How to take a road trip on the cheap

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The old-fashioned road trip is as American as apple pie. Unfortunately, rising fuel and lodging costs have made the cheap road trip a thing of the past for many people.

If you want to save money on a road trip, you need to think differently about road travel and what it takes to have a good time. You also need to do something that sounds strange in the context of a road trip — plan ahead.

Here’s how to take a frugal road trip.

Bring a car with the best gas mileage

If you are the average household with more than one car, look at your vehicles’ gas mileage before you decide what to drive. If one car gets better mileage than the other, bring it on the trip instead of its gas-guzzling counterpart. Fuel costs make up a big portion of any road trip budget, so better fuel economy means lower costs.

Get a cheap rental car (or borrow a car)

If your only car is an SUV that gets 11 miles per gallon, consider paying for a cheap rental car. There are numerous places to search for cheap rentals, including travel aggregators like Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline. Compare prices on at least three different websites before booking. (Not sure whether you need rental insurance? Find out how it works.)

Use the GasBuddy app

No matter the fuel economy of your ride, you can save on fuel by filling up at the lowest price. The GasBuddy app lets you search for gas stations along your route — even as you drive — to find the lowest gas prices so you don’t overpay.

Pack healthy, filling snacks

Snacks are a crucial component of any road trip, especially if you have kids in tow. Unless you want to stop at gas stations and fast food joints to satisfy their cravings, pack food and bring it along.

Healthy, filling snacks are the way to go. Bring a cooler if you want to keep snacks cold. Pack easy snacks like pretzels, chips, plus carrots and dip, apples and basic PB&J or bologna sandwiches. Try not to pack anything messy because, well, you’ll be eating in the car.

Consider camping, roadside motels & hostels

You’ll need a place to stay during your frugal road trip, but you don’t have to get fancy. It’s a road trip after all, so explore inexpensive options like camping, hostels and cheap roadside motels.

Leverage credit card rewards

If you want to score hotels for free, leverage credit card rewards. Hotel credit cards let you book free rooms at big hotel chains with points from their programs. Some offer free nights for signing up and meeting a minimum spending requirement.

You can also choose a card that offers flexible travel credit like the Capital One Venture Card. This card offers a signup bonus of 50,000 points worth $500 in travel after you sign up and spend $3,000 on the card within three months. You also earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend. You can redeem these points for one cent each for any type of travel you want — including any hotels or motels along the path of your road trip.

Map out stops ahead of time

You may want to just see where the road takes you, but you will likely spend more money if you don’t explore lodging and dining options along your route ahead of time.

Plan a rough itinerary before you leave and research things to do and places to stay along the route so you know about all the frugal lodging options and restaurants. You can also ensure you know about stops that might be more expensive because they have pricier hotel options or only high-end restaurants.

Find cheap things to do

Don’t forget to search for free or cheap things to do along the road trip route you’re planning. Consider visiting state or national parks, campgrounds, inexpensive theme parks and cities with parks and museums. You can also plan a drive through scenic and beautiful areas such as the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or Black Hills of South Dakota. Make the kids turn off their phones or tablets to enjoy the scenery. None of you will regret it.

The more free and cheap activities you can find, the more fun you can have without breaking the bank.

You've planned everything for your road trip. Now find out if you need insurance on top of your auto policy.

Image: JulieanneBirch