As the weather across the country starts to warm up, it has many folks dreaming of summer road trip destinations. Nothing better than the open road, wind in your hair, and the music blaring so loud you can’t hear the kids arguing in the backseat. While a road trip is typically less expensive than an all-inclusive resort, it can still get pricey when you factor in gas, meals, and lodging. Here are some practical tips to make your next highway getaway more affordable…but still totally awesome.
1) AAA Premier Membership
Any American Automobile Association (AAA) membership provides piece of mind, but when making a long road trip, I highly recommend upgrading your membership to the “Premier” version. A couple years ago, I took my family on a long road trip across the western United States, and upgrading my AAA account to the Premier membership was the single best thing I did.
With the Premier you get outstanding trip protection that includes 200 miles of free towing and up to $1,500 in trip interruption insurance. I ended up using both, as my truck broke down in the Mojave Desert and had to be towed 100 miles to the nearest mechanic. Towing was completely free and I also got reimbursed on hotel, entertainment, and meal costs for the family while we were stranded. Cost of the Premier membership is currently $119/year and is money well spent.
Aside from the peace of mind that AAA provides, the membership discounts available when traveling are substantial as well. For example, many hotels and motels offer AAA discounts in the 10% to 15% range to those who ask when booking. Also, you’ll have access to discounts on airfare, rental cars, cruises, and even Disney destinations. If you travel regularly, these discounts can often pay for the cost of the basic AAA membership fee of $57 annually.
2) VRBO.com Last-Minute Booking Tip
Vacation Rental by Owner, known as VRBO.com, lets you search vacation rentals all over the world and book directly with the owner. When planning the spots on your road trip where you want to spend the night, especially when booking last-minute (within a week of your arrival), always ask for a nightly rate lower than the advertised rate.
Rather than let their place sit empty collecting nothing, many owners will happily lower their rate to get you in. This is especially true if you’re staying for an extended period of time like a week or more. Owners are more likely to reduce a weekly rate, rather than a nightly rate, as they’re making more money overall. Having managed by parent’s rental on VRBO for a few years, I’ll do this all time, as will many other owners I have talked to. Start by asking for a 20% discount and be prepared to settle for 10-15% off the advertised rate.
The nightly rate is not the only negotiating tool at your disposal when booking last-minute on VRBO. If your initial inquiry for a last-minute discount is declined, don’t give up hope just yet. Examine their listing closely and look for things like a cleaning fee or occupancy tax and ask if one or both could be waived. Often times vacation rental owners are more likely to remove one of these costs if they’re getting the full nightly rate on their place.
3) Gas Buddy App
The Gas Buddy app is free to download to your mobile device and can save you significant money on a road trip by helping you find the cheapest place to fill up your tank. On my most recent family road trip, the app saved me well over $100 on our 2,000 mile journey. It works by using your current location to pinpoint the most affordable gas stations and includes turn by turn directions via your smartphones GPS.
Whenever I’m on a road trip, I’ll check-in with the app when my tank gets about a three-quarters empty and quickly determine what town will be a good place to stop, and what station is the most affordable and convenient. The app also lets you earn points by reporting the price of gas at any station. You can then use earned points to enter daily gift card giveaways at various gas stations.
4) Book Hotels Directly
While booking vacation packages with online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Travelocity, and CheapOAir can often yield big savings, you’ll save more money by calling hotels directly when booking rooms for your next road trip. The reasoning has to do with OTAs charging hotels a fee, typically around 15% to be listed. This means many hotels will happily undercut the OTAs rate by 8-10% and pass the savings along to you.
An excellent strategy is to check what Expedia is charging for a room, then call the hotel directly and ask if they can beat it. In many cases they’ll happily beat it to avoid the fee Expedia is going to levy on them. If the hotel tells you they can’t beat the Expedia rate, then ask for a rate-match and inquire about a free room upgrade or food/beverage credits. Always be polite, ask for exactly what you want, and you stand a great chance of getting it.
5) Drive Early in the Day
The benefits of starting your driving by 6 or 7 a.m. are significant. By avoiding the sweltering midday summer temperatures, you’ll be less likely to overheat your vehicle which could lead to costly repairs. Also, you’ll be able to roll the windows down and enjoy the cooler air. By not having to run the car’s air conditioning, you’ll get better overall gas mileage which your wallet will appreciate. Ignoring the financial benefits, I always like to start early to our next destination because it gets us there by a decent time and I’m not too tired to do some sight-seeing upon arrival.
With just a little bit of planning and strategizing, these tips can save you significant money on your next big road trip. The best thing about them is they really don’t require any extra effort on your part, just a slightly different way of doing things. Safe and happy travels.