10 Budget Road Trip Tips: Cross Country Travel on the Cheap

Scenic budget road trip in Toyota near Moab, Utah

Road tripping on a budget is the only way we can make it happen.

We’ve never done the type of long road trip where you rent a vehicle and go from hotel to hotel, so this post is not written with experience in cutting costs when traveling that way.

This post is aimed more at people hoping to travel dirt cheap by camping along the way. It’s for those that have either a camper of some sort or a tent and camp kitchen setup.

This is our recommended way to travel on the cheap! As a couple and then a family, we’ve done multiple extended road trips this way (most about 6 weeks long), and are always looking for ways to spend even less.

So let's get into our top 10 ways to save money while taking an extended road trip!

Pssst! If you aren’t sure how to start planning your first road trip, go check out our post, How to Plan a Road Trip.

1. Create a road trip Budget and Track Your Spending

It’s easy to just take off to explore and experience without fully realizing what your road trip could end up costing!

So create a budget, knowing you might not be in the exact ballpark, as it’s difficult to plan the details of a road trip too far in advance.

And then keep track of your expenses, checking in to compare to your budget every so often, and then adjusting your plan as needed.

If you want to know more about our recommendations for creating a road trip budget or about what it has cost us to travel over the years, check out our post: What a Cross Country Road Trip Costs.

2. Don’t go into Vacation Mindset

You know what I’m talking about. Vacation mindset. Where the sky's the limit and you live it up every moment of every day, because - hey! - you’re on VACATION!!!

Yeah, don’t do that. It seriously adds up.

Eating ice cream near Boldt Castle in Thousand Islands area, New York

One trip, we spent $100 dollars on ICE CREAM! $100 dollars. On ice cream?! We would never do that at home in that amount of time!

If you’re planning to take an extended road trip, we recommend that you live as frugally as possible and not go wild on extras when not needed.

Okay, maybe a liiiiiittle extra ice cream. But not 8 times as much.

3. Use Your Camp Kitchen during your road trip

Vacation mindset calls for going out to eat multiple times every week (or more!).

But! You’ve got a little kitchen in your camper or a camp kit; use it!

We know, you don’t typically have the time or desire to make all your meals every day while traveling around the country. But no excuses - we’ve got you covered!

Head on over to this post - Meals for Road Trips & Vacations: Simplifying Make Ahead Meals - to read more about how we’ve gotten around having to do a ton of cooking while on the road (IF you’ll have a freezer along!).

Cooking meals using a truck camper kitchen to take a cheap road trip

If you don’t travel with a dedicated freezer (we don’t anymore), look into cost effective ways to make backpacking (shelf-stable) types of meals in advance.

4. Make Your Own Coffee and Stock Up on Snacks

Making coffee to save money on a cross country road trip

Make your own coffee!

Making your own coffee on the road is super easy, and we outline 7 ways to do it here, so you’re sure to find a method that works for you.

Stock up on snacks!

Your body and wallet will thank you if you look up and down those grocery store isles for healthy snacks and drinks instead of grabbing a little something during every gas station stop.

5. Find Free Camping

Boondock, Dry Camp, Wild Camp, Dispersed Camping, Primitive Camping - whatever you want to call it without getting too technical - do it!

Free campsite to save money on a budget road trip

This tip (along with tip# 3) completely saves our road trip budget when doing cross country travel!

Find free camping, because those camping fees add up incredibly fast! You’ll be hard pressed to find a site with hookups for less than $30 a night.

It’s super easy to find free camping all over the United States - check out our post -Free Camping: How & Where To Find It.

And in our experience, some of the free campsites you can find are so much better than most pay-for sites!

But there’s definitely a learning curve to successfully boondocking, as these free sites come with no hook ups or the usual accommodations. So only knowing how to FIND the free spots isn’t quite enough. Read on!

6. Learn to Manage Your Resources for extended dry camping

I’m sure every new camper or RV owner has a story or two to tell.

Before you’re ready to boondock for most of your trip, you’re going to need to learn how to manage the essentials:

You most likely will struggle for a few days or so as you learn where and just how quickly everything goes, and how to slow that process down.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a fun challenge to get totally off the grid for an extended period of time before having to resupply.

And the better you get at effectively managing your rig and/or resources, the less chance you’ll get stuck paying for a site just to get clean or restock on basic supplies. Again - we can help! Future post coming!

7. Avoid Big Cities or Find Free Entertainment

As far as big cities go - if you could take it or leave it, leave it.

Expenses add up quickly in and around metropolitan areas, especially if you’re in a camper that you can’t comfortably take all the way in to the city.

Know to expect tolls, parking fees, transportation fees, being away from your little kitchen so more restaurant stops, and entertainment and attraction related fees.

Plus it’s really easy to slip into that vacation mode when in these atmospheres.

And although that’s great when budgeted for, it’s not so great if you’re robbing your fuel budget to pay for theater tickets.

So If you do find yourself exploring a cool city, do some quick googling to find a couple free things that city has to offer, as I’m sure there are dozens of cool options that will give you a real taste of the area!

8. Buy a National Parks Pass

If you’re visiting more than a few national parks or federal recreation lands on your road trip, it’ll most likely be cost effective to purchase the Annual America the Beautiful National Park Pass for $80, which lasts for 12 months after your date of purchase.

It’s pretty easy to figure out if this is right for you. Go here to find out the entrance fees at any national parks that you’ll be exploring in the next year, and if the total is above $80, get the National Parks pass!

9. Maintain Your Vehicle

No one wants to be stuck far from home, dealing with towing and/or mechanic fees if it can be avoided, so give your vehicle a full tune-up before hitting the road.

Also, we always recommend having a roadside assistance plan such as AAA or Good Sam Road Assistance (what we use and recommend).

Some of the vehicle maintenance suggestions below may not apply based on your vehicle’s specific age or model, and a good mechanic will be able to review your vehicle and it’s service history in order to take care of the things that are needed for you.

Our full tune-up and maintenance checklist:

Patrick doing vehicle maintenance while on a cross country road trip
  • Fresh oil & oil filter

  • New/Cleaned air intake filter

  • Check that spark plugs and wires are in good shape and have been replaced at regular intervals

  • Valves are adjusted (mostly applies to older vehicles)

  • Timing Belt/Chain is in good shape and has been replaced at factory recommended service intervals

  • Coolant and transmission fluid/oil are full (and fairly fresh)

  • All factory serviceable grease fittings have been greased

  • Wheel bearings checked and serviced accordingly

  • Check wheel alignment as well

  • Tires should be in good condition, balanced, rotated, and at proper air pressure

  • Don’t forget to check your spare too!

  • Speaking of spare tires - when possible, always carry a full-size spare tire those donut spares are not what you want to depend on if needed

  • Carry a can of fix-a-flat, a small 12v air compressor, and a quality tire repair kit

  • Windshield wipers are in good shape - depending on where you live, they may not see frequent use and as a result may not get changed or checked regularly

10. Cut Down Your Road trip Fuel Expenses

Fuel has always been our biggest expense on a road trip. And it can’t really be avoided.

Obviously, driving a vehicle that gets better gas mileage is a place to start. As is staying closer to home. But sometimes, you have what you have, and your dream destination is halfway across the country.

Here are a few other ways to save on your fuel expenses:

  • Fuel up on weekdays if you can, as prices often rise around the weekends and especially holidays

  • Download the free Gasbuddy app to find the cheapest nearby gas options

  • Make sure your tire pressure is correct

  • Be sure all vehicle maintenance is done before leaving (Hey! That’s also tip #9!)

  • Drive a little slower - studies show it saves on gas.

There you have it - our top 10 road trip tips for saving money and traveling on the cheap! We hope these can help you travel further and see more!

Any other big money savers? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!

Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE if you want us to shoot you an email when we get other posts up. As always, thanks for reading!

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