On the Road, on a Budget

The road trip has been a time-honored American tradition ever since there have been roads on which to travel. From the chuckwagon-driving pioneers to the station-wagon-styling Griswolds in National Lampoon's Vacation, we all want to get out and see more of the country, to revel in pristine natural settings, to drink in the culture of unfamiliar towns and cities.

But today, intrepid young travelers face one obstacle these earlier luminaries didn't: high gas prices and the rapidly rising cost of travel expenses. The reality of $4 gas has prompted many to scale back travel plans or simply drop road tripping entirely. However, the two of us — both financially challenged college students — decided to buck the trend and hit the road, gas prices be damned. We traveled from Los Angeles to the California-Oregon border, then south to the east San Francisco Bay Area and then back home, covering 1,648 miles.

What we found was that road tripping is still an amazing way to see the country, and more importantly, still relatively affordable if you plan ahead. Amazingly, we managed to spend only $422.65 on our five-day vacation.

Prepare and You're Halfway There Before you set out, map your route, and in particular where you plan to stay and buy gas. Planning ahead is particularly important if you aren't going to have Internet access on the road. Use Google Maps or Hotels.com to get an idea of where hotel rates are the lowest. But the rule of thumb is that large cities and tourist destinations generally have much higher rates than rural areas, especially towns not served by an interstate. In addition, be aware of seasonal festivals that may clog hotels and drive up rates in nearby towns.

Gas is likely to be one of your biggest expenses, so check out GasBuddy.com or other gas-saving sites for updated gas prices along the way. Also, avoid buying gas in or near major city centers, or in national parks where it is extremely high. The best places to get gas (when possible) are midsize cities such as Stockton, California, and Austin, Texas, where competition drives prices lower than rural gas stations.

Get Your Motor Runnin' More Efficiently Before you hit the road, make certain your car is capable of surviving the long trip. Even if it isn't on its last legs, there are a few things you should check out under the hood before you take off, many of which are easily taken care of without an auto mechanic.

Inspect the oil, transmission fluid (in automatic transmission cars) and the coolant. Also, make sure there aren't any electrical lines or tubes that appear to have fallen out of their correct housings — the two of us had taken a previous trip in which the entire car shut down due to a loose wire that melted on the engine block.

Double-check that your tires are properly inflated. Tire pressure level is extremely important since underinflated tires can cut mileage by as much as 4 percent, not to mention pose a serious safety risk. And don't forget to inflate the spare — we found ours was only 23 psi when it should have been 60! Check out more gas-saving maintenance tips.

Also, it's important to bring some basic maintenance supplies for your car in case of necessary on-the-road repairs: extra oil, coolant, a jack and some basic car tools.

Sharing Is Caring It's important for you and your traveling companions to set some ground rules ahead of time. Traveling together can help save money, but there is also the possibility of misunderstandings and disputes over money. It's particularly important to have an agreement for sharing expenses. On our trip, we simply tabulated our expenses afterward and settled up. This is a pretty good way to go if you're traveling with just two people. In a larger group, consider starting a temporary credit card that everyone agrees to chip in for. Major credit card companies like Mastercard and Visa sell gift cards and prepaid cards.

To cut hotel costs, take stock of who has friends or relatives on or near the route. It may be time to give your high school buddy a call and casually mention that you're going to be in town a few days.

Hypermile in Style With high gas prices, even a small increase in your car's fuel economy can save you real money. Practice fuel-saving driving methods on the road to increase your miles per gallon.

One major factor in fuel economy is your cruising speed — most cars run most efficiently at 50-60 mph and get progressively worse gas mileage as speeds increase because of aerodynamics.

On our trip, in our 2000 Mitsubishi Galant ES with a four-cylinder engine, we got our best mileage, 30.5 mpg, on two-lane highways where we kept our average speed down to about 55 mph. But even if you're averaging a lower speed, it's also important not to accelerate or brake too hard; an Edmunds test team found that even at 77 mph, cruising at a steady speed improved mileage by as much as 15 percent. If your car has cruise control, use it as much as possible, except for long mountain grades.

Some cars display your current gas mileage and if your car has a mileage display, you can use it to see what types of driving give you the best mileage. If not, keep an eye on your tachometer (engine rpm gauge) — in nearly all cases, lower rpm means you're burning less gas.

Also, keep a log of your miles traveled so you can see which driving changes help your gas mileage. You may even want to consider employing some tips from hypermilers.

Here's another reason to slow down — young drivers are targets for the police. Speeding tickets are costly and will take back all the money you've saved by budgeting. Just in case you get into this nerve-wracking situation, read about how to handle getting pulled over by the police.

Breaking Down a Breakdown While cruising along, if your car is suddenly acting strangely or something goes wrong, pull over on the shoulder as soon as safely possible. Look under the hood to see if there is something you can easily fix such as a disconnected wire or hose. Otherwise, you'll have to take the car to a local repair shop. If your car still runs, turn on your hazard lights and slowly drive to the nearest garage. Otherwise, call AAA or your roadside assistance service. If all else fails, call 411 and ask for the nearest towing company. But hiring a privately owned tow truck is extremely expensive and should be your last resort.

For more information on how to survive a breakdown, have a look at Edmunds' own breakdown survival guide. Also, if you are worried about accidents on the road, check out this article about accident survival.

Happy Campers As we pointed out earlier, you're going to want to avoid staying in hotels in major cities or tourist destinations, unless you're prepared to spend a lot of money. In some cases, hotel rooms have inflated prices simply because they are located near an interstate. If you want to save serious money, spend a night or two on the road camping.

On our trip, we spent one evening camping in a national forest. It set us back $12 — $30 less than even the cheapest discount motels. State and national parks generally allow camping as well, but they are a bit pricier. You can make reservations for most campgrounds online or by phone (preferably well in advance of your trip during the high season). Otherwise, campgrounds usually fill up by the early evening (sooner on weekends).

If you decide to sleep in the great outdoors, get your gas and food outside of the camping area. Gas in national parks can cost at least $1 per gallon extra, and food prices are high as well. This is where a cooler can really come in handy. Also, plan to arrive before sunset so you don't waste fuel searching for a camp site. And pitching a tent in the dark is really annoying.

Hit the Road Road trips can be great fun, but it's important to be prepared for the less glamorous aspects of road travel as well. We've done our best to give you plenty of specific money-saving tips, but as a general rule you should keep a level head, focus on saving just a bit of money each step of the way, and resist the temptation to splurge. And remember that on the road, some situations are inherently fun, interesting, exhilarating or just a tad wacky; some can only be that way if you let them. Keep your feet on the ground, your wheels on the road and your mind open.