6 Ways to Save on Your Family Vacation
This was the summer of 1983 when gas prices were a little more than $1 per gallon. By piling into our white Toyota Camry we saved thousands with cash left over for Mickey and Minnie tchotchkes.
Fast-forward to now and family road trips are still going strong. In fact, in 2017, AAA found eight out of 10 traveling families packed their cars and coolers for long-distance adventures—a 10 percent increase from 2016.
Driving, even with the summer's steeper gas prices, many times beats the cost of flying (not to mention the agony of getting through airport security.) If you're planning to venture out on the road any time soon, here are some tricks to help you save (and maybe score freebies) on everything from gas to meals to museum passes.
1. Fail-Proof Your Car
You can improve your gas mileage by up to 3 percent in some cases by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure, and routine maintenance can save you from a costly repair (and having to hitch a ride) down the road. To prevent tire busts and car breakdowns, Michael Calkins, manager of technical services at AAA, offers the following to-do list:
Check your tire pressure. "At least once a month check to ensure proper inflation," says Calkins, since this will directly impact your tires' wear and tear and the smoothness of your ride. Not sure how the tires should be rotated? Just check your manufacturer's handbook. And if your car doesn't already have one, throw in a spare tire in the trunk for safe measure, he says.
Test the car's battery. AAA recommends that drivers have their vehicle's battery tested when it reaches three years of age and on an annual basis thereafter. The average cost to install a new battery is $176.
Pack an emergency kit (for you and the car). A well-stocked kit should have a mobile phone and car charger, flashlight with extra batteries, first-aid kit, drinking water, extra snacks, battery booster cables and emergency flares or reflectors.
2. Rent Wheels on the Cheap
If you need to borrow a car, save using the AutoSlash app. It scans thousands of coupons and discount codes to find you the lowest possible rate. Even after you've booked, the app continues to check rates daily and rebooks your reservation if the price drops. On average, the site boasts it saves customers 30 percent on a rental.
3. Bypass Toll Roads
Using Google Maps, you can request a toll-free route. Just enter the destination, choose "driving," then go to the top right of the app (3 dots) and select "route options," followed by "avoid tolls."
4. Time Your Trip Right
A key to saving is to begin your journey at night after you've eaten dinner at home and when the kids can sleep in the car, experts say. "Parents can save time making up 400 to 500 miles overnight," says roadtrip guru and author Pamela Rich. "Of course, you'll probably need to take turns driving, but it's a good way to minimize the whining and skip a night at the hotel," she says.
If you only plan to travel for a few days, consider a midweek excursion, adds Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommers.com. Many sites and hotels offer weekday discounts and specials. Plus, you can dodge the large crowds and long lines.
5. Sightsee for Free
City Tours: For free and intimate city tours Frommer recommends "Greeter Tours," that are often led by local volunteers. "I went around Chicago with a retired attorney who is just a real big architecture and public art fan. He knew as much as any paid guide would but he was also personable and does this out of love," she says. Check out internationalgreeter.org for a list of cities that offer this free service.
National Parks: More than 70 percent of the country's 417 National Parks offer free admission year-round including the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., and Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. You can search for them on your route by visiting nps.gov/findapark.
Museums: For free museum entry, the long-running Bank of America Museums on Us program gives Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust credit and debit card holders access to more than 175 cultural institutions across 109 cities—including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—free of charge on the first full weekend of every month.
You can also check with individual museums to learn about possible free admission times. For example, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, admission is free the final hour of each day. If you're traveling down South, you can find free museum days and times in the Houston Museum District by visiting houmuse.org/free-admission-times.
6. Satisfy Your App-etite (for Savings)
For grabbing a bite on a budget, the Dining Deals app gathers local dining deals using your phone's GPS. Users save up to 20 percent when they visit any of the app's participating restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Just show the discount on your phone.
Traveling with kids? The KidsEatFree app curates dining-out offers for families with children, including restaurants with free meal days for kids such as Rainforest Cafe in San Francisco and McCormick & Schmick's in Orlando. (Best to call ahead and confirm, since restaurants may change their offers seasonally.)
Farnoosh Torabi, author of When She Makes More, is the host of the award-winning podcast So Money.