How do I save money on a road trip?
Maybe it’s the rising cost of airfare (and all the negative press the airlines are getting these days). Or the surge in hotel fees and resort prices. Perhaps the changes in the economy are the issue, but travel seems to get more and more expensive every year.
You may find yourself watching one of the dozen or so road-trip shows (think Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, Ultimate Roadtrip, or the web-series Roadtrip Nation) and saying to yourself, I really wish I could do that.
When you only have a few vacation weeks a year, you want to experience as much as you can.
And for as cheap as possible!
So, just in case you’ve been putting it off for financial reasons, here are some ways to road trip on a budget
Before You Begin…
You will need to have the perfect amount of car insurance. Finding the right amount of cheap car insurance California requires is simple. And necessary.
Most likely, when venturing out on your road trip, you will want Towing coverage and roadside assistance. This is a must!
OK, so besides your minimum requirements (bodily injury coverage and property damage coverage) you may want a few more options.
Take a look here for a comprehensive list of coverage options.
Do some research up front
If you read a lot of blogs (like we do) you’ll probably eventually come across some of the many budget travel blogs.
More and more people are looking for ways to experience life, without having to go into debt or dip into savings.
Whether you’re reading about a family who decided to live in an RV full-time, or a hitch-hiker making his way cross-country on a shoestring budget, there is a ton of great reading material out there. Take advantage of other people’s experiences and lessons learned.
One of those blogs could have some great tips for you!
Or you could stumble across an article about a part of the country you would never have thought to visit!
Pick an unusual route
There are a ton of famous road trip routes in America. The kind of drives you see in the movies or on television.
You might automatically think of the Pacific Coast Highway, Route 100 in Vermont (especially during the Fall), Arizona’s Red Rock Scenic Byway, or Arkansas’ Scenic Byway through the Ozarks.
However, keep in mind that the more famous the route, the more tourists there will be. And every business along the route will charge you tourist prices.
Any stop, restaurant, or gas station on the Interstate is going to have higher prices. But there are often plenty of alternate routes through rural farmland or small towns. These out-of-the way roads sometimes have the best scenery and tons of rustic charm.
If you want a cheaper trip from the get-go, try one of these little-known destinations
- The Great River Road – this route takes you through Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. That’s three states to check off your list! You’ll see some of America’s most charming river towns and some great historic sites, like the Effigy Mounds.
- Route 66 – This one kind of breaks the rules, since it’s definitely famous. However, after the national Interstate system was built, this historic route saw a lot less tourism. Still, the historic highway passes through some of the country’s most famous landmarks and scenery with a lot of budget motels and campgrounds along the way.
- Why not check out the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, the Magic Gardens in Philadelphia, or the Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana?
Plan your budget early
Once you have a destination in mind you can start planning your budget.
The cheapest way to road trip is, of course, to take your own car. Then all you have to calculate is your gas budget.
Google Maps used to have a handy fuel calculation tool, but it seems to have disappeared. Still, once you know your mileage you can get a rough estimate of fuel costs using some basic math.
There are also some handy websites that will do this for you.
The more time you spend budgeting, the less chance there will be of over-spending on the road.
Here are some things to keep in mind
- Gas prices change throughout the nation. Our suggestion is to figure out which state has the highest gas prices, and use that price for your overall calculations. That way you’re planning for worst-case scenario.
- Decide how much you want to spend on food along the way, and stick to it. With a cooler and some cheap groceries (sandwiches make the best road trip food, in our opinion) you can save a significant amount of money. We like to think of it this way: the more you save on food during the drive, the more you can splurge when you stop!
- Lodging prices can exceed your fuel costs. Decide how much driving you want to do each day, and figure out where you’ll stay ahead of time. Motels charge more if you don’t have reservations. But reservations limit how flexible you can be on your trip (you’ll have to be at the motel during check-in hours).
- If you don’t mind roughing it a bit, campgrounds are by far the cheapest way to spend the night. Budget hotels are the next step up, and will obviously have more amenities (like pools and televisions).
If you want to check out a blog that has great money-saving tips, Nomadic Matt has spent a long time figuring these things out so you don’t have to.
Think outside the box
Get creative! There are a lot of different ways to plan your road trip.
Renting an RV seems expensive at first, until you consider the fact that the average cost of a hotel room in America is around $140! Compare this to an average of $30/night for an RV park.
Not only that, but you’re bringing a ton of storage, a kitchen, a bathroom and shower, and you’re not putting wear and tear on your own vehicle. RV parks have just as many amenities as hotels, and sometimes more (like lakes and parks and laundry service).
Just keep in mind that your normal auto insurance policy is most likely not going to cover you driving a rental RV, so that might add some extra expense to your trip.
Instead of renting an RV though, why not rent a pop-up trailer?
You can tow these with most vehicles, and stay in almost any campground in America. You can get that camping feel without having to sleep on the ground, and your insurance would be cheaper than if you rented a motorhome.
We’ve heard of people buying a used RV or travel-trailer for the summer, and selling it again in the fall. This tip probably only works if you plan on taking multiple trips throughout the year.
You’ll most likely lose a little bit of money because of depreciation, but it still might end up being cheaper than renting something every time you want to hit the road. Who knows? You might end up loving the lifestyle!
Depending on how extreme you want to get, there are ride-sharing websites, couch-surfing websites, and sites where you can deliver someone else’s car cross-country and see the sites along the way (most of the time they cover your gas and pay you a daily or mileage rate).
We even found a blog about a guy who hitch-hiked his way across America, sleeping on strangers’ couches (probably the most extreme).
Find free activities
When you’re driving off the beaten path, you’re going to end up in a lot of small towns and see a lot of scenery. It’s a lot easier to visit a place like San Fransisco to find activities. But that would mean people, traffic and worst of all: lines!
Get out in the rural areas of California and enjoy the open space. Chances are you’ll love it!
There are going to be some of great hiking spots out there, scenic overlooks, beaches, and other random free activities. Check out Yosemite National Park or Kings Canyon National Park. Both of these are quite nice in the springtime before school gets out.
The idea is to get out of the theme park mindset. You’re on the open road for a reason. Allow yourself to be spontaneous and you’ll be surprised by what you’ll see and experience.
We were in Texas once and found ourselves in a tiny college town, just in time for a free concert in the park!
If you’re a detailed planner, you can take a look at your itinerary and make a list of the cities and towns you will drive through.
Each of them are going to have a website with a calendar of activities. Pick some fun ones on the dates you’ll be driving through. Many museums offer free days throughout the year as well, and who knows? They might coincide with your travel dates.
Planning, Planning, Planning
- Give yourself expectations and goals and try to reach a few of them. It’s nice to have a dream while you are road tripping. Grand Canyon? Giant Pumpkin? Yes!
- Take hard copies of maps and brochures of where you want to go. Technology is great but it doesn’t always work on the road.
- Make sure you have roadside assistance! Yes, that’s right, you could break down. And if you do, just think of it as another adventure.
- Maintenance check. Make sure your tires and oil are all checked before you leave for your trip. Even if you have a rental car.
- If you do plan to stay in hotels, make those reservations ahead of time.
- Map out your trip and have a general idea. You could even think of different types of music to play along the way!
- Give yourself time and don’t be in a rush. Take pictures and let it all sink it. YOU ARE ON VACATION!
- Check for weather. California is still known to throw a couple of curveballs.
- Budgeting is never underestimated. Keep cash on you as well. Whatever you budget for, add 20%. You will want to buy that souvenir after all.
- Packing food can help save. Leave your house with a cooler of yummy snacks. If you run out, that’s fine. At least you will be able to eat and drive at the same time.
- This may seem like a no-brainer, but make sure you have your car’s registration and insurance information with you. Oh yeah, and don’t forget that drivers license.
Having Fun Yet?
Just remember that the whole purpose of a road trip is to have a fun, relaxing adventure. So don’t stress!
Even if things don’t go quote as planned, tell yourself to “roll with it”. That is easier said than done for some people.
Saving money is a bonus to your vacation.
“One way to make the most out of life, is to think of it as an adventure.”