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A good road trip needs a plan and a playlist.

swissmediavision/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

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When I was growing up, my family took frugal vacations, typically hitting the road in our Woody Wagon to explore areas closer to home instead of investing in international travel. Sure, I had dreams of standing beneath the Eiffel Tower under a Parisian sunset, but there was something magical about subbing snacks for supper as we sped along the freeway, singing along to our favourite songs as we headed to the next stop on our well-worn road map.

For me, road trips are synonymous with the songs of my childhood, every tune conjuring up the memories that were made on those journeys. Now that I’m a parent, I aim to mix in those same classic melodies to create our own family memories as we hit the road on car-bound getaways.

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And I’ve discovered that going old school also helps with staying on budget – whether you’re fuelling up for a far-away destination, or cruising to somewhere closer to home.

Below are my favourite money-saving tips, each paired with a car-ready driving tune. It’s the ultimate guide – playlist included – for your highway travels. Find joy in the journey, and the savings just might be music to your ears.

Be prepared and plan ahead

“On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.” – Willie Nelson

While a spontaneous road trip may seem thrilling, a proper plan is paramount. When I was a child, my parents were always equipped with a marked-up map that remained open on the lap of the front-seat passenger at all times. Those red pen notes – which created a connect-the-dots pattern across the page – kept us on track. Which meant that we saved money by preventing the inconvenience and added costs associated with getting lost or having to make an unexpected food stop.

Conserve costs with a road-ready car

“Little red corvette, baby you’re much too fast.” – Prince

A flashy car can be a fun mode of transportation, but it might end up costing you a fortune at the pump. When renting a car, be sure to pick a ride that has good fuel efficiency as this will lower your gas expenses (and reduce your carbon footprint too). Use an app such as GasBuddy to seek out the cheapest gas stations closest to you; when possible, avoid the one to be found just off the highway. Other road-ready prep such as making sure your tires are fully inflated and packing light will help conserve car-related expenses as well.

Consider staying outside the major cities

“Had myself a ball in a small town.” – John Mellencamp

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One of the upsides of a road trip is that you can hit major attractions and big cities without having to splurge on an overnight stay in one of those high-priced spots. On a recent road trip across southern Arizona with my son, we explored the sights found in and around Phoenix and Scottsdale, and then headed south for a more affordable stay at White Stallion Ranch in Tucson instead. The small dude ranch ended up being its own amazing adventure.

Go with a group

“Stuck in the middle with you.” – Stealers Wheel

To cut down costs, consider inviting friends to come along for the ride. When I was in high school, my bestfriend’s family joined us for a road trip along the Oregon Coast. Not only did our parents share the driving duties and split the gas costs, but we rented a big house as a group, saving on accommodations while enjoying the company of some of our favourite people.

Stretch your trip by adding sites found beyond the city

“I’ve been everywhere, man.” – Johnny Cash

If seeing a major metropolis is the main purpose of your trip, consider venturing beyond the city limits as well. Seek off-the-beaten-path nature spots that can be seen nearby, and if possible, consider parking and making your way there by foot or public transportation to save on gas costs. Sometimes the journey itself can be just as engaging as the destination you’re trying to reach.

Scope out parking in advance

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” – Joni Mitchell

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Many major cities will charge top dollar to park close to their most popular attractions or right downtown. Research the parking areas in and around the spots you’d like to visit in advance, as prices will often drop significantly as you move only a block or two away from your primary destination.

Pack snacks

“Movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches.” – The Presidents of the United States of America

Roadtrippers will often stop to dine out along the way and that can quickly add up. Skip the fast food combos and pack dry snacks – chips, nuts, granola bars and dried fruit – that will last throughout those longer car rides. Instead of stopping at restaurants for lunch, swing by a grocery store for picnic lunch supplies (weather permitting).

Find free attractions

“Come on, take a free ride.” – The Edgar Winter Group

Whether you’re visiting a major city or trekking through a national park, there are always nearby spots that you can see for little to no cost as well. In Vancouver, for example, tourists pay top dollar to teeter above the trees at the Capilano Suspension Bridge. But not far away is the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge, a similar, yet smaller and simpler treetop experience that comes at no cost – not to mention fewer crowds and scenic hiking trails.

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