How To Save Money on Your Next Road Trip

by AJ Pettersen · 11 comments

cheap road trips

Some of my best memories as a child are family road trips, as we regularly took trips to Michigan, Chicago and New York. As a constantly busy family we had to find the right time of year to make trips. We also rarely had enough money to take extravagant trips to exotic locations.

Looking back now I am glad we didn’t, because we would have missed out on a lot of time together in the friendly confines of a minivan had we flown to warm places for our family vacations.

My friends recently drove over to catch a few of my games after they finished their finals at school. Like any college age kids, they wanted to enjoy themselves on a dime. Four 20-somethings packed into a compact car and took the five hour trip to the town where I play.

They saved money by finding savings on meals and by staying at the cheapest hotel in town. Four guys in a $50 a night room. This was right for them, but the same itinerary might not be right for you (unless you are of the same demographic).

So, how can you enjoy your road trip, while saving on unnecessary costs?

how to take a cheap road tripTurn Your Journey into Part of the Overall Entertainment

Entertaining yourself and those who are with you on a road trip is vital. My family used to find interesting ways to keep ourselves busy in and out of the car.

Entertainment in the car may seem difficult, but as a family of six, we had to stay busy to stay sane. We didn’t have a fancy van with built-in features. We bought a portable electrical outlet that plugged into the car. This way my brothers, sister and I could watch movies or play video games as we trekked across the country. As younger kids, my siblings and I loved playing games like the alphabet game. Be creative and enjoy the bonding a small space can provide.

Road trips are a great chance to see attractions along the way. Check beforehand if there are any such locations on the way to your final destination. Some great stories can be grown out of stops along the way. My friends are stopping at Miller Park (the home of the Milwaukee Brewers) on their way home. This is directly on their path home and it provides them with an opportunity they may not have in the future.

Savings Can Be Found Everywhere

My friends saved by staying at a dirt cheap hotel. This may not be your approach, but websites, such as Priceline, can provide a similar service. You select the quality of the hotel and offer a price. You may not be able to control everything about the place you stay, but you can save big using this method.

The way you drive on your road trip will have a huge effect on the costs you incur. Accelerating and breaking slowly can lead to some savings. Driving as close to 60 mph as possible will typically improve gas mileage too. Packing lightly leads to better fuel economy as does using cruise control. They don’t seem like much, but the savings do add up.

Finding restaurants with deals can also help to save along the way. Better yet, pack a cooler. On road trips as a kid my family packed a cooler full of sandwiches and snacks to save on food and time.

How Do You Spend Road Trips?

Road trips are a great way to cheaply create memories. How do you keep yourself entertained on long drives? Are there any other ways you save on road trips with friends and/or family?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Priya Sahani says:

    Well i think we could also save through booking on the websites as well because many of the only booking websites do allow a great discount offers to the travellers that might be really helpful as the competition is tough you could get the best at the best price.

  • Myfinance kits says:

    Eating before setting off for the journey will reduce the food you need to take in restaurants. Also, because you are driving, you can get good food in a remote location especially if you want to go local. This can be very fun and entertaining, yet cost saving

  • Wendy says:

    My dad was one of the best people I know for travelling cheap. The 5 of us, my parents and us 3 kids travelled for days in a Chevy station wagon. We sang, played the alphabet game, “collected” license plates (trying to spot one from as many different states as possible), and played “ghost,” a spelling game. Perhaps his, dad’s, crowning achievement was dreaming up “counting cows.” This only works if each kid can have a window / side of the car, though. Fortunately my sister, as oldest, considered herself above such shenanigans.

    In this game, you count the livestock on your side of the road. No cheating! If you can’t count fast enough to count them all, you only get to mark down the ones you actually counted. And the prize? For every 100 cows we’d counted by the end of the day, we got a penny. For every 100 horses, we got a dime. For every 100 deer (or any other wild animal) we got a quarter. Depending on the part of the country, sheep could be added to the mix. Mind, this was 35 years ago! Counting livestock kept us quiet and occupied for mile after mile.

    When we got older, Dad would take just one or two of us on road trips. We always camped, and never in a place where you had to pay to camp (sometimes, that meant popping over the border into Mexico). When we were teens, we didn’t use tents any more (entirely possible in the south west U.S.). We stopped at a public swimming pool every few days (cheap showers!). I remember trying to wash my hair in gas station restrooms (teens!). We were all bookworms, so books from the local library were all we needed to stay entertained, by that point. We had a multitude of experiences we will never ever forget…

  • Michael N. says:

    Instead of restaurants, go to large grocery stores which have salad bars and delis that are practically restaurants in themselves. With a few napkins, eat in the car, or sometimes the grocery store has its own Starbucks (Or other cafe) area inside. You will save a lot!

  • Simon says:

    Interesting story and tips.

    From my experience, I have found that road trips are not for everyone – if you want to have fun and real entertainment, I would strongly advise you to go with people you know, like and you are 100% sure they will not ‘turn things down’. I’m talking about bad attitude folks who are saying ‘no’ to most of the ideas – they can easily destroy even best prepared road trip.

    But to the subejct of savings: it’s dirty cheap if you buy everything you can in the supermarket and just skip shops and restaurants you meet along. It can save hundreds of dollars in the long run! And hey, isn’t preparing food for yourself more fun? Atleast you know what you eat 🙂

  • Jean says:

    Yea, road trips were always a blast, full of excitement and anticipation. We’d usually plan according to the best weather for that route as well as accounting for stopovers, restaurants, etc. Of course, we’d also go off the beaten path, so to speak, and explore a new area as well.


  • Persepone says:

    6 grandchildren and some long car trips in less than optimal vehicles for such trips–no TVs, VCRs other electronics.
    Provide each child with a roadmap. If kid can’t read, mark the route with a highlighter. For kids who can read, they can mark their own maps. They take turns “navigating.” Over time they learn to read maps and they also learn to navigate. (This backfired with my own daughter who always navigated for me when one day we were driving in Montreal and she was carefully reading the signs (good for her French) and I anticipated a turn and suddenly the scales dropped from her eyes and she said accusingly, “why am I doing this? You speak French… You know how to read a map…” –but she was 16!) Her own kids can all read maps. And they never ask “are we there yet?” –they just consult their maps… They are all actually pretty good navigators. They can also give sequential instructions accurately and well, if their landmarks are a little odd (turn right into the second driveway after the beaver dam)…
    If practical, get off the “highway” and into at least some small towns. Most if not all towns in America have at least one thing worth looking at and little kids can always a quick swim, a visit to a town playground, or perhaps a wonderful discovery such as an antique Merry-go-Round.
    School age children? There is almost always something of historial significance in every small town. Find out what it is and get children to find out about it.
    Always eat out of the grocery store. That lets you save money for treats (e.g., ice cream).
    Do “schoolwork” (disguised, of course). We drill math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) and kids chime in at their age level… Sometimes this is surprising when you find the 4 year old has figured out multiplication…. Foreign language is another subject that practices well in cars (one of the little kids was in the whiny stage and we found that older kids knew how to tell her not to whine in English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese!) All kids can “tell stories…” So let them tell stories. If they can’t think of a story, ask for a “book report” and you’ll get one… Actually many times the kids figure out what to practice and just organize it themselves. Sometimes this is painful–i.e., a recitation of all the states and their capital cities… And then there is “singing.” Sometimes this is good, sometimes not so good as I once listened to little kids sing the aria from the Magic Flute almost nonstop from NYC to New Hampshire. Ah well… you can’t win them all… Even reading and vocabulary is enhanced–we were sitting in traffic in Boston when the 6 year old asked, “what is a property mangement company?” She was reading the trucks… Interesting discussion followed….
    Traveling in a nice air conditioned car with enough room and a VCR and all the comforts may be nicer for the adults, but in the end, I suspect that travel on the cheap is better for the kids.

  • Robert says:

    When I was a kid, we used to travel almost every weekend to visit family or go camping at the beach. Seven of us in a Chevy sedan for hours on end. One highlight of the trip was when we stopped to eat. We usually went to a grocery store, bought a loaf of bread, a jar of mayonaise, some tomatoes, a pack of bologna, something to drink and a watermelon or cantelope. Then dad would drive us to a shady park or even the side of the road. We would go exploring while mom made the sandwiches and dad relaxed from driving. My dad didn’t make much money, but we always could afford to travel this way. My brother told me just the other day that he loved eating watermelon on side of the road when he was a kid.

  • Lance@MoneyLife&More says:

    If you’re just going to stop at fast food for quick meals just pack a bunch of food instead or stop by a grocery store. You’ll save a lot of money and each time you can skip stopping for food you get to your destinations that much faster!

  • Carl Lassegue says:

    Great article! The hardest part about this is making the road trip part of you entertainment. It takes a lot of creativity and the right people to survive the long road trip hours, let alone make it entertaining.

  • Daisy @ Add Vodka says:

    I got back from a long roadtrip on Monday and it was much cheaper than flying, but we didn’t save money on any of the things you proposed. One thing I love about travel is the food that I can try and local restaurants, so I definitely didn’t save money on that, but you are SO right about how you drive being a big gas saver.

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