The ultimate guide to budget-friendly road trips

Easy ways to lessen the financial burden of traveling and still have a fun and memorable trip

KOA lazy river. | Photo: Amanda Adler

With inflation forcing the cost of gas, food, and entertainment skyward, travelers looking to hit the road may feel overwhelmed trying to stay on budget. But whether you’re looking for a quick getaway or an extended family vacation, you can find low-cost fun no matter where you venture. 

Follow these tips to help you get the most bang for your buck.

Economical accommodations

It’s easy for nightly hotel rates to get out of hand. Rather than choosing a big city hotel, consider one of these money-saving options.

Get comfy camping

two cars are parked on a scenic mountain overlook next to a popped tent
Car camping. | Photo: Shannon Farrell

Camping can be a great way to save money and truly connect with the place you’re visiting. Car camping is an economical choice that requires very little gear. Pop the hatch of your station wagon or SUV, set up a sleeping bag, and enjoy nights of peaceful relaxation under the stars. It’s an ideal option for solo travelers or couples.

For those looking for a little extra sleeping space, consider investing in a tent. While there’s a wide range of options, you don’t need to break the bank to find something comfortable enough for a twosome to enjoy.

Families traveling with children don’t necessarily need a large RV with all the bells and whistles to get out on the road. A small pop-up camper is a great solution that can be easily pulled by most vehicles and folds down for garage storage.

When it comes to selecting where to stay, options range from free off-grid camping on public lands, to state and national parks, to full-service campgrounds. To make the most of your budget, consider alternating between free and paid sites to save whenever possible.

glamping tents lit up at night under a sky full of stars
Glamping under the stars. | Photo: Bailey Made/Under Canvas

Insider Tip: If you’ve never camped and want to give it a try before investing in gear, try booking a glamping stay. Many campgrounds, such as KOA resorts, offer cabins and other accommodations for rent, and many have robust amenities, such as pools, playgrounds, on-site activities, nightly campfires, and more. 

Related How to create your own budget-friendly glamping experience

Make it a family affair

Interested in planning a trip to visit family or friends? Couch surfing at a loved one’s house can save you big bucks and helps bring you closer (literally and figuratively) to those you hold most dear. Experience your host’s city through their eyes as you let them play tour guide and show off their favorite haunts.

If you like the idea of visiting with friends and family but have your heart set on another vacation locale, invite the whole gang to join you on the road. Pool your resources to travel together, booking larger suites or multi-family cottages that are less expensive when the cost is split between several parties.

Related The ultimate guide to family road trips

Seek out unique lodging

If you still want all the luxury of staying in a swanky hotel, think outside the box and look for accommodations with unique features to keep your budget in check.

Fans of the TV show Schitt’s Creek fell in love with the small-town antics that took place at the Rosebud Motel. But just as the Rose family worked to bring the well-loved motel up to modern standards, many motels across the nation have recently received a similar glow-up. Retro-chic offerings in cities such as Santa Barbara, Savannah, and beyond offer a trendy place to stay and often boast a relatively budget-friendly price tag compared to hotel options in these sought-after destinations.

Related Welcome to Sharon Springs, a real life Schitt’s Creek in upstate New York

Or, why not make the hotel the main attraction? Booking a stay somewhere with an on-site water park, live shows, or kids club may mean you’re paying a pricier fee up front, but a staycation at this type of resort means you won’t have to pony up even more cash for outside entertainment. 

two hands cheers two cans of beer on a dock
Bring your own snacks and drinks. | Photo: Amanda Adler
a boy holds a strawberry in front of a row of plants
Pick your own fruit. | Photo: Amanda Adler

Frugal food

Eating cheap on the road doesn’t have to mean gas station hot dogs and fast-food dollar menu picks. Be kind to your stomach and your wallet with these tips for eating well on a budget.

Pack a picnic 

Stock a cooler with snacks and drinks, which you can replenish throughout your travels. Include sandwiches, fruits, and healthy fare, or get fancy with a charcuterie board and grown-up beverages to enjoy as you watch the sunset. Seek out scenic spots to enjoy a quiet picnic, such as mountain overlooks, national park pavilions, or lush city parks.

Pick your own produce 

An amazing and inexpensive activity to enjoy is picking fruit. Many blueberry, cherry, apple, and other orchards offer the chance to pluck product straight off the vine, often at a fraction of the price you’d pay in the store. Roadside produce stands and local farmer’s markets also offer the opportunity to get a taste of a region and support local growers.

Eat with locals 

Rather than heading for trendy restaurants or dining on upscale fare, ask locals for suggestions. Some of the best and most authentic eats can be found in dive bars and hidden hole-in-the-wall diners. 

an oversized rocking chair
World’s Largest Rocking Chair. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Budget boredom busters

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you can quickly go broke on entertainment expenses. But you don’t have to spend a lot to have a great getaway.

Fee-free activities

There are plenty of ways to have free fun in almost any destination. Here are a few ideas:

  • Enjoy hours of fun at local parks and playgrounds.
  • Hit the trails for scenic hikes to waterfalls, rock formations, and other natural wonders.
  • Savor historic architecture in charming destinations like New Orleans, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas.
  • Stroll among statues, decorative fountains, and iconic landmarks.
  • Hit the beach for days of play or much-needed relaxation.
  • Take in public art displays in Brooklyn, New York; Miami, Florida; or another hip metropolis.
  • Travel during holidays to enjoy small-town Independence Day parades or charming seasonal decor in quaint downtowns.
  • Bring bikes, skateboards, fishing gear, card games, and other activities that you can enjoy once at your destinations.
  • Break for roadside attractions along your way, snapping photos with the world’s largest pistachio or larger-than-life dinosaur dioramas.

Insider Tip: Do you have a 4th grader in your family? If so, you’re eligible for a free national park pass.

Related Everything you need to know to plan a national park road trip

a baseball stadium full of people watching the game at sunset
Catch a minor league game. | Photo: Amanda Adler

Cheap thrills

When it comes time to break out your wallet, think about how to make the most of your spending cash.

  • Skip Broadway and take in a community theater performance instead.
  • Enjoy a night out at the minor league baseball park or snag tickets for a minor league hockey game to cheer on up-and-coming players.
  • Buy tickets online in advance to save money, and don’t be afraid to look for coupons or ask the local visitor center about discounted attractions.
  • Savor the simplicity of an open-air drive-in movie theater and pack your own popcorn and candy.

More tips for saving money on a road trip

When finding ways to pinch pennies on the road, here are a few additional questions to keep in mind.

What can I get for free?

a boy holds a junior ranger badge outside
Badges can be earned at more than 200 national parks and historical sites. | Photo: Amanda Adler

Curb expenses by seeking out included freebies. Look for hotels that offer complimentary breakfast or a nighttime reception with drinks. Pass on pricey souvenirs and instead get creative with your keepsakes. Turn cardboard bar coasters or stickers from local establishments into a fun scrapbook, while your kids can take part in free Junior Ranger programs to collect commemorative badges.

How else can I sleep cheap on a road trip?

The general rule for booking accommodations is to either book very early or seek out last-minute deals. Price check lodging in multiple destinations to find the best deal and don’t be afraid to book a room farther outside the city to save even more (including on parking fees, which are generally higher in the city center). 

Many campgrounds, hotels, credit cards, and third-party booking sites will also reward you for your loyalty. Stock up on points by joining various rewards programs to earn deals on future stays. 

How much will my road trip cost?

Many factors determine how much you’re going to spend, but a few tips for stretching your budget include:

  • Stay longer at each destination versus hopping from place to place to lock in the best lodging prices.
  • Consider destinations close to home to maximize your vacation time and cut down on fuel expenditures.
  • Travel during off-peak times and shoulder seasons. Even if you’re restricted when you can travel, you can always visit a summertime hotspot in winter or find a long weekend to enjoy a short getaway to a pricier locale.
  • Make sure you’re being realistic about costs. As with any trip, there will be some costs that you can control and others you can’t, so do your best to budget for controlled expenses like gas, meals, admission prices, and nightly rates.