While there are a lot of articles about saving money on road trips, many of them contain suggestions that aren’t practical for most of us. What I’d like to do is offer some budget tips for a cheap road trip which are both simple to follow and easy to implement.
With these tips, you won’t need to borrow a friend’s RV or wash up at the local YMCA. Rather, you’ll save money in ways which are realistic and comfortable for the average individual or family looking to have an inexpensive but enjoyable road trip.
I’ll start off with food because it’s often one of the easiest expenses to control on a road trip. Without a plan for keeping within a budget, you may be surprised by how easy it is for the average family to spend upwards of $100 a day.
These tips will help you keep your road trip food expenses down while also allowing you to enjoy one of my favorite road trip activities: eating out at new restaurants!
1. Only Eat Out for One Meal a Day
Keeping restaurants to a once-a-day splurge goes a long way in maintaining a reasonable road trip budget.
For our family, dinner is always the meal we choose to eat out for. Personally, I like having a restaurant meal as something to look forward to throughout the day. We’re also often tired after a long day of driving or sightseeing, and it’s nice to relax and enjoy a trouble-free dinner without any prepping or cleaning up afterwards.
2. Take Advantage of Hotel Breakfasts
If you are staying at hotels along the way, make sure you take full advantage of any free breakfasts offered. Some hotels even let you take breakfast or coffee and tea to go, which can be a great way to quickly grab something and get going on the day’s drive.
For my own family, I like to bring the grab-and-go breakfast up to the room and let the kids eat while I drink a cup of coffee and read or work on my laptop for a bit.
3. Bring Along Snacks from Home
This can actually be a great way to take care of lunches on the road, especially if going on a trip with kids. I like to seek out snacks which are filling, somewhat healthy (or at least not too unhealthy), and unlikely to leave a mess in the car.
For one nearly month-long road trip across the US, I prepped lunches for the kids before leaving home. I mostly stocked up on various snacks at Costco and then put together ziploc bags for each child.
Every day, at lunchtime, we handed each of our kids one baggie filled with snacks. Of course, this isn’t as wholesome as fresh fruits and veggies (or even sandwiches), but it makes lunches for the kids a breeze and helps keep the road trip as cheap as possible.
If you are traveling with kids, I recommend feeding them lunch in the car about 30-45 minutes before a planned bathroom break. This usually cuts down on the number of stops you have to make during the day.
4. Make Your Own Coffee or Tea
If you are staying at hotels and motels, and your taste in coffee or tea isn’t too particular, this one will be fairly easy. Even hotels which don’t have in-room coffee makers and such generally have free coffee in the lobby, although of course there are exceptions.
Make sure to check and pick up a cup before heading out for the day. This is much cheaper than frequent stops at coffee shops and such.
However, if you are choosy when it comes to coffee, things won’t be as easy. You are unlikely to find free lattes or cappuccinos in most hotels, and you almost certainly won’t find an espresso maker in your budget-friendly hotel room.
In this case, you have two main options. Pack a travel espresso maker and bring along whatever else you need (like your preferred coffee beans), or budget for the expense of going to coffee shops daily.
If high-quality coffee is a priority for you, it may be worth it to consider this a splurge and cut back on costs elsewhere. Budgeting is personal, and we all have different priorities and choices. The key here is to make conscious decisions about how and why you are spending money on your road trip.
5. Don’t Forget About Leftovers
I find that when our family eats out, we often end up with lots of leftovers. Especially when going to new restaurants, it’s hard to know what portion sizes to expect. Personally, I usually prefer to order a bit more–potentially ending up with leftovers–as opposed to worrying about not having enough for everyone.
This tip particularly applies if you’ll be staying in hotels on your road trip. Hotel and motel rooms often have mini fridges which will allow you to safely store leftovers. Check and see if a fridge and microwave are included when booking your room.
For us, leftovers make a great breakfast on days when we book a hotel that doesn’t offer free breakfast. We pack up anything that doesn’t get finished at the restaurant the night before, put it in the hotel mini fridge, and heat it up for breakfast the next morning. This cuts back on waste while also saving money.
High transportation costs can be inevitable if you’re traveling long distances. These tips will nonetheless help you cut back in small but meaningful ways.
1. Drive a Bit Slower on Highways
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, most vehicles use significantly more gas per mile when driving at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour (mph).
On long road trips in the U.S., you’ll often encounter speed limits of 70 or even 75 mph on highways. Though driving this quickly may well help you reach your destination sooner, it will also mean reduced fuel economy.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the quicker arrival time is worth the extra expense. At the very least though, it makes sense to be careful about not exceeding the speed limit. Driving at or slightly below the speed limit is both safer and cheaper.
2. Fill Up on Gas In Bigger Towns and Cities
This one isn’t always possible, especially when driving through more rural and remote locations. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll usually pay premium rates for gas in less-populated areas.
Of course, when gas stations are few and far between, you’ll need to fill up whenever you get the chance. When you do have a choice though, it usually pays off to fill your gas tank in areas where there are more gas stations and therefore more price competition.
3. Shop Around For Gas
Shopping around for good gas prices doesn’t have to mean wasting fuel driving all around the city. We’ve all seen gas stations with prices differing substantially although they were right across the street from one another.
In its simplest form, this tip can mean just looking around at the posted prices of a few gas stations before stopping at one. This will at least give you an idea of the going rate in your current location.
You can also try out one of the apps which allow you to search for the cheapest nearby gas. Likewise, Google Maps often shows gas prices alongside the names and addresses of stations. If you are a Costco member and in a bigger town or city, you might also want to check and see if there’s a Costco with a fuel station nearby. Costco gas prices are often the cheapest around.
4. Avoid Loading Your Car with More Than You Need
The more weight you have in your car, the greater the amount of gas you’ll use per mile. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pack what you’ll need. Buying things on the road is generally more expensive, and you probably already have a lot of the stuff you’ll need for your trip.
The key here is to avoid the temptation to overpack. Are you really going to use all the things you’ve planned to bring? Think carefully to avoid lugging around a lot of items that you’ll never even end up unpacking. In addition to saving on gas costs, this will simplify your trip and make packing and unpacking that much easier.
1. Take What You Paid For
Hotels aren’t cheap. In addition to paying for a place to stay the night, you’re also being charged for all of the extras like small bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash; as well as little packets of tea, coffee, and sugar. Sometimes, things like bottled water and toothpaste are even included.
Often, you won’t use up all of these things within the span of your stay. Pack up what’s left and use it for nights when you are staying somewhere that doesn’t offer these essentials. Even if you end up bringing some home with you, it will be useful in cutting back on your costs back home, even if only a little bit.
2. Stay in the Suburbs
This tip especially applies to many of the bigger cities in the U.S. When you search online for hotels, try looking in nearby suburbs, instead of narrowing your search to the main city. This can often mean getting a hotel at half the price you would pay in a more central location.
Since you are on a road trip anyway, the extra time to drive into the city is often not much of an inconvenience. I also enjoy seeing different suburbs. It also generally means not having to pay for parking at the hotel which is often an additional cost in larger cities.
3. Spend a Night in Your Car
This tip involves roughing it more than my other suggestions. While, for most people, I don’t recommend sleeping in your car every night during a road trip, it can be a great way to cut back on expenses. You may consider spending one or two nights of your trip in your car.
Sleeping in your car for the night can take one of two forms. In the first form, you find a safe location to park for the night, and everyone in the car sleeps. In the second form, you alternate driving for 24 hours straight with one person at the wheel while the others sleep. If you choose this form, it’s obviously important to switch drivers regularly so that the person behind the wheel is always fully alert.
If you decide to park and sleep in the car for the night, you will need to take a few things into consideration. First of all, you’ll need to make sure the weather is amenable to sleeping in the car. This obviously won’t be possible when it is very hot or cold. Likewise, you will need to avoid staying in your car during snow, thunderstorms, or any other threatening weather events.
If you decide to sleep in your car, you’ll also need a safe, well-lit place to park. You’ll want to make sure bathrooms are available nearby as well. Rest stops are the traditional choice for sleeping in the car, but you’ll still need to do your due diligence to make sure you are in a safe location.
Walmart parking lots, surprisingly enough, are also popular places to park and sleep for many road trippers. You’ll need to check with each individual Walmart store to see if they allow parking and sleeping for the night, and you should of course make sure you’re in a safe neighborhood. The majority of Walmarts do allow this, and it can be a great option. Especially at Walmarts that are open 24 hours, or at least have extended hours, this is convenient because you can use the restrooms whenever you need. You’ll also be able to go inside and shop for necessities whenever you like.
Having a nice time and seeing new places is one of the main reasons for going on a road trip. Sightseeing doesn’t have to be expensive, though. Consider these tips and suggestions when planning your road trip activities.
1. Look Online For Free Options
Most cities and towns offer a multitude of free sightseeing opportunities. Try searching online for “free things to do in” along with the name of the city you’ll be visiting.
If you’re looking for current free events or special entry discounts that are time dependent, try searching on the city’s website or Facebook page. Here you’ll often find information about annual festivals, fairs, free museum days and such which may line up with your travel dates.
2. Make Spending Choices Based on Your Own Interests and Values
If you love art museums, don’t feel bad about paying up to visit one on your road trip. Similarly, if you hate museums, don’t feel obligated to pay a hefty entrance fee just to visit a famous one that happens to be right on your route.
Spending choices are very individual. Take your own budget and interests into consideration before making decisions.
3. Don’t Underestimate How Enjoyable Simple Sightseeing Can Be
Sometimes we may feel pressured to visit the most famous or celebrated places on our road trip route. Unfortunately, these are often expensive sites such as amusement parks, museums, and such.
Resist the temptation to feel that your level of enjoyment will correlate with the price tag on such excursions. Sometimes expensive places can actually be much less enjoyable than free ones.
A budget road trip doesn’t have to leave you feeling like you’re missing out. Inexpensive or free activities such as going to the park, walking along the main street in a city’s downtown, or even just going swimming, can all be quite fun, and none of these will break the bank.