Plan Your Cross-Country Road Trip on a Budget Skip to Content

Plan Your Cross-Country Road Trip on a Budget

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Is there anything more magical than a cross-country road trip?  If you’re anything like me, you’ve been pouring over maps, researching campgrounds, and creating your perfect travel playlists. Oh, and budgeting. Even frugal road trips that involve lots of peanut butter and jelly and rustic campgrounds can put a dent in the ole bank account.

My wanderlust is hardcore, but my wallet definitely isn’t! To make cross-country road-tripping possible, I’ve learned to stretch every dollar, which also stretches out the time I get to spend on back road adventuring!

Our travel philosophy is to prioritize outdoor adventuring over other types of travel. We’d rather spend weeks in a tent than a few days in a posh resort. Going without the luxury of four solid walls will certainly keep the green in your wallet, but even if camping isn’t your thing, you can still plan an awesome budget road trip while still sleeping in a comfy bed at night.

Ready to make plan the most awesome budget road trip ever? Let’s get started!

Step 1: Make an Adventure Plan

the sunset over a long stretch of road on a cross country road trip.
What type of road trip adventure are you looking for? Photo source: Canva

Every awesome road trip starts with deciding where to go. For me, this is half the fun! You already know that you want to embark on an adventurous road trip, and that you don’t want to spend a lot of money. Now it’s time for the dreaming!

Gather your family or your road trip partner for dinner and discuss destination ideas. Keep your cost goals in mind, but don’t let them dictate your whole journey. Find some balance by considering high-cost destinations and deciding if visiting would be possible. If the goal is Disney World, which is extremely expensive, you may have to make the rest of your trip super frugal.

If, on the other hand, your goal is to visit national parks, historic sites, and small towns, you will be able to stretch your dollar further. Try and balance big-ticket destinations with frugal side trips. If you have time constraints, keep these in mind too.

Now, plug everything into Google Maps and Roadtrippers before moving onto the next step.


Pro tip: During the planning stages, you can dream big, but your time and budget constraints may mean that you will have to whittle down your plan as the road trip starts to take shape. That’s okay!


Step 2: Make a Road-Trip Budget and Start Saving

a lap top computer, a map, and several hundred-dollar bills.
If you really want to save money for your road trip, budgeting is a necessary step! Photo source: Canva

While you don’t have to budget for every single expenditure of your road trip, it is super useful to have a ballpark idea of how much your trip will cost so you can start saving. Your big expenditures will fall into four main categories: transportation and gas, food, lodging, and fun. How much you need will depend a lot on your priorities.

When planning your cross-country road trip on a budget, it will be helpful to ask yourself and your family a few questions, and face a few hard truths head-on.

Budgeting for Transportation and Gas Expenditures

a grey Pontiac vibe next to a sign that says - Road Ends 1/2 mile
Our car is small, but it gets 33 miles per gallon, which we love. Photo by Tara Schatz

Is your car reliable enough for long-distance travel? How many miles does your car get per gallon? How far are you planning on traveling on your road trip (just a rough estimate)?

Let’s start with the reliability issue. I imagine that most cross-country road trippers will have a car that is reliable enough to make a long journey, but I would recommend having your mechanic take a good look under the hood before your trip. In almost every situation, it will be far less expensive to deal with potential issues now than when you’re on the road.

Now, for the big-budget line item. Gas. You can’t change your car’s MPG, but you can change the distance that you will travel on your trip to save money. Remember, this is just an estimate. Don’t get bogged down in the details!

Here’s our budget breakdown for gas from our last big trip:

Our car’s MPG: 33. We have a small car that gets pretty good gas mileage. The downside is that we have to pack light! Read: Packing a Small Car for a Big Trip for more on that!
Average price per gallon: $2.20. This varies wildly depending on where you travel. We live in a state with fairly expensive gas prices, so we just used the going rate.
Estimated mileage: 6,500 miles. We were heading to Port Townsend, Washington from Vermont to visit our boy. We typed it into Google Maps, along with a few destinations we didn’t want to miss. Then we rounded up because we never take the quickest route anywhere!
Do the math: Total miles / our car’s MPG x price per gallon. 6,500/33 =197 x $2.20 = $433.40 in gas. I’m going to round it up to $500 to give ourselves an extra cushion.

A screenshot of a Google Map showing a cross country road trip.
A screenshot of our rough plan for our budget cross-country road trip.

Once you have an estimate of you gas cost, you can estimate additional transportation costs like tolls and parking fees.


Pro tip: When planning your trip on Google Maps, you can choose to avoid tolls to save a little bit of $$. You can also choose to avoid highways, which will sometimes give you fun routes to try.


Budgeting for Food on the Road

preparing food next to a river.
It pays to make your own food while road tripping! Photo source: Canva

You can save a bundle of money on your road trip just by packing a cooler and a picnic basket and stocking up on food at grocery stores instead of restaurants. Save even more by cooking your breakfasts and your dinners, either at a campground or an Airbnb.

Budgeting for road trip food is not an exact science.

First, be realistic about your habits and budget more than you will need. There is no doubt that you will want to eat out occasionally. Decide if you can afford to splurge on a restaurant meal every few days or every week. You may find it helpful to create two separate budget categories – restaurant meals and groceries.

Now, if you are willing to do most of your own cooking and food prep while traveling, take your at-home grocery bill and multiply it by 1.5. You will spend more on the road because you will be buying smaller quantities and more convenience foods.

We spend about $120 a week on groceries for me and my husband, so I budget about $180 a week for road trips. Then I add in another $50 for eating “out” each week, which includes ice cream cones, gas station coffee, and food trucks. That works out to about $230 a week for our food. We multiply that by the number of weeks of our trip.

Our total food budget for 3 weeks: $690! A few caveats – We would have been spending $360 during this time period even if we weren’t traveling. Also, we have traveled on a much smaller food budget than this by totally eliminating the restaurant budget, and eating very simple, affordable meals. It can be done! If this is an area that you need to cut back on, here are some posts to help:

Budget for Cities and Attractions You Want to Visit on Your Road Trip

Divide your attractions budget into non-negotiable destinations and attractions that may come up on your journey. If you know that you want to spend time in a big city, plan ahead! Cities are way more expensive than smaller towns, so be realistic. You will have to pay for parking, more expensive food, museums, and historic sites. CityPASS is a good option to help you save money on attractions in big cities across the United States – well worth it if city travel is important to you.

As for attractions and tours, budget for the big ones that are important to you, and then budget a reasonable amount for things that will come up along the way.


Pro tip: Buy the National Parks Pass! If visiting national parks is on your list, buy the America the Beautiful Pass. At $80, this will get you into every National Park Service site for free for a full year. You only need to visit a few sites to make it worth your money. You can get your pass at any national park, or at REI, which will donate 10% of your purchase to the National Park Foundation. The pass is good for the whole carload, and it’s the best $80 you’ll ever spend. Traveling with kids? Read Trekaroo’s Best National parks for Kids.


Step 4: Plan and Budget for Your Camping or Lodging

A tent in the woods while the sun is setting.
Camping is one of the best ways to save money on a road trip! Photo source: Tara Schatz

Lodging can be another huge expenditure for road trips. If you are planning a cross-country road trip on a budget, I highly recommend camping as a way to stretch your dollar. A good tent will set you back about the same amount as a night or two in a hotel. Well worth it in my opinion!

If you aren’t convinced that sleeping on the ground every night is the way to go, then what about planning a hybrid road trip, where you camp during the week and then splurge on an Airbnb on the weekends?

Finally, if camping really isn’t your thing, we recommend renting Airbnbs in non-touristy destinations along your route, and booking them well in advance. This will certainly take some of the spontaneity out of your road trip, but it will also allow you to budget accurately. Here’s what we budget for camping lodging –

  • Strictly camping – We budget $25 a night, knowing that some days will be cheaper and some will be more expensive. Multiply that by the total number of days you will be traveling.
  • Strictly lodging – We budget $75 per night. We tend to drive farther each day when we aren’t camping so our trips can be shorter, saving us a bit of money. It’s still the most expensive way to travel.
  • Hybrid camping and lodging – We budget $50 per night and try to camp more often than not.

Here are some more tips to help you budget for camping and lodging during your road trip.

Remember, there will always be trade-offs. For example, you can camp in many places for free, but you may not have running water or flush toilets. If you choose to camp instead of staying in hotels/Airbnbs, you will save a lot of money, but the trade-off is that you will have to set up and break down your camp each day.

  • Reserve your weekend and popular destinations in advance – To find the balance between spontaneity and frustration, I recommend booking lodging and camping for all your weekends and popular destinations early so you are sure to have a place to stay. During the week, you will probably be okay reserving the day before (for lodging) or not at all (camping).
  • Campsite prices vary wildly – Here’s what we’ve found over years and years of road tripping: private campgrounds are the most expensive (around $50 a night), followed by state parks ($25 – $50 a night). National Forest sites are quite affordable (free – $20), and there are lots of BLM sites that are free! Check out The Dyrt Camping App to find camping along your route.
  • Airbnbs are awesome too – We love staying in Airbnbs over hotels. First of all, we like to find places with kitchens and laundry so we can make our own meals and wash our clothes. It also gives us more room to spread out when we travel with our family. The cheapest we’ve spent on an Airbnb was $35 for a night in a small apartment. Look for Airbnbs farther away from touristy areas to save money on your stay.
  • Stay with family and friends along your route – This is one of the most fun parts of a road trip! We love reaching out to family and friends along our route to see if they have a bed or floor space we can use for a night or two. Not only does this save us money, but it makes for memorable experiences!

Step 5: Secure Your Road Trip Gear

The trunk of a car full of luggage with a black dog sitting in front of it.
All the necessities, including the dog! Photo by Tara Schatz

Once your plans start to take shape, you can begin collecting your road trip gear. What kind of gear, you ask?

  • Basic camping supplies, if your plan is to camp along your route. Looking for cheap gear? Buy used! REI sells used gear, as does Geartrade (you can sell your gear too!).
  • Suitable clothing for all types of weather – Pack clothing that doesn’t require ironing and will do double-duty – skirts and sandals you can hike in, a jacket that is warm and waterproof, etc. Pack light and plan on doing laundry on your journey.
  • A basic car repair kit – If you have basic car repair skills, you should bring your basic tools for emergencies, and even if car repair isn’t part of your skillset, bring extra fluids, and a roadside assistance card.
  • Technology – Pack whatever you need to stay connected on the road, plus a way to keep it all charged. Less is more, but your definition will be different than mine. Here’s a basic technology gear list to help you get started.

Step 7: Hit the Road

The back of a grey car with a white cargo carrier on top of it pointing toward a mountain sunset.
The time has come!! Photo by Tara Schatz

All your hard work has paid off and now it’s time to hit the open road. Here are a few more tips to help you save money and enjoy every minute of your road trip.

Pin for Later?

A collage of road trip photos. Text overlay: Plan an incredible cross country road trip on a budget
A photo of a winding road through the countryside. Text overlay: Road trip on a budget. Save money and still have fun!

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Kristen

Thursday 4th of February 2021

Somtimes the hardest part is just getting started. Thanks for the tips and I'll definitely be downloading that gas app!

Susan

Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

Such a good suggestions to bring a basic car repair kit! Easy to overlook! Also, thanks for the tips on what to budget. The costs can really add up if you don't think it all through ahead of time.

Karen

Tuesday 2nd of February 2021

There are so many great tips here. The budgeting examples are so useful to preparing for the trip. I don't do as many cross-country road trips as I used to but it's so great to be out on the open road exploring. Great ideas for travel apps.

Tranquil Trekker

Tuesday 2nd of February 2021

These are great suggestions! I LOVE road trips! I agree that camping can make your trip WAY cheaper, though it is more difficult and time-consuming. We have also found Airbnb's to be far more enjoyable than hotels. The other suggestion I would make is to stay at an Airbnb or hotel during the week instead of weekends as they're likely to be cheaper.

Josy A

Tuesday 2nd of February 2021

Wooooah! When you say road trip, you really mean an epic road trip! Your example with 95hr driving is amaaaazing! Lol I think our biggest trips have been 25-30hrs of driving over the whole adventure. (and I thought that was epic!)

Anyway, these are fab tips. We do something very similar choosing an area, dropping pins into google maps...and then I go through again to see if I can find extra cool things (and mini hikes) to do along the way.