Tips For Making Road Trips More Affordable When On a Budget

woman sitting by lake in grand tetons national park at jenny lake
woman sitting by lake in grand tetons national park at jenny lake

Road trips are one of the best ways to travel and to really experience an area. I love flying, especially the feeling when the plane is taking off, but with road trips, you have more flexibility and it really allows you to experience the areas you drive through.


As I write this blog post, I’m on a three-week road trip across the Western US. I started in California and drove through Nevada and Utah to Colorado. I originally wanted to explore Moab in Utah on this trip, but with it being early September and temperatures were above 100 degrees. So to avoid heat exhaustion and possibly heat stroke, I decided to keep going to Colorado. From Colorado, I heading to Wyoming, then Montana (where I’m writing this from), then I’m headed to Washington and Oregon before heading home.


One thing I’ve learned with road trips and traveling so frequently, in general, is how to do so on a budget.


Whether you are planning a road trip to a local mountain range, across your state, or a bigger one like I’m on, this blog will help you plan a more affordable road trip. If you’re going more spontaneously, you can still apply these tips! Some of my favorite trips have been ones where I go without a plan.


Bring Food From Home or Cook

Whether you’re heading on a shorter trip or a longer trip, the quickest way to save money on the road is by bringing food from home with you or cooking along the way!


Just bring a cooler, some pre-made food with you for the start of the trip, a camping stove, and some ingredients to cook along the way! If you run out of food, just head to the nearest grocery store and restock.


Plan your meals out ahead of time to avoid wasting food. This way you also know exactly what you need when you go into the grocery store and can avoid spending extra on unnecessary snacks.


This also goes for water. I have three gallon jugs that I refill at home and bring with me so I’m not only reducing my single use plastic use, but I’m also saving money because then you don’t need to constantly buy water. Then if you run out, just refill along the way.


There is also nothing wrong with eating out here and there! Part of the fun of experiencing a new place is trying the local restaurants. Just use Yelp and look for affordably priced and local charms.

Drive a Fuel Efficient Vehicle

Opt in to take the more fuel efficient vehicle because ultimately you’re going to get more miles per gallon so you’ll save so much money on the trip.


Whether you’re flying in somewhere and are looking into rental cars, or you’re debating between taking your car or your friend’s car, take the one that’s better on gas!


Also look for cheaper gas along the way. Some states like California will have significantly higher gas prices than a state like Utah. This is also something to keep in mind as you’re planning your trip. You can use an app like Gas Buddy to find the cheapest gas near you or where you’re headed so you can plan ahead.


Before heading out, make sure your car is in good condition. You don’t want your car breaking down in the middle of a road trip. Stuff happens, but do what you can at home to prevent that from happening on the road. As you’re getting your car ready for the road trip, check your tires to make sure that they’re at a proper air level and make sure your air filter is clean. Both can affect your gas mileage. If you’re heading on a long trip and will need an oil change along the way, make sure you take care of that as well.


Camp Along The Way

Camping is far more affordable than hotels, so spend most of your time camping! There’s nothing wrong with getting an occasional motel or hotel. It does feel nice to shower and sleep in a bed for a change.


You can sleep in designated campgrounds or despised camps. You can even sleep in a tent or sleep in your car. If you’re worried about safety, trust your gut. If the area doesn’t make you feel good, look for another spot. And if you feel safer, just camp in the car instead of pitching a tent.

woman in her car in yosemite national park

Look for Cheaper Accommodations

There’s nothing wrong with staying in hotels on a road trip. Whether it’s just because you need a shower, you need wifi to get some work done, or it gets cold outside and you want to bundle up with a heater.


But hotel costs can add up very quickly on a road trip. You can search on Airbnb or on a hotel booking service like Expedia for cheap accommodations for where you’re headed tonight. If you’re near a bigger city, you can also use Hotel Tonight. Hotels that aren’t fully booked will offer vacant rooms at a discount. You won’t be able to book far in advance, but if you’re booking more as you go, this is a good option.


Generally, you can expect that hotel prices in a larger city will be more expensive than somewhere outside of the city. This is something to keep in mind as you plan out your trip.


With hotels, this is something you can either plan ahead or plan as you go. If you’re going on a holiday weekend, or during busier times of the year, I would book ahead of time to make sure you don’t get somewhere and there are no vacancies left. This will also give you the most options so you can pick something in your budget.


If you’re not going during a holiday or a busy weekend, you can book at you go if you want to be more spontaneous on the trip.


You can also use your credit card to pay for the hotel. Most credit cards, especially if you have one with travel benefits, will earn you points on every purchase. Use those points to pay for the hotel! Those points are basically free money!


You can also rent a camper van and sleep in there at any rest stop or most parking lots. Especially if you’re planning on staying in hotels frequently, this can save you a lot of money. Outdoorsy is a great resource for this because you can book a van rental in pretty much any state.


Take Advantage of Free Breakfasts

If you’re staying in hotels, look for ones that offer a free breakfast! This is going to save you money because that’s one less meal you need to think about and pay for.


Usually, hotels with free breakfast have a coffee and tea bar, bagels, fruit, and some may have eggs and waffles.


Spend Less Time Driving And More Time Doing

It’s so easy on road trips to just try and hit as many places as you can. Especially if you’re solo, it’s so easy to just briefly look around and keep going because you don’t have another person motivating you to get out of the car. But don’t miss out on exploring the places you’re at.


You’ve driven here, you’re here, now might as well explore and see the destination!


This will also save you money because you’ll be spending less time driving around and more time on foot exploring.

Go During the Off Season

Generally the off season is when kids go back to school. If you have the flexibility, traveling during the off season will help save you money because prices generally decrease, especially with things like hotels.


You will also have the place you’re traveling to generally to yourself. You can expect to see other people there, but it won’t be a zoo. This might not always be a possibility. Especially if you get the same holiday weekends off of work as everyone else and you want to maximize your time. I get it.


So then see if you can add an extra Monday or Tuesday to your trip. This way, while everyone goes back to work, you have some time mid-week to have places to yourself. Or get an early start to your day.


As an example, with this road trip I’m on right now, I ended up in the Grand Tetons National Park on Labor Day weekend. Especially this year with COVID, more people are getting outside since no one can travel internationally, so it was packed. I generally get up before sunrise so I can take photos with the best lighting and there are generally always fewer crowds at sunrise. In my experience, most people don’t start flocking to national parks until 9am or 10am, so if you get started before that, you’re pretty much guaranteed a parking spot and to have a lot of places to yourself.


Get a National Parks Pass

If you know you’re going to be going to a lot of national parks this year, get a National Parks Pass. This will ultimately save you money because it’s $35 to enter a national park. So every park you go to, it will be $35. But if you get a national parks pass, you pay $80 once per year. Go to three parks and the pass pays for itself.

You can buy a National Parks pass at REI ahead of time or at the entrance booth at the park. Just make sure to bring your ID too! They ask for it every time you enter the park with your pass.


States also have state park passes, so if you’re planning to go to a lot of state parks in your home state or the state you’re traveling to, this might be worth exploring as well.


Plan Your Route Ahead Of Time

Planning ahead can help make sure you’re exploring all of the places you want to see while you’re in the area. But it also helps save money because you’re not backtracking or aimlessly driving around which wastes gas. If you’re worried about getting lost, this is a good way to prevent that.


I use good old fashioned Google Maps to plan my routes. I have a map where at home I plan out what I want to see and then on the trip I can plan accordingly. Even if you want your trip to be more spontaneous, do this at home so when you’re on the trip, you can still be spontaneous and decide if you want to go there or not, but this way you’ve mapped out all of the hot spots you want to see.


Make sure to also avoid toll roads. In some cities, you just can’t avoid them, but if you can, try and avoid that because that is money you definitely don’t need to spend. In your Google Maps settings, just check the box that says “avoid tolls.”


Keep Track of Your Spending

It’s so easy to just stick your head in the sand, swipe your card, and hope you won’t come home to a massive bill. But keeping track of your spending will help you see where you’re spending the most money on and make sure you’re sticking to your budget.


You can use an app like Trail Wallet which was designed by travelers to help you keep track of your spending while traveling.


Are you spending too much on gifts and different tchotchkes? There’s nothing wrong with buying souvenirs from your trip. I collect fridge magnets from different places, especially from national parks. I used to also get stickers and put them on my bear canister but that quickly filled up so now I just stick to the fridge magnets. Some people like shot glasses from places, some like patches, pins, mugs, etc. You do you. There’s nothing wrong with getting a little something for yourself or even your loved ones. But in those stores, it’s so easy to end up with the shot glass and the mug and the shirt and the sweater and the hat, etc. So give yourself some boundaries with how many items, what you are willing to spend or even stick to specific items.


Also keeping track of your spending will help you see if you’re spending more on eating out than you planned, more on random snacks, more on expensive restaurants than local charms, more on hotels, or really more on anything else.


If you’re planning a solo road trip, in this blog post I cover additional tips to help beat the loneliness and for safety.

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