Plan a Road Trip This Summer: Save Money & Have Fun

how to save money on a road trip

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In terms of price, a summer road trip will beat a vacation you need to fly to almost every time. And not just by a little — by a lot. That’s why college students are always taking road trips — they can’t afford to fly!

Let’s plan a couple of hypothetical vacations to illustrate the point. Let’s say you want a beach vacation, because so many people do in the summer. More of the U.S. population lives closer to the shore, so driving is easier for them. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says 10 percent of the U.S. is coastline, but nearly 40 percent of the population lives there. But let’s say you live in Ohio and you want to go to the ocean and not Lake Erie.

The closest beaches to Ohio are those along New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Flights on well-traveled routes are cheaper than flights to cities no one wants to go to. With that in mind, let’s choose Atlantic City and Virginia Beach as our destinations.

The Cost of Flying

Assuming two adults and two children are traveling, Travelocity gives a range of prices that include flight, hotel, taxes, and fees. For the swanky Resorts Casino Hotel, it’s $949 per person for the week, and for the more modest El Dorado Motor Inn, it’s $569 per person for the week. Remember to factor in the cost of airport transfers or parking your car at the airport.

For just flights, the cost is less than $300 per person, roundtrip, but all the flights include stops and the travel time is two minutes longer than driving (eight hours, 531 miles). You could fly from Columbus to Fort Lauderdale faster and for a little less money.

And remember when you fly, you have to get to the airport two hours early.

Renting a car when you get to Atlantic City will cost you $393 for a Toyota Camry for the week or $542 for an SUV.

Tollguru says the cost of driving from Columbus to Atlantic City is $53 for gas (assuming $2.70 per gallon) and $27.92 tolls.

So, flying to Atlantic City will cost close to $2,000; driving, $162.

Flights to Virginia Beach also have stops, but the travel time is shorter — closer to four hours. Prices are about the same — less than $300 roundtrip. If you do a package, the Westin is $801 per person for the week including flight, taxes, and fees, and America’s Best Value Inn is $502. Renting a full-sized car is $341 for the week; it’s $548 for an SUV.

It’s a nine-hour drive from Columbus to Virginia Beach, and Tollguru says gas will cost $58 and tolls will be $5.20.

So, flying to Virginia Beach, close to $2,000; driving $121.

It’s a no-brainer, right?

Ideas for Saving Money on a Summer Road Trip

Driving to your vacation saves you more than just the cost of plane tickets, however. The night before your road trip, pack a cooler. Make sandwiches for everyone with their favorite kinds of deli meat. Take along family-sized bags of chips and popcorn to go with them. (You can vacuum the car when you get back.) Pack fruit as well. Apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas travel well.

Assign each family member a water bottle. Try to use the durable ones you get free at various events — it will help each person keep track of their own bottle. Have everyone refill their bottles at rest stops. Buying coffee, snacks, sodas and other food at rest stops will add hundreds to the cost of your trip. Just say no.

If that’s too hard, take a roll of quarters with you and give one or two to each kid to put in the gumball machine at the rest stop. More often than not, kids want “something,” and they don’t consider how much it costs.

Try to reserve a hotel room with a fridge and a microwave. Some hotels will whack you an extra $10 a day for a fridge. I think it’s worth it, but you might be able to get away with using ice from the machine, depending on what you would use the fridge for.

Farm style house with rolling hills and trees with yellow and green leaves.
A summer road trip can give you an opportunity to get off the beaten path.

Make Breakfast Simple on a Summer Road Trip

When I was a kid, we would take one trip a year to visit relatives and stay two nights in a hotel. My father would arise before dawn and procure a box of donuts for each morning, saving the cost — and hassle — of breakfast out.

If this is too unhealthy for your taste, that’s where the fridge will come in handy. Buy yogurt, fruit and premade breakfast sandwiches from a grocery store or a Wawa. It’s still less than half the cost of eating out.

When my kids were little, I had a special piece of luggage — a hard-sided locker bag — that I would take on all trips — road, train or plane. I’d put a loaf of bread in there and some peanut butter and jelly, which was their favorite food anyway, and I’d have lunch available 24/7. I’d also pack a huge box of cereal that they both liked and buy milk when I got there. If I was flying, I’d pack bowls too. They’d eat breakfast while they watched Dora the Explorer.

Some hotels provide a free breakfast, and this can be valuable as well.

Make Lunch in the Room

The microwave is great for popcorn, mac and cheese, canned spaghetti, chicken nuggets, burritos, noodle soups and more. When you have a car, you can hit a grocery store when you get to your destination and load up on supplies.

If you do it right, you can get by on paying for only one meal a day. Consider all-you-can eat places like Bob Evans or Olive Garden. If there are none nearby, a good tip if you’re traveling with kids is not to order anything for yourself in a restaurant. Your kids will be too excited to eat much, and the chicken strips won’t taste like the ones they’re used to, and they’ll just leave it all there. Dig in!

If soda doesn’t come with the kids’ meal, don’t let them get any. It will cost you close to $3 each for sodas, and sure, you get refills, but do they need that? They don’t. If they whine, buy a bottle of soda and tell them they can have a cup when they get back to the hotel.

See All the Sights on a Summer Road Trip

The best summer road trips are great for another reason too — you get to see more. I’m not talking about the biggest ball of twine in the world on Route 66, either. When you go to a resort, it’s fun, but you’re trapped there. You only see what they show you, and they charge you crazy prices for food and drinks.

When you have a car at your disposal, you can travel off the beaten path. I had a friend who hated traveling but agreed to go on a business trip to Las Vegas with his wife. The first thing he did when he arrived was rent a car and leave, so he could see Hoover Dam. He didn’t want to hang out on the Las Vegas strip all day.

Research your summer road trip destination to see what you can find that’s driving distance. Make a side trip to a nearby city, or visit a wildlife preserve, remote beach or historic landmark.

These types of jaunts make a trip more memorable. Otherwise, all your vacations will seem the same in your kids’ minds — sand, sea, kites, overpriced ice cream cones, carnival rides, hermit crabs, and seagulls.

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