Budgeting For A Road Trip In The U.S.

american flags in washington dc

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We love taking road trips as a family. Part of that fun is budgeting for a road trip. Whether it’s a small one or a big one, 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 from Washington, D.C. and all the way across the country to Seattle, WA. We lived in D.C. for over two years, and although we always intended to stay in that city for only a short while, we had grown rather fond of our nation’s capital. This was the city where we watched President Obama’s historic inauguration. This was the city where both my husband and I really kickstarted our careers. And this was also the city where our daughter was born.

The National Mall in Washington, DC (September 2018)

What goes into budgeting for a road trip

Rather than fly to Seattle, we decided to take a road trip instead. We knew that it was important to maintain a strict budget for our trip. We were both quitting our jobs to go to a new city, and we needed to make sure that we didn’t run out of funds before we even hit the Southwest. Making things a little complicated was the fact that we were traveling with 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, yet it was a challenge that we were both ready to take on.

It took us three weeks to travel from DC to Seattle. Our road trip route took us south along the East Coast, through North Carolina and Georgia to Florida, and then along the South onto California. After that, we made our way north until we reached our final destination of Seattle.

In terms of budgeting for a road trip, I had initially budgeted $5,200 for the trip. But amazingly, we were able to do the trip for under $2,700. I don’t think prices have not changed that much since then, so a family of four planning a similar trip can expect to spend as much as we did.

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

Car expenses for budgeting for a road trip
Our family car (July 2018)

Transportation – $662

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 at the time was a Honda accord, which averaged about 25 miles per gallon.  I initially budgeted $1,600 for transportation, but ended up saving over $900 due to the fuel efficiency of our car.  Our total driving distance was about 5,260 miles, and at the time, the average cost of gas was roughly $3 a gallon. Additional transportation expenses included tolls and parking, which averaged out to about $2.30 a day.

If you’re budgeting for a road trip for your family, do a bit of research ahead of time to gauge how much gas 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.

My daughter practicing her driving (December 2010)

Food – $1,104

The biggest expense on our trip was food, which averaged to about $50 a day. Our daughter was still only three months old and still breastfeeding, so food was mainly for my husband, stepson, and me. We did a lot of road-side drive thrus, but since we also visited friends and family along the way, we would occasionally to meals. This helped us save over $1,300 from our original food budget of $2,496.

These days, with the rising cost of food, as well as having a teenager and two little kids to feed, our food budget would probably be closer to the $3,600 range, but I think if we were pretty careful with our spending, we would still be able to get by with under $2,500 for a family of five. A quick trick to determine what your daily food cost might be is to take 60% of your weekly grocery costs. So if you average $200 a week on groceries, you can aim for a daily food budget of $120.

Food carts in Portland, OR (January 2011)

Lodging – $610

We stuck pretty close to our original budget of $638 for lodging costs. 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 our road trip, we were able to stay with friends or family in eight of those cities. Of the places where we did have to pay for accommodations, we mainly stayed at motels along the highway.

At the time, I didn’t have a smartphone, so we would just stop at a gas station in town, pick up one of the motel booklets, and start calling places to see if they had vacancies. Nowdays, sites like Booking.com make it a lot easier to book places while on the road. On a recent road trip down to San Diego, we had to make a stay in Portland, OR. With Booking.com, I was able to book a hotel room for us when we were less than an hour away from the city.

New York New York Hotel in Las Vegas, NV, a popular stop for a U.S. road trip
New York New York Hotel in Las Vegas, NV (June 2007)

Attractions – $300

Our final budget expense was attractions, which mainly consisted of admission to Walt Disney World. Our initial budget was $520, but we didn’t end up visiting any other museums or attractions besides Disney World while we were on our trip. Attractions are often the expense that we tend to under-budget. Most of the time, we don’t think about activities that we’re going to do, because it’s hard to anticipate what each day is going to look like on the road. But a helpful tip is to just budget $5 per day per person for attractions. This will ensure that you’ll have some fun things to do while you’re on the road.

Trying on hats in Disney World (December 2010)

Despite being on the road for over three weeks, we were able to travel while still staying within (and below) our budget. Road trips are great because I can still get my travel fix without having to shell out a lot of money on airfare.

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. So take these tips for budgeting for a road trip, and 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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I'm a travel-loving mom of three from Seattle. Join our adventures as we explore the Pacific Northwest and the world!

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