Hitting the open road can be freeing. Here at Bearfoot Theory, we know from experience that road trips are full of fun times, epic diversions, and all-around exhilarating adventure — until you run out of money. A wrong turn or unplanned mishap could cost you time and money that you simply can’t afford to lose. To help you avoid these potential trip-ruining disasters, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to planning a cheap road trip that doesn’t feel “cheap” while helping you stick to a budget.
Whether you are driving cross-country or to the next state over, there are plenty of ways to save money and enjoy a fun, inexpensive road trip. All you need is a little preparation and planning to make your budget road trip the best ever without breaking the bank.
Here are some of our most helpful and practical tips for planning a cheap road trip including how to save money on food, gas, lodging, and activities while enjoying your adventure.
Tips for Eating & Drinking on a Budget
1. Bring your own food
On any road trip, you need TWO kinds of fuel: one to keep the car running and the other to keep you going, too. The cost of the latter can quickly add up and turn your budget road trip into an expensive one. So, think about it this way: It may seem ‘cheap’ to grab a bag of chips and a drink here and there but after a week on the road, you could have easily spent $10 a day on snacks alone. Factor in the cost of three meals a day and you’ll have already made a dent in your savings.
The #1 tip for a cheap road trip? Bring your own food! Go to the store ahead of time and buy a variety of snacks and food in bulk. Buying in bulk will be cheaper than buying individual packages. Nuts, granola bars, hummus, veggies, fruit, and other hearty snacks that are packed with protein and fiber will keep you happy and full. Preparing food for your trip ahead of time is a great idea as well – things like cold pasta and quinoa salads store well and are easy to eat on the go or at a rest stop.
2. Prepare meals at camp
Another great way to save money on meals during your budget road trip is by packing a cooler full of easy-to-prepare meals that you can quickly throw together at your campsite.
You can even bring a camp stove rather than relying on packaged, and often expensive, pre-made meals. For more recommendations on camp cooking gear, check out our post on Best Camp Cooking Kitchen Essentials For Road Trips.
3. Be smart about eating out
Part of traveling is experiencing local cuisines and restaurants, so allow yourself a meal or two out. In general, eating breakfast or lunch at a restaurant is less expensive than dinner prices. We like to use Yelp to find highly-rated local joints that aren’t overpriced.
4. Bring Plenty of Water
Road trips and salty pretzels can make you thirsty. Avoid impulsively purchasing drinks and needlessly using single-use plastics by bringing your own water. Bring a reusable water bottle with you and fill it up before you head out. Most drink dispensers at gas stations have a water option, so you can fill your reusable bottles back up for free. If you’ll be staying at paid campsites on your road trip, you’ll likely be able to fill up with potable water at camp too.
Even better, fill a 5-gallon jug before heading out and store it in the back of your car. This will not only save you money, but it’s safe to have extra water in case of a breakdown. Plus it’ll make it easier for you to avoid purchasing single-use plastics and creating more waste. For more tips on how to reduce waste on road trips, check out this post.
If you plan on doing any activities like hiking or biking, or, if the weather will be warmer, be prepared and bring extra water. As a bonus, drinking water can also curb snack cravings, which is sometimes your body’s way of telling you that you’re dehydrated. So, sip away!
5. Don’t buy coffee to-go
Coffee is one of the easiest things to cut back on to save money on your road trip. It might not seem like a lot, but a $4 latte every day spread over 2 weeks could be the equivalent of another night at an Airbnb or two nights at a campground.
But what if you’re a big coffee person and need your daily fix? Make your own! I’m a huge fan of the Aeropress for road trips (it’s also my go-to coffee-making contraption at home). Not only does it make a very strong and smooth cup of coffee, but cleanup is simple. The Aeropress itself is also very compact and won’t take up much room at all.
Give it a try and you’ll see that you can make better coffee at a rest stop table or off your tailgate with a Jetboil and an Aeropress than you can get at any Starbucks. Don’t forget a to-go mug to keep your coffee nice and hot on the road as well.
For more tips on what to bring on your roadtrip, check out our road trip essentials packing checklist.
6. Minimize Alcohol Consumption & Avoid going to bars
While cracking a cold one during sunset at the end of the day might be on your agenda, drinking can quickly turn your cheap road trip into an expensive one. If you want some tasty libations during your road trip, bring your own booze to enjoy rather than buying $10 cocktails at the bar. Also, think about the type of booze you are bringing since those craft IPAs can add up fast.
At the same time, exploring the bar scene may be part of the way you like to travel. When you do want to splurge, ask the locals where the cool hangouts are, search for happy hour deals, or hit up the local brewery and take a growler to go.
Tips for Planning A Cheap Road Trip
7. Map out a budget-friendly route
While we are all for getting lost and going off the beaten track, going an hour in the wrong direction is simply a waste of time and money when you’re planning a cheap road trip. Map out your route ahead of time and do your research to see if there are any good shortcuts or more efficient ways to get where you are going. If you can, use two different GPS systems because navigational tools can give you vastly different routes to the same place.
We’ve got a plethora of cheap road trip routes already mapped out if you want to save the stress of planning. Visit our Road Trip page for inspiration or get started with a few of these favorite road trip itineraries and roundups:
- Utah National Parks Roadtrip Itinerary
- Florida National Parks Roadtrip Itinerary
- 7 Day Yellowstone & Teton Roadtrip
- 5 Day Olympic National Park Road Trip Itinerary
- 3 Day Death Valley National Park Roadtrip
- Fall Colors Colorado Roadtrip
- The Best Nevada Road Trip Stops
- The Best Arizona Road Trip Stops
- The Best Colorado Road Trip Stops
- The Best Washington Road Trip Stops
In most of our itineraries, we mention a few budget road trip tips specific to the routes to help you save even more!
8. Download helpful road trip planning apps
We recommend downloading the Road Trippers App before you head out. This app lets you save locations on-the-go, find destination points along your route, and locate lodging, gas, restaurants, and more. You can even get special discounts through the app in support of your budget road trip.
Also, check out the iExit App to determine the best areas to take a pit stop on major highways while you’re traveling and for help finding the cheapest gas, Gas Buddy is a must. Pro tip: gas prices tend to increase on weekends and holidays, so filling your tank on Monday rather than Sunday will help you pinch a few pennies.
9. Get a National Park’s Pass
If you plan on visiting three or more National Parks in a single year, the National Park’s Annual America the Beautiful Pass will pay for itself. The Pass covers the entrance for your car and all of its passengers, saving you money on admission.
The pass doesn’t cover camping or other permits, however, and reservations can fill up far in advance. Plan ahead and see if there are campground openings or if the Park has any first-come, first-served campsites available.
10. Do more & drive less
Even the savviest of planners can’t beat the benefits of driving less as a great way to save gas and money. Ignore the call of the open road for a day or two and spend your time covering more miles on foot than on four wheels.
For example, rather than trying to cross off five National Parks in a week, focus on one or two. You’ll save lots of money on gas and by digging deeper, you’ll leave the destination feeling more satisfied.
11. Visit free attractions
Spending time in the outdoors is the most budget-friendly road trip tip out there! In many places, getting outside is absolutely free and you’ll gain a lifetime worth of memories, great photos, and rewarding experiences.
Take a long day-hike, have a picnic, go for a bike ride, or spend a day on the water to make the most of your time out of the car. Luckily, these naturally beautiful destination points also happen to be the most scenic drives, too. So, go ahead and drive off into the sunset.
12. Maximize your mileage
Think back to your days in Driver’s Ed class. The way that you drive makes a difference in how efficiently your car uses gas. I’ve especially noticed this in my Sprinter Van. Here are a few basic tips to remember:
- Drive 55 mph on highways or as close to the speed limit as possible to save gas. Even if the speed limit is 65 mph or above, driving close to or under the speed limit can drastically reduce fuel usage.
- Use cruise control to automate the amount of fuel your car uses.
- Try not to start and stop abruptly on roads with traffic lights. Accelerating from a full stop over and over again will suck up more gas than it would if you slowly pressed on the brakes and gradually began moving again.
Tips for finding cheap road trip accommodations
13. Car Camp
Depending on the size of your vehicle and how many people you are traveling with, car camping can be a simple (or not so simple) solution to saving money on a cheap road trip.
If you’ve got the room, bring along pillows, a sleeping pad, and extra blankets for a quick, improvised night of shut-eye. If your car isn’t roomy enough, consider renting a campervan for your trip. It will give you a taste of van life, and depending on the region and length of your road trip, renting a camper van can still be less expensive than renting a hotel every night.
If a campervan is out of your budget, and you can’t sleep in your car, you can always sleep in a tent. You can score a cheap Coleman car camping tent on Amazon for as little as $63. Or this REI Backpacker Bundle is a great starter kit for those looking to get into camping for the first time.
In order to find a campsite, check out our guide to finding campsites, which shares our favorite apps and tools for finding both free and paid camping around the US. While some campsites are free, other campgrounds require a fee for staying there, so keep some cash on hand just in case.
14. Search for hotel deals
Prefer to stay the night at a hotel or B&B? Some places offer package deals that include gas gift cards or discounts as an incentive to book a room. Do a little research and see what you find!
Hotel Tonight is also a great app that lists last-minute discounted hotel rooms if you’re ok leaving reservations to the last minute.
15. Book a budget-friendly Airbnb
While Airbnb isn’t quite as affordable as it once was, you can still find budget-friendly rooms, condos, and homes, especially in off-the-beaten-path destinations. Look for Airbnb’s that have kitchens so that you can cook meals and save money on eating out. Some Airbnb reservations will even come with free local passes to museums, parks, or other attractions.
16. Reunite with friends or family
Chances are that if you are passing through a major city, there aren’t going to be ample places to camp out for the night. But if you have a friend or relative in the area, staying with them could be perfect for the frugal explorer. Just remember to be a good houseguest and offer to help out around the house where you can.
Up for an adventure? Reach out and see if there are any friends of a friend in the city you’re visiting who would be willing to host you for a night or two. If it’s your first time in the area, getting a local’s advice on cheap (and tasty) places to eat, things to do or places to go is priceless. Plus, you might make a new friend to who you can extend the same offer someday should they need it.
17. Travel during the Off-Season
If you want to stay in hotels, chances are you’ll save some money by traveling outside of peak season. Shoulder seasons still usually have nice weather and all the same attractions and will make for an easier budget road trip. Destinations tend to be less crowded and way less expensive to boot. Plus, you’ll likely have more luck finding last-minute campsites and hotel rooms.
Consider this quieter time a better way to get to know a place. The off-season is also a great way to meet locals and really see what a town or city is like when it isn’t high time to be there. Take a chance and see what you can find.
Do you have any cheap road trip tips to add? We’d love to hear your budget road trip experiences – epic road trip stories are welcome as well. Leave a comment below!