Budgeting For A Road Trip In The U.S.

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We love taking road trips as a family. But sometimes budgeting for a road trip can be intimidating. Whether it’s a small trip or a big trip, each road trip always involves a bit of planning, especially on the financial side.

Back in 2010, my husband and I decided to move our family across the country from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, WA. Rather than fly, we opted to drive instead. The road trip took roughly three weeks.

And in 2018, at the start of our around the world trip, we spent the first part of our trip driving around the United States. We traveled by car from Seattle to New York City, and then across the United States again to San Diego. That trip, which had us exploring national parks and delving into American history, took almost four months to complete.

This post was updated on March 25, 2020.


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Rocky Mountain National Park in the US (September 2018)

What goes into budgeting for a road trip

Both road trips required quite a bit of planning and prep. For the 2010 road trip, we were traveling with both a twelve year old AND a three month old. Meeting the needs of both our kids, along with budgeting for a road trip that was fun and memorable was a challenge for sure.

For our 2018 road trip, the budgeting challenge was figuring out how to make our dollars stretch. We looked for various ways to save money on U.S. family travel as much as we could.

In terms of budgeting for a road trip, I had initially budgeted $5,200 for our 2010 trip. But amazingly, we were able to do the trip for under $2,700. For our 2018 trip, however, the costs for travel increased dramatically (due to inflation, changes in travel preferences, and adjustments to our family size). We averaged a monthly cost of $4,400 during our 2018 road trip.

If you’re interested in doing a family road trip like ours, here’s a look at what our expenses were to help give you some ideas for budgeting for a road trip.

The National Mall in Washington, DC (September 2018)

Transportation costs for a family road trip

One of the most important costs when budgeting for a road trip is transportation. It’s helpful to have a car that yields good gas mileage. Our car in 2010 was a Honda accord, which averaged about 25 miles per gallon. For our 2018 trip, we traveled with a Kia Sorento, which averaged about 18-20 miles per gallon.

During our 2010 road trip, we spent around $700 for transportation. And in 2018, our transportation costs averaged $800 per month. Surprisingly, the average cost of gas did not change in eight years time, staying roughly at $3 a gallon. Additional transportation expenses included tolls, parking and car maintenance. These costs averaged about $2-$5 a day.

If you’re budgeting for a road trip for your family, do a bit of research ahead of time to estimate how much gas costs will be during your trip. The cost of gas can potentially make or break your budget, so it’s helpful to err on the side of caution.

A car, one the costs to include when budgeting for a road trip
Our family car (July 2018)

Food costs for meals and snacks

The biggest expense of a road trip is food. In 2010, we spent $1,014 on food, averaging about $50 a day. Our daughter was only three months old and still breastfeeding at the time, so food was mainly for my husband, stepson, and me. During our 2018 road trip, traveling with a seven year old and a four year old, our food costs averaged about $74 per day.

We did a lot of road-side drive thrus for our trips. But since we also visited friends and family along the way, we occasionally treated them to meals at restaurants. Sometimes they would treat us to meals, which was a nice bonus!

Eating out at restaurants can get pricey, though. Especially if you’re doing it for multiple meals a day. So one way we cut costs is to split our meals. Another way to save money on food costs is to buy food from grocery store delis.

My tip for estimating your daily food cost for a road trip is to calculate 40% of your weekly grocery costs when you’re at home. So if you average $200 a week on groceries at home, you can aim for a daily food budget of $80 while you’re on the road.

Eating ramen at a restaurant in Portland (September 2016)

Lodging costs when budgeting for a road trip

We spent $610 for lodging for our 2010 road trip. My husband and I are fortunate to have friends and family scattered across the United States, so out of the fifteen cities we stopped at during that road trip, we were able to stay with friends or family in eight of those cities.

During our 2018 road trip, however, our lodging costs were much higher. Rather than staying with friends and family, we mainly stayed at hotels, or a cheap Airbnb if possible. We averaged around $2,100 per month for lodging.

If you’re looking for hotel rooms, sites like Booking.com make it a lot easier to book places while on the road. And if you enjoy staying at Airbnbs, there are plenty of unique ones throughout the United States.

If you’re willing to travel with camping gear, you can set up camp at National Parks or state parks, as well as at KOA (Kampgrounds of America) sites. We like to bring along our Coleman Sundome Tent, which is really easy to set up! A new camping resource families can use on road trips is Hipcamp, which is similar to Airbnb, but for camp sites.

A tiny house kitchen at an Airbnb, an option for families when budgeting for a road trip
The kitchen at our tiny house Airbnb in Colorado (August 2018)

Activities, supplies, and miscellaneous costs

Our final budget expenses went towards activities, supplies, and miscellaneous costs. During our 2010 road trip, we treated ourselves to a trip to Walt Disney World. We spent $520 on attractions back then. In 2018, we spent $572 on attractions. This included visits to museums, national parks, and even a visit to Great Wolf Lodge!

During our 2018 road trip, we also spent around $100 per month on supplies and miscellaneous costs. This includes buying clothes for our kids, souvenirs for the trip, homeschooling supplies, parts for the car, and doing laundry at laundromats.

Activities, supplies, and miscellaneous expenses tend to be the costs that we most often under-estimate. Most of the time, we don’t think about the activities we’re going to do, because it’s hard to anticipate what each day is going to look like on the road. Additionally, it’s hard to anticipate what types of supplies we may need during our road trip.

A helpful tip is to budget $5 per day per person for activities, supplies, and miscellaneous expenses. This will ensure that you’ll have some fun things to do while you’re on the road.

Splurging on a trip to Disney World as a family (December 2010)

Maximizing on fun when budgeting for a road trip

Our families love road trips because they’re a great way for us to get our travel fix without having to shell out a lot of money on airfare. Road trips also allow us to see a lot more of a country than we would otherwise see just by flying from city to city.

For families who are wanting to travel, but aren’t quite ready to do the overseas thing, a road trip can be a great option. The Lonely Planet has some excellent ideas for road trips in the United States. This country is full of beautiful places to explore!

If you’re wanting to embark on a road trip in the United States, make note of these tips for budgeting for a road trip. And then use them to create your own epic family road trip.

Do you have any tips or tricks for budgeting for a road trip? Share them in the comments!

Budgeting For A Road Trip In The U.S. | The Wandering Daughter

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