This has been the Summer of the Road Trip for the girls and me. Between our epic Laura Ingalls Wilder road trip with my mama, and our more recent week of camping, the girls and I have been in 20 different states. (!) Which has meant lots of last-minute hotel reservations and the like, once we see how far we can drive each day. And lots of lessons learned on how to save money (and frustration!) on these last-minute road trips.
So in case you ever take to the open road for a week or two, here are ten things we’ve learned (or relearned) this summer. Following these tips should help you save money, and avoid some of our frustrations:
Quick Tips to Save on Last-Minute Road Trips:
1. Set up travel alerts
Call your credit card company before you leave home, and alert them to your intentions.
Trust me, it’s not fun to be at the gas pump on a hot summer day, and have your credit card declined because your card company notices your card is 600 miles from home. And therefore concludes your card has gone on a vacation without you.
2. Avoid weekend travel if you can
Everyone and their uncle does quick weekend getaways during the summer. If you join them, you’ll be stuck in traffic with them.
So try to take this into account as you plan your own trip. If you’ll be passing through a common destination area en route to your own destination, figure out a way to avoid the congestion. Can you leave at the crack of dawn on Friday? Or maybe Thursday night instead?
And while we’re on the topic: keep in mind that some popular summer getaway destinations may charge three times as much (if not more!) for a room on the weekend; others require a minimum of two nights’ stay. On our way out of town for our camping trip this past week, we snagged one of the last rooms in town on Saturday night, for 3x what the same room would have cost on Sunday night.
Also keep in mind that if you end up surrounded by small towns after 6pm on a Sunday, you may be out of luck if you’re looking for a restaurant for supper. (Survival tip: Find a convenience store, grab a few pints of frozen yumminess, and have ice cream for supper in your hotel room.)
3. Clear out the fridge
We’re big on not wasting food if we can help it. (That, and not having the refrigerator full of moldering things when we return from a trip.)
If you’re heading out of town, pack a picnic lunch with as many leftovers as you can, the morning you leave (or the night before); throw others into the freezer. You’ll save both time and money on your first food stop. Plus ick factor and cleanup time when you return home.
4. Use both smart devices AND the atlas
I know that using old-fashioned road atlases is passé, but consider it anyway,
There are many remote places in our lovely nation that don’t have cell signals. (Such as, for example, all 800,000 acres of Big Bend National Park in Texas. Or, as we’ve recently discovered, nontrivial portions of northern Maine.)
And I haven’t had much luck getting decent answers when I say, “Siri, what’s the next rest area on such-and-such highway traveling eastbound?”
I’ve also been stuck on rural roads with accidents or road construction that the electronic mapping systems don’t seem to know about. Rare, but it’s happened to us more than once.
And when you don’t need to use that paper atlas for actual navigation, you can pass it back to your kids and have them track your progress.
5. Take the scenic route sometimes
Highways are usually faster, but also less interesting. It’s worth getting off the beaten path sometimes and driving through the small towns for a bit.
We especially like to do this when it’s time to eat. Pick a local road that parallels the highway you’re on for a bit and passes through several small towns on the way. You’ll all get a break from highway driving and highway scenery, and you’ll also find more interesting options than yet another round of rest-area fast food.
6. Act like a local
Speaking of local food, see if you can figure out where the locals eat.
This is not always a guarantee of a quality dining experience (say, if it’s literally the only restaurant in town).
But if you’re in an unfamiliar town, ask the locals working at your hotel, or working at the tourist attraction you just visited, where THEY like to eat, and what restaurants THEY recommend.
This is how you’ll find gems like the local farmer’s market that also has restaurant stalls. Or the general store/coffee bar/restaurant/gift shop/barbershop/local crafts showcase where we had lunch one day on our Little House road trip.
If the place is packed with locals who come there to socialize as well as eat, you’re probably in the right place.
7. Research the big sites, but book direct
I used to think (having not used them much) that all those big ”discount” hotel sites, like Expedia, Kayak, Hotels, etc., were the way to go if you were looking for a room on short notice.
I now know better.
The first few nights on our epic road trip, I went through these sites to book a room, once we figured out how far we’d be driving that day.
But then when we got to the hotel, half the time they couldn’t find our reservation. The other half of the time, they seemed unhappy that we had booked it through one of the big sites (which, presumably, took a chunk of the fee we’d paid for the night).
So then I tried using those big sites to figure out which hotels had availability in our next destination, but then going to the hotel’s (or chain’s) website to book directly. Because their rates when booking direct were often less expensive than the big sites’ “discount” rates anyway!
8. Consider joining the chains’ travel clubs
In addition to saving money by booking directly from the chain’s (or individual hotel’s) website, there are other ways you might be able to shave even more off your bill.
One way you can sometimes unlock extra savings is by joining their rewards-points club. For X number of nights’ stay in their hotels, you can earn a free night.
I signed up for a few of these on our adventures this summer, only so I could get the best rate on that night’s hotel room.
Don’t like the idea of getting even more “junk” emails? If you haven’t already done this, set up a free email account (mine is an old Hotmail account!) just to collect electronic “junk mail”! I always do this so I can log in to see special coupons/discounts when I want them, but they’re not cluttering up my regular inbox the rest of the time.
9. Bring your discount cards with you
Also be sure to travel with any and all potential “discount” cards you can, such as
- Teacher’s ID
- Military/other government ID
- AAA membership
- AARP membership (no, you don’t have to be a senior citizen to join AARP; my mama joined in her 30s, partly for the discounts!)
- Professional membership cards
(And if you have a senior citizen on board, that counts too!!)
These can all be tickets to additional savings on your hotel room. When you’re booking directly with the hotel or chain, you can ask on the phone or check on their website for their best rate for that night. Sometimes doing this over the phone with a real person will get you better results.
10. Check that confirmation!
For the most part, booking online direct from a hotel’s parent company’s website is easy-peasy. But there is one particular company whose website, as we have learned the hard way, is not very user-friendly. Among other things, it regularly and repeatedly defaults to the current date in the reservations process. Which is fine if you need a room for that night, but NOT fine if you need a room tomorrow night.
So be sure to check that email confirmation they will send you at the end of the booking process, to confirm that your reservation is for the correct date and location!
What are YOUR fave tips for saving on last-minute getaways by car? Let us know in the comments!
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