(CNN) -- This was supposed to be our big comeback year for travel with easier times ahead.
With Covid-19 caseloads falling dramatically in the United States starting in February and restrictions being relaxed or dropped, those long-delayed epic spring and summer American road trips appeared to be on the vacation horizon.
Then -- BAM!
Gasoline prices started skyrocketing. And this bout of inflation feels like a gut punch after everything else.
It's downright disheartening. Especially for lower-income families who have to make every single dollar count. However, don't give up on your road trip dreams entirely or pay more than you need to even if you can afford it.
CNN Travel has lined up 11 ways to squeeze the most out of every precious drop of fuel so you can still load up the car, unload your worries and go see some stuff.
1. Use apps to find less expensive gas
Download gas apps to help you in your quest to find less expensive gasoline. Here are a handful of popular options:
-- AAA Mobile: The mobile version of the famous AAA TripTik Planner comes with membership. Get price info along with route planning.
-- Gas Buddy: They also offer a card to save money on gas purchases.
-- Gas Guru: Owned by Yellow Pages, it offers intel on car washes, auto repair and ATMs as well as gas prices.
-- Geico: The insurance company has a mobile app to help you locate good prices near you.
-- Waze: This crowdsourcing navigation app can also help send you to stations with cheaper prices.
2. Take advantage of card discounts
Those apps are just the start to finding less expensive gas. Also take advantage of discounts and deals on credit cards to further drive down the price.
For instance, Discover cardholders will get 5% cash back on gas station purchases in April, May and June. You just have to click one prompt to sign up.
Then there are credit cards devoted specifically to gas. The consumer advice platform NerdWallet has compiled a list of the top ones for March 2022, including the best one for travelers.
"The other thing is joining some sort of club with the local gas station so that you can get some awards down the line," Bill Eisele of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute recently told CNN. The Penny Hoarder has some options you can check out.
Finally, some stations might knock off around 10 cents per gallon or so on gas if you take a few extra minutes to pay cash in the store instead of using a credit card at the pump.
3. Bypass stations just off major highways
"It's usually best not use the stations right along the interstate," advised Ellen Edmonds, manager of AAA public relations, in a recent interview with CNN Travel. She said they tend to have higher prices because of the convenience.
Instead, "drive a few miles drive down the road. Look for residential areas or remote rural areas."
And you can put those apps to use once you pull over.
4. Get stingy at expensive gas stations
If you're running real low on gas and you're stuck in an area with jacked-up prices, by all means pull over to refuel. Just don't fill up all the way.
Pump enough gas to safely get to a location where stations generally charge less. Finish filling up your tank there. Edmonds advises to not let your tank get below one quarter full, though.
The retirement advocate AARP reminds its members that unless the vehicle requires it, buying premium gas is just a waste of money.
5. Keep up with your vehicle maintenance
Cars get better gas mileage when their parts are maintained. Plus there's the safety factor.
The experts at YourMechanic.com -- a car repair startup that comes to customers' homes -- told CNN Travel a couple of things you should do before you begin a road trip:
• Check your tire pressure. Make sure it's properly inflated; underinflated tires increase fuel consumption. Look over your tires for bald spots. Also gauge your tire pressure to avoid spontaneous tire blowouts or tears.
• Remember the air filter. Keep your car air fresh and cool by cleaning out and possibly changing air filters before a long road trip. This is especially important if you plan to drive during the day in the sun.
6. Develop good driving habits
Drivers should be sure to watch themselves on excessive idling, Edmonds said. It's burning gas and literally getting you nowhere. Even in winter, you don't need to "warm up" the car. If you're going to be idling longer than 60 seconds, cut off the vehicle.
"Try to avoid construction zones if you can, perhaps if you can shift outside of the peak period just a little bit in your travels to avoid that congestion and the idling associated with that," Eisele of Texas A&M said.
Cut out those "jackrabbit" starts and hard acceleration. Moderately ease into your starts and apply brakes early for stops.
"We burn a lot of fuel when we're driving aggressively," Eisele said. "So take it easy on the accelerator. Drive cautiously, drive carefully, drive the speed limit."
AAA advises to use cruise control unless the road is slippery.
7. Drive more slowly and steadily
It depends on the vehicle, but on average, you get about 14% fuel savings if you stay at a steady 50 miles per hour (about 80 kilometers per hour), Edmonds said. The faster you go beyond that, the quicker you burn up your gas.
Of course, 50 mph is too slow for most interstate travel when other drivers are flying past you even when you're clocking 70 mph (about 113 kph). Edmonds suggests changing the road up instead.
"Take a scenic route and go a consistent speed in that sweet spot to make the most of your fuel economy," she said.
Getting off the bland interstates and major highways and onto the road less traveled is part of the fun anyway.
"You make a play list and get your snacks, and go with friends or family. It's part of the experience -- stopping at a cool roadside attraction or trying out a quaint, local restaurant."
8. Consider a 'nearcation'
There are options between settling for yet another staycation and an epic, cross-country road trip that would bust your budget. It's the "nearcation." Think about places closer to home yet far enough away to feel like a bona-fide journey.
Edmonds compiled a list of AAA suggestions around the United States that may not come immediately to mind when planning a road trip.
Many of these are closer to major population centers than some of wildly popular but remote national parks out West such as Yellowstone and Arches. And some of the places on this list might be less crowded as well.
9. Target states with cheaper gas
Average prices for a gallon of gas can vary a lot from state to state. Instead of a straight shot out and back across the country, maybe this is the year for a circular ramble in a state with less expensive gas.
For instance, folks in Georgia and North Carolina might want to consider a road trip in compact South Carolina. The Palmetto State has generally cheaper prices and has beautiful drives in the mountains, along the coast and points in between. And if your road crew can't decide between the mountains and the beach, the distance between the two is less in South Carolina than its neighbors.
And Mississippi is well below the national average for gas prices. This might be the year to explore the Natchez Trace.
In general, states in the center of the country have the cheapest gas. Check this AAA site for daily updates.
10. Ditch the car in a big city
Perhaps you want an urban adventure and you've snagged a fantastic deal on a flight or lodging.
Don't rent a car if you have good public transportation options in your destination, Edmonds said. Subways, light rail, buses, bikes, scooters and walking around in dense city centers might cost you less than renting a car, paying for parking and burning up gas with stop-and-go city driving.
Take Atlanta, for example.
One of the city's MARTA train lines goes directly into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Some of the city's best tourist attractions are near MARTA stations or streetcars, including the Belt Line walkway, Woodruff Arts Center, Georgia Aquarium and Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.
In Canada, French-infused Quebec City is best explored on foot anyway.
11. Share the ride
Did you have a "bubble" during the pandemic -- trusted friends you would hang out with? Edmonds suggested they might want to do a road trip with you.
"Traveling in groups is another way of saving money for a number of reasons. Plus you share experiences along with cost sharing. A lot of people adopted that during the pandemic."
Overall, she encourages would-be road-trippers not to get too discouraged from the shock of high gas prices.
"You might not be able to take that big trip for now. You might need to take that smaller trip closer to home," she said. "Dream small in the near future and still dream for that big vacation down the road."
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