How to Budget for a Road Trip and Save Money

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9 ways to save money on a roadtrip

Summary: To budget for your road trip, plan ahead and don’t eat out that much. Tip: Order some Huel for cheap, healthy, and convenient meals for the road. Download my spreadsheet to make budget planning easy and organized.

When I think about a road trip, I think about driving for 1,000 miles with some broke college friends on a low budget spring break trip for a couple hundred bucks.

Reality, however, is often much different (financially speaking). According to a survey by RetailMeNot about 50% of people find staying within budget is most commonly a difficult thing to do on their trip.

If you’re not careful, you can easily spend up to two or three thousand dollars in your supposedly “low budget” road trip.

In this post, I show you how you can create your own budget and stick to it during your next road trip. Best of all, I’ll show you how you can do that without making sacrifices to your vacation experience. 

Set Your Goals

Determining your expectations for your road trip is the first step to creating your budget. The first thing you should do is pick a destination. 

The destination is going to be the biggest factor that determines how much the trip is going to cost. Based on the location you’ve chosen, you can get a quick peek at how much the trip will cost overall and whether or not you will enjoy it.

Your road trip should be a time to enjoy yourself. There’s no point in going on an extremely cheap road trip if it means you’re going to live like a hobo and be miserable the whole trip. Unless that’s your idea of fun. 

The next thing you should do is determine how much you can afford to spend on your road trip.  Right next to enjoying your trip, your top priority should be only spending what you can afford. Those two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Your budget will help tell you what you can afford along the trip and what things you should be able to do with the money that you have. With a solid budget in place, you can spend on whatever you want, guilt-free, as long as you’re within the budget.

Calculate What You Can Afford

Check your bank account, savings goals, and lifestyle expenses to determine how much you can afford to spend on this trip.

Once you have a dollar amount in mind, you can start doing your cost calculations with a spreadsheet. You can download one I made that you can use as a template.

It lists out the common expenses you might want to plan for. Just type in the expenses on the right and put a comment to explain what it is. Everything gets added up under the “total” column.

excel budget spreadsheet for raodtrip expenses

In your spreadsheet, list out all the common expenses that you can expect on a road trip. Just estimate what you think it might cost based on how long of a trip is going to be and how often you plan on stopping.

Based on the budget you’ve determined, you should set a daily budget for yourself and/or your family. This will allow you to spend freely within your budget and without breaking the budget. 

You might also want to think about giving kids a budget for the trip. Feel free to take this opportunity to teach them a lesson about budgeting.

Once you have a rough estimate of how much your trip is going to cost, that’s when you can start thinking about making adjustments.

If a trip cost way less than you thought, maybe that’s a hint to let yourself spend a little bit more to enjoy yourself on a trip. On the other hand, if the cost is little bit too much for your comfort, you can start looking into ways you can cut down on your expenses. 

Keep Track of Spending

There’s no point in having a budget if you’re not going to follow it. In order to follow your budget you’re going to have to know what you’re actually spending on the trip. 

This is why you need to keep track of daily spending. If you don’t like the idea of bringing a spreadsheet with you everywhere, you can look into using an app. For iPhone users, I heard Trail Wallet is pretty good. For Android users, Travel Spend is top rated app in the Google Play Store (and is also available for iPhone).

The advantage of using an app is they’re portable and they’re typically designed to be quick and efficient to input your expenses. They also help make it easier to split costs between friends and family. 

Recognize Factors that Affect the Budget

When we’re thinking about costs that go into a road trip, there’s typically a few common ones that come up. 

Where and When

Destination Is probably the biggest factor that determines the cost of your trip. The destination will control how long your trip will last for and how many miles you will have to travel. Besides that, the destination will also influence the overall costs of doing things, staying places, and eating food throughout your trip.

A longer trip will mean you will have to spend more money on gas and could run into more car maintenance issues. In addition to that, you will also have to take more time off work to make the most of your trip. 

Besides distance travelled, certain locations are just more expensive than others. Big cities for example, are definitely more expensive than rural areas with not much to do. Tourist hot spots will also be higher priced places. 

The time of year also impacts how much it will cost. Most people like to travel during big holidays/school breaks. Travel hotspots, airlines, and car/RV rentals are aware of this and will often jack up their prices to take advantage of seasonal trends. 

Rule of thumb: If it’s the best time for you to travel, odds are it’s also the best time for the rest of the country to travel as well.

Here’s a quick list of the most expensive times of year to travel:

  • Spring Break (around march/april)
  • Memorial Day
  • 4th of July
  • Labor Day
  • Fridays in the summer
  • The Thursday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving
  • Christmas/New Years

Car Rental/Public Transportation 

If you choose to rent a car, you’ll usually have to pay a flat daily fee between $20-50. This may be worth it if driving your car turns out to cost more per day than renting. If driving your own car, you will have to consider things like mileage, depreciation, wear and tear, and oil/tire changes. 

If you really want to eyeball it, you can just assume that it costs about $0.30-0.60 per mile to drive your own car (after subtracting gas costs). You can estimate on the lower end of that range if your car is very fuel-efficient and doesn’t depreciate much and vice versa.

Depending on how far you’re planning to drive per day, that could determine whether or not renting a car is actually a cheaper option. 

One side note if you’re going to rent a car: don’t buy rental insurance. Your current car insurance or credit card likely already covers you. 

Public transportation costs are pretty self-explanatory. If you plan to call an Uber or take the bus/train that will cost you a few dollars that can start to add up quickly. However these costs may be worth it if parking is really expensive. 


Driving uses gas. Gas costs money. This is probably one of the biggest costs that will start to add up by mile of a road trip.

To cut down on gas prices, you want to make sure to do your research. I usually check on GasBuddy, a site that lists the cheapest gas stations near you. You can also search Google Maps for gas station prices along your route. 

The most convenient locations for gas are always the most expensive. This means gas stations along the highway and at popular intersections are usually the most expensive. 

Conveniently ran into a gas station just as you ran out of gas? That’s probably the most expensive gas station in the area. 

Places to stay 

Unless you want to sleep in your car (a viable option), you’re going to have to find a place to stay. 

Here’s a list of options to choose from (sorted by cost): 

  • Hotel/Motel
  • Airbnb
  • Hostels
  • Campgrounds (can be free)
  • Walmart Parking Lot (free)

Do you want to find the best deals on places to stay, you’re going to have to do your research. Ideally, you should find a place with a kitchen to cook your own meals and/or a place that provides free breakfast. Here’s a list of sites to help you find places to stay:

  • for places along interstate
  • Kayak: Lists hotels for you to stay and also has a section to help you plan your road trip. 
  • A listing for hotels and other resorts. 
  • Trivago: A travel site that compares hotel listings 
  • TripAdvisor: A site that lists hotels, things to do, and rental listings for your trip
  • Hotelnight: A site that lists last minute bookings for hotels at discounts 


Food costs money and can be one of the most expensive portions of your budget if you’re not careful. On average, American spend about $33 per day on food when on vacation and 72% of people in a survey said this was their top expense on their road trip.

Eating out costs a lot of money. Apparently, 80% of food costs are spent in restaurants. You’re going to have to find a balance between eating out and cooking your own food. 


This includes pretty much anything to do and see on your trip. If those things are touristy, they’re probably going to cost you some money. 

If you want to cut down on entertainment cost, you can look into outdoor concerts, festivals, art shows, sporting events, and other community gatherings in the area. Hikes are also a go to option for free things to do. 

If you are going to spend on entertainment, make sure those are bucket list items that can only be done in that area. You don’t want to drop a hundred bucks doing things that you could just do in your own hometown. 

There’s a few ways to research free/cheap things to do on your trip: 

Entrance fees

Going to a national park might sound like a good low budget idea. However, a lot of parks and landmarks will have entrance fees. These fees help sustain the park and pay for maintenance expenses to preserve the area. 

This is just one more thing to be aware about when planning your trip. If you’re driving around visiting multiple parks, these can add up quickly. 


I’m a big proponent of adding a miscellaneous fee to your budget. There will always be expenses popping that you didn’t plan for. 

This could include souvenirs, road trip essentials that you forgot to bring with you, first aid stuff, and bathrooms locked by a paywall.

You should also pre-plan for car maintenance problems that can come up as a result of heavy driving:

  • Dead battery
  • Flat tire
  • Brake problems
  • Engine problems
  • Dead transmission

Idiot Fee

I got this one on Reddit. I recommend you add about $20 to an “idiot feed” budget.

This one’s less about money management. It’s more for peace of mind during the trip. 

You don’t want minor inconveniences and small mistakes to ruin your whole vacation experience. Just toss them into the idiot fee portion of your budget and call it a day.

Other Tips to cut costs

Alright, let’s be honest. If you clicked on this post, I’m guessing you’re not just looking for a budget. You’re looking to save some cash. 

Here’s a few extra tips to cut your costs on your road trip.

Plan your route

Having a route pre-planned will save you a good amount of money. For the most part, you’ll keep yourself from getting lost and avoid unnecessary tolls. You can also optimize your stops and minimize unnecessary driving. 

Here’s a list of sites that can help you plan your route: 

Use public transportation in big cities

If you’re planning to stop by a big city, it may be worthwhile to look into public transportation. This can help cut down on parking costs and higher gas expenses due to stop and go traffic in the city.

Optimize Your Driving

To cut down on gas cost, it may be worthwhile to think about optimizing your driving for gas mileage. 

Here are some tips to improve your car’s mileage:

  • Inflate and align your tires
  • Pack light and empty out your car ahead of time
  • Use clean air filters 
  • Follow speed limits
  • Drive smoothly and avoid rapid braking/accelerating
  • Use the AC instead of an open window 
  • Avoid rush hour

Be selective about food

Food can be very expensive if you are eating out a lot. If you’re going on vacation, food can be a great experience. If you want to maximize your experience, you don’t want to waste any money on food you can get in your hometown. 

Why spend $100 on four stops at Denny’s when you can instead spend $90 on one visit at a top-notch restaurant you’ll never forget plus $10 on 3 meals you made yourself?

To maximize your experience, here’s a few tips:

  • Preplan restaurant stops
    • Ask locals where they eat
    • Check for any local specialty foods
    • Check happy hour times 
    • Yelp
  • Cook your own food
    • Search for grocery stores along your route
    • Used grocery store discount cards
    • Lean towards beans, rice, eggs, and pasta 
    • Bring your own coffee maker 
  • Pack your own snacks ahead of time 
  • Bring your own water containers 

The convenient food that I’ve recently been enjoying is called Huel. It’s like Soylent, but with more protein and fiber, and less sugars. 

huel as a cheap food alternative for your roadtrip

I personally like it because it’s super convenient and affordable while giving you a nutritionally complete meal. All you have to do is take 2 scoops and shake it up with water. That’s a complete 400 cal meal for you for $1.51.

You can take one bag with you and feed your whole family everyday for the whole trip. 

If you want to try it out, you can click on my link and get $15 off your first order. They will also throw in a free shaker and a free t-shirt for first time customers.

Avoid big cities and tourist hotspots

Big cities and touristy places are definitely the most expensive places to visit on your trip. If your budget is very tight, you might want to avoid these places.

It’s basic supply and demand. The more people want to visit a place, the higher prices people will charge for things. 

Do some research into hidden gems along the road that will give you a great experience at a fraction of the price. You can also check with some locals for their suggestions (Reddit is my go-to for this).

Dont take tours if you can go yourself

Often there’s no need to take a tour if you can just go visit the place yourself. In my experience, tour guides don’t really tell you too much besides the history of the place and random facts anyways. 

It’s not like taking a tour will make or break the difference between a great and mediocre experience. You can still get the majority of the same experience going yourself. 

By taking yourself on the tour, you’re basically going to see the same thing, but at your own pace, without the random history facts, and without the added cost.

Credit card rewards

You’re going to be spending a decent amount of money on your road trip. So might as well get as much cash back as you can. 

You can check out our other post on how to choose a credit card. But long story short, you can use travel rewards to cut down on expenses and collect cash back rewards as you spend on your trip. 

Bring a friend

If you have friends (heh), this could be a great way to cut some costs on gas and housing. 

Gas and housing are definitely much cheaper per person if you pay as a group compared to paying for an individual.

Ask for discounts

If you’re not socially anxious and are on an extreme budget, sure I guess. It definitely does not hurt to ask, and you might be surprised at the results. 

This usually works better for locally owned businesses, where you’re talking to the owner or someone in charge of making decisions. 

Conclusion: How to Budget for a Road Trip

Putting together a budget is an essential part of planning your next vacation. You might be surprised at how quickly expenses can add up. Your budget will serve as your rock on which you build your spending foundation.

For the most part, cutting down on road trip expenses all comes down to planning. You want to make sure that your money is going exactly where you want it to go, not where other people tell you it should go.

I hope this post helped you save a bunch of money on your road trip. If you have any other tips you want to share, feel free to leave them in the comments down below. Otherwise, feel free to check out other personal finance posts on the site and subscribe for weekly money tips.

Joe Wong

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