trips are a blast: There’s nothing like opening your car windows, singing along to your favorite songs, and taking the scenic route. And seasoned travelers know road trips can save you a lot of money, especially if you’re strategic.
Although gas prices have risen amid economic and global circumstances, people want to get out and travel as the pandemic wanes. According to AAA, the average cost of a gallon of regular gas in the United States is about $4.20 as of mid-March 2022. Prices tend to be cheaper in the South and parts of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, while the West Coast’s per-gallon costs can exceed $5.
However, gas isn’t the only expense that can guzzle your budget. You can plan a cost-effective getaway using these 9 easy tips for a thrifty trip.
1. Let your phone locate cheap gas stations
It’s not cost-effective to drive miles out of your way to find the cheapest possible gasoline. Instead, use your phone to find a nearby station that offers reasonably low prices. Apps such as Gas Guru and GasBuddy can help shave a few bucks off of each tankful.
Health tip: Wear disposable gloves so you don’t have to wipe down the nozzle or your car handle afterward, which can help you avoid getting sick and incurring related medical expenses.
2. Rent a car
If your everyday car is a gas-guzzler, think about renting a hybrid or other fuel-efficient vehicle for your trip. Renting a car is a great way to reduce wear and tear on your vehicle. If you do rent, check out NEA Travel’s car rental discounts for NEA members.
Don't worry if your plans change: Some car rental companies have loosened their cancellation policies in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic. However, be sure to factor in that more people are traveling in 2021, and car rental inventories may be low. Finding and securing a rental car may be a bit difficult, depending on where and when you’re traveling.
3. Scope out your route
Getting lost is frustrating and a waste of fuel (and money). Simply reviewing your route before you head out can reduce the odds of missing a turn or taking a wrong exit.
You can plan ahead with a road trip gas calculator, like the one provided by GasBuddy, to find cost-effective routes and make sure you know how much you can expect to spend on fuel. It even factors in the make and model of your car for a fairly accurate estimate.
In addition, check with state or local authorities at your planned destination and along your route to learn about any restrictions they might have in place due to COVID-19. That may mean wearing face coverings in public in some locales, or avoiding areas with any mandatory self-quarantine rules still in place—especially if you’re from out-of-state.
4. Be aware of tolls
Sometimes the shortest route to your destination involves driving on pricey toll roads. Research whether there’s an alternate route that allows you to skip the tolls without taking you too far out of your way. Google Maps and other navigation apps such as Waze alert you if their recommended routes include toll roads.
You can also use a road trip toll calculator app such as Toll Calculator GPS Navigation to calculate the tolls you can expect to pay along your road-trip route so you’ll be prepared.
5. Book lodging in advance
Booking websites often feature money-saving offers, but checking hotel sites directly can unearth special deals. Reserving ahead of time locks in savings and provides some peace of mind.
In some places, lower-than-normal occupancy at hotels has reduced nightly rates, so you may find pockets of good deals. If you like to book ahead of time, shop around and check pricing with hotels directly as well as via your union membership discount at NEA Travel. If you prefer making last-minute reservations, try HotelTonight app to see what’s available.
6. Fill up your cooler
Many roadside restaurants have reopened, but in certain locations some may still be closed or offering limited curbside pickup. To ensure you won’t go hungry, consider packing road-trip snacks that will withstand a long drive—think cut-up veggies, premade sandwiches and string cheese. That’ll be better for your wallet—and your blood sugar. If traveling a long distance, stock up on more nonperishable foods and water.
7. Check your tires
Before every long car ride—and at regular intervals during a marathon trip—take a few minutes to check your tire pressure. Underinflated tires can lower your car’s gas mileage significantly. Cold temperatures compound the problem: Tire pressure can dip by around 2 pounds with each 10-degree drop. Be sure to follow the tire or car manufacturer’s guidelines on how much air your tires require.
8. Pack light
One advantage of driving vs. flying is you don’t have to make as many tough packing decisions, or else pay for excess baggage. However, don’t be tempted to drag along tons of extra stuff in your trunk, backseat or rooftop carrier. The heavier your car, the worse gas mileage you’ll get.
9. Don’t speed
Most cars are at their most fuel-efficient at a steady 55 miles per hour. If you speed up to, say, 80 miles per hour, you’re operating at 28% below optimal fuel efficiency—not to mention risking the cost of a ticket if you get caught. Take it slow, and enjoy the ride!