I have a confession. My husband and I aren’t the best at budgeting. When it comes to travel, we generally set aside x amount of money and don’t really pay attention to how much we’re spending or what we’re spending our money on until the funds in our wallet begin to run out.
Despite our lackadaisical approach to travel budgeting, we always manage to return home with money still in the bank. And though I always kind of know where the bulk of our money goes when we travel, that doesn’t make it easy to budget for future trips. This approach is OK for shorter trips, but when we started planning a cross country road trip on a budget, suddenly the need for a budget became very important!
When my family drove from Ohio to California and back, I decided to document everything. And I did. I wrote down every. single. cent. we spent on our trip. And I hated it. But, it certainly made me realize that though we didn’t spend a fortune (and we didn’t exceed the funds we’d set aside for the trip), there were ways that we could have spent less money. Particularly when it comes to lodging.
Now that we had a baseline for how much we spent while traveling, it’s been much easier to plan and stick to a budget for all of our travels!
I want to take what I learned on that trip and help you learn how to plan a cross country road trip on a budget.
But travel can’t just be about the budget. I also want to share my cross country road trip tips for what to see on a cross country road trip, and give you a packing list of the things you need to keep in mind.
Below, I’ve included a breakdown of how much my family of five- two adults and three older teens (two technically adults as well)- spent on a cross country road trip to California. You’ll also find links to each article so if you’d like to read about our trip, what we did and where we stopped, click through and read those posts as well.
PLANNING A CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP ON A BUDGET
Even if you’re not a thrifty traveler, having a road trip budget can really help you decide where to splurge and where to save. You don’t have to be a budget-minded traveler to benefit from a trip budget. Whether you use spreadsheets, budgeting apps, or a good old-fashioned notebook and pencil, budgeting for travel is easier than you think.
The first time will be the hardest but if you keep good records, you’ll have a great baseline for future trips. (Note: there are some really great apps out there that make it easy to control and track your spending. Trail Wallet is one that’s simple and easy to use. It even handles currency conversions for traveling in other countries!)
The first thing you want to do when setting a budget for your trip is to lay out some categories. These will generally fall into food, lodging, gas, and entertainment. If you have pets at home, you might also factor in the cost of boarding your pets or having someone come watch them. The same goes for any housesitting services you might require.
Let’s look at the categories we used for our cross country road trip from Ohio to California.
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Gas, Tolls & Parking Fees
Over the course of nine days, we spent $850 on gas and tolls, plus another $620 on a rental car from Budget. That averages out to $163 per day. Most of this was spent on gas, as there are very few tolls through the center of the United States and since we didn’t stay in large cities, parking charges were rare. If we had been traveling along the East Coast, we would have spent much more on tolls.
Tip: Save time when you purchase an E-Z Pass to pay tolls. Not only can you drive through the EZPass lane and avoid long lines at the toll booths, since you preload your E-Z Pass account with money, you don’t need to worry about having the correct change when on the turnpike or toll road. You’ll need to purchase the pass itself from an authorized seller like AAA, Drug Mart, select grocery stores, etc. and I suggest buying this holder so you can easily move it to a different vehicle if needed.
Food is probably the biggest variable when budgeting for a road trip, or any vacation, really. Traveling with three grown men certainly requires a larger food budget than a girls’ trip might. Everyone has different travel styles, too, so you’ll have a better grasp of this after your first couple of trips recording your expenses. In total, we spent $450 on food during our trip. That works out to $50 per day and just $10 per day per person. Again, this number largely depends on your destination as well as your travel style. Some people like to live it up and eat great meals every day, while others are happy to throw some sandwiches in a cooler and hit the road.
Lodging is another expense that is extremely subjective to taste and location, as well as how many people you are traveling with. Not all hotels will allow five adults in one room, even with a rollaway bed, so you may be renting more than one room per night. We spent $790 on hotel rooms throughout our trip. We averaged $88 per night, though it varied each night from $23 to $120.
We spent just under $110 on entertainment throughout the course of your trip. $80 of this is from the purchase of the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass that allowed us entry into several National Parks and Monuments. We also occasionally spent money on DVD rentals throughout the trip.
Of course, if you’re planning a trip to Disney or Cedar Point, you might spend $100+ per day, per person! Since our family prefers fun (and free!) roadside attractions and natural outdoor experiences, we were able to save a lot of money on this expense category.
CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP TIPS FOR SAVING MONEY
If you’ve taken a family road trip and tracked your spending, you know that our numbers are actually quite low for five adults. As frequent travelers and road trippers, we’ve honed our money-saving skills over the years and want to share some tips on how to save money on your road trip.
Two of the easiest places to save money, in my opinion, are on lodging and food. We used a lot of coupons and internet deals during our trip, and it saved us a lot of money.
When it comes to lodging, it pays to be loyal. If you are planning a cross country road trip far in advance, you might even go so far as to open a loyalty credit card for your favorite hotel chain. For example, we stayed at a lot of Choice Brand hotels during our trip. This includes roadside favorites like SleepInn, Comfort, Clarion, and Quality Inn. If we had opened a Choice Hotels credit card, the signup bonus alone would have given us five to six free nights. Additionally, had we charged our trip on the credit card, we would have earned another free night with points.
Stopping at the visitor center or welcome center is another great way to save money. They often have coupon books that entitle you to a hotel discount or discounts at local restaurants. Two-for-one coupons are great for dining out as you can save a lot of money.
You can also use websites or apps when traveling to find hotels on the go. My new favorite is Hopper but don’t forget about Priceline, Hotwire and Booking.com.
Check all discounts that are available to you. I recently turned 50 and can use my AARP membership to save money but people of any age can join for as low as $12 a year.
Another tip to save money on food expenses is to eat your larger meal at lunchtime. You can often get lunch specials, and it’s easy to grab some groceries along the way to have some snacks in the hotel room after we arrive, rather than a heavy dinner.
Many frequent road trippers swear by a AAA membership. Not only can it save you money on hotels and dining, but the roadside service can really help you out of a jam if you have a problem on the road. Some like it for the discounts, while others just like the peace of mind.
Of course, van camping is a great way to save money on lodging as campgrounds are significantly cheaper than hotels. I’m not sure we would van camp with three adult children, but it’s great for couples and smaller families!
SHOULD WE DRIVE OR FLY?
Obviously, this is a post about road trips. But it’s worth mentioning that once you have a good budgeting system down, it’s pretty easy to create a Cross Country road trip cost calculator to compare flying vs driving. Of course, choosing to drive isn’t always based on money, but some people may falsely believe that’s it’s always more expensive to fly.
If you don’t have a roadworthy vehicle and plan to rent a car for your road trip, that can add significant expense. A few years ago, gas prices were nearing $4.00 per gallon, making road trips much more expensive. If you are planning an urban vacation to Chicago or New York, you might pay as much for parking as you do for your hotel room! If you’re not planning a road trip just for the sake of a road trip, it’s always a good idea to do a quick fly vs drive analysis.
THINGS TO SEE ON A CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP
There are two ways to plan a cross country road trip. The first is based on your destination. Maybe you want to get from Ohio to California the fastest way possible. In this case, you may plan to stay on the interstate and do all of your sightseeing once you reach your destination.
If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that is NOT our style. We’re all about the journey and I LOVE roadside attractions. Whether it’s creepy roadside attractions, dinosaur roadside attractions, or quirky roadside attractions, we’re always veering off the road to check out something fun. Sure, it may take a bit longer to get to our destination, but I wouldn’t have created this amazing coloring book if we hadn’t made so many stops throughout the years!
Other families love a good theme for their road trip. Maybe you want to visit as many Major League Baseball Stadiums as possible or Presidential libraries. Visiting National Parks and National Monuments is another great theme for your cross-country road trip.
THINGS YOU NEED FOR A CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP
We’ve got some great posts on packing the things you need for a cross-country road trip, and even some printables and checklists to help you stay organized and on track. In my opinion, the two most important things you need for a cross-country road trip are snacks and maps! Snacks are fairly obvious, as this will save you time from stopping every time someone is hungry. You can also save a lot of money by shopping for food at home versus in a tourist area with higher prices.
I still love an old-fashioned road atlas. Don’t get me wrong, GPS is great, but it’s meant to get you from Point A to Point B. Do you think Siri will alert you that you’re about to miss the world’s largest baseball bat or the smallest church in America? Maps are the best way to find odd roadside attractions. Besides, GPS can fail if you like to get off the beaten path as we do.
MORE CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP TIPS AND RESOURCES
In this section, you’ll find a review of the vehicle we drove to California and why we LOVED it. Tips on preparing your vehicle for a road trip (if you’re driving your personal vehicle), ideas to help you keep your car clean on the road, how to keep peace with your children, road trip songs, how to save money on the road and more.
The Best Road Trip Vehicle
An Amazing Road Trip Planning Resource
How to Prepare your Vehicle & Keep your Car Clean on the Road
Road Trip Tips for Traveling with Teens
Road Trip Songs
THE DAY BY DAY: OHIO TO CALIFORNIA AND BACK!
Curious about what we saw and did on our cross country road trip from California to Ohio? Here’s the day-by-day breakdown of our trip!
- Day 1: The St. Louis Arch
- Day 2: Texas and Beyond
- Day 3: California!
- Day 4 & 5: More California!
- Day 6: Death Valley & Las Vegas
- Day 7: Utah & Colorado
- Day 8: The Home Stretch
Where are you headed on your next road trip? What is your best road trip tip?