Big Money Saving Tips For Your Next Road Trip


North American Road Trip:  Day #86

Nothing like running into a blizzard when driving at 9,000 feet!  What a day!

We hiked Bryce Canyon and then met with blinding snow and winds as we made our way to Cedar City, Utah.  We're finding unexpected adventures around every corner, and - as long as the car holds up - we'll just keep on embracing them.  You just don't know where the road can lead you until you jump on it and GO!

At the start of this journey we started budgeting our travel expensesBeing rookies in the world of travel, we felt it was important for us to keep track of as much as we could so we could (hopefully) learn from our mistakes and get better at this game.

After nearly 11,000 miles and 200 meals on the road, here's what we've learned so far:

How To Save on Lodging

CAMP! - This is the best way to save on your road trip.  Camping in the States is cheap and plentiful, plus it will allow you to see the great outdoor spaces of America up close. 

Outfitting yourself for camping doesn't have to be expensive.  For $100 you can buy a tent and sleeping bag and be on your way, but we suggest investing a bit more in your gear if you can. Having quality gear will help ensure your comfort and make your experience more enjoyable.   

So far on our trip, we're averaging $19 a night per campsite, and most of these sites included showers, wifi, laundry, and other amenities.  If you're really looking to have a cheap, fun road trip, then start camping!

Hack The Hotels - I know some people won't believe me, but this is the truth.  So far we've stayed in 39 hotels and haven't paid a dime for any of them!  We stayed in luxury hotels outside of Palm Springs and in Key West for FREE!  All our hotel stays have been arranged via reward points.  Now, I'm not saying this is for everyone, but if you want to see how we did this, then check out this article here.  If you're able to do this - DO IT!  As is the case with long-term travel - it's not nearly as scary or as risky as you may believe.

Housesit - We're new to housesitting, but after a month of seeking out opportunities, we finally landed a few gigs.  In a few weeks we'll be in San Diego, and in early July we'll be in Calgary, Canada.  We got turned on to the idea by this article over at 1 Dad 1 Kid and Hecktic Travels Housesitting eBook, and it seems to be working for us so far.  We don't mind the work or responsibility that comes with housesitting, and the thought of spending a few weeks in one location works for us on so many levels.


Campsite Bahia Honda State Park

Oceanfront motels in the Florida Keys will cost you $150 a night, whereas camping will cost you less than $40! And with camping you get your own private beach!


How To Save On Food

Food can be tricky.  The consensus is that it's cheaper to make your own food than eat out, and in most cases this is right.  However, it really depends on where you are.  If you're housesitting for a few weeks, then making your own food makes perfect budget sense.  But if you're camping for a night or staying at a hotel, then it's probably cheaper to go out.  We find that making our own food really only makes things cheaper when we're staying put for a few days.  Of course, we could eat Mac-N-Cheese everyday for next to nothing, but that gets old really, REALLY fast!

Eating out does not have to be expensive.  After 46 over-the-counter meals, we're averaging $13.46 for the 4 of us.  It can cost a lot of money to gather up all the ingredients to make a good meal over the campfire.  And if you're traveling, it's tough to keep leftovers fresh.  Sometimes eating out is just cheaper - and healthier! Two days ago we had these crazy good pork and green chili Quesadillas, stacked with fresh veggies, from a truck in Moab, Utah.  It only cost us $13.78.

When it comes to food, you just have to do the math.  Don't assume a deal is a deal.  Look at what you're spending, what you're getting, and follow these tips.

Avoid Sit-Down Service - By far, the biggest budget busters we've run into so far are sit-down meals.  Any time you get served a meal you're paying an extra 15%-20% for a tip, plus the prices are almost always more than counter service meals.  We're averaging $30 a meal at sit-down restaurants, and even though that's pretty good, it's still too much for us.  Many sit-down restaurants pull you in with cheap meals and kids specials, but by the time it's all done, you're a few drinks in and the kids aren't able to finish the massive brownie sundae you ordered them.  Skip the sit-downs and you'll save a ton.

Kids Eat Free - I know if I don't put this in, someone will comment on it.  Again, I refer to sit-down dinners.  Kids eat free usually seems like a great deal.  If it's Tuesday, or Wednesday, or even Friday in some places - the big chains will be out with balloons and kids eat free signs and you'll no doubt be tempted to indulge.  Be careful here.  Odds are, the little local place around the corner serves a tastier, healthier meal at a much lower price.  Remember - nothing is FREE!

Subway - This fast-food chain has been a saving grace to us on many occasions.  Even in the most obscure towns - there's a Subway.  For $11 we can order 24 inches of sandwich goodness and load it up with as many vegetables as we desire.  Anyone who's traveled across The States knows that vegetables are often in short supply at many restaurants and local grocers, so stocking up on our greens at Subway is the way to go.

Urbanspoon - I don't care what town you're in, if you're looking for cheap eats, just Google "Urbanspoon cheap eats in _________,____".  I promise you'll find a gem!  Works every time.

Fruit & Veggie Snack Packs -  At grocers, Walmart, and convenience stores, you'll often find these handy snack packs filled with a variety of fruits, nuts, cheeses, and veggies.  The 4 of us spent 8 dollars on dinner this evening by buying 4 of these, and we had a healthy, balanced meal.  Keep an eye out for these!  They're only $2 at Walmart.

Keep A Food Box Handy - "Why are we going out to eat, we've got food in the box!"  This is what the kids tell us when we're desperately dialing up Urbanspoon on the old iPhone.  Remember - kids are so honest, they're almost always right! 

We keep a big, flat box of goodies (snacks on the healthy side) and meals with us at all times.  When we can't find something that suits our budget and taste buds, we avoid fighting and splurging by tackling the box.  Big money saver!

Snack Healthy - It can be tough to eat healthy on the road, so when you a find farm stand or a good deal on a healthy snack - stock up!  We drove out of Florida with a backseat full of oranges and grapefruits and they lasted 1,000 miles!  When you have healthy snacks around, you're less inclined to stop and waste your money on a big meal, plus you're getting the stuff your body needs.

Just A Taste - It's pretty tough to avoid some of the sweet treats you find when you're road-tripping.  After all - travel is exploration!  For us, eating on the road is as much about trying new things as it is filling our bellies.  Buy something small and share it.  If you're hungry later on, then buy it again.  You'll save a lot of money doing this, and you won't pack on the pounds either.

Alcohol and Coffee - I've got good news, and bad news.  The good news is that coffee is super cheap everywhere (Starbucks excluded).  Highway rest stops almost always offer free coffee.  In some cases they even offer free food!  Hotels offer free coffee as well.  And McDonalds coffee is only $1 pretty much everywhere in the US.

The bad news is that alcohol is not free!  Sorry!  I know it's disappointing.  Spending money on alcohol will eventually kill your budget.  That "drink special" at dinner might seem like a good deal, but you'll soon find that the extra $5 bucks you spent on booze will quickly eat up your budget.


Boiled peanuts deep south

$3 gets you a big cup of boiled peanuts! A local treat from the deep south!


How To Save On Gas

Pack Light - The best thing we ever did for our road trip was pack light.  Everything we travel with is lightweight.  Everything we own is small, compact, and organized.  Because our gear is so compact, we're able to travel in a tiny, fuel-efficient Kia Spectra instead of a mini-van or an SUV.  And beyond that, the savings are in the gas tank when climbing hills because our load is so light.  Believe me, we're perfectly comfortable with our wheels.  We'll trade a little extra legroom for some spending money any day.  Travel light - save money!

Be Proactive - DO NOT DO WHAT WE DID!  If you think something's wrong with your car, then get it checked out.  It's better to pay $100 today than $3000 for a new engine when you're stranded in the desert!  Keep your tires filled properly and get that oil changed!

The USA Is HUGE! - Accept the fact that you can't do everything.  There is simply too much to see.  To think that Orlando and Miami are the only things to see in Florida is a HUGE, HUGE mistake!  New Mexico has a million places worth visiting.  And Utah . . . don't get me started.  Once you get off the major highways, you'll start seeing just how unique and special the US really is.  It's 1,000 cultures in 1.  But you can't visit all of them, and that's just fine.  Enjoy the ride.  Follow your budget.  And be happy.


Road trip tips for saving money

You don't need big wheels to road trip! Pack light and pack smart!


More Savings For Your American Road Trip

If you're doing a road trip, you might want to invest in some of these annual passes.  They have saved us thousands already!

The National Park Pass - $80 a year covers everyone in your car and gets you into over 2,000 Federal sites.  And don't underestimate the value of the National Parks.  Many offer free programs, trips, rentals, etc...

The MOS Reciprocity Pass - This Museum membership will get you into hundreds of museums and zoos around the US for free or 50% off.  If you have young kids, this pass will save you a bundle.  We bought ours at the Museum of Science in Boston, but you can get one at any science museum or zoo that participates in the reciprocity program.

Passport America - 50% camping at over 1,800 campgrounds.  It's worth the $44 fee, because there are some great deals, but we find State and National Parks are generally best for tent campers.

AAA - This is a must for big road trips.  And you should really upgrade to the plus level that offers tows up to 100 miles.  We learned about this membership upgrade the hard way.  It is very easy to break down more than 50 miles from the nearest mechanic in the United States.  Trust me - I know!


You can follow our complete North American Journey here.

And see all the gear we're taking with us here.


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'Big Money Saving Tips For Your Next Road Trip' have 9 comments

  1. April 9, 2013 @ 10:54 pm Talon

    Thanks for including my post! I'm so glad it was helpful.
    Talon recently posted..Our latest adventure in Thailand


    • April 10, 2013 @ 12:45 am Justin Mussler

      Working great, Talon! Got two gigs already! Thanks!


  2. April 10, 2013 @ 9:37 am Kate

    I am packing my tent for our US trip - hoping to get some use out of it. I would love to camp a few nights on Oahu (our first stop) but I've heard that it's not very safe.
    Kate recently posted..5 Vegan or Very Vegan-Friendly Restaurants for Your Vegan Restaurant Bucket List


    • April 10, 2013 @ 9:48 am Justin Mussler

      How is it not safe? The people or the geography? We've camped with our kids in some obscure places and I would always be able to find someone who says it's not safe. You just have to use your judgement. Camping on Oahu would be major savings! Ask some people when you get to Oahu. As long as you have some gear, you can always change your plans on the fly.


  3. April 13, 2013 @ 5:51 am Bianca

    Camping is a great way to not only travel cheaply but to meet people. Camp ground (in Australia at least) often have communal kitchens and they can be a great place to chat to fellow travellers and get some tips for the places you are heading to.
    Bianca recently posted..Weekly Photo – The Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach


  4. April 14, 2013 @ 9:47 am Terri @ Travel 50 States with Kids

    Great tips! I love the campsite with the private beach. We like to have cheese, crackers, and fruit for an inexpensive on-the-go meal.
    Terri @ Travel 50 States with Kids recently posted..Ohio – Cleveland Museum of Natural History


    • April 26, 2013 @ 1:01 am Justin Mussler

      Yep - cheese, crackers and fruit - the old stand by!


  5. May 18, 2013 @ 7:30 pm monique

    I'm a single mom with 2 daughters and I think we'd have an amazing journey if my girls and I road tripped for the upcoming summer months. The money we save by not paying rent and utilities would go a long ways towards exploring the east coast. The problem is I'm not quite there income-wise in order to swing it. But I still think it would be an amazing summer. Oh, and we've never gone tent-camping so that would be an experience all by itself.
    monique recently posted..10 Day May Madness Sale!


  6. October 14, 2013 @ 9:42 am Veronica

    Have you tried couchsurfing? What do you think about it?


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