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I wouldn’t say I’m a professional road tripper, but after completing our third fairly extensive road trip in as many years, I’ve picked up some tips. Since we’re in peak holiday season, I wanted to share the best ways to save money on a road trip.

Now, you all know that I’m not the most frugal person in the world. If I were, I would have embraced camping. The cheapest way to road trip will always be to pack a tent. Free or cheap accommodation and meals cooked over the fire will save money. Not my thing though. I’m not against a fire roasted hot dog, but I save up to vacation, and I want to do it my way. And that means sleeping in a room with a flushing toilet and checking out what the local food (and beer) scene has to offer. To make room for those expenses I’m careful with spending in other areas, so we get the trip we want on the budget we can afford.

Pack Your Own Snacks

If you’re anything like me, then long drives mean snacks. Chips, chocolate, beef jerky, you name it, and there’s likely a bag of it in our backseat. Sure you could grab something when you stop for gas, but gas stations and convenience stores are notoriously expensive. Instead, we hit up Costco and Bulk Barn before leaving to get our snack fix at wholesale prices. The Costco beef jerky is delicious and a fraction of the cost of those tiny bags you’ll find at the gas station. Same goes with trail mix, dried fruit, candy, and other sweet snacks.

I also extend this to breakfast food. This year we brought along homemade muffins for the first few days, granola and yogurt, and protein shakes so we wouldn’t have to buy breakfasts. We always keep a cooler in the car, and every place we stayed had a fridge/freezer. Once in a while, I like a big cooked breakfast, but most days we would end up hitting a drive through on our way out of town, and that’s not worth the added expense.

Pay Attention to Gas Prices

When you’re driving multiple hours a day, then gas becomes a real expense. At home, we don’t drive much. We’ve owned our Mazda3 for nine years, and it only has 88,000km’s on it (and that’s after this years road trip.) We can put $40 in the tank, and it will last us a month. On a road trip we’re filling up almost every day, and that adds up. While we were travelling, we made a point to gas up in locations we knew would be cheaper. Gas in Alberta in reasonable, it’s downright cheap in the States, and it’s hella expensive in British Columbia. After leaving Seattle, we made sure to top up the tank as close to the border as possible and then only added enough in BC to get us back into Alberta.

If you don’t already use it, GasBuddy is a convenient app that shows you the cheapest gas prices where you are or where you’re going. And don’t forget about reward programs. Most gas stations in an area will be priced almost the same so go to Esso where you can earn PC Optimum points or Petro for the Petro points.

When you’ve made it to your destination, park the car. Consider walkability and access to transit when you’re booking your accommodation. What might look like a good deal may end up costing more in the long run when you have to drive or Uber everywhere.

Hack your Accommodation

I may not be willing to camp, but I keep my expectations low when it comes to hotels and Airbnb’s. The bf is super chill, and I’m only slightly high maintenance, so we tend to stay in cheaper places. We also have no children, which makes it that much easier to make do with a cheap hotel room. We spend so little time in the room that it just doesn’t make sense to need something fancy. Hey, that’s another reason I’m against camping. I like to explore the place I’m visiting, and it’s way harder to do that when the only thing protecting your belongings is a sheet of nylon and a zipper. Locked doors for the win!

We’ve had good luck finding affordable accommodation on Airbnb, but will also go to the old school hotel route. That’s especially true when you’re road tripping and end up spending the night in small-town Alberta where Airbnb does not exist. Super8 and their free breakfast will fit the bill just fine. I’ve used Hotels.com for years and like their free nights’ rewards program and almost always competitive pricing. But it pays to price search.

On this last trip, I had initially booked a hotel for $189 per night in the mountains. A few days before we left, I took a look and the price had dropped to $87 a night! Because I had free cancellation, I was able to cancel and rebook at the lower rate in just a few minutes using the app. It takes two seconds but making a point to track prices even after booking can save you a ton of money.

You could also start a personal finance blog and makes friends with people from all over the place and then stay with them? Trust me; it’s a thing 😉 This community is both super friendly and often happy to help you save a buck. Just be prepared to play host back if they ever venture to the cold, dark North.

Seek Out Discounts

When you have internet access in the palm of your hand, use it! Tourist attractions can be pricey, but you can often find discounts by searching online. Keep an eye out for coupons, early bird discounts, or happy hour pricing and plan your schedule around those. Many cities offer a city pass deal that will allow you to do multiple activities for a lower price. If you’re planning to do stuff like that anyway, then it’s worth looking into.

Transit passes can also save you money if you’re spending a few days in a city. Often one day or multi-day passes are available and are cheaper than paying for each ride individually.

For restaurants, see if you can get gift cards or coupons through services like Groupon or Swagbucks. This can be a great way to reduce your food budget during the trip. It also pays to eat early. Many restaurants will offer happy hour specials if you eat at non-peak hours. This is perfect for me because I’m usually ready for dinner at 5 pm!

Travel Credit Card

We’ve all heard of earning travel rewards through your credit card, but there can be other perks too. If you travel to other countries, then look for a credit card that won’t charge you a foreign transaction fee. I’m not a fan of carrying around a lot of cash, so being able to use my credit card without an extra fee makes life so much easier. Plus, you’ll still be earning those rewards, and I’m so much better at tracking spending when it’s all on one statement. My favourite credit card is the Scotiabank Gold American Express Card, and they recently announced that they are getting rid of the foreign transaction fee effective August 1st, 2019. It’s one of the best cards out there for earning points, and I love how easy it is to redeem rewards.

If you know you’ll be spending more money than usual during your trip, then it might be a good time to sign up for a new credit card. Many cards offer a sign-up bonus if you hit a minimum spend in the first few months. Take advantage of that and double down on the rewards when your spending is already higher.

Credit cards marketed towards travel also save you money by providing insurance. For example, the Scotiabank Gold American Express Card I mentioned above provides $1 million in emergency medical coverage, trip cancellation, hotel burglary, rental car insurance, and more.

Hopefully, these five tips will help you plan and save money on your next road trip. If you have other suggestions, then share them in the comments!

As a self proclaimed road tripping professional, I've gather up my favourite tips to save money on your next road trip.

This post was proofread by Grammarly.

Image Credit: Dino Reichmuth

6 Comments

  1. Honestly, packing snacks is a good idea even when you’re not traveling by car. That is one of the big ways hubby and I saved money the first time we went to Newfoundland. Added bonus: I can only imagine how amused security would have been when they scanned our bag and found it stuffed with granola bars.

    Not a hack or a tip, exactly (mostly because I think this is something you should do even if you’re not rewarded for it) but one thing I have found in my travels is that…being nice to locals tends to result in them being nice to you. An example: a couple years ago, we went to Montreal for a hockey game and a concert. Throughout our trip, we had the front desk call cabs for us (since we do not speak French) and made a point in all our interactions to just…be nice. To try to get to know them a bit and let them know we appreciated it. On one of our last days, they ended up giving us a bunch of coupons to use for our cabs that day. It saved us close to $50! We’ve also received vehicle and room upgrades before just for…well, being patient and nice.

    Like I said, I think you should be nice to people regardless 🙂

    • Sarah Reply

      That is such a good tip, or maybe reminder, that being kind is often rewarded! And snacks are always a good call no matter how you’re traveling.

  2. We take a LOT of road trips with our kid b/c airfare x3 adds up quickly. One of my favorite things to do that feels like a splurge is get the pre-made deli lunches at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s along the road. It’s still cheaper than dining out but it’s a departure from our regularly lunch routine. They include all the napkins and utensils, you can grab a drink to go and hang at a playground for a picnic.

    • Sarah Reply

      That’s a great idea! I love a good sandwich and for some reason they always taste better if someone else makes it.

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