The Art of the Cheap Road Trip


I grew up with ultra frugal parents.  We went on awesome road trips without stopping at McDonald’s or even sleeping in a hotel.  Granted, I don’t want to sleep in my car nor do I have an enormous 1966 station wagon that sleeps three in the back and one little kid (that was me) across the front bench seat, but some lessons can be learned from those experiences.  The first obvious rule to traveling (and living) frugally is to pack your own lunch!  This is so hard in our society where every other street corner beckons us with delicious, easy and, might I add, ultra fattening food.  No dishes, no planning, no preparing, just a few bucks per person, right? 

Instead, go to the grocery store, get a loaf of bread, some lunch meat, cheese, fruit and veggies.  You can even throw in a package of cookies or bag of chips.  How much did you spend?  I guarantee it is a lot less than four or five meals at your favorite fast food joint and we won’t even compare it to an actual restaurant.  All you need is a cooler, a cutting board, a butter knife, an edged knife and an essential roll of paper towels. 

You’ll be able to make your own lunches for several days to up to a week.  Freeze a bottle of juice or even a 1/2 gallon of milk and add them to the cooler to save room while keeping everything cold.  You’ll be able to enjoy those frozen drinks in a few days. Plan a little and get your goodies at the grocery store before you head out instead of restocking each time you get gas at the quickie-mart. Don’t forget to fill up a few of your earth-friendly reusable water bottles at home to avoid buying bottled water.

Stay at a hotel on the outskirts of a big city.  If you’re planning on going to San Francisco, stay close to the airport instead of in the heart of the city, then take public transportation to Fisherman’s Wharf and save on parking.  When I went to New York, I stayed on Long Island and took the train into Manhattan.  It takes a little extra time, but like San Francisco you’ll save a bunch on parking and you’ll see how the regular folks do it.

I highly suggest a tent if you’re headed to the Grand Canyon or other National Park.  You just can’t compare the price of a camp site to a hotel room.  If you are planning a last minute trip check out sites like Expedia for awesome deals on hotels especially to popular destinations like Las Vegas. And always try to stay at a hotel with at least a continental breakfast.  It may not be healthy, but it will be cheap! 

Don’t let your road trip turn into a shopping spree.  If shopping is what you’re after, stay close to home and save on gas and hotel expenses.  It’s really hard to resist all those silly trinkets in tourist hot spots, but be strong. Your kids may beg and whine, but more cheap toys filling up their rooms are not needed.  Five bucks here, five bucks there and before you know it you’re at $100. Instead of keepsakes let your kids use the camera. They can go haywire taking pictures and then get creative making their own photo album when they get home.  Kids will get much more out of it than another stuffed animal.

Am I making your trip sound less than exciting with all this miserly planning?  Not to worry, there are places to splurge! Enjoy sights that are unique to the place you are visiting, like the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles or the Empire State Building in New York. And stop at every strange middle of nowhere attraction. Who can resists the Largest Ball of Twine when driving through Kansas?

And finally, get recommendations from a local resident for a good place to eat.  You could be in for a great treat or at the very least a unique experience. Avoid eating dinner at chain restaurants.  We all like Olive Garden, but you can eat there in your home town and a local favorite might be more affordable than the chain.

Happy Trails!

What economizing tips do you have for family vacations?  Share your tricks in the comments.

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  1. Allegra.Ringo

    4 years ago

    I second your advice to get recommendations from locals for places to eat. I think the same goes for local activities, too. I live in Hollywood, and there are so many expensive tourist traps that I want to tell people to avoid, when there are so many cooler things to do for free or cheap!

  2. SavingsIQ

    4 years ago

    good idea on giving kids cameras to use and turning that into an art project. kids need to find more creative outlets.

    the sandwiches are awesome not only because they are cheap, but way healthier than fast food.

  3. tayjo2011

    4 years ago

    When we go on vacation as a family, we always check out local-oriented websites for lodging, restaurant and event recommendations because they have a good overall view of the city and usually a heads up on good deals. If you’re traveling on the West Coast, is an excellent resource for Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. We also use for local knowledge on surrounding cities (outside the major cities) when on road trips.


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