In 2020, pandemic travel restrictions made it extremely difficult to travel by plane, so families opted to pile into their cars and hit the open road. In June 2020, AAA found that Americans were planning 700 million road trips and that car travel accounted for 97% of the favored mode of transportation. There don’t need to be travel restrictions for drivers to take road trips. Many travelers prefer driving hundreds (or thousands!) of miles and experiencing parts of the country they’ve never seen before. Also, for families, a road trip may be more affordable than buying airline or train tickets for a big group. As summer travel season arrives, it’s important to know how to save and be safe. So, if you’re trying to cut costs on your vacation and keep yourself (and your car!) safe, follow our tips for the best road trip ever.

Before you hit the road

Check out your car

The last thing you want is to have car problems when you’re in the middle of nowhere with no cell service. Take your car to your preferred mechanic for a general inspection to ensure all of the basics, like battery, lights, fluid levels, etc., are good to go. Also, get your tires filled to your car’s maximum recommended level to improve fuel economy. Tire pressure recommendations are typically listed on a sticker on the inside of the driver’s door. If they aren’t there, check your car owner’s manual for the numbers instead.

Pack accordingly for summer travel

It’s important not to overpack on a road trip. Sure, you don’t have to follow an airline’s strict luggage rules when you’re traveling by car, but you should still only take what you need. Overloading your vehicle can make your trip way less comfortable and negatively impact fuel economy. If your car is too heavy for your tires, they may not be able to grip the road safely, putting you and your passengers in danger. Pack the basics for summer travel like cellphones, chargers, a cooler, food, plates, utensils, towels, soap, and extra clothes. Since we’re still in a pandemic, don’t forget masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes too! Then, carefully consider what other items you absolutely need once the essentials are packed up.

Pack an emergency kit

If an emergency happens, you need to be prepared. Every car emergency kit should include baby wipes, water, non-perishable snacks, medications, road flares/reflective triangles, blankets, jumper cables, a first aid kit, toilet paper, a flashlight, batteries, tire sealant, and a paper map (you never know when you’ll lose cell service).

Depending on when you’re traveling, you may need to add or take away items from your emergency kit. Summer travelers will need to add sunscreen, hats, aloe, and bug spray. If your road trip is in the winter, make sure you pack cat litter, a de-icer, a collapsible snow shovel, solar blankets, and a sleeping bag.

Get the right insurance coverages

You’re going to be on the road a lot, and while we hope you get to your destination and back safely, you want to be protected in case of an accident. It’d be frustrating to be involved in an accident far from home without the right coverages (and remember, you can’t add the right coverages after an incident). Adding the following before your trip can potentially save you money if the worst happens:

We also recommend adding roadside assistance. It’s usually offered for just a few dollars a month, and you’ll be thankful you purchased it if your battery dies or a tire goes flat while you’re traveling.

On the road

Save money by packing your own grocery store snacks

Stopping for food every time you’re hungry can add up quickly and make your trip longer than it needs to be. Packing your own snacks saves time and money. Especially for summer travel, we recommend bringing non-perishable, non-melting snacks like crackers, trail mix, gummies, chips, and pretzels. Chocolate may seem like a nice pick-me-up, but it can melt and make a mess in a hot car. You may be tempted to pack fruits and veggies, but just be careful to clean all of them out of your car when your trip is over to avoid bad smells a few weeks later.

We also recommend packing a case of water (or reusable bottles) and any of your favorite sodas, teas, or juices. Just make sure everything has a resealable lid to avoid unnecessary spills.

Take advantage of rest stops

Rest stops are there for a reason and offer cost savings over stopping at a store or gas station. They typically have free Wi-Fi, maps, water, and clean bathrooms. Vending machines provide plenty of small, affordable snacks if you don’t want to eat fast food.

Save on gas

Just stopping at the next gas station may be a bigger hit to your wallet than if you’d done a little planning. First, make sure you’re using the correct grade of fuel for your car. Only 18% of new cars sold in the U.S. actually need premium gas, and recently AAA found that Americans waste about $2.1 billion on unnecessary premium gas.

Download the GasBuddy app before you hit the road. It can help you find nearby gas stations with the lowest price to make sure you’re always getting the best deal. We also recommend signing up for fuel rewards programs before heading out. Typically, all you need is an email address, and you can save on gas every time you fill up. For example, after signing up for BP’s BPme Rewards, drivers save 5 cents per gallon on every fill-up at BP and Amoco stations through the first month and get to keep that discount if they spend $100 on fuel each month after that. Look up which gas stations are common on your route and see if they have a fuel program you can sign up for before you go.

Plan affordable entertainment

If you’re traveling with your family, finding the right entertainment on your road trip will make everyone else’s life easier. There are several affordable options across the country, like visiting local museums on free days; hitting up festivals, concerts, and fairs during summer travel; relaxing in parks or libraries, or just tossing around a frisbee or football. The National Park Service even offers an annual pass that covers entrance, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle for more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may want to stick to outdoor activities and avoid crowds for now and be sure to check any updated CDC guidelines before your trip.

Consider free camping for summer travel

Sleep is essential on a road trip. You need rest to be ready to drive each day, but staying in hotels and Airbnb’s can add up. offers up several resources for those looking for free and low-cost campsites. Use their “Find a Campsite” feature to find free sites along your road trip route.

Opt for toll-free routes

It may seem like tolls are the cost of road-tripping, but they don’t have to be. You can avoid all tolls with a bit of planning. Google Maps allows drivers to pick route options that avoid tolls. Don’t worry about going hours out of your way. Most toll-free routes add only a little bit of time to your trip. Of course, if avoiding tolls is too much of a hassle, products like E-ZPass allow you to glide through tolls smoothly and without delay.

Don’t risk tickets

Getting a ticket can be costly. Depending on the violation, you may have to pay a fine, but that’s not the only cost. According to The Zebra, some traffic tickets can raise your car insurance rates by $1,200 or more. Different violations can stay on your record for months or years, meaning you’ll be paying a higher rate for a while. A speeding ticket, for example, will usually stay on your insurance record anywhere from one to three years (depending on your state). A DUI violation, however, will likely remain on your record for five or more years. The best way to avoid these costs is to drive safely your entire trip. If you’re getting tired or easily distracted, switch drivers or get some rest.

Make sure you, your family, and your car are protected before your next summer road trip. Get a quote with Elephant today, or log in to check which coverages you currently have. Our process is free, simple, and super quick. Planning ahead is the best way to ensure your trip will be smooth and a great memory for you and your family!

Article last updated on February 6th, 2024 at 5:38 pm