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How to Plan a Cheap Road Trip With Multiple Stops – Tips & Ideas

By Kristen Kuchar

road tripLooking to take a fun, memorable vacation? This year, you may want to skip purchasing expensive airfare or traveling internationally and simply stick to the family car. Road trips allow you to see the country at a slow pace and create your own journey. Ever fly over the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains and wish you could take some time to explore? Travel by automobile and this wish can become reality.

However, though taking a road trip may seem like a cheap vacation option, it can end up costing you far more than you’d think if you don’t properly plan. Consider all the expenses included, and make sure you budget properly before the final cost puts you in the red.

Plan the Route

Planning your budget ahead of time is vital to control spending, and you can start by mapping the route you plan to travel to determine how many days and miles your trip will encompass. Once you deduce the distance and time, you can create a budget for gas, food, and lodging, and also know what you will need to pack for the trip.

Here are several websites to help you map your trip:

  • Rand McNally, Google Maps, and MapQuest show parks, ATM locations, gas stations, nightlife spots, restaurants, and hotels along your route.
  • TripIt allows you to create your trip and share it online with friends and family.
  • AAA TripTik offers maps and directions that can show construction and other delays, and where to find the best fuel prices on your route.
  • Yahoo Trip Planner allows you to add all the cities you’d like to visit and your desired length of travel to help plan the journey.

These sites are great tools, but you’ll need to customize your route to suit your needs. For example, having kids in the car means you’ll have to make more stops for bathroom breaks, in addition to the stops you’d be making for yourself. If you find driving after dark to be difficult, you’ll need to make adjustments accordingly.

Also, don’t forgo an attraction simply in the interest of making good time – incorporate plans for entertainment into your itinerary, along with breaks for eating, stretching, and using the restroom. And be ready for a spontaneous activity or site you didn’t expect!

Lastly, be sure to research construction zones beforehand, and prepare alternate routes, especially if you’ll be traveling through these areas during high traffic hours.

driving on the highway

Create a Budget

Once you’ve totaled the amount of days and miles of your trip, you can create a budget for gas, vehicle costs, food, cheap lodging, and sightseeing.

First determine how much you have to spend on your trip. If your budget is tight, prioritize. Is it more important for you to enjoy the best food on your trip, or stay in a nice hotel? Or do you want to visit a slew of attractions and don’t care if you’re camping and cooking out of the back of your car?

Once you calculate about how much gas will cost, you can determine how much of your budget remains for food, lodging, and sightseeing. Disburse the money accordingly, applying the bulk of your trip money toward those prioritized activities, and keep track of what you’re spending along the way.

Calculate Gasoline Costs

The cost of gasoline is a non-negotiable expense, and will determine how much money you have left for the “fun stuff” on your trip. Use the AAA Fuel Calculator to estimate your cost for gas: Enter the starting point, destination, and your car’s make, model, and year to determine how much you’ll spend.

Save money on gas by following these simple tips:

  1. Be sure your tires are properly inflated. Slightly deflated tires can decrease gas mileage.
  2. Pack light. The more weight in your car, the worse your mileage.
  3. Maintain a steady speed. According to the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, cars reach the best fuel usage at 60 miles per hour. They estimate that every 5 miles per hour over 60 mph costs an additional 26 cents per gallon. Use cruise control on the highway to help maintain a consistent speed.
  4. Avoid rapid acceleration and braking, which uses more gas.
  5. Avoid rush hour traffic.
  6. Park your car and walk whenever possible if you want to explore an area.
  7. Download the GasBuddy smartphone app to find the cheapest prices for gas.
  8. Search for hotels or casinos that offer gas cards with your stay.
  9. Seek gas stations away from the highway. Gas stations adjacent to highways generally inflate their prices.
  10. Consider some of the best gas credit cards that offer cash back rebates. For example, the BP gas card gives a 5% rebate at all BP locations, 2% rebate on some travel and dining expenses, and 1% on many other purchases. The downside to this is that you will only be able to get rebates at BP.

Factor in Vehicle Expenses

Before the trip, be sure your car is in good condition. This not only saves money on gas, but it can keep you safe and help you avoid emergency repairs while on the road. If you’re car needs work or DIY car maintenance, get it done before you leave on vacation.

Here are a few tips for pre-road trip maintenance:

  1. Take your car to a mechanic for a general check-up, including the battery, fluid levels, wiper blades, tires, and lights, or simply check these items yourself. Fix problems as needed.
  2. If you’re not already enrolled, see if you can purchase roadside assistance on your car insurance plan. It costs me $5 every month, but I have used it several times when I had a flat tire or my battery died.
  3. Prepare an emergency kit with a spare tire and equipment for changing it, jumper cables, a flashlight with extra batteries, road flares, reflectors, blanket, water, a first aid kit, and non-perishable food.

Set Aside Funds for Food, Lodging, and Sightseeing

Determine how much you have left to spend on food, lodging, and sightseeing, and keep an accurate record of these expenses. Remember the purpose of your trip: If it’s to see the sights, put the bulk of your remaining dollars there, or if you’re a foodie, sleep in cheap motels or camp so you can enjoy the best restaurants your route has to offer.

Eating and sleeping on a road trip differs from an ordinary vacation, as you can easily store food, a grill, and camping supplies with you. This can save you a lot of money, as you can bring food to prepare instead of eating out at restaurants every meal.

Try these suggestions for saving money on food and lodging while on the road:

  1. Venture off the highway for a break from fast food, and experience the local cuisine. Check out Yelp to read reviews of places around you.
  2. Pack filling, healthy snacks like granola bars, nuts, and crackers. Avoid snacks that easily go bad, melt, or are messy.
  3. Avoid impulse food and drink purchases at gas stations. Pack ahead or stop at a grocery store.
  4. Take a small, portable grill. You’ll save money by shopping at a grocery store or farmer’s market.
  5. Download LivingSocial and Groupon apps to find deals on restaurants.
  6. Since you have room for the equipment, consider camping instead of staying at a hotel.
  7. Book hotels and motels with a flexible cancellation policy. With weather, car troubles, and unplanned events, road trips can be unpredictable.
  8. Download money-saving apps from Hotels.com, Priceline, or Orbitz to find deals at the moment.
  9. Find lodging coupons at rest stops, gas stations, or on the websites of official state guides.

family road trip van

Find Affordable Entertainment

Sightseeing and entertainment is a part of any vacation, but it becomes especially important on road trips to break up the journey. Here are ways to find free or cheap things to do:

  • Visit the official tourism websites of the states and cities you plan to visit. Most sites will provide links to free things to do.
  • See if any museums in the areas you plan to visit offer free days.
  • Travel during the summer months. Warm weather means free fairs, festivals, art shows, concerts, and more. Plus, you can save money by camping.
  • Check out an area’s parks, art districts, or libraries, which often offer free concerts, lectures, or plays.
  • Bring a frisbee, a football, a badminton set, or any other athletic gear that can provide you with free fun and exercise.
  • If you’re a student, bring your ID card to receive student discounts.

Pack Wisely

It’s easy to be tempted to pack too much when you have an entire car to fill. However, aside from adding weight which burns more gas, over-packing adds clutter and makes it harder to find what you’re looking for. Since you’re spending a good amount of time in the car, you want to be comfortable. Learn how to pack for vacation and avoid being cramped!

Here’s a list of items you may need:

Technology

  • GPS or a cell phone with navigation
  • Cell phone charger
  • Car charger for your cell phone
  • Camera

Food and Accoutrements

  • Cooler
  • Ice packs
  • Basic seasonings and condiments
  • Snacks and water
  • Grill and grilling utensils
  • Charcoal or fuel, depending on your grill, and a lighter
  • Tupperware, aluminum foil, or baggies
  • Plates and eating utensils
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Can and bottle opener
  • Dish towel
  • Dish soap

Clothing and Attire

  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Sunglasses
  • A change of clothes for each day of the trip

Keep your clothing to a minimum to save space. Depending on the length of your road trip, you may even want to plan a stop at a laundromat along the way. Choose neutral pieces that you can mix and match and wear again. Be sure clothes are comfortable, breathable, and loose, since you’ll be sitting for extended periods, and bring an empty duffel bag in which you can store dirty clothes.

Safety

  • Important phone numbers, including your insurance agent, AAA, and the state police for each state in which you’re traveling
  • Credit card company and bank phone numbers, along with your account number
  • Emergency car kit
  • First aid kit, including insect repellent and sunscreen
  • Medications

Extras

  • Maps and an atlas, since GPS and cellphones can lose a signal
  • Anti-bacterial wipes
  • Toilet paper
  • Cash, as you may have a problem with your credit card or encounter tolls and retailers that only accept cash

bring an atlas

Final Word

Road trips are an exciting, fun way to spend your vacation. Rather than flying from one destination to another, traveling by car allows you to enjoy all the sights in between.

Just remember to stay in your budget and, most importantly, stay safe. Drive cautiously and be aware of your surroundings. Also, take frequent breaks during the day to stretch your legs and relax, and never drive if you are feeling tired. It might be tempting to try to drive just another hour, or just another 50 miles, but there is no sense in putting you, your family, or other drivers at risk.

What was the best road trip you’ve ever taken? What are your best tips for saving money on the road?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Kristen Kuchar
Kristen Kuchar, author of "Mac 'N Cheese to the Rescue" writes about travel, food, and most importantly, enjoying life while on a budget. In the last several years, Kristen went back to college for a Journalism degree, got married, and is now pursuing a career in editing and writing. She also had to move, and her husband is going through a career change. All of these things have forced Kristen to find creative ways to save money.

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  • http://www.carinsurancecomparison.com/ Tyler S.

    What about planning your road trip around long-distance friends and family? Growing up, we road-tripped all over the US, and we stayed with as many families as we could. While this is not always going to be possible, it’s a great way to save some money for other vacation activities, and reconnect with some people you haven’t spent time with in a while.

    Don’t forget to give them a warning!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kristen-Kuchar/100002941222787 Kristen Kuchar

      That’s a really great idea, Tyler. It’s a great place to start if you have no idea where you’d like to travel as well. Thanks!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IKVVNPKPMBDXQJDAIREAS5IQLM Mike

    The most important item on your list is the “white gold” or toilet paper!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kristen-Kuchar/100002941222787 Kristen Kuchar

      Very true!

  • Jeff

    Road trips bring back many memories of our family vacations. Our Parent’s were always on a tight budget so they planned fun road trips and camping outings. They use to wrap small, inexpensive gifts my brother and I could open every six hours or so that we could use on the trip. We did not have all of the DVD’s, Ipads, Iphones, etc. they have now.

  • Jeff

    Road trips bring back many memories of our family vacations. Our Parent’s were always on a tight budget so they planned fun road trips and camping outings. They use to wrap small, inexpensive gifts my brother and I could open every six hours or so that we could use on the trip. We did not have all of the DVD’s, Ipads, Iphones, etc. they have now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kristen-Kuchar/100002941222787 Kristen Kuchar

      That’s a great idea to keep the kids entertained and mix it up on the road. Thanks, Jeff!

  • Anonymous

    This article makes me wish it was already summer!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kristen-Kuchar/100002941222787 Kristen Kuchar

      I couldn’t agree more! But these next few months will fly by. Use the time to plan a fun road trip! :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kristen-Kuchar/100002941222787 Kristen Kuchar

      I couldn’t agree more! But these next few months will fly by. Use the time to plan a fun road trip! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706016573 Jeff Crews

    The tips are great. What do you think about renting a car? Then you don’t put the miles and wear/tear on your car. However, renting a car would mean you would have to get rental car insurance.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kristen-Kuchar/100002941222787 Kristen Kuchar

      I think it’s a great idea, Jeff. You can look for car rental discounts through credit cards you have, travel websites (like a state’s official tourism website), or through organizations you’re involved with (my alumni organizations offers a 15% off discount). Also, car rental insurance may be covered by the credit card you rent your car with or with your own car insurance—be sure to double check before not getting the insurance though!

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