Save Money on Your Next Road Trip

Save Money on Your Next Road Trip - picture of parents giving kids piggy back rides next to parked van

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It is the middle of summer and the heat is on! Now that we’ve hit the halfway point of summer break, the kid’s summer activities have pretty much wrapped up and families are planning their last-minute vacation road trips.

I remember the good old days, taking a road trip in the back seat of our family’s 1984 maroon Chevy Impala. Once the arguments with my two siblings over who had to sit in the middle finally subsided, we had a great time cruising down the road, counting Wall Drug billboards and listening to tunes like Free Fallin’ and Fast Car. It was a fun and frugal time, and one that I’ll never forget.

Taking a road trip to your family vacation destination can be not only a fun experience, it can be a great way to save a few bucks on travel. But, if you aren’t careful, that savings can quickly be gobbled up as you make your way down the road. There’s a lot more potential for hitting financial potholes during a road trip today than there was when I was a kid. Convenience stores and restaurant chains litter the highway exit ramps. Sure, they are convenient, but they can also turn your frugal travel plans into travel budget disasters. Here are a few tips you can use to keep your travel expenses low on your next family road trip.

Avoid Restaurant Temptation

If you are heading out on a road trip, especially if it is going to be an all-day affair, eating out for every meal can easily add over $100 to your travel budget. But nobody’s going to remember the stack of bones you dropped at a roadside Denny’s in Bowling Green. Instead of hitting the restaurant, build a fun family memory of a picnic on the road. Many rest stops have picnic areas which are usually set in a relatively peaceful and pretty setting. There you can rest up, grab a bite to eat, and enjoy each other’s company outdoors. Remember to pack a few snacks back inside the car to tide the kids (and your rumbling tummy) over until your next stop.

Bring a Water Bottle

Buying water is just plain silly. Still, I find myself doing it on almost every single road trip. The worst part about it is that the price of water on the road continues to go up. I mean, why in the world should I pay $1.50 for a bottle of water when I can get it from a tap for FREE?!? And can somebody please tell me why a 20 oz. bottle of soda is worth $2?!? I know it isn’t much, but it all adds up. I go in a gas station to buy a water, and pretty soon I’m coming out with $10 bucks in waters, sodas, and snacks. Plus, all that plastic is terrible for the environment. Instead of wasting money, I should be bringing my own reusable water bottle. Then, when I stop at the rest stop, I can fill it up for free at the stinking water fountain! Ugh! I’m disgusted by my own lack of frugal awareness!

Find Ways to Save on Gas

When you are traveling across the country by car, your biggest expense could very well be gas. Although gas prices are down from a year ago, when you’re trying to save on travel, every last dollar counts. It is easy and convenient to fill up with gas at a station right off of the highway, but – in many cases – you can save up to $.10 a gallon just by driving a few minutes further into town. If you can, try to plan to fill up your tank in states or areas that may be cheaper. For instance, I’ll never fill my car up in Chicago because gas is a lot more expensive there than it is in Madison. You can also try traveling overnight. When it is cool out, you’ll actually get more gasoline for your money because it won’t gas off! (As a bonus, the kids will be sleeping so you may be able to avoid meal times all together.) Finally, ease back on the gas pedal. Having a lead foot may get you there quicker, but it can cost you dearly in gas mileage (and in speeding tickets).

Borrow a Book from the Library

Picking up a few trashy magazines during a refueling stop is pretty common for a lot of road trippers, including us. However, those $3 tabloids can add up in a hurry. Try renting a book from the library instead. First of all, the library is free – and you can’t beat that. And, even though you may not get caught up on “Why They Split!” or “Who Wore it Better?”, you’ll get a lot more entertainment value out of a book. Who knows, you may even learn something valuable that can help you make more money after your trip!

Traveling by car is a great way to see the country and to build family bonds. It can also be a great way to save money on your summer vacation if you don’t fall into spending traps along the way. Hopefully, these tips will help you save a little bit of dough on your next road trip.

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  1. i am absolutely agree with this post, alos road trip need to be planned with some savvy tips…thanks for sharing!!!

  2. What about Taco Bell temptation? Does that count as a restaurant? Road trips are one of my best excuses to eat out! We’re all about the library though. This whole time we thought our limit was 25 items, turns out its 50!

    1. LOL! Well, does their “beef” count as “meat?” I think that will give you your answer 😉

  3. Nice tips! We\’re going camping in a few weeks and plan on bringing all our meals. You\’re right that it adds up and it\’s really not that memorable either. Sandwiches for the drive up is our plan right now.

    PS. If you\’re going on a long road trip try changing your air filter on your car before you go. A clean air filter can improve your gas mileage slightly. You need to do it every so often anyways plus its super easy to do. If you\’re going on a long road trip then the gas savings might be worth it 🙂

  4. My biggest problem is avoiding restaurant temptation! I love a good restaurant. That said, I’m able to curb it by setting a budget and planning my days. It’s harder on vacation, but not impossible.

  5. I just got back from camping yesterday. We spent $20 on groceries for 2 nights and made all our own food except for $5 at the camps little restaurant, even I was shocked we spent so little on food(we have a celiac excuse not to eat out). I noticed our little ford focus wagon was vastly outnumbered by trucks, SUVs and minivans by 50 to 1, we got over 30 mpg. We also had a whole 24 pack of water in our cooler. I was enjoying reading some blog posts on my phone until someone dropped my phone in the water :(. It sucks the big 3 American automakers aren’t making compact wagons, I love that little focus wagon. I’m not counting hatchbacks.

    1. I agree. I wish they’d make some more compact wagons myself. Until they do, I’m sticking with my Prius.

  6. I would also add to avoid the tourist traps. While some are cool and worth it, most aren’t. Luckily you can jump online and read some reviews to find out the good from the bad and save yourself the time and money by skipping over the not-so-great places.

    1. Yeah, I would have to say that it depends on the trap. Sometimes you just have to do something or go somewhere just to say you did, and others can actually be a lot of fun.

  7. I haven’t been on a road trip for a few years now, but I know whenever I fly somewhere a big bulk of the expenses comes from restaurant and coffee expenses, and honestly we don’t even eat at expensive places! It’s interesting how much of an impact going from eating out rarely to eating out every meal can have on your wallet.

    1. It doesn’t take long to put a dent in your budget, that is for sure. Food and drinks are some of the biggest travel expenses for us too.

  8. We have saved a ton on road trips by packing our own food, water, coffee, and reading material (or audio books from the library). Timing gas stops also makes a lot of sense and there are great apps for this. Camping is another way to save during overnight stops or even at your final destination. Though it can be a lot to unload for one night if you have a family, it can save you a ton at your destination.

    1. We haven’t done the camping thing yet, but I’m trying to talk Holly into it. I think that would be a blast. I’m not sure she thinks so 😉

  9. Great tips!! We are actually planning a road trip for over labor day weekend and that first full week of September (taking advantage of not having school aged kids yet). Road trips are the best!! 🙂

    1. I love road trips! It is probably my favorite way to travel…most of the time anyway.

  10. I love road trips and totally agree with all those tips. I’ve also learned the hard way to bring ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol, Hydrocortisone, and any other OTC med we could possibly need. It’s $3 for two pills at a convenience store!

  11. I’m a fan of the Gasbuddy app because no matter where I am, it can tell me where I can find the cheapest gas. And as for eating…same with us, we pack a sandwich, snacks and water and eat at the rest stop…re-filling our water there as well.

  12. Smart tips, Greg! We are planning a road trip right now and will definitely be bringing our own food and water. We also changed our points card so that we get extra points from gas station fills. All of those things will help us save big money.

  13. Food expenses are a huge one! When I was younger we always packed a lunch for long car rides. However, after my mom developed severe food allergies everything changed. I think the amount of food I pack is usually equal to my luggage, if not more. 😉 I feel almost unprepared if I need to stop at restaurants, because it means I didn’t plan well.

    1. Right on Alexandra! Food can be a budget killer on the road, especially if you want to eat somewhat healthy. Keep up the good work 😉

  14. We took our first nearly free vacation thanks to your tips. I have gotten some new credit cards and two of them came with great introductory offers. We got two free nights at a nice motel and paid for one. We stayed with family the rest of the time. The credit card rewards also paid for our gas and most of our food and fun. Just for kicks, I am going to see how much cashback I get the rest of the year on the cards I already have and see if it ends up paying for the rest of the vacation (less than $200). We took four audio books along on our trip.

    1. PS We stayed with friends also. We took food in the car and sometimes ate out only once a day.

  15. I love these ideas. Restaurant food can really add up. I’m hoping that we can take a small weekend trip before school starts up again.

    1. Gas and restaurant food are the two biggies. If you can pack even 1 or 2 meals for the road, that can save you some big bucks!

  16. All great tips Greg! We love road trips and all those little expenses can add up if you don’t watch it. We bring as much as we reasonably can so as to avoid buying stuff while on the road. We’ll bring breakfast & lunch so we only have dinner to worry about buying.

    1. Us too. On our really long trips, (like 12+ hours) it can be difficult to pack for the whole thing…although we have done it. We usually end up eating one of the three meals on the road, but that is better than all 3.

  17. Bringing our own food is our favorite road trip money saver! We pack up a cooler of drinks and sandwiches and we’re good to go. Since we like to treat ourselves while on the road, we plan ahead and buy chips and soda at the grocery store before we leave—way cheaper than getting them at a gas station!

  18. I always have a water bottle with me and I pretty much refill it using any available water source; sinks included. Disquieting? Maybe.. Sometimes warm? Why Yes…but I’m not thirsty 🙂 While visiting Vegas I told Mr. Crackin’ that instead of playing the slots at different hotels I was going to see how many hotels I could refill my water bottle at.

    1. Ha! That is hilarious. Instead of gambling last week, I watched a lot of TV…mainly because I kept losing. But, hey! Who’s counting?

  19. I like getting audio books from the library, but I’m really bad about convenience snacks or really convenience drinks.

    1. Convenience snacks and drinks tend to get me too because, well, they’re so convenient 🙂

  20. We bring our own snacks and food when we take a 6 – 8 hour car road trip. Longer trips if they are not with our camper trailer, we tend to hit fast food stops using BOGO coupons.

    Either way, we strategically plan our bathroom breaks at gas stations when we refill. 🙂

  21. Restaurants are our bugaboo on road trips. We eat at a lot of drive throughs, which is bad for us in a lot of ways. 🙂

    Have to learn to be better about planning ahead a bit, and bringing something decent to eat.

  22. I remember fighting with my younger sisters over who got stuck in the middle during family road trips too. LOL! And yes, those were good times. I admit that I buy bottled water because I find that tap water can differ wildly in quality but I try to avoid buying as we go and buy a big pack at Costco to at least save a few dollars. GasBuddy is a great app that shows you the lowest gas price in your area because you are absolutely correct that gas prices are always the highest right off the freeway.

  23. Great tips Greg! I’m planning a big road trip in the new year to check out a potential grad school with my daughter. The school is about 2000km away so we’ll need all the frugal tips we can get or the trip will end up costing as much as the grad school!

    Confession – Road trips are always our excuse for a “Macca’s Brekky” (translation: McDonald’s breakfast) so we’ll need to be strict and make that the only fast food stop each day.

    The thing I love most about road trips is the time we can dedicate to deep discussions.

  24. We drove from New Orleans to the Grand Canyon in the 1960’s. We sure enjoyed those road trips. No fast food then. Sandwiches at rest stops, breakfast cooked on a Coleman stove in a state park. Mom & pop hotel with 2 adults/4 kids in 2 beds. We loved every minute. We were just happy to be out of the house. BTW… NO A/C IN THE CAR. In the desert in July. We got great gas mileage in our Rambler station wagon though!

  25. I love the water bottle idea, it has saved us so much money on some of our trips. Be mindful about where you’re driving though. We drove through the Midwest and the tap water wasn’t all that great and we ended up buying water bottles. :/

  26. Taking our own food not only saves money while traveling but I also don’t have to worry about eating something that doesn’t agree with me. We can stay on a healthier meal track.
    Before setting out on the trip check all your tire’s air pressure. Under inflated tires will cause more fuel consumption that you think. A maintained car (current with tuneup/oil changes, etc) will reward you with lower travel costs.

  27. Bringing water with you is essential! It is really easy to become dehydrated while travelling and water can be expensive if you’re buying a bottle at every stop.

  28. I really don’t “get” road trips. I think it’s from growing up in Alaska. You couldn’t easily drive to another state. The closest I ever got was our annual trek up to Fairbanks so my dad could cover a story up there. That took six hours on a good day. Granted, I didn’t have siblings to keep me company. So I hunkered down with books and some snacks and made do.

    My husband and I have driven to Vegas a couple of times. That was kind of fun. We just blasted music and sang along until we got there. I definitely agree about the lead-foot thing, though. We had expected to have to stop for gas once we got there. But Tim put us on cruise control, and we almost made the round-trip on a single tank of gas.

  29. I grew up on road trips so am pretty good at them 🙂

    I actually rarely leave my house without my water bottle full. unless it’s a quick grocery store trip- it comes with me everywhere 🙂

  30. It’s really silly to buy water. That’s why whenever we travel we bring our own water jag and pack our food. But, this depends on the situation we are in. Most of the time, we bring ours and would just buy if we really have to or forget to bring some like kids are thirsty and the car is parked far away.

  31. I think it boils down to one common denominator, bring useful stuff with you so you don’t have to buy it.
    Even if I do an errand trip in town and combining it some recreation time, I bring my own outing lunch, and wanted liquids.
    Also bring a list of businesses for emergency repairs/medical/hotels (if you get rained out)that gives good deals should something go wrong during your trip.
    If out in the country, don’t forget insect repellents, some 1st aid. For occasional freshening up, use a water spritz bottle and a small hand towel as a portable sink.
    Bring coupons, just in case..

    1. You’ve always gotta have a stash of coupons, right?!? Holly carries them with her everywhere 🙂

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