Planning a Budget-Friendly Road Trip for a Large Family
Contributed by: Ben Lovell
‘No man needs a vacation more than the man who has just had one.’ – Elbert Hubbard
Travel is expensive even for the solo tourist. If you’re marshalling a group of six, eight or ten, the price tags climb faster than you’d think. Regardless of the membership tally, the typical large family still has only one or two breadwinners. This means that finding economies of scale is critical to maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. In other words, the trip for your family of eight can’t cost four times as much as the same trip with your partner. Sure, fitting more people in a single vehicle or hotel room will help to some extent, but other costs like food, transport tickets and admission fees don’t necessarily scale down with larger numbers. Let’s take a few minutes to sift through some tips for keeping a road trip for a large family more budget-friendly.
Tip #1: Think Through the Financing
Even if you see yourself as head banshee to a band of free-spirits, the world costs money. Before you can spend any time on the subsequent steps, sit down with any other adult (or adult-adjacent) members of your brood and crunch the numbers.
Write an Itemized Budget
Obvious? Maybe, but you’d be surprised how many families neglect this. Don’t just set a limit for spending. While this is a good starting point, it doesn’t do much to help you plan. Itemize your budget as much as possible, with categories like lodging, gas, food and anything that requires admission. If you can pre-book any aspects of your travel, you can put hard numbers in for these expenses and ballpark the rest. Most families will see that their budget isn’t going to get them as far as they thought, especially with a lot of travelers. Making alterations to your plans in advance is less painful than cutting your trip short due to lack of funds.
Cash vs. Credit Cards
I always recommend carrying a stash of cash, split between multiple mature members of the clan. I’ve known companions whose financial institutions canceled their cards while they were traveling (for irregular spending), putting them in a serious financial bind. On this note, you can reach out to your bank and credit card providers, alerting them to your travel plans.
In general, debit and credit cards are safer and more versatile for traveling. While almost all credit cards protect against loss and theft, some of the best travel credit cards also entice members with travel perks like lodging benefits and airline miles. You can either rack these up during your trip or spend the ones you’ve previously accrued. If someone in the family travels for work, you may have these benefits available to use on your trip.
#2 Pre-Book Your Lodging
In the pre-internet era of my childhood, my parents had a rather reckless strategy for booking hotels: drive as long as they could and then scour the strip for Vacancy signs. While I admire their pluck, this made for some pretty long days and less-than-ideal rates. In the modern tech-drenched age, we have myriad resources for planning lodging. Let’s check into a couple.
Travel Booking Sites
Sites like Hotels.com, Kayak and Trivago compare tons of different types of lodging and even compile results from multiple other sites to help you find the cheapest rates. These sites also have a plethora of filters to help you sort by factors such as price, amenities, location and rating. Once you actually locate the lodging, I advise checking with the hotel directly to see if they have the lowest rate. Unless they’ve already allocated all their rooms to these third-party sites, you may avoid some fees with this strategy.
Free Cancellation & Flexible Dates
Flexibility is a major factor when traveling, especially with a large group. Booking the cheapest rate is pointless if you can’t make the stay, have to re-book and don’t get a refund on your original room. Carefully check each hotel’s cancellation policy, which is often specific to the room, the price or the third-party site you’re on. For example, the same hotel may have free cancellation if you pay a bit more for the initial booking. If you’re booking far in advance or expecting diversions, it may be worth it to pay this additional charge.
Hotels Along Your Route
Google maps and other sites can help you locate hotels and other types of lodging along your specific route and at the most advantageous intervals. This may be a big benefit if a portion of your travel involves consecutive days of high-mileage travel.
Hey, if you’re up for it and you have the gear, go for it. You can’t beat the price.
Tip #3 Vet Your Vehicle
When it comes to a rolodex of road trip questions, the vehicle you drive is central to the answer. From safety to comfort to cash-friendly tactics, your family chariot is the key factor that divides well-thought-out success from reckless failure. As usual, planning is the key.
Choose the Right Vehicle
For some families, there will only be one (or an obvious) choice of vehicle to take on the road trip. For others, there are viable options. As you’re deciding, keep the following factors in mind:
- Current Mileage on the Car
- Known Mechanical Issues
- Gas Mileage
- Room for Passengers & Gear (Consider Roof-Top Cargo Carriers)
- Safety Factors (e.g. Airbags)
- Comfort Factors (e.g. AC)
- Entertainment Factors (e.g. Bluetooth)
Don’t automatically rule out the possibility of renting a car for your trip. Although finances may make this a non-starter, there are definite advantages including dependability, insurance and support from the rental agency. This is also a good option if you’re flying at any point along your adventure.
Get Your Ride Ready for the Trip
For many reasons, a road-trip is a seriously awful place to have car trouble. Already, most people don’t do as much preventative maintenance on their vehicles as they should. If you’re coming up on the time for an oil change, tire rotation, fuel system cleaning or other routine bits of maintenance, take care of them before you leave.
It’s also worth having your car checked out by a mechanic. If you don’t have one you trust, chains like Valvoline make this part of their regular service charge. Even if you don’t choose to pay for recommended parts and services, you will gain additional information about your vehicle.
Finally, stock up on supplies like wiper fluid, jumper cables, flares, extra oil and wiper blades. Hopefully you won’t need these during your trip, but you will eventually.
Tip #4 Stock the Pantry
Let’s start this section with some theoretical math:
6 family members x 14-day trip x 3 meals x $8 meal = $2,016
Whoa. Something necessary (eating) and seemingly reasonable ($8/meal) has turned quickly into a budget resembling your family’s annual health insurance premiums. Obviously, this expense can’t be avoided, but it can be substantially curtailed.
The broad answer is to pack as much as you can into the car and avoid restaurants. Let’s look at some specific strategies:
- Easy-to-Access, Easy-to-Eat Snacks. Providing access to family-friendly snacks throughout the trip has several advantages, including reducing stress.
- Meals Included in Other Costs. The best example of this is included continental breakfasts at hotels. Eat up (and stock up).
- Buy in Bulk and Split it up. Avoid ready-to-eat foods, individual packaging and foods that will go bad quickly once you prepare them.
- Extended Stay Hotels. Extended Stay Hotels often have mini-kitchens in them, including fridges and full stoves. This can be a great way to prepare your own food without having to eat it in your car.
Tip #5 Skip the Gift Shop
Another bit of exploratory arithmetic:
6 family members x 14-day trip x $5 souvenir each day = $420
Now, consider this: Figuring $3/gallon at the pumps and averaging 20 miles per gallon, you can drive 2,800 miles on $420, the distance from Los Angeles to New York City.
I know that everyone likes to bring things home from travels, but there is something to be said for allocating this money elsewhere, to have more and better experiences. Also consider that many pieces of your trip (e.g. digital photos, ticket stubs, postcards) are either free, very inexpensive or included in another cost.
The Bottom Line
Preparation = Thrift. If you’re enjoying this article, you probably love to be spontaneous, free-spirited, even nomadic. I salute that. However, from a pocketbook perspective, planning is the mother of all frugality. Do your homework. Ask around. Chart your course and brainstorm contingencies. Once you’re out there on the road, there will be plenty of opportunities for impromptu itineraries and ad-lib adventures. Thanks for reading. See you out there.
A firm believer that freedom of information improves business, travel and life, freelance writer Ben Lovell is committed to sharing best practices. Read more of his articles at the Gothic Optimist.