Ways To Save Money On A Road Trip

Cape Disappointment WA

I think road trips are highly under rated. I know we all picture scenes from when we were kids that involve Dad yelling,

Don’t make me stop the car!

Jim’s dad used to always put a full glass of water up on the dash before beginning a road trip, which would inevitably spill into his lap at some point during the journey, bringing on the slew of muttered cuss words followed by complete silence in the car. My parents used to always bicker because my Dad would never let Mom drive. He would get so tired that he’d nod off at the wheel, causing a huge argument followed by complete silence in the car. Ah, the joys of travel with the family….

I feel like we are a little more functional and have road trips down to a science. We know what to pack, what things to bring to keep a 6 year old entertained, and even what to do in the event of a breakdown. You all know that I’d almost never pay full price for travel. If we did, we’d at least get some awesome credit card rewards for doing so. Here are some tricks we’ve learned over the years that help us save money on road trips.

Bottled Water Costs How Much?

Bring your own snacks and drinks. Never start a road trip without a stash of food and beverage plus a cooler that you have easy access to while driving. If you have a child that can talk, you know that the car can’t get more than 10 minutes down the road without an “I’m Thirsty” or “I’m Starving.” It doesn’t matter if you just ate. It’s like moving vehicles set off some sort of hunger and thirst signal in kids. Bottled water costs about $4 for a 24 pack at the grocery store. It costs at least $1 or more at a convenience store. Why would you pay 6x more for anything? Because you didn’t plan. Don’t be the one who doesn’t plan.

Maximize Your Gas Purchases

One big expense of road trips can be fuel.  We save our grocery points from stores like Kroger and Safeway to get up to $1 off per gallon on a fill up. You can really maximize your points if you wait until gift cards go on a 4x gas points promotion. If you buy gift cards at the grocery store for things like restaurants or attractions you want to visit on your trip, then purchase them with a credit card that earns double rewards, like the Barclay Arrival card, you can really get the most bang for your buck. You can also buy gas with a credit card that really rewards extra category points. Right now, the Chase Freedom card is paying 5x points for purchases at gas stations. My theory is if you have to spend it anyway, you might as well get rewarded as many times as possible.

Make a Food Budget

This sounds really simple, but setting a daily limit for food spending on trips helps us save tons of money. Our daily budget for road trips kind of depends on where we are going, but is usually around $50. If we ate out for every meal, we could easily spend over $100 a day on food. We love to eat out. We often get something to drink besides water with our meals. We leave big tips for excellent service.

We can do this by eating out once a day and having the other meals picnic style or in our room. One of our first stops when we reach our road trip destination is the grocery store. Then we divide that total spent by days on our trip and subtract from our daily budget. That is how much we have left to go out to eat. If we go somewhere nice one evening that costs $100, then we have to eat sandwiches the next night. Often you feel the need to splurge on vacation, and it’s easy if you have a credit card, but you’ll pay for it when you get the bill. Even a peanut butter sandwich tastes gourmet if eaten on the beach or while enjoying a great view. We don’t feel deprived at all if we don’t eat at 5 star restaurants every night.

Get Creative with Lodging

The internet is such an asset to have when planning travel. We might have gone on more trips in my youth if it had been available then. You can find lodging to fit pretty much any budget. We like to use miles and points to stay in really nice places, but sometimes those don’t work with the area you are visiting.

Moab Fisher Towers

Last year, we stayed in an cottage about a quarter mile from the beach in coastal Oregon that we found on VRBO.com. When we go to Coronado Island later this month, we have found a funky little hotel that is much cheaper then most of the same size rooms in the area. It doesn’t have a ton of amenities, but it’s right by the beach, so how much more could you want?

We all know camping is cheaper than hotels, but even if you aren’t much of an outdoor person, many campgrounds offer cabins. Some even have a bathroom if trekking around to go pee at 2AM isn’t your thing. We are taking a trip to Moab, UT this weekend and staying in a campground cabin. It has bunk beds and a playground. My kid will be in heaven for a fraction of the cost of staying at one of the “cheap” motels there that jack their prices up during spring mountain bike season.

Air travel is faster, but I have a fondness for the open road. I think we will always take a road trip or two every year. Without road tripping, I would have never found places like Bucksnort, TN or Bumble Bee, Arizona. Sometimes the journey is as much fun as the destination.

Do you have funny stories of your family going on a road trip? How do you save money on car travel?

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Written By
Sydney White is a Texas-born stay at home mom who enjoys spending time with her family, bargain hunting and, of course, writing. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Snipon.com.

31 Comments

  1. Our family road trip last summer to Mesa verde, arches, Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon was EPIC! Even though our RV broke down in Utah it was the best thing ever…and frugal of course! We were right in your backyard, we should have stopped for lunch Uncle Eddie style!

    1. I’m so sorry I didn’t know that. We could have gone saved the neck for you! Those are all epic places to visit. I’m glad you got to do that trip.

  2. I love road trips, as long as I am the one that isn’t driving! And as long as the trip is somewhere I haven’t been before. We make a road trip every holiday to see our families in our home town and it’s boring by now.

    I hate stopping, because stopping inevitably means spending money on things like bottled water, which is expensive as you mentioned. We try to bring snacks, bottled water, and use Gasbuddy to find the best gas price in the vicinity.

    1. Does Gasbuddy work well? Is there actually big differences in the price of gas? I think it is funny how people will dive a mile, 5 minutes of their time, just to save a couple cents on a gallon of gas. It costs gas to get there.

      1. I’ve always thought that was kind of an odd thing to do unless you were heading that way anyhow. In our small town, everything is close so it isn’t an issue. I’ve never tried gas buddy because you can pretty much see all the stations from one trip through town.

  3. With dogs, we drive a lot of places instead of flying, and always make it a point to buy snacks ahead of time so we don’t have to pay for the convenience of a convenience store. I also drive slower so that I can get better MPG.

  4. I am all about packing the car with food for road trips. And if I’m in hotel with a microwave, then I’ll find a grocery store nearby to lower my food costs.

  5. Awesome article.
    I do have to admit that driving is much better. It’s cheaper and you can spend more time seeing the beautiful sights as well as spend time with your family. You can stop wherever you want and you even have a st resort for sleeping overnight.
    Where do you plan on driving to next?

  6. All we did were road trips when I was growing up and all the food came packed in the trunk. We would get an occasional ice cream cone but everything else was in the trunk with the Coleman stove.

    As the youngest of 3 children I always got stuck in the middle in the back seat. Luckily cars were bigger back then because it usually poured rain when we camped and so we would all sleep in the car. I slept on the floor in the back seat many nights. There was that big hump in the middle so I just slept on one side.

  7. You can get some really good hotel deals in metropolitan areas by using Priceline to bid cheaply. It is hit or miss depending on if other events are in town. I also use the gas buddy app to look at gas prices in towns along my route. Since road travel usually involves stopping at restaurant chains at highway exits, I bring a stash of coupons. When I need a break on long driving trips, I’ll stop at a Good will store and browse for 15 min or so. There are many of these stores close to the interstate. You can usually pick up a t-shirt from a local college or sports team, and very often souvenirs from a local tourist attraction.

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