Save money while traveling

By Stew


A frugal vacation is almost an oxymoron, but there are some small ways that our family has developed to reduce travel costs. Frankly, my idea of a vacation involves staying home . . . so maybe there is such a thing as a frugal vacation. Anyway, my job and our current financial situation do not allow for traditional vacations in the sense that we go to a particular location for the purpose of relaxation and entertainment. Our vacations merely consist of traveling to see family – we live roughly a thousand miles from both major relative groups – or work related trips. We spend a great deal of time on the road.

Sometimes my job allows me to combine work and play, so I try to book a “job” in a place that my family might like to visit and then take them along. As a result my three children, currently all under the age of seven, have accompanied me on trips to Georgia, Illinois, Florida (Orlando and Miami), Colorado, Wisconsin, Kansas and South Dakota – all via the road. The longest trip that we have taken as a family involved over thirty hours of driving. One of the worst trips that we ever took involved a four hour traffic stand-still in 20 degrees-below-zero temperatures in the middle of Iowa.

There is no way to really avoid spending money on the road, especially if your trip is long enough to require overnight stays and meals and there are times when traveling with three young children, that we throw frugality out the window and just get whatever will keep the kids quiet . . . admit it, we all have those moments. However, well planned trips can keep costs low. Here are a few suggestions:


Pack snacks that are satisfying and don’t mess up your car. My top three car snacks are baby carrots, string cheese and apples – filling and relatively inexpensive. Take sandwiches in a small cooler for at least one meal during the day. If you pack a good lunch and a few hearty snacks, you can avoid expensive restaurants or fast food for at least two meals.

Visit your local grocery store and splurge before leaving on your trip. The most expensive snacks in your grocery store are far cheaper than anything in the gas station convenience store.

If you must eat out, make sure you carry plenty of coupons. If we have to eat out on the road, we decide where to go, by looking at our coupon folder.

Impulse buying will destroy your traveling food budget.

Have plenty of water with you so that you don’t have to spend money on something that is almost free in your own home.


Glblguy will not like this one, but we use a cash back credit card in order to purchase gasoline on all of our trips. It is the only way we really can save money in this area. The best scenario occurs when my employer reimbuses me for travel expenses. My card gets me 3% cash back on every purchase, when I turn in my receipts, I am reimbursed for the full amount spent. On a $100 gasoline purchase, I make an extra six bucks. Not a huge amount of money, but I’ll take what I can get.

Once again, this blog as a whole is not a “fan” of credit cards – our family has strictly defined budget categories for credit card use and we pay off our balance every month.

I have also found that I get much better gas mileage with higher grade gasoline. This is probably different with every vehicle, but if the price difference between the regular grade and the mid grade gasoline is less than 10% of the regular grade price, I purchase the mid grade. I have found that my vehicle gas mileage improves over 10% with mid grade gas, especially on the freeway.


Once again, money spent on hotels is almost never well spent, however, I have a few strategies for keeping costs down in this area:

Purchase your hotel room online as far in advance as possible through an online cash back portal like Ebates or MyPoints. This could save you anywhere from $5 to $25 per night.

Become a member of every hotel chain loyalty club, purchase your room through Priceline or some other discount broker and then make sure that you are credited with a night’s stay through the loyalty program when you check out of the hotel. I keep all of my membership numbers written on a card in my wallet. The catch with loyalty programs is that you become committed to that particular chain, even when they do not offer the best price in town, but if you are a member of several programs, you can simply go for the lowest price. Eventually you will start to earn free stays.

If we are not certain how far we will be able to travel in a particular day, I get online and write down the phone numbers for several hotels along the route, near where we think we might stop. When we get an hour or so away, we start to call the various properties to see who has the best deal. Sometimes we can talk hotels down in price, sometimes we can play them against each other – especially later in the evening, and sometimes we end up driving an hour or two further in order to get a better deal. Once, when I was on the road by myself, I employed this strategy and discovered that all of the hotels in eastern Nebraska were completely booked. I spent the night, sleeping in the back of my pickup at a rest area in 80 degree temperatures, 100% (at least) humidity and mosquitoes . . . Fortunately, that has not yet happened while my family was along.

We always stay at a place that includes breakfast. For a family of five, a free breakfast can save us a lot of money.

Restroom breaks

All I can say here is, when nature calls, do your best to stop at the highway rest areas, they are typically cleaner and will not tempt your family to purchase overpriced, unhealthy items.

Not-so-frugal travel suggestions:

If you have small children, take special note of large malls with play areas along your route. If your kids really need a break, there is no substitute for a play area at a mall. If you can resist the temptations posed by the stores, food court and coffee shops, so much the better.

The older I get and the more I stay in hotels, the more I value hotel cleanliness. I will often pay an extra $20 to $30 for a hotel room in a chain that I am confident will be clean. Not the most frugal suggestion . . . but if I can avoid cockroaches, greasy bedspreads, and strange hairs in the restroom for twenty-five bucks, I will do it.

By all means, stay alert. You need to figure out your limites, but if you are falling asleep on the road, pull off, get a room or at least spend some money on an energy drink.

Our favorite on-the-road restaurant is Chik-fil-A. Costs a couple of bucks more than the Wendy’s or McDonald’s dollar menu, but it is a smidge healthier and typically much cleaner.

Photo by Toastie14

13 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Save money while traveling”

  1. joanna Says:

    Since when 6$ is a 3% out of 100??

  2. Stew Says:

    Joanna, you are right. I was thinking that I made 6% after the 3% cash back and getting reimbursed for the full amount. Kind of a brain tease, but I think I only come out 3% ahead afterall. You are correct.

  3. Craig Says:

    Take some type of entertainments thins for kids to focus on so they won’t complain and make you buy stuff. Books, games, music, etc will keep them focus and not ask for things.

  4. sarah p. Says:

    Agree completely on the water and packing snacks. When flying, it’s easy to stop at a grocery store (you can even plan ahead for coupon deals at local stores!) when you get to your destination for snacks/beverages that aren’t packable due to regulations.

    Disagree somewhat on the hotels – I consider safety and cleanliness an essential piece of even a frugal hotel and will not even consider somewhere unclean or borderline safe. I also think that money on hotels is often very well spent, depending on the vacation.

    On gas, prices can vary widely even among local stations. Look up cheap stations online before you leave (or drive a few blocks off the freeway) and you can often save $.10-.15/gallon.

    My biggest thing when it comes to vacation is to plan based on what is most important to you. We just got back from a vacation I consider to be frugal, yet we spent a fair amount of (budgeted) money on the things most important to us. We ate at fancy restaurants, because that was one of the goals of the trip (and used discount certificates where we could). We also ate in, and got snacks from the grocery store. We got a great rate on a hotel for part of the time and stayed with family the other part. Flights were free with miles (from business trips). We found the best deal on a rental car by renting off-airport with coupon codes. We balanced our time between free attractions and paid attractions that were important to us.

    Overall, it was a fantastic vacation, full of great memories and done under the spending plan we had set.

  5. Jane Says:

    I would recommend taking a room on the second floor so you can scan the parking lot before heading down to your car.
    Travel and truck centers are some of the safest places to stop and rest. They have 24-hour security and are visited by professional drivers who are used to staying aware and protective of their vehicles.
    And i feel coffee shops, hair salons and taverns are all good places to chat casually with residents. Also pick up a local paper or watch the local television news to be aware of the local current events.

  6. itistimetotalk Says:

    Thank you for the article, “Saving Money While Traveling”. It contains some useful and good money saving tips. Also, on Hotels you may be able to get additional savings by using your AAA card if you are a member (of course this may depend on the hotel and staff).

  7. DDFD at Says:

    Solid advice– I spend quite a bit of time in my car. Packing your own food and drink is a big money saver.

  8. 2latewise Says:

    Lunch is often cheaper at restaurants than dinner, so save your snacks and sandwiches for the evening meal. Grocery stores often have precooked foods at prices competitive with fast food, and you can get healthier fare, too. Cheerios are a delicious, healthy substitute for potato chips or other dry snacks, and they require no refrigeration.
    If you have a good secondhand bookstore nearby, pick up current magazines and paperbacks at a good price to read on your trip, and sell them back when you get home.
    Take along your nearly-used-up toothpaste and deodorant to finish on the trip. You’ll find yourself getting very frugal to make sure they last. (My dentist says you only need a dab of toothpase the size of a green pea to brush your teeth.)
    If you want a “souvenir” there are varied approaches: photos/postcards, one and only one “good” item you’ll actually use(not very likely to be found), or a specialty activity/event like rafting the Grand Canyon or a whalewatching boat trip that is unlikely to ever offer itself again.
    Save $20K by knowing whether you’ll fall for a salesman’s pitch and don’t go on a “free” trip if you can’t say NO firmly and repeatedly. A relative had to pay money to get rid of 2 timeshares. She felt guilted into buying one because the salesman turned nasty and told her he had to make money for his kids to go to college, and she had just cost him a day of work if she pulled out of the deal. The other one was a total spur-of-the -moment thing she and her husband fell for, thinking many other family members would want to go to Florida in midsummer.
    Try to buy gas away from the interstate. Those interchange locations are expensive, with prices to match.
    The value test: what will this item bring at a yard sale in three months?