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Road Tripping on the Cheap: How to Plan an Epic Road Trip on Any Budget

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On the edge of summer, we’re all eager to stretch our legs. With budgets tight and gas prices cheap, a road trip may be your best bet to take in new scenery and enjoy a vacation. Besides, what could be more all-American than hitting the road? 

Going wherever the wind takes you may sound romantic, but is likely a sure recipe for disappointment. I’ve taken a few trips like that, and they ended up dull. Unplanned trips lack in scenery or points of interest, and involve meals at unexciting places like chain restaurants and rest stop vending machines. 

I’ve learned that for a fun road trip, having an actual plan (a route, a budget, and a time frame) is key. Solid planning once enabled my husband and I to successfully road trip 800 miles (over a 5 day trip from Minneapolis to Kansas City) for only $169. We came in at $33.80 per day–only $16.90 per person. 

Drawing on that epic budget trip (and plenty of road trips gone bust), here are my tips on how to have a successful road trip. At any budget. 

Road Trip Budget

Determine what your budget is for the road trip, and stick with it. Leave a cushion for unplanned expenses, like a car repair or hike in gas prices. 

If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll want to avoid big cities with  big crowds and big prices. Look for free things to do and see within the distance you’re willing and able to drive, whether it’s 100 miles or 1,000. 

There are some great, cheap U.S. road trips you can take in any region of the country, including Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Route 66, Blue Ridge, along the Mississippi River, or the Lewis and Clark Trail. 

Find other budget road trip ideas here, with lesser known scenic gems like Antelope Canyon, Abiqua Falls, Apostle Islands, or Mount Tammy. 

Road Trip Lodging

With your road trip budget, it’s important to avoid overspending on lodging. Airbnb rentals, B&B’s, hostels, and hotels often raise their prices in the summer, but shop around in advance and make sure to look out for hidden fees. 

While not a good option for families, couchsurfing may be a great option for a cheap place to crash. And with the added benefit of a friendly, local host.

If you’re feeling adventurous, campgrounds are an option too. Camp ground fees can start as low as $15 a night. Bring a tent and sleeping bags and camp out along the way. If you don’t have a tent, you can get a 3-person tent for as cheap as $19.99 with this Camping World coupon.

Road Trip Food

And when it comes to food, there’s no need to eat out for every meal. Nothing sucks up a budget quicker. While indulging in local flavor can be a great trip highlight, make eating out here and there a special indulgence, not an every-meal expectation. 

You can pack a cooler with beverages, sandwiches, and fruit. 

And while pit stops can be fun (80 oz. cherry Slurpee, anyone?), don’t buy foods at gas stations that you could have bought much cheaper at the grocery store, especially with coupons and loyalty program deals. Stock up on candy, chips, and other munchies at a supermarket before you hit the road. Otherwise you’re just flushing an extra $20 or more down the drain.  

On our $16.90 per day (per person) road trip, our meals consisted of a cooler of groceries from home and a couple of BBQ lunches at local joints. And a grocery store run for donuts.

Look for Travel Deals 

They’re not just for cruises and airfare. You can look for travel deals for road tripping, too. When looking for savings for your road trip vacation, check out travel discounts on national deals sites like MyPoints or ShopAtHome

Find cash back rebates, coupons, promo codes, and other deals for gas, groceries, lodging, and things to do. 

And while activities labeled free are great, there are many museums, zoos, parks, and historical sites that you can access for free with a library pass. Look at the library website of the city or county the site is in, and see what sort of free admission passes they offer. Even out-of-state residents may be eligible. 

On our budget trip to Kansas City, a Google search was all we needed to build a list of free things to do. We had some epic outings. A tour of Boulevard  Brewing Co (free beer), City Market, Federal Reserve Bank Money Museum, a handful of sites on the National Historic Register, and my favorite: the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Where to Go on a Road Trip 

When planning your destination, consider your road trip goals. Do you want to see as many sites as possible, visit friends or family, or do you have one endpoint destination in mind like the Grand Canyons or Mount Rushmore? 

Many road-trippers, like me, just have a vague itch to hit the road and see something fun. 

On our epic budget road trip from Minneapolis, Minnesota, we chose Kansas City as the end destination because there were plenty of free things to do, a great local food scene, and a friend’s pad where my husband and I could crash.

Think about the geographical spread of your friends and family. Who lives someplace drive-able and interesting?

Searching “scenic places within X miles of me” is another good place to start. It will give you a wealth of ideas. 

Using a road trip planner is helpful, too. You can enter your destination and it will calculate fuel costs, drive time, and suggest different routes and sites to check out along the way.  You can filter your search to look for kid-friendly or pet-friendly stops.

And when planning your route, check out these resources so you always know where to find the cheapest gas near you. On our budget road trip, we fueled up at the cheapest spots and spent only $94 on gas. 

Road Trip Games

With no iPads as kids, I have no idea how my parents managed family road trips with three children. While family road trip games may seem kitsch, it’s the stuff of childhood memories. License plate bingo, cow-spotting, 20 Questions, and I Spy are all quintessential ways to pass (kill) the time. 

There are actual road trip games that adults will enjoy too, like Cows on My Side, Regional Food Master, or While You Were Sleeping. 

And while not games, podcasts are an excellent way to stay entertained. Load up on a couple dozen of interesting ones on your iPod or smartphone.

Road Trip Prepping

You’ll also want to consider other road trip essentials to make sure you’re fully prepped.

Your ride is key. Be sure it’s road trip-ready with a tune-up, oil change, and other maintenance. If you need service or car parts, you can find savings on Swagbucks with promo codes and 4 Wheel Parts coupons, Jiffy Lube coupons,and other vehicle maintenance deals.  And look for other travel discounts, too,  for anything else you might need on your trip. 

Be prepared for the unexpected. While you don’t need to lug all the contents of your hallway closet, on road trips people commonly forget to pack the little things. Make sure to bring sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, rain gear, prescription meds, band aids, Aspirin or pain reliever, and a back-up pair of sturdy, comfy shoes. (I once went on a road trip with only flip-flops. Sadly, they broke 2 days in.) 

A physical map is also a good idea. Even though you’ll probably have your cell phone with you, you don’t want to find yourself lost when you’re in a dead zone with no Internet connection. 

Last But Not Least: Road Trip Songs

For a successful road trip, the playlist or “mixtape” could be the crucial ingredient.

If you’ve got little ones along on the ride, you’ll need to play some of their tunes. But there’s no need to subject yourself to 8 hour straight of Baby Shark. Create a mixed playlist that includes mostly adult tunes. Blend in just enough children’s songs to keep the little ones happy. (Which may mean more kid tunes than adult ones, but you can still jam out to at least some grown-up music.)

For many, creating the perfect road trip playlist is an art. (And subject to endless debate.) But as a starting point, here are some road tune recommendations from my colleagues and I at InboxDollars. They make up a pretty darn good playlist.

Ultimate Road Trip Playlist

  1. Hit The Road Jack (Ray Charles)
  2. Holiday Road (Lindsay Buckingham)
  3. Life Is A Highway (Tom Cochrane)
  4. On The Road Again (Willie Nelson)
  5. Road Trip (2000 Movie Soundtrack)
  6. Happy On The Road (Chris Rhea)
  7. I’m Gonna Be (The Proclaimers)
  8. Highway to Hell (AC/DC)
  9. Take Me Home, Country Roads (John Denver)
  10. Rollin’ in the Deep (Adele)
  11. Ramblin’ Man (The Allman Brothers Band)
  12. I’ve Been Everywhere (Johnny Cash)
  13. Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac)
  14. Fast Car (Tracy Chapman)
  15. Galway Girl (Steve Earle)
  16. If I Ever Leave This World Alone (Flogging Molly)
  17. American Pie (Don McLean)
  18. One Week (Barenaked Ladies)
  19. N17 (The Saw Doctors)
  20. Walk of Life (Dire Straits)
  21. Don’t Funk With My Heart (Black Eyed Peas)
  22. Cheap Thrills (Sia)

I plan to jam out to this playlist and some kiddie crooners on my next adventure. With our toddler daughter in tow, my husband and I are planning a 2,800 mile trip from Minneapolis to New England and back.  And we want to come in at $385. Or less.


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