Road trips. With a family. On a budget. If you’re living on a shoe-string you might think driving across country and sharing new, exciting experiences with your family is just the stuff dreams are made of. Well, as a family of five living on one income we have the attitude that staying home is not an option. We are road warriors through and through – sometimes to our detriment – but over the years we’ve roughed our way across the country, survived some crazy circumstances (Ahem. Broken air conditioner. Kansas. Heat wave.) but brought back a bevy of fun and wonderful memories. And we haven’t broken the bank!
So here are some of our road trip tips to not only make road tripping affordable, but fun, too!
- Pick your destination. This one seems obvious, but yes, decide on a place you’d like to see and find it on a map. Grand Canyon? New York City? Figure out the distance you’ll have to drive to get there.
- Decide how many stops you’ll need to make along the way. For us, 8 or 9 hours is about enough, but we’ve done longer. I have to say it’s more enjoyable to stop along the way and do a little site seeing if you can (we once spent an afternoon in a museum in Arkansas, and while it wasn’t the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, it broke up the trip and we learned about all the famous people who are from there… which is actually a lot!) If you’re crunched for time, though, it’s probably better to power through to maximize the time at your ultimate destination.
- Price it out. Calculate your gas costs – there are apps that can help you with this if math is not your thing. Gas prices can change, particularly in the heavy traveling months like June and July or around the holidays, so err on the higher side when calculating gas costs.
- Will you stay in hotels or camp or both? My family likes to mix it up. When visiting National Parks we camp because it’s cheap (around $30 a night) and we don’t have to waste any time driving to the park every day if we were staying outside the park. You can also have some unique views and experiences that way – Mule deer hanging out in the woods by your campsite at the Grand Canyon and shooting stars racing across the night sky in Mesa Verde.On our way to our destinations, however, we usually stay in hotels (and I’m not too proud to say we’ve Motel 6’d it a time or two). In smaller towns, especially, beggars can’t be choosers so we’ll find the most reasonably priced hotel that has the best reviews using sites like Hotwire.com and Priceline.com. And if it’s bad, we tough it out. It’s only for a night and we’ll know not to stay there again.
- See if you can use any hotel points to pay for your stay. My husband travels some (not a ton) for his job and has a few points we use to cut our hotel costs. He tries to stay in hotels that give him points (Marriott has one of the best programs right now) to help for future road trips. We’ve also used Visa gift cards that we’ve gotten as gifts to pay for hotels. We look at it this way: you can always buy more stuff, but you can’t buy the time to make memories with your family. Stuff fades. Memories last a lifetime.
- We get asked a lot if we RV or tent camp. An RV would be nice sometimes (you can even rent them, though that’s quite expensive), but that is not in our budget. So we have invested in an “easy up” tent from Coleman like this one that literally pops up in two minutes. We love it. Ours is roomy enough for one twin and two queen air mattresses, perfect for the 5 of us. My husband used some birthday money to purchase it for about $250 and we have never been sorry. The only downside is that it’s bulky. We have to strap it to the roof of our minivan, so if you have a small car that might be an issue. Then again, if you have a small car, you probably have a small family and don’t need a huge tent!
- Calculate food costs. This is a tough one, especially with a larger family. It’s always, always, ALWAYS more expensive than you think it will be to eat out. When you eat out, unless you’re just pulling through the drive-through – and who wants to do that for a week or two at a time – there are all these temptations. You add a salad, order a drink instead of water, the kids want dessert… Unless you are a champion of will power, you’re gonna go over. So… what about bringing your food and (gasp!) cooking in your hotel room?!?! Craziness I know, but it can be done. We have done it. My name is Susan and I have cooked dinner in my hotel room.
And not crappy food either, good stuff like fajitas, bbq, spaghetti, chili. What I do is prepare as much of the meal as I can before we leave for the trip, seal it in freezer bags and freeze. Then I put the meals in our cooler and when we get to our hotel (or campsite) I pull out the mostly cooked meal and reheat in on our Coleman stove and voila! A yummy, healthy dinner that I haven’t paid an arm and a leg for.If you don’t have a stove, you could use a crock-pot. Plug it into a plug adapter in your car and your dinner can be heating as you drive. I know that sounds like a joke, as in… you might be a redneck if you cook your dinner in your car, lol. But if it saves me money and allows me to take trips of a lifetime with my kiddos, this girl ain’t too proud.
I’m also looking into an Instant Pot. They are kind of pricey so I don’t know if I’ll have one for this year’s trip, but I hear that they heat things ultra fast (like 10 minutes!) and could be a good solution if you don’t like the idea of having a crockpot bubbling a way while you drive.
- We also have our kids save any allowance or gift money to buy their own souvenirs. That may sound tough, but it’s actually fun for them to pick and choose what they want. And since it’s their money we don’t mind if they buy five stuffed animals or other random trinkets.
- Use washable cups and plates, especially on long road trips. Also, we have a small drink cooler and fill it with water or powdered lemonade mix. Saves on space (no individual cans or bottles) and cost. Other little cost savers… buy a small box of ice cream sandwiches to enjoy in your room or campsite instead of going out for $3 and $4 a piece cones. And visit restaurant.com for restaurant discounts if you’d like to eat out on your trip.
- Buy a National Park Pass if you plan to see several parks. And while you’re there, take advantage of all the free activities they offer, like the Junior Ranger program for kids (kids fill out a little workbook while you tour the park and when they’re done they are “sworn in” as Junior Rangers and get a free park pin – it’s a souvenir and fun all wrapped into one!)
So there you go. Those are our main money-saving tips for making road trips a reality. I’ll be posting about our upcoming trip soon… how does Chicago, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park sound? Like the stuff of dreams? If you plan ahead and are wiling to give up a little luxury you can do it too!
Wishing you blessings and happy trails!