Tips and Tricks for Thrifty Road Trips
Road trips can be a great way to save money as compared with flying, especially if you don’t earn a lot of travel rewards or have a large family. And a perk of car over planes is that they make it easier to take along camping gear. This saves big time on lodging once we reach our destination.
Nothing Parties Like a Rental
One of the less-obvious tips I’d offer is to consider renting a vehicle in certain circumstances. We drive older vehicles, which allows us to keep our transportation costs quite low compared to the average. (Neil has spent $8000 on vehicle purchases in his 18 years of driving. My total isn’t much higher.)
We really don’t want to wear out our older cars by putting 1000+ miles on them in one week. Nor do we find it rational to purchase newer vehicles primarily for the purpose of having a reliable car for our occasional road trips. Rather than pay $250-450 per month on a car payment, it makes so much more sense to spend $200-300 for a rental once or twice a year, while preserving our older, paid-for cars. Even counting fuel costs, this comes in way below the cost of flying our family.
For shorter trips we’re happy to take our own car. For long hauls, we opt for rentals. We check prices and make reservations ahead of time. We’ve also found ways to save by using rental car coupons or rewards accumulated from work travel.
As an added perk, rental cars add a feeling of luxury to our trips because we are accustomed to cars that have far fewer features. Plus it feels pretty luxurious not to have to vacuum the car and do an oil change as soon as we get back from a long trip.
We always rent an SUV because mini-vans are often twice the price without offering substantially more space.
Of course, if you have a reliable, newer vehicle that you don’t mind putting miles on, it may be more economical to drive what you already have. Driving your own vehicle comes at some cost of wear, tear, and maintenance, so weight the options carefully.
Pass the Snacks!
Packing food and limiting restaurant stops is perhaps the most obvious road trip tip. I’ll just add that I used to spend way too much precious, last-minute time before vacation assembling all manner of breakfasts and lunches, in additional to a plethora of other snacks. Only to have soggy sandwiches the next day that sometimes no one would even eat. I’ve streamlined my food-packing task by simply packing the raw ingredients for a variety of sandwiches—ham, cheese, peanut butter, honey, and bread—and making them “to order” on the road. I pack extra paper plates, napkins, and plastic cutlery as well.
For breakfast, hard-boiled eggs, bagels with cream cheese, yogurt cups, or dry cereal seem to please everyone without requiring me to cook much.
For snacks I usually pack some combination of nuts, fruit, carrots, granola bars, crackers or chips, and candy. Because some junk food is requisite on road trips, right?
We bring coffee and tea for the morning. In the afternoon I’ve done everything from drinking old, lukewarm coffee from home, to skipping coffee altogether. Please, do not do this. I’ve repented and now require fresh, hot coffee in the afternoon, especially if I’m driving. It can be from anywhere, it just has to happen. I bring Neil a tea bag and just get him hot water, because who wants to pay $2 for bad tea?
It may be worth stopping at a grocery store for food before you head home. We’ve also been known to take PBJ supplies with us from our hotel breakfast.
Are We There Yet?
We’ve never gone for the travel DVD players they sell for kids, although last year we got an iPad for the Lego Boost. But for the majority of the trip we try to occupy our kids the good old-fashioned way: Benadryl. Just kidding! We bring along plenty of music, coloring, magazines, and small toys, and also pray they will fall asleep.
We also use a lot of audio books, which we download ahead of time using library apps like Hoopla and Libby. Hoopla also offers tons of music. Neil and I each have an account with each app, meaning we can download a total of 17 titles per month each between those two apps.
For children’s audio books, I find either age-appropriate chapter books or audio collections of picture book series. Boxcar Children, the Little House series, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Dr. Suess, the Hobbit, Magic Treehouse, Henry Huggins and the Mouse on the Motorcycle series have all been favorites. Depending on your kid, they may also enjoy some adult non-fiction.
Having something new for the kids—a magazine, library book, graphic novel, or dollar-store toy—can be a lifesaver during long trips. And of course, we’re not above using
Benadryl modern technology. We now download the allowed number of TV shows from apps like PBS kids and Amazon Prime before a trip. It’s reassuring to have this in your back pocket for that last, melt-down leg of the journey.
Odds and Ends
How long you’re on the road will impact your road trip costs. When we had babies, we stopped halfway at a hotel. We used hotel points and opted for places with free breakfast, but still needed to spend more on food the longer we were on the road. While I would NOT recommend driving too far with little people just to save money, I will say that leaving at 3 am has allowed us to get there in one day and we do spend a bit less money this way. Again, this has only been viable since our kids are a bit older and I’m not stopping to nurse and change diapers.
If you do need to stop, look into credit card rewards ahead of time. Or Priceline it. If you need to stop on short notice, I recommend the hotel coupon books available at travel centers and many gas stations. They’re with the tourist info and usually offer better deals than available for walk-ins.
Sometimes tolls can really add up. That may be unavoidable, but it’s worth checking whether there are alternative routes that will get you there in a similar time frame.
Gas prices can also vary greatly. Consider getting an app like GasBuddy or Gas Guru to point your toward good prices along the way.
That’s my two cents on saving on road trips. What are your best tips and tricks?