If you’re likely to be bombing up and down the motorway soon, I’ve got a handful of tricks to help you avoid overpaying on everything from fuel to food.
We all know motorway service stations are expensive. It might seem like we’re being ripped off, and there’s certainly a element of the operators knowing they’ve got a captive market. But in part they need to charge more to cover the costs that go into building and then running the businesses.
You might think there’s not much you can do about it. But you can. Here are some tricks and tools you can use to either avoid service stations completely, or at least reduce how much money you spend at them.
Plan before you leave
The easiest way to avoid paying more than you need to requires just a tiny bit of forward planning.
If you know you don’t have enough in the tank to get you where you need to go, then plan to fill up. If that means you have to go slightly out of your way then do it it can be worth it to avoid the markup on the motorway which is going to be huge. We’re potentially talking around 20 to 30p more per litre on the motorway than at one run by a supermarket.
I’ve written before about finding the best petrol prices near you, but the main websites to help compare prices are Confused.com and Petrol Prices.com.
Food & drink
Personally, I hate eating at service stations. It’s either a crap pasty or sarnie, or a McDonalds, which I try to avoid at the best of times. I’d much rather have made my own packed lunch. It’s going to be tastier and cheaper, and it’ll be quicker than queuing up and waiting for your order.
On a long journey, I’ll always bring a couple of reusable water bottles that I’ve filled up. I don’t drink hot drinks, but we’ll often make a cup of tea for Becky in a travel mug.
If you really can’t be bothered with either of those, then at least grab a meal deal from Boots or the supermarket. It’ll be a fraction of the price you’ll pay at a service station.
If you haven’t got the time or inclination to prepare in advance of your trip, you can still cut what you pay by travelling just a short way off the motorway.
There are a couple of sites to help you identify what facilities are available – and they’re also handy if you’re desperate for the loo but there isn’t a service station for ages. Of course, if you’re driving on your own these aren’t much use! But if you do have someone with you, then just get them to load one up on their phone.
Just off the Junction website
This website aims to list alternative facilities within a five-minute drive of a junction. It’s good for finding petrol stations and supermarkets. With other places to eat they tend to be pubs and restaurants, which might not be the most convenient if you’re in a rush.
You also need to bear in mind a few potential risks. First, check if there’s access both north and southbound. Some exits will only be on one side of a motorway. And second, it’s possible the information could be out of date. You can mitigate the latter by giving them a quick call.
Next Junction app
Again, I’m not sure how often it’s updated (so it’s worth checking), but this free app is very easy to use. You can just look at what’s coming at the next junction, or search by motorway and then junction, to see what alternatives are nearby. You can also favourite certain locations – handy if you’re regularly making the same trip.
On the motorway
If you really have to use a service station, then these simple tips should help.
Don’t fill up at the pumps
It’s always tempting to fill up at a petrol station – it saves you having to stop again at the very least. But don’t. Just put in enough to get you to your destination, which in all likelihood will have cheaper pumps.
Use your loyalty schemes
If you are going to get petrol at a station on the motorway you may as well get some loyalty points while you’re at it. Apps like Stocard can let you store multiple cards digitally so you don’t need to carry loads around with you.
Somewhere like a WH Smiths is expensive at the best of times for snacks and sweets. It’s even pricier on a motorway. So just do a quick look around at all your options as you could be getting a better deal elsewhere at the service station.
Pick the right service station
If you’d rather there was a Waitrose or McDonalds than an M&S or Burger King, then you can use the MotorwayServicesOnline website to see what’s where. There are also lists of other facilities such as cash machines, showers, electric car charging and so on.
Plus not all the places you stop on the motorway are as boring and grey as you’d expect. There are some independently run ones out there, including the pretty fantastic Gloucester Services on the M5, which is hidden under a green hill a bit like the Teletubbies home. It’s got a fab farm shop, a nice mini-lake to eat by and a decent enough cafe – though of course it’s not necessarily going to be any cheaper than the others!