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Tips for Making a Road Trip Budget and Sticking to It

Tips for making a road trip budget and sticking to it header

By Melissa Hart on August 25, 2021 in Travel

Road tripping. It sounds so carefree — so simple, so budget friendly. However, a few meals out, a couple nights in a hotel, and several gas fill-ups can drain your bank account and tempt you to cut an adventure short and instead commit to a month of rice and beans.

It’s easy to overspend on vacation. Fortunately, a little pre-trip planning can save you money and stress. In this article, we’ll explain how to create a simple road trip budget, plus how to stick to it even when the urge to splurge threatens to derail all your carefully crafted plans. Road trips are meant to be fun. Here’s how to ensure yours is a blast!

First Step: Categorize

First comes the fun part: choosing an itinerary. Create your own route or scour travel websites for inspiration. Consider visiting less popular destinations; the more touristy a location, the more expensive its dining and lodging options. Consider charming, less-costly towns off the radar, and pop into popular places for a day trip.

Then, it’s time to categorize. Once you realize all the expenses your road trip will entail, the numbers may feel overwhelming. Organize your expenses to make them more manageable. First, decide on where your budget will live. You can use a physical notebook, a digital spreadsheet, or any number of road trip planners available online for free.

Decide how much you’re willing to spend on essential items such as gas, food, and lodging. You can break food into two subcategories — meals you eat out and meals you prepare yourself. Likewise, consider dividing lodging into two subcategories: motels or short-term rentals and campgrounds. You may consider adjusting your original route to build in more economical options, such as picnic lunches at scenic spots and overnights with family members and friends.

Allocate part of your budget to the activities that thrill you. If you know ahead of time that you absolutely must visit a particular theme park, rent kayaks to paddle a mountain lake, or sign up for a tour of a local chocolate factory, take those expenses into account. Don’t forget to set aside money for unforeseen costs such as flat tire repair. (Note: You can minimize unexpected car repairs on the road by preparing your vehicle before you leave.) It’s useful to budget in a few extra dollars for an unexpected museum that requires an entrance fee or an unanticipated roadside café that serves up the best pie on this side of the Rockies.

Estimate Costs

You’ve tuned up your vehicle and planned a travel route. Now it’s time to calculate how much you’ll pay for gas on your trip. First, get up-to-date information on gas costs in each state. Then, estimate how many miles you’ll drive and divide that number by the number of miles your car travels per every gallon of gas. Multiple that number by the cost of gas per gallon; that’s how much you’ll spend on fuel for your road trip.

Don’t feel like doing the math? Plug the numbers into an online trip calculator. While you’re focused on vehicle-related costs, consider how much you’ll pay in fees for toll roads on your route. Finally, consider parking costs, particularly if you’ll be in a larger city where parking can set you back $40 a day.

Food costs add up on a road trip. Decide how much you’re willing to spend on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus snacks and drinks per person every day. A quick breakfast at a diner may cost $10, while a fancy brunch at a popular restaurant can top out at $20-plus. Keep these location variations in mind for your midday and evening meals as well. Maybe you budget $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch, and $25 for dinner. That’s $50 a day that you’re free to spend on food, but if you’re longing to splurge at a chic eatery at your destination, make do earlier in the day with complimentary hotel coffee, quick oats, and a banana, plus a $5 burrito for lunch, and you’ll still have $45 to spend on dinner.

Your preference for luxury or simplicity is a factor when choosing lodging as well. Camping costs range from free to approximately $45 a site. A fancy hotel room can run several hundred dollars a night. Decide how much you’re willing to spend, and consider a combination of camping and hotel rooms or short-term rentals to cut costs. Want to stay in a five-star hotel for a night? Consider sleeping on a friend’s couch the night before or check out one of these verified couch-surfing options all over the country.

Research the entertainment options you’re most looking forward to, and add admission costs to your budget. Don’t forget to add emergency money — say, $20 per day in case of unexpected expenses. Remember to call your insurance company ahead of time and ask what kind of emergency roadside assistance they cover.

Cut Costs and Maximize Fun

There are all sorts of creative ways to save money on a road trip, from researching the locations that sell the cheapest gas to scoring last-minute lodging at half price. Make sure you travel in a fuel-efficient car and drive no more than 65 miles per hour to stretch your gas mileage further. Consider vacationing on off-peak times to save on gas, lodging, and recreation costs.

To cut back on food expenses, bring your own meals. Fill up a cooler with snacks, eat healthy on your road trip, and don’t forget to pack accessories for eating on the road. You can tote along a two-burner propane stove and a bin of prepared meals made with hot water (you can snag hot water at gas stations for a nominal charge or for free). Make your own coffee to avoid dropping $4 to 5 on a daily latte. Also, don’t forget to take advantage of free hotel breakfasts! When you eat at restaurants, remember that lunch usually costs less than dinner. Consider splitting an appetizer and entrée with your traveling companion.

To sleep on a budget, you can rent a camper van, which allows you to forgo hotel fees and sleep in comfort on the cheap or for free at a campsite. (Note that many Walmart stores allow people to camp in their parking lots for free.) Short-term rentals through Airbnb or VRBO often come with a kitchen — meaning you can cook instead of eating out — and laundry facilities, which enable you to save your quarters for a locally made donut or an ice cream cone on the road. Loyalty programs offered by hotel chains and boutique lodgings alike can offer significant discounts on overnight stays; always visit the hotel website to check for package deals, and don’t be afraid to call and request a lower rate.

Road tripping is all about seeking out fun activities to break up driving time. However, admission to amusement parks, museums, national parks, and other attractions can add up fast. Before you go, research discounts and group passes for entertainment in your destinations. CityPass offers bundled activities in major cities at a discount. Sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial offer activities at sale prices, as well. If you plan on visiting several national parks (the most popular charge $35 for a single car), spring for the $80 annual pass which gains you entry into all parks, as well as 2,000 federal recreation sites.

Some museums are free, and some offer free admission days. Always check websites for specials. To find even more deals on activities, type “on a budget” and the name of the place you’ll be visiting into your favorite search engine, and see what opportunities pop up!

Don’t forget about free activities, some of which come with intriguing perks. Farmers’ markets across the country often offer samples of local fruits, vegetables, cheeses, beverages, and pastries. First Friday art walks frequently include free gallery talks and complimentary wine and snacks. Check local calendars for free live music, dance, and theater performances.

You can make your own fun by seeking out local parks; spread out the picnic blanket, jump into a pick-up basketball game, or throw a frisbee. You can also search hiking and biking opportunities. Many regions of the U.S. offer bike share programs. Some towns will even rent you a kayak or canoe to check out local waterways.


With these budget-friendly tips in mind, the next step is to track your spending as you go. You can download an app or stick to the basics with pen and paper. Don’t worry if you find yourself over-budget one day, simply cut back on your expenses the next. You’ll return home feeling refreshed and inspired — doubly-so because you’ve been on a stellar adventure without emptying your bank account.

Melissa Hart is a consultant for Say Insurance. She's the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens and the award-winning middle grade novel Avenging the Owl. She's contributing editor at The Writer Magazine and a Creative Writing instructor for the MFA in Creative Writing program at Southern New Hampshire University.