Plan Your Best (and Cheapest) Road Trip Ever

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Picture this: golden hour sun shining onto the hood of your car. Sea air. Warm draft through an open car window. White capped mountains in the distance. A collection of empty cheeto bags and coffee cups stacked on the car floor. And of course, the open road in front of you.

That’s right, I’m talkin’ about road trips aka the traveling budgeter’s best friend. That is, if they’re planned out right. Let’s break it down:

Driving

Starting with the most important part: the cheetos. Just kidding! Though they take a close 4th or 5th place. Of course, the most important part of any road trip is what actually gets you down the road: the vehicle. For some people, it’s an easy choice… use the car you already have. But for those of you who are looking to rent a car or camper for your road trip here are a few things to keep in mind to keep low overhead:

  • Mileage What kind of mileage will you get per gallon? How much storage do you need? This might sound obvious, but don’t go for the SUV if you don’t need the space. Most car rentals are priced according to make or size. But spending slightly more on a hybrid style or one with great gas milage might actually end up being worth the extra 20 bucks.

  • Rental cost Not all car rental services offer the same price break down. There’s day by day vs miles vs weekly/monthly rates. Crunch the numbers depending on your plans to figure out the one that’s going to be most cost effective for your specific road trip.

  • Gas prices With a little bit of planning you can save on gas. GasBuddy is a great tool for mapping out the cheapest gas. Set your refill timeline based on the cheapest stations rather than just stopping as you need. In many cases, you’ll save substantially.

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  • Insurance Don’t forget to calculate car/travel insurance into the overall cost, especially if you’re renting. You don’t want a minor accident or ding to result in a huge bill. It’s a little rough to pay for the unknown but it’s also better than paying thousands for a fender bender.

Eating

Pack your food! Pack your cooler! Pack your snacks! Basically, pack your eats like a squirrel minus the burying. Bringing your own food is a guaranteed way to save when you’re hitting the road. It takes planning but I guarantee that it’s well worth the effort. Especially when you don’t have to rig a meal at the gas station. Skittle salad sounds kind of fun… but it’s really not.

To treat yourself? A greasy spoon every now and then never hurt anybody’s budget (even if it hurt their cholesterol). Go ahead. Stop for those maple waffle fries stacked on top of that bacon belgian waffle. Throw in biscuits and gravy for good measure. Just be sure to budget for it! In most cases, you can get a decently sized meal at a diner without too much hit to your budget.

Sleeping

  • Car-camping Recreation.gov is one of my personal favorites since it offers filters to find all sorts of good stuff. Go Camping America and The National Park Service site also have some golden info to help you find prime camping sites. For the “pull to the side of the road” types, there’s always KOA.

  • Stay at B&B’s on the weekday, other alternatives on the weekend B&B’s are great but they follow a predictable pricing pattern: higher rates on weekends, high season, and during events/holidays. So essentially A room rate can jump 100 bucks just from Thursday to Friday. Plan to stay at these lodgings on the weekdays and look for the alternative lodgings on the weekend.

  • Camper van Some people choose to go the camper van route which is classic road trip material. It’s not without a fee, however. Almost all RV camps come at a cost. That being said, it’s pricier for gas/outlets so if you can park and go without then you’ll save money.

  • Couch surfing Couch has become the new form of cheap vagabond lodging. The community has grown sizably over the last few years and most people have nothing but positive things to say about their experience with the service. Of course it’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for old-fashioned community and a free place to crash – check it out! There are rules and best practices so don’t forget to take a look at those before you show up at the doorstep of a host.

Entertaining

  • Books on tape via overdrive/the public library Most books on tape run for hours – which means plenty of entertainment listening entertainment for you and your fellow road trippers. For a cheap way to listen to audio books, browse your libraries online selection and download your selections via Overdrive.

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  • Free trial of satellite radio For those of you without satellite radio, a road trip offers the perfect opportunity to test it out. Check out different systems to see if you qualify for a free trial. Some last up to two weeks which could have the whole length of your trip!

  • Take a picture every 30 miles OK, so I’ve never quite gotten around to doing this but it just sounds fun! And the potential for that kind of thinking is exactly what makes road trips so great. Take advantage of relative flexibility and wiggle room for spur of the moment stops…. be creative with the way you approach your road trip! Stop when you want to. Eat Cheetos when you want to. Have fun!

  • State parks and the like You might have your eyes set on something big (Grand Canyon, for instance) but smaller state parks have tons to offer and are usually a little less expensive. Some day passes transfer to other state parks, so you can hop around as you drive.

Extra Budgeting Tips

  • Bring a water bottle So you can fill up at water stations and save on the cost of buying single water bottles at gas stations.

  • Pack-up over-the-counter meds/basic first aid Gas stations usually have these items but at a marked up price. To avoid the high cost of single packets of tylenol, pack up a small med case with the basics.

  • Keep an envelope for your receipts To help organize your finances, keep an envelope with your receipts in the glovebox. This way you can easily keep tabs on your expenses and stay honest about your spending.

  • Roadtrippers… the comprehensive road trip planning tool For a really rad road tripping tool, check out Roadtrippers which is the best online tool to curate a road trip that I’ve yet to come across. Choose your route and then filter destinations (food, lodging, museums, etc.), pin ‘em, and then map out your awesome trip. Pretty design and easy to use!

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Now time to spill your road trip secrets… any tips?

Image Credit: Nate Bolt

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  • http://www.brokepedia.com Kristin Wong

    Hadn’t heard of Roadtrippers, but I love the idea of it! I’ll have to check it out.

    • Claire Murdough

      Ohhhh, it’s such a cool tool! I’ve already e-planned so many trips :)