Road Trip Planning 101: How to Set a Budget & Stick to It

With kids in college many hours away, we end making A LOT of road trips — and that can add up to some big bucks if we're not careful.  Since I'm already spending major money for college itself, hello, I definitely don't want to use any more of it than I have to when I need to visit or move the kids in or out.  Therefore careful road trip planning becomes very important.

Road trips can be fun -- and expensive. It's easier to keep costs down if you set a budget as part of your road trip planning. Read this for ideas about what to include and how to save money!

But road trip planning can also be a chore, you know?  And I am so not into anything that is complicated or effort-ful.  After much experience, however, I've distilled road trip planning — specifically the budgeting part of it — down to a four-point procedure. I'm all about making things like this as easy and streamlined as possible.  Who needs more stress?  Not I.

We made a quick weekend trip in early January to take two of the girls back to school after college break.  We did the trip in two days with a one-night hotel stay.  I'll use that as an illustration of my road trip planning techniques, and I'll give a breakdown of our projected budget vs. our actual costs.  And I'll share an amazing tip that we discovered this trip! 

Road Trip Planning 101

I usually start planning for a road trip right around the time I am also doing the household budget for that particular pay period.  I want to know how much money to set aside from the paycheck, so it doesn't get spent anywhere else.  (One of my financial goals for this year is was to plan further ahead than that for these bigger ticket items — after all, trips back and forth to college are fairly predictable — but since the job loss I've had to set that one aside…)

1) GAS: I always begin by figuring out how much gas money we'll need.  While it's not the largest expense, it is one that is usually pretty cut-and-dried.  (Basically, it's easiest.  LOL.)

Planned budget: This trip was 620 miles each way.  That's a total of 124o miles.  Our car gets 25 mpg.  So 1240 miles / 25 mpg = 50 gallons of gas needed (the actual number was 49.6, but I always round up).  50 gallons x $3.00/gal (this is an approximate number, rounded to the high side, and bearing in mind that The Man insists on ALWAYS using premium gasoline in our vehicles) = $150.  Yes, this was an overestimate, because the price of gas was lower than that (Still is!  Yay!).  But the amount of miles doesn't account for any driving we might do around town at our destination, so overestimating covers that.

Actual cost: But wait, first we have to talk about #2.  Keep reading. :-)

2) RENTAL CAR:  Since we revel in owning old cars as a way to save money, we often prefer to rent a car to take road trips.  This avoids a lot of anxiety about possible breakdowns; plus it saves wear-and-tear on our already vintage vehicles.  So almost every trip I will just do a quick check of rental rates to see if that is a viable option.

Planned budget:  This time my quick check came up spades — I could rent a premium vehicle for two days for a whole $12 per day, with a grand total after taxes and fees of about $45.  That is peanuts, y'all, so I snagged one of those babies.

Actual cost: The rental car itself was exactly as contracted — $45.

Actual cost of gasoline: This is where getting the rental car actually SAVED us money.  Since it is a newer vehicle, it got better gas mileage than our own car — about 35 mpg, which means we only needed around 35 gallons instead of the 50 I had planned for.  AND, since it was not our own vehicle, The Man had no problem putting the cheapo gas into it.  LOL.  The most we paid was $2.39/gal, but at some places it was even less, for a grand total gas cost of $65!!  (Remember this was right after Christmas, y'all; I realize that prices are even cheaper now.)  Even after adding the cost of the rental car to that figure, we saved about $40 compared to the cost of taking our own car.  AND the new car was fun to drive and ride in, with lotsa bells and whistles.  AND we knew if it broke down it would not be our headache.  This was a win-win!

3) HOTEL: We always talk about the option of sleeping in the car along the roadside as a way to save money.  But with a trip of this length — 10 hours one way — I knew I would be a basket case if we tried to do that.  As I get older, I am learning how to avoid situations that would put me in meltdown mode I realize how much I need to pace myself.  So I confess that it was me, me, totally me, who insisted on a hotel room. :-)

Planned budget: My husband, who used to travel for work all the time, has a preference for where he stays, so the hotel room I booked (with my AAA discount) was $94 per night, totalling $105 after taxes.  Could I have found a cheaper room?  No doubt.  The one I stayed in for my recent goal setting retreat was about $30 less.  But guess what — I could tell. :-) Comfort level is part of stress, y'all; the more comfortable you feel, the less stressed you will be.  And I was totally on board with spending a little more for getting a nicer hotel to sleep in after traveling with three other people for 10+ hours.  Who wouldn't be? :-)

Actual Cost: As contracted — $105.

4) FOOD: I always save this category for last, because it can be very subjective and depend on so many factors.  What time of day we leave, whether we pack snacks, how many stops we make, how thirsty we get, who needs caffeine to stay awake to drive, etc. etc.

Planned budget:  This time my method was very scientific (*sarcasm alert*).  I saw that the other categories added up to $300 — and so I added $200 for food, to make it a nice round $500 total for the trip.  Simple.

Actual cost: I have tried every permutation and combination of food-planning for road trips out there, y'all.  I feel like they narrow down to two basic options: 1) You can purchase everything at your local grocery store and pack a cooler full of sandwiches, etc.  2) Or you can drive through fast food restaurants the entire trip.

And you know what?  I've found that either option ends up costing about the same amount.  Usually at the grocery store I over-buy, and then I pack TONS of food which we don't finish.  Plus you have to find a spot for the cooler to fit into the car.  Fast food may seem like it should be more expensive, but if you order from the value menus and/or share fries and drinks, it doesn't have to be so bad.  And then you avoid all the pre-trip headache of going to the store and making all those sandwiches.  Definitely a plus for me!

BUT we are not so much into fast food anymore.  We are trying to eat healthier than that these days.  So for our time in the car, I packed three things: a big bag of trail mix, some clementines, and some apples.  These are easy, yummy, and don't take up a lot of space.

We did drive through for some fries and coffee once each day.  And of course we took advantage of the hotel breakfast!! But our other main meals were eaten at sit-down restaurants, namely Panera, Ruby Tuesday, and Bennigan's.

And yes, by the time you've fed four adults three times at establishments like these, you've used up a bunch of cash.  I was thinking that the food estimation was going to be considerably more than we needed — but we used all of it.  We did not go over, however, because The Man and I chose not to stop for a full dinner on the way back home.  We were determined to come in under budget!  And also, by that time we were in get-home-if-it-kills-us mode.  You know what I mean. :-)

One huge tip for handling money on a road trip:

This was seriously a game-changer and we're going to use this tip every time we go on a road trip from now on:  The Man carried the food money in his wallet and I carried the gas money in my purse.  That way it was very easy to see how much we were using and how much was left.  He usually pays at restaurants, after all; and it is usually my job to run in at the gas stations and give the cash to the register-person.  So it made sense and worked really well.

So in case you haven't been keeping track, the end result is that we came in under budget by about $40.  Gotta love it!

Road trips do not have to be costly or worrisome, and road trip planning does not have to be a chore.  All that's needed is a flexible attitude and a strong desire to keep things simple.  What are your tips for a successful road trip?

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8 thoughts on “Road Trip Planning 101: How to Set a Budget & Stick to It”

  1. Thanks for featuring my ways I wasted money post! Man I could write those monthly! ;) I loved your road trip tips – especially noting that it’s a waste of time to shop for and prepare your own food if no one ends up eating it! Sometimes fast food really is the best option!

    1. Haha! I know how you feel about the wasted money, Erin! And your post was a good one, so it was our pleasure to feature it! :-)

  2. Hello! Really enjoyed this post as we just came back from a road trip to South Florida and I am always on the lookout for new tips to use for next time. Where did you find a car rental that cheap? The best deal I could find was a 1 week rental and we paid $242 total (we went through Enterprise). Not bad really, but I feel like I could have done better.

    1. I know, I am still astounded at how cheap it was. Even more expensive rentals are still worth it to us, though. I usually just search on Expedia or Travelocity and find the cheapest one for the dates I need, but I don’t book through them. Then I go to the actual car rental website and book there. It’s easier to change or cancel the reservation that way. :-)

  3. Thanks for posting these tips. Do you mind sharing where you got the rental car from? Those prices are great.

    1. I used to go to Expedia to search for the dates I wanted, and I would find the rental agency with the lowest price there. Then I would book through the actual website of that agency, NOT through Expedia, lol. So it could have been almost any one of them, although I find that Hertz is often too expensive for me. Lately, though, I’ve become a Thrifty Blue Chip member, because they seem to almost always have the lowest prices, and I’ve been very happy with their service — the others, not so much sometimes. I find that you get lower prices the further ahead you book, and it also depends on time of year. The rental I’m using to go get my daughter from college in three weeks is $76 per day!! It’s a mini-van, but still, that’s a chunk of change!! So yea.

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