9 Easy Ways to Save Money on a Cross-Country Road Trip

by Jessica Sommerfield · 2 comments

Relocating for a job can be expensive. This is a concept all too familiar to me at the moment, but through my recent experiences I have learned a lot about frugality, determining what’s most important, and making wise financial decisions in spite of emotional attachments to my possessions.

I changed jobs recently and had to make a cross-country road trip to get to the new location. I’ve also learned a little bit about saving money while on a cross-country road trip. Whether you are driving across the country for work or your family is simply on a road trip vacation, here are three tips from my 5-day journey from Michigan to Washington state for you.

Tip #1: Be Conscious of Ways to Reduce Fuel Expense

Because we had literally packed everything we owned (after a major downsize) into the back of a Rav4, the cargo rack carrier, and a small luggage hitch, our vehicle was heavier than normal.

While we didn’t have much choice in this decision, carrying more weight will always cost more fuel. Travel as lightly as possible for the best gas mileage. Here are some other ways to have better fuel efficiency:

  • Use cruise control when possible.
  • Use the fan or open the windows instead of A/C when possible to reduce the load on the engine over long distances.
  • Get your fuel injection system cleaned every 25,000 miles (especially prior to a long trip).
  • Choose routes that avoid steep inclines or stop-and-go traffic. This isn’t always an option (such as when driving through mountain ranges as we did), but it’s important to be conscious of it.
  • If you are driving in desert areas, you will be blasting your A/C and your engine will be run be running at peak efficiency. This is especially true in the summer, where the outside temperature can easily hit triple digits. Consider driving more later in the day or even at night if you can stay awake and alert to save on fuel.
  • Use gift and rewards cards at participating gas station chains. You’ll often get as much as a $0.04 discount per gallon. If you know you’re moving, stock up or request them as going-away gifts.

Gas prices can also be drastically different from state to state. Take a quick look before you go on a trip and try to schedule your fill-ups when you are close to crossing the state line.

Tip #2: Spend a Lot Less on Roadway Meals

First of all, we opted to stay with a hotel chain that always includes continental breakfast. This gives us one ‘free’ meal each day, so we can eat our fill before hitting the road (besides, according to many health experts, you’re supposed to eat your largest meal of the day for breakfast!).

Before leaving, we also filled our coffee mugs for the road to avoid spending more at a coffee chain. By the afternoon, we occasionally needed another caffeine jolt, but at least we weren’t making expensive coffee stops twice-a-day.

For lunch, we never ate fast food when on a road trip. This means thinking ahead and packing a cooler bag with road-appropriate snacks such as protein bars and shakes, trail mix, and fruit. Of course, if you’re not stopping at all, you’ll be more limited on which items the driver can eat while on the road.

We did pick up a few snacks and drinks at gas stations during refueling stops, but we ate a lot healthier and spend less than if we opted for fast food. We did eat out for dinner every night, but we were able to enjoy healthier meals than we’d have eaten on the go.

Tip #3: Look for Coupons or City Passes

Just because I was moving cross country for work doesn’t mean I can’t have fun during the multi-day trek across the US. I looked up deals on things to do on Groupon.com and Living Social.com and scored an archery lesson, a massage session, and a guided museum tour all for less than $25.

For those looking for deals in one destination, those two sites both have specific destination pages for all major cities setup. You can also look at your destination city’s newspaper’s website for any local deals or coupons happening the week you will be visiting.

Tip #4: Join a Hotel Rewards Club

If you’re already a frequent traveler for work, you’ve probably already realized the advantages of this. Each visit to your hotel chain earns you points which can be accumulated towards free stays and perks.

We used a free night my husband’s work travels had accumulated, so we only had to pay for two nights instead of three. Besides that, as a rewards club member, you’ll always be treated like royalty.

Besides these tips, there are also many other ways to save money, such as ensuring your vehicle is serviced prior to a trip to avoid towing charges and unexpected repairs. Lastly, if your trip is part of a relocation expense, be sure to save your gas, food, hotel, and other receipts to claim as a deduction on your income taxes.

Now, what if you have to travel with a toddler? We all know how children can wonderfully complicate any plan. Here are a few specific tips for a family trying to make a road trip on a budget.

Tip #5: Plan Non-Spending Bathroom Stops

Potty breaks are going to happen, which means your trip will likely take longer than expected. You might as well face that now because it seems that the younger the child, the more stops you are going to encounter.

Try to pick designated rest stops versus simple gas station and fast food bathroom stops. Even if everyone is fed, by some miracle, someone will be hungry for a snack if you stop at a place full of snack temptations.

Traveling with a toddler, or children in general can be a challenge too since they always seem to have a full bladder at the most inopportune times. We usually take a small plastic potty with us so we’re able to just pull to the side of the road, or stop at the first off-ramp for last-minute potty breaks.

Tip #6: Make an All-in-One Stop

Another thing that helps us on our road trip with a toddler is to plan a longer rest stop that checks all the things off our list – food, bathroom break, and a nice walk around. We found a rest stop that included some picnic tables and a small patch of grass.

This allowed us to have a small picnic and for our toddler to run and explore a little bit. This gave her something fun to do, and the extra dose of sun and activity helped her take a nap easily in the car (which was a win-win for everyone!).

Tip #7: Pack a Crockpot?

For longer car trips, or if you have a larger group traveling with you, pack a crockpot full of food. Make a simple dish, such as chili, soup, or stew, and cook it in the crockpot at least four-to-six hours before you leave. Once everyone is ready to go, wrap the crockpot in some towels, place it in a box and it should stay warm for quite a long time. You can use a crockpot liner and paper plates for an easy cleanup meal on the road.

I know some of you might be thinking that a crockpot is a bigger inconvenience to bring but think of it this way: if you have four people in the car, and you already had homemade sandwiches for lunch, then a stop for a warm dinner could cost about $7 a person, if not more.

Packing your crockpot would save you at least $30 with tax. Then if you are staying at a hotel, you can still utilize the crockpot, even if you don’t have a room with a fridge or kitchenette. Just simply buy the ingredients fresh, and place them straight into the crockpot with a liner. If you used your crockpot going to your destination, once while at your destination, and then coming home, you will have saved about $90.

Tip #8: Frugally Entertain Kids

I learned my lesson after giving my toddler my phone for one short car trip. She watched only two episodes of her favorite show, but that combined with me using Google maps put us over the data limit which cost a lot of extra fees.

Now, we just utilize the laptop as a DVD player and bring along movies for her. I have also learned to download a few episodes of her favorite shows on Netflix beforehand and to just tell Netflix not to use cellular data. We have also used books, audiobooks, and kid music CDs from the library to pass the time. I find that changing the activity often helps her from getting too grumpy.

I also bring along easy-to-use car toys or activities that we already own but make sure they are ones she hasn’t seen for a while to spark her interest.

For example, she loves her Magnadoodle, but I had stored it away about two months before the trip. This made it new and exciting again! Next time, I will likely bring Color Wonder products and our Melissa and Doug Water Wow Coloring Book.

Tip #9: Keep Children Fed

Children are more grumpy when they are hungry just like us. But it can be hard to eat on the road if your toddler or child is on the pickier side because chances are high that they won’t be eating the exact same type of food on the road as they are at home. You know your own child, so plan ahead and make sure they are fed without breaking the bank. Otherwise, you may end up buying all these high priced snacks every time you stop at a gas station just to keep your sanity. If your toddler is anything like mine, I also suggest sneaking in some protein powder in their meal before you leave.

My daughter is not the best eater and gets very emotional and grumpy when she has not had enough protein, so I try to avoid that problem by sneaking in some protein powder in a smoothie, oatmeal, or homemade pancakes.

What tip do you have that helps save money on cross-country moves?

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  • Edward Grozalis says:

    A couple more tips:
    1. Get gas at Costco if possible, they are always the cheapest
    2. Get a America the Beautiful pass, over 62, for free admission and other benefits at National Parks
    3. Get a museum membership with reciprocal admission (NARM and ROAM) to get free or reduced entry. This will require a higher level of membership but probably worth it if you like museums. I have one but unfortunately the virus has stalled my travel plans.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      Yes Costco gas!! I think their gas is so cheap that there are many people who pay for the membership just to be able to get gas there.

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