If you’re trying to avoid taking to the skies but have a wanderlust itch you need to scratch, road tripping may be the option for you!
Road tripping may seem like the cheaper method of travel, but expenses can quickly add up, especially if you’re renting a new hotel room every night. If you’re looking to stick to a budget, here are some helpful money-saving tips and hacks!
1. Set a Budget and Stick to It
Setting a strict budget is key to saving money on the road. If you’re not strict with your finances, you’ll end up making unnecessary purchases and taking out-of-the-way stops that will drain your wallet. Come up with an ideal budget you plan to stick to, with a high estimate and a lower one. Also, make sure you communicate with your companions so everyone is on the same page about how much you are willing to spend.
2. Plan a Route
Sit down, break out an old-fashioned paper map, and carefully plan out your route! Make sure to include the highways you will take and circle the places you will stop.
Sure, things will change when you’re on the road, but if you have a plan for where you’ll go and what you’ll do, sticking to a strict budget becomes a lot easier!
3. A Good, Fuel-Efficient Vehicle Is Key
Okay, this one may be hard, because if you’re looking to road trip on a budget, chances are you don’t have a fancy hybrid. However, if you’re going with friends and trying to decide on which car to bring, take the most-fuel efficient one! Sometimes this means a smaller car or a car without a gas leak (lol).
Also, make sure you take a vehicle that can realistically make the trip. Coming from a person who has spent way too much on car repairs during road trips, it is important to make sure your car is good to go before you leave. Change out your oil, get your car checked for any underlying issues, and make sure you have a spare tire!
4. Plan Meals Before You Leave
It can be quite expensive to eat out, even if you’re just eating drive-thru fast food. If you have a solid meal plan before you leave, you can save a lot of money!
I recommend bringing all the non-perishables you desire, such as peanut butter, nuts, snacks, bread, oats, fruits (if they last a while, like apples), and more. Try to plan out what you will eat for breakfast and lunch and buy in bulk if possible. If you want, invest in a portable gas stove — cooking will save you a lot of money. Also, be sure to bring a cooler if you have the space to make things like milk, fruit, and bread last a little longer!
Plan out your treats. This sounds silly, but you’ll tolerate your budget-meals a lot more if you treat yourself sometimes. For example, get yourself iced coffees or muffins. I also think it’s a good idea to take time to try different local cuisines, in order to truly experience your destinations!
5. Don’t Travel Alone, If Possible!
If you are road tripping with another person, you can split expenses like gas, car maintenance, tolls, and campground fees. If you are road tripping with two other people, you can split these expenses three ways!
6. Plan Things to Do on the Road
There are countless free and cheap activities you can do while on the road! Visit the cheesy roadside attractions. Explore adorable downtowns and small cities across the nation. Travel along the coast and visit all the beaches. If you’re into history, visit historical landmarks.
If you plan to travel across the U.S., I recommend getting the ‘America the Beautiful National Park Pass.’ It’s valid for one year, costs only $80 (a fee that covers four adults), and gives you access to 2000+ parks — including the Grand Canyon!
7. Sleeping in Your Car
Sleeping in your car isn’t for the faint of heart, but it will make your experience a real, gritty road trip.
There are 24-hour parking lots and roadside rest stops — both of which you can park and sleep at for free. Remember, safety is key. Walmart is a good option — you’ll be in the company of other road trippers, which is a plus. Walmarts are usually well lit too: this can make sleeping more difficult, but it is an advantage if you’re trying to stay safe!
Camping — whether in a tent or in your car parked on a campground — is also an affordable and fun way to road trip! As you are planning your route, locate any affordable camping spots along the way.
9. Be Weary of Parking Tickets
Parking tickets are a pain in the butt and they quickly add up. In some areas, parking tickets can cost upwards of $80! Therefore, if you’re looking to save yourself this added expense, it is necessary to pay attention to parking signs and do your best to heed accordingly!
10. The Showering Situation
Okay, so you’ve been sleeping in your car for days, whether at campsites or at a parking lot. And now, after days without a shower, a real bathroom, or a laundromat, you’re literally sitting in your own filth. Luckily, there are affordable options for washing up!
When I first road tripped as an independent adult — way back in the year 2015 — I applied for a gym membership that was about $15 a month. The gym chain was national and I could use any gym in the country. I canceled the membership as soon as the trip was over, so I only spent about $30 in total. I was able to shower as often as I came across the gym!
Unfortunately, this process is a lot harder now: gyms have stretches of hidden fees. I tried out this plan again in 2017 and we had to pay a $3-6 fee for each new location. However, getting a gym membership is still one of the most affordable ways to shower. Other options include: showering at campgrounds or truck stop showers (which are usually around $10 per shower). Or if you’re planning to rent out rooms here and there, you can save your showering for then!
11. Stock up on Water
Make sure you bring reusable water bottles. Also, it’s a good idea to keep at least a gallon of water in your car so you can refill your bottle whenever you need to drink. This will save you money as buying disposable water bottles can add up quickly.
12. Embrace the Uncomfortable
Road tripping is incredibly fun, but it also comes with challenges — especially when you’re on a tight budget. It’s not a luxurious vacation: you’ll have moments where you’re irritated just because you feel unclean or exhausted from restless nights in your car. You’ll have times where you desperately need a break from the people you’re with. This will happen and it’s ok — as long as you don’t let the little nuisances ruin your trip. Embrace the uncomfortable and your road trip is sure to be unforgettable!