The temperatures are heating up and the number of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 is rising, so it’s about time to hit the road for a summer trek. You won’t be alone.
2021 Small Business Spotlight:
This summer, 92% of Americans are planning a road trip, said Gabe Saglie, the senior communications manager of Travelzoo. People are staying closer to home, venturing three to five hours instead of the seven to 12-plus hours of previous travel seasons.
And while our ability to travel safely is something to celebrate, you don’t have to spend a bundle doing it. There are plenty of ways to save money on lodging, food, gas and extras, if you plan ahead and know how to get some of the best vacation deals, wherever your adventures lead you and your family.
Last updated: May 27, 2021
Compare Lodging Rates
Travelers have options when it comes to where to stay – a hotel, hostel and Airbnb among them. Your choice will depend on a number of factors, including your desired amenity level, whether you’re traveling with children, if you want to be close to recreation areas or downtown, and whether the price is most important to you.
Say you and a traveling companion are heading on a road trip to San Diego and want to stay in the ultra-hip Gaslight Quarter, which has more than 200 restaurants, bars, nightclubs and lounges, plus boutiques, shops and galleries. And you know it isn’t cheap.
But what will you pay? Comparing the same weeknight in July, a top-rated hotel is $396 for two guests when resort fees and taxes are tacked on. A top hostel is about $106 for a private room for two. And an Airbnb loft in the Gaslight Quarter that sleeps four is about $175 a night with fees.
Economy choice: Hostel, at a savings of $290 from the hotel.
Alternative: Sleep Under the Stars
If you can pitch a tent, why not consider camping on at least some nights of your road trip? At Recreation.gov, you can book accommodations at 3,600 facilities and 103,000 individual sites across the country, with many options available at less than $20 per night. Other sites to check for camping locales include Campendium, Campspot, The Dyrt, Pitchup and Reserve America. Some areas in the U.S. also have free campsites, usually on undeveloped public lands, and those can be found on the apps, said Kate Moore, who spent two years on the road with her husband and offers travel tips on their website, Parked in Paradise.
Tip: If you choose camping, book now to try to find a site and be flexible on the dates. The Washington Post reported in April that 100 million Americans, up from the typical 80 million, are expected to give camping a try in 2021.
Check Out the Suburbs
You might want to spend your vacation exploring a big city, but booking a hotel in the suburbs can be a big money saver on both accommodations and parking.
“The farther out you are the lower the rate. Public transportation can take you into town where you will avoid sky-high parking fee,” said Elizabeth Avery, who runs the travel websites SoloTrekker4U.com and SoloTravelPricingTracker.net.
Travelzoo’s Saglie agreed.
“Overnight parking in big cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York can be high — $50 to $70 a night or more, depending on the size of your vehicle,” he said.
Tip: Staying in the suburbs also can save on tolls that kick in the closer you get to the city.
Make a Plan for Eating Out
One of the joys of a vacation is eating at new restaurants and trying the local fare. You wouldn’t dream of a trip to the Maine coast with trying the fresh lobster, would you? Eating out can get expensive but there are ways to save.
- Areas that thrive on tourism often have coupon books or sections on the community’s website that list deals. You could wind up with a free appetizer or save $10 on a dinner for two. The savings can add up.
- Before leaving home, research which restaurants offer early bird specials or free appetizers at happy hour.
- Ask the local residents to recommend a local eatery that’s off the beaten path. The locals know the best deals.
Tip: Splurge on the restaurant you want to try for lunch instead of dinner. You’ll be less tempted to order a cocktail in the middle of a full day of activities, and lunch is cheaper.
Alternative: Make Your Own Food
Before leaving home, pack a cooler with filling snacks, such as protein bars, to take on the road for you and the kids. Having your own supply will help you resist the urge to grab an overpriced candy bar from the mini-mart when you stop for gas. You also can pack sandwiches and stuff the cooler with ingredients such as fruits and veggies to make meals on the road. Your savings can be significant, more than $50 a day even if your family of four just ate at fast-food restaurants. Double or triple that for full-service restaurants.
If you bring a cutting board and knife, you can chop up vegetables for fresh salads to eat at a picnic table. If you’re staying in a hotel, the small refrigerator and microwave can be invaluable in storing and preparing cost-saving meals.
Tip: If you make a grocery stop at a supermarket at your destination, sign up for the store’s rewards program. Even if you only use the membership once, it’s worth it since cardholders can take advantage of a store’s weekly sales.
Prepare Your Car for Travel
Before leaving home, perform regular maintenance on your car, including changing the oil and adding air to your tires. An oil change lubricates and keeps all of the parts in your car’s engine in working order. Getting regular oil changes is one of the most economical ways to preserve your engine and prevent expensive repairs.
Low tire pressure can cause a decrease in fuel economy, and with gas prices rising this summer, you will want to squeeze as many miles as you can out of every last drop. If you drive your SUV 2,000 miles on the trip on underinflated tires, you’ll be wasting about $15 in gas.
Tip: Download the Gas Buddy app. It will help you locate the cheapest gas wherever you are.
Set Your Schedule to Reduce Costs
Map out, before leaving home, all the places you want to stop on your trip and the attractions to see at each destination. By creating a schedule, you can plan the most efficient route and order of stops, saving time and money.
But having at least a rough idea of what you want to see also gives you a chance to look for discounts for everything from museums to theme parks to miniature golf. Pre-buying tickets to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis at least two weeks in advance, for example, will save visitors up to 25% off the regular price. Even buying one day in advance will save over the walk-up ticket price on the day of your visit.
Tip: As attractions continue to resume normal operations following COVID-19 shutdowns, some require reservations. Inquire as you make your travel itinerary.
Look For Free Things To Do
Most destinations, from big cities to smaller locales, have plenty of free things to do. Before leaving home, look for things to do where you’re headed. Ideas? Look at city street art in Pittsburgh. Visit the High Peaks in the Adirondacks. Pop into Pike Place Market in Seattle to watch the fishes being tossed. Tour the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Tip: Many areas have welcome centers. As you enter town, stop in to pick up the brochures about the attractions. You might find one you hadn’t scouted out in advance — even free ones.
Plan For the Pooch
If you’re taking your dog on the road with you, call around to find a hotel, Airbnb or other accommodation that will welcome your pet.
“Look for hotels with no or minimal overnight pet fees, which can run $100 or more per night and are usually non-refundable,” Saglie said.
Tip: Check out the website BringFido to scout out hotels, restaurants, parks, stores and more that will allow you to bring your four-legged family member. Or, download the app Dog Park Finder Plus to find parks on the road.
If your family is free to travel any day of the week, do it on the weekdays.
“One of the best tips for traveling this summer is avoiding the high-cost days of Friday and Saturday,” said Corritta Lewis, who runs the family travel website It’s a Family Thing. “The best time to check in to a hotel is Sunday to Thursday. Those are the cheapest days to stay in a hotel.”
Lewis said booking a room on a weekend night can cost $80 to $100 more per night during the peak travel season.
Tip: Also avoid travel to an area during the time of a big event, such as music festivals or local hot-air balloon festivals. Hotel rooms will be more expensive.
More From GOBankingRates