How to plan a relaxing fall road trip that won’t break the bank

Fall is finally here, the best season for setting new goals, curling up with a latte and a riveting book and quite possibly hitting the road to cruise through nature in all its autumnal glory.

A new survey from Turo found that nearly 40 percent of Americans will be venturing on road trips this fall. If you’re in that crowd, but haven’t yet figured out where to go, what to do, or how to build this adventure on a budget, we’ve got you covered with a list of tips from travel and deals experts.

1. Most states will see peak fall foliage in mid-October

Turo’s survey found that 38.8 percent of road trippers this fall will be making leaf-peeping a priority. While weather can be difficult to predict (especially with climate change in the air), if you plan your dates right, you’re practically guaranteed awe-inspiring visuals — depending on where you are. Check out the Farmer’s Almanac’s list of the best probable dates for fall foliage, broken down by state. Most regions will be touting their respective peak autumn colors in mid-October.

2. Get out for a hike, apple and pumpkin picking, hayrides and more

The fall is a wonderful time to be outdoors and there’s a trove of autumn-centric activities you can do that cost very little.

Some recreations, like hiking, don’t cost a cent. The American Hiking Society partnered with the Hiking Project to enable site visitors to find the ideal paths (both in terms of intensity and location) by picking their spot on this map.

Other classic fall activities that are great for the whole family and won’t break the bank include: apple picking, pumpkin picking, getting lost in a corn maze, hayrides and (for the bolder types), pop-up haunted houses. Just about every region offers some variation on these seasonal pastimes.

3. Compare prices of orchards and farms ahead of time

“If picking apples or pumpkins is on your itinerary, plan ahead by comparing the costs at different orchards and farms,” says Katie Roberts, Consumer Analyst with DealNews. “Some orchards will take a bigger bite out of your wallet than others. Prices may be available on their websites; otherwise, you can call them up. If you’re interested in [add-on] activities like hayrides and corn mazes, compare those prices, too. At some places, these activities will be free, or at least included in the price of admission. At others, you’ll pay extra.”

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4. Use your gas rewards credit card and check out gas station loyalty programs

The cost of gasoline is rising, with certain parts of the nation, like Southern California already paying north of $4 a gallon on average. Unless you’re driving an ultra fuel-efficient car, these hefty fees can add prohibitive financial stress to what should be a relaxing excursion.

There are a few ways to minimize this expense.

“Have a gas credit card? Make sure to use it while filling up at the pump, so you can get cash back and other rewards,” says Roberts. “Also look into gas station loyalty programs before you go. BP, Shell, and other chains offer programs that can save you a few cents on every gallon, or help you rack up points for future savings.”

5. Save on money (and calories) by packing a cooler

Sitting in a car all day can make you hangry, and unfortunately rest stops don’t always tout the healthiest or most affordable options. Multiple travel pros insist on packing up a cooler before you hit the road. Here’s a list of healthy travel snack recommendations from registered dietitians.

Traveling with young kids? “Put together a thermos of hot cider or cocoa, and pack bags of easy snacking food like pumpkin spice Cheerios and apple flavored pop tarts,” says Kirsten Maxwell, owner of the travel website Kids Are A Trip.

You can always stop at a supermarket along the way to restock.

6. Visit local food stands, farmers markets and have a spontaneous picnic

For some impromptu fun (and more time outdoors) plan at least one picnic, if the weather permits.

“Most fall road trips offer a lot of roadside stops for fresh fruit, pies, ciders — all the makings of a proper fall picnic,” says Elyse Eisen, founder of The Tipsy Traveler. “[For our road trips], we’ve packed a few basics like cheese and crackers, wine, water, etc. and of course, a large flannel blanket, but then let the road make the rest of the menu. It can be a very fun and scenic way to make more of the traditional apple picking, and [it’s free] to dine under the colorful fall foliage.”

7. Need some free self-care? Give forest bathing a shot

If experiencing nature up close and personal is your jam, you might want to take it a step further and try forest bathing. Also called forest therapy, this practice hails from Japan (where it’s called shinrin-yoku) and can work wonders in helping you instantly destress. The idea is to walk or sit down in the woods and let your senses take over: smell the pine, hear the flock of birds, feel the breeze stirring through the leaves. You can meditate, if that helps you center, or you can just do nothing at all and let the serene atmosphere work its magic.

8. In the mood for a scare? Stay at a ‘haunted’ hotel

Ghosts aren’t real, right? Find out for yourself by staying in a ‘haunted’ hotel, which, if you’re looking to up the Halloween ante, can be an adventure in itself.

“As for fall specific activities for a road trip, we love all things spooky and often choose to travel to haunted places,” says Amanda Keeley-Thurman, creator of the blog HotMamaTravel. “Plus, haunted places tend to be historical and therefore educational, too.”

America has no shortage of supposedly haunted hotels, with some of the most famous being in prime fall foliage spots. Consider The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which inspired the fictional but truly horrifying Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining”; The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C, and the Omni Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire.

To save on a room in one of these more legendary hotels (which can cost a pretty penny), make sure to use cashback and coupon browser extensions such as Rakuten and Wikibuy when booking for potentially substantial savings. You can also establish an account with Hotels.com to rack up free nights.

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9. Let the teens make the playlist

Driving with teenagers? Maxwell recommends letting them create the playlist.

“It’s an easy way to get them involved and excited about exploring everything fall,” she says. “It also allows them to share their favorite music with the family and can lead to discussions about why they chose those particular songs.”

If traveling kid-free (or if you really need a break from your kids’ playlist), consider what Turo’s survey found to be the most popular fall road trip albums: “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac, “Lover” by Taylor Swift, “Christmas” by Michael Bublé, “Cuz I Love You” by Lizzo and “III” by The Lumineers, respectively.

10. For free exercise at rest stops, bring a frisbee

Travel experts recommend to map out ideal rest stops before you hop in the car. If you have kids who might be getting restless with all that sitting, or if you just want to work in a little bit of cardio, take Maxwell’s suggestion of bringing along a ball of frisbee — such a simple trick that can turn any open space into a DIY playground.

11. When it comes to lodging, ‘leave no stone unturned’ — including hostels

“Leave no stone unturned when doing lodging research,” says Roberts. “Depending on your group size and travel destination, a hotel, Airbnb, or cabin may be the best match for your budget. Traveling in a big group? You could end up paying less per person if you rent out a vacation home. And while many fall road trips are weekend getaways, if you’re able to travel on a weekday, do it. Weekend lodging prices are typically higher than weekday ones.”

NBC News BETTER recently explored the many ways in which hostels can be ideal choices for travelers on a budget who want to fully immerse in the local charm of any given destination.

You might also want to investigate “glamping” at national parks (you’ll need to investigate whether the park offers yurts to rent) — a travel trick that Lauren Gay, creator of Outdoorsy Diva says can help make the most of a fall road trip.

12. Build a road trip around a Thanksgiving family visit

If you’re planning a trip to visit folks out of state for Thanksgiving, consider driving instead of flying. You may miss the peak fall foliage, but building a road trip around the holiday can help you decompress from family stress — and save on lodging.

“The obvious answer to an affordable road trip is to take the opportunity to visit family and stay with them as a way of cutting out hotel costs,” says Keeley-Thurman.

13. Consider warmer destinations for substantial savings — and plenty of fall fun

While there’s a distinct magic to experiencing autumn in famed leaf-peeping destinations like New England and upstate New York, these are prime tourist spots this time of year, and discounted rooms might be hard to come by. Meanwhile, over in less foliage-friendly spots like Florida, you could enjoy a more indulgent getaway for a bargain.

“Warm weather locations are offering some of the best travel deals and rates of the season, given that September through November is typically considered a shoulder season,” says Justin Nels, Managing Director of Isla Bella Beach Resort in the Florida Keys. “At present, [our] resort offers rates from $109 in October (mid-week), which is a significant discount from the BAR rate of months prior (creeping into the $600s) plus include additional perks like complimentary welcome cocktails and spa discounts among other treats.”

You might not come across much in the way of lush forestry in Florida or some of the other balmier states, but you can still plan plenty of fun fall activities and sightings. As noted on VisitFlorida.com, autumn is a great time to spot manatees, and you can also find quite a few pick-your-own farms. If you venture over to Texas, another spot that isn’t exactly famous for sumptuous fall scenery, you can find elaborate corn mazes; same for Arizona (Phoenix.org has a great list), you can hop on Grand Canyon Railway’s Pumpkin Patch Train.

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