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Friday, July 26, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Road Trips on a Budget

My husband and I love to travel.  We have family all over the country, so we have lots of reasons to travel.  Now that I'm not working, doing these trips on a budget is very important, and we've gotten pretty good at it.  We drove to a wedding in Maryland a few years ago when I was pregnant, and managed to only spend $100 per day, including gas, hotel, and food!

We also have a tradition: we visit a new state every year for our anniversary.  It doesn't have to be fancy, and a lot of times it is combined with other events or visits, but we have to at least spend one night in a new state every year.

We just got back from our anniversary trip this year, again averaging about $100 per day, and it made me think about some of the tips and strategies we have been using the last few years for our road trips to help save money.

1)  Drive

Obviously, since I'm talking about road trips, driving is going to be a given, but I put it on here anyway because, even with gas prices so ridiculously high, it's still the cheapest way to travel.  If I had my preference, we would take the train everywhere.  We've done two train trips, and they are definitely the most relaxing and fun way to travel.  Flying is my least favorite because in the last decade or so, they have sucked every bit of joy out of flying.  I only do it when there is no other option.

But driving is cool.  You get to see a lot.  You can stop whenever you want to.  You have lots of entertainment options, and of course, most importantly, it is cheap.  Even factoring in hotels if you have to break up the trip, it's almost always cheaper to drive.

One tip for getting gas a little cheaper:  don't buy it in big cities.   Drive outside the city and usually the price drops by ten cents or more.

2)  Bring Trip Food

This requires a little planning ahead, but it's totally worth it.  One of your biggest travelling expenses besides the hotel is food.  Instead of stopping at gas stations for snacks and fast-food restaurants for meals, try bringing your own food.
  • Bring a few sweet treats like M&M's, gummy bears, or whatever else will make you feel like you're on vacation.  
  • Bring something salty like chips, pretzels, or crackers.
  • Bring a few healthier options that will stick with you, like trail mix, granola bars, muffins, and fruits like apples, peaches, or grapes.
  • For meals, bring supplies to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (don't make them ahead or they're gross).  If you are not a sandwich fan (I am definitely not), you can bring chicken salad and crackers, celery and peanut butter, cold chicken, or other picnic foods.  (Stick cold stuff in a cooler.)
  • If you decide not to bring meals, you can still save money by ordering just a sandwich or burger at a fast food place, and then using your own chips and drinks, or whatever else you want to go with it.  Burger King and Arby's both have decent dollar menus, and you can save quite a bit that way.
  • Bring tons of napkins, paper plates, plastic silverware, Walmart bags for trash, extra empty ziplocks for wet/smelly trash, and wet wipes.
Here's a great blog post by one of my favorite food blogs for ideas on healthy snacks on the go!

Also, last week, One Good Thing by Jillee did a post on saving money on trip foods, too!  Check it out here, for more good ideas!

3)  Drinks

The cheapest way to drink on road trips is to fill reusable bottles like Nalgene bottles with water from home.

That is boring.  No one wants to drink just water on a road trip.

Your next cheapest option is to bring 2-liter bottles of your favorite drinks, along with some ice and plastic cups.  We usually do this one.  You can get 2-liters for less than a dollar, and you better not be able to drink more than one of those in one trip!  Keep the bottles in the cooler if you have space, and you won't even need tons of ice in your cups.  

Your third cheapest option, if you don't want to do that, is to buy fountain drinks at gas stations.  Not bottled drinks.  Fountain drinks.  They are usually like, $.75 for 64 ounces, which is about half the cost of a 12 ounce bottle at the same convenience store.  Bonus points if you get to stop at a QT where they have cherry and vanilla syrups at the fountain!

If you are in an area that has Kangaroo gas station convenience stores, you can also get a "RooCup" for $6.99, and then all summer long, refills on frozen drinks and fountain drinks are only $.25!  That's a pretty good deal if you use them a lot!

As a last resort, you can buy a six-pack of 12 ounce bottles ahead of time and put them in your cooler, but all the above options are cheaper than that.  

4)  Rest Stops

Rest stops are one of the things I love most about America.  I first started to truly appreciate them when we made a road trip with our foster dogs.  Rest stops are awesome.  Most (but not all, shockingly) have restrooms, picnic tables, an air conditioned inside area, and some even have cool stuff like free coffee.  (One time, we even got cider!)  They also usually have vending machines, but you don't need those because you already have all the snacks and drinks you need in your car.

These are great places to get out and have your picnic lunch, stretch your legs, and relax.  If you do all that here, you don't feel like you have to pay for a burger at McDonald's just so you can use their restrooms, and you don't end up eating your PB&J in their parking lot like a creeper.

5)  Hotels

Room accommodations are usually the most expensive part of a road trip.  Best-case scenario is getting to stay with friends or family at no cost.  This is not always possible, though.  It takes some work to find good places to stay that are cheap and also not crack dens.  (It's a fine line.)

Discount websites like Travelocity are usually good ways to find deals on decent hotels.  I can usually tell by reading the reviews and the chain name how good or bad a place will be.  Hotels dot com also has good deals, and they have a user-friendly policy on refunds or rebooking if you aren't satisfied when you get there.

State and national parks also have cabins and chalets that you can rent, and some even have hotels!  They are a lot cheaper than commercial rooms, and they usually have great amenities, not to mention the bonus of getting plenty of hiking trails, museums, petting zoos, lakes, and whatever else that park features.

If you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary, browse Groupon Getaways and Living Social Escapes.  That's how we found this last Bed and Breakfast we stayed in, and it was great!  You might have to be a little flexible with dates and even locations, but there are some great deals and some fun stuff!

6)  Entertainment

Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on shows, events, and fine dining, try some cheaper options.  We usually find local history sites like museums, state parks, or battlefields where you can have a fun time without paying lots of money.  If you stay at a Bed and Breakfast, they usually give a tour of the house, which is always interesting, and they can direct you to local attractions.  Aquariums are another great way to get a lot of entertainment for a smaller price.

We also bring books, games, and magazines with us so we can hang out in the hotel in the evenings and just relax.  Of course, watching TV is always fun for us, too, since we don't have cable at home.  We just don't feel like we have to be out "doing" something every second.  Vacations are for relaxing.

Again, planning ahead can help you here.  Google "Fun things to do in city, state" and you will probably find some great ideas.  I have used that technique on several of our trips!

7)  Food While You're There

Of course, you don't want to survive on granola and peanut butter during your entire trip, so save your trip foods for the ride back.  There are lots of cheap ways to eat when you arrive.

We usually pick one night to have a nice dinner, and the other meals, we find local cafes and diners or eat in our rooms.  

If you make sure that the hotel you choose has complementary breakfast, you know one meal is always free.  If you can find one that has a fridge and a microwave, you can stop by a grocery store when you arrive and pick up a few cheap foods to make for yourself in your room.  You can also keep leftovers in the fridge from when you do eat out and use them for lunch the next day.  Sometimes you have to pay a little extra for a room with these amenities, but it ends up saving you money in the long run.

8)  Plan Your Budget

No one likes to think about money and budgets even at normal times, but especially not on vacation.  Still, the best way to ensure that you stay on budget is to keep track of it.

Decide before you go how much you have to spend, how you would like to spend it, and then make sure you have a reserve in case something happens (like a car malfunction, a medical emergency, or just really needing to buy another souvenir).

Monitor your spending.  Keep track of receipts and card usages.  Use cash as much as possible because it makes it so much easier to see what you are spending.  If you have to spend more on something than you planned, adjust accordingly.

For example, when we went to Seattle for our anniversary several years ago, we ended up going to the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, which was one of our favorite destinations of all time.  However, since it ended up costing more than we had planned, we decided not to go up in the Space Needle.  It wasn't nearly as important to us as the awesome time we had in the Science Fiction Museum.

9)  Souvenirs

Everyone loves to buy souvenirs.  I love to buy souvenirs for myself and pretty much everyone I am on speaking terms with.  Sadly, though, that does not work with my current budget.

When we first got married, we decided we needed a "thing" to collect.  We chose magnets.  Wherever we go, we make sure to get a magnet to remind us of our trip.  (We have an awesome refrigerator.)

A lot of times, a magnet may be the only item we buy on a trip.  If we have extra money, we might get something else, but we don't feel like we have to.  We also don't usually get gifts for people from our trips unless we get one as a thank-you for watching Cricket or house sitting or something.  It's just not practical.

10)  GPS

This is not absolutely necessary, but it does actually help.  If you have a GPS, you don't have to stop and buy a map when you get lost.  You don't spend extra gas money wandering around looking for your destination, and you know your time schedule and how far to the stopping place, so you don't end up having to stop at a McDonald's and buy something just so you can use the restroom, only to find out you are two exists away from a rest stop!  You can also quickly find a hospital, car garage, or anything else you might need in a strange city.

11)  Take Care of Your Car

Make sure your car is in good shape before you leave, to avoid costly repairs on the road.  Check tires, oil, and that weird humming noise that just started last week.  Keep a tire pump in the trunk, along with jumper cables, and whatever other tools you are comfortable using.  The more you know about taking care of your car, like how to change a tire, the less you'll have to pay for.

(And I say all that as someone who knows absolutely nothing about cars, but whose husband is awesome at doing that kind of stuff.)

I hope this helps you save some money on your next adventure.  Road trips are tons of fun, and they don't have to cost tons of money.  A little planning and you can have a blast for just a few bucks!

And by the way, that B&B we stayed at was The Inn of the Patriots, and it was awesome.  If you're in the South/North Carolina border area, it's the perfect place to spend a weekend!


  1. Another tip for saving on lodging is to check out Couch Surfing! My parents just signed up for this a few months ago and have people come through town and stay with them for one night--for free! If you're feeling adventurous, you could stay with someone as you drive through on longer trips. Now, I've heard that not all couch surfer-hosts are as accommodating as my parents, so proceed with caution, but it's an option that's out there!

    1. Wow! That is an interesting idea! I don't think it would work with a baby though, but a neat idea for college kids, etc. If all the hosts were like your parents, it would be the most popular way to travel! :o)

    2. Yeah, most likely not baby friendly, but you could get lucky (I think the hosts post what availability they have bed-wise)....they've had students, some friends riding bicycles cross country, a mom & daughter from somewhere in Asia I think, all sorts of people stay with them!

    3. Fascinating! Such a great idea!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this! Very timely too since we're getting ready to go on vacay next month. Also, I found a camping cabin for a great rate but it doesn't provide linens. I'm like, I'd prefer to bring my own linens PLUS a discounted rate?! YES! Lol

    1. Awesome! Hope this helps! And yeah, I should have mentioned that a lot of the cabins and state/national park lodgings are gonna require you to bring pretty much everything. Still, like you said, I kinda like it that way. :o)

  3. Another way to do the drinks cheaply, is to get the Nalgene water bottles, but jazz it up by using the CrystalLight (or cheaper Walmart/store brand version) single serve packets to flavor the water.

  4. Hotel tip: We like to stay at Homewood Suites. We have a big family so these are great for us. We've always gotten a big room with 2 beds/sofa sleeper. They have a kitchenette with stove, full-size fridge and microwave. You get breakfast free and they don't mind you taking a few extra pcs of fruit or yogurt back to your room for snacks. And Monday thru Thursday they provide a manager's reception. Not just drinks(sodas, teas, wines) and finger foods...this is a meal! Pepper steak, stuffed shells, even pecan crusted SALMON. They post a menu on the fridge so you know what to expect. Bonus, really really good A/C =)

    1. Oh wow, that's awesome. I've never heard of them, but I will definitely look into that! Sounds really cool!