Watching the stock market’s wild swings and taking in all the gloomy recession talk on the news makes it hard to get into a vacation mood. But if there’s one positive piece of economic news to come out of the recent trouble is that gas prices started to come down a bit. (As of August 13, the average price was $3.60 per gallon for regular unleaded. And with projections for a further drop – as much as 40 cents/ gallon, thanks to falling crude oil prices, a late-summer car trip is definitely a budget travel possibility.
Car trips are a wonderful way to explore an area, allowing for sightseeing stops at interesting attractions. But it’s not all about gas, of course: if you’re on a strict budget, you still have to plan ahead. Here are six tips to help you save on your auto vacation.
Pack your own lunch
Eating out on the road gets old and expensive, mighty quick. Save your budget and pack a cooler with snacks, beverages and quick lunch foods. Use Interstate Rest Areas to find one along your route and plan to get out and stretch your legs. With kids, look for a local park so they can run around while you enjoy lunch in the shade of a tree.
Research gas options
Before you leave, check out the Trip Cost Calculator on Gas Buddy. You punch in the details about your trip itinerary; it spits back the places along the way with the cheapest gas. Mapquest shows a Gas Prices map with the lowest prices nearest the address of choice, helpful near your home or destination. iPhone users should check out the Cheap Gas! app that helps you locate the nearest cheap gas and map a route to the station.
Drive your car budget-smart – inflate the tires as recommended, don’t speed, avoid the cruise control, and don’t slam on the breaks at the red light. A tune-up at the shop before departure can end up saving lots of money down the road.
Use membership discounts
If you belong to AAA, Costco, AARP (hey, don’t laugh!) or any other membership organization, don’t be shy about using your membership to find discounts. Restaurants, attractions and hotels often have discounts there for the asking, and the savings add up nicely. Some Costco warehouse stores also have membership-only gas stations, and AAA, AARP and others offer online tools to help plan lodging and vacations.
If you have a fixed itinerary, go ahead and plan your lodging before you go. Research online to find the best deal, or call the hotel directly and ask about discounts. If you are heading cross-country, consider developing loyalty in a chain of hotels, some which are offering deals this summer for multiple stays (Best Western has an Earn a Free Night promotion, for an example).
During the summer, camping is a great way to save money while traveling and offers a nice way to get to know the area. Search for public and private campsites before you go, or use Find A Park on your mobile device. Or look into other lodging options, including friends and family.
Keep yourself entertained
For long car trips, check out book-on-tapes from the library and catch up on your reading list. Or use Audible.com to download a book to your iPhone. Looking for inexpensive physical books? Consider used bookstores along the way, and then release your read books into the wild for another reader to find using BookCrossing.
Portable video players with movies rented from the library or Netflix can keep kids occupied on long trips. Or pack a special bag with toys and games just for the trip. Inexpensive options include longtime favorite car games I Spy, License Plate Alphabet, and Car Trip Bingo, with cards you make ahead of time.