A road trip is one of the best ways to experience and explore a destination. It’s immersive and fun, but it can also get pretty expensive if you’re not careful. Planning a road trip on a budget will help you spend mindfully and fully enjoy the experience.
Road Trip Appreciation
Brian and I have really come to appreciate the ease and convenience of road trips; they’re much more pleasant than dealing with airports these days.
We love how a road trip gives us greater independence and flexibility in our choices and our budget. Through the years, we’ve road-tripped through several states, a few countries, and a couple of islands. Some trips were planned as specific alternatives to crowded airports, while others were more of a cost-effective (and adventurous!) choice.
Ultimately, we love to road trip on a budget! In fact, we saved over $5,000 on a two-week trip along the West Coast last year.
We’ve learned a lot on the road, especially when it comes to frugal fun and adventure. Budget-friendly travel is all about exploring the world without breaking the bank.
Here are some of our favorite money-saving tips for a great road trip vacation:
1. Pre-Trip Car Inspection
Bring your car to your trusted local mechanic for a once-over. Or, if you’re handy yourself, do your own car maintenance. A pre-trip car inspection can save you from a much more expensive and inconvenient situation on the road.
2. Rent a Vehicle
If you don’t have a car or you just don’t want to take yours, scope out the options for a rental car. Brian and I have rented a car on a number of trips. Our rental cars often get better gas mileage than our own; we’ve even rented a hybrid, which was a huge help on gas costs! Not only do we save on gas, but we also save on the wear and tear that would have been on our personal vehicles.
3. Ensure Proper Coverage
Accidents happen. It’s important to have good insurance coverage so you’re not stranded on the road. From health care to trip and car insurance, you’ll want to be sure you select the policies that work for you. While these policies are in place for just-in-case scenarios, you and your wallet will be relieved if they’re ever needed.
4. Bring a Cooler
Pack a cooler for on-the-go snacks and convenient storage. Depending on the length of our trip and access to a kitchen, Brian and I will pack a different-sized cooler to accommodate our needs. We use frozen water bottles as ice packs, which stay frozen for up to 15 hours.
5. Prep Meals Ahead of Time
If we’re spending more than 7 hours in the car, we’ll meal prep beforehand so we can snack on the road and have an easy dinner at the end of the night. Sometimes it’s hard-boiled eggs and chicken salad; other times it’s a random tofu, rice, and veggie bowl I throw together. Typically, we’ll grab whatever we have on hand. It’s a convenient way to keep us from getting hangry or having to stop for food on the drive.
6. Use GasBuddy
GasBuddy is a free app that helps you find the lowest gas prices nearby. It’s a fantastic resource that uses location and crowd-sourced data to provide you with up-to-date information.
7. Use Your Club Membership
We frequently find the cheapest gas at Sam’s Club or Costco. A club membership offers savings at the pump, on travel deals, and more. If you can resist buying unnecessary items, it’s also a great stop to stretch your legs, use the restroom, and even grab a little snack.
8. Bypass Toll Roads
Unless we’re facing a much longer drive, Brian and I rarely take toll roads. Tolls can add up quickly, especially when you’re on a road trip. Plus, taking back roads is all part of the road trip adventure. We’ve ended up in some pretty amazing places.
9. Book Accommodations with At Least a Refrigerator
Booking a place with a mini fridge would at the very least allow you to store cold items and enjoy some cold meals, saving you some money on dining out.
If Brian and I are staying somewhere a little longer on the road, we try to book accommodations with a kitchen or kitchenette. Having the ability to cook our own meals has helped us save quite a bit. Sometimes all we have is a mini-fridge and microwave, which work well enough for us!
10. Bring Along a Reusable Bottle & Water Filter
If you drink a lot of water, you’re likely without a reusable water bottle. This handy item, along with our trusty water filter, has helped save us from buying water bottles at home and on the road. You can buy individual water bottles with filters, but Brian and I haven’t found that necessary just yet. My $1.80 Brita® water filter pitcher from Goodwill has served us well! It’s convenient, practical, and helps us stay hydrated.
11. Stock Up at the Grocery Store
Don’t limit yourself to snacks from home or meals out. When we’re looking for healthy and affordable options, we head to the grocery store. Because we usually have a cooler on hand, it’s really easy for us to pick up some cold items to prepare for later.
12. Load Up on Free Breakfasts
If your hotel provides a free breakfast, take advantage of it! Fuel up with a large breakfast to stay energized for the rest of the day. Grab some extra items to go if you’re feeling snacky later.
13. Watch Where You Park
Be mindful of the parking situation wherever you go. Consider accommodations and activities with free parking to save on parking fees. If you must pay to park, it’s a good idea to do a quick search to compare parking rates.
Parkopedia is a decent tool to preliminarily check out parking availability. It will at least give you an idea of what to expect prior to your arrival, though I wouldn’t rely on it completely. In our experience, it’s actually best to do a quick Google search or drive around for a brief moment to compare parking rates. For example, the paid lot directly behind the Anchorage Museum charged $12, but the metered street parking next to it cost us $1.25 per hour.
On the flip side, if you feel that it’s smarter to do so, then pay for parking. It’s important to protect yourself. If you find yourself in a not-so-savory area, it’s better to pay the parking fee for peace of mind than run the risk of facing costly danger.
14. Take Advantage of Public Transportation
You can avoid pricey downtown parking altogether if you use the city’s public transportation options. Provided there is an efficient transportation infrastructure, using public transportation is a practical and affordable way to navigate a city.
15. Enjoy Late Lunches or Happy Hour Specials
If you prefer early dinners, then you could save some cash by exploring local specials. Many places offer happy hour specials or lunch combos at affordable prices. Even if a restaurant isn’t running a lunch special per se, their lunch prices are likely less expensive than their dinner offerings.
Brian and I will often do this when we’re roaming around without much of a schedule. Sometimes, we’ll eat a massive (and inexpensive!) lunch around 2PM and it’ll keep us full until the next day!
Rather than rack up drink charges at dinner or at the local bar, consider bringing along your own alcohol. If you fancy a cocktail, you can make your own at the hotel or enjoy one elsewhere while watching the sunset.
Brian and I like to check out the breweries around town when we travel. To keep costs low, we’ll often grab local beer and liquor to sip on in our hotel room. It’s a simple way to support local while still enjoying cocktail hour.
17. Travel During the Off/Shoulder Season
Avoid peak travel times for the most affordable options. From accommodations to activities and more, you’re bound to find great deals that keep your budget in check.
18. Camp Out
Pop a tent and stay for the night or the next several nights. Find free camping (otherwise known as dispersed camping) through the US Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This comprehensive guide from Bearfoot Theory outlines how to score free camping on the road.
19. Use Rewards Credit Cards
Earn points and free nights by strategically using your favorite rewards credit cards! Just remember to pay your bill in full each month to avoid costly interest fees. Brian and I offset travel costs by maximizing rewards through our IHG Rewards, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and other cash-back rewards credit cards.
20. Avoid Rush Hour
If you can, try to plan your driving time outside of rush hour traffic. There’s no sense in wasting time and fuel when you could be doing anything else.
21. Seek Out Free and Low-Cost Entertainment
A Google search for “free things to do in ________” will list out a handful of options for you to explore. Brian and I like to visit different parks, hiking trails, and museums when we’re traveling. They’re often free or require a low admission fee. Some museums actually offer free hours in the afternoons and evenings.
Other options for affordable fun on the road include:
- Local Groupon Deals
- America the Beautiful National Park Pass
- The Living On the Cheap network
- GuideAlong (formerly GyPSy Guide) for engaging audio tours
- Scenic overlooks
- Beaches and lakes
Road Trip Ready
There are a number of ways to enjoy a road trip on a budget. From group travel and free camping to creative meals and more, road trips can be customized to fit both your preferences and wallet.
How do you save money on the road? Feel free to share your favorite money-saving tips below!