How to Budget for a Road Trip
With the price of gas continually creeping, road trips may soon become the outdated leisure activity of yesteryear, looked upon fondly with great nostalgia and a sense of progress. From its inception, part of the road trip’s allure lay in its affordability. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find cheaper flights to the same destination. Then again, a proper road trip is hardly about the destination. It’s about the sites, the companionship, the quick meals, the greasy snacks, the cramped legs, the aching backs, the broken air conditioner, the land, the road, the overwhelming sense of vastness stretching infinitely in every cardinal direction. For anyone who still harbors that romantic 20th century sense of roadside adventure, here’s a quick guide to budgeting for a road trip.
The elephant in the vroom
Gas. How do you hedge the cost of gas? The truth is, there is no miracle solution. By definition, a road trip means driving long distances. Driving long distances requires fuel. Fuel is expensive. While you can’t eliminate the cost of gas, there are a lot of little things you can do to help alleviate the cost. Here are a few suggestions. Some of them are practical and helpful. Others may be less tenable but should be mentioned.
- Keep your tires inflated, oil fresh and engine tuned for better mileage.
- Fill up away from cities. With some exceptions, the closer you are to a metropolitan area, the more you’ll pay for gas.
- Use a smartphone app like GasBuddy to find the best prices in your area.
- Use a GPS device to avoid getting lost and wasting fuel.
- Pack your vehicle like a clown car in order to divide expenses between a greater number of people.
- Get a more fuel efficient vehicle.
When creating a road trip budget, step one is to estimate the cost of fuel. It can be beneficial to slightly overestimate the price per gallon so that you don’t encounter any nasty surprises. Gas may be $3.40/gallon now, but it could easily shoot up 50 cents in the next two months. Also, keep in mind the price of gas varies from region to region. The price of gas in your hometown won’t be identical to the price of gas halfway across the country. Do some research to get an idea of what kind of variation to expect.
Where to sleep
The next big expense of road tripping is lodging. If you’re staying in hotels or motels, there are a few things you can do to find cheap rooms:
- Use aggregator sites likes Kayak to quickly narrow your search.
- Use bidding sites like Priceline for greatly reduced prices.
- Use smartphone apps like Hotel Tonight for last minute deals.
- Call the hotel directly and ask for rates. Sometime the over-the-phone price is different from the Internet price.
- Avoid staying in metropolitan and tourist areas where high demand drives up prices.
- Inquire about membership discounts through organizations like AAA and AARP.
The key is research and vigilance. Digging deep can save you a good deal of cash. If you’re open to alternatives, you certainly are not required to stay at a hotel. Hostels and campsites tend to be far cheaper. Another indispensable resource is CouchSurfing.org, a website that helps travelers find free lodging with hosts all over the world. If all else fails, you can always find a quiet place to park and sleep in the car.
After calculating the cost of gas, estimating the price of lodging is next part of creating a comprehensive road trip budget. This part is fairly easy and straightforward–as long as you don’t cave and abandon camping for a cushy hotel room in a moment of weakness (the allure of a hot shower can be surprisingly influential).
There is a lot of room for creativity when putting together the food portion of your budget. It’s not hard to survive on less than $10 a day. If you’re trying to save money, get a giant bag a trail mix and let it account for 60% of your daily sustenance. Peanuts, raisins and chocolate can go a long way. Obviously, you can save significant moolah by grocery shopping in advance rather than eating at restaurants three times a day.
How much you spend is determined entirely by preference. For some people, food and travel go hand-in-hand. Others couldn’t care less about culinary indulgences. But no matter how you plan on eating, decide in advance how much you want to spend and where you’d like to spend it. In moments of hungry indecision, it’s easy to succumb to cravings. Avoid spontaneous splurging by sticking to a plan.
The fun stuff
If you’re not having fun, you’re missing the point. Do and see all you can along the way. Fortunately, road trip entertainment is usually pretty cheap. Natural sites and roadside attractions generally won’t cripple your finances. The best advice we can offer is create a plan, but make sure that plan leaves room for improvisation. You should have a list of things to do along the way, and you should know exactly how much each will cost. But you should also set aside a little time and money for unpredictable opportunities. You don’t want to be out of cash when on the horizon appears a billboard for the world’s largest fried pickle.