How to Plan a Road Trip on a Budget

2020 is shaping up as the year of the road trip. As the nation tries to emerge from the recent health crisis and accompanying economic impacts, Americans are yearning to out and about despite strained budgets and lingering concerns over air and international travel.

To many people, the tried-and-true road trip seems like the safest and most economical way to begin to travel again. The dozen tips below offer suggestions that can help you wisely budget and plan your road trip and watch expenses along the way.

    1. Start saving money now. If you know you are planning a road trip this summer or fall, start to put some money aside now for that purpose, either in a savings account or a prepaid debit card. This will help you reduce or avoid the high interest rates involved with carrying trip expenses over time on your credit card.
    2. Set priorities for your trip. Being clear about what you and your travel companions want out of the trip is key to successful planning and budgeting. Are you looking to get to and from your destination as quickly as possible, or do you want to spend time seeing some sights along the way? Are hotel amenities and/or upscale dining important, or are you fine with a more no-frills approach? What are the absolute must-dos on this trip versus some things might be nice to do if you have the time? Striking a balance between everyone’s priorities will help you allocate your time and budget as you plan your itinerary.
    3. Estimate expenses and determine an overall budget. After establishing priorities, begin putting some costs down, either on paper or in a spreadsheet. Include categories for lodging, food, gas, and fees for admissions, activities, entertainment, and anything else you anticipate spending money on. If the bottom line is more than you were expecting or willing to spend, look at where you might be able to economize. Fewer days away from home and/or less expensive accommodations are probably the best places to start.
    4. Plan your trip to include free or low-cost attractions close to home. If money is tight, consider a shorter trip in your own or a nearby state. Two or three nights away exploring state or national parks, landmarks or museums can be just as much fun as a longer trip far away.
    5. Consider purchasing a national park pass. For an annual fee of $80, an America the Beautiful Pass covers entrance fees for the pass owner and up to three adult companions at more than 2,000 national parks, monuments, battlefields and more all across the country. This pass can be a great bargain if you travel with older teens (children under 16 receive free admission) or other adults and plan to hit several parks on this trip or throughout the upcoming year.

There are specialized passes for seniors, members of the military and their dependents, 4th graders and the disabled. Check for more information or to order online.

    1. Explore ways to save money on lodging. Keep in mind that many hotels offer AAA discounts and/or packages and specials that can make your stay more economical. Some hotels include breakfast in their rate or in a package price, saving you the cost of a meal out. Accommodations equipped with full or partial kitchens can help reduce costs by allowing you to prepare meals.
    2. Take advantage of your AAA membership. Your AAA Travel agent can find and make hotel reservations and provide you with maps, TourBooks and other resources for your trip. Take a look at the discounts area of to see if any attractions at your destination or along the way offer special pricing for AAA members.
    3. Give kids their own budget for the trip. Tired of the kids whining for every trinket and treat they see while on vacation? Assign each of them a daily budget during the trip, explain to them ahead of time how it works, then insist they stick to it. Keep the right to approve all purchases ahead of time, but give them some leeway to make good or not-so-good decisions. It helps teach them money management skills and should reduce the pressure for you to cave to their every whim.
    4. Be car smart. Reduce the risk of trouble on the road by making sure your car is up to the trip. Check that all routine maintenance is up to date and perform or have your mechanic perform some basic checks to make sure the car is ready for the road.

Once you start your trip, keep your MPG up and gas costs down by observing the speed limit and using cruise control whenever appropriate. Keep in mind that buying gas at stations located just off interstate exits is often more expensive than filling up at a station a bit down the road.

    1. Pack snacks. Load up on travel-friendly, healthy snacks before you hit the road, and replenish them at grocery stores along the way. Having a ready supply of food to curb the munchies can reduce the need for unanticipated stops, keep the troops happy, and save time and money.
    2. Leave the shopping at home. Shopping is a major activity for many modern vacationers. Cutting out or cutting back on shopping is a great way to reduce the money you spend on your trip, plus it frees up time to more fully experience the destination.
    3. Make the visitor center an early stop at your destination. Even though you’ve figured out your plans and itinerary ahead of time, it’s worth a stop to the visitor center to see if they have coupon booklets for area restaurants and attractions. Talk with the staff and you might leave with advice on the best places to eat and things to see and do.

After implementing some or all of these tips, you’ll be ready to enjoy your vacation, happy in the knowledge that you have planned and budgeted wisely.

Budgeting is an important factor at any stage of life. Discover more about AAA’s financial services and speak to an agent today.