A few years ago, my sister-in-law was having a destination wedding in Arizona and there was no way we were going to miss it. That said, we knew getting ourselves and our three toddlers there from Wisconsin could be pricey and stressful.
After debating our options, we decided that the cadence of a road trip felt manageable and when we ran the numbers, we realized we could get there by car for less than flying.
Fast forward four years and we just completed our sixth family road trip, visiting 46 states by car! We’ve become road trip fanatics and would like to share four lessons we’ve learned along the way to help you save when you travel.
1. Make It About The Journey
Each trip we take, we have a destination in mind — like the Pacific coast of Oregon, Disney World, or the beaches of Delaware.
While some people choose to focus on getting to the destination as fast as possible, we’ve found that taking it slower can make the trip more enjoyable and even save us money.
Let’s be honest - the popular destinations are usually the most expensive places in the country to stay in!
When we went to Disney World, we saved a ton of money by making Disney just one stop on our overall trip. We spent three days at a Disney resort (and only one day visiting the parks). For other stops, we explored small towns in Mississippi, drove through New Orleans and dipped our toes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
By keeping our focus on enjoying every stop, each day was a new adventure and we saved significantly by spending more time in less costly areas.
2. The Best Things in Life are Free
Frugality on the road isn’t much different from frugality at home. While it’s tempting to use a vacation as an excuse to spend on activities and attractions, you can have just as much fun by searching for free things to do on your route.
With kids, we try to stop at one or two playgrounds each day we drive on our road trips. Most cities and small towns have at least one and the kids are always up for swinging on the monkey bars. Plus, it’s a great way to get some exercise after a few hours in the car. If we run into rainy weather, libraries are a great alternative to playgrounds.
Many state and county parks are free or have a small fee for parking and we’ve seen some really cool things along the way. On our most recent trip, we stopped at Cannonsburgh Village in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Old Stone Fort Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee. Both were completely free and a ton of fun!
Finally, we’ve found that there are a number of free zoos around the country that make for a great family stop. One of our favorites was a small zoo off the beaten path - the David Traylor Zoo in Emporia, Kansas. If you happen to be going through our hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, the Henry Vilas Zoo is absolutely worth a visit as well!
3. Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover (or Website)
One of our money-saving tips is to go rural for your overnight stays. A hotel outside a major city can cost half of one in downtown. That said, it pays to do a thorough search of each hotel before you stay there.
Don’t just look at the hotel’s website. We got a bit of a surprise once when a hotel with an incredibly impressive website (and good pictures) ended up falling short of our expectations. It’s worth the extra few minutes it takes to look at third-party reviews and photos to make sure you know what you’re getting into.
4. Packing Food is Healthier and Cheaper
Eating while on the road can bring lots of unhealthy options - fast food, and even sit-down restaurants. In addition to being less healthy than your meals at home, these options carry a hefty price tag.
One strategy we use is to pack healthy snack foods that we can use for lunches and afternoon munchies. Grocery stores are just a web search away and you can find the basics for a reasonable price. Whether it’s cereal, sandwiches, or fruit, you can save your wallet (and your waistline) with a bit of preparation.
When we travel, we’ll still go out to eat at restaurants for dinner if we’re up for it. Or sometimes, we’ll just order pizza (a simple, inexpensive family meal) and chow down in our hotel room.