3 Ways to Budget on Your Next Road Trip
As the weather becomes warmer, you may be itching to hop in the car and take a road trip. You could spend a weekend going to a destination that’s close by or take a few weeks to explore. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to take a road trip across the U.S. or visit sites like the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Kennedy Space Center, Disney World or Yosemite National Park.
Before you decide how far you’ll go and how long you’ll be gone, you need a road trip budget so you can be sure to save up the money you’ll need to have a great time.
Expenses to Consider for Your Road Trip
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Many factors will figure into how much you’ll spend on a road trip. To determine how much money you should have in the bank before you hit the road, be sure to consider all the expenses you may encounter on a road trip and then add a buffer for surprises or emergencies. Your road trip budget should include the following categories.
Road Trip Transportation
Before you set out on the road, you should have your car checked out by a mechanic to ensure that your auto is properly prepared for a road trip. You will also want to check in with your car insurance policy to make sure it covers you away from home and in all states. If you don’t have a car or would rather save yourself the hassle of going to a mechanic, you could always rent a car. Car rentals can fluctuate by the day depending on many factors, but the average car rental cost is $92 per day. If you purchase insurance from the car rental company or rent a luxury vehicle, you could easily spend hundreds of dollars per day on a rental car for your trip.
You’ll need to factor in gas as well. The national average gas price as of April 2021 was $2.87 per gallon, but gas can be considerably higher if you live in a more expensive state. During the same time in California, it was $3.92 a gallon.
Road Trip Lodging
When trying to figure out where to stay on a road trip, you’ll need to consider lodging costs. If you’ve got a travel credit card, you can cash in some of your travel rewards to make your lodging free or very low cost.
If you want to stay in an Airbnb, the average price will vary by state, but on the whole, it costs an average of $171 per night to rent one in the U.S. Kansas boasts the cheapest Airbnb rates with an average of $88 per night. The average cost of a hotel in the U.S. is $103.25 per night, but you could find cheaper or much more expensive options depending on your road trip budget. If you want to avoid hotels and Airbnbs altogether, you could rent an RV for $60–$450 per night.
Road Trip Food
The average cost of food per day on a road trip will also vary. Let’s say you exclusively eat at fast-food restaurants, where combo meals are an average of $4 to $7. When eating out at a regular restaurant, Americans spend around $10-$13 per meal. If you go to the grocery store and cook food while on the road, you’ll probably pay less since the average cost of groceries per month for one person ranges from $150-$300.
The final area where you'll spend money on a road trip is on attractions. You may be able to access many parks, beaches and other outdoor spaces for free. Sometimes, visitors won't be charged admission fees, but there will be a cost for parking fees. For instance, you'll need to pay $10 to park at Mount Rushmore, but admission is free. Before setting out on the road, look up the fees and parking costs for all the attractions you plan to visit, so there are no surprises.
Keep in mind that there might be unplanned expenses that come up every once in a while. For example, you could blow out a tire or be too tired to prepare a meal and decide to grab a hamburger instead. Cushioning your road trip budget with some extra cash is always a good idea if you encounter these scenarios.
Now that you know what expenses you will incur on the road, here are three road-trip budgets depending on how much you want to spend.
1. Frugal Road Trip
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Let’s say you’re going by yourself or taking a family road trip on a budget. Either way, you don’t want to spend much money.
If you're traveling on a shoestring budget, you could use your own vehicle so that you don't have to pay for a rental car. Then, you could calculate your costs for gas by using the trip calculator tool. For instance, if you have a 2020 Toyota Prius, it would only cost you $111.24 to drive from Los Angeles to Chicago, which is over 2,000 miles. If you take that same trip in a 2020 Jeep Wrangler, which gets much less mileage, you will spend $289.21.
If you shop at grocery stores and prepare your meals, you might spend between $5 and $10 per day on food (if you typically spend an average of $150 to $300 per month). When you're doing a family road trip on a budget, and you have four people in your family, that's only $20–$40 per day for the average cost of food per day on a road trip. If it's just you and your partner, frugal food costs go down to $10–$20 per day.
For lodging, you could stay in an inexpensive motel such as Motel 6, which could cost you just $63 a night, or perhaps even less if you get discounts through AAA, AARP or another program. Even if you get two rooms because you're with your family, you'd only be spending around $120 a night.
If you find free attractions in the places you visit, you wouldn't have to pay anything to see your favorite sites. There are plenty of curious and fascinating roadside attractions that are free or nearly free throughout the U.S.
2. Regular-Priced Road Trip
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Maybe you'd love to take a road trip and have a little money set aside, but you don't want to bust your budget. You can still enjoy yourself while not overspending if you use a moderate budget when planning your road trip.
If you find yourself with a moderate travel budget, you could either take your car or rent an average vehicle for $92 a day. Calculate your gas costs by plugging in the make and model of your vehicle and where you're going.
Moderate Food Costs
You could prepare most of your meals using groceries but still budget to eat fast food and at a restaurant every once in a while. Let's say that you and your partner spend $10 a day on groceries for five days, but for the last two days of your trip, you eat out every meal and spend $7 each on breakfast, lunch and dinner. That means you'd spend $50 plus $42, or $92 on food for your entire trip. If you have a family of four, double that amount to get to $184 for the whole time.
Instead of staying in motels, you could opt for hotels for five days at $103 a night and then for your last two nights, you stay in a nice Airbnb for $200 per night. Your total costs for lodging would be $915.
You may pay for some attractions, like museums and national parks, and opt for free events for your other outings. If you’re looking to save on any attractions, you could ask if they have discounts for younger children or seniors if you’re going with your family or for students if you’re still in college.
3. Splurge Road Trip
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If you're planning an epic road trip to some significant bucket-list attractions, you might want to splurge on your road trip budget.
Transportation and Lodging Splurge
If you can swing it financially, imagine how great it would be to take a road trip in a top-of-the-line RV for $450 a night. Another good splurge would be to stay in a nice hotel for $300 a night. With the RV option, you'd spend $3,150 for the week, plus the cost of gas. For hotels, you'd spend $2,100. You'd have to factor in the price of gas for the vehicle you use for getting to and from hotels as well. Don't forget parking costs, too. There may be a valet option you could use if you want to go all out.
If you eat out at restaurants for every single meal at $12 per meal per person, you will spend $36 a day or $252 a week ($504 for a couple and $1,008 for a family). If you go to a popular attraction known for its specialty food and snacks, you'll pay a lot more. A Mickey Mouse ice cream treat costs around $5, so count on at least $20 per day for snacks for a family of four.
If you're going to a Disney park or planning on visiting famous attractions that cost top dollar, you'll have to budget tickets and parking costs. Disney World tickets cost about $100 a day, but you can buy multiple-day tickets to reduce the per-day cost.
Taking to the Road
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No matter what kind of road trip budget you're on, you can have a great time and travel safely. Just remember to save up, plan ahead, and unlike Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Vacation," go with the flow when it comes to any unplanned interruptions and expenses. Then, you can guarantee you'll make unforgettable memories you'll look back fondly on for the rest of your life.
About the Author
Kylie Ora Lobell is a writer for MoneyGeek. She has over 10 years of experience writing in the personal finance, legal and business space for publications and brands like Legal Management Magazine, LegalZoom, Forbes, EMC, IBM, Dell, Mastercard, Visa and NCR. Her bylines include The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, New York Magazine and Time Out NY/LA. Her website is KylieOraLobell.com.
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