Cheap Road Trips: Your Vacation on a Shoestring

In these tough economic times, cheap road trips offer a chance to get out and enjoy a vacation without having to borrow money or go broke. Even when the economy is healthier, there may be a real reason you just don’t have the cash – you may be a student with very little income if any or you may have any of the other reasons for financial troubles: a lay-off, an illness in the family that sapped your life savings, credit woes, or you simply made a life-choice such as the decision to be a “starving artist”.

My frugal road trip tips offer many ways to trim your budget, but the cheap road trip tips below are for those who are truly traveling on a shoestring. You can still have a great vacation, but some big changes will be needed in order to pull it off.

Cheap Road Trips: Traveling Companions
Make sure your traveling buddies or family is ready to really cut corners, or this won’t work. If you’re not sure, sit down and talk it out, or you’ll find out on the road that they want to do more expensive activities, dine out more often, hate the necessary camping you’ll need to do, and will all-around sabotage your best efforts (without necessarily meaning to).

Cheap Road Trips: RV or Camp
There is no way to do a shoe-string style road trip and stay in hotels or motels. They’re just too expensive. If you’ve got an RV or can purchase an older inexpensive one, RVing may be the way to go. It will provide a lot more of the comforts of home and you can pack a lot more.

The downside is that an RV uses more gas than most cars and depending on gas prices when you go on your road trip, this can put a serious dent in your budget. Be careful when purchasing an older RV – some have been so poorly maintained, you’d be better off with traditional camping.

Camping is very cheap and you can get all the camping gear your heart desires online using some of the trading sites (freestyle) or other sites where people sell their older gear for very little (craigslist is great). Make sure to test your tent before you go – set it up to make sure all the parts have been included and throw a couple of buckets of water on it to make sure there aren’t any leaks. Book your campgrounds ahead of time as some may fill to capacity before you arrive. See my camping packing list for more details.

Cheap Road Trips: Repair/Prep Your Car or RV
Although repairs and maintenance can seem like a lot of money to spend, you’re much better off getting repairs done at home where you can shop around and get the best price for anything your car or RV needs. Once you’re on the road, you’re at the mercy of whatever car repair shop ends upholding your car hostage.

Cheap Road Trips: Destination Unknown
Make sure you select a road trip destination that is close enough to home to be able to visit and return from, within your specified time frame. Give yourself plenty of time to stop along the way and enjoy yourself as much as possible – this is especially important with a shoestring vacation as you’re going to need to feel the luxury of time (as you won’t have the luxury of money). Also, select a destination that isn’t, in itself, expensive. New York City and Disney World are both examples of bad choices for a shoestring road trip destination.

Cheap Road Trips: Car-Made Food
Forget restaurants (unless you see some unbelievable deal on the road) if you want to have a cheap road trip. Cereal (not a brand name – just get generic) is a great breakfast and you can make sandwiches for lunch for days with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly (along with your favorite sliced bread).

Cheap Road Trips

As you’re camping, make dinner at your campsite every night. Good cheap eats are:

  • Baked potatoes stuffed with veggies (get anything in the frozen aisle of the grocery store that’s on sale) and topped with a sprinkling of shredded cheese. Wrap them in foil and put them in the hot coals of your fire to “bake” them.
  • Ramen noodles – this cheap favorite is a great stand-by.
  • Boxed mac and cheese.
  • Toasted pita bread with hummus and some cheap frozen (and cooked) veggies.
  • Canned soup or other canned foods – look for specials at the grocery store when you shop.
  • Boil-in-bag rice with veggies.

You’ll notice most of these options are vegetarian – meat, chicken, and fish are all expensive, so they really don’t fit in with a shoe-string style road trip. Stick to drinking water – preferably water you’ve gotten from a tap or filtered using a filtering pitcher like Brita (the cost of one of these is quickly made up and then some in the savings you’ll reap over the long haul).

Cheap Road Trips: Free Attractions and Activities
Make it a game to find the free stuff – that really changes your attitude about the whole experience and adds a competitive/fun edge to your trip. Each person should keep a running tally of all the free food, activities, attractions, and other stuff they find along the way or even find out about before they go – each free thing wins that person a point. Pick something you can afford as a prize and the person who has the highest number of points at the end of the trip gets the prize.

You’d be surprised how much out there is free – there are great free zoos (the National Zoo in Washington is amazing and 100% free), free shows (many older amusement parks don’t charge an entry fee, only a fee for each ride, but they offer free shows all day), free museums (almost every museum I’ve visited asks for a donation, but the donation is not required to visit the museum), and free food (happy hour anyone?).

Cheap Road Trips: Conclusion
A road trip on a shoestring is truly the least expensive of vacations and will allow even the most cash-poor to take a vacation and have some fun. In fact, road trips like this can be even more memorable as you and your travel companions are all in the experience together, you tend to go off the beaten path and discover all kinds of treasures as you search for cheap/free things, and you’re more likely to have lots of funny stories to tell of your adventures. My family took some truly cheap road trips and we still laugh about all of the zany things – the frogs in the pool at the campground, the food dating back to the 1920s in that rickety old general store in the mountains, and the time we had to push the old Peugeot for miles to get to a repair shop.

If you can afford it, try to fit one special (and not free) thing to do on your cheap road trip to serve as a highlight of your vacation. My mother paid for a plane ride over the Outer Banks during a shoestring trip we took from CT to NC and I can still remember the sweeping views of the beach and the towering Hatteras Light turned toy-like below.

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