Last week, I kicked off a 4-part mini blog series called Best Road Trip Ever! The idea is to help you on all facets of planning your upcoming road trips – how to plan a killer itinerary, how to save, how to occupy kids for hours on the road, and more.
Today we’re going to talk about budgeting. Now the “b” word may trigger excitement or dismay, depending on your past experience. But starting with a solid budget in mind will help you avoid overspending and make sure you have enough money saved for everything you’d like to do. Keeping good records about your vacation spending will also be incredibly helpful in planning future vacations!
First, let’s talk about what to put on your budget, then we’ll talk about some tips for saving on those items!
Categories to Consider for your Budget
Before each trip we take, I open my last road trip budget as a guideline. Here are the typical categories that appear on our family’s budget. Some of these might not apply to your family, and you may find you have additional categories that our family doesn’t.
- Hotel. This is typically the largest line item. To get a good budget here, I do a quick hotel search for the cities we plan on staying in. Hotel rates can vary wildly depending on location, so keep this in mind. And, don’t forget taxes and fees! On our last road trip (through the Midwest), we budgeted an average $113 per night. At 10 nights, our budget total was just under $1250.
- Gas and Parking. Do not forget this category! Some apps, such as Roadtrippers, will calculate a gas cost based on your road trip itinerary. You will also need to consider your car’s individual gas mileage. You may need to also budget for tolls, parking, ferries, and other driving-related costs, depending where you’re headed.
- Food. Next to hotel costs, this is our next largest line item. Some factors to consider when budgeting for food include: hotels that include breakfasts (awesome!), locations you’re traveling to, hotels that include kitchens, if your family can tolerate the occasional fast food meal, etc.
- Entertainment & Souvenirs. Include in this category fees for tickets to attractions or parks, souvenirs, or other costs related to destinations you’ll be visiting.
- Airfare/Rental Car (Possibly). This may not apply to your situation, but we’ve had a couple road trips where we’ve flown in to another city and then rented a car. Obviously, this is going to bump up your cost, so make sure to budget for those extra dollars.
- Pet/House Sitting. Do not forget other costs associated with your trip, such as having to board your dog or paying the teen down the street to come collect your mail and put away your garbage.
- Miscellaneous. I think it’s always good to budget a bit extra money for unexpected items and/or as a buffer if you end up going over in a category or two.
Once I’ve got a budget in place (I like using Excel), I make sure to print out a copy and put it in the front part of my vacation folder. Every day or other day on our trip, I’ll begin tracking actual expenses against the budget. This helps keep us from overspending which is easy to do, and also provides insight on planning next year’s vacation!
Saving on your Road Trip Budget
I’d like to share a few simple tips to help you stay on your budget.
Tip #1: Look for Hotels with as many Amenities as Possible.
I always aim to book at hotels that include free breakfasts (ideally, hot breakfasts with eggs and sausage and not just pastries). Also pay attention to parking, particularly if booking a hotel in a major city. Personally, I’m happy to pay $130 a night for a hotel that includes a free breakfast and free parking versus $110 a night for a hotel that doesn’t have breakfast and has valet-only parking.
Tip #2: Consider booking Hotels outside Major Cities.
When traveling to a major destination, do consider surrounding suburban areas for booking your hotel versus in the heart of downtown. The difference in cost may be more dramatic than you’d imagine! On our road trips, we’ll often stay outside of town a bit and then choose one major city as our “splurge” night. Of course, safety is always a factor. I like scouring reviews on sites like Expedia and Trip Advisor to see what past travelers have had to say.
Tip #3: Pack a First Aid Kit.
I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, so head my advice. Make sure to pack a first aid kit! It’s no fun wandering around your hotel in Santa Fe to find Tums for your daughter with a stomach ache or stopping in at multiple drugstores in Pierre to try to find the kid version of Dramamine or paying through the nose for Tylenol at a tourist trap in Anaheim because you’ve got a headache. (Trust me, I’ve done all these.) Your first aid kit need not be big, but make sure it has remedies for common ailments that might come up – Tums, Ibuprofen, Dramamine, bandages, and cough drops, for instance.
Tip #4: Let their Kids have their own Souvenir Money.
We’ve found it’s best if our kids bring their own money for souvenirs as opposed to asking us every.single.time.they want something they see. This could be money they have from birthdays and/or money they’ve earned through allowance. Or maybe it’s just a set amount you give them. Not only will this help keep your budget in line, it’s a great lesson for your kids to begin to make choices about money.
Tip #5: Choose Free/Low-Cost Roadside Stops.
I touched on this already on the post about planning your road trip itinerary, but consider things you can stop and see that won’t cost a dime. We often enjoy just pulling off the road when we spot something that catches our fancy – for instance, a beautiful lake, farm, or maybe a quirky billboard in a small town! We also love stopping at state lines for picture opportunities (where safe, of course!). Tourism centers (usually just across state lines) are free and usually filled with fun things to look at, brochures, and sometimes free coffee. National Parks are generally low cost to visit (or free if you’ve got a 4th grader in tow or travel on a no-fee weekend). We’re a huge fan of visiting state capitol buildings (we’ve been to 30!). These are free, often offer free tours and nice views. Sometimes we’ll locate oddities on an atlas (we found the future birthplace of Captain Kirk while driving in Iowa last year) or on an app like Roadtrippers (we found a prairie dog farm in South Dakota last year). Don’t forget to hit up your friends that are well traveled or live in the area, too. Last year, my friend Carrie told us about a place my kids could hunt for geodes in Illinois – it was a fun time, and only $20 for a bucket of all the geodes and fossils they could find.
I’d love to hear your tips for saving on road trips, too. Any insight on saving on hotels or food? Maybe an important budget category is coming to mind I didn’t include? I’d love to hear it!
For more on this topic, please see:
Or, see my Travel category for tips on saving on airfare, Disneyland, and much more.