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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. Because my wanderlust is hardcore, I’ve learned to stretch every dollar, which also stretches out the time we spend on our back road travels.
It’s true, 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 save a bundle on your next road trip with a little careful planning. Here are a few tips that will help you turn that little road trip into a budget expedition.
Planning and Budgeting for Your Road Trip
Roll up your coins – For real. Dig around in the bottom of your purse, scrounge under the couch cushions, and empty out your old coat pockets. Dimes and quarters will go a long way toward late-night coffee breaks, hot campground showers, and afternoon ice-cream cones. Kids especially love the treasure hunt around the house for coins – instant math lesson, plus they’ll spend hours rolling up coins if they can keep the cash.
Download a gas app – Sure the gas gods have been kind to us this year, but that could change at any moment. GasBuddy will help you find the cheapest gas available, no matter where your explorations take you. Plus, it’s handy if your gas light is on, and you need to fill up fast. This free app is available for whatever smartphone you’re pocketing and will save you loads on every fill-up.
Pack light – Whatever car, truck, or RV you plan to go gallivanting in will ultimately be filled to the brim with gear, food, and the like, so I should probably reword this to say drive the smallest vehicle you can fit into comfortably. Our family of four did 10,000 miles in one summer in a Pontiac Vibe and we yielded a pretty sweet 30 to 34 miles per gallon. A minivan may have been more comfortable, but we were able to spend two extra weeks on the road with our tiny car.
Sever your ties with the home front – Every penny counts when you’re on a road trip, so be sure and cancel or suspend your newspaper subscription, Netflix account, and your gym membership. More money in your pocket for adventures!
Tips for While You’re on the Road
Travel with a picnic basket – It’s amazing what this bit of gear has done for our behind-the-wheel adventures. We got this sweet picnic basket as a gift, and I think it’s one of the best gifts we’ve ever received. We keep it stocked with plates, bowls, silverware, napkins, and a blanket in the trunk at all times. It means that impromptu explorations only require a trip to the grocery store and that we can eat like kings and queens on an itty-bitty budget. We’ve had alfresco lunches on rocky bluffs, sunset dinners beside mountain lakes, and rainy-day meals in the back seat. We love to eat out, but our wallets love when we picnic.
Buy the Annual National Parks Pass – Okay, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you and I have similar tastes in our adventure travel itineraries. Aside from the crowds, national parks rock! No matter what time of year you embark on a road trip you’re going to want to visit at least one (or four). There are two secrets to loving the national parks. One, escape the throngs of people on back-country trails, and two, get the annual pass. It’s 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.
Take good care of your car – An ounce of prevention and all that – it applies here. Your car, van, or camper will be your home and your trusty steed for your road trip. Change the oil, replace the brake pads, keep an eye on the tires, and give her a good washing every now and then. Your car will reward you with faithful service, travelin’ tunes, and a place to take cover when the rains come – and believe me, they will.
Pitch Your Tent – It’s amazing how much money you can save by camping instead of shelling out big bucks for hotel rooms. There are campgrounds spread far and wide across the United States. Yeah, you may have to sleep on the ground, but you also get to immerse yourself in the outdoors, hike beautiful trails, and eat ’round a campfire. Want to find the perfect campsite? Check out The Dyrt camping app, which lets you find and read reviews about campsites all over the United States.
Make friends and family part of your adventures – It’s true, your friends and family near and far really do want to spend more time with you. Give them a call, you’ll see! You may also score a bed for the night and a home-cooked meal. Even if you pitch a tent in the backyard, chances are these are the memories you will hold dear when you get home.
So, really, you’ve no excuse. If you don’t mind roughin’ it and you’re willing to be cheap, there’s a beautiful country out there just waiting to be explored. You’ll meet the best people, travel the prettiest roads, and sleep under the most awesome sky you’ve ever seen.
If you’re venturing beyond the family road trip, check out more ways you can afford family travel, whether you’re off to India or Paris. Have fun!
Need more tips for planning the best cross-country road trip? Check out these posts:
- Creating a Road Trip First Aid Kit
- Your Amazing Car Camping Kitchen
- Road Trip Essentials for Outdoor Families
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