How to Plan an Epic 10-Day Road Trip for Less Than $2,200

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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.

fuel cost calculator

Image credit:

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.

playing games

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.

free activity

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.

mcdonald's app

Image credit: iTunes

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
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Apple slices
  • Grapes
  • 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

Plan additional stops during your 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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1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 3.89% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.87% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 2.47% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.87% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of Month/Day/Year, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 08/21/18. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit, email us at, or call 888-601-2801 for more information on ourstudent loan refinance product.

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2 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

  1. VARIABLE APR – APR is subject to increase after consummation. The variable interest rates are based on a Current Index, which is the 1-month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) (currency in US dollars), as published on The Wall Street Journal’s website. The variable interest rates and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) will increase or decrease when the 1-month LIBOR index changes.

3 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 3.899% APR to 8.179% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.570% APR to 6.980% APR (with AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. SoFi rate ranges are current as of September 14, 2018 and are subject to change without notice. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.570% APR assumes the current index rate derived from the 1-month LIBOR of 2.08% plus 0.740% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, and the term of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. *To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit inquiry. Unlike hard credit inquiries, soft credit inquiries (or soft credit pulls) do not impact your credit score. Soft credit inquiries allow SoFi to show you what rates and terms SoFi can offer you up front. After seeing your rates, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit inquiry. Hard credit inquiries (or hard credit pulls) are required for SoFi to be able to issue you a loan. In addition to requiring your explicit permission, these credit pulls may impact your credit score.
  2. Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (

4 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it endorse, any educational institution.

5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

  1. Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900). The following table displays the estimated monthly payment, total interest, and Annual Percentage Rates (APR) for a $10,000 loan. The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) shown for each in-school loan product reflects the accruing interest, the effect of one-time capitalization of interest at the end of a deferment period, a 2% origination fee, and the applicable Repayment Plan. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment, which is reflected in the interest rates and APRs displayed. Variable rates may increase after consummation. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 2.08% effective July 25, 2018.

6 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Education Refinance Loan Rate DisclosureVariable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of August 1, 2018, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.07%. Variable interest rates range from 2.57%-8.17% (2.57%-8.17% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the borrower’s loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Fixed interest rates range from 3.75%-8.69% (3.75%-8.69% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Lowest rates shown require application with a cosigner, are for eligible, creditworthy applicants with a graduate level degree, require a 5-year repayment term and include our Loyalty discount and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. The maximum variable rate on the Education Refinance Loan is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of their loan.
  2. Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer with the Education Refinance Loan. Borrowers should carefully review their current benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans and replace those with the benefits of the Education Refinance Loan. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision at, including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.
  3. Citizens Bank Education Refinance Loan Eligibility: Eligible applicants may not be currently enrolled, must be in repayment of their existing student loan(s) and must make the minimum number of payments after leaving school. Primary borrowers must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or resident alien with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. Resident aliens must apply with a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. The co-signer (if applicable) must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer will be required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Education Refinance Loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, certification of borrower’s student loan amount(s) and highest degree earned.
  4. Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
  5. Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.
  6. Co-signer Release: Borrowers may apply for co-signer release after making 36 consecutive on-time payments of principal and interest. For the purpose of the application for co-signer release, on-time payments are defined as payments received within 15 days of the due date. Interest only payments do not qualify. The borrower must meet certain credit and eligibility guidelines when applying for the co-signer release. Borrowers must complete an application for release and provide income verification documents as part of the review. Borrowers who use deferment or forbearance will need to make 36 consecutive on-time payments after reentering repayment to qualify for release. The borrower applying for co-signer release must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If an application for co-signer release is denied, the borrower may not reapply for co-signer release until at least one year from the date the application for co-signer release was received. Terms and conditions apply.
  7. Estimated average savings amount is based on 14,659 Education Refinance Loan customers who saved on loans between August 1, 2017 and July 31, 2018. The calculation is derived by averaging monthly savings across Education Refinance Loan customers whose payment amounts decreased after refinancing, calculated by taking the monthly payment prior to refinancing minus the monthly payment after refinancing. We excluded monthly savings from customers that exceeded $4,375 and were lower than $20 to minimize risk of data error skewing the savings amounts. Savings will vary based on interest rates, balances and remaining repayment term of loans to be refinanced. Borrower’s overall repayment amount may be higher than the loans they are refinancing even if monthly payments are lower.

2.57% – 6.98%3Undergrad
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2.47% – 5.87%1Undergrad
& Graduate
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2.47% – 8.03%4Undergrad
& Graduate
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2.80% – 6.22%2Undergrad
& Graduate
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2.48% – 6.25%5Undergrad
& Graduate
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2.57% – 8.17%6Undergrad
& Graduate
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