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Open Arizona Highway / Photo: Wolfgang Staudt

A road trip is meant to be a fun, affordable way to see the country. Here are 8 ways you can save money on a U.S. cross-country road trip.

Transportation. Food. Lodging. These are the three key elements of any road trip. Well, and music, too, but we’ll get to that later. First things first: the logistics.


Classic American ride / Photo: Stevo Arnold


Despite all the recession travel deals currently being hawked by the tourism industry, rental car companies haven’t taken notice.

If you’re without your own wheels, you won’t want to go the rental route.

An “economy” car from Hertz, picked up on June 1 at JFK in New York and dropped off on June 14 at SFO in San Francisco would have run you $164.99 a day.

That’s $2,309.86…before insurance, gas, tolls, and other hidden costs, like extra driver or “age differential” fees if you’re under 25. For that amount of money you could go to the other side of the world in style.

But a road trip does require a vehicle, so to cut down on costs, you’ve got to get creative.

Would you share a ride with this gentleman? / Photo: JFL

The Beauty Of Ride-Shares

Consider ride-shares (glorified long-distance carpooling) or contract arrangements.

People are always looking for someone to drive their car across the country.

You can search for possibilities on Craigslist or advertise an arrangement yourself on Matador’s Forum.

Be sure to get all details in writing, and don’t forget to check with your insurance company or the owner’s insurance company to make sure you’re covered.

Pumping gas in Wyoming / Photo: TCP


While gas prices are a lot lower than they were this time last year, filling up a dozen or more times is still a painful proposition for your wallet.

You’re not likely to get around this expense (unless you’re driving a veggie oil powered vehicle), so plan smart.

Websites like GasBuddy help you map your route around the gas stations where prices are lowest. Its database, updated daily, lets you search by state or zip code to find specific stations with the cheapest gas.

You can also look up lowest prices by state and city. (Currently, Tucson, AZ looks like a good stop: It’s got the cheapest gas in the country.)



Snacks are an indispensable part of any real road trip.

Golden apple / Photo: morning rumtea

Stock up before you hit the road. Mix up some perennial favorites, like trail mix, or bring along a cooler with sandwich fixings that can be replenished at local grocery stores along the way.


If you’re taking the back roads, there’s no better time than summer to sample some tasty roadside grub.

But unless you’re already a foraging expert, be sure to check out David DeFranza’s guide first.


Louisiana eatery / Photo: Laffy4k

Local cheese in Vermont. Grits in the Carolinas. Gumbo on the Gulf Coast.

America doesn’t really have a single defining dish because every region offers something delicious and unique.

Pull into the most podunk town you can find and sample their specialty — you’re sure to get a lot of local flavor, and we’re not just talking about the food!



Camping is one of the cheapest sleeps you’ll ever enjoy (and one of the most adventurous and romantic, too).

Possible view from your tent / Photo: Fred

The U.S. offers some incredible and affordable overnight camping options in every single state.

National parks will guarantee you the most beautiful surroundings. Options and requirements (advance permits, for example) vary, so be sure to check the NPS website for information about the parks along your route.

If you don’t have the gear or the budget to buy the basics — tent, sleeping bag, and camp stove, minimum — now’s not the time to make that investment. You have at least two other comfortable and affordable options…


You’ve probably heard about Couchsurfing already; if not, you can read all about the wonders of sharing a couch.

If you’re traveling solo (which is completely antithetical to the road trip vibe), then Couchsurfing your way across America is ideal…and it’s free.

If you’re traveling with a full car, though, or just want some privacy, don’t forget to consider…

Hotel room / Photo: TheoGeo


You get a lot of bang for your buck in some hotels these days — including privacy, your own bathroom, continental breakfast, and the morning paper.

Sign up for a rewards program before your trip and plan to stay at the same hotel at each stop along the journey; you’ll be able to rack up free nights, gift cards, and many other rewards — your choice — and get a head start on your next trip.

Join a rewards program from a hotel group that offers lots of lodging options.

We recommend Choice Hotels, which includes Econo Lodge and Rodeway Inn hotels and eight other affordable and convenient hotel brands.

If you’re concerned about staying connected, many of these hotels offer free Wi-Fi. And though you may think hotel stays are expensive, they often offer deals that can help you earn points towards free nights on your next trip.

Now about that music…

Check out the Greatest Roadtrip Soundtrack Ever.

Community Connection

Get fired up for your road trip by taking in the The 5 Best Roadtrip Scenes Of All Time or reading this essay about the great American tradition of roadtripping.

Road Trip Guides


About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • Christine

    I will be referencing this article on my trip, thanks Julie!

  • Jon Wick

    Julie- great read, when I found myself in a push coming to shove situation, I’ve taken the refuge of my backseat in a Walmart parking lot.
    Definitely never ideal, but I had a clean bathroom in the morning!

  • NYCity Mama

    How perfect is this! We’re leaving at the end of the month and all this info is exactly what we needed. Thanks! I’ll link this article in my travel posts. Thanks!

  • Julie

    Glad you all found the article useful! Jon– you’re not alone in that Wal-Mart parking lot; lots of RVs use Wal-Mart lots as their nightly stop!

  • Rob

    Rather than national parks, how about the free national forests or wilderness areas?

  • Amanda, traveling wedding photographer

    I am on the road about 6-7 days out of each month. I get really good hotel deals by using hotwire ( you see the star level and area, but not the exact hotel until you buy ). Priceline is really good too. Try bidding on a hotel with priceline or using hotwire if you aren’t already familiar with those websites.

    The grocery idea is good too. I always bring veggies and fruit with me ( and an empty water bottle ).

  • Kristen

    If you’re part of a frequent flyer program, sometimes you can get free hotel rooms after you get enough points. I’m not exctly sure of all the specific details; a friend I road tripped with was the one who got us a free room for the night, but it’s something worth looking into. Also, I’ve found that family, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, family of friends, etc. are usually more than willing to let you sleep on their couch for the night if you’re stopping in their city for the night. Before you travel, ask friends and family if they know anyone along your route. It saves a ton of money!

  • Money Saving John

    I’m a big fan of couchsurfing too. In addition to being free, it’s also a great way to get the inside scoop on the places you visit.

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