For the past couple of months, the cost of gas across the United States has risen quite drastically, with some states seeing prices at the pump as high as $6 per gallon of gas since February (looking at you, California). As the temperatures heat up, millions of Americans plan to partake in the time-honored tradition of long road trips, family vacations, and vanlife test runs.
With economists predicting high gas prices and a rising national average price per gallon of gas continuing through at least September due to increased demand and reduced supply, saving money at the gas station is shaping up to be almost as big a part of our collective summer plans as the destination itself. Luckily, with a bit of know-how and prior planning, you can still have the summer adventure of your dreams without breaking the bank.
How To Save Money On Road Trips
Planning Will Save You
One of the most effective tools for combatting rising fuel costs is planning. I can give you all the tips and handy apps globally, but pre-planning is one of the most effective ways to save money on the road. I cannot tell you - especially as someone traveling in a larger van, RV, or Skoolie - how much gas I have wasted circling a location for an approachable entrance or looking for parking.
I have since switched to spending about five minutes before I set off to my next destination, checking out the satellite view of my new destination and planning a course of action for when I arrive. Doing this has granted me not only time savings but also fuel savings.
Use the Tools at Your Disposal
The world of travel apps has come a long way since Mapquest and AskJeeves. In the three years since the advent of the pandemic alone, the travel app space has made leaps and bounds. Many GPS providers, including Google Maps, have a fuel efficiency feature that can help you select the most fuel-efficient route to your destination.
Other apps like AAA and road trip planning specific apps like RoadTrippers, have built-in gas cost calculators that use information like the size, type, and average gas mileage of your vehicle to help you get a better idea of your fuel costs before you hit the road. Apps like GasBuddy and GetUpside can help you locate gas stations with the lowest fuel prices on your route, allowing you to pre-plan your fill-ups.
Go Far & Travel Slowly
Many other full-time nomads and I implement this daily to cut down on fuel costs, and it is a gem of knowledge that I gift you with an open heart. I know. It sounds wild. Go far? To save gas? Trust me. I hear you. But don't let $6 gas (seriously, California, why?) keep you from that epic adventure you've been waiting for all year if you're capable of taking some extra time away from the office (or even better-- take it with you!), extending the time spent traveling presents an opportunity to spend longer at each stop.
This means more time to familiarize yourself with the people, the food, and the landscape in a way that whirlwind road trips don't permit. It also allows you to purchase fuel less often, meaning you can plan, prep, and time your fill-ups when the pricing is more favorable to your budget. As a full-time nomad, this is one of my favorite ways to limit fuel consumption and cut fuel costs without sacrificing trip distance.
Fuel Memberships & Rewards Programs
So there's a running joke that's not a joke among the vanlife community that Costco memberships save lives in tiny spaces. The thing is, it's not the bulk goods we're there for (ok, maybe a little). If you can spring it, the $60 membership is like a golden ticket to consistently reasonable gas prices no matter where you are in the country. The one caveat to this is that you can only fill up at Costco gas stations. However, Costco has a pretty expansive network of locations. For most folks, being able to access the price of gas offered by Costco even part of the time is a big enough benefit to keep the membership. Plus, Kirkland snacks. IYKYK.
GetUpside is an app that offers cashback for fill-ups at participating gas stations. The app pays out in cash and offers additional cash referral bonuses for folks who spread the word to their friends. The app may not directly help you save at the pump (participating stations are not guaranteed to have the cheapest or even cheaper gas prices). Still, the cashback in your pocket is, in my opinion, almost sweeter.
Other gas stations and some grocery chains, including Circle K, Maverik, Kroger, Sam's Club/Walmart, Pilot/Flying J, TA, and Shell, offer loyalty programs that grant members discounts on gas at the pump. GoodSam Members also receive discounts on gas at Pilot/Flying J locations. AAA members receive .05 cents off per gallon of gas at Shell locations. The opportunities for loyalty points and savings are quite honestly limitless.
Monitor Prices & Avoid Expensive States
This one seems mildly self-explanatory, and for that, I apologize. One of the easiest ways to minimize fuel costs is to avoid going to the states where fuel costs are the highest while they're at their highest. The AAA website has a free-to-use gas cost calculator and fuel price map that you can use to view the average, highest and lowest prices for all types of gas, including diesel. As a general rule, when gas prices surge, the west coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) are states to avoid. Fuel in these areas almost always costs more than the national average anyway, so they're definitely among the destinations I shelve first when planning trips during fuel cost spikes.
Regular & Preventative Vehicle Maintenance
Oil changes, tire pressure, fluid checks, gross weight, fuel treatments, etc. The list of things that can impact the fuel efficiency of your vehicle and, ultimately, your trip cost is long. You can't consider the cost of gas and travel without it.
Without regular maintenance and a moderately attentive owner, even the most efficient car can begin to gulp down gas like no one's business. Staying on top of care and monitoring your vehicle's gas mileage to be aware of any changes or things that may need to be addressed is not just good car ownership; it makes financial sense. Think of these things as investments in saving on the cost of fuel and your vehicle's longevity.
Last year (okay, who are we kidding, the last two years) have brought vanlife and road travel back to the American lifestyle in a revolutionary way, empowering more people to pack up and take off, feel the wind at their back and dive into the natural world that surrounds us here on Turtle Island than ever before. As van prices, RV rentals, and other alternative dwellings continue to become more expensive. Our sincere hope is you can take this information, whatever your vehicle or mode of transportation, and hit the Wide Open Roads this summer.
Jupiter (they/them) is a twenty-something wanderer who has traveled the United State full-time in a Class C RV since 2019. They are accompanied by their two dogs, and spend their time hiking, writing, reading, seeking out the best food on the road, and finding new Black & LGBTQ+ friendly places to explore. Instagram: @doesthiscountasvanlife
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