We recently completed our first cross-country family road trip on a budget! Due to our cross-country move, my husband, Benj, and I drove from Vancouver, WA to Birmingham, AL with our 22-month-old son, Jack.
We logged more than 3,000 miles over the course of 10 days in our 2005 Toyota Camry!
Our trip was life-changing and eye opening, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat! We had a truly amazing time—despite some crazy moments—and I want to share how we made it happen.
Planning a Family Road Trip on a Budget
First off, this needs to be said: You don’t have to spend a fortune on travel to have amazing experiences.
We often automatically assume that travel is expensive—especially for families. And while it certainly can be, it definitely doesn’t have to be!
One big reason why Benj and I want to own our home completely debt-free, is so that we can travel more extensively, both domestically and abroad. If we didn’t believe it was possible to travel and road trip on a budget, traveling as a family would be far less exciting—and less frequent.
But because there are so many ways to travel economically, we know that it can be a big part of our lives going forward if we want it to be.
Don’t let conventional wisdom convince you that travel has to be costly—and that it’s too hard with kids! Because you can travel and road trip on a budget, and you can have great travel experiences with kids. It may not be as easy or relaxing, but it can be done! And it can be awesome.
Alright, let’s dive in…
PLANNING AHEAD IS KEY
If you want to road trip on a budget, planning ahead is key.
Deciding on your travel budget ahead of time helps you to save the proper amount of money. Ending a great trip with a credit card bill is no fun.
First, research and price everything out. This can take a little time on the front end, but it will save you so many headaches later on!
Roadtrippers.com is an amazingly helpful (and FREE) tool! We used it to plan and organize our road trip on a budget, and we continued using it during our time on the road.
Once you know how much your trip is going to cost, divide and conquer.
Let’s say that your trip is 6 months away, and your total budgeted costs are $1,200. You’ll need to save an average of $200 each month until your trip arrives.
It’s helpful to start saving early in case certain expenses need to be paid in advance, such as lodging.
OUR ROAD TRIP BUDGET
Okay, so here’s every penny we spent:
$471.42 — Lodging
$199.02 — Fuel
$ 71.52 — Groceries
$350.43 — Dining
$196.74 — Extras (attractions, park fees, souvenirs, etc.)
$1,289.13 — TOTAL
Let’s break it down by category…
We used AirBnB for 8 out of 9 nights, and we stayed with my husband’s aunt and uncle for 1 night. That averages out to $58.93 per night (over 8 nights).
Booking through AirBnB saved us so much money, and we stayed in so many nice places!
The earlier you book, the better. There will be more options available, so you’ll be able to choose the best lodging at the cheapest price.
The cheapest AirBnB options we found were what AirBnB calls a “Private Room in House”. Sometimes we had a private bath, and sometimes we shared a bath. Of course, we knew all of the details ahead of time.
We also booked a couple of “Entire Guest Suites”, which are more private, but also can be more expensive.
Booking private rooms in other people’s houses was a little outside our comfort zone at first—just like our entire road trip, to be honest! But overall, we had a really positive experience at each stop, and found it to be a great way to save some money.
(I could probably write an entire post on how to select a good AirBnB!)
SIDE NOTE: If you sign up with AirBnB through my link (it’s totally free), you get a $55.00 credit toward your first trip! (I’ll get a little credit, too!) And you don’t even have to book right away—your credit expires 1 year from your signup date! So you have plenty of time to use it. :)
Even though we enjoyed our AirBnB stays, our favorite stay of the trip was with Benj’s aunt and uncle in Colorado. We definitely recommend staying with family and friends if you can! It’s uplifting and fun, and can be a great way to reconnect with loved ones you haven’t seen in a while. Plus, it saves you some money!
If you do stay with family or friends, a thoughtful gift (like flowers, or a gift card to a restaurant or grocery store) is a nice way to say “thank you” for all the extra work they’ve done (cleaning, cooking, laundry, etc.). While not completely necessary, it’s a nice way to show your appreciation.
We actually let Roadtrippers.com figure this one out for us! You can enter the make and model of the vehicle you’ll be driving, and Roadtrippers will give you an estimated fuel cost, which is super nice!
Their fuel cost estimate for our trip was a little high, but that just meant we had a nice cushion in our budget.
Benj and I tried to stop for gas whenever we saw a good price and were below half a tank. Our route took us through plenty of rural areas, and we didn’t want to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere!
Although less convenient than dining out, preparing your own meals is an effective way to keep food costs down.
Look for AirBnB rentals with a kitchen or kitchenette to cook your own meals. Many come with a fully equipped kitchen even if you don’t have the entire house to yourself! (Just be sure to read each listing’s specifics beforehand.)
We brought our Instant Pot with us, as well as a small box of cooking essentials (spoons, a spatula, tongs, etc.). This allowed us to cook even when there wasn’t a kitchen available. Sometimes that meant washing up in the bathroom, but it definitely saved us some money!
We also packed a box of pantry staples (rice, salt and pepper, jars of curry sauce, etc.) and stopped at grocery stores along the way to pick up fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat.
Some of our favorite road trip snacks were Trader Joe’s plantain chips, homemade trail mix, dark chocolate, apples, and beef jerky. Snacks that didn’t require refrigeration were the easiest to transport.
I highly recommend eating as healthfully as possible. You want to feel great during your trip so that you can really enjoy it!
How often have you returned home from a vacation feeling sluggish—and a little sick—from all the splurgy food choices? It’s definitely happened to me! But preparing your own food will help you to make positive, healthy, and budget-friendly choices.
While we certainly could have spent less on dining and more on groceries, we opted to spend a bit more here for the sake of convenience.
Healthy food is always going to cost more than McDonald’s, which automatically drives up the dining budget.
I have dietary restrictions because of my health, which complicates things a bit. So Benj and I spent some time browsing Yelp for gluten free and farm-to-table restaurants, and we found quite a few great dining options along the way!
Chipotle is the closest thing to fast food I can safely eat, so we ate there multiple times! Their burrito bowls are full of veggies, protein, and complex carbs—and they’re easy on the budget. If we’re not super hungry, Benj and I can even split a giant burrito bowl, which is a great deal! Add in your own bag of corn chips for instant savings.
Additionally, Benj and I love finding great coffee shops wherever we go. Good coffee is a passion of ours, so we budgeted extra for it.
This final category is a bit of a catch-all. We named it “Extras” and budgeted $200 for both fun and unexpected expenses—things like park admission fees, attractions, souvenirs, parking meters, and tolls.
There are plenty of free things to do in most areas. Playgrounds were the anthem of our road trip! They’re perfect for getting wiggles out, picnic lunches, and bathroom breaks.
We also visited places like Arches National Park, Rolling Hills Zoo, World Center for Birds of Prey, and the Oklahoma Aquarium—all of which have admission fees.
Since we like to be somewhat minimalistic with our belongings, we each picked out only 1 souvenir during our trip. Jack got a cuddly plush owl, I chose an aspen leaf necklace, and Benj found a nice coffee mug!
A NOTE ON VEHICLE MAINTENANCE
I would definitely recommend budgeting for a vehicle maintenance checkup, just to make sure everything’s in tip-top shape!
Our Toyota Camry was 13 years old and had about 180,000 miles on it at the start of our trip. So it was especially important for us to get it looked at before we began our cross-country drive!
That said, we did end up needing to get a few things taken care of. I didn’t include that figure in our road trip budget because the maintenance needed to be done regardless.
PLANNING YOUR ROAD TRIP ON A BUDGET
As you think about planning your next excursion, remember to start as early as possible! Get creative. Think outside the box. Look for free activities.
Planning a family road trip on a budget is completely doable!
If you have any favorite budget travel hacks, tips, or ideas, leave me a comment down below so I can give them a try.