Once you’ve saved enough money to take a road trip, how do you make that money last as long as possible?
Set a daily budget
The first lesson of a daily budget is that you’ll often exceed your daily budget. Our daily goal was to spend a maximum of $100 ($75 in cheaper areas) on discretionary items (camping, hotels, gas, food, drinks, supplies, and shopping). Some days will be more expensive and some will be less expensive. Look at your average spend, over a full month, to see if you’re on track to meet your goals.
Our average discretionary daily spend over eleven months was $76/day. We spent an additional $69/day on fixed costs like car payments and insurance.
Track your expenses
To help stay on budget, keep track of what you spend every day. After a few months of carefully tracking your spending, you’ll have a good idea of what and how you spend, and you’ll be able to stop documenting each purchase.
Physically writing down our purchases in a notebook helped us keep our spending in check. If we had an expensive gas day, we were less likely to spend more on a hotel or dinner, instead looking for a cheap campsite where we could make dinner.
Buy an AAA membership
You’re going to get AAA before you go on a road trip. If you don’t purchase the membership for yourself, your parents or other older, wiser adult relatives will do it for you. Trust me.
AAA is not only good for roadside assistance – it also offers lots of helpful discounts. The discount we received on our Penske moving truck alone covered the cost of a two-year AAA membership. Check out the member discounts section to see which hotel chains, stores, museums, and movie theaters in an area offer AAA discounts.
Camping will always be cheaper than staying at a hotel (unless you’re in California), but when it’s especially cold, rainy, or late, the idea of sleeping in the rough is less appealing. In these cases, or when we were in need of extra bathing or just wanted to watch TV and veg out, we relied on the Priceline app on our phones to find the cheapest hotels in an area.
Priceline isn’t perfect – sometimes AAA discounts are better than the Priceline negotiated price, sometimes the Priceline ratings don’t match reality, sometimes it’s easy to accidentally reserve a room at the Red Carpet Inn instead of the Red Roof Inn. But it is typically the easiest way to find and book a cheap hotel when you’re on the go.
Priceline is also a useful tool to get a gauge of the cost of hotels in an area. If you prefer to stay at Mom and Pop Motels rather than at a Motel 6, Priceline will keep you from overpaying.
Is there cheaper gas down the road, or should we fill up now? There used to be no way of knowing, but now we have the GasBuddy app on our phones. We used this app to decide if it was worthwhile to push on for cheaper gas or if it was better to fill up now. Keep it in perspective, though – if gas is $0.05 a gallon more, you’ll only pay an extra $1 for 20 gallons of gas. It’s never going to be worth driving miles out of the way to fill up.
Find cheap books and magazines
We aren’t Kindle fans – we’re still too tied to the experience of finding used books. We lucked into some amazing finds on our trip – a first edition copy of Blue Highways, a signed copy of Around the World Single-Handed, and plenty of other great finds that we wouldn’t have stumbled on if we were doing all of our shopping in the Kindle store.
Rather than shopping at used bookstores, our favorite options for finding used books and magazines were Friends of the Library Bookstores and exchange shelves.
Almost every library has a Friends of the Library Bookstore and they’re great places to score a whole range of books and magazines. Books are usually about $1 each. Magazines are sometimes free, sometimes $0.25. This is where we picked up the majority of our reading material.
Exchange shelves can often be found in campgrounds in the office building, at the host’s site, or by the restrooms. They’ll pop up at other spots in particularly touristy areas, like laundromats or restaurants. You can also start your own temporary exchange by leaving your used books in a well-trafficked place. Exchange shelves are the place to score completely random stuff – videocassettes of popular movies in German, religious books, obscure magazines – and to leave behind the books and magazines you’ve finished.
When you shouldn’t save
Remember: the less you spend on the road, the longer you can stay on the road. But if you’re not having a good time, you’re not going to want to keep traveling. Splurges are sometimes necessary to keep the whole experience enjoyable. Just splurge wisely.