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Funny Money: 4 Tightwad Tips For Going On Road Trips Without Getting Taken For A Ride

Hit the road this summer with whatever spare change you have in your pocket. How to criss-cross the country without sabotaging your savings.

open roadThey call to you like sirens. Warm weather, beckoning tourist traps and the open road all convince you to act against your better judgment, chuck it all and head off for the sake of heading off. Problem is, the call of the road also coaxes the contents of your wallet to cut loose and run free. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to get it all — the sunburns, the flat tires and the t-shirts that inform the world you have visited the World’s Biggest Something — and stay on speaking terms with your budget.

Here are some tactics — some honest and forthright, some not so much — for how to do just that.

1. Carpool and shack up

The most drastic way to cut the biggest pieces of the road trip pie — gas and lodging — is to rope in non-freeloading friends to come along with you.

There should not be an empty seat in the SUV you borrowed from your parents. If there is no one sleeping on the floor in your hotel room, you’re doing it wrong. The more may not necessarily make the merrier, since, as all reality shows teach, more people in cramped quarters means more drama, but it will certainly make your miserable trip less expensive.

2. Explore rather than seek and find

Those tourist traps that serve as excuses for roaming the country are illusions. If you manage to have any fun on the way to overpaying to be let down by gimmickry, it will be in the trip itself rather than the destination.

So why not make the entire trip about the trip? Wander aimlessly.

Seek the unknown and offbeat. Preferably the free variety of unknown and offbeat. Hit diners. Chat up the old people. Cruise small-town festivals. Pull off the interstate to check out roadside attractions. Get lost. Just not so lost that your GPS won’t help you find the way back, because search and rescue teams are expensive.

3. Visit friends

It pays to know people, even if you don’t particularly like them. Tell them you’ll be in town and would like to catch up, accept the inevitable awkwardness, and simply ask if you can stay with them. Bingo. You’ve got accommodations that don’t cost a penny — just a piece of your soul.

If you happen to be bohemian and adventurous, you can check out offers to crash with strangers at sites such as Craigslist or Couchsurfing. Just don’t be shocked if you awake to find your host creepily watching you sleep — or worse.

4. Pre-plan your fueling

This goes for both eating and gassing up. Although it may seem to contradict my advice of venturing off the beaten path, it helps to do a bit of planning in order to make sure you don’t run out of gas or get hungry at the worst possible times.

Keep sites such as Gasbuddy at the ready in order to scope out the places that will allow you to fill up on the cheap, and scope out online restaurant reviews, such as those on Urbanspoon, to scope out the cheapest eats.

Also, be mindful of how you choose to share costs.  If you want to be a jerk — and who doesn’t? — make sure your travel partner is always the first one to fill up the tank or cover a meal for the party. That way, you are assured of never shelling out more in body and vehicle fuel costs than your buddy, and have a 50 percent chance of paying less than your pal.

Published or updated on June 2, 2014

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


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  1. Great tips! Going on road trips is really one of the best way to enjoy one’s free time, and it’s also a great time to hang out with your friends.

  2. Chris says:

    These are some great tips! Especially the couch surfing site. I haven’t heard of that one. When I travel I’m a big fan of VRBO and Air Bnb. I’ve had great luck finding awesome deals on really nice places to stay… The plus side with using these services is that you might get access to a kitchen which will allow you to make some of your meals instead of eating out for every meal. Looking forward to hitting the road this summer! Cheers!

  3. Libby says:

    Really? I should be miserable, cramped, and force myself on people all so that I can travel cheaply? Better to stay home.

    Here’s the real way to travel cheap:

    – Camp! Maintain your privacy, and enjoy the outdoors. If you’re not into tents, plenty of state parks and KOAs do cabins and yurts.
    – Vacation rentals are almost always cheaper than hotels, especially since many have kitchens, so you don’t have to eat out. Homeaway and Airbnb are my favorites.
    – Pack a lunch, snacks, water, or bring groceries so you don’t have to eat every meal out. Yelp restaurants you’d like to eat at in advance to see what the price ranges are.
    – Haven’t done one before, but there’s lots of good deals on Livingsocial Escapes and Groupon Getaways if you don’t mind traveling during the off-season
    – Plan ahead. Research in advance where you want to go, so you know the fees and operating hours. I like to put the name of the establishment, address, and any other important info into an email so its easy to get directions on my phone.

  4. Jimmy says:

    Road trips are always fun if they are with right people. I like the idea of going to different places and exploring rather than going to a known tourist place. Thanks for the excellent tips on how we can do this on a budget.

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