How to save on the daily road trip expenses

Road Trip Savings

by Rich Finzer

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Because nearly all of our family members live out of state, visiting them usually involves a long road trip. I don't mind the driving, but what I do mind are the exorbitant prices gas stations and convenience stores charge for snacks and soft drinks. After countless road trips totaling some 400,000 miles, my wife and I have learned how to circumvent what amounts to "highway robbery" at the hands of those merchants lining the interstate. It's easy. We simply stock up on snacks and sodas before we depart, and the savings that we realize from this strategy are significant. We also employ several other techniques to save even more money as well as precious vacation time.

As proof, on a recent trip to Florida via Tennessee, I kept track of roadside snack and soda prices. And as a baseline, here's what we spent on snacks before we left and the per each prices.

Bottled water

Canned soda


Crackers, 12 packs





And here are the average prices charged at convenience stores and gas stations.

Bottled water

Canned soda


Crackers - each





Without taking you through the math, this tactic alone saved us over 50 bucks; the equivalent of a free tank of gas. Best of all, because we carried our snacks/soda with us, we minimized our stops, saving time, which on a road trip amounts to extra miles driven or more time at our destinations. Here are some other ideas that save even more of both.

Prepaid Merchant Cards: Before departing, we purchased a number of prepaid "gift" cards at popular chains. The advantage was that purchases at these merchants didn't deplete our cash or debit card balances.

Shut Off the A/C: When cooler temperatures were present, we shut off the air conditioner in our SUV. A/C eats gasoline. This tactic added about 1.5 mpg. And, because we hit the road early in the day, over the course of a 3,500 mile road trip, the gas we saved by not running the A/C during cooler morning hours saved us about one tank of gas.

Tuck Money: In an inner recess of my wallet, I always carry an extra $80 in cash. My stash of "tuck money" comes in handy if a store lacks an ATM or does not accept debit/credit cards (there are still some that do not). It also eliminates at least one ATM fee. As an aside, I hate paying anybody for the privilege of accessing my own dough.

Auto Club Discounts: As members of a well-known automobile club, our membership entitles us to a discount at nearly every hotel/motel chain. All we have to do is ask for it and display our membership card.

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Free Lodging: Because we make a point of staying at the same hotel/motel chain, our loyalty is rewarded with a free night's lodging after we accumulate enough points. On the nights we do have to pay, our auto club membership cuts our rate. Many hotel chains offer similar types of loyalty programs, so check them out before departure.

"Road Warrior" Discounts: I hold a Class A commercial driver's license. Many restaurants offer 10 percent road warrior discounts. All I have to do is present my license and it keeps more money in my pocket. Over its eight-year term, those discounts have more than paid for my $120 license fee.

Senior Citizen Discounts: Now that I've achieved the status of senior citizen (I'm 62), I leverage my advanced age to receive even more discounts at various merchants. I can't forestall the aging process, but I can leverage my years into even more savings. And if you belong to an organization like AARP, the discounts you're entitled to may be even greater.

Play Santa: On our most recent trip, we delivered Christmas gifts to all of our relatives. The net was a savings of over $100 in shipping charges, which was the equivalent of over two tanks of gasoline.

Pay Attention: On the first leg of our trip, we didn't know how much gasoline prices would vary state-to-state, but we kept track of the differences. On the return leg, by planning the locations of our gasoline purchases, we saved as much as 40 cents per gallon. As an example, unleaded regular gas was selling for $3.65 per gallon in Roanoke Rapids, NC, but across the border in Emporia, VA, the same brand sold for $3.25. Good timing saved us as much as $7 per tank.

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Burn Better Gasoline: Our mid-size SUV rates about 19 mpg if we burn 87 octane gasoline. By purchasing 89 octane, which is about 12 cents more per gallon (about 5 percent), our mileage typically improves to about 23 mpg (about a 20 percent improvement). So sometimes spending a little more really does save money. Plus, we didn't have to stop as often to refill the tank, which saved us time, too.

Alter Your Schedule: When we travel, we always stop for supper at 4pm. Restaurants aren't crowded, and the service is faster. We're usually back on the road just about the time everybody else is stopping to eat. The traffic volume is noticeably reduced, meaning we make more golden miles before settling in for the night.

A successful road trip is an exercise in good planning and keen observation. By employing all of the techniques I've covered, we saved roughly $300 in cash. More importantly, we saved valuable vacation hours. Ben Franklin was right when he said, "Time is money." Happy motoring to all!

Reviewed June 2017

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