Are we broke yet?
That’s probably not the question you’d expect to hear coming from your offspring in the back of the car, but perhaps it’s a thought that’s crossed your mind as you’ve driven your family down the interstate.
Sure, gas prices have come down since last year and there are cost-cutting strategies worth considering if you’re renting a car, but if you want to save even more there are additional steps you can take the next time you hit the road.
Keep your eye on the needle.
A hybrid can yield savings at the pump over the long haul, but there are also less sexy ways to save fuel and save on fuel.
“Sometimes you see recommendations to avoid using air conditioning, but open windows often cause drag and actually decrease fuel economies,” explains RoadTripAmerica.com publisher Mark Sedenquist, who has spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America.“Actually, if you could drive under 45 mph all day,” he adds, “you might see a slight improvement in fuel economy with the air conditioning off, but that’s unrealistic for nearly everyone.”
As you escape the treachery of stop-and-go traffic, also take a moment to flick on your cruise control, says Sedenquist, as “in most circumstances, the electronic chips do a better job of maximizing fuel efficiencies than most human drivers.”
If you’re trying to budget fuel costs, especially if you’re using an online mapping program, Sedenquist suggests upping its mileage projection by about 20-25% to factor in construction-caused traffic delays, pit stops, and side trips. Based on years of analyzing mileage, he says that “over the course of a full day of travel, expect to average about 57 mph west of the Mississippi River and about 53 mph east of the Mississippi. Even if one travels at or slightly above the speed limit, over a day’s travel this will work out.”
Check Gasbuddy.com en route to compare fuel costs at different gas stations and also try the lower-tech trick of checking “all four corners on major clover leafs on the interstate highways; one will nearly always be a little cheaper,” Sedenquist says.
Running your tires at the proper inflation can improve fuel economy, too, Sedenquist says, and AAA agrees that not only should all your tires, including your spare, be inflated properly, but that you should also “do at least one check before hitting the road, as tires hot from driving give inaccurate inflation readings.”
If you’re adventurous and have good instincts for lodgings that don’t come with referrals, www.airbnb.com has listings from people renting out rooms in their homes, an option “if you don't have to have a suite or don’t have a need for absolute privacy,” notes Gary McKechnie, author of "Great American Motorcycle Tours" and "USA 101: A Guide to America's Iconic Places, Events, and Festivals". “I've used it a few times and have found very nice lodging inside the D.C. Beltway for about $50 a night,” he says.
If you’re not hitting up friends or family for free overnights, the next best thing might be investigating any organizations you belong to that might offer overnight stays to its members, suggests Megan Edwards, founding editor of RoadTripAmerica.com and the author of "Roads from the Ashes". “From alumni organizations to churches, lodges, and social clubs, many groups offer networking opportunities that could not only save you money but also introduce you to new friends,” she says.
While you’re checking local gas prices on your laptop or PDA you might also want to experiment with booking as you go, Edwards says, noting that “Internet rates are often better than what you’ll be quoted as a ‘walk-in,’ and you can make last-minute reservations.”
Speaking of the Internet, take into account whether a motel offers it or other amenities for free, says Edwards, since “the ‘cheapest’ motel may actually end up being pretty pricey after you’ve bought breakfast and paid for broadband.”
Sedenquist says that in our sour economy, “all motel room rates are negotiable. If the parking lot looks empty when you check in, offer a lower rate and see what the desk clerk is able to do for you.”
In the spirit of bargaining down as well as trading up, if you want to book occasional overnights that are more upscale than a basic motel, especially “if you have the same vacation budget as you did last year, consider trading up for a higher quality hotel. Because of low demand, you can do more with less this year,” says Expedia spokesperson Ian Jeffries. He notes that the average daily rate for 3-star properties, as rated by Expedia, is $108, down 18 percent from the same time in 2008. Likewise, says Jeffries, the average daily rate for 4-star properties is $172, also down 18 percent from last year, and for 4-star hotels the average is $237, down 25 percent from last year.
Discover dining deals.
Along with lodgings that throw in breakfasts, restaurants that permit kids to eat free are well worth seeking out, says Traveling Mamas blogger and mother of two Beth Blair, who in lieu of sit-down restaurants will sometimes “hit a sandwich shop [or] grocery store and have a picnic at a local park” along the route she and her family are traveling.
Edwards says you’ll “cut your food costs dramatically” by limiting your restaurant habit to once a day and that “a good cooler is easily the best way to cut down on food costs on a road trip. If you stock your cooler with fresh fruit, veggies, and protein, you’ll be eating a healthier diet, too.”
You’ll save money at restaurants and lose weight, McKechnie suggests, by “agreeing to split meals with your spouse. You'll quickly get used to the half portions and fast appreciate the noticeable savings.” He adds that “it may make you look like a cheapskate, but even at dinnertime, request the less expensive lunch menu or lunch portions. Most restaurants don't have a problem with this.”
Chat up the locals.
Along with brochures and discount coupons, welcome centers often stock volunteers who can clue you in about local sights and activities and their potential costs, Sedenquist says.
Once you reach your destination, a good way to find local sights and possible deals “is to stop and have your hair cut or your nails done,” Edwards says. “Barbers and beauticians are often friendly and they also tend to be extremely knowledgeable about local events. This is a really fun way to learn insider tips that you’ll never find on the Internet.”
Also remember to talk up hotel workers, Blair says, as they can “usually point you to local restaurants with great happy hour specials.”
As for how to answer the question you can expect to hear coming from the back of the car: “are we there yet? Stay tuned.