How to Save Money on a Road Trip
Traveling can be outrageously expensive but we’ve learned in the last 3+ years of full time travel that if you want to see the world but don’t want to break the bank, road tripping is the budget-friendly way to go. In this post we’ll show you how to save money on a road trip so you can travel more and spend less!
Jon and I have been traveling the US full time since 2020 and we’ve learned a lot. What we’ve found works the best for us is to pick a home base in one city for 3 months at a time and road trip to surrounding areas for 1-2 weeks at a time.
We’re going to share our favorite ways to save money on a road trip so you can get a jump start and skip the learning process we went through.
Try Car Camping or Tent Camping
BY FAR this is the best thing you can do to save money on a road trip. If you aren’t a fan of tent camping, I highly recommend trying out car camping. I’m talking putting the seats down in the back, blowing up an air mattress, and having sheets, blankets and pillows so you’re comfortable.
On our last road trip through East Utah we booked the cheapest Airbnb we could find for a night and it cost $180. To compare, the BLM campsites we stayed at on that same trip were free. That’s a huge difference!
So here is how to find free places to set up camp and save bookoo bucks.
Find Free Campsites
- The Dyrt
The Dyrt is our favorite way to find dispersed BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping sites which are free. The app is available for free but you can upgrade to PRO for more features if you wish.
On The Dyrt, simply choose the area in which you are wanting to camp and filter to see dispersed campsites. You can see reviews from others who have been there along with any amenities available.
One of the most amazing things about Dispersed campsites is that you will be in a dark zone and see the stars. This means you can practice your astrophotography!
Pro tip: Dispersed campsites will most likely have no amenities other than a fire pit. This means you will need to make sure to pack out whatever you bring in and make sure you have everything you need before setting up camp.
- Parking Lots
While this isn’t our favorite place to car camp, this option does work if you are in a city. Bigger parking lots may allow you to park your car and sleep. Walmart and Planet Fitness are well known for this. However, not every parking lot is friendly to those sleeping in their car. Do some research to find out which businesses allow this depending on where you go.
- Rest Stops
Sleeping at rest stops gets a bad wrap but we’ve never had any issues with it. You will typically be surrounded by 18 wheelers, RV’s, and other trucks. The plus side is that there are normally bathrooms available here!
Car Camping Checklist
Free Accommodations with Paid Apps
If you are planning to be in an area for at least a few days, you may as well see if you can find a house to stay at for free. Our favorite apps for this are Trusted House Sitters and Couch Surfing. You will have to pay to use both of these apps but they are much cheaper for a year’s subscription than one night staying at an airbnb or hotel.
We personally use Trusted House Sitters to find sitters for our pets when we travel, as well as to find places to stay for free.
Hosts will allow travelers to stay in their home in exchange for the traveler taking care of their home, plants, and/or pets. In fact, we have planned some of our trips around when we can book a sit!
Every host and sitter has to pass a background check, verify their identity, and will receive reviews after sits. Typically, you will have a video call with a host before they accept you to make sure you will be a good fit and to put a face to your profile.
Couchsurfing is only $15/year – so very cheap – and this app is very different than Airbnb, Trusted House Sitters, or booking a hotel. When you use Couchsurfing it is because you want to stay in a hosts home and allow them to show you around where they live. It has a focus on experiencing a day in the life of a local.
If you are choosing to stay at a hotel you better be signing up for their rewards program. They are free and if you stay with the same chain enough nights, you can get free nights or free upgrades.
Rather than just choosing the cheapest hotel, it may be worth it to make sure you are staying with the same hotel company every time you travel.
While you’re choosing your hotel chain rewards program, make sure it’s one that offers free breakfast. That’s one less meal you’ll have to pay for every day.
America the Beautiful National Park Pass
If you are planning to go to national parks for 4+ days in a year, a National Park Pass is worth it to save money on a road trip. For $80 (as of 2023), you can enter any national park. Without the pass, you will pay $20 per car every time you enter.
State Park Passes
If you will be traveling through one state and visiting lots of state parks, it may be worth it to get that state’s park pass. To our surprise, a state park pass can be more expensive than a national park pass so you’ll have to decide if it will save you money on your trip.
Let’s Talk Food
Ahhhhh food. This is where the cost of road tripping can get out of hand. It can seem like fast food is worth it at the time but it adds up quickly and let’s be honest, most fast food, is now just as expensive as a diner and not as good.
As foodies ourselves, we believe that eating out can be worth it. However, this depends on where you are traveling to. If we are road tripping to another state, we’ll typically pass. If we’re going to a new country, we’ll eat out and try their local food.
All in all, it’s up to you but here is what we recommend if you want to save a lot of money on food while road tripping.
Bring your own pantry foods
Obviously, these are ideal for road tripping since they don’t need refrigeration. Some of our favorites are
- Bread (for sandwhiches)
- Chewy Bars
Bring a Cooler
While pantry foods are easier, we always bring a cooler so we can have better food. As foodies, we don’t like to sacrifice the quality of our meals if we can help it. You’ll need to buy ice so we do recommend paying for a high-quality cooler. Having to stop to buy ice every day can really add up and the risk of your food spoiling just isn’t worth it.
Our favorite refrigerated camping foods are…
- Sandwich Ingredients (salami, pepperoni, cheese, mayonnaise, pickles, tomatoes, onions – which don’t have to be in the cooler but we put it in there to save space)
- Guacamole – make your own, it’s so much better than store-bought guac!
Bring a portable stove to cook on
If you’re someone who is really into food, like us, it’s worth it to make sure you have a way to cook your food. Choosing camp sites with fire pits is our favorite but if you are unable to have fire, a protable stove comes in handy.
Bring your own coffee
My favorite hack to save money on a road trip (even if it’s not a ton of money) is to brew my own coffee at home and then put it in the fridge to cool. By doing this, I’m able to keep my cold coffee in the cooler and drink some each day without having to buy it or make it on the road.
If you’re going to eat out, do it at lunch
We get it. After multiple days of exploring and traveling, sometimes eating out is just what you need. Our advice is to do so at lunch. There are typically specials and discounts that you won’t get for breakfast or dinner.
Gas Price Apps
Gas is our number one expense on road trips. And the prices are always rising. So we do our best to ensure we are finding the best deals possible with these apps.
We exclusively use Google Maps to direct our road trips because you can download the maps before you go. This means it doesn’t matter if you have service while you’re out in the middle of nowhere – you can get directions to anywhere in the area you downloaded.
Another great feature is that you can search for gas stations along your drive and select the location that is the least expensive.
Gas Buddy is unique because it specializes in finding you deals, discounts and even offers rewards to use their app. And these rewards aren’t just for gas! You can use your rewards at other stores.
Let’s Go Road Tripping!
With all of this, you’re ready to save tons of money on your next road trip.