Whether you’re taking the kids to Wally-World for the first time, or simply looking to blow off some sweat-induced steam with your best friends this summer, the season for road tripping is coming at us faster than a hopped-up Hunter S. Thompson in a red Chevy.
But not everyone has a Hollywood-level budget for the cross-country jaunt dreams are made of, unfortunately. Fear not, wanderlusts: here are 12 tried and true penny-pinching tricks of the road that will ensure your next road trip is, at the very least, indie-movie worthy—Michael Cera cameo likely included.
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Sleep for free (legally) at Walmart
Possibly the largest monetary obstacle all road trippers must face is room and board. For those not adverse to shacking up in their ride, Walmart founder Sam Walton vowed to let any wary traveler rest his or her bones in the fluorescent comfort of his store's parking lots, and the company has—for the most part—stayed true to his original vision. As long as you tell the store what you are doing, it's totally cool to spend a night (or two). This is a great alternative to pricey/skeezy roadside motels, and a safe option for those resigned to sleeping on the roadside.
Eating strange and exotic foods can be one of the best parts of traveling, but it will hit your wallet harder than Mike Tyson wearing a gold-plated Apple watch. There are some simple tips that will keep your gut packed on a budget: visit a grocery store and pick up some staples like PB&J ingredients, steer clear eating inside heavy-tourist spots, and if you really want to try out a cool restaurant, opt for lunch instead of dinner for reduced pricing.
On that note, many bars will serve free food during their happy hours, and you can seek out "community restaurants" like Bon Jovi's Soul Kitchen (in my hometown) that lets you pay as much as you wish for a meal, or gives you the option to do some work around the place for food.
Use your phone to find the cheapest fuel
Gas is obviously one of the more prominent expenses on every road trip not involving a Prius. Nothing can halt a high-octane road-trip like a lack of affordable high-octane petro, so utilize apps like GasBuddy to check out the cheapest options on your route, and plan your re-fueling accordingly.
"It can be kind of scary if you are traveling alone, but I've done it a few times, on both coasts—it's always been a very positive experience. I've had a lot of friends use Couchsurfing all over the world, with great success," said our intrepid Social Media Coordinator Giselle Waters. "I've actually made some friends with some of my hosts," she added, confirming every road trip is an indie movie script waiting to happen.
Split costs the smart way
One of the ways costs can quickly accumulate on roads trips is by people not chipping in. We all know that guy. With current technology like mobile banking, Venmo, and PayPal, your buddies should have no problemo squaring up right in the moment. If you really don't trust your friends, plan out costs ahead of time, and design a system of who will pay what, when.
Save your data like a boss
Unless you have an unlimited data plan (what are you, a Bond villain?!) you probably are draining those precious gigs and risking overage fees with every Shakira song you blast over Bluetooth. Add in GPS, maps, and important info you need to pull up frequently, and it's a recipe for data disaster. Do everything you can to free yourself from 4G: save songs to your Spotify accounts and download podcasts to your memory, for entertainment, and take screenshots of your maps, directions, and important data (like addresses)—also helpful if you find yourself in a remote locale without reception.
Befriend the locals
If there's one thing every local despises, it's tourists—trust me on this (see: Bennys). But, if you are handsome, and charismatic, and have no semblance of shame, you can assimilate your way into local culture like Jane Goodall living with the gorillas.
Thrillist's Adam Lapetina recounts his own relevant experience: "We were in Yellowstone, without much of a plan. After watching Ol' Faithful erupt (it was spectacular!), we went inside the park's cafeteria for a quick nosh, where my friend quickly caught the eye of a young park employee. Their eyes met, sparks flew, and she ended up asking all of us to spend the night in the employee lodges. With sleeping bags in tow, and much to the distress of her employers, we spent the night. It was probably frowned upon, but it was fun—and free." Isn't that a fried slice of road trip gold?
Keep those windows up on the highway
Summers and road trips pretty much go hand in hand, so you are going to have to put up some sweltering, oppressive, seat-drenching heat. But if you are traveling on the highway, roll up your windows (despite what your dad will tell you). The wind resistance on the highway will make your car work harder to maintain its speed, and gas is money. Rely on your A/C at these times, and apologize to your dog personally for killing its vibe.
Avoid the tolls
Personally, paying for tolls is the most infuriating cost during any road trip. That's why I try to skip em' all together. Using the ever-handy Google Maps, you can select "Avoid tolls" to find a route that ditches those pesky booths. More often than not, the toll work-arounds won't add too much time (or gas consumption) to your trip.
Share a ride with total strangers (hear me out)
For those who don't mind hitchhiking to save some dough, but aren't trying to get murdered this summer, sites like eRideShare allow you to connect with like-minded travelers and set up a joint trip to conserve funds. Though this may take some of the fun out of your summer road trip, it's a cheap way to experience the road like Kerouac and co., sans copious amphetamine use.
Stick it in cruise control
Our Rides Editor and overall car super-genius Aaron Miller put it best: "When you drive, more often than not you’re being at least a little inconstant with your throttle position, which means you’re using more gas than you need to be. Your car’s cruise control is much smoother, and thus better for your fuel economy."
Live off the land
There's a slew of free public land to set up camp out west—and you will probably be able to find legitimate campsites nearly everywhere on your journey. Plus, most of these campsites that require payment have no gates. And no one watching the entrance. Are you picking up what I'm laying down here?
"We pulled in late at night, set up our tent, and left in the morning. You want to remain as unnoticed as possible," said our Senior Editor Alex Robinson, who has no scruples about sneaking into campgrounds. "It's technically illegal, but it's one of those unspoken rules of the road—you know?" Well, we know now.