I live in Dallas, and most of my family lives in the Denver area. This means that I travel to and fro an average of four times per year. I drive, rather than flying. I do this both to save money and because after multiple years of living in Europe and coming back to the states, I've flown enough for a life time. Also, road tripping allows me to travel at my own pace and control my own environment. I also make road trips to other areas for vacationing-often taking non freeway routes and stopping to explore.
In order to hit the road so often, I have to find ways to keep my costs under control-and I've managed to find more than a few ways to do so:
I plan ahead: The nature of road tripping is seat of your pants, and I enjoy that. However, hand in hand with that is a certain amount of preparation. This means that I read one of the many, many good tour books that I have regarding American Roads, and that I research my end destinations and overnights in depth, looking for good deals and learning what each destination has to offer. I may change my mind at the last minute, but I know what I'm stepping into. It also means that I am "prepared". Because I am in a car, I can take emergency clothing, a blanket, water a good first aid kids and medicines, and stock my car so that I am prepared for all events. I don't have to get an umbrella, an extra sweater, Tylenol or band aids or any of those other items that are usually more expensive at gas stations and hotel areas.
Food: Two Christmases ago my kids got me a picnic cooler similar to this one (although mine is square, and a bit larger). It goes on the front seat with me and is filled with fruit, drinks, and picnic stuff. I have some of those reusable freezer containers. I stop at rest stops, eat and get out and walk. I no longer get food at gas stations or fast food places. This has helped my health and weight as well as my pocketbook. Also, almost every motel and hotel has a breakfast bar these days. I make sure to avail myself of this before I hit the road, and often grab an extra piece of fruit as a snack on the way.
Restaurant Food: Obviously when I travel to visit family I am eating there, and I make a contribution. When I travel elsewhere for enjoyment, I eat at the breakfast bar and get grocery food for lunch. In my case I do enjoy eating out, and experimenting with local foods. Before I travel I look for restaurant specials. I also ask locals where the places are that they eat, and as much as possible I avoid hotel and tourist square restaurants. I'm there for the food, and would rather eat my Maryland crabs on a newspaper with a mallet, than in the Washington DC tourist restaurant.
Things to Don On the Road: One of the many advantages of Road tripping is that the trip itself is part of the adventure. This means that my rest stops and roadside breaks are usually free. Driving from California to Texas off the road, I managed to see old Yuma, a salvage yard that has hundreds of old military and non military plans sitting on the tarmac, Picacho Peak, a re-enactment in Tuscon, and pink sand dunes just to name a few. And that was just in Arizona. These places mentioned were all just off my route and all free. In some cases a tour could have been added on, but I chose the more relaxing option.
Things to do at my destination: Fortunately, I'm the kind of person that enjoys the experiences of a town or destination. This means that I enjoy walking around downtown Savannah and on the waterfront, exploring all the side streets just as much as I do any museum. So I pick one or two paid sightseeing type events and spend the rest of my time wandering and learning about the location at the personal level. My one almost always expense is this: in a town, especially a large town that is new to me, I always get the city or the hop on hop off tour and take it the first day. This expense gives me a really good orientation of the city, allows me to see many of things in a fairly short time, and tells me the places I might most like to return to. It also gives me a visual orientating of the city as a back up to my map. I also of course, always look at my destination website and look for discount coupons and specials. Lastly, many big city hotels have special coupons available when one checks in, as well as tickets and coupons that cut down on lines. It's worth checking out.
Souvenirs/Gifts: This can be where many folks break the so called budget. I try and remember that I am where I am for the experience, not for the things I can bring home. I also take lots of fairly good pictures and rather than large albums, put a few on my wall, so that I always have a remembrance of where I have been. I try and journal and take notes as I travel as well, but rare success. Most importantly, I have a general budget before I leave of what I can spend on these kinds of things. And secondly, I try and bring back something that is unique to the area, rather than a touristy item with the name of the destination imprinted. The exception in this are nice Christmas ornaments. I also try to make sure that anything I get is either usable, or that I actually have a real place in my home for it. On occasion this means that I spend more in this area. In my case though, I would rather have hand made wooden bowl for example, or a hand woven pashima, than a key chain that says "I was here."
I hope that if you road trip (or travel any other way) some of these ideas to travel save you money. I live on a pension and love to travel. That means looking for economic ways to have fun. It still means having fun.