Little Road Trips Here and There: Little Savings Everywhere


We’ve gone on two road trips this summer, with two more to go. Trips with a family of four can get expensive, but they don’t have to be.  Here’s my advice on where to cut corners and where to splurge, and have fun doing so.

Rental car versus your car

Most rental cars aren’t maintained for a lengthy trip. I reserved a car from Avis, but when I went to pick it up the tires were bald and they refused to put new tires on it. I refused the rental. They offered to upgrade but their upgrade was a gas guzzler. Be careful with accepting upgrades on rental cars. Keep your destination in mind. An explosive fight between a husband and wife unfolded in front of us as the husband accepted an upgrade to a bigger, better, longer vehicle. The wife called him any number of choice names. “We are going to San Francisco!” She screamed, “just where do you expect us to park that boat?”

Unless your own car is on its last legs or you are concerned about adding miles to it, my mechanic says to take your own car.  If you do regular maintenance on your car (tune-ups, oil changes, recommendations from the manufacturer) then your car should be up for the challenge. In my case, the road trips are what got me to give my car the tune-up it was asking for. So I now have a well maintained car with new tires, because the road trips made me anxious to make sure the car was in good shape. Without the threat of travel, I’d still be behind in my maintenance. Apparently many people tune up their cars before road trips, so going on a road trip might actually help your car’s maintenance.

If you have kids with you---it’s less stressful to be in your own vehicle. You never know when junior is going to get artistic with the back passenger side window. If it’s yours, you panic less.


My family likes to fill up a cooler and picnic basket full of food and drinks, along with a cutting board and knife. We don't forage exclusively from this, but it allows us some control of the food availability this way. There could be long stretches of the road where you'd be hard pressed to find a piece of fruit. That’s when it’s great to have carrot and celery sticks at the ready. An empty calorie fast food stop can run you up to $20 for a family of four.

Having said that, we DO stop at fast food for the bathroom and maybe a shared order of fries. That saves $18 bucks each stop. We eat out of the picnic basket until we can’t handle seeing anything in it or we finish it.

We keep a look out for Asian restaurants that serve food family style. Family style means we can order for two people and have extra plates for the kiddies, instead of having to order a full separate meal they won’t eat. That saves us money on the kids. On our last trip we dropped $60 bucks on a great Indian food dinner, but we took the leftovers and ate them for breakfast the next day! Nothing was wasted, everything was good. 

If you are going to some place known for its food, of course you don’t want to skimp on the food. Instead, skimp on breakfast and dinner, and make the big meal lunch since lunch is often cheaper than dinner. Eat with your region. One of the most expensive things to do food wise is to try and eat the same as you do at home. Eat what the locals eat--it’s going to be cheaper.


We do a mix of things. Obviously crashing on your best friend from college’s couch ain’t going to work with two kids and a husband (unless they are really mellow with a really big house). Our rule of thumb is that if we are invited to stay with friends, we stay one day less than they anticipated, and we only stay with people that are messier than we are. 

More often than not we wind up at motels. After much trial and error we’ve decided that Comfort Inns and Best Westerns are the best way to go. They have more options on the continental breakfast (cutting out a meal on the road), have bath tubs (important with kids), have working pools (another important thing with kids) and are usually really clean. They take AAA discounts (which really just knocks off the tax). 

What works best though is going to the town next door to the town you really want to go to. For example Ashland, Oregon is the big theatre destination with rooms running up to $300 a night. So if we go to Ashland, we drive 10 minutes and stay in Medford, which doesn’t carry the same high rate ( we stayed for 1/3 of what the price in Ashland was).

If you’ve got long term plans, think of housing swaps. In the 10 years that friends of mine and I have done this, I’ve only heard one story from one couple where this didn’t work out.


When you travel with kids, this is the big one outside of food that can really set you back. Create family traditions that don't revolve around buying high priced and useless souvenirs. We put together a road trip scrapbook where we collect everything from leaves, matchbooks, postcards, menus, business cards--any piece of something that can be glued into a scrapbook. Time permitting, we like to stop at used bookstores or thriftstores where we might find the typical souvenir t-shirt from the area.  Our souvenir becomes a few pages in the scrapbook rather than a shot glass that we might not use again. We know going into the trip that we are working on a scrapbook so everyone in the car is on the look out for symbolic things to put in the book.

Car toys 

A couple of weeks before the trip, I glean the rooms and toyboxes for things the kids haven’t seen in awhile that would be good to occupy the kids in the car. I add a homemade journal for each kid of plain white paper with construction paper covers. When they are strapped in the car seats I present them with the new old backpack of forgotten toys and journal. It works like a charm and keeps them from fighting for at least a half hour while they look at all their forgotten treasures.

Lastely, don't forget that AAA allows you to get free maps and discounted rooms, as well as roadside assistance which provides a sense of security while you're on the open road.

The most successful road trip vacations incorporate a balance of two important elements: spontaneity and planning. While these might seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum and enemies of each other, they really aren’t. When applied successfully, spontaneity and planning go hand in hand. Keep this in the back of your head while driving.

What are some of your road trip suggestions for making better, cheaper road trips happen?

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Guest's picture

If you take your own unprocessed fruits and/or vegetables (canned is fine), be forewarned that you can't take them into the state of California. (Last I knew anyway.)

Guest's picture

... and here are some things we did to save cash.

... camping! don't pay $20 a night unless you're staying somewhere amazing like big sur. look for national forest campgrounds -- they are usually less crowded, more beautiful, and about half as much $. also look into "hike-in" spots. just stayed in one of these -- they had a wheelbarrow to bring our stuff up the hill -- and it was less than half the price and at least 5x as nice as the car camping spots.

... camping gear. do not scrimp. go somewhere like REI and get a good tent and sleeping gear that you can set up quickly and easily. crappy gear gets old real fast and you'll end up staying in motels, squandering all the money you saved by buying budget gear.

... national parks. you can get an $80 pass that's good for a year's worth of visits to any national park you want. it's usually $20 or $25 to get into any park for a week, so if you're going to more than a few, it's worth it. we didn't get ours till the 2nd half of the trip.

... drive the speed limit. you'll save gas, you won't get a ticket, and you can actually see all the beauty around you.

... go hiking instead of taking expensive guided tours. you'll burn off the inevitable fast food calories and it feels good to sweat when you're sitting on your ass so much.

... make your food easy. we had instant oatmeal and fruit for breakfast almost every day. lots of bean burritos and packaged indian food for dinner. after a long day of climbing up and down a mountain, anything more taxing than boiling water is going to send you straight to the nearest restaurant.

Guest's picture

I need to do this for my next trip.

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Great tips for a budgeted holiday! People usually go overboard and spend a whole lot of money on fancy restaurants and pricey hotels when you can survive with the alternatives above and keep that money aside for real adventure.

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Hi! Another hotel chain that is good is Hampton Inn. They have a full course breakfast -suasage , ham, fruits, basically a buffet of anything you cvould want for breadkfast including : tea, coffee, juices, bagels , cream cheese, yogurts, fruits, toast, jams, link suasage , patty sausage , bacon, gobs of food & you can sit there till they take it away , a couple hours or more. They have a swimming pool at most & some even exercise equipment. we paid $75 for 3 adults for 2 queen beds& had a full breakfast included.

Guest's picture

Margaret - I totally dig the tips about car tune-ups! They are essential to maintaining a healthy and fuel efficient vehicle. Two driving suggestions I can share off hand are 1) Ease up on the gas pedal. Jack Rabbit starts and doing over 60mph on the freeway will eat up your fuel economy like nothing else. And, every 5mph above 60mph that you drive will cost you about an extra quarter PER gallon of gas! 2) Properly inflate your tires before the road trip. This can improve your fuel economy by about 3%.

I'm actually interning on the Drive Smarter Challenge campaign, we're working on providing the public with gas and cash saving info. Check out for more info.

Safe and Happy travels everyone!