Road Trip Budget: How To Easily Set One
Whether you are ready to start a short or lengthy road trip, planning a budget might seem overwhelming. There are a lot of factors to consider, including gas, hotels, food, activities, and unexpected costs.
It may seem tempting to just hop in the car without any budget planning, but we can promise you that you and your bank account will be grateful that you laid out a plan.
The most important thing to do when setting a budget is to break it down as much as you can. There are two different strategies that will be helpful here: You can plan the amount of money you want to spend per city you visit or per day you spend on the trip.
Whatever you do, knowing how much you’re going to spend will set helpful boundaries on the trip and relieve any anxiety about overspending.
Keep reading to get all the tips and tricks you’ll need to set your road trip budget.
Create a Budget Document
The most important thing to do when creating a budget is to create a budget document. This document will be your landing space while you’re planning your trip. It will also be your point of reference when you’re thinking about spending additional funds while on the trip.
You can make a spreadsheet or just manually write out different sections for your spending. Everything we cover below should be included in your budget document. Having all these sections will help you add up a grand total for your trip and calculate a daily spending limit.
The easiest way to start the document is to write down the amount of money that you do not want to exceed during your trip. Then, you can further break down that number into the expenses we’ll cover below. Writing all this out will help give you a visual of where your money is going.
If it looks like you’re writing down too many expenses in the activities section, a budget document will help you adjust and put money towards other areas of your trip like gas or food.
Choose Your Route
If you haven’t already done this, make it your top priority. Mapping your route is the most important step when planning your road trip — and your road trip budget.
The great thing about road trips is that they are generally easy to plan around any sort of budget. Road trips can last only one or two days or go on for several months. However, when planning the length of your road trip, you have to take your budget into account.
We recommend setting your budget first, then planning on where you would like to go. Once your budget is set, you can decide how long your road trip can realistically last, based on the amount of money you want to spend per day.
Once you have a general idea of how long you want your road trip, you can pick where you want to go. If you choose a location far from where you live, you might have to factor in the price of flights as well. However, if you pick somewhere within driving distance, you may be able to make your trip last a little longer.
If you are trying to pick a route that will be kinder on your wallet, try your best to avoid stopping in major cities all the time. Pick a route that allows for a mix of cities, rural areas, and outdoor activities.
If you take your own car on a road trip, you will want to budget for pre-trip car maintenance. No matter how long your road trip is, you want to ensure that your car is functioning properly. Having your car break down when you’re far from home can be incredibly scary and expensive.
Checking your car means checking the tires, testing the lights, testing the breaks, and cleaning it out. If there’s an issue with the tires, lights, or breaks, take your car to a shop.
Even if the issue is nothing major, you don’t want to run the risk of your car not working properly in the middle of your trip. Additionally, you should check when your car is due for an oil change. If it needs a change right before, during, or right after your trip, take it in.
Lastly, make sure your car is prepared for whatever weather conditions it’ll be driving through. Be sure to budget for snow tires or snow chains if you’ll be driving through a lot of snow. And maybe budget for a sunshade that goes in the windows of your car if you are going to be parking your car in hot, sunny climates. For lots of interstate travel, an AAA membership and/or can be helpful in case of breakdowns or accidents.
Once you have your road trip mapped out, it’s time to start budgeting for unavoidable expenses. The first (and most obvious) inevitable cost you’ll encounter on your road trip is gas, especially if fuel prices are high. This can be very important for planning road trip costs when you want to hit the open road.
There are a few different things to consider when budgeting for gas. If your car is a newer, fuel-efficient model, you will probably have to fill up less on gas. However, if you have an older or bigger car, you might get less gas mileage and have to make extra trips to the gas station.
It’s also important to calculate the distance to the first stop of your road trip, the distances between each stop, and the distance from your last stop back to your home or the airport. You will also want to add in a few extra miles for driving around the city or town you will be stopping in.
To keep gas costs low when you’ll be needing a lot of it is to compare gas prices at different stations. Save money by finding the cheapest gas, so you can splurge on something else.
If one of your credit cards gives you gas rewards, it may be a helpful way to save. Just make sure you pay that bill as soon as you get home.
Budgeting for gas can be difficult to properly calculate, so using a fuel estimator will be extremely helpful. While you are budgeting for gas, you also might want to take this opportunity to map out when you will be taking trips to gas stations. Even if your gas tank isn’t empty, be sure to visit a gas station before every long stretch of driving.
Next, if your road trip is longer than a day trip, you will have to consider accommodations. There are plenty of options for spending the night during a road trip, so consider all of your options and which fits best with your budget and interests.
Hotels and Airbnbs
One of the most accessible and dependable options is to book a hotel room or an Airbnb. Luckily, you should be able to find a hotel or Airbnb in every town or city you stop in. When deciding which to book, you’ll want to consider your length of stay, what city or town you are in, and (of course) consult your budget.
Whether an Airbnb or hotel is more expensive will depend on where you are staying, so be sure to check both options for each night you plan to spend on your road trip.
If you are staying in one location for a few nights, you might want to book an Airbnb so you have some features and accommodations that are lacking in hotel rooms. If you are staying in a big city and want to be near the hustle and bustle, you might have better luck finding an affordable hotel room. Luckily, there are plenty of websites that are designed to help you find the cheapest accommodation in a certain city at a certain time.
Whether you choose an Airbnb or hotel, you should book all of your accommodations before starting the road trip, which will make it easy to include in your budget.
If you are not having any luck finding reasonably priced hotels or Airbnbs, or you are looking for a more unique experience, there are other places to stay for the night.
If you’re interested in camping, you can pack a tent, sleeping bags, and other camping essentials in your car. Be sure to properly search the area where you’ll be setting up camp. Check for safe camping grounds that are easily accessible by car. There are many campsites throughout the country that are free or inexpensive, so you shouldn’t have any trouble including campsites into your budget.
Another great resource to use is your own friends and family! If anyone you know lives in the area you will be driving through, they might be willing to let you stay with them for a night or two — in exchange for some adventurous stories and enjoyable company.
Although this is a wonderfully inexpensive option, you should budget to bring some sort of thank you gift with you for your stay, like a souvenir from your trip, a bottle of wine, or a gift card to their favorite restaurant. An unexpected gift makes visitors all the more welcome. Don’t forget to factor in these little gifts as you budget for this relatively free accommodation.
One of the easiest ways to blow through your road trip budget is to spend it all on food. This is totally understandable; you are going to be exploring entirely new areas of the country with food you maybe have never tried before. However, you should create a loose budget for food before starting your trip, since it is so easy to lose track of how much you are spending.
Look ahead at menus in restaurants, where you’ll be stopping to get an idea of how expensive your meals will be. We recommend skipping the fast-food pit stops to take advantage of local options later. Additionally, create a grocery budget if you are trying to save some money. Plan ahead to make a few stops at grocery stores to buy snacks and meals.
We recommend budgeting for one nice meal per day and two meals that are more inexpensive or casual. If you choose dinner as your special meal, you can pick up a small meal at a coffee shop for breakfast, use your groceries to create lunch, and go out to a nice restaurant to try the local cuisine for dinner.
As long as you have planned a mix of casual restaurants, local options, and food from the grocery store, you shouldn’t have a problem creating a realistic spending cap for the average cost of food per day on your road trip.
Tolls and Parking
Tolls and parking may not seem important enough to include in your road trip budget, but they add up over time. Luckily, once you have your route planned, you can map it on Google maps, and you will be able to have a visual of the tolls you will encounter on your trip. This will make it easier to include in your budget.
Although it might be more difficult to plan for the amount of money you will spend on parking, it’s fairly easy to get a general idea. Be sure to look at the parking charges for all of your accommodations, any local, or national parks you visit, as well as the parking for other planned activities and experiences.
Budget for a little more than what this adds up to, as you will probably encounter parking charges that you weren't expecting.
The next section of your budget should plan for the must-do activities along your road trip. We are guessing that you have planned your road trip around certain places you want to visit or certain sights you want to see, so accounting for these activities is important.
Plan Per City
It might be easy to plan this part of your budget per stop along your road trip. At every stop, be sure to write down one activity you for sure want to do. The easiest way to budget for this part of your trip is to make sure you have a variety of activities planned.
During some stops, you may want to partake in more expensive activities, such as concerts or a 5-star restaurant. However, you should also plan to partake in inexpensive activities as well, like hiking, going on picnics, or going to a museum.
Be Ready for Changes
Although you should have a general idea of what you will be doing when you start your road trip, you’ll want to make space for additions or alterations. Sadly, research can only get you so far before starting a road trip. Sometimes, the locations you want to visit are unexpectedly closed or you can’t do your planned activity because of bad weather.
In this case, you’ll need to fill your time with a new activity that might be more expensive than what you originally planned for. Similarly, you might encounter places you want to visit or experiences you want to have on your road trip that you didn’t know existed. Because of this, it is best to leave a little breathing room in your activities budget.
If you plan to spend an entire day driving from one location to the next, you might want to use the money you didn’t spend that day on another activity.
If you and the people you are traveling with are over 21, you might want to consider nightlife when creating your budget. This is another part of the trip that can easily eat up a large portion of your budget without even realizing it.
We recommend picking just a few stops on your trip that include nightlife. Set a realistic budget for each of these nights. Consider the drinks, transportation, and late-night food options.
If you are nervous about finding nightlife experiences within your budget, plan to go out in smaller towns, rather than big cities, and research the bars online beforehand to get an idea of where you will want to go.
National parks can be a great way to see all of what our country has to offer. Long road trips are great for touring the national parks. Some have campgrounds or free campsites to park your campervan or just stay in a cabin to cook dinner and keep food costs down.
If you plan to visit many parks, you can get a national park pass which includes all of the USA’s national parks for one set fee! So you can spend your time doing free activities like hiking and picnicking for one yearly price. This is a budget-friendly option for road trip planning.
You also might want to factor souvenirs into your road trip budget. Although this may seem like an unnecessary addition to the budget before you start your trip, you’ll probably want to buy a gift or souvenir at a local shop or vendor. However, this is not a totally necessary expense, so it may be smart to create a souvenir budget for the entire trip, rather than for each day or city.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time in the car. It can be easy to get bored or sleepy during long driving stretches, so it’s important to invest in some form of car entertainment. The best way to entertain yourself while driving is to prepare bite-sized stories that will enliven your trip with fun info about the areas you drive through.
Autio is a location-based audio platform that shares stories about the people, places, and history of the land as you travel. Autio will make you feel connected to the landscape and people who lived there on your drive.
If you’d like to discover the history and related stories about the highways, cities, towns, and lands you’re driving through, sign up now. Accounts are super affordable with access to thousands of bite-sized, location-based audio clips.
How To Keep Spending Low
If you’re nervous that your road trip will end up costing a fortune, there are plenty of ways to keep your spending in check.
If you are not using your own car for the road trip, you will need to consider the best rental car options. Luckily, in most cities, there are plenty of different options for car rentals.
You’ll want to research online so that when you pick up your rental, you’ll know who you are renting from, the type of car you’ll need, and the insurance plan you want. Most airports have a car rental service, which will be the most convenient option. You can look through their prices and car options online and find the most inexpensive option.
Overestimate Non-Negotiable Costs
As we discussed, planning the activities you want to do during the road trip, it’s nice to leave some wiggle room in the budget for unavoidable costs.
Although you may think you have properly calculated how much money you’ll need to spend on gas, there’s always a chance you’ll need to spend more than you thought. You might get lost or add an unexpected stop on your trip. These sorts of things will use up more gas than you might’ve expected.
Similarly, there could be an issue with your hotel or Airbnb where you’ll have to book a last-minute option, which could be expensive.
Leaving some room in your budget for unforeseen, emergencies will help you stay within your budget, even in a sticky situation.
Have a List of Inexpensive Options
Another great way to keep our expenses low is to have a list of inexpensive things to do ready to go. If you are approaching the end of your road trip and have spent more than you expected, having a list of things to do or places to go that won’t cost much money will be super helpful.
Just as we recommend picking one activity or experience at each stop that you just have to do, we also recommend writing a list of one to three things to do at each stop that costs little to no money. If you start maxing out your budget, you can refer to this list rather than being stuck with nothing to do.
Some great activities include going to public parks, hiking on public trails, visiting public art exhibitions, sightseeing, checking out local festivals, or going to free museums.
Car Safety Kit
An important part of your packing list that might save you money is a car safety kit. If you get a flat tire, but you have a spare tire and all the equipment needed to change it yourself, you can save yourself the cost of roadside assistance.
Similarly, your safety kit should also act as a mini first aid kit. Be sure to have a stash of band-aids, aloe vera, antibiotic ointment, and other treatments for minor wounds.
Avoid Peak Times
Another major factor to consider while planning your road trip is to think about the time of year you’re traveling. For example, if you are planning a Florida Road Trip with visits to the beach and Disney World, you might want to avoid going from January to March, since those are the busiest months for tourism in Florida.
If you are visiting a certain part of the country during holidays or other times in which tourism will be high, you will most likely have to spend more money. The price of hotels and Airbnbs will be higher, and you might have to make changes to your itinerary since restaurants, and other experiences will be extremely busy.
Try to plan your road trip during the off-season!
Trust the Locals
Living in a city as a tourist is generally much more expensive than living in a city like a local. While researching a city, it might be easy to come across restaurants or activities that aren’t actually worth your money. The term tourist trap exists for a reason, and you want to do everything you can to avoid them.
A great way to experience your road trip stops in a way that gives you the biggest bang for your buck — just ask the locals! Ask your barista, hotel concierge, or a friendly-looking face on the street for advice. They’ll be able to tell you what restaurants are tasty but inexpensive and great parts of the city to visit that won’t break the bank.
Print Out Your Budget
Once you have your entire budget planned out on your budget document, be sure to print it out and bring it with you! This will help remind you how much you have to spend each day, and it will also give you a template to move money in your budget around if you encounter unexpected charges.
Hopefully, by this point, you feel prepared to make a reasonable budget that will allow you to go on a road trip of your desired length to a place you want to explore. Just be sure to cover all of the unavoidable costs first, and then add in fun activities, excursions, and experiences. Additionally, be sure to always have your budget document with you on the trip to make spending decisions easier.
And, don’t forget to elevate your road trip by using Autio. It’s a great, inexpensive way to learn about your road trip destinations, which will make you feel so much more connected to the landscape as you cruise the open road.