How to Save Money on Road Trips Using Inexpensive Hotels & Cheap Lodging

A couple of weeks ago I returned home from a 5,500 mile cross country road trip. Living in Colorado, with the rest of my family living in Massachusetts and Florida, it always takes a big trip in order to see everyone. And since I gave up flying 3 years ago, I now only travel by car or by train – and this summer’s trip was via my Mini Cooper. I drove from CO down to Florida via all back roads (no major highways) so I could see some great parts of the country rarely seen, then I drove up to Boston for a visit and to attend a wedding, and then I drove all the way back to Colorado. I was gone for just about a month, and I had a fantastic time both visiting people and just spending some of the summer on a road trip.

However, taking a long road trip like this can cost a pretty penny if you are not careful. Between the food, drinks, gasoline, tolls, and hotel stays, a trip can empty your wallet in no time flat. One of the biggest expenses I have found on these trips is the 6 some-odd hours I pay to sleep in a hotel… I drive really long days, pull into a hotel at night, and wake up early the next morning and get back on the road. “You want $109 for a 6-hour stay in your hotel?” Yikes! Well, after making these treks for a few years now, I have come up with a few ways to save on hotel stays while on the road, and figured that maybe some of you could benefit from them as well – so here we go!

Stay at hotels in the middle of nowhere. Rural hotels far away from city centers or big suburbs are cheaper than those approaching and/or leaving a major city. I usually wait at least an hour, if not longer, after leaving a city to find a place to sleep for the night. Unless you are planning on playing tourist the next morning, avoid renting a room near a city.

Using your smartphone (if you have one), look up the numbers and call all the hotels at an off-ramp. I do this all the time, in order to find the cheapest one. It saves me from having to go into each lobby and ask the clerks individually.

Pull in to the hotel late at night. The later you get there, the more apt the person behind the counter will be to give you a discount. If the hotel isn’t full yet, and it’s already 11pm, you can probably get a much better price than the rack rate. That being said…

Always ask for a discount. The clerk will ask if you have AAA card or something else like it in order to process a discount, but that doesn’t mean you need a card to get one – be nice and ask if there is anything they can do about the price. Some will, and some won’t, but it never hurts to ask.

Find hotels with free breakfasts and free wi-fi. Granted, the breakfast they give you may only be coffee and a donut, but that’s $10 less dollars you have to spend in the morning.

Sleep in your car. On my return trip to Colorado from Massachusetts, I slept in my car in a rest area in Missouri. I slept for almost 5 hours, got up, and got right back on the road. Was it the most comfortable place I have ever slept? Nope – but I have done it many times and am getting used to the idiosyncrasies of sleeping in one’s car. I find a safe, patrolled, rest area, full of other “sleepers” and trucks, vent the sunroof, lean the seat back, and voila – a free bed for the night. This is my new preferred sleeping method on long drives, as nothing beats not spending a dime on a hotel bed that you only need for a few hours.

Do you take long road trips? What tips would you offer up for saving money on hotels and/or traveling by car? I usually bring my own cooler full of drinks and snacks to save me even more money. What would you add to a list of money-saving road trip tips?

Photo by Bruce Berrien

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Comments (8)

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  1. kristen says:

    One word: Priceline! My family just got back from a 3-week trip to Texas from California (we flew). We mostly stayed with family but needed a hotel for one night for a side trip to Houston and paid half off using the Priceline negotiator.

    Packing a cooler can save a LOT of money on food for the road. You can also eat better. We drove all over Texas with two children and only stopped for fast food once – at a Chick-fil-A.

  2. Sam says:

    My tip is in line with the mentioned cooler idea.
    Before leaving for a trip I try to remember to check the internet for Walmart & other discount store locations along the way or at the destination.
    When I’m driving, I try to time our departure so we’re going through a town at lunchtime that has such a store & we’ll run in to grab a bag of fruit, bread & cold cuts for lunch. The trip into the store allows everyone to stretch their legs and take a break from the car. Also sometimes stores carry different items then we can find near home so we get to try new things. It’s cheaper then a drive thru but more expensive then bringing leftovers in a cooler.
    Also, to save time. In the back of mileage notebook I keep in the glove box, I have one page dedicated to such stores along the way to my Aunt’s (8 hrs), a page for My son’s Dad’s (10hrs) and a page for my Mom’s (20-22hrs). This way we can make notes and it makes the trips more pleasant.

  3. Tyler says:

    Some cautionary tales relating to hotels and off-highway travel:

    1) Check availability ahead of time (as in, days ahead). Towns with only one or two hotels can be completely filled if a wedding or two are going on that weekend.

    2) Have multiple routes available. The state highway you are on may pass through a town that experiences a flash flood the night before you are to arrive, either slowing you down by a few hours, or closing the road entirely.

    3) Be aware of toll roads. I made this mistake once when moving, and had only ten cents extra in cash over the toll amount.

  4. Debbie M says:

    Youth hostels. You don’t have to be a youth for some of them, and you don’t always have to do a chore, either. You may need your own sleeping gear. (I admit this is less useful for road trips than for destination vacations.)

  5. Mark says:

    You can save a ton of money if you use priceline strategically. Our team travels the country and stays in 3 & 4 star hotels all the time for between $40-$70 per night.

  6. Norman says:

    Ok, I have to ask…why did you give up flying?

  7. David says:

    Three reasons – 1. Damage to the environment. 2. I prefer slow travel so traveling is part of the trip, via train or car. 3. It’s a hassle beyond words.

  8. Adrian Monk says:

    Good advise for alternatives. The hostels or B&B or places ppl rent out for travelers is not as easily found as hotels. Some of them don’t even have running water. If you are traveling alone be extremely cautious as there are a plethora of ppl trying to con you. Staying at a rest stop, truckers do it all the time. I too thought this was a great way to save some $$$. Bathrooms and a little picnic table rest areas are at your fingertips. But a security guard told me that I could not park there and sleep. He said if everyone does it then the whole place would be filled up at night. So he kicked me out of the rest stop. The next one was 50 miles away so I stayed at a hotel. Tried one more time at a different stop and crazy person was peeing by my car. I said wtf the bathrooms are right there. Who knows what was going through his mind. One more time. A nosy person was peeking through my windows. I think he was thinking of breaking in. I said can I help you. He said nothing and walked off. Make sure when you pull in there is a security guard. Also in the wee hours of the morning I guess they leave so it’s not always watched 24hrs. Traveling is both fun and strenuous. But good ppl are always on the defensive bcuz of bad ppl always trying to hustle. Use your judgement and when approaching others use your manners. Thugs and thieves have a hard time with this and are usually persistent so don’t give in.