How To Plan a Budget-Friendly Road Trip

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Natalie is heading into her final year of high school. She and her friends are already talking about taking a trip together after they graduate.
They’re talking about taking a road trip. She came home yesterday asking: “I figured you’d be a great one to ask about how to plan a road trip, can you help?”
We’ve taken a bunch of road trips over the years. Now, a lot of the planning is automatic for me. So, I figure, this is a great opportunity to write it all down…

First, you have to determine everyone’s needs and wants.

 1. Decide who’s traveling.

Get everyone’s commitment up front.
It’s okay if the trip is still a long way out and not everyone is committed yet, but at least get an idea of who’s going. That way, you’ll know how many will be splitting the expenses to help determine the budget.

2. Get an idea of everyone’s expectations.

What are everyone’s expectations?
Do people have limits on where they stay? Not everyone likes to camp out.   What are everyone’s expectations about the trip itself?  While this seems like an easy thing to skim over, or skip altogether, it will really make a difference for the entire trip.  Discussing what people envision BEFORE the planning happens and allowing everyone to have a say in the trip’s details, will set the trip up to be a memorable one –  for the right reasons.

3. Determine how much time you have to take a road trip.

Are you talking a week, two? If this is your first road trip with friends, more than that may strain the relationship. Being cooped up in car for a long time is a lot to ask of a friendship, no matter how close you are.
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Now it’s time to figure out the details:

4. Decide on the destination and plan your route.

Who’s driving and what’s their limit on driving time?
Use a tool like Google maps to determine distances. With geographies like Australia or the United States, it can sometimes take longer to get to a place than you realise.

 5. Use a Planning App.

If you are travelling with friends or family, use a planning tool like Travefy, so that everyone is on board with the costs.
When you are travelling with a group, make sure one person is managing the details but EVERYONE knows what’s going on.  Travefy is great for that.  By using this planning tool, you can brainstorm, decide on the plan and then have a CLEAR way to track – and pay – for the expenses.
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6. Determine Transportation details:

a. Decide which car you’re taking.
Space will be important, as will fuel economy.
b. Are you planning on renting a car?
Make sure you factor in insurance for the car. Do you need to pay extra from the rental agency, or does your existing insurance cover you in the event of an accident? If you are under 25, you’ll need to know which car companies rent to Under 25s and what their conditions are.
c. Get a rough idea of the petrol costs for the entire road trip.
With current fuel prices in mind, determine the fuel costs of your trip using the car’s mileage (km/ltr or mi/gal) and route distance, so you know how much you’ll need to budget for petrol/gas. (TIP: If you live in Australia, make sure you have a Woolworths Discount Card and app installed, and use these petrol stations to fill up. You’ll save 4 cents per litre this way. Alternatively in the U.S. install GasBuddy to determine where the cheapest petrol is along the route)
d. Are you staying in campgrounds or visiting a city?
You’ll have parking permits or parking zones to consider for these.
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7. Figure out the Accommodation:

Here’s where everyone’s expectations come into play. Once you have an idea what everyone wants, or needs, it’s easier to plan.
For example, a few weeks ago we talked about taking a camping trip over the upcoming holidays.  I asked Nat if she wanted to invite a friend along.  When she asked her friend, who had never camped before, the friend responded with a question of her own: Would she have to go to the bathroom in the bush?  Natalie responded that even she wouldn’t rough it to that extent.  People have different ideas of what camping is.  It’s not all roughing it like Bear Grylls.
Camping
If you are considering camping, you need to know a few things.
What equipment will you need? Does someone have a big enough tent for those going? Does everyone own a sleeping bag? Who’s cooking and what’s on the menu? (See our post “How To Avoid Saying “Crap, I Forgot The…” When Camping”)
What campgrounds are available along the way?
If camping isn’t for everyone, still review campgrounds as an option for cheap cabins or villas.
Hotels
If you are staying in hotels, look for family rooms with lots of beds. Also look for hotels with kitchettes or full kitchens. You’ll save a bundle this way. Consider off the highway accommodations as they tend to be a little safer.
Hostels
If you go the hostel route and decide to stay in dorms, make sure you get gender specific rooms or better yet, consider a private room for extra security.
Once you’ve decided on the type of accommodation, research and book where you’ll bunk down along the way. A good way to do this is making sure that you aren’t driving long distances. Share the driving as much as possible. When you do stop, allow some extra time stretch out and explore the area. Look for detours off the main roads to make your trip more interesting.
It’s about the journey, not the destination!
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8. Figure Out Your Eating plan.

A big way to save on a road trip is to shop at the grocery stores. Leave eating out as a ‘treat’.
a. Plan a menu.
This is a good way to determine what’s needed and what you need to buy ahead of the trip. Even if you are staying at hotels, ensure it has a kitchen. Does anyone have food allergies or special dietary requirements that you need to consider? What can be prepared before you leave?
b. Avoid buying snacks and drinks from petrol/gas stations.
That will blow your budget every time.  Take these types of snacks with you.
c. See more with our post: 10 Ways to Save Money on a Road Trip“.

9. Activities – Where’s the Fun?

a. Name Your Roadtrip.
Giving your road trip a name gives it depth, meaning and content. It allows you later to know exactly what you’re referring to, especially when you reminisce. Natalie and I still talk about our “Rockin’ Road Trip” and our “Pacific Wanderings” Road trip.
b. Have a mantra.
I said this in our “9 Simple Ways to make Your Next Road Trip Extraordinary” post, but it’s worth repeating here: We chose ‘Try Something New” and surprisingly, that mantra has carried on for every road trip we’ve had since. “Try Something New” reminds us to get us out of our comfort zone and be more adventurous in our choices.  Why travel if you are going to stick to your same ‘vegemite on toast for breakfast’ mentality?
c. What are you planning on doing on your trip?
Is zip-lining part of your plan? White water rafting? Or are you just taking a trip to see what you can discover (for free) along the way?
d. Do some research so you know what’s ahead.
There may be a great lookout that provides you with amazing views of your destination. Maybe there’s an activity you all want to do and ten companies provide that activity – it’s best to know who has to the best reviews before you choose one.
e. Plan the music for the car BEFORE the trip.
I wrote a post called “How to Manage the Music When Roadtripping with Teenagers” but I think it’s applicable for everyone.

f. Plan roadtrip games.
If you are going to be stuck in a car for hours, plan some fun games. Go back to your childhood and play “I spy” (for more, check out our “9 Simple Ways to make Your Next Road Trip Extraordinary” post)

g. Budget in for ‘extras’.
Maybe you want to send postcards home to Mum along the way. Maybe you want to buy a t-shirt to commemorate the trip. These extras add up, so include them in your budget.

10. Have Time Away From Each Other.

Want to keep the friendship?
Build in quiet time. If you are going for a long while, plan for actual time away from each other. While it’s great to hang out, not everyone can deal with all that togetherness.
We've taken many road trips and over the years, have worked out how to do it inexpensively without feeling like we're missing out on anything along the way. Check out our 10 Ways to Plan a Budget Friendly Road Trip.
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