Budgeting Tips & Tricks for a Road Trip

Traveling can get to be quite expensive if you don’t plan out what you are going to spend ahead of time. Something I have done prior to booking anything for a trip is to write out my budget in various categories ahead of time. Since traveling is my hobby, and something I save for throughout the year, the goal with budgeting isn’t to spend the least amount on the trip, but more so to be intentional about where I’m spending my money.

The categories I budget amounts for include food, flights, transportation, hotels, and entertainment. You’ll find what I usually budget for as well as tips each of the categories below as well as an example budget at the end.

FOOD

This category includes both groceries, gas station snacks, and then any sitdown meals. The best way to save on money is to stop at the grocery store with a list either when you land or before you leave on a road trip. Here’s a general list of what we normally get for trips 3 or more days long.

Groceries:

  • Bread
  • Peanut Butter
  • Jelly
  • Case of water
  • Beef jerky
  • Snacks
  • Energy Bars
  • Deli Meat + Cheese if we have a cooler
  • Ice

Once we stock up on groceries, it enables us to eat out less on the trip. I try to bring a spatula and ziploc bags along in my carry on as well as a cooler. If we’re flying, I have a soft cooler that can be packed and if we are driving from home, I have a smaller Yeti we use and fill with ice.

When we’re on the road, we usually have a sit down meal at dinner, and usually either breakfast or lunch. The other meal tends to be snacks or sandwiches on the road. With groceries, and only planning for one sit down meal, we budget about $60 a day for meals. If we don’t get groceries, then we budget about $100 a day for food ($15 Breakfast, $25 Lunch, $60 Dinner) for the two of us. This is what works for us, but more or less may be best for you.

FLIGHTS

We are not particular to a specific airline, so when we are looking for flights, we are open to most options. We do however don’t love long layovers, so we try to have at least 1 hour but ideally not more than 3.

One way we are able to save on flights is to look at flights out of a variety of airports. Living in the Lancaster County area, we will check out Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, and Harrisburg for flights. Since we tend to do longer road trips over a few states, we also check out a variety of destination airports as well rather than just 1 airport. This helps us save a few hundred dollars on certain flights by being flexible in where we are leaving from or flying into.

A few others tips to save money are to use the incognito browser option while searching flights, so that it can’t tell what flights you’ve previously searched or prices. We also recommend booking on Monday or Tuesday nights as they tend to be the lowest then, and to just take carry-on luggage when possible to save on luggage fees.

Each place we fly has a different budget for flights, but I do try to check what a “typical” flight price is and book one on the low end when possible.

TRANSPORTATION

Technically flights are transportation, but this is focusing specifically on car and gas transportation. The easy part of this is budgeting for gas. We use Roadtrippers or Maps to determine how many miles we will be traveling and then divide it up by miles per gallon for an SUV.

If we are flying somewhere and then need to rent a car, I am partial to enterprise. I’ve used other companies in the past and haven’t been impressed. While Enterprise isn’t the cheapest, I’ve always had a car when I book one, haven’t had to wait too long in line, get a discount by being a member, and don’t have to pay in advance. Since we usually do over a thousand miles on our trip, we love using an unlimited mileage option as well.

When booking a rental car, something I’ve found helpful is looking at both flights and rental car prices from that location as a whole. Sometimes the flight can be really cheap, but there’s very expensive rental cars. So we usually check both before booking so we’re aware of both prices.

Something we have considered using for future trips where there’s limited mileage is the Turo app which is like Airbnb for cars. There are usually great prices on there that are less expensive than a rental car.

When we book a rental car, it’s about $60-$100 a day. Some places can be more or less depending on the location you book it from. If you don’t have to worry about snow or needing 4 wheel drive, there’s sometimes even cheaper options.

HOTELS

We have used apps like Priceline and Hotel Tonight to book hotel rooms last minute at a pretty good discount. We also look at where we’re going and determine what we want our average nightly cost to be.

On some trips, we can do about $100 a night, and on other more popular or holiday weekend destinations, it can be closer to $200 a night. We set this up ahead of time, and then usually do a few very inexpensive nights, and then a few more expensive nights. For example, when staying at certain National Park Lodges, the prices can be pretty high, but save you a few hours of driving or save you time getting into the park which makes it worth it to us.

I know some people love Airbnb or VRBO, but we only use those if we plan to stay 2 nights or more. I find that with cleaning and other fees, to stay just one night usually isn’t worth it.

I also have a AAA membership which saves us money on certain hotels, and I’m part of almost every hotel membership which also saves us money or gives us an opportunity for cancellation up until the day prior to checkin.

ENTERTAINMENT

A lot of our trips include trips to National Parks, state parks, and recreation areas. One of the best ways we’ve found to save money here is to purchase the National Parks Pass for $80 for the year. By just going to about 3 National Parks, it’s paid for itself. We also have found that depending on the state, in state parks, f you purchase a day pass it’s usually good for the entire day in any other state parks (and sometimes longer). By visiting more than one in a day, we are also able to save money.

Since a lot of what we do on trips is hike and scenic drive, the “entertainment” is really not that expensive. What we tend to spend money on is stickers from all the locations we stop as well as postcards or books.

EXAMPLE

Below is an example of a 7 day trip and how we would budget for it.

  • Flights – $300 / person, only carry ons + $100 airport parking = $700
  • Hotels – $120/Night x 6 Nights = $720
  • Transportation – $80/day for rental car + $200 gas = $750
  • Food – $100 groceries + $60/day = $520
  • Entertainment – $200 (admission, souvenirs)
  • Total = $2890

SUMMARY

I encourage you to make your own budget before you start booking anything for a trip. This helps you know what exactly you can afford and for how many days it makes sense to travel. By knowing how much you want to spend on hotels, you can make wise decisions before you go. These tips are just what has been helpful for us, but you may want to spend a lot more or a lot less while traveling. Since this is a big hobby for us, we save throughout the year to be able to go on incredible experiences like this.

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