Friday, July 18, 2014

The Price of the Frugal Road Trip

My travel vehicle of choice tends to be my car. Occasionally I take a train trip and on rare occasions I fly (generally only over open water).  Unlike many of my fellow retirees, I don't camp, and I've decided that an RV is not for me, for a variety of reasons. Having said all that, I wouldn't necessarily mind a small camping or mini trailer, similar to what Cindi and her husband have purchased.  Some readers may remember my pictures of hand painted trailers that I've taken at various craft fairs and antique fairs.  Meanwhile though,  I stick to my car. I can drive it as fast as I like. My car allows me to go on most any road, anywhere. My car is very comfortable and in general, it limits my need to control what I have packed.

I honestly have no idea how travel costs in a car compares to traveling in an RV or camper.  There are so many different factors to take into account, and each person will come up with a different result. In my case,  have some general budget guidelines that I take into consideration when planning a road trip.

The costs that I share here are for true "road tripping".  Driving from place to place along the road during the day (be it the gulf coast, the road from Moab to Tuscon or other trips).  Destination travel is budgeted differently, at least by me. I generally choose to stay in the center of, say, San Francisco.  This requires a different kind of cost comparison.  Nor do I share costs for the "fun stuff".  Below I'm only sharing the basic costs of driving from point a to point b for whatever purposes.  Really good restaurants, intriguing side trips and other things are part of my road trip travel, of course. I am the girl for whom the road itself is the adventure.  For cost comparison though, we're talking about the basics here-car, gas, food and sleep.  The basics of life no matter where you are going to, or coming from. 

When it comes to gas, I have a 20 gallon tank and that's a double edged sword, as the saying goes.  The bad news is that it takes a very long time to fill my tank. The good news is that my full tank takes a very long time to empty.  Because the bulk of my "regular, non loss leader" grocery shopping is done at King Soopers, I try very hard when possible to fill up at King Soopers/Kroger gas stations.  I generally budget 20 gallons or one of my tanks for 400 miles, and sometimes do much better.  This price is for "road tripping" and not city driving.

I have lots of options for places to lay my head, and they have a variety of prices, depending on the option. My absolute base budget for a place to sleep is right around a hundred dollars for a single night.  This includes taxes and extras. I've been known to go lower and to go above.  On this particular trip, where the destination was more important than the drive, I stayed at a Best Western along the way. Once here, I found a cheap "extended stay option" of $300 for five nights at a "basic hotel".  In my experience the best ways to explain the differences in motels is the number of pillows and the quality of the bathroom supplies.  On everything else the variance is too wide.  On the other hand, one of the pluses of car travel is carrying my own bath sheet, extra pillows and brands of personal products.

 For those readers who have asked along the way, I have on very rare occasions slept in my car.  Generally this is in emergency situations or the rare occasion when I decide to try and drive 12 hours in one day and crash.  I do this because I have two very vocal, very aware dogs, and a large, safe car with seats that lie back for a few hours. I would never "spend the night in my car".   

When it comes to food for traveling the open road, the variance can be very high. I like very good food.  When traveling along the gulf coast, say, my lunch would probably be seafood every day.  I'm a big fan of local cuisine and have been trying to duplicate the shrimp burger from the shrimp shack in Beaufort, SC for more years than I care to admit.  Having shared all that, I consider that kind of food to be "entertainment, or travel". 

 My basic road trip food plan consists of a really good cooler that includes cotton napkins and real plates and glasses. My cooler holds water, coke (we all have our own caffeine needs), cut up fruit and veggie sets from the grocery section, and crackers and cheese.  Add other things as the mood hits.  While I am very poor at tracking this, I would say I allow an extreme maximum $20 of food per day and have a goal of using closer to five dollars. I often using nothing but my cooler for a two day drive, especially in picnic weather.  Some days my food costs are $5 grocery costs. This means that I take advantage of the hotel breakfast, use my cooler and often hit a grocery before dinner, grabbing say, a small chicken and a couple other things to fill out my options.  By doing this, I always, without fail have enough to eat at all those local eateries I was talking about, even if it is multiple times a day.

Car maintenance and car emergencies.  In theory, this is not an "out of pocket road budget cost".  But it does fit into my road tripping costs overall, so it's worth sharing.  Put simply, when you get a car, most guides have a "high use" and "regular use" maintenance standard.  Even though my car is extremely low mileage use, I always maintain things at the more strict schedule and I always get my oil changed on time.  The cost of this will vary between person and car. My dealer has a package price for maintenance and tire rotation of $175 annually.  In terms of emergency management, I pay a couple bucks a month for towing with USAA. If I did not have that option, I would use AAA or AARP for an unknown cost.

My basic road tripping costs? Twenty gallons of gas for a six hour drive (this one you have to fill out depending on your cost of gas and will vary according to your car's functions, a hundred dollars a night for some shut eye, and twenty dollars for food.  On this particular trip, a two day drive, I my total budget was $90 for gas, $100 for one night, and 40 for food, for a total $230.00 budgeted.  My real costs were less. My hotel was slightly cheaper, my food was much less (a really, really good hotel breakfast with fruit and breads that I was encouraged to take and farmers markets affected this one).  The end result were that my costs were less than $200.00.

Again, this is my personal experience and others will have different results.  These were my costs only for the basics. Many of my road trips include stops at roadside museums or other sights were there might be additional costs, costs that I consider travel or entertainment.  Using my drive from Moab to Tuscon as an example, there were both free (Arches National Park, Monument Valley) and not free (a local micro brewery, some caverns, Indian turquoise jewelry) entertainment and events.  Those are fun, and the reason I road trip, and yes, I budget for them (more in another post).  But my basic, standard travel budget no matter where I go includes the primary needs and costs shown above.

And there you have it, my basic minimal budgeting for hitting the road.  I get many of these costs lower due to apps, aggregate sites, bidding sites and more.  But my basic, put my money in the hopper budget remains just above $100 a day, with all savings put back into the road trip fund.

Oh, and one final thought.  These costs do not include the price of canine children, which can vary widely.  My Best Western, for example, only required a deposit that was refunded the next day.  I have, however, paid up to fifteen dollars per dog.  Generally, my "dog tax" is less than boarding, so it works for me.


  1. Sounds like you've got everything well-organized. I WISH I liked to travel; but like you I don't like to fly (feel like I'm being herded like cattle); don't like trains (too slow and unpredictable); and really don't like driving that much anymore (the long, boring highway miles and the other maniacal drivers going 10 - 20 mph over the speed limit, tailgating, etc.). But I DO like being other places. When are they going to be able to "beam me up" so I can avoid all that?

  2. Very organized Barb. We haven't done any road trips in a very long time. This is something we are looking at in the near future and reading your take on the process is helping me decide on whether it can be done with a frugal mind set.

    God bless.

  3. Hi Barb. Thanks for the mention. We're in Ann Arbor Michigan right now and we're picking up our R-Pod (RV) tomorrow morning. We can't wait. On our way back to NY, I've got a few stops we plan on making along the way. One of which is a few days in Niagara Falls (always on my Bucket List).
    I'll let you know how it goes and naturally, of course, I'll be tracking our expenses.

  4. I like your plan. I like road trips if the miles are short - say, 200 miles a day, with lots of off-freeway roads. For our four-day drive between Seattle and Tucson, I think I've persuaded my husband to drive with a friend while I fly with the cat! Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles is not for me.


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