Food and lodging are the biggest road trip budget busters. Plan ahead on eating and sleeping to save money, and use a few simple tips to save some on gas, too, so that you have more money to spend when you arrive at your destination.
Eschew the Drive-Thru
One of the biggest lessons to learn from road tripping is that the food you think will be cheapest almost never is. Stopping for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's, KFC, and Taco Bell is a surefire way to waste a ton of money while making yourself feel like crap.
Instead, stop in at Mom's Apple Pie Cafe–type places for mega meals on the cheap. Keep an eye out for early bird specials, as well. If you skipped lunch and are starving in the early evening, you and the old folks can find big dinners for a few bucks. Go for the big meals at lunch, when dishes are often much cheaper, and then save by eating a much smaller amount for dinner.
If you don't have a huge appetite, take your leftovers with you and eat them for breakfast and/or lunch the following day. Speaking of breakfast: If your hotel has a free one, take full advantage of it. Sneaking a roll or piece of fruit or two for snacks will help keep your costs low, too.
Read more on how to save on food when road tripping.
How to Save Money on Snacks
Snacks are big budget killers on road trips—racks of Cheetos and Fritos for 99 cents are irresistible in convenience stores, and let's face it: Road trips are all about the snacks.
However, these aren't the best way to keep your costs down. Stock up on cheaper chips in economy-sized bags from grocery stores instead. It may not sound like much, but this alone should net you more than twice as many chips for your money.
It's a given to bring coolers, especially if you're saving leftovers from restaurants to eat later (foam coolers are cheaper at discount stores than convenience stores as well).
Load one up with beverages from the Publix rather than 7-11. Even better: Bring a reusable bottle or cup with you and top it off whenever you're anywhere with a faucet or drinking fountain. You'll help the environment by not contributing to plastic waste and save money on drinks while doing so.
Scoring Free Accommodations
Camping for free is as easy as pulling off into a national forest or onto Bureau of Land Management land and stretching out under the stars.
If you prefer a roof above your head, you can crash for free on a couch with a like-minded host via Couchsurfing's database. Couchsurfing is available to everyone and allows you to stay in a local's home for free for a couple of nights. It's free, it's safe, and it gives you an insight into the local culture that you wouldn't have otherwise had. If you do decide to try Couchsurfing, remember to bring a small gift for your hosts or to offer to cook dinner for them one night—you're staying for free, so it's worth giving something back to the person who lives there.
If you're particularly sociable and love to meet the locals, you may find yourself getting to head away from the "official" free accommodation route when someone offers to let you spend the night at their place.
Proper etiquette here is to wait to be asked, but if you can trust the person offering a room, there's no reason why you should turn it down.
How to Find the Cheapest Gas
Before you hit the road, check out some of the best options for cheap gas in advance with these gas cost calculators. When you're driving, you'll probably forget specific stations, so jot down the town names from your research or pull off at big cloverleaf exits to compare gas prices at several spots. It's surprisingly easy to save money on gas if you have enough time to shop around.
How to Save on Gas While Driving
One of the big ways to save gas as you drive is to turn off the air conditioning and instead use the fan. The A/C burns through the gas faster than you can say, "Four dollars a gallon?!" Leaving the four-wheel-drive engaged is also a gas drainer, so keep that off when you don't need to use it.
Another way to save on gas is to ease off the pedal well before a stop sign and coast to a stop, and then take off in a mellow manner. Burning rubber burns gas needlessly.
Don't speed. Not only is it dangerous and potentially trip-ending if you suddenly find yourself without a valid license, but it wastes gas and so costs you more.
This post was edited by Lauren Juliff.