11 Tips for Taking a Road Trip on the Cheap

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two sets of kids' feet in a car of trunk during vacation
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Don't let the cost of gas, food, and lodging get in the way of enjoying a favorite American pastime: the summer road trip. With these 11 planning tips, road trippers can cover hundreds of miles on a strict budget.

two happy kids hanging out of car window
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People taking a road trip for the sheer pleasure of being on the road should keep in mind that there are scenic routes all over the country, and staying close to home will reduce overall spending on a road trip. The fewer miles traveled, the less money has to be budgeted for gas and meals on the go, so research what's close by.

smiling young female mechanic inspecting on a car in auto repair shop
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A quick $40 inspection is far less expensive than having to change a tire, tow a car, or install a new battery on the road. Before setting out on a trip, take your vehicle to a reputable mechanic. Tell the shop you are going on a road trip and want the car to run efficiently.

one dollar bill stack with quarter coins over white background
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If driving through a state that has tolls, always bring cash -- many tollbooths don't accept cards. Travelers without cash often pay more because the toll must be mailed later, often with additional administrative and payment processing fees. Avoid extra charges and get through more quickly by carrying coins and small bills. (Be aware, however, that there are more toll booths nationwide going the opposite route: They don't accept cash.)

cheerful girl showing car keys while sitting with family in car
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When on the road, get in the far right lane and take it easy. Go the speed limit, of course, but try to keep a steady speed throughout the trip. Increasing and decreasing speeds constantly uses more gas and requires more stops to fuel up.

man in a car planning a trip using Tripadvisor app on Apple iPhone 5S
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Pre-book a hotel or find cheap accommodation along the way using a last-minute hotel booking app such as Hotel Tonight, which says it can find deals within 10 seconds, shows nightly rates on a map, and is as highly rated in app stores as broader services such as Priceline. Another highly rated app comes from Booking.com.

boy sleeping in child car seat
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There are well-lit rest areas across the country on interstates and other major routes. These areas are designed for resting, so don't be afraid to stop and sleep in a parking lot for a night. To ensure safety, lock doors, put on the emergency break, and turn the engine off.

sofa
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Next to sleeping in a car, couch surfing is the most economical way to find a place to rest. Hundreds of hosts on Craigslist are willing to open their houses to strangers. For a safer route, try finding a host through an official, regulated service such as Couchsurfing.com.

family leaving home for road trip
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Pack the car according to a road trip checklist -- many can be found online -- especially if small children are along for the ride. Buying replacements for items left behind wastes money and time. Blankets, phone chargers, reusable water bottles, and baby wipes are just a few essentials that may be forgotten.

granola bar
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Food is a crucial part of a road trip for many aficionados. Bring a nice stash of filling foods such as nuts, nut butter, dried meats, granola, canned beans, and whole wheat products. Leave behind foods that will deplete energy and increase hunger. Potato chips, popcorn, candy, and sweet trail mix are easy to pack but offer little nutritional value. Even with a cooler, avoid bringing foods that spoil easily, such as cold-cut meats, yogurt, and other milk-based products.

family with shopping cart in supermarket store
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Road trip veterans know that preparing food is key to crossing the country on a budget. Look for accommodation with self-catering and think in terms of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not just the occasional snack, when packing food. When supplies run out, head to a grocery store instead of a restaurant chain. Restocking on nonperishable food items is cheaper and likely more nutritious and filling than fast food.

McDonald's Happy Meal for Kids
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When you're itching for a hot meal or can't resist fast food, eat from the kids menu. Often, these menu items are cheaper and -- given the inflation in meal sizes in the past few decades -- provide adequate serving sizes for the average adult. Many fast food chains, including McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Subway, offer healthy options such as yogurt and fruit.

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