8 Tips For Road Trips Through The USA On A Shoestring Budget

Introduction

When traveling costs often add up quickly which makes it seem unattainable to many people. While there are a variety of tricks to bring costs down there is one way of traveling that keeps costs so low it becomes attainable for virtually anyone.

Going on a road trip through the country is sure to cure your travel bug while being much more affordable.

A road trip is a great way to be able to bring the whole family along while exploring your own backyard. This will allow you the freedom to go wherever you please and cut costs easier than other forms of travel.

Seeing the sights within your own country is often an overlooked luxury that can allow you to travel for far longer than other forms.

The cost of road trips can fluctuate depending on the level of luxury you are looking for. But for those frugal globetrotters just looking to explore their backyard, you can do it for incredibly cheap.

With your only expenses being gasoline, accommodations and food the amount you spend depends completely on how much you choose to indulge. With our tips and tricks you can keep your costs much lower.

1. Getting Your Car Road Trip Ready

Before going on your road trip remember that you are about to add a ton of miles to your car. Being properly prepared for this will help to save you money and a big headache down the road. It is always better to maintain your car rather than fixing it after something goes wrong.

Before you head out on your trip, we recommend those traveling in an older car investing in a AAA membership. While it does have a costly one time membership fee, it will provide an immense amount of peace of mind while on your trip. This will cover you for everything from flat tires to some extra gas.

The biggest consideration should be your tires, coolant levels and oil.

Oil

This is the one thing that can affect your car in a very scary way. There are many different types of this fluid for your car. Some are designed for winter months while others are better suited for summer. Your oil cap should specify which type is the best. It will read something like 5W20.

If you are looking to prolong the life of your car make sure that you are using synthetic oil. Synthetic oil is the highest quality oil that will last longer and not degrade as quickly.

Pro Tip: When getting oil changes make sure that the oil filter is rated for synthetic. For example, a regular oil filter may last 5,000 miles/3,000 km while a higher quality one will last upwards of 6,500 miles/10,000 km.

Fluid Levels

This is mainly relevant to older cars as they will be more used up than newer models but giving any car a once over is a good idea. With coolant levels being the most common and important issue, make sure you are topped up. If your car is older and likely leaking a bit of coolant, you may want to bring a bottle along with you.

In addition to coolant levels, check that your brake fluid and power steering fluids are topped up. These likely will not be an issue but is worth a double check. Filling your front and rear windshield fluid will be important with all your highway driving as well.

Air Filter

This one may not be on your radar but really should be before any big road trip. You may not know but if your air filter is clogged up you are likely paying far more than you should on gas. This is because it causes you to get far worse gas mileage.

Air flow plays a very large role in the efficiency of your car’s engine. If it is clogged and not getting enough oxygen your car will be working harder than it needs to which in turn uses more gasoline. This is something that can be done at the same time as getting your oil changed and can end up saving you big.

Tires

Your tire pressure plays a large role in your car’s gas mileage as well. Every set of tires has a recommended PSI they should be inflated to. There are other ways to tell if your tires are filled to the optimum pressure. When looking at your tire it should not bulge at the bottom. If it does your tires need more air. Filling your tires close to the maximum will also help you to save money while on the road.

Also, if your tires are wearing improperly it could mean that you need to get them rebalanced. You can check this by looking at the tread. If one side is more worn than the other take your car to a tire shop and get them to rebalance your tires.

In addition to your regular tires, check your spare to make sure it is in good condition and ensure you are driving with a tire iron and a jack just in case you need to change a tire.

When traveling in cooler months, be sure to check the roads for any restrictions. In colder states, you are required to have winter tires on, or at least carry chains, between October 1st and May 30th. This is important for your safety as the roads can get quite icy, especially in rural areas. If you are not prepared for this it could cost you a heavy fine.

Added Comforts

Before you go it is important to realize the amount of time you will be spending in your car. Being realistic about what that may look like and how you can make that more comfortable is important.

Getting some car sun shades for your windshield will keep your car from getting to warm which is especially important for cars without air conditioning. Investing in a steering wheel lock will give you the peace of mind that your car will stay safe your whole trip.

If you have a bad back you don’t need to rule out road tripping. Go to your local department store and get a lumbar support pad. These come in many different shapes and sizes and add support to your lower back. Some even come with a massage feature!

2. Accommodations

On a road trip, there are only a few costs: gas, food and accommodations. The truth is, the cost of accommodations is completely avoidable. There are many options you can take to make it so that your stay is incredibly cheap if not completely free.

The best way to do this is to avoid hotels like the plague. Sure, you may find some cheaper hotels that may seem like a great bargain, but even these add up to accumulate a huge expense for your trip.

For those single and unattached travelers, try a site like couchsurfers to stay for free in people’s homes along your travels. Not into staying in strangers houses? Opt for a slightly more secure but costly hostel. These are great ways to meet fellow travelers.

For those with a large vehicle like a truck or a van, or even those who are willing to get creative in a smaller vehicle, opt for car camping. You see more and more people turning to the vanlife movement converting their vehicles into tiny homes and taking on the world.  

If you would like to get more intune with nature, bring along a tent for some great camping along the way. If you are planning to tent along the way, be sure to plan ahead for the ever changing weather conditions you may encounter. Bringing along a tarp with you will help to keep this an enjoyable experience. Don’t forget to bring your pillows along!

Find A Campsite

Many opt for camping along their way only to find that the costly prices of campgrounds add up quickly. Jumping from state park to state park may seem comfortable but with a nightly rate of roughly $30, it adds up quickly. The truth is, you don’t need to ever pay for one of these campsites as America is flooded with some of the most beautiful campsites that are completely free.

You heard us right, FREE campsites!

While lots of these are a google search or Walmart away, the best way is to take the plunge on a $12 download of Allstays app. It is available in the Apple and Android app store. This little beauty is well worth the download and will help you get the most out of your trip. Heading towards National Parks are a great way to go too. Forest service roads and BLM land is rich in level ground camping havens.

3. Food

Food will be one of your easiest costs to control while on your trip. Be sure to pack along a cooler for the most food savings. Having a thermos is great too, especially when traveling cooler conditions.

Bringing along a small stove and setting up a small portable kitchen will save you the most in this category. Packing a foldable table and a cutting board with some cutlery will allow you to become a chef while constantly restocking your cooler with tasty wraps and sandwiches.

Even what may seem like a low cost McDonalds value pick will add up quickly if this becomes a usual occurrence. Avoiding eating out and instead buying some bulk must haves such as oatmeal will prove much more cost effective. For those times that you are looking for cheap and quick food on the road, try sites like Yelp!.

If you can keep your food costs down, your road trip will end up costing you quite a bit less. The best way to do this is to be wise with where you do your shopping. Opting for stores like No Frills and Walmart will be much cheaper than getting your groceries from the more convenient gas stations.

Water is another expense that adds up but is so important that you can’t go without it. Seeking out fast moving streams to pump water from will be incredibly useful. This will allow you to refill your water giving you cold water that can replace the cost of ice when added to your cooler.

Also, download apps that will pay you to shop such as Ibotta and Checkout 51.

4. Fuel Up

While the price of gas will undoubtedly add up during your road trip, there are ways to keep the prices down. It is worthwhile to take advantage of the various gas stations loyalty programs.

You will likely be heading into areas that have less options for gas stations so try signing up for a few different loyalty programs that you can switch between. Make sure they are for popular gas stations such as Love’s, Shell and Sinclair. You are more likely to be able to find these big names when traveling to more rural areas.

Many gas stations offer cheaper prices when paying with cash so be sure to take advantage of this 5-10 cent gas price difference.  When traveling thousands of miles across the country, this small difference will begin to add up quickly.

Some great gas saving tips are avoiding cruise control and skipping the air conditioning. While it may be hot out, using air conditioning will use lots of gas needlessly. Likewise, cruise control often doesn’t use the most efficient ways of keeping speeds, especially when going up a hill.

5. Entertainment

No road trip is complete without seeing the many sites and attractions that are in the various cities. From the many national parks such as Zion, Yosemite and Yellowstone to the more touristy areas such as Disneyland there is lots to be seen.

While some you may know about there are lots of cool things to do all over the country. The best way to make sure you see all the sites is by taking a trip to the visitor centre in every area you visit.

For only $80 you can get an annual National Parks pass for all 59 National Parks. This will allow you to avoid the hefty $15+ entrance fee every time you visit a park. City Tourism cards are another wise investment and can cover entry into many sites as well as include free public transportation. These are a great way to see all the sites of many larger cities without having to individually pay as you go.  

Getting discounted rates wherever possible will save you big. Many times there are group rates or early morning discount rates. The visitor centre may know some of the best tips for how to save at these tourist attractions. There are also many apps that can save you money on local activities such as Groupon and Mobile Bandit.

6. Let Your Spending Work For You

While you are working to keep your costs down on this trip, it is worthwhile getting rewards for any money you do end up spending. There are many rewards visa cards out there that will give you double points when spending money on gas and groceries which will likely be your two biggest expenditures. Getting money back or points will add up quickly.

Make sure to call your visa company and let them know of your intended travels so you card doesn’t get frozen while traveling.

7. Apps To Download Before You Go

While we have already mentioned some of these above, make sure you have the following apps downloaded to your smartphone before going. These will be your go-to’s on the rest of your road trip.

  • AAA: This will give you peace of mind in case of emergency. While the one time membership is expensive, using it even one time can often pay off the cost.
  • Air Miles: On a trip like this, signing up for aero points helps quite a bit.
  • Allstays: Find free campsites easily
  • Checkout 51: Get money back on your groceries with this app.
  • Ibotta: Another great cash back app, however you get a $10 bonus when you scan your first receipt using promo code qftva.
  • Google Maps: This is much more reliable than apple maps especially when in rural areas.
  • Groupon: A great money saver on day activities and restaurant bills.
  • Soundcloud: No road trip is complete without a music playlist. Try signing up for a FREE trial.

8. Extras

There are always things that you remember after you leave. Avoiding this by packing everything the first time will help you avoid the cost of paying for things twice. Try starting your packing well in advance and checking online through various websites to ensure you have everything you will need for your trip.

Spare Keys

Bring an extra set of keys for your car and put them in your wallet. This way, if you lose your keys you won’t have to call a locksmith to make you a new one. You are more than likely not going to lose your wallet so you will always have a set with you.

Cell Phone

If you are crossing state or country borders check to see if your plan allows you to use it in this area. Many plans are country-wide but will charge you extra for different countries. Make sure you are well aware of what is covered in your phone plan before hitting the road.

Roadside Emergency Kit

Putting together a small roadside emergency kit can be life saving. Packing a small basic first aid is important. Don’t forget a few tools that may come in handy such as a swiss army knife and a screw driver. Having blankets, a flashlight and some emergency food is also important.

GPS/Map

Knowing where you’re going can save you money. A GPS provides the quickest and most efficient way to get to your destination. Idling in traffic can waste not only your gas, but also your money and time.

Final Thoughts

Road trips are a great way to see the country from a new perspective. You feel more connected to the road and nature and get the vibe of the cities. You can stay as long as you want in places, or drive around them depending on your time frame and mood.

Following these key pieces of advice will save you money and make your trip more enjoyable. Let us know your favorite places to road trip in the comment section below. Thanks for reading and happy frugaling!

Get Paid To Take Pictures Of Your Receipt: The Ibotta app is a mobile app that pays you to scan your receipts. Earn cash back at restaurants, grocery stores and even online purchases. Not only that, but you even get a $10 bonus when you scan your first receipt within your first week and use promo code qFTVA. The best part? It's 100% FREE.

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