Guide to your summer road trip budget

Father and daughter driving in car with windows open on a summer road trip
June 13, 2024 | Anne Purcell

Whether it is a long trip cross country or across a state, road trips are a common American vacation. A road trip provides the freedom to stop and go wherever you wish as you head to your destination – you are in charge and not confined to plane or train schedules. If you don’t like a stop on the trip, you can choose how long you stay, and you may discover new cities or areas you never thought you would enjoy.

While road trips, like every type of vacation, have a price tag, they can be cheaper because taking a road trip with multiple people in one car is often more cost-effective than buying numerous plane tickets. While there are many factors in determining how much to budget for a road trip, here are some areas to keep in mind when determining you budget and setting cost expectations:

How much to budget per day on a road trip

There are many factors in determining how much to budget for a road trip, such as:

  • How many days you plan to be on the road
  • The route you take
  • Activities and attractions
  • Where you want to stay
  • How many people you are traveling with

These variables will all increase or decrease the cost of your trip. Here is a deep dive into each of these factors and how they affect your overall budget.

The length of the trip

The shorter the trip, the less you’ll likely have to budget. Fewer days on the road mean fewer overnights and less money spent on gas. If you only have a small budget and want to take a road trip, plan one within your state or nearby instead of something cross-country.

The route you take

Before setting out on a road trip, plan your route ahead of time. If you have specific spots you wish to stop at on the way, map them out. See if there are multiple routes you can take; maybe there is a way to avoid toll roads and save money that way. While you might want the freedom to go anywhere at any time, defining a route to each destination will help guide your trip and ensure you aren’t wasting gas going way out of your way for no reason.

Knowing the route you plan to take can also help you estimate how much you will spend on gas. If you want to calculate this, divide the distance you plan on traveling by the miles per gallon your car takes. Then, multiply that by the price of gas. While this won’t give you the exact cost of gas (since it will vary) for your trip, it will at least provide an estimate of what to expect.

Where to stay

If you know specific places you would like to stay at, book the hotel in advance. This way, you can research ahead of time to find a place within your budget. If you want to camp or have an RV, campsites are a great (and cheaper) alternative to hotels; however, like hotels, they can fill up.

If you’re trying to be flexible with your road trip and are still determining what days you will be where, pick anchor places to reserve places to stay overnight in advance. For example, if you are taking a road trip to see multiple national parks and know that you want to stay at Yellowstone National Park for a few days, then travel up to Glacier National Park for a couple of days, book places to stay at Yellowstone and Glacier with a set number of days you think it will take to travel from one place to the other (say 2). This way, you know you have a place to stay at the parks—especially because these places may fill up more than a small-town hotel in the middle of Montana.

For the nights between each destination, you may have to be more spontaneous when it comes to finding a place to spend the night, unless you want to plan those stops ahead of time as well.

Activities and attractions

When planning your trips, consider the things you wish to do on the journey. Look for free or cheap activities to stay budget-friendly while mixing in more costly things if you wish. For example, visiting a national park can cost upwards of $35 per vehicle, whereas going to a state park won’t cost you at all. Both places will provide beautiful sights and adventure, but they come at different costs.

If you are going on a long trip, look up attractions beforehand that have different price points. You never know; you may find cool things on your route that don’t cost a thing.

Meals on the road

While you might want to eat out sometimes, hitting the nearest fast-food restaurant whenever you’re hungry is going to be bad not only for your gut, but also your wallet. Instead, pre-pack meals and snacks (and make stops for groceries on the road) that you can carry in a cooler in your trunk. Having some meals in your car, like sandwiches, can also provide an impromptu picnic at a park or another scenic area.

Solo verses traveling with your family or a group

Like any trip, when you travel with more than one person, the cost will often go down per person. This is especially true for road trips. For example, if you have a large family, driving may be cheaper than buying multiple plane tickets. Or, if you and a few friends are thinking of taking a road trip to an event, like a music festival, you can split things like gas, hotel rooms or campsite reservations.

On the other hand, traveling solo leaves you on your own for all costs, which may not be much of a cost saver if you are between driving or flying somewhere.

 

When defining your budget for a road trip, keep all the above in mind when outlining costs. To estimate your daily expenses, take in the distance you plan to drive, money for food and lodging. Before going, give yourself a daily allowance for food (say $30-$40) and try to stick with that each day. Also, by looking at places to stay ahead of time, you are more likely to find a place that will fit within your budget.

If you’re considering traveling by RV, there are benefits to buying and renting one. Alliant also has RV loan options to get you on the RV adventure of your dreams for less.


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