Hitting the open road is one of our favorite ways to travel with kids, especially in the summer months. Whether we fly in and rent a car, or we take a long road trip from home, there is nothing better than experiencing somewhere new.
Before you head out on the highway or those backcountry roads, you have to start planning for your road trip. You will want to keep your travel budget in mind, and also look at ways to save money throughout your journey.
We are sharing a few of our road trip planning secrets that will not only guarantee you save money at the pump and on food, but also help you earn points for future travel too.
Create a budget when planning for a road trip
Start a spreadsheet or note on your phone to keep track of what money you are spending and where. Whether it’s pre-booking hotel rooms or grabbing discount activity passes, you should keep a running tally.
I like to start a new Google Sheet for each trip that I can access on my phone with columns for gas, hotels, meals, attractions and special treats/extras.
I set up equations before the trip, starting with my total trip budget and automatically subtracting expenses as I book things. This is a fast and easy way to see when you are going over budget, or when you have a little extra cash to splurge on treats and surprises for the kids.
Use a Fuel Consumption Calculator
When you start to plan your trip, it’s good to know how much it will cost to get there. By using an online fuel consumption calculator, you can get a pretty good estimate of how much you will need to fuel your tank to get from point A to points B, C and D on your trip. Knowing this one variable can help you plan out how much you can spend on meals, hotels and activities.
Not sure how much gas (per gallon) will cost along the way? Make a rough estimate (I always go higher than I think), and plug it into the calculator, along with your car’s average gas mileage and distance you will be driving.
Voila- you now have a rough number to add into your gas budget.
Sign up for the Marathon MakeItCount™ Rewards program
We love to save money at the pump. Our partner, Marathon, makes it easy to sign up for their rewards program, MakeItCount™, which gives you 5 cents off every gallon, every day. You can earn points to redeem on things like gas, hotels, airfare, and some of your favorite shops.
Signing up is simple. Just go to the MakeItCount™ website for your free account. It only takes a few minutes. You can access your points anytime via the website or the MakeItCount™ app on your phone.
I love the MakeItCount™ app because it is always with you. Simply pull up your account on the mobile phone app, scan the barcode at the pump and you start saving and earning points right away. Plus, you can earn points when you grab your favorite snacks, drinks and even a cup of coffee at a Marathon station too.
Downloading the free MakeItCount™ app and setting up my account took less than five minutes. If you forget, you can quickly sign up right at the pump via your phone too. We busy parents never have to miss out on savings just because we got sidetracked planning for a road trip.
I have my account tied to my Southwest Rapid Rewards number. Now, when I go on a road trip, I can dream about new places to fly and plan road trips there too.
Grab a Toll Pass Transponder
I don’t know about you, but we rarely carry around change or small bills anymore. I have no patience for waiting in a lineup of cars for someone to get change for a $20 on a 50-cent toll. I want to keep cruising through my toll lane, hopefully at a steady speed, without slowing down.
Here on the East Coast, we mainly use EZ-Pass to pay for tolls. This saves us money when we are driving major toll roads and across bridges from Maine down to North Carolina and across to Illinois.
Create a Snack Basket, but don’t forget about treats
We always have a multitude of snacks in our car, but that doesn’t stop the kids from begging for a treat every time we fill up on gas or wander past a gift shop.
I load up on healthy snacks (nuts, fruits, veggies, etc.) for the trip, but the kids can pick one special treat per day when we make a stop. It’s their choice when and where. We could be earning rewards at a Marathon gas station, at a roadside attraction or ice cream shop; it doesn’t matter. They just get one treat per day.
Use Refillable Water Bottles
It’s amazing how much people spend on water when they take a road trip. We bring at least four reusable water bottles on every trip that we can refill along the way.
Many rest stops have water fountains you can use for refills and you can grab ice at the hotel ice machine in the morning to keep beverages cool.
We also have a large beverage cooler that we keep in the back of the car on long road trips, so we never run out of water. All we have to do is refill it each night at our hotel or campsite and we are good to go.
Don’t underestimate camping
Camping is an instant road trip money saver when you are on a budget. I’ll admit, as much as I love my squishy bed, sometimes camping, or even glamping, is the better option too.
Oftentimes, you can sleep closer to your destination by camping out in the national parks and at state park campsites. Plus, you get to meet new people from around the world. S’mores are also the perfect bribe for any kids tired of being in the car.
Pick your hotels wisely
While we can’t all be campers, or you may want a cozy bed every few nights, what you can do is save big on food when you book a hotel with breakfast included.
I have growing boys who can easily eat through a week’s worth of groceries in two days. Having a breakfast buffet at a hotel saves me cash, allows me to grab some extra fresh fruit to throw into our snack basket in the car, and have my morning coffee (or two). Hitting the road with a full belly in the morning is the best way to start the day.
Plus, with MakeItCount™ Rewards, I can use points to book Wyndham hotel rooms, saving me even more money.
Invest in a National Parks Pass
Many people planning road trips across the USA stop in at least one national or state park. There are plenty of National Parks for kids to enjoy, stretch their legs and get a little outside time in too.
Buy your national park pass before you leave home or when you enter your first park for maximum savings. For about $80, you will get a park pass that will allow you to visit parks throughout the country for 365 days. You will also be supporting one of the best attractions in the U.S. – nature.
TIP: If you have a 4th grader, you get a national park pass for free! Grab all of the details HERE.
If you are only traveling around one state, look into the state park pass. Sometimes you can only pay cash in an envelope at the gate, which can be a big pain if you don’t carry cash. You will also save a bundle on an annual pass, as opposed to paying per day, per park entry.
Search for Free Attractions and Roadside Curiosities
There are loads of free things to see and do as you plan your road trip across the country. Do a little research before your trip to find out nature trails, parks, museums, libraries and events you can pop into without spending a dime. You will be surprised by just how much there is to do, even in the smallest town.
I never expected to meet the world’s largest buffalo when driving from Bismarck to Devils Lake, North Dakota that’s for sure! Ever wanted to see the World’s Tallest Thermometer? You can when you take a road trip from Los Angeles to Death Valley. And don’t even get me started on the beauty of Wall Drug and South of the Border for keeping kids entertained as they count down signs.
With so many ways to save money at the pump, earning rewards on hotel stays and beyond, the only thing left to do is start planning for a road trip of your own.
This post is part of a paid partnership with Marathon Petroleum Corporation. All opinions and road trip tips are my own. When they aren’t, you will be the first to know.