Five Tips for an Amazingly Inexpensive Vacation: How We Spent $33/Day on Our Road Trip

By Chris Biggs

In one of his most famous Saturday Night Live sketches, the late Chris Farley told the world that he lives “in a van down by the river.” Road trip life isn’t all that different.

As a fairly experienced road tripper, I’ve lived through the ups and the downs of life on the road - from the adrenaline rush of scrambling over rock to reach a coveted mountaintop, to that moment when your body literally rejects the idea of eating yet another peanut butter sandwich.

It's us! Here we take a brief reprieve from the car to climb around joshua tree national park.

It's us! Here we take a brief reprieve from the car to climb around joshua tree national park.

There is no shortage of motivational, wanderlust-inspiring photos of road trips across both the United States and the rest of the world. What is much harder to find, however, are those insider details on the costs of a road trip - the kind of information that will can help you answer million dollar questions that include, “How much does a road trip cost?” and “How long can I afford to stay on the road?”

In this blog post you’ll find financial details from our recent 2.5 week road trip from San Francisco to Washington, DC, along with a series of pro tips to help you keep costs down while maintaining your sanity. Also important to note is that while Lori and I don’t consider ourselves budget travelers, we really enjoy camping and employing frugal tactics on trips like these - and thus these suggestions can apply regardless of your travel budget.

Ready? In 17 days on the road, we spent:

  • $446 on gasoline for our car
  • $295 on groceries, restaurants, and more than a few beers.
  • $392 on lodging - both in National Parks and budget hotels.

After doing some quick math, you’ll note that we spent $1133 in total - which works out to about $33 per person per day. So in summary: for roughly what you might spend at happy hour, Lori and I got experience some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring preserved areas in the U.S. Each morning we’d wake up at sunrise after a long day of hiking and sightseeing, full of excitement about the day ahead. So while I do love a good happy hour, I have to say that our vacation plan was a pretty good deal - both for the wallet and the soul.

I’ll be the first to admit that saving money while on the road can feel challenging. This wasn’t my first road trip, however, and to that end, applying some of the personal finance knowledge I’ve acquired about road trips along the way will help you better anticipate and manage costs.

The open road awaits. this photo was taken on a desert highway in southern california.

The open road awaits. this photo was taken on a desert highway in southern california.

  1. Planning versus freewheelin’: When it comes to a road trip, it’s the age-old question: do you stick to an agenda or make up the rules as you go? The former has its advantages, at least from a financial perspective. For those who can organize itineraries and lodging well in advance, you’ll be rewarded with both greater availability and potentially improved pricing. For example: during our recent road trip we booked stays in three National Parks (Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Grand Canyon) two months in advance (during the non-peak season) which ensured that we’d be able to stay in nice campgrounds within the most desirable and accessible parts of the respective parks. When we didn’t book early (as was the case with us for Zion National Park), we showed up mid-morning looking for a same-day reservation, biting our nails and hoping for the best. The result? While we were lucky enough to get a camping spot, we ended up paying an additional $10/night as only the larger (and more expensive) camper sites were available. If you opt to stay in a hotel or motel, the impact of timing is magnified: those who book early are often rewarded with better rates online, a function of third-party booking sites enticing folks to commit early. If you miss that boat, you’ll be paying full price and risk limited availability and options .

  2. Camp whenever possible: To the previous point, camping is more budget-friendly than staying in a hotel (not to mention more fun). On our trip, the average cost of our budget hotels were about $65 per night. A camp site at a full-service campground including a tent site, picnic table, bathroom access, running water (although no shower), and fire pit cost us an average of $22 per night. Camping isn’t for everyone, but if you’re interested in this awesome budget option, consider buying a quality tent (we have a four-person Coleman tent that retails for less than $60), and we got our money back on the investment after about two nights!  (Note: We prefer the slightly pricer full-service option for camping within the more accessible areas of the parks. You can often camp for less - or entirely free - in certain remote locations within the park system, including those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management).

  3. Cook your own food: Much like our tent purchase, getting a portable stove was one of the most significant financial decisions we’ve made to date. A highly-reliable two-burner stove only costs about $40 (we love this one, a top-seller on Amazon), and we use it to make plentiful pasta, rice, tofu, veggie sausages, beans, and more while camping. Typically, we stock up with lots of dry goods prior to starting a road trip, after which we grab perishables like salad, veggies, and fruit from local supermarkets along the way. Most of our lunches on the road consist of peanut butter sandwiches (which we spice up using bananas, honey, and cinnamon), and most days we spend less than $6-$8 per person on food. Occasionally we splurge on meals out when we hit a major city, but what we try to avoid most is buying dinner in National Parks - that’s when you end up dropping big bucks on a mediocre meal.

  4. Be smart about booze: There is nothing quite as nice as a glass of wine or cold beer after a long day of hiking (after plenty of water, of course!), but buying those drinks out quickly raises costs. To buffer against that, Lori and I typically grab a bottle or two of wine and stash them in the car, drinking them along with dinner at camp. While we did splurge on a few cold ones along the way, we were always conscientious about our bar tab. Sometimes you’ve just got to try a few local beers...

  5. Stay with family and friends: One of the best parts about a road trip is that you can revisit family and friends scattered across the country. On this particular trip we were able to spend multiple days with a childhood friend in Ann Arbor, in addition to staying with family in both Pennsylvania and Connecticut, respectively. The upside is, of course, free lodging for a few nights - although be sure to demonstrate your thankfulness by doing the dishes and picking up a dinner bill or two. And try to find that nice balance between welcomed guest and guy-whose-aunt-doesn’t-answer-his-calls-anymore.

Lori and I will be taking another (longer!) road trip across the U.S. this summer, starting in June 2017. In the meantime, I hope these tips help you start thinking about how you can economize during your next road trip, stretching your vacation savings as far as it’ll go. Also, please let us know if you have any other tips worth sharing!