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?

15 Responses to “Tips and Tricks for Thrifty Road Trips”

  1. mark says :

    Every 6 months I take a lone month drive. North summertime South Winter.
    I rent a cargo van for 450 a month unlimited mileage. I have been to Alaska twice, Key West, Nova Scotia and have hit most of the National parks.
    At 65 I get in all parks free and pay have price for camping. I have spent close to $3000 BUT HAVE DRIVEN 48000 MILES. I still have my own car that has 177777miles on it. The van has a real bed, chair, lights stove and a ice box. all mine. Takes30 minutes to get it ready.

  2. Brian says :

    Nothing beats a good old family road trip. Most of, if not all of my summer vacation as a kid were road trips, camping trips. Such great memories. Speaking of Benadryl, we always pack a med-kit, first aid kit with us too. Making sure we have the essentials, and not have to purchase band-aids, aspirin, flashlight, etc on the road, just bring them from the stock at home.

    • Kalie says :

      I will never forget the time my parents took the five of us kids out west. What an epic journey!

      First aid kit is a great idea. We have one in our car at all times but I forgot to put it in the rental this time. Luckily we didn’t need it!

  3. Oldster says :

    I had coffee in my mouth when I read your benadryl comment. I’m still wiping that up. 🙂

    We took a big trip a couple of years ago. I wanted to show my then 12 year old daughter just how vast the country was. So we loaded up the Pilot (with DVD player), and hit the road. We live in Appalachia, so we headed South, then West, then North then back East. All in all, we did 15 States and about 6,000 miles of the course of a month. It was awesome. NOLA, Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Canyon, Rockies and a lot more. My daughter did not quite appreciate the grandeur of it all as much as we’d hoped, but she did watch the entire Lord of the Rings series and all the Harry Potter movies, so I guess there is that. :-\

    Biggest savings tip for a trip like that, visit supermarkets and buy food and stop at rest stops to eat. Sandwiches by the roadside or while driving probably saved us a grand over the entire trip. We did camp a bit, but we are Oldsters and require a certain amount of comfort at this point.

    Driving trips are the best. There is no better way to see this Country and gain an appreciation for our differences and commonalities.

    • Kalie says :

      Sounds like a great trip! We did stop at a grocery store on the way back from our most recent trip but we were craving fresh veggies after eating some fast food.

  4. Linda Sand says :

    Bring blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals to encourage naps. A kid will cuddle in with a book only to fall asleep without intending to do so. Never mention the word nap, though. 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      Great tip! We always bring their special blankets & pillows for the road. Even when they aren’t napping, they seem to be a comfort. So true not to say “nap,” just let it happen!

  5. Julie says :

    We used to leave at 3 am for our trips but half our kids get carsick and that led to too many stops. What seemed to work better for us was leaving at 10 pm. No one could ever really sleep the night before a trip anyway and we had our dinner and everything was packed and we just went. We would have breakfast at 6 am in the car and keep going. We would stop for the night around 5 pm, have dinner, sleep, wash, and be on our way again usually getting to our destination in mid afternoon. Now that we are older and our kids are grown, all night driving is a bit harder.

    • Kalie says :

      We are not good at staying awake to drive through the night, but luckily we don’t have carsick kids to worry about either. I know lots of families who love driving through the night.

  6. David says :

    Great post!

    If you are looking for roadside restrooms that are cleaner than a gas station, stop at Walmart. You’ll still be able to grab ice to refill your insulated water cooler and family members can take turns using the relatively clean restrooms. I guess that’s not a money saving tip, more like an anxiety reducing tip when you have little kids that you have to help on potty breaks.

    • Kalie says :

      I’ve never thought to stop at Walmart for restrooms. If there was one near by off the highway that would be convenient. It’s nice that you can buy ice, too.

  7. Prudence Debtfree says :

    “We really don’t want to wear out our older cars … Nor do we find it rational to purchase newer vehicles primarily for … occasional road trips … it makes so much more sense to spend $200-300 for a rental once or twice a year …” Oh boy that’s smart! Very good food for thought. We have been thinking of getting one newer used car (2 years old) and one older-used car (about 8 years old) with the idea that the newer one would be suitable for travel. Then again, we’re getting to the stage when we’ll be making several road trips per year – not one of two. Still – we’ll be talking about this.

    • Kalie says :

      It’s worth considering. Neil says even if you have a newer car, it often makes more sense to rent. We’re not really in that boat, though. I think it depends on how far you’re going as well. 900 miles, we rent. 300, usually not.

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