NEW YORK (MainStreet) Memorial Day weekend traditionally kicks off road trip season. Between May 22 and May 26, AAA predicts that 36.1 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home, a 1.5% increase from last year. More than 80% of those travelers will drive to their destination.
But is driving always cheaper than flying? That depends.
BeFrugal.com has a free Fly or Drive Calculator on its website that factors in time, money and carbon emissions to determine the best transit mode. It estimated that flying two people round-trip from Washington, D.C. to Boston would cost about $900 and have a CO2 Impact of about 1,715 pounds, while driving would cost less than $200 (assuming the pair made the trek in one day without an overnight stay) and have an impact of less than 900 pounds. Flying two people from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, however, is a little over half the cost of driving.
For those planning a summer road trip, here's a look at money-saving strategies.
1. Choose a vehicle with good gas mileage. The best road trip vehicle is one that's reliable, gas-efficient and ample in trunk space, which may or not be the car you normally drive. If you choose to rent a vehicle, make sure it doesn't have a mileage cap or you could wind up paying a lot more than expected.
"Forget flashy, and forget that brand-new mustang sitting amongst the rundown rentals," says Anthony Karakai, founder of the travel blog Backpacker Adventures. "Renting a vehicle that is reliable, economic on fuel and if an accident were to occur, can protect you, are the important factors when planning a road trip. Not only will insurance premiums be cheaper on an older car, but you'll also get more mileagetherefore paying less for gas along the wayif you choose a fuel economic car."
2. Perform auto maintenance before you leave. The last thing you want is to find yourself hundreds of miles from home with an overheated engine or a flat tire, so have your vehicle serviced before you leave. Consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch suggests getting a routine maintenance check to prevent potential mechanical issues and checking the tires.
"Properly inflated tires will ensure efficient gas mileage and that's something you can check yourself too," she explains.
Also check the vehicle's fluid levels. "There's nothing worse than having to spend your vacation money on vehicle maintenance," says Rick Griffin, cohost of Midlife Road Trip, an online food, travel and adventure series.
3. Plan before you leave. While it may be tempting to hit the road for a spontaneous getaway, a little preplanning can save you money and ensure a smooth trip. For one thing, you may want to pack the night before and leave early in the morning.
"Those who hit the road early tend to avoid traffic, slow downs and traffic jams, which saves on gas mileage," says Ellie Kay, a mother of seven children and author of several personal finance books. "By embarking while the kids are barely awake, you might get 2 to 3 more hours of quiet time while they sleep."
A little advance work might also help you find deals in the cities or towns where you plan to stop. Cherie Lowe, founder of The Queen of Free blog recommends MeetWays, a free website that can determine the halfway point between your hometown and destination. "Once you get an idea of where the midpoint might be, Google and look for restaurants or even grocery stores where you might stop for rest breaks," she says. "Certainly spontaneous breaks might be necessary; however, you'll fare much better if you can choose where you're going to stop."
4. Load up your smartphone with apps. A bevy of smartphone apps can help you avoid traffic or locate cheap gas, accommodations and restaurants on the road. BringFido can locate pet-friendly hotels, while GasBuddy.com shows where to fill up your tank with the cheapest gas. Traffic and navigation apps like Waze and Beat the Traffic may also come in handy. Lauren Greutman, founder of the budget living blog I Am That Lady and a Savings.com DealPro, used Beat the Traffic on her way to a vacation, when it alerted her that traffic was backed up for ten miles.
"With that information we got off the next exit," she says. "The app gave us an alternate route and we were able to get to where we wanted to be."
If you're traveling with children, a few age-appropriate movies or games can help them pass the time and prevent cries of "are we there yet?" from the backseat. Just be sure to bring a mobile charger that plugs into the car so you can keep the battery juiced for long rides. One more tip about smartphones: "Use wifi for your phone apps whenever possible to avoid incurring data roaming charge," Griffin says.
5. Bring your own food and supplies. Packing a cooler full of food and drinks can reduce the amount of money you'll spend on meals at gas stations or diners. "This way, you can make your own sandwiches or snack on fruit and veggies instead of fast food and chips, plus save on overpriced bottled water and other refreshments," Woroch says. "Keep a few reusable water bottles so you can fill up on H20 at rest stops." Paper plates and napkins are also useful for picnics or meals in your hotel or motel room.
If you do want to sample the local cuisine, then Griffin points out that lunch menus are typically cheaper, so that's the time to go to a restaurant and eat leftovers or food you've brought for dinner.
--Written by Susan Johnston for MainStreet