How to Save Money on Dining During Road Trips

The summer season is fast approaching and that means more road trips. With more road trips inevitably means more fast food dining, and these costs can quickly add up with a family of 5. With the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones, these dining options can be a whole lot cheaper. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the ways that you can save by using apps and other options on your road trip. We’ll talk about a few of the popular options: McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and Wendy’s. If you have more tips, feel free to share them in the comments below.

McDonald’s

The McDonald’s app is the most well developed app out of all the fast food apps. It allows deals and orders to be made in store, at the drive-thru, or in app. The app also has the most quality and quantity deals out of any other app. Depending on where you are located they will also have regional deals as well. In Los Angeles they offer deals when the Kings, LA Clippers, or Dodgers score a certain point or whatever they deem as the promotion during that period.

San Francisco deals

 

Los Angeles Dodgers shoutout from McDonalds

Some deals are specific to mobile order only, while others allow for both restaurant order and mobile order. To redeem the deal with mobile order, simply add the deal to your mobile order and continue with the order at the payment page. To use at restaurant, pull up the deal with the app and scan it when paying at the restaurant. 

Buy One Get One 1/4 Pounder

 

Burger King

The one breakfast deal that I always go for on the Burger King app is the $4 for 2 Croissan’wich, 1 small hashbrown, and 1 small coffee. I can’t even get the ingredients to cook all those things for $4!

Once you redeem a coupon, you will have 15 minutes to use the coupon code. Simply order in store or at the drive-thru and tell your cashier the 4 digit code prompted on the screen and they will have the order ready for you. 

The Burger King app offers Mobile Payment option where you can add a PayPal account or a BK Crown Card. However, there’s no option to order online. It seems like Burger King has some catching up to do on their app development.

Main Burger King page

Starbucks

Starbucks are located throughout the US and in most airports so it makes it very easy for you to use Starbucks rewards. The difference between Starbucks and the other ones listed here is that Starbucks works on a reward scheme. You have to earn points in order to be able to redeem for free items.

As a rewards member you earn 2 points for ever $1 you spend. However, they often have promotions which fast track your earnings to redeem for items much quicker.

Example of a “star challenge” listed below.

Star dash details

Often times Starbucks has additional promotions where they offer certain amount of stars for loading your card with money. These are some of the best promotions as you don’t have to spend any money to get stars.

In order to redeem these points you will tell your cashier that you want to redeem your points for a reward – which can be redeemed for any menu item. It’s important to note that any redemption costs 125 stars – so even if you are deciding between redeeming for a small coffee or a sandwich, both will cost 125 stars.  I usually use my rewards for something more than a drink – either a panini or a salad. My favorite panini option is: Chicken & Double-Smoked Bacon.

Wendy’s

Note that Wendy’s is one of the few fast food chains that does not serve breakfast menu. They also generally has less offers and less value saving in their offers. But it’s still money saved by using these coupons. 

The same code ordering scheme is used at Wendy’s as it is at Burger King. Follow the instruction on the app to retrieve the offer code and provide it to the cashier.

Wendy’s offer screen

The app has an “Order” button but when I click on it, it could not find any locations near the Bay area that offers online ordering. However, it is available in SoCal at one location in Burbank so we suspect this feature is still being tested and not available nationwide yet.

Gift Cards

One topic that isn’t discussed much in this article are gift cards. If you carefully craft your road trip, you will know which fast food or dining options are in the area. In this case, you can save even more by pre-purchasing gift cards for these particular chain establishments from places such as Costco, Giftcardbin, Ebay, and other various websites. If you stack these gift card purchases with the coupons and rewards programs listed above, it will save you a ton of money.

Alternatively, you can also use apps like Swych / Gyft to buy Fast Food Chain gift cards. These will code as 5x the points with cards like Chase Ink Plus. Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points, when redeemed for travel, is valued highly due to the lucrative nature of travel redemption. These gift cards can be used with coupons as well because they are treated as cash / debit cards.

Buying gift cards on Ebay

 

Gift cards on Costco’s website – instore offerings may be different

 

Gyft App screenshot

 

Swych App screenshot

Day Trip to Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful national park that’s close to the San Francisco Bay area, making it possible to do it in a day trip. It is about 2.5 hours away from San Francisco, and is one of the newest national park in the to be inducted into the National Park system back in 2013. 

The park itself is approximately 26,000 acres (compared to 750,000 acres at Yosemite). It is formed 23 million years ago from volcanic eruptions. Throughout the years, erosion led to the unique pinnacles and cave formations. The landscape in Pinnacles National Park is quite diverse, with the west side containing the pinnacles and canyons and the east side filled with grasslands and  chaparral.

Few tips about Pinnacles National Park before your visit:

  • Entrances: There are two entrances to the park – East and West side. There are no roads connecting the two entrances (only foot trail) so you must pick one to enter. The East Entrance contains the campground and is open 24 hours. The West Entrance is open from 7:30AM to 8PM. Vehicles can still exit even after the gate is closed. I highly recommend entering from the West Entrance if you are making a day trip. It is less crowded and is close to the Balconies Cave.
  • Times to visit: Pinnacles National Park gets to the high 90s F and is extremely dry during the summer. So it is recommended that you visit the park during Spring or Winter time. Spring is preferable as Winter season can have moderate rain as well. I also recommend arriving early to the park to avoid both the hot mid-day sun and the crowd.
  • What to see / do: The park is known for its caves. There is also hiking, rock climbing, and bird watching Prairie, Peregrine, and the endangered California condors.
  • Be prepared: Brings lots of water and sunscreen for this hike. Most trails aren’t covered! Also bring a flashlight or headlamp for cave exploring.

Getting there

As mentioned earlier, Pinnacles National Park is a quick 2.5 hours drive from San Francisco. We left the Bay area around 7:30AM and arrived at the West entrance by 10AM.


Did you really go to a National Park if you didn’t take a picture in front of its sign?

Hiking

Since it’s our first time here, we figured we would do the most comprehensive trail, a counter-clockwise loop around the park! We started at the Juniper Canyon Trail, then continue on the High Peaks Trail,  then Old Pinnacles Trail, then the Balconies Cave Trail, and finally the Balcony Trail for a complete loop of 10.2 miles. It took us about 5 hours total. 


Our Strava map of the loop we did

Juniper Canyon Trail

We started off at Juniper Canyon Trail which has high elevation gains. We wanted to do the high elevation part first because this is when we still have the most energy in the day. There were lots of switchbacks on this trail but the views are worth it!


Panoramic view while climbing up the Juniper Canyon Trail


Once we got up to the top, the view was even better! And of course, I had to climb to the top rock at the peak to get those good photos!


Another panoramic view from the top.


It wasn’t too crowded when we were at the top of Juniper Canyon Trail around 12PM.

High Peak Trail

At the high peak, it switches from the Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peak Trail. Although the High Peak Trail sits on the highest elevation of the park, and has some more elevation gains, the steepest part of our hike was at the Juniper Canyon Trail. 

The unique part about High Peak Trail is that there are narrow and steep stairs that you have to occasionally climb through. Here are some examples of the stairs that we had to do. 

The struggle was real.

Old Pinnacles Trail

After the High Peaks Trail, it starts declining back to lower elevation. The whole trail is a gradual decline with barely any covers. It was hot and bare and it definitely hampered my mood to take any photos during this part of the trail. Here’s a picture of a dry creek that we passed through while on Old Pinnacles Trail.

Balconies Cave Trail

After what seemed like a forever sunny hike, we got to the Balconies Cave Trail where the cave is! The cave was significantly cooler and was very fun to explore. Definitely bring a flashlight or headlight as it gets pretty dark in there.

 

This is the darkest part of the cave. We stayed for a while doing some long exposure photography.

We had some fun with the rocks too!

Balcony Trail

After the caves, it’s another 10 minutes of flat ground on Balcony Trail to walk back to the parking lot.

Winery

We finished the hike at around 3PM and started driving out of the park. Then, about 3.5 miles from the West Entrance, we saw these signs for multiple wineries. You can’t miss them as there is only one road in and out of the park. We randomly picked Michaud Vineyard and started driving towards it. It took about another 4 miles into that split from the main road to get to Michaud Vineyard.

Their wine tasting is $12 per person. Sara and I ended up splitting one because I have to drive. Their wine is quite good. I enjoyed their Table Red and Pinot Noir a lot! And their tasting room gives an excellent view of the pinnacles!

Gilroy

We passed by Gilroy, CA on our drive back to the Bay. Gilroy is known for their production of garlic. It is nicknamed “Garlic Capital of the World”. They even have a Gilroy Galric Festival every year which offers interesting cuisine like garlic ice-cream (I tried it and personally wouldn’t recommend it, but different strokes for different folks!). 

But did you know Gilroy also offer cherry picking? We didn’t actually end up picking cherries this trip but saw multiple signs that had cherries for sale. So we stopped at one of them and bought some fresh fruits before heading home!

Budget

This was a fun day trip filled with loads of activities. It was also really good on the wallet too!

Pro tip: if you are a national park frequent visitor, I strongly suggest getting the America the Beautiful annual pass. It is $80 for one year. The Pinnacles National Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle. Other national parks are usually $30 per vehicle. So if you go to more than 3 national parks within a year, the pass will already have paid for itself. This is also why I didn’t have any entrance fee cost in the budget below.

Description Cost Cost per person
Meals / snacks $50.00 $25.00
Wine Tasting $12.00 $6.00
Fruits $11.00 $5.50
Gas $45.00 $22.50
Total $118.00 $59.00

Getting Interviewed

While at the park, we were interviewed by the local news channel about the recent price increase of the Pinnacles National Park entrance fees! Refer to the Budget section above for my solution to the ever increasing park entrance fee!

 

A Weekend in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite

One of the most beloved National Parks in the US is the Yosemite National Park. It’s got everything a nature lover can dream of: bouldering, camping, and hiking. It’s also got amazing views like Yosemite Falls, Tunnel View, and Half Dome. You can literally spend years exploring the park.

Being so close to the park from San Francisco, it was hard not to explore the park whenever I had the time. This past weekend, my friends and I took a short getaway to Yosemite and did some hiking and camping.

Getting there

Yosemite is about a 4 hour drive from the Bay area. We left early morning around 8AM on Friday and got to the park around 12PM. We drove straight into Yosemite Valley (the most popular portion of the park) since today would be the best day to hike there before the weekend crowd gets here.

Did you really go to a national park if you didn’t take a picture in front of its sign?

Campsite

We were initially going to camp at Camp 4, which is the first come first serve campsite at Yosemite. During spring through fall, the campsite is almost full every day. You’d have to get to the campsite before the park ranger gets there at 8:30AM to get a spot. Luckily, it was still early April and we were able to secure a spot at Wawona campground on the day before our trip! That saved us from a bright eyed and bushy tailed drive at 3AM in the morning to Yosemite. Wawona campground is a 45 minute drive from Yosemite Valley so it was both quieter and allowed us to explore the southern part of the park where most people don’t usually bother.

Day 1

As mentioned earlier, we wanted to hiked at the Yosemite Valley on Friday to avoid the weekend crowd. We did one of the most classic hikes there: Yosemite Falls trail; since some of us have never been to the park and some of us have only experienced the park by driving through it. The trail head for Yosemite Falls trail begins at Camp 4. It is a strenuous hike at 7.2 miles round trip and a 2,700 feet elevation gain. What a great way to start off the weekend!

People from far and wide come to visit Yosemite National Park. Alberta and Alaska plate spotted at the trail head at Camp 4.

Us looking at the map at the beginning of our hike.

There were numerous scenic spots along the hike. Some of the more noticeable mentions include this view of Half Dome from Columbia Rock viewpoint.

About 2 miles into the hike, we stopped at this beautiful spot for lunch and some pictures!

As we climbed up, there were more and more scenic spots like these ones.

After 2.5 hours, we finally made it to the top!

Of course we had to do a “Hot dogs or legs” photo #basic

Panorama view up at the top of Yosemite Falls trail

The hike and the mountain view was amazing up there, but I do have to say the view of the waterfall, however, is not as amazing at the top as it was when we were down there.

After spending another hour at the brink of the waterfall relaxing and snacking, we decided it was time to head back. It took us another 2 hours to hike back this time. In total, the hike round trip took about 5.5 hours to complete. We were tired and satisfied at the end! Here’s a strava map of where we hiked. I was pretty bad at turning it on and recording it so this was on the return way from the upper Yosemite Falls back to Camp 4.

On our drive back to Wawona Campgrounds, we made a quick pit stop at Tunnel View and watched the sunset. The view was perfect with the soft sunlight glistening over El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall.

Day 2

We took our second day pretty easy. We started with a wonderful breakfast that’s Instagram worthy and hiked at the Chilnualna Falls trail which is really close by to our campgrounds.

We wanted a simple hike after yesterday’s strenuous trek. It turns out Chinualna Falls trail was  actually a 8.2 miles hike round-trip, with 2,400 feet elevation gain. About one-third of the trail in, we were all aching from the previous day’s hike and collectively decided to stop. We rested for a while, ate some snacks, then turned around.

In the “casual” 2.5 miles hike that we did, we were able to capture some good shots.

The day ended with us hanging out by the campsite, reading books, napping, making s’mores, and dipping our toes into the creek next to our campsite.

A refreshing dip into the creek.

Fire starting is serious business.

Making s’mores.

Cooking dinner.

You can see so many stars at the campsite at night!

Day 3

We woke up early on our third day to pack up and squeeze in one last hike before driving home. The hike was also near the campgrounds on Wawona Road. The trail was relatively flat. We walked until we saw a good view, stopped for snacks, then turned around.

On our drive back, we saw this sign near Merced, CA and all of us immediately screamed to pull over. We ended up getting a bag, you know how Millennials are with their avocado toast!

Cost

Overall it was a very cheap weekend at Yosemite National Park. Great for the body and the wallet! 🙂

 
 Description Total cost Per person cost
Campground  $     52.00  $                 13.00
Groceries and firewood  $   150.00  $                 37.50
Gas  $     55.00  $                 13.75
Avocado  $       5.00  $                    1.25
Total  $   262.00  $                 65.50