How To Road Trip on a Budget

by Dylan Lara

You can take that Road Trip you’ve always dreamt of; without breaking the bank.

Road Trips are as American as Apple Pie and Baseball. Route 66 inspired a road trip culture that still thrives on The Mother Road today. Everyone should get a taste of the freedom that open road offers at some point in life, but most are put off by the costs and effort it takes to drive such long distances. Despite what you may think, by planning well and using a few tricks, you can road trip virtually anywhere you desire for a lot less than you’d think.

Here’s five things to do to save big on your road trip:

1. Prepare Every Meal Ahead of Time

Stopping for fast food is one of the easiest ways to overspend on the road. Instead of spending anywhere from $5-10 on each person per meal, you can spend less than $15 a day total by preparing all of your food ahead of time.

Here are a few suggestions for each meal:

  • Breakfast: Pop-tarts, Cliff Bars, Instant Oatmeal, Cereal Packs, Instant Coffee.
  • Lunch: Sandwiches, Meat and Cheese Packs, Beef Jerky, Mixed Nuts, Pre-made Salads.
  • Dinner: Pasta Salads, Microwave Dinners (Most truck stops have microwaves), Your Favorite Camp Meals, Lunch Leftovers.

If you must make fast food stops, find coupons before you leave. Try to stick with foods high in protein and essential Vitamins, especially in the morning, to give you that boost of energy and alertness you’ll need while driving.

Road trip welcome sign
2. Be Smart When it Comes to Energy Drinks and Coffee

Gas stations are just as easy to over spend at. Drinks and snacks every stop can add up quickly. An easy way to avoid those impulse buys when you stop for gas is to buy a case or two of water ahead of your trip, as well as some energy packets you can add to them (you can get a pack of 20 for less than $3 at Walmart). You can also bring along Instant coffee and just ask for a cup of hot water at any gas station or fast food joint.

3. Ditch the Hotels

The most obvious way to save big amounts of money is to not splurge on hotels and instead choose the comfort of your own car. However, it is important to know a few basic guidelines for car camping on the road in order to stay safe and out of trouble.

  • The safest places to sleep are well lit gas stations and truck stops. Rest stops aren’t always monitored.
  • Look for free or cheap campsites where they are available.
  • Never sleep on the side of the road or anywhere that is closed at night. You can be ticketed or even arrested.
  • Never sleep anywhere alone and always have your doors locked.
  • If you are driving with other people, alternate 4-6 hour shifts and take naps when you aren’t driving.
  • When you stop, don’t forget to take the keys out of the ignition! Nothing can put a damper on a road trip like a dead battery.

road trip through a cloudy sky

4. Get a Tune-up Before You Leave

When your car is running at its best, you will see a dramatic increase in gas mileage. Take your car into the shop around one week before you leave to get an oil change and tune-up. This insures your car will be running as well as possible and that you will know of any issues you need to address before your trip and will have ample time to take care of them.

An easy way to budget for gas is to keep track of how much it takes to fill up your tank, as well as how many miles you get out of each tank. Then divide how many miles you’re traveling by the miles per tank, and multiply that number by how much it takes to fill up (ex. 2,500 miles traveling / 250 miles per tank= 10 tanks x $20/tank = $200 total). This will give you a great estimation on how much to budget for gas.

5. Check Your Maps

Plan your route ahead of time and be aware of toll roads. If there are alternate routes to avoid tolls, take them so long as they aren’t too far out of the way. Check for construction zones and see if there are any detours. Locate all major cities you will be passing through and consider the by-passes, especially if you will be passing through close to rush hours.

These simple pre-cautions have the potential to save you major time as well as money. You can avoid hours of standstill traffic and up to $20 on tolls, depending on where you’re traveling, just by checking your maps ahead of time.

These are just a few tricks I have picked up in order to save money on the road. The more trips you take, the more you will start to develop your own short cuts to save. It may seem daunting at first glance, but planning and executing your perfect road trip is more affordable and more fun than flying somewhere.

Not to mention the memories of driving across the country and seeing the beautiful landscapes and people that make up this great nation is something that will stay with you forever.

Dylan LaraDylan Lara is an Adventure and Travel Writer and Photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. I dabble in hiking, camping, off-roading, paddling, zip-lining, road-tripping, and any other adventure I can find. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, I spent a lot of my time as a child in the Great Smoky Mountains. Those times as a kid sparked my passion for exploring the outdoors and finding adventures everywhere I go. Follow me on Twitter, @dylanmlara, Instagram: dylanmlara, and my website: