1. Address the big money first
With road trips, as with most travel, typically you know where the biggest cash outlays will be before you even turn the key in the ignition. Gas, lodging, and food can make or break your road trip budget, so planning well here is key. If you see another big-ticket expense looming, be sure to add that to your "big planning" list.
2. Choose your ride carefully
As long as you stick to the spirit of the "road trip," you do have transportation options when it comes to planning your actual trip. Depending on your itinerary, number of passengers, and overall budget, you may want to consider these alternatives to taking your own car. But first, you want to calculate your estimated cost to use your personal car. Here is how to do that.
Estimate the cost of road tripping using your private vehicle:
- Calculate the total mileage round trip using the IRS per-mile reimbursement rate of 55.5 cents/mile.
- Using your vehicle's MPG (miles per gallon), and factoring in whether you will be doing mostly freeway or backroads driving (estimate MPG up or down accordingly), calculate how many full tanks of fuel you will need using the estimated summer nationwide per-gallon price of regular-grade fuel ($3.59/gallon).
- Calculate the cost of pre- and post-trip vehicle maintenance required to ensure your safe journey. Here, common trip-related maintenance costs include oil and fluids check/change, battery, hoses and belts, tires, air conditioning/heat. Talk to your mechanic to find out which you need, and build a maintenance estimate.
- Add all of these items together, then divide by the number of days you will be gone. This figure is your ballpark per-day estimate for what it will cost you to take your own vehicle.
Consider alternate options:
- Rent a vehicle
- Share a ride
- Use public transportation
3. Be smart about lodging
- Book at the last minute: At the end of the night, an unoccupied hotel room is money the hotel can't recoup. So hotels often slash prices for last minute check-ins. Many hotels also hold a small bank of discounted rooms for walk-ins.
- Bundle it up: If you’re renting a car, see if you can bundle your lodging in with the car rental to save.
- Book off-peak and mid-week: It is no surprise lodging comes at a premium during weekends, holidays, and peak traveling months. So picking the right travel dates can make all the difference in how much you spend on lodging.
- Consider a campout: If you can nab cheap lodging at a national park or have room to pack a small tent, you can save by camping out one or two nights if you’re traveling to a particularly scenic area.
4. Find the best refueling spots in advance
If you already have a gasoline rewards credit card or a gas loyalty card, this is your best option to find fuel savings. In addition, planning your route to coincide with known discount gas retailers (you can use apps like Gas Buddy to do this) can really keep gasoline prices reasonable. Finding locations along your route that have a Costco or Kroger gas station (for Kroger Plus card members) can also help you plan your gasoline budget in advance.
5. When it comes to souvenirs, think digital…or portable
As long as you have your camera handy, you’ll come home chock full of treasured souvenirs. If you’re doing a family road trip with youngsters, however, they may be more keen to pick up tangible souvenirs.
Here are some tips to help keep souvenir costs manageable:
- Give each traveler a souvenir budget.
- Allot a certain amount of trunk space for souvenirs—either it fits or it’s off-limits.
- Opt for small treasures, like polished rocks or pressed pennies—cheap but still fun.
6. Eat for free wherever possible
If your hotel has a free buffet, by all means take advantage! Depending on the flow of your travel and break times, you may find it both most economical and most pleasant to plan for one daily packed meal and one hot meal. For instance, if you plan to drive through the days but stop at dusk, pack sandwiches, chips, fruit, and drinks for lunch. But then budget for a hot meal you can enjoy at more leisure for dinnertime (be sure to download Yelp or your favorite cheap meal finder app before you leave!)
7. Find free fun
If you’re driving through a town that is hosting a festival or fair, or there is an evening free concert in the park near where you will be staying, you can find plenty of great fun without spending a dime. One of the best ways to find cheap or free fun is to stop in at the local Visitors Center as you arrive in town—you'll be armed with brochures and “locals only” tips in no time!