What is more American than an epic road trip across the country? Keep reading for 13 ways to save money on a roadtrip while still having an amazing experience. We include packing lists, insider tips and proven methods to still have fun on a budget.
Table of Contents
- Packing List
- Kitchen Kit
- Camping Gear
- Emergency Packing List
- Other Stuff
- Share Costs with a Friend
- Bring Snacks to Save Money
- Prepare to Cook Meals
- Tips for Dining Out on a Budget
- Not a Camping Person
- Methods to Save on Roadtrip Fuel
- Emergency Preparation for a Roadtrip
- Save on Activities
- City Based
- Nature Based
- National Parks
- Gypsy Guides
If you’ve been working and dreaming of a getaway but can’t afford to fly to your next vacation, we’re here to help you with a budget-friendly option, the roadtrip.
What qualifies us to give road trip advice? We are extreme road trippers.
In 2019, we left Texas to travel within North America and we haven’t looked back. We don’t have an end date for our adventure.
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In 2021, we slept in 22 different states while circling the country and exploring epic locations. A few of our lesser-known favorites have been Grand Staircase Escalante Utah, San Clemente California, Nederland Colorado.
Roadtrips are a great way to explore North America on a budget. You have more control over spending when you can decide your travel style and methods. Below are a few of the many ways to save money on your next roadtrip.
1. Plan, Plan, and Plan to Save Money on a Roadtrip
I know many people hate planning and love to fly by the seat of their pants. But honestly, planning is the #1 way to save money on a roadtrip.
Honestly, planning is also one of the best ways to save money in everyday life. We’ve always lived frugal lives but it’s allowed us to live a life that most people just dream of. To learn how we were able to quit our full-time jobs in our 30s, check out our About Us page.
Planning ahead will give you a chance to control costs. A few budget-conscious things to consider when planning:
- Bringing everything you need will save on emergency roadtrip purchases. Many destinations, like national park border towns, often charge a tourist pricing premium because they can. Skip to the Packing Lists section.
- Pack food and plan meals to save on budget-breaking hangry purchases. Skip to the Snacks or Cooking section.
- Accommodation options can be cheap or free with a little research and planning. Skip to the Accommodations section.
- Pre-planning can help control travel costs by choosing fuel efficiency routes, strategically purchasing fuel and avoiding tolls. Skip to the Fuel section.
- Sightseeing tour apps share similar information as a guided tour at a fraction of the price. Skip to the Gypsy Guide section.
- Accidents happen so plan for them. Have your ducks in a row with insurance, emergency savings and emergency equipment on board. Skip to the Prepare for the Worst section.
- Servicing your vehicle prior to a road trip will save money on costly repairs.
- Share your travel plans and check in with a trusted person regularly. If you don’t check in, they can notify authorities of your planned itinerary and your last known location. We constantly share our Google location with my mom for safety’s sake.
2. Make a Packing List
Have you ever had to buy sunscreen or bug spray in a tourist town?
Trust me, they charge a convenience fee even if it isn’t a separate line item on your receipt. Plus you probably already had a bottle at home that just didn’t make it in your luggage. Save yourself some hard-earned money by packing well.
Creating and using a good packing list will definitely help save money on your next roadtrip. Everyone’s packing list will vary based on their needs and travel style. I’ve highlighted a few essentials we rely on when packing to save money on a roadtrip.
We usually travel with our home and all of our possessions so I struggle to pack for trips. I’ve simplified the key items by category.
Remember to keep it simple and only bring necessities. Many items can do double duty.
Dressing in layers is a great way to save space and multipurpose each piece of clothing. A waterproof coat is always one of my layers because rainy days are unavoidable.
I tend to pack light on clothes and do laundry at least once a week. It saves packing space for more important things and energy deciding what to wear. Plus you get to wear your favorite things.
I bring items that can be mixed and matched. Quick-drying clothes can easily be hand washed so I try to include those when possible.
In addition to a week’s worth of clothes, my packing list generally includes:
- wide-brimmed hat
- waterproof coat
- sandals. They are great for relaxing at the campsite, public showers or swimming.
- swimsuit. Honestly, they take up very little space and hot springs are awesome.
- comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots
- healthy snacks
Kitchen Packing List for Roadtrip
Bring a mini-kitchen with you to save money on roadtrip food costs. With this basic kitchen setup for camping, you can make a variety of warm meals on the road.
We’ve seen people cooking all kinds of wholesome, warm meals in National Park parking lots. My favorites were omelets at sunrise in Glacier and grilled paninis for lunch in Yellowstone.
At a minimum I recommend the following kitchen items:
- cutting board & knife
- can opener & bottle opener
- camp stove & fuel
- frying pan
- spatula & big spoon
- utensils, plate, cup
- paper towels & hand sanitizer/wipes
- a few ziploc bags for leftovers
- dish soap & sponge/brush
- dish towel
- salt/pepper & oil
- fresh water storage
Roadtrip Camping Gear Packing List
Camping is a very affordable way to see the country. It is a top way to save money on a roadtrip. Many National Parks in the West have free camping areas near the park gates.
Basic camping gear should include:
- shelter (tents, cars, trailers, and hammocks are popular choices)
- bedding (a sleeping bag is easiest)
- flashlight with extra batteries
- chair & table if space allows
- toilet solution
- fresh water storage (repeated from kitchen kit but it’s really important)
Roadtrip Emergency Gear
Packing for a trip should include a few items of emergency gear.
- sunscreen & bug spray
- spare tire & necessary tools to change the tire (practice if you’ve never changed your tire)
- basic tool kit (screwdriver, pliers, duck tape, zip ties and hammer at a minimum)
- daily medications and just in case medications (itch relief, pain relief, anti-diarrhea, antihistamine and antinausea are my standards)
- first aid kit (at a minimum alcohol wipes, bandages, tweezers, and medical tape)
Other Stuff to Pack for a Roadtrip
Every road trip should include epic locations and awesome stuff to do. Include the accompanying items in your packing list to ensure you don’t pay convenience prices for a replacement phone charging cord.
- camera to capture some of the sites
- postage stamps to send postcards to friends and family
- offline maps. Assume you’ll lose cellular service near national parks and download Google offline maps for the area.
- journal and a pen to record your amazing memories
- battery charging solution for all devices (charging cords and multiple methods for using them). We charge our phones using the car’s power when driving. For emergencies, we also travel with a fully charged universal battery bank that can recharge any device.
- entertainment items. I always download a few good books on my Kindle before leaving home. We usually travel with playing cards and a frisbee because they take up very little space and can keep us entertained for hours.
- hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes
- sporting goods. A few recommendations depending upon your destination and if you have space are: bicycles, boats, floats, disc golf discs or climbing gear.
- membership cards. If you have a warehouse club, parks pass or any other memberships (insurance, clubs, discount cards) that might save you money on your roadtrip, bring those cards. No one wants to pay full price if they have a discount card sitting on their kitchen counter.
3. Create a Roadtrip Budget to Save Money without Suffering
I know budget is a nasty word to most people but it’s really just a list of how you want to spend your hard-earned money.
When planning your trip document costs for each activity and location. This will allow you to create a budget. Having a budget will ensure you don’t have to dip into the emergency fund or borrow money to get home.
Budgets do not mean you can’t do the things your want, it just means you need to responsibly choose how you will spend your money. Rather than just buying all the things and worrying if you will have enough money left over for gas to get home, a budget will give you peace of mind to enjoy your trip.
Some budgets might include hundreds of dollars in roadtrip snacks or souvenirs. Mine doesn’t because I would rather spend my money on experiences I’ll remember.
Budgeting isn’t about suffering, it is just about planning for your splurges.
Basic Roadtrip Budget Categories
- Automobile Fuel & Tolls
- Food – groceries & dining out
- Emergency Funds
4. Share or Split Costs
A great way to save money on a roadtrip is to travel with friends who are willing to share the costs.
A tank of gasoline is a lot easier on the budget when it’s split between a few people. Plus, what’s more fun than a roadtrip with like-minded adventurous friends.
Most of our roadtrips include my parents and aunt because they enjoy traveling especially when someone else plans it all. We use the Splitwise app to track roadtrip spending. I highly recommend it to track costs and easily split items.
Otherwise, it’s a nightmare to figure out who paid for what and how much each person owes.
Splitwise is a free app that allows you to enter an amount (in multiple currencies), a comment (i.e. lodging at Zion National Park) and the correct split of the total costs (they owe me x% or I owe them). It also allows easy Venmo settlement in the app.
5. Pack Filling Snacks
I know it’s fun to stop at a gas station and buy snacks with the carelessness of a child. But doing it every day of a roadtrip quickly drains funds and tightens your waistband.
I know if I get hungry, my decision to make good decisions decreases exponentially. My hangry self immediately looks for candy bars and chips.
A treat or two on a trip is okay for most budgets and diets. But honestly, I’d rather save my splurges for a scoop of ice cream or a fresh donut from a local shop than a candy bar from a truck stop.
Plan ahead by bringing healthy filling snacks so you still have money for better treats during the trip.
Warehouse clubs usually have the best prices on nuts, jerky, and protein or granola bars. Did you know you can shop at Costco using a Costco gift card even if you don’t have a membership? We ask for Costco gift cards from family members with memberships to help save without buying a separate membership.
If you don’t have a warehouse club membership, your local grocery store will still be substantially cheaper than a gas station along the highway.
If you are addicted to a specific beverage, pack a cooler and bring them with you. A $3 drink at each stop can add up quickly when you’re trying to save money on a roadtrip.
A few of our favorite road trip snacks are :
- low sugar granola bars or protein bars
- tuna pouches
- pre-washed whole fruit
- refrigerated options: boiled eggs, veggie sticks & dip, cheese cubes, precut fruit
Dining out for every meal can be really expensive. We save money when on a roadtrip by cooking meals. Check out our kitchen packing list for a simple car cooking setup.
If you are only traveling for a few days, prep your food in advance and store it in Ziploc bags in your cooler. For us, this means chopping veggies and meat so we can just start cooking whenever we’re ready. Ingredients for end-of-week meals can even be frozen to keep them fresh longer.
I generally limit my plastic use but baggies are the easiest option for food storage when space is limited. Plastic bags adjust their shape for whatever space is available and are easily disposed of when empty.
Some travelers like to pre-cook their meals and just reheat them when ready to eat. We prefer freshly prepared meals over reheated items. Try a few methods and determine what you prefer.
Stirfry and pasta dishes can easily be prepared in a few minutes. Google skillet meals for all of the options that can easily be made in a frying pan on your tailgate or at your campsite.
To make cooking fun, we love to visit farmers’ markets and local shops to shop for ingredients. A few of our favorite finds this year were freshly roasted hatch chiles in New Mexico and fresh oysters in coastal Oregon.
If you don’t want to do any serious cooking on your trip, at a minimum buy canned soups and oatmeal to heat for meals. A warm meal has a big impact on our mental health.
If you don’t want to cook at all, you can live on sandwiches, protein bars and pre-cut fresh fruit and veggies. Grocery stores in larger towns often have affordable warm meals available in the deli. Keep reading for more ways to save on dining out.
7. Save Money Dining Out on a Roadtrip
I love dining out and always budget for a least a meal or two out per week.
A New Mexico roadtrip requires some hatch green chilis and you can’t go to Idaho without having fries. Don’t miss out on trying fresh local food but be smart with your dining out funds.
A few ways to save when dining out:
- Lunch meals are generally less expensive than dinner. Lunch menus are normally the same menu items as dinner with smaller portions and prices.
- Share with a friend. Look around at the portions being served and if they are generous then consider sharing an entree and side item/appetizer with a friend.
- Drink water. Seriously, restaurant margins are great on beverages, especially alcoholic beverages. If you’re trying to save money consider bringing your favorite bevvie from home. We love to bring a drink to enjoy while watching the sunset. It will help feel less deprived by skipping drinks with dinner.
- Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and it’s usually cheap. Consider eating out for breakfast instead of dinner to save money on a roadtrip.
- Consider treats instead of a meal. A bakery trip should cost less than a meal and you’ll be supporting a local business while enjoying a treat. We also like a little pick-me-up ice cream on summer afternoons.
- Grab a local free publication and look for specials. We love to share cheap happy hour appetizers for dinner.
- Ask a local for a recommendation. I love having lunch where blue-collar workers eat. They need good food to fuel their hard work and likely aren’t spending tons on a meal.
- Make sure to ask if smaller portions are available. Kids or senior sized meals are always enough food for me. Some places may charge extra for an adult to order from the kids menu but it’s still a good deal. I’ve found most places don’t care who orders on from the kids menu.
Be open to alternate accommodation options.
Looking for cheap lodging, consider camping. It is one of the cheapest ways to stay in awesome places.
Amenities vary based on your level of camping. Camping is just my broad way of saying that you’ll be sleeping without a building. Some campers sleep in their vehicle (cars, SUVs and RVs), some sleep in tents and some sleep outside under the stars.
At a minimum, I’d recommend some shelter from the weather. Tents can be purchased for less than a night in a cheap hotel. If you can borrow camping gear, that’ll save you even more for your adventure.
Tent sites can be found for under $20 per night at many campgrounds. Staying in campgrounds provides access to toilets and showers. Campgrounds may also provide a sense of safety for solo travelers.
Most of these beautiful places do not have any amenities and you’ll be far from any neighbors. So you’ll need to use showers and toilets elsewhere. Public restrooms are abundant in the US so daytime toileting is not an issue. Many campgrounds, truckstops, and national parks offer pay showers for non-guests.
Many travelers find mixing in a hotel every few days allows them to restock the ice in their coolers, take a long, hot shower and have a dreamy night of sleep.
Other Options for Non-Campers
If you are not a camping person, that’s okay. You can still save money on roadtrip accommodations.
- Consider cabins at a campground. They are generally very basic accommodations but much cheaper than hotels.
- Phone a friend. Plan your route so you can visit loved ones and stay with them for free.
- Check out Booking.com, AirBnB and VRBO for home and apartment vacation rentals. Be aware cleaning fees are normally the same amount whether you stay one night or 12 nights so single night stays don’t usually make financial sense.
- Compare hotels on multiple travel sites for the best prices. Free breakfast is a selling point for me.
- If you don’t want to prebook lodging, check out HotelTonight for same day deals for local hotels. I wouldn’t recommend this is in peak tourist locations because there may be no vacancies.
- If you are super adventurous and very low on funds, couch surfing allows you to sleep on strangers’ couches for free. I’ve never heard of a couch surfer being murdered but the idea makes me uncomfortable. Depending on your comfort level, couch surfing might be an option to save money on your next roadtrip.
9. Save Money on Roadtrip Fuel
If you are planning a long roadtrip then fuel will be one of the largest budget categories.
Don’t feel completely powerless because you do have some control over fuel costs. For more details on how we save money on fuel check out How to Find RV Fuel Savings:7 Simple Ways To Maximize Your Roadtrip Budget.
Methods to Save on Fuel
- Shop for best gas prices using an app like GasBuddy.
- Use discount cards, clubs, fuel points and whatever other magic you can find to save on fuel.
- Drive like you paid for the gas. Maintain a consistent speed and avoid heavy braking and hard accelerations to get better fuel economy.
- Choose fuel up points strategically. California is the most expensive state to buy gasoline so try to fill up your tanks in a cheaper neighboring state.
- Travel closer to home to keep costs lower. Less miles driven require less fuel. Check out our destinations for awesome destinations in your home state.
- Tune-up your vehicle before the trip to ensure optimum fuel economy. Tire pressure impacts performance so be sure to monitor while on the road.
- If you own a gas guzzler, then consider renting or borrowing a more fuel-efficient car for long trips.
- Avoid toll roads when possible.
10. Prepare for the Worst
In my opinion, no one should take a roadtrip without some emergency savings. It’s impossible to know what might happen so plan for the worst.
It is better to delay your trip, work a few more months, cut back on your everyday spending, and have emergency savings if something goes wrong. Otherwise, you might wind up stuck far from home without any money to get back. The last thing anyone wants to do is call family or friends for help when better planning could have avoided the issue.
Additionally, it is ideal to also have current medical and automobile insurance policies. Confirm the policies provide complete coverage in all areas you’ll visit.
Roadside assistance and travel insurance are also good to have in case of a car disablement or medical emergency.
Several auto insurance companies provide affordable Roadside Assistance to policyholders. Roadside assistance might already be included in your car insurance premiums so check before buying a separate policy.
Our travel insurance policy will transport us if we experience a medical emergency away from home. It will also provide financial assistance if we are stranded in a travel destination. Each policy varies in costs and benefits.
11. Save Money on Roadtrip Activities
The best part about a roadtrip is you can plan your route to include free or cheap destinations and activities.
Our favorite activities are outdoor and cost little to nothing but we also splurge on tours, city activities and park visits. Skip to #12 for more details on saving money on a National Park road trip.
Fun Activity Ideas
Fun stuff doesn’t have to cost a fortune. With a little preparation, you can save money on fun activities.
Tips to Save Money on City Based Roadtrips
- The Visitor Center or Chamber of Commerce is the best place to start your visit to any location. We’ve found great local restaurant recommendations and suggestions for local businesses to visit for free. A few of my favorite activities discovered at a visitor center were farms with free tours/petting zoos, vineyards with free tastings, free museums, and city parks with great activities.
- Consider self-guided walking tours or tip-based guided tours as affordable ways to experience a city.
- Self Guided tours vary based on location.
- We’ve had a lot of fun listening to free Rick Steve’s audio tours on our phones while wandering around new European cities. The best part is we could stop at our leisure and spend more time in cool spots. We haven’t found a similar free app for US cities yet.
- Some visitor centers have free brochures for self-guided walking tours which map out their location’s highlights with interesting history and facts. We especially love street art and sometimes create our own tours using Google maps.
- Tips Based Tours are a cheap way to explore the best of a city on foot.
- We search online for ‘Free City Tours’ before our trip and book a spot on a tour that interests us. We generally tip the guide $10-$20 per person based on the tour provided.
- Self Guided tours vary based on location.
- Public transportation is oftentimes much easier and cheaper than driving and parking in a busy city. While in San Francisco, we drove into the city on Sunday when street parking is free. But we took the train into the city later in the week to save on excessive Bay Area parking fees. Weekly passes may save money if traveling in a city for multiple days.
- Prepay for City Parking. We love to use the free Spot Angels app to find the least expensive parking spots in cities. Prepaying for parking will sometimes save even more.
- Zoos and museums for free. We use our existing zoo membership at Western North Carolina Nature Center to get free or discounted admission to other zoos and science museums throughout the country. Our membership costs less than $100 per year for two adults and we get reciprocal benefits at both ASTC and AZA locations. It has provided us with many days of free activities.
- Many museums offer free or discounted admission during specific times, days or to certain groups. Check out each museum’s website to align plans with discounted times and days. Free museum days are a great way to check out awesome locations and save money on your next roadtrip.
- If you must do a paid activity, then check for deals online. Big attractions are often part of a CityPass or combination package deal. If you plan to do more than one paid activity in a city, the City Pass may offer substantial savings.
- Groupon is a good way to find cheap activities in an area. However, you need an open mind. The inventory is constantly changing and you are not guaranteed to find anything good. We’ve used Groupon to buy certificates for massages, tours and more.
Tips for Outdoor Activities on a Roadtrip
After years of traveling, cities tend to blend together in our memories. Old churches and historic ruins don’t impress us as much as massive waterfalls or majestic mountains. We prefer outdoor activities for both physical exercise and the experience.
Generally, outdoor activities are free or low-cost.
Search for nearby municipal parks. Depending upon your needs, check for parks with playgrounds, sports fields, disc golf, walking trails, bike paths, hot springs or swimming pools. Admission is free for most activities but pools normally charge a small admission fee per person.
Bring your own gear if possible.
We enjoy hiking, biking and kayaking with our own gear. Our bikes and kayak are nothing to write home about but they take us to the same amazing spots as $10k specialized mountain bikes and $2k whitewater kayaks.
If you don’t own gear, try borrowing from a friend or family or maybe even rent it from a local outfitter.
12. National Parks
National Parks are amazing. Check out our National Parks articles for easy-to-follow trip planning guides. We have guides to Utah’s Big 5 (Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion), Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Death Valley and many more.
These places were designated as National Parks because they are beautiful, unique places that need to be protected. I recommend visiting as many as you can.
We love visiting National Parks sites and have been to over 40 sites since hitting the road in 2018.
The best way to save money at the National Parks is to buy a National Parks Pass and bring everything you need with you.
In 2022, National Parks passes are $80 per year for everyone in your vehicle. Most of the top parks charge $35 for a one-week admission pass.
Still not sure if the annual pass is worth it? You are not alone. For all of the specifics of the America the Beautiful national park pass including tips to make the most out of your pass, check out America the Beautiful National Park Pass: Is it Worth it and Will it Save You Money.
13. Learn from Gypsy Guide
If a Gypsy Guide exists for the National Park you’re visiting, then download it now and thank me later.
Seriously, I highly recommend Gypsy Guides. We became affiliate partners because we love their products so much. Gypsy Guide is GPS based phone app that provides a tour of many national parks. The app works with other apps you can listen to music or books and it will only interrupt when it has something to share.
The app will share fun stories, educational information and tour stop recommendations as you drive. It makes the National Park experience so much more enriching and enjoyable.
Gypsy Guide was the first phone app I ever bought because I’m cheap. We loved it so much that I’ve bought several more park guides from Gypsy since then.
Conclusion: You Can Save Money on an Epic Roadtrip
Roadtrips are a great way to see the country on a budget. We hope our tips help you save money on your next roadtrip. It’s time to start planning your next big adventure.