How to save money on gas and food while traveling

There are two absolute expenses during any road trip: fuel and food. Most other factors can be fudged, but there’s no denying the need to continually fill your belly and your gas tank. While these expenditures are inevitable, there are a few ways to finagle savings and discounts.

Saving Money on Food

Fresh, cheap food is easily found at local farmers markets.Minimizing food costs while traveling boils down to one essential rule: make your own meals. The expenses of eating at restaurants too frequently will create a huge dent in a tight budget, so limit your amount of culinary splurging. Focus on experiencing local food by stocking up on produce and meat from outdoor markets and vendors. Cook veggies and meat with cheap staple foods like rice and ramen noodles (which make a great alternative to pasta if you don’t use that icky flavor packet).

Not sure where to find a farmers market in the area you’re visiting? LocalHarvest.org has a great database where you can locate the nearest farmers market using the area zip code, and find out what days its open, what they usually offer, etc.

While grocery shopping, you can often take advantage of great food offered at a discounted price due to things like dents in cans, approaching expiration dates, and damaged packaging. Our favorite experience thus far has been the “Manager’s Special,” where we got a two-day old rosemary olive oil loaf from the bakery for $1.49, and a bag of fancy sea salt and pepper chips for 89¢ because the packaging had gotten messed up. We’ve also snagged organic yogurt with honey for a few cents, milk that wasn’t expiring for another week, and even totally fresh meat through the whole Manager’s Special shtick. I totally dig it.

Oreo and butterfinger donuts at the Food Ranch in Orangeville, UT.

At smaller establishments that serve made-daily hot foods and baked goods, visiting towards the end of the day could deliver discounts on foods that would otherwise end up in the trash. Best example: The Food Ranch at Joe’s Valley. Like clockwork, every day sees a new wave of ½ off price changes on things like breakfast burritos and warm pizza sticks. The best discount to be had at the Food Ranch is on their world famous donuts: around 5:30-6:00, you can snag an entire dozen for about $2.50. I’m talkin’ butterfinger, oreo, maple with coconut, and the doughiest sugar-raised donuts this side of the Colorado River – if they haven’t sold out already.

Saving Money on Gas

The GasBuddy.com app is a lifesaver for finding cheap gas.When it comes to keeping the van chuggin’, I’ve found there to be far fewer methods of creatively obtaining cheaper gas – but it’s still possible. The first tip is to avoid gas stations located directly off the highway. If you drive a mile or two away from a major thoroughfare, you’re likely to see a significant drop in prices. Another option is to download a gas locator app like Gas Buddy, which uses crowd-sourcing to present updated prices for all the gas stations around your current location.

We also have a City Market card from our visits to stock up on groceries in Moab, which also works at Kroger, King Soopers, Fry’s, and a few other supermarket chains. This loyalty card accumulates points for every dollar spent at any of the franchises, and certain point levels qualify for 10¢ per/gallon discounts on a fill-up at the on-site gas stations. Filling up the van easily costs $100 each time, so every penny we can save on gas makes a difference.

Living on the road may seem like an expensive affair, but being mindful of your spending and seeking savings can make extended travel an entirely manageable lifestyle.

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7 thoughts on “How to save money on gas and food while traveling

  1. Terry Tyson says:

    Great stuff, Katie. The “make your own meals” tip is essential to saving $$ on the road. We follow that sage advice even if it’s a quick, overnight drive to a destination and only eat, say a lunch on the road. One of my weight-loss tips is to not eat food served to me through a window, so I’ll pack a quasi-picnic and avoid that temptation.

    I travel a bit for work and often have multi-day trips with lots of windshield time. Though I have a company credit card that I can use to buy my meals, I many, many times will still bring food from home or buy groceries along the way to make meals even in my hotel room. After the first day on the road, I tire of restaurants and want to download in my hotel room with a sandwich, soup or a salad. My director often asks me, “What did you eat on that last trip??? You didn’t have any charges for food?” By packing a cooler and some eating implements, I can enjoy my hotel-room dinner in my pajamas.

    In addition to saving money, you’ll generally eat healthier food than just about any restaurants around if you make it yourself.

    Another source of inexpensive groceries is any number of growning “Grocery Outlet” store chains. Like the manager’s specials in a regular supermarket, these stores specialize in food whose shelf-life may be approaching in the next couple of months or an off-brand of breakfast cereals, etc. The .99 Store is also a place to get groceries, although the selection is unpredictable.

    Oh yeah, SUBWAY Sandwiches do offer discounts after 4:00 PM on their sandwiches. Often, a 2-for-1 special or other discount. Dinner is not a busy time for them so to lure customers in with these deep discounts. One can eat relatively healthy at SUBWAY, so it’s another alternative to traditional restaurants or fast food eateries.

    • Kam says:

      I just spent 6 days in the Pacific Northwest and “hotel meals” really saved us A TON of money, it was amazing! Instead of a cooler, we stuffed a luggage bag full of snacks and things we could use to make healthier meals. We were able to get a loaf of bread, cheese, and avocados when we made it to our first town and dined on avocado+cheese sandwiches several times! The bread also helped me with tuna sandwiches and toast on occasion. My boyfriend is a lacto-ovo vegetarian (he tries to avoid most dairy now, but it’s difficult) and so staying in small towns usually proves to be pretty difficult.

      I totally agree with the Subway suggestion, and it’s a great way to get a ton of veggies into a meal all at once!

      As for gas, living in car-dependent Southern California has proven your point about going away from the freeway, Katie. I hope more people are willing to drive a wee bit further to get the deal. If you have a Costco/Sam’s Club card, you get get discounted gas, too!

  2. Terry Tyson says:

    A few years ago I picked up a collapsible/soft sided cooler at a Columbia Outlet. It packs into my luggage and only takes up a wee bit of space and weight. I’ve used it on many trips in which I fly to a destination and will either be on the road a bit to pack food or use it to keep cold drinks at the right temperature. It has been a money saver and an easy way to have that first and most welcomed cold drink after a longish day hike or enjoyed while driving between stops. Some of my work is in Arizona during the summer and that cooler is often my best friend around 1:00 pm.

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