Road trips are a great way to have a family vacation without breaking the bank. With a little bit of planning, you can make your road trips even more frugal by learning some tricks to save money on gas, food, entertainment, and accommodations.
I’ve spent tens of thousands of miles in the car on road trips. I grew up about two thousand miles away from any extended family. Every couple of years my family would make the long trek across the country to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I went to college nearly two thousand miles away from home and made the trip back and forth many times. Long weekends and time between semesters were perfect for taking road trips to explore other parts of the country. Now that I’m married with four kids, road trips are our standard vacation.
My husband and I both grew up in frugal families, so doing things “on the cheap” is in our blood. Our thrifty road trips are not only out of habit and tradition, but now out of necessity, as we work toward our goal of paying off six figures of student loans as fast as possible.
Here are some of our best tips to save money on road trips:
Some people might shy away from taking road trips because of the price of gas, but when compared with other means of travel, it’s usually the most frugal way to go! Driving might not be cheaper if you’re going alone, but the more people you put in your car, the more economical your trip will be. With our family of six, flying anywhere would easily cost us over a thousand dollars (probably closer to two), but driving would cost a fraction of that.
Here are some tips to save on gas:
- Use the Gasbuddy app or GasBuddy.com to plan out where to get gas. Use the app or website before your trip to get an idea of the best places to get gas (gas prices can vary greatly from town to town). During your trip, the app can help you find the exact station that’s the cheapest.
- Make sure your tires are fully inflated. Inflated tires make less friction, and less friction means better gas mileage.
- Avoid rush hour traffic in big cities. Sitting idle (or crawling) in bad traffic is a great way to waste gas (not to mention time and patience). You’ll save money and have a much more pleasant trip if you avoid heavy traffic times in big cities.
- Use cruise control. Driving at a constant speed is more fuel efficient. Cruise control will also keep the lead-footed from getting a ticket (assuming you’re cruising at or below the speed limit), saving even more money.
If you’re looking for ideas to save money on your everyday gas expenses, here are some great tips.
Another big expense on a road trip is food. If you typically eat out when you’re travelling, whether it’s at sit-down restaurants or fast food, then you have lots of room for saving money on your road trip. The best way to save money on food when you’re travelling is to bring your own. In addition to saving money, you’ll also save time waiting in drive through lines or stopping to visit restaurants. You’ll also have more healthy options available. Here are some tips for saving on food for your road trip:
- Prepare the first few meals for your trip at home. We usually make a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Having something pre-made is really convenient when little mouths are more hungry than patient.
- Leftovers are also a great road trip option. If you’re going to be gone for a while, it will help prevent wasting food, too! When we went camping the day after Thanksgiving last year (remember when we got that awesome deal on a tent?), we brought leftover turkey, rolls, and cranberry sauce with us. It was a fun change from our normal road trip food. Pancakes or French toast make good leftovers for road trips too.
- Bring the fixin’s with you. Even though we bring along pre-made PB&J sandwiches, we also bring along the peanut butter and jelly and a knife. Then on our return trip, we can just stop by the store and buy a loaf of bread to make sandwiches.
- Bring a variety of snacks. If you’re in the car for a long time with only salty snacks, you’ll be really tempted every time you drive by a sweets shop. Having a good variety of snacks (sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy, etc.) will help you (and your kids) to not tire of the snacks you bring.
- Make your own individually packaged snacks. To save even more money, I buy snack sized zip-top baggies and make our own grab-and-go type snacks. Pretzels, crackers, cookies, and even cold cereal are great munchies for kids and grown-ups alike. Dividing them up into portions ahead of time saves mess and hassle in the car and is cheaper than buying individually packaged items.
- Choose a grocery store instead of fast food, if you have to stop. When it’s summertime and the kids (and I) are craving something cold and sweet, we’ll stop by a grocery store and buy a box of ice cream sandwiches or popsicles for a couple of dollars, what it would cost for just one milkshake. When my husband and I traveled a lot before the kids, we would stop by a grocery store and buy a loaf or two of French bread and a tub of Country Crock. We’d informally tear off pieces of bread and dip them in the butter. Along with a fruit or veggie, it was our road trip go-to.
- Bring frozen water bottles. Having frozen water bottles serves two purposes. We never have to put ice in our cooler because our frozen water bottles keep our food cold. As the water thaws, it’s a nice refreshing drink. When we’re on the road for several days, we will also bring milk frozen in water bottles to drink at breakfast or put on cereal.
Being in the car for hours on end can get old for kids (and grown-ups). Having some entertainment along the way will save everyone’s sanity and make the trip much more pleasant. When everyone is in a good mood, you are much more likely to stick to your budget and not slip into emergency I’ll-pay-anything-to-keep-these-grumpy-kids-content mode.
- Get some new-to-them treasures. Stop by the dollar store or thrift store to find some exciting new books or toys. Some parents wrap them up and let them open something every so often. I usually just pull out new things as random surprises. It’s amazing how exciting a brand new coloring book with new crayons can be. Books they’ve never read (from thrift stores or yard sales) are also a big hit with my little ones. For a few dollars you can get hours of on-the-road entertainment.
- Play classic road trip games. Kids who are used to just watching DVDs in the car might not know all the classic car trip games that we played as kids. Play the alphabet game or the license plate game. Print out car bingo before you leave home or have a scavenger hunt along the way. Play “I spy,” twenty questions, or take turns asking trivia questions. Because we live in the boonies and it takes us 30 to 60 minutes to get anywhere, we play these games all the time. My older kids (K and 1st grade) love it when I’ll ask them spelling words or math problems while we travel.
- Get out and move at rest stops. At some point you’ll have to stop for a potty break. Having a ball or frisbee with you can make the stop fun and help to get the wiggles out. Even without any “extras,” taking five or ten minutes to run around and stretch your legs makes a big difference.
- Find interesting sites, historical markers, and vistas along the way. Do a little research ahead of time to see if you’ll be passing by some free entertainment on your route. Will there be some beautiful views or historical markers with pull-outs? If they fit the ages and interests of your family, they can provide free entertainment and a short break from being buckled up.
When I was a kid, my dad was a marathon driver and would power through the night. Sometimes he would stop at a rest stop and sleep for 3 or 4 hours in the car, stretching out in the aisle of our Ford conversion van. I can only remember getting a motel a few times on our 36 hr trips to Grandma’s, and it was usually because of a blizzard. For most people, you’ll probably need to find some overnight accommodations if you’re taking a longer trip or driving cross country. Here are some ways to save on accommodations for your road trip.
- Bring along a tent and camp. We are avid outdoors people, so camping is normal and low-stress for us, even when we’re traveling with kids. Sometimes we have to pay for a campsite, but more often we stop where we can camp for free. You can pitch a tent in most national forests for free. There are lots of other public lands (state parks, BLM land, etc.) where you can camp for free if you don’t mind not having facilities. In the high-use areas with designated campsites, you’ll have to pay, though it’s probably significantly cheaper than a hotel. I wrote a whole post on How to Camp for Free.
- Stay with family or friends. We have good friends spread throughout the country and love having the chance to see them. When we are driving cross country, we try to plan our schedule so we’ll be near friends or family at the end of the day. Of course we contact the friends or family ahead of time and let them know we’ll be in their area on our upcoming trip and that we’d love to get together and maybe even crash on their floor. We have great memories of these visits.
- Find unique accommodations on Airbnb. Have you tried Airbnb? You can get one-of-a-kind accommodations all over the world. You can search by location and narrow it down by price range. Of course there are fancy, expensive places to stay, but you can also find places that are a really great deal with fun amenities where you will be well taken care of by your host. If you’re new to Airbnb, you can get a $40 off coupon your first trip through my link. Airbnb is a great option for saving money on accommodations when you reach your destination too. In fact, I have a whole post on how to save even more money with Airbnb.
Are you excited to plan your next road trip? I know I am (and that says a lot considering I have a newborn right now)! Your road trip can be as frugal as you make it. You can set and stick to a budget while you’re on vacation and still have loads of fun!
How about you?
- How do you save money on road trips?
- Do you have any exciting road trips planned?
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