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Ways To Save Money On A Road Trip

Cape Disappointment WA

I think road trips are highly under rated. I know we all picture scenes from when we were kids that involve Dad yelling,

Don’t make me stop the car!

Jim’s dad used to always put a full glass of water up on the dash before beginning a road trip, which would inevitably spill into his lap at some point during the journey, bringing on the slew of muttered cuss words followed by complete silence in the car. My parents used to always bicker because my Dad would never let Mom drive. He would get so tired that he’d nod off at the wheel, causing a huge argument followed by complete silence in the car. Ah, the joys of travel with the family….

I feel like we are a little more functional and have road trips down to a science. We know what to pack, what things to bring to keep a 6 year old entertained, and even what to do in the event of a breakdown. You all know that I’d almost never pay full price for travel. If we did, we’d at least get some awesome credit card rewards for doing so. Here are some tricks we’ve learned over the years that help us save money on road trips.

Bottled Water Costs How Much?

Bring your own snacks and drinks. Never start a road trip without a stash of food and beverage plus a cooler that you have easy access to while driving. If you have a child that can talk, you know that the car can’t get more than 10 minutes down the road without an “I’m Thirsty” or “I’m Starving.” It doesn’t matter if you just ate. It’s like moving vehicles set off some sort of hunger and thirst signal in kids. Bottled water costs about $4 for a 24 pack at the grocery store. It costs at least $1 or more at a convenience store. Why would you pay 6x more for anything? Because you didn’t plan. Don’t be the one who doesn’t plan.

Maximize Your Gas Purchases

One big expense of road trips can be fuel. ย We save our grocery points from stores like Kroger and Safeway to get up to $1 off per gallon on a fill up. You can really maximize your points if you wait until gift cards go on a 4x gas points promotion. If you buy gift cards at the grocery store for things like restaurants or attractions you want to visit on your trip, then purchase them with a credit card that earns double rewards, like the Barclay Arrival card, you can really get the most bang for your buck. You can also buy gas with a credit card that really rewards extra category points. Right now, the Chase Freedom card is paying 5x points for purchases at gas stations. My theory is if you have to spend it anyway, you might as well get rewarded as many times as possible.

Make a Food Budget

This sounds really simple, but setting a daily limit for food spending on trips helps us save tons of money. Our daily budget for road trips kind of depends on where we are going, but is usually around $50. If we ate out for every meal, we could easily spend over $100 a day on food. We love to eat out. We often get something to drink besides water with our meals. We leave big tips for excellent service.

We can do this by eating out once a day and having the other meals picnic style or in our room. One of our first stops when we reach our road trip destination is the grocery store. Then we divide that total spent by days on our trip and subtract from our daily budget. That is how much we have left to go out to eat. If we go somewhere nice one evening that costs $100, then we have to eat sandwiches the next night. Often you feel the need to splurge on vacation, and it’s easy if you have a credit card, but you’ll pay for it when you get the bill. Even a peanut butter sandwich tastes gourmet if eaten on the beach or while enjoying a great view. We don’t feel deprived at all if we don’t eat at 5 star restaurants every night.

Get Creative with Lodging

The internet is such an asset to have when planning travel. We might have gone on more trips in my youth if it had been available then. You can find lodging to fit pretty much any budget. We like to use miles and points to stay in really nice places, but sometimes those don’t work with the area you are visiting.

Moab Fisher Towers

Last year, we stayed in an cottage about a quarter mile from the beach in coastal Oregon that we found on VRBO.com. When we go to Coronado Island later this month, we have found a funky little hotel that is much cheaper then most of the same size rooms in the area. It doesn’t have a ton of amenities, but it’s right by the beach, so how much more could you want?

We all know camping is cheaper than hotels, but even if you aren’t much of an outdoor person, many campgrounds offer cabins. Some even have a bathroom if trekking around to go pee at 2AM isn’t your thing. We are taking a trip to Moab, UT this weekend and staying in a campground cabin. It has bunk beds and a playground. My kid will be in heaven for a fraction of the cost of staying at one of the “cheap” motels there that jack their prices up during spring mountain bike season.

Air travel is faster, but I have a fondness for the open road. I think we will always take a road trip or two every year. Without road tripping, I would have never found places like Bucksnort, TN or Bumble Bee, Arizona. Sometimes the journey is as much fun as the destination.

Do you have funny stories of your family going on a road trip? How do you save money on car travel?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. Well I went on three road trips growing up. Twice from Minnesota to Florida and once to Yellowstone. My parents were ALL ABOUT saving money on food when we went to Yellowstone. I’m talking picnics every single day. Or they just wanted us to be outside and not in a restaurant. Either way, it was a fun trip!

  2. We went on road trips all the time as a kid and my Dad was infamous for never stopping for the restroom because he wanted to make good time. I never understood it, but whatever. We like to go on road trips, as long as we have enough to have enough to keep the kids entertained. We do a lot of these same things to save money while on the road and will when we drive out to San Diego this summer. I think I’m going to take a bottle of Jack with me though for driving 1600 miles with three kids under six. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I have been saving for vaca since January. We are going on a cruise in July, driving from ILliois to Florida. I have been entering tons of blog giveaways and stashing my winnings away. So far I have $100 in Sunocco gas cards to use on the drive. And all the money gift cards I am winning I am buying gift cards for the cruise line we are on. Hoping I don’t have to spend but $200 of my own money for fun stuff.

  4. I love road trips! I have the best memories of road trips from my childhood. Usually we’d be going to visit my Aunt’s family, who always lived a state or two away. My Mom, another Aunt, My Grandma, sometimes Great-Grandma, and everyone’s kids, all piled in the van. A 3 hour trip always took at least 8. It NEVER went smoothly. And yet I have the best memories of those times!

    • It is funny how those trips leave good memories even if they seem like a disaster at the time. We had a horrible trip once when we got stuck in an ice storm and had to eat crackers for dinner, but we laugh ourselves silly talking about it now.

  5. I love that pic! Beautiful! I love road trips now. I didn’t so much when I was a kid. Somehow we managed to survive without all the cool gadgets they have nowadays and DVD players in cars. My brother and I would always fight over who got usage of the backseat armrest to sleep on. Good times. I really want to take a road trip to Utah and New Mexico to visit some of the state parks. So not a road trip, but when I was in Iceland, because the food was outrageously expensive, I only did one meal “out” per day too. And sometimes that meal would be very light or from the grocery store. I did really well with spending there!

    • You need to road trip right to SW Colorado in your sweet little car. We are within 2 hours of Mesa Verde, Arches, and Canyonlands.

  6. Convenience store purchases are killer! I am guilty of snacking while on the road waaaay too much, and those gas station snacks are so tempting! We always packs beverages and snacks in a cooler, but then budget small amount of money for each of us for impulse purchases at the gas station so we don’t have to feel guilty about indulging. Great post!

    • I think that’s a great plan if you enjoy the snacks as a treat to yourself. They actually have this one type of peanut butter cookie that my husband loves that we can only find in gas stations. We try not to buy them if our daughter is there because she wants something too and then we’ve spent $10!

  7. I’ll probably be going on some road trips in the near future. I don’t want to have to get an 8 month old through airport security and on the plane. Packing a snack is definitely a great way to save on money. My wife and I have always done that. I also use the Chase Freedom for the 5% cash back. Plus for us New Yorkers, if I know we’ll be driving through New Jersey, I’ll get gas there…much much cheaper there.

    • That’s like when we go to California and make sure we stop right before the border in Arizona. It’s remarkable how much gas prices vary from state to state. I think about 6 mos to 2 years is the hardest on planes. They just want to get up and run down the aisles.

  8. What a beautiful picture, Kim! “My theory is if you have to spend it anyway, you might as well get rewarded as many times as possible.” Amen. We honestly don’t take a ton of car trips with the girls but good planning always makes them go a bit smoother. It’s insane what a bottle of water costs, especially when you’re at hotel. I do remember taking road trips as a child with my two younger sisters, and that was always an adventure. Lauren and Taylor have more “things” to occupy their attention, which from a Mom and Dad sanity aspect, I appreciate! Have a great weekend, Kim!

  9. I grew up road-tripping and I’ll say this, when your kids are old enough to espouse opinions, they may say “when will we get there???” but as a 28 year old, I now am so grateful for all the traveling I did as a kid. I know now I will “torture” my kids with long road trips because I know in the end, they’ll be as grateful as me for all the places they’ll see. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Tara, I am determined to show my daughter a million more places then we ever went. She does get bored sometimes, but is actually a really good traveler.

  10. In my younger days, I went on a road trip from Shreveport, LA to St Paul, MN. But I went via Panama City, FL; Key West, FL; Myrtle Beach; Atlantic City Beach, Cape Cod, MA; Niagara Falls. And even a jaunt into Canada.

    All on ~$500 per month. camping and staying with friends along the way. It took about 10 weeks.

  11. You can get some really good hotel deals in metropolitan areas by using Priceline to bid cheaply. It is hit or miss depending on if other events are in town. I also use the gas buddy app to look at gas prices in towns along my route. Since road travel usually involves stopping at restaurant chains at highway exits, I bring a stash of coupons. When I need a break on long driving trips, I’ll stop at a Good will store and browse for 15 min or so. There are many of these stores close to the interstate. You can usually pick up a t-shirt from a local college or sports team, and very often souvenirs from a local tourist attraction.

  12. With a car we take food with us, with the bike we have to eat out so we try to find hotels with breakfast and have lunch at a buffet a bit late so we donโ€™t need dinner.

  13. All we did were road trips when I was growing up and all the food came packed in the trunk. We would get an occasional ice cream cone but everything else was in the trunk with the Coleman stove.

    As the youngest of 3 children I always got stuck in the middle in the back seat. Luckily cars were bigger back then because it usually poured rain when we camped and so we would all sleep in the car. I slept on the floor in the back seat many nights. There was that big hump in the middle so I just slept on one side.

  14. Awesome article.
    I do have to admit that driving is much better. It’s cheaper and you can spend more time seeing the beautiful sights as well as spend time with your family. You can stop wherever you want and you even have a st resort for sleeping overnight.
    Where do you plan on driving to next?

  15. We roadtripped across the U.S. for our move this summer. Our favorite ways to save money were couchsurfing and eating at cheap-ish places. That said, we travel to eat, so we did eat most of our meals out ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. I am all about packing the car with food for road trips. And if I’m in hotel with a microwave, then I’ll find a grocery store nearby to lower my food costs.

  17. With dogs, we drive a lot of places instead of flying, and always make it a point to buy snacks ahead of time so we don’t have to pay for the convenience of a convenience store. I also drive slower so that I can get better MPG.

  18. I love road trips, as long as I am the one that isn’t driving! And as long as the trip is somewhere I haven’t been before. We make a road trip every holiday to see our families in our home town and it’s boring by now.

    I hate stopping, because stopping inevitably means spending money on things like bottled water, which is expensive as you mentioned. We try to bring snacks, bottled water, and use Gasbuddy to find the best gas price in the vicinity.

    • Does Gasbuddy work well? Is there actually big differences in the price of gas? I think it is funny how people will dive a mile, 5 minutes of their time, just to save a couple cents on a gallon of gas. It costs gas to get there.

      • I’ve always thought that was kind of an odd thing to do unless you were heading that way anyhow. In our small town, everything is close so it isn’t an issue. I’ve never tried gas buddy because you can pretty much see all the stations from one trip through town.

  19. Our family road trip last summer to Mesa verde, arches, Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon was EPIC! Even though our RV broke down in Utah it was the best thing ever…and frugal of course! We were right in your backyard, we should have stopped for lunch Uncle Eddie style!

    • I’m so sorry I didn’t know that. We could have gone saved the neck for you! Those are all epic places to visit. I’m glad you got to do that trip.

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