Here's how to take a summer road trip without spending a fortune as gas prices reach records

Six in 10 Americans plan at least one trip this summer. And 35% expect to travel more than a year ago despite record pump prices.

Jacob Becker of Des Moines, Iowa, at Glacier National Park.
  • Experts stress that traveling light and planning ahead can save money.
  • Plan routes and drive times to avoid congestion and wasting fuel idly in gridlock.
  • If you're crossing state lines, gas apps can compare varying prices.

Drivers are facing record-high gas prices this year, but that isn’t stopping travelers like Jacob Becker from hitting the road.

The 21-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa, tries to do a major outing at least once a year. Last year’s road trip to Canada was canceled after Becker contracted COVID-19, and he’s not letting another trip slip by – even with the cost of travel compounding because of soaring gas prices, which hit an all-time record of $4.40 per gallon on Wednesday. Becker and a friend plan to take off for Montreal later this month. 

“We're both in college right now, so money is not amazing," he said, adding that they considered canceling the trip because of their tuition costs and rent. “(But) I've been really looking forward to this for a really long time. So we're just going to make it happen and deal with the money afterward.”

They're traveling light and trying to save money by camping when they can. Even then, they expect to pay at least $1,100 each for lodging, food and gas, up from $800 per person on their last two-week trip in May 2021.

About 60% of Americans are planning at least one trip this summer, and 35% expect to travel more this summer than last despite the high gas prices, according to the U.S. Travel Association

For those who are going ahead with summer road trips, here are ways to ease costs:

Gas prices hit an all-time record of $4.40 per gallon on Wednesday.

How can I save gas on a long road trip?

Travelers should get a full vehicle inspection before starting any major road trips to help boost fuel economy, experts say. 

Checking tire pressure is especially important, AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds said. This can be done at home with a tire gauge or at a gas station and prevents underinflation, which can cause drivers to lose 5% of their fuel economy according to Edmonds. 

“(That) doesn't sound like a lot, but when gas prices are over $4, it definitely will make a difference,” she said. 

What is the most gas-efficient way to drive?

Once on the road, drivers can take additional steps to boost fuel economy.

Speeding and rapidly accelerating or braking can lower gas mileage by 15% to 30% at highway speeds or up to 40% in stop-and-go traffic, according to the U.S. Department of energy. 

Edmonds suggests planning routes and drive times that avoid major congestion to keep speeds steady. 

Idling – another product of heavy traffic – can waste up to a half-gallon of fuel per hour, according to the Department of Energy. Edmonds said drivers can save fuel by temporarily turning their car off if standstill traffic lasts more than 10 seconds. 

“That actually uses less gas than if you're just sitting and idling for several minutes,” AAA's Edmonds said.

Is it more fuel-efficient to drive fast or slow?

Fuel-efficient speeds are typically capped at 50 mph, with each additional 5 mph equivalent to paying an extra 29 cents per gallon of gas, according to the Department of Energy. Drivers can flip on their cruise control to keep speeds – and costs – lower, or opt for slower, more scenic routes.  

“A road trip is as much about the journey as it is about getting to the destination,” Edmonds said. "If you can stay in that (50 mph) sweet spot and stay consistent, that can improve your fuel economy."

Removing weight can also help fuel efficiency, especially when driving a smaller vehicle.

A large rooftop cargo box can reduce fuel economy up to 25% at interstate speeds, and an extra 100 pounds in the trunk can reduce miles per gallon by 1%, according to the Department of Energy.  

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How should I pack for a road trip?

Traveling light can help cut travel costs, but Edmonds noted that filling a cooler with sandwiches and snacks can also help drivers save money on the road.

“You’re keeping that consistent speed when you’re driving,” she said. “That’ll also reduce not having to stop at a gas station or restaurant to get snacks or food. That's going to help quite a bit.”

How to find the lowest gas prices

Making a pit stop at the first available gas station may be tempting, but Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at fuel-savings app GasBuddy, said it’s worth shopping around before filling up your tank.

This is especially true for motorists crossing state lines, which De Haan labeled “danger zones” for drivers. 

“Every state has various gas taxes,” he said.“You may be either leaving the cheap fuel behind or the cheaper fuel may be in front of you.”

Checking gas prices in Buffalo Grove, Ill., on March 26, 2022.

WHY ARE GAS PRICES HIGHER IN CALIFORNIA?:Gas experts break down costs from state to state

The average price of regular gas in California on Wednesday was $5.85 per gallon. Average prices were more than a dollar less in neighboring Arizona.

De Haan suggests comparing fuel prices between state lines if heading toward a border. Websites and apps like GasBuddy, AAA’s TripTik, Gas Guru and Waze can help travelers compare costs. 

What is the cheapest way to pay for gas?

It's not just where you pay that can help alleviate expenses; it's how.  

“Some credit cards have gas percent rebates. Some stations offer a cash discount,” De Haan said. 

Memberships at wholesale club stores like Costco or Sam’s Club or various gas stations can offer some relief. Paying in cash at the pump can also cut up to 10 cents per gallon.  

Gas prices in 2021 in Englewood, Colo.

Can I switch from premium to regular gas?

Drivers may be tempted to fill up on premium gas, thinking it will help their car run more efficiently, but Edmonds said many drivers can and should fuel up with regular gas.

If a vehicle doesn’t require or recommend premium gas, “you should not put premium in your car,” Edmonds said.

“Some people look at (premium gas) like it's a treat,” she said, “but actually, it doesn't really do much for your car (if it’s not required), and it will definitely cost you more money.”

Instead, go with the gasoline grade your manufacturer recommends. An owner's manual usually lays out what sort of gas a driver should purchase.  

Fueling with E15, which uses a 15% ethanol blend, may also cut 10 cents per gallon for drivers with compatible vehicles. 

When will gas prices go down?

Experts say high gas prices may continue well into the summer travel season.

The average U.S. gas price hit a record high Wednesday. . De Haan expects to see an "expensive, uncertain summer at the pump."

“All bets are really off,” said De Haan. “There's very little breathing room, very little margin for error because demand continues to outpace global supply. And that's a predicament. So it's going to be an expensive, uncertain summer at the pump.”

RECORD GAS PRICES:Gas prices hit a record high on Tuesday, surpassing records set in March

You can follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter @bailey_schulz.