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How to Budget for a Road Trip

April 6, 2018
Travel
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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.

The allure of the open road.

While it’s easy to find cheaper flights, 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 direction.

>>MORE: Find tips on traveling smarter — deals and hacks

For anyone who still harbors that romantic 20th century sense of roadside adventure, here’s a quick guide to budgeting for a road trip.

Fuel

When creating a road trip budget, step one is to estimate the cost of gas. It can be beneficial to slightly overestimate the price per gallon so that you don’t encounter any nasty surprises. The national average gas price is $2.66, according to AAA.

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.

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.

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 online 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. Another potential option is Airbnb. If all else fails, you can always find a quiet place to park and sleep in the car.

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

Fooooood

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. 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.

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