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Smart Ways to Save On Your Summer Road Trip

Daniel Bortz

School's out, which means it's time for a family vacation. Instead of paying sky-high airfare prices, consider taking a road trip.

According to a recent survey by Expedia.com of 2,341 adults, 50 percent of respondents said they plan to take a summer road trip of more than 200 miles this year. "The great American road trip is very much alive," says Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and travel writer who blogs about his family's vacations at AwayIsHome.com. "It's ingrained in our national DNA."

A family road trip is a rite of passage for some, but cutting costs without sacrificing the quality of the vacation can be challenging. If you're planning to hit the road this summer, here are some tips on how to book cheap lodging, find low-cost entertainment and burn less money on gas:

Take advantage of a gas rewards credit card. The odometer doesn't have to be your enemy. Paying with a gas rewards credit card puts money back in your pocket each time you fill up. Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com, recommends the TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express, which offers an attractive rewards program including 3 percent cash back at U.S. gas stations and on gasoline at Costco on purchases up to $4,000 per year (1 percent thereafter); the card excludes cash back on fuel purchases at other warehouse stores like Sam's Club.

[Read: 5 Budget Travel Tips You Haven't Heard Before.]

GasBuddy (available on Android, Blackberry and iPhone) can also come in handy. The mobile app takes recent reports from more than 27 million drivers to supply smartphone users with current gas prices at local stations so they can find the cheapest pump nearby.

Time it right. To find cheap lodging, travel during off-peak times, and avoid booking hotels during Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. If you like to plan ahead, search for deals on websites such as Hotwire.com, Kayak.com and Expedia.com.

There can be benefits, though, to being a spontaneous traveler, says Sarah Gavin, Expedia.com's director of public relations and social media. She says hotels often slash prices on rooms at the last minute to fill vacancies. You can find such deals on mobile apps like Hotel Tonight (available on Android and iPhone), which offers same-day bookings of up to 70 percent off at luxury hotels. Gavin says the best discounts tend to crop up toward the end of the season, since a number of hotels will try to make up for a slow summer in August.

Moreover, planned and spontaneous travel can complement one another. "If you do see a reasonable retail option ahead of time, go ahead and lock it in," says Pierre-Etienne Chartier, vice president of operations at Hotwire.com. But he recommends families continue checking discount websites as they get closer to their trip. If they spot a lower price, they can simply cancel their initial reservation and book the new room. "Just make sure you know the retail cancellation policies inside and out before using this strategy," Chartier says.

Get the car ready. The last thing you want is your vehicle to act up while on the road. Bill Sutherland, vice president of travel services at AAA, says it's crucial to take the car to a mechanic before a road trip. Make sure he or she checks the brakes, oil, coolant and warning lights - and don't forget to inspect the tire pressure. (According to AAA, only 17 percent of cars on the road have all four tires properly inflated.)

[Read: 10 Most Scenic Road Trips.]

Consider renting a fuel-efficient vehicle if your car gets poor gas mileage. Packing light and unloading excess weight will also help burn less fuel, so remove any unnecessary items and consolidate luggage when possible.

Eat well. Road trips are full of unanticipated events. Driving poses a number of risks - traffic, a flat tire, a wrong turn - that can derail your ETA at various checkpoints, making restaurant reservations easy to miss. Fortunately, you can tap your smartphone to find cheap eats while on the go.

Frugal foodies use mobile apps like Yelp (available on Android and iPhone), which maintains an extensive database of restaurants throughout the country and enables users to filter by price. Budget eaters also like MenuPages (available on Android and iPhone), which compiles some 30,000 menus with prices per item in major metropolitan areas, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Keep the kids entertained during the ride. Children tend to get stir-crazy, but you can engage your kids during the drive with no-cost activities. While many parents purchase DVDs for their backseat companions, Amy Graff and her husband borrow audio books from the library that the whole family can enjoy. "We want our kids to feel like they're part of planning the trip, so we let them pick out the books," says Graff, a San Francisco mother of two who blogs about family travel at OnTheGoWithAmy.com.

Meanwhile, travel writer Christopher Elliott talks to his kids about historical sites they pass, which he says makes the road trip educational without the children feeling lectured.

[See: Free Mobile Apps for Cheap Summer Travel.]

Nonetheless, too much time in the car can lead to trouble. "We always plan for vacations where most of the time isn't spent on the road," Elliott says. "If you're doing nothing but driving, the kids will be doing nothing but complaining."

Discover cheap entertainment. Taking to the outdoors for a family hike, picnic or a day at the beach are great ways to have budget-friendly fun. Looking for a taste of local culture? Time your trip around festivals, concerts and other community gatherings using websites such as Festivals.com, RedTricycle.com and MacaroniKid.com, which offer city-specific event calendars and deals. You may be surprised by what you find, according to Graff. "We even came across a tractor parade one time," she says with a laugh.

You can also score discounts by "liking" a store or restaurant's Facebook page, following restaurants on Twitter or checking in on FourSquare. Also, "Don't be shy," Gavin says, as asking locals where you can find cheap entertainment is a great way to discover hidden gems.

Buy a reasonably priced keepsake. You don't need purchase an "I Love New York" T-shirt for each family member to remember you had fun in the Big Apple. After all, souvenirs are meant to conjure fond memories of a trip - not remorseful purchases. Amy Graff's kids, for example, collect pressed pennies at each city they visit on their road trips. "They're cheaper than other collectors' items, and you can find them pretty much anywhere," Graff says.

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