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How to Budget for a Road Trip

Map out estimates for how much you’ll spend on gas, food, lodging and fun before you set out.
Oct. 3, 2018
Managing Money, Personal Finance, Travel
How to Budget for a Road Trip
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We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

While flyers are lined up cattle-style at airport security and squeezed sardinelike in tiny coach-class seats, you can get to your destination at your own pace, in your own space, on a road trip.

Driving is often less expensive than flying, but it’s not free. Create a budget for all you might need  — car rental, gas, food, lodging and entertainment — so road trip costs won’t drive you to distraction after you return home.

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Car rentals or repairs

For your trip, you might need more space or features like GPS that you don’t have in your own ride. If that’s the case, consider renting a car.

Car rental companies list the types of vehicles available and their passenger and luggage capacity. Rentals tend to be cheaper when you pick up your vehicle from a neighborhood office rather than from an airport. Companies list deals and coupons on their websites. If you have memberships such as AAA or Costco, check for discounts there, too.

You can apply credit card rewards to reduce your rental costs, and some credit cards offer auto insurance that you can use instead of that offered by the rental company.

If you’ll take your own vehicle, make sure it’s roadworthy by changing the oil, checking the tire pressure and topping off fluids. You can do these jobs yourself or take the vehicle to a mechanic. Factor these maintenance costs into the budget.

How to budget for gas

How much you’ll spend on gas depends on how far you’ll drive and your vehicle’s gas mileage. When you drive matters, too: Gas prices tend to rise in the spring and summer, when many people take vacations and manufacturers must make different formulas to meet environmental standards. Prices tend to drop in the winter.

How much you’ll spend on gas depends on how far you’ll drive and your vehicle’s gas mileage.

Divide the total distance by your vehicle’s miles per gallon to estimate how much gas you’ll have to buy.

Sites like AAA and Gas Buddy track gas prices by ZIP code, metro area and state. Multiply that price by the number of gallons, and that’s your gas budget.

If you rent a car, fill up the tank before you return it. Car rental companies generally charge a premium if you bring the car back with less gas than when you took it.

Where to stay on the journey

As you plot your route, plan your lodging, especially if you’re on a multiday drive. Roadnow.com allows you to search for hotels along major interstates in the U.S. You can search by highway, state, exit number and price.

If you have a co-branded hotel chain credit card, your rewards can net free nights and other perks.

Aggregators like Kayak, Hotels.com, Trivago and TripAdvisor can pull up thousands of rooms based on your destination and price range. You can call hotels directly, too, because prices listed on websites aren’t always the final offer. If you have a co-branded hotel chain credit card, your rewards can net free nights and other perks.

Airbnb, VRBO and other vacation rental sites are good options if you want a more personal experience. Renting an apartment or house through one of these sites can be especially convenient if you’re traveling with several people, as well as less expensive than multiple hotel rooms. Having access to a kitchen or laundry facilities can also reduce costs.

For bare-bones accommodations, consider hostels, particularly in metro areas, and campgrounds.

» MORE: How to read between the lines of Airbnb listings

What to eat

You’ll have a lot of control over your food budget on the road and when you arrive. Locate supermarkets along your route for snacks that are healthier and cheaper than what you’ll find in most gas station convenience stores. Some supermarkets also sell gas, making for one-stop shopping. That supermarket list will also come in handy at your destination, especially if you’ll have a fridge.

Leave room in the budget for trying unusual foods along the way. You could splurge for one meal a day and go cheap and cheerful for the others to keep your food bill in check.

What to do and see

Many road-trippers want options for detours and diversions. For inspiration, check out RoadsideAmerica.com, which compiles all manner of oddities to keep you entertained as you motor toward your final stop. Search by state to get ideas, addresses and admission fees, if any.

After you’ve covered the journey, focus on the destination and all it offers. For tourist attractions, research operating hours and admissions fees and add those to your budget.  Some major cities offer CityPass, which buys you entry to multiple attractions, such as museums, for less than their individual admission prices. If nature is more your speed, check out state or national park admission fees.