Top Ways to Save Money on Road Trips

Happy family getting ready for road trip on a sunny day

Family vacations… They are a rite of passage and a way to build lifelong memories while showing your children the bigger world around them. Unfortunately, they can also be very expensive. One way to save a lot of money on vacation is to take a road trip there and back.

Road trips offer a lot of flexibility for families. You can make stops along the way, stay with family as you pass through various states (saving even more money because of not having to pay for a hotel) and it is almost always cheaper to drive than to fly, especially if you have three, four, or more people in your family.

Have a family dog? Good news. A road trip allows you to easily take your dog along. You can also camp out, which may save you more on hotel costs, although you’ll still have camping site fees. Keep in mind that national parks tend to be a bit less expensive than commercial campgrounds, but also tend to have less amenities to keep the kids entertained.

If you start planning now, you’ll be able to shop sales and save even more. Use coupons, stock up on snacks, etc.

Save on Gas

The first thing you should do is pull up a mapping service, such as MapQuest and plan out your route, including stops. The shortest route isn’t always the best choice for saving money, because you may be driving through towns versus driving on the interstate. Take all of this into consideration.

Download a gas saving app such as Gas Buddy. Every time you hit half a tank of gas, start looking ahead for the cheapest place to refill. The difference from town to town can be as much as 20 or 30 cents a gallon. Although this might only translate to a couple of dollars a fill up, it can really start to add up over the course of the trip.

Where to Stay

Hotels can be one of the biggest costs of vacation. Here are some ways to save:

  • Stay with family and friends. As long as you change your location every few days, you shouldn’t outstay your welcome in any one place.
  • Camp out. The best way to do this is to borrow a camper, but you can also camp in tents. Look for campgrounds that have shower facilities and grilling areas but are still inexpensive.
  • If you have a camper, you can stay at some Walmarts for free across the country. You will definitely need to plan ahead for this as not all Walmarts allow people to park RVs and campers in their parking lots. However, the ones that do generally offer this service for free. You will be able to plug into electricity at some of them as well. The drawback here is shower facilities. If you have them available in your RV, then you’re good to go.
  • If you must pay for a hotel, look for ones that offer a free breakfast the next morning. This can save you as much as $5-$10 a person, after all. Also, if you are staying in a hotel versus camping out, you’ll want to choose a hotel that gives you the ability to cook for your family. A small stove, microwave and fridge is essential for this. Look for business hotels for this.
  • Rent a house. If you are going with a big group, it might be far cheaper to rent a place for the week. You’ll have a kitchen and dining area this way.

Save on Food

One of the biggest advantages of road trips is the huge savings you can wrack up when it comes to food. Avoid eating out and buying gas station snacks at all costs. This is another area where planning ahead comes into play. Use coupons to buy the food ahead of time. You’ll need a large cooler. You can refill it with ice from Walmart or if you stay in a hotel see if their ice machines make enough ice to supply your cooler.

You’ll want to take:

  • Sandwich fixings: Don’t make ahead as the bread will get soggy. However, you can put lunch meat and cheeses in the cooler and keep the bread separate.
  • Bagged salad
  • Precooked diced chicken (refrigerated)
  • Yogurt
  • Fruit
  • String cheese
  • Hot dogs (you’ll be grilling out)
  • Hot dog buns
  • Chips
  • Breakfast bars
  • Candy for treats
  • Homemade trail mix
  • Bottled water and sodas
  • Donuts (unless you are staying at a hotel that offers breakfast)
  • Individual cereal boxes
  • Half gallon of milk
  • Paper bowls, plates, napkins, spoons
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Crackers (great snack when combined with cheese
  • Peanut butter
  • Jelly
  • Baby carrots
  • Little cups of ranch dip (save money by taking a larger bottle and pouring the dip into a small cup)
  • Food and treats for your four-legged friend, if he is coming along

Set a Budget and Stick to It

First, plan for the unexpected. What will you do if you have a tire blowout and have to buy a new one? You should have an emergency fund whenever you take a road trip of at least $500 to cover unexpected emergencies. This money can go right back into savings if you don’t use it.

Don’t get derailed when stopping at gas stations. It is so tempting to buy candy or chips, but remember that you already have plenty of snacks in your car and those at the gas station are likely twice as much as what you paid for those.

Allow some room in your budget to eat out a couple of times. It is a vacation and you’re going to get tired of cooking every meal without a break. Also, ask others in the family to take turns cooking so one person isn’t the only one doing all the work.

By planning ahead and setting a budget, you’ll wind up saving a lot of money. Your vacation will not only be enjoyable but affordable.

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Crabby Housewife

Crabby Housewife

Lori is a full-time housewife and writer, living in the Midwest with her husband of 27 years - they have two daughters. They have a house full of pets and her house is never quite perfect.