Shopportunist: Money-saving road trip tips

If a torpedoed trip is among our biggest complaints during a pandemic, we are pretty darn lucky, but I still can’t accept a sojourn-less summer. My husband has been working more than ever, our kids are still in this weird place emotionally after months cooped up inside sans school and I could use a break from my role as a stay-at-home-working-mom-journalist-teacher-therapist-chef-concierge-cruise director.

Like us, many are still anxious to explore. The American Automobile Association (AAA) forecasts the majority of Americans are looking to escape and social distance elsewhere and will ramble by road, marking the return of what AAA says is the Great American Road Trip.

“Americans will get out and explore this summer though they’re taking a ‘wait and see approach’ when it comes to booking and are likely to book more long weekend getaways than extended vacations,” said Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of Travel, with the association saying people will take 700 million trips this summer. “When they do venture out, travelers will take to the road with 683 million car trips to satisfy their wanderlust.”

With travel restrictions lifting in some areas  but social distancing still recommended, AAA estimates 97% of summer trips will be road trips.

A family road trip can be a rite of passage and a great, inexpensive way to disconnect from routine trappings and connect with family, while staying safe. A foray on four wheels allows you to customize a schedule based on comfort and interest, but also lends itself to last-minute adjustments and impromptu pit stops.

Mapping a route in advance is recommended, which means destination is key. You could heave a dart at a map and venture where it lands or take a 21st-century approach and use a digital road trip planning program like Roadside America, Rand McNally or AAA’s TripTik. The free, automated trip-planning tools will help you to create a custom route replete with rest areas, restaurants and lodging options.

Since it’s 2020 and all, you’ll have to consider travel bans and quarantine requests. Most apps include COVID-19 Travel Restriction updates. Also, keep in mind that many parks and attractions have capacity limits so if there’s a must-do on the docket, make arrangements in advance.

“Beyond mapping your route in advance, it is important to book hotels and plan out gas and food stops,” adds Twidale.

You can’t hedge the cost of fuel but fortunately gas prices remain exceptionally low, roughly 58 cents per gallon less than last year. Still, filling the tank repeatedly can siphon off savings. Here are few ways to make sure your adventure by car is cost-effective and copacetic:

Get gas-savvy: Gas-finding apps like GasBuddy and Gas Guru will steer you toward nearest, cheapest gas station. There are a number of rewards programs and gas station perks that can reduce fuel costs. Cumberland Farms SmartPay allows travelers to save 10 cents off every gallon of gas, right at the pump. Join Speedway Rewards and earn 10 points per dollar when you pump gas or 20 points per dollar when you make an in-store purchase. You can accumulate points and exchange them for more gas, snacks and gift cards.

Prep your car: There are several things you can do to better your car’s fuel consumption and lessen the amount of money you will pour into your gas tank. Have your car serviced beforehand: Properly inflated tires will give you better gas consumption, and a fresh oil change and new air filter can also improve your car’s performance. It’s also a good idea to make sure the gas tank cap is tight, to prevent evaporation.

Be ready to entertain: Tablets, smartphones and portable DVD players can help make any road trip manageable. Borrow movies from friends or your local library. If you’re traveling with little kids, stock up on coloring books, crayons and portable crafts. Research fun road trip games before you speed off, and consider creating your own unique travel soundtrack.

Aim to save on lodging: Never spend extra for a hotel room with a view during a frugal road trip. How much will you be in your room, anyway? Research deals available on major hotel chain websites or aggregators like and You may find last-minute lodging offers through a rental service like Airbnb. Midweek prices will almost always be cheaper. Also, consider a AAA membership to get discounts on some of your rooms, as well as all the other benefits.

Consider camping: Tent camping — not “camping” in a luxury class A motorcoach — can save you a ton of money on lodging. You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of gear. Check out eBay or the Facebook Marketplace for gently used equipment or borrow from a friend or family member.

Research park pass programs: Planning to meander the trails or plunge in the waterways of our state and national parks? Programs and promotions are available to help guests save on admission and amenities. Available for $80, the New York State Empire Pass is good for the calendar year. It provides unlimited day-use vehicle entry to most state parks and Department of Environmental Conservation facilities. With the America the Beautiful (ATB) annual pass you’ll pay $80 and have access to all 413 areas administered by the National Park Service. Special rates are also available to seniors, military members, veterans and those with disabilities.

Eat wisely: Restaurants can be expensive when you add up food, beverages and a tip. Ultimately, the most budget-friendly and safer way to eat on the road is to grocery shop along the way and prepare your own meals. Bring along a cooler for perishables. If you do dine out, check for coupons or visit sites like or for on-the-fly restaurant deals.

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