Road trips have been on the rise over the past year, and for good reason: Hitting the road (rather than the airport) is a pandemic-safer option that gives families flexibility in terms of travel planning and safety. Plus, it can add an element of spontaneity, too.

But road trips aren't inherently cheaper than air travel (certainly not on those budget airlines); they can come with some hidden costs—from spur-of-the-moment stops to paying more for last-minute accommodations. If you and your family are thinking of hitting the open road this summer and fall, here are some of the best ways to ensure you're not completely blowing your travel budget before you get home again.

An image of a family raising their hands while on a road trip.

Map Out Where You’re Traveling

It can be fun to just take to the open road and go where the wind takes you. But without some upfront research, you may be paying a little more than you anticipated. If you have a general area or city in mind, map out the most direct route to get there. Meandering your way to your destination means more miles—which means more gas. 

Research Roadside Attractions

Roadside marketing can be very misleading. Sure, that billboard or sign off the highway looks enticing, but you don't want to show up (and pay for) an "attraction" that's a complete bust. Once your map is set, spend some time checking out reviews of popular roadside stops to find out what's truly worth your time and money.

To help you find what attractions will be along your route, download Roadside America. This app shows favorite destinations by state, as well as obscure points of interest—and it has thousands of photos for you to see what a venue is really like. 

Redeem Credit Card Rewards to Pay for Hotels

Most travelers use a credit card in their daily lives. So why not get hotel perks for your everyday expenses? Watch the points climb—and then cash them in for a free stay. Plus, use these same cards to build more points during your trip for future use on free stays. Or, if you're financially able to, look into getting a new credit card with bonus signups that you can put towards your travel plans. This guide to the best travel reward credit cards can help consumers narrow down what will work best for their lifestyle.

Download a Gas-Saving App

You're going to be spending money on gas, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't shop around. Having a handy gas price comparison app on your phone allows you to get the cheapest gas in the area. And if you also have the GetUpside App, you could be earning up to $0.25/gallon in cash-back offers.  

Use Your GPS

GPS can save road warriors from getting caught in huge traffic jams, unexpected road closures, and ultimately from making a wrong turn. Any of these can put a huge damper on your road trip—and ending up in the wrong place entirely can lead to unexpected costs. You might miss a reservation, or even end up having to spend extra on accommodations because you got lost. 

Pack a Cooler

As Food and Wine reports, the cost of food is rising. You know you're going to have to eat while traveling, and you certainly want to eat well once you're at your destination. Save money on the road by bringing a cooler of easy meals to eat in the car. You can also skip the fast food and stop at a grocery store to re-stock your cooler as you need. Not only will you be providing healthy snacks and meals for your family; a well-fed child is also less likely to become agitated while in the car. 

Look into Renting a Car

It may sound counterintuitive to spend money in order to save money—but spending money on a rental car may end up saving you money in the long run. Gas is a big budget item when it comes to road trips, and if you drive a large family-friendly SUV, this can really be a significant dollar amount.

Can you make the same trip in a smaller car with your family—and all their luggage? If so, this switch can provide drivers with a cost savings of up to three times. The U.S. Department of Energy has a handy trip calculator that allows you to compare the cost of fuel for your road trip depending on the type of car you drive. Renting a car also allows you to save in the future by not adding the additional wear and tear (and maintenance/repair costs) to your own car that a long road trip can cause.


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