My childhood was full of road trips. With five kids, my parents could rarely afford to bring us all on a plane for a family vacation. Instead, we’d load ourselves into our 15-passenger “party van” and hit the road.
Today, I still love road trips. My son and I road-trip a couple of times each year, and we even bring my sister and her family along for the ride sometimes. I’ve turned it into something of an art — a fun, inexpensive, memory-building art.
Here are four tips that helped me plan a 10-day road trip for eight people — for only $2,180.51.
1. Calculate your fuel costs
Start by figuring out your fuel costs. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) offers a handy calculator that can help you estimate your total gas cost based on your vehicle and your stops.
We stayed in seven cities on our trip, which included a stop in Las Vegas and a two-night stay near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
We drove two vehicles:
- My sister’s 2007 Honda Odyssey
- My 2012 Subaru Outback
The government’s fuel calculator was a little off. My sister and her husband ended up paying about $325 for gas, and I ended up paying about $210. Part of that, though, was the fact that my son and I squeezed into their minivan for around-town trips rather than taking two cars to everything.
There’s really not much you can do to save money on gas. It costs what it costs. But the DOE does offer the following driving tips aimed at saving money on gas:
- Avoid speeding, hard braking, and rapid acceleration.
- Consider driving a little slower on the highway. “Above 50 mph, gas mileage drops rapidly,” according to the DOE. “For every 5 mph above 50 mph, it’s like paying an additional [19 cents] per gallon of gasoline.”
- Keep items inside your car, instead of on a rack, to reduce drag. Packing on the top of your vehicle can reduce fuel economy by 25% on interstates.
- Try to pack light. Every 100 pounds can add another 3 cents per gallon in gas costs.
Some of those tips aren’t practical for a road trip. You might need a roof box to create more space inside the vehicle. Additionally, when the speed limit is posted at 75 mph or 80 mph (hello, driving in the Intermountain West), it’s hard to feel good about going 50 mph. Just realize that these concessions to comfort might cost you.
In the end, though, driving was much cheaper than trying to get eight people on an airplane.
Just one round-trip plane ticket from Idaho Falls, Idaho, to Las Vegas costs $368. Multiply that by eight, and you end up with $2,944. And that doesn’t include getting to other destinations with a rental car or by flying. Yikes.
Fuel cost: $535
2. Use Airbnb for lodging
Staying in a hotel can be very expensive. No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s a Memorial Day weekend getaway or a 10-day road trip, Airbnb can save you quite a bit and give you more room to spread out.
For example, we spent two nights near the Grand Canyon. First of all, cramming eight people into two hotel rooms is no fun, so it was great to have a whole house to ourselves. It was in a beautiful area about 45 minutes from the South Rim’s entrance.
We had plenty of beds, a common area for watching TV and playing games, and lots of room for cooking (and eating) our meals.
Our Airbnb near the Grand Canyon cost us $357.55 total — our most expensive stay — but it was worth it for the extra space and ability to cook on-site.
Compare that cost to booking hotels near the Grand Canyon. We’d need two rooms (and they wouldn’t be as comfortable or allow us to cook). Staying near the Grand Canyon can cost upward of $200 per night at local hotels, which would put us at $400 per night for two rooms, or $800 total.
It’s possible to find better deals if you’re willing to stay farther away, in Williams or Flagstaff, for closer to $75 a night. Getting two rooms for that rate, for two nights, would cost $300. It’s worth the extra $57.55 for the extra space and to stay closer to the South Rim.
Pro tip: Use hotel reward points when you can
We didn’t stay in Airbnbs the entire trip. We combined forces with our hotel rewards and credit card travel points for free nights. By planning ahead, we were able to save up enough points that three of our single-night stays were covered by reward points, costing us nothing for this trip. This alone probably saved us about $100 a room per night, resulting in $600 worth of savings.
Lodging cost: $1,116.39
3. Find free and low-cost activities in your destinations
When you’re on a budget vacation, it’s important to make sure you can access entertainment and activities that are low-cost. Some of the ways we saved money on our trip included:
- Using Groupon to get group discounts
- Searching online for “free things for kids to do in ____”
- Looking at TripAdvisor for cheap options in each local area
- Asking hotels for discount passes to local attractions
- Spending time with friends and family
- Making use of state and national parks passes
- Staying at lodgings with pools
You might be surprised by what you can find when you follow these strategies.
In Phoenix, we found a candy factory that offered a free tour — and a free treat.
We also found low-cost options by visiting McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park and spending time at Scottsdale Mall, where everyone enjoyed a visit to the Tesla store.
We used the “walking around” strategy in Las Vegas as well. The kids enjoyed looking at the hotels and gazing at the bright lights. Besides, everyone loves the free fountain show at the Bellagio. Our most expensive activity was letting the kids spend a few hours in the Adventuredome at Circus Circus.
Another way we saved money — while making good memories — was visiting relatives. Our cousins invited us to dinner, and they have a great home and children close in age to our kids. Everyone had a great time, and it didn’t add anything to the cost of the trip.
The hotels we stayed in had pools. So one day after a free visit to the Yuma Proving Ground, a military base that includes a public display of historic tanks and other equipment, we had a “picnic” lunch and the kids swam in the pool.
Finally, because I purchase a national parks pass for $80 every year as part of my regular budget, getting into the Grand Canyon cost us nothing for the road trip (and we used the shorter prepaid lane to save time). Our scenic drive through Zion National Park also cost nothing, thanks to that same parks pass.
Look at all your resources and do a little research to find activities. Some cities have concerts in local parks, street fairs, and other events that cost very little. A bit of online sleuthing — or a trip to the local visitors bureau — can hook you up with everything you need to plan a low-cost day of fun.
Activity and entertainment cost: starting at $197.80
4. Manage your food costs
On a road trip, food costs can add up quickly if you eat at restaurants all the time — unless you have coupons and gift cards.
My sister has the McDonald’s app on her phone, which resulted in discounts and deals when we stopped for a quick bite.
Because we planned this trip well in advance, we were able to save gift cards we’d received as presents. I had two Buffalo Wild Wings gift cards, a Starbucks card, and a Cold Stone Creamery card. My sister had Burger King and Subway gift cards as well as buy-one-get-one coupons to Arby’s.
Bringing these gift cards allowed us to eat practically for free if we stopped for lunch or dinner somewhere.
We also planned our menus ahead of time. We knew that at the Grand Canyon we’d have two nights of feeding ourselves dinner and that each morning in any Airbnb we’d fix breakfast. Our hotels all offered free breakfast, so on those mornings we had no costs.
Before the trip, I went to the grocery store armed with a list, coupons, and knowledge of a two-for-one sale on chicken and steak. Instead of canceling my regular delivery from the dairy the week we were to leave, I brought along the milk, juice, and eggs I received for our use while on vacation.
We also brought healthy snacks along for the ride, including:
- Cheese sticks
- Apple slices
- Sugar snap peas
- Trail mix
Thanks to a five-day cooler, everything stayed in tiptop shape. We were able to refreeze ice packs and use refrigerators at our Airbnb stops, so there were no problems with spoilage.
For beverages, we drank water at restaurants unless soda (with free refills!) was covered by a coupon or a gift card. I also used a water cooler so we could refill our bottles without spending extra. Replenishing our supply was easy using the icemakers and kitchen faucets in the Airbnbs.
We had to pay for eating out only a couple of times during the whole trip. But what if things were different? Let’s say we ate at a fast food restaurant for each meal, paying $5.99 for a Big Mac meal for four adults (I count my 15-year-old as an adult for meal purposes) and a cheeseburger Happy Meal for each of the four kids, at $2.79. That amounts to $35.12 per meal — on the cheap end.
Multiply that by three meals a day for 10 days, and you end up paying $1,053.60. Imagine if some of those meals were at casual dining restaurants, where you might pay between $15 and $20 a person per meal. The cost would skyrocket.
Instead, by purchasing groceries ahead of time and using gift cards and coupons when possible, we saved hundreds of dollars.
Food cost: $331.32
Additional tips to save your sanity on an epic road trip
Having an amazing vacation isn’t just about saving money. Sometimes you need to save your sanity. Here are my favorite ways to have a good time on a road trip — especially if you’re traveling with children:
- Bring a physical map or road atlas. Encourage kids to follow the route. I often have my son look for something interesting for us to do along the way.
- Don’t pack your days with driving. Plan for three to five hours of driving a day. This allows time for us to stop at historical or geologic sites, eat a leisurely picnic lunch, or do something spontaneous.
- Plan most of the driving for after the activities. Start the day with local activities. That way, the kids aren’t cranky during the activities — and they’re more likely to nap in the car.
- Play games. My parents used to have us play the alphabet game with signs. We also had singalongs in the car with prizes for the person quickest to identify the next song on the mixtape made especially for the trip.
- Buy a book about the region. Learn about the geology, history, and culture of the area you’re going through. It’s a fun way to be engaged without the need for electronics.
- Create an electronics strategy. Letting the kids play games on their devices or watch a movie can be a lifesaver. But you don’t have to let them do it the whole time.
- Allow for a little freedom. Give each child a set amount for the trip so they can buy what they want (but when it’s gone, it’s gone). You can also allow time at each stop for downtime.
- Camp. Frequently, especially during the summer, my son and I save money on lodging by camping. We’ve stayed at campgrounds that cost as little as $10 a night, saving us quite a lot of money over the years.
Save money on your next vacation by planning a road trip
You don’t need to go into debt for an amazing vacation. Instead, plan an epic road trip. By avoiding the costs of airfare and frequent restaurant stops, you can save hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars. Plus, you’ll make memories and bond as a family in new ways.
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