Road Trip Planner


What is a "road trip"?

I define "road trip" to mean:

A trip one takes in a personal motor vehicle that includes:
  • Overnight stops in three or more locations; and
  • Considerable driving distance between the overnight stops. 

I leave the definition of "considerable" to the driver. For some, considerable might mean two hours; to others, it might mean eight.

2006 road trip to Nova Scotia: Camp Meade, Vermont

What is a "budget trip"? 

Definition: A trip that I can afford.

Afford means I have the money on hand, and its not from my emergency or long-term savings accounts. It's OK if I need to charge some trip expenses, but only if I know I'll be able to pay the charges in full after I return from the trip.

These are what consume a road trip budget:
  • Lodging
  • Gasoline
  • Restaurants
  • Alcohol consumption, if any
  • Admissions and activity fees

Below are general tips I follow to manage my road trip budget:  
  • Use lodging that costs $70 or less per night, though I always strive for $50. 
  • Eat in a restaurant only once per day, occasionally twice. Go picnic-style for my other meals. 
  • In a restaurant, drink water instead of soda, iced tea, or alcohol.
  • Bring my own alcohol, if any.
  • Avoid souvenir purchases.
  • Choose and ration my splurge activities carefully.
  • Choose my travel partners carefully. By this I mean: Select a travel partner whose definition of "budget" is similar to mine. 

I'll talk about some of the above in more detail, later.

2006 road trip to Nova Scotia: Cape Breton bakery

Part 2: Lodging

Road-trip lodging might include:
  • Staying with friends
  • Couchsurfing
  • Sleeping in the car
  • Camping
  • Staying in a motel
  • Hostels
  • Informal B and Bs

All of the above have their advantages and disadvantages. Variables include:
  • Money
  • Time
  • Safety
  • Privacy
  • General hassle (however you define "hassle" for yourself)
  • Sleep needs
  • Hygienic needs
  • If traveling alone or with others

2007 Road trip - Taos

Staying with friends

On the surface, it may seem like a no-brainer to stay with a friend who lives along your road trip route.

Maybe, maybe not.

Money. Some people are inveterate "over-gifters." These are sweet folks who cannot feel comfortable staying at another's house unless they buy a meal for all household members plus bring a significant gift. If you fall into this category, weigh the actual cost of staying at the friend's house versus a viable lodging alternative. You can always meet the friend for a cup of coffee, which has the added advantage of managing the time variable.


Time includes planning time. Crashing at a friend's place requires a little or a lot of advance preparation to make sure your schedules mesh. If your itinerary is fluid, it may require numerous contacts with your friend to check back on availability.

Time also includes face time with the friend. Do you just want to get to the friend's house, chat a bit, crash, then get on the road early the next morning? If yes, will that be possible with the friend? Or will you need to invest time socializing late into the night or for a large portion of the following day?

Finally, time includes how long it will take to get to/from your main route and the friend's house. If you've got a friend who lives "in" St. Louis, does this mean s/he's within a few minutes of your route or is she actually 20 miles south of St. Louis, where you'll traverse various highways, then two bumper-to-bumper arterials, til you finally get to that side street where the friend lives? And then repeat it all the next day, hoping to miss the worst of the morning rush? 

2007 Road trip - Grand Canyon


Couchsurfing means that you're crashing at a stranger's house, who's agreed to put you up for the night, no charge. (Here are some couchsurfing etiquette tips.)

For those of us who are social creatures, what a terrific concept!  Meeting new people. Getting the insider's view of the city.

It's not for all of us, though. For example, I'm an introvert and I like to be able to escape to my cave. The idea of having to be "on" for an evening or longer with a stranger isn't relaxing for me.

The money and time variables for staying with a friend also apply to couchsurfing.

Safety. Although there are ways to mitigate the safety risk of couchsurfing, your personal risk threshold may just be too low to allow for couchsurfing. In that case, pass on it. A road trip is supposed to be fun, not create stress.

Privacy. Some couchsurfing hosts offer private rooms; some don't. Weigh your privacy needs with what prospective hosts have to offer and the cost of alternative lodging.

General hassle.

Everyone defines "hassle" for themselves. For me, "hassle" would include:
  • Complicated, drawn-out negotiations or instructions related to the lodging, whatever the type. 
  • Lots of rules.
  • Having to deviate too far from my main route to get to the lodging.

So a couchsurfing situation that pushes the above buttons for me - I'd probably take a pass.

Sleep and hygienic needs.

When you're couchsurfing, you're at someone's house, not a hotel. The housekeeping might not meet your tolerance threshold. Maybe the hosts have cats and you're allergic. Or you're not allergic, but the litter box smells. Or the host's place is right next to the airport.

You don't go into a couchsurfing place completely blind, but there are limits to what you know up front.

If traveling with others.

If you're traveling with one or two others, it may be more difficult to couchsurf.

2007 Road trip - Kayenta

Sleeping in the car

Yes, I've done this. On a road trip to the Black Hills. A road trip to Alaska. A road trip in France.  And at least one other trip.

In none of those cases did I plan to sleep in the car. It just worked out that way because:
  • We drove so late that we became too tired to drive any further to a hotel; 
  • We couldn't find a hotel; 
  • The hotel I did find was scarier than the prospect of sleeping in my car; or
  • The hotels in the area were just too expensive. 

I will say that I've never just pulled off the road to sleep in my car. Or maybe I did.

In one case, my brother and I drove into an empty campground in France and slept in the car there. It was scary, though. The trees were leafless and had been topped. They looked like headless creatures. A fog permeated the grounds. It was a veritable vampire attractant.

In at least two other cases, I slept in well-lit interstate rest areas. The advantage of a rest area is flush toilets and potable water. Plus I've found there is sufficient incoming/outgoing traffic to ensure I'm not alone for long ... 'course, that's a potential disadvantage, as well. 

In this roadtripamerica thread are suggestions for other possibles: truck-stop parking lots, hospital parking lots, and hotel parking lots. Not saying they're good suggestions, just suggestions. An excellent resource I gleaned from this thread was Free Campsites, which points you to free campsites (including the parking lots of some stores, where you could car-sleep) all over the U.S.

(Awhile back, I wrote about Glenn Campbell (not that Glenn Campbell) at Homeless by Choice and his lodging strategy at "Walmart Motels," which is sort of a cross between sleeping in your car and camping.)  

Money. Like staying with friends and couchsurfing, car sleeping saves money. For many, perhaps most of us, however, other variables outweigh the $$$ savings.

Time. General hassle. Extremely economical in time and hassle. Pull in, sleep, pull out. No advance planning. No socializing.

Safety.  Concerns about safety may rule this option out for many travelers. If you're traveling with someone else, you may be more comfortable with it.

Privacy. Another disadvantage of sleeping in your car. There really is no privacy when you're sleeping in your vehicle, unless you have a vehicle in which you can cover the windows. To achieve privacy, you can pull your vehicle over to a secluded area that draws no traffic, but that may also make you more vulnerable to attack.
Sleep needs. If I'm sleeping in my car, I'm likely to have a lighter sleep than if I were in a more traditional place.

Hygienic needs. If I'm at a rest area, I can wash my face and brush my teeth, use a flush toilet, and wash my hands with soap.  If I sleep in a place with no facilities, then I will still do OK, because I will have packed a jug of water and at least waterless soap and have a washcloth and hand towel. And toilet paper. Good to go. I don't want to do that every day, but once in awhile, no problem.

Traveling with others. Sleeping in the car is definitely safer when traveling with someone else versus traveling solo.

2008 Road trip - Monument Valley



If I camp, it's likely I'll pay less than $20 for a campsite per night. That assumes non-electric sites, which is a vanishing category in many campgrounds. (On the other hand, camping in some Bureau of Land Management and other lands is free!) The longer my road trip is, the more attractive camping becomes in my lodging plan.

Free Campsites directs visitors to free campsites all over the U.S.

Time. Assuming tent camping, it takes time to set up and break camp. It may take considerable time to drive from your main route to the campground, up to an hour, depending not only on distance, but road conditions. (Driving a switchback up a mountain is slow work even on a well-paved road.) Checking in takes time. Selecting a campsite takes time.

Safety. Assuming you're in a campground, and you don't do something completely stupid, like rub yourself with ground beef before you turn in for the night in bear country, camping is very safe.

Privacy. With some exception, privacy not much of a concern, unless you've got the rare situation of loud neighbors.

General hassle. It takes time to set up and break down camp, which is why I generally don't camp unless I'll be in the same place for at least two nights. Unless you really go bare bones on the camping bit (sleeping in your car and not cooking), there's a hassle in that you have to pack more gear that takes up more space in your vehicle - a tent, sleeping bag(s), cook stove, gas, lantern, etc.

Sleep needs. If you awaken with each noise outside your tent thinking it might be a bear or a mountain lion or a Deliverance-style local or snake, then you might have a more relaxed time in a motel.  You want to have fun on your trip - not feel anxious. 

Hygienic needs. There may or may not be showers. Or flush toilets. You'll need to have a water container and your own soap.

Traveling alone or with others. Whether alone or with a companion, it's pretty hard to beat the good time of poking a fire with a stick. I've camped alone and I felt safe. Most of the time. (One time an idiot camp host scared me with his story of coyotes invading a camper's tent the night before I arrived.)

2007 Road trip - Las Vegas, NM

Staying in a motel

I have a different standard for a motel where I'll stay only one night versus one I'll stay in for multiple nights. For one night, I can overlook charmlessness in exchange for cost savings.

A good budget motel has:
  • Clean bed;
  • Floor that I feel is clean enough to walk on barefoot;  
  • Clean bathroom; 
  • Shower that works; 
  • TV that works; 
  • Free wireless; 
  • Coffeemaker in the room; 
  • Secure door and windows; 
  • Air conditioner that works; and 
  • An ice machine somewhere on the premises. 

I don't care about the decor or how dated it is. I also don't care if it has a free breakfast, although sometimes this is nice.

General motel tips:
I prefer locally-owned, non-chain motels, but those aren't always available or within my road trip budget.

Generally-reliable chain motelsSuper 8 and Fairfield Inn (Marriott) are generally reliable cost- and quality-wise. I particularly favor Super 8s because they have free wireless, a microwave, and small fridge. Plus a free breakfast (but see note below).

Motel 6s seem to be OK if they are brand new; otherwise, my experience hasn't been good with them - they emit a sort of dodgy vibe. Motels like Days Inn and similar class - generally budget-friendly, but erratic in quality.

I do find it helpful to stop by a state's "welcome center" rest area to pick up the motel coupon books. Then I call the motel while I'm on the road to reserve a room for that night.

"Free" breakfast. Given a choice between a $50 hotel room without a "free" breakfast and a $60 or higher motel with, I'll select the $50 motel. The vast majority of time, the "free" breakfast is unsatisfying or unhealthy. I do better having breakfast out of my small cooler or by stopping at a restaurant and getting exactly what I want for the same or less than the "free" breakfast. Another thing to consider is that if you intend to get back on the road before 6:00 a.m., that "free" breakfast won't even be set up yet.

Discounts. In most cases, the AAA, AARP, and government discount rates are the same. Sometimes the government (or military) rates are lower.  If you don't belong to at least one of these sectors, join one.

Frequent sleeper plans. If you travel frequently for work, become a "frequent sleeper" member of one or two hotel chains with a large "family" of hotel brands. Both Marriott and Hilton have a nice continuum of budget through upscale brands. You do especially well if you usually stay at the higher-end brand for work and then use your free-stay points on the economical brands in the "family" during vacation road trips.

Be willing to do some footwork. When I swing into a town that has several motels, I'll gravitate to the one I think will meet all of my criteria first. But if the price is too high, I won't hesitate to hop back in the car and check out the other motels.  (If I had a smart phone with really fast and easy web access, I'd sit in the parking lot and do my checking around by phone.)

Security. If I'm by myself, I usually ask for a room on the second floor.

Money. On a road trip, budget motel means $70 or less to me. I strive for $50. Sometimes I can't get under $70, but usually I can.

Time. Other than sleeping in your vehicle, a motel stay is the most economical of your time. Other than check-in, there's no set up, and you leave as early as you want the next morning.

Safety. Lock your door. Lock your windows (if they open at all). Other than that, really, the vast majority of motels are entirely safe.

General hassle. Sleep needs. Hygienic needs. Not usually issues.

Traveling alone or with others. Pretty much, two travel cheaply as one when it comes to motel stays. If you share a household, this is a neutral factor. Otherwise, it's a cost savings for you as individuals, since you can split the cost.


A hostel is a form of lodging that:
  • Is less expensive than a motel;
  • Has some form of shared space, such as the sleeping room (i.e. dorm), bathrooms, kitchen, or living areas.
  • One generally finds in locations that draw high tourist traffic, whether that's an urban (NYC) or rural setting (i.e. the Abominable Snowmansion near Taos).

Other than the above features, I wouldn't want to pigeonhole all hostels as serving a particular age, socio-economic, educational, cultural or travel-style demographic.

Check them out! Here are websites that list hostels:
Hostelling International

Informal B and Bs

Airbnb is ... well, here's what Airbnb says about itself:  "Rent nightly from real people in 15,263 cities in 184 countries."  This video explains more:

Part 3: Food and Drink

Restaurants will eat up your budget. If you and your travel companion are a couple and you use the same piggy bank -- double ouch.

2008 road trip - Albuquerque

To save restaurant expenditures:
  • Don't order a beverage with your meal. Drink water instead.
  • Eat only one meal per day at a restaurant. Eat other meals picnic-style out of your cooler or from a grocery store deli.
  • Choose breakfast or lunch for most of your daily restaurant meals - they're often less expensive than dinner.
  • In a restaurant with a buffet, look at the table offerings, check the price, then compare both with menu meals. Ordering off the menu is sometimes the more economical choice, both dollar- and calorie-wise.  
  • If you're traveling with someone else, consider splitting a restaurant meal, especially if it's dinner.

2007 road trip - Las Vegas, NM

To save money on beverages
  • Many convenience stores discount your coffee if you use your own cup - remember to bring your travel mug from home.
  • Pack your coffee maker and favorite coffee, brew it in your room each morning, then put it into a thermos you've also brought. (Or fill your thermos with the motel coffee.)
  • If you're a soda drinker, pack a 12-can or 24-can box at the start of your trip.
  • Bring your own cocktail ingredients from home. 
  • Pick up beer at a local store.

2007 road trip - Las Vegas, NM

To save money on food (other than restaurants):
  1. Don't overstock on the quantity of food for the road. There are grocery stores and other food vendors everywhere. On a road trip, food brought from home gets less appetizing as the days wear on, so you may end up pitching some of it anyway. 
  2. Don't overstock on the specialness of food for the road. I used to splurge a little on food items for the road. I was on vacation, after all. But over time, I realized I didn't want to spend my budget dollars on "special" foods from home. The idea of a road trip is to sample new things  - so better to spend my finite dollars at a special restaurant or shop on the road.
  3. Many grocery stores have pretty good deli sections and quasi restaurants - substitute a visit to these instead of a restaurant. 

Healthy eating on a road trip: 

"Healthy eating" and "road trip" --> oxymoron. 

Road trips and junk food tend to go together.

To offset the worst damage, here are some tips:
  1.  Avoid packing sweet or salty "car food" such as chips, nuts, and candy. Instead, pack crunchy carrots, crisp celery, sweet grapes, and salty pretzels.
  2. To manage costs and reduce over-indulgence, maintain some of your eating routines. For example, if your usual breakfast back home is oatmeal, bring along oatmeal packets that are easy to prepare in a motel room. (Run water through the coffee machine and mix up the oatmeal in a coffee cup.)  
  3. Save up high-calorie splurges for sampling local cuisines.
  4. There are local dishes you know you want try, but you know you'll hate yourself for later. If you can, say no to regional delicacies such as:

Navajo or Indian tacos, even if they're made with buffalo meat



On fast food chains:

Sure, go ahead and sneer at fast food chains, but before your face freezes that way, know this  --> in some towns, your only choice is between fast food or the home-style diner with food that's all fried, all the time. A reliably tasty, economical, and relatively healthful fast food place is Subway.  You do lose the budget benefit when you add a soft drink and a bag of chips, not to mention a cookie. So buy the sandwich and augment that with a cold drink you've got in your cooler, plus one of the crunchy sides you've got in the car (e.g. carrots, celery, pretzels).    

Relying on restaurant reviews -- OK in moderation

The myriad restaurant review sites on the web are a wonderful resource for road trippers. But sometimes we get sucked into an over-dependence on restaurant reviews -- we rely too heavily on others' explorations instead of taking a chance on an as-yet unreviewed place.
Popular restaurant guides are:

So is there any fun left? 

Sure! Part of the coolness of a road trip is trying new foods and regional twists on national stand-bys. It's also kind of fun to have a road trip theme, where you seek the best representation of a regional dish or beverage.  For example, my mother is on the lookout for the best ribs and the best crab cakes wherever she goes. Others seek the finest microbrew or the tastiest pie or the most flavorful pork rind.    

Part 4: Packing List

In the previous article, we talked about food and drink.

Today it's the road trip packing list.

There are 6 categories for road-trip packing:
  1. Personal
  2. Picnic
  3. Road-trip comfort
  4. Emergency
  5. Camping, if applicable
  6. Tourist gear 

Personal gear

Clothes - How much should I pack?

There should be an app to calculate the answer to this questions, considering:

Duration of road trip + number of days you're willing to wear each clothing item before washing it + (un)willingness to wash clothes in sink or laundromat + diversity of temperatures on route + diversity of road trip activities, e.g. athletic, casual, or dressy.

Here's what works for me:

  • If my road trip is for a week or less, I don't want to launder clothes on the road, so I'll bring enough to last the duration.  
  • If my road trip is for longer than a week, I'll assume a trip to a laundromat and pack accordingly. (Note: Most motels have coin-operated washing machine and dryers.)  
  • I wear pants for three days and a shirt for two days. 
  • I pack specialty items (e.g. a dressy outfit) in a separate bag and leave that in the car until I need it.
  • If temperature variations are in play, then I think layers, and I also pack a coat or jacket. I usually keep temperature-specific items in the car til/if needed, rather than pack them in my main luggage. 
If you over-pack, the main consequence is that it will be more of a hassle for you to find stuff, carry stuff, and fit it in with other stuff. Let your frustration threshold be your guide as to how much you want to avoid these consequences. Otherwise, road trips are pretty forgiving to chronic over-packers. 

Clothes - Shoes. For God's sake, bring a comfortable pair of shoes! Uncomfortable shoes will keep you from doing or enjoying activities that you would otherwise love to do.

Clothes - Something warm.

No matter how warm the climate in your destination, there will always (always) be a place that will freeze you out. A motel room. A restaurant. A museum. A nightclub. A cave. 

Bring a sweater, sweatshirt, shawl, jacket - something - that will keep you warm when (not if) that happens.

If you fail to do this, don't whine about how cold you are. At your next opportunity, stop at a second-hand store and buy something.

Toiletry bag.

My perfect bag:

  • Has a little hanger or velcro loop design so I can let it hang from a towel rod or door hook. It won't get damp from a wet counter surface. It won't take up limited counter space.
  • Has compartments that let me segregate cosmetics, dental care items, cleansers/lotions, and all the rest: deodorant, small scissors, mirror, comb/brush, tweezers, clippers. Three compartments needed at minimum, but no more than four.
  • Fold/rolls into smaller mass for packing


Credit: eBags
Credit: eBags


I love my lightweight, durable eBag Weekender bag for road trips. The outside and inside compartments maximize organization. Adding the three large eBag packing cubes maintains order, and if I pack the cubes so each has all that I need for one or two days, then I can just take the cube and my toiletry bag into the motel and leave the larger bag in the trunk.

Dirty laundry.

Option 1 - I collect my dirty laundry in one of my packing cubes and keep it in my "weekender."   

Option 2 - I toss it into a plastic or cloth bag and keep it in the trunk.

Either way, it's easy to lug it to a washing machine on the road or back at home.  

Picnic gear

For now, let's assume camping is not involved. The purpose of the picnic gear is to let you enjoy good food and drink without having to go to a restaurant. It also lets you manage your time and itinerary - you can eat when you want, where you want.

Igloo Playmate Boss, Amazon
My perfect road-trip cooler is my old Igloo Playmate cooler:
  • Has a top handle for one-handed carrying
  • Is large enough to hold one small bag of ice (i.e. 7 pounds) + 4-6 cans soda + food items for a couple of days (e.g. hard-boiled eggs, roast chicken or beef, cheese, some fruit, and carrots/celery)
  • Is small enough to fit on the floor behind a front seat - and small enough that I feel comfortable replenishing the ice from a motel ice machine
  • The lid slides open with the push of a button
  • Because of the tent-like peak, I can over-load it a bit.   

The exterior dimensions are about 14"x10"x13." That 13" is the height, which is misleading as it measures the peaked lid. The Playmate "Boss" seems to be the closest to my older model.

Unless I'm going to camp, this size cooler is fine for a road trip. There are grocery stores everywhere - no need to carry more than a couple of days' vittles at a time. 

Camp box (or "chuck box"):

I have a cool jeweler's sample box, made of fiber board, I think, bought at a flea market, that I re-purposed into a camp box. Important features include: 
  • It has a handle on top
  • The lid closes securely with two draw bolt latches
  • It has two shelves that are are deep/tall enough for me to place smaller, clear-plastic containers on them for organization 
  • It is sturdy
  • It's big enough to do the job, but small enough not to take up too much vehicle space 
This beautiful "chuck box" below is about $100. Yikes! You can make a great one on your own using a clear plastic storage bin and smaller transparent storage containers within. Watch the dimensions; you don't want to go too big.  The external dimensions for this chuck box, closed, are only 22"x11"x14."  

Credit: Amazon

My camp box is always stocked with:
  • Salt and pepper
  • Plates (plastic washable/reusable or paper)
  • Utensils
  • Corkscrew
  • Can opener
  • Sharp knives
  • Table cloth
  • Cloth towel
  • Aluminum foil
  • Fire starter
  • Matches
  • Rope and clothes pins
  • Candles
  • Cups
  • Sanitizer
  • Recycled plastic grocery bags that I can use to collect and dispose of trash - these are tucked into an empty, cardboard paper-towel tube to conserve space 
  • Ziploc-style bags - quart size
  • Small bottle of dish washing liquid

Bag for consumables

In this bag, I throw dry items that I'll consume along the way, such as:
  • Bread or rolls
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Ground coffee 
  • Roll of paper towels
  • Three 1.5-2 cup, round, microwave-safe plastic containers with lids  - for oatmeal and other picnic-style menu items that require bowls
By using a bag instead of a bin or basket, I can tuck the bag away later, freeing up space.

Bag for durable goods

The stuff in this bag - I might never take it out. Depends on what's in the hotel rooms I end up in.
  • Small coffee maker and, depending on type, any accessories (e.g. filters)
  • Hot plate
  • Small pot with lid to heat things up in
Maybe you're a tea drinker and dislike the after-coffee taste of running water through the motel coffee maker. On a road trip, you can bring your own tea kettle or brew pot.

Road trip comfort

If a road trip is intrinsically good (and it is), bringing familiar comfort items from home make it even better.

Some ideas:

Books: real, virtual, or audio. If you're a regular reader, this is a no-brainer. You know you'll bring reading material. If you're an occasional reader, consider a book that relates somehow to the places along your road trip path. Or a book about road trips. Here are a couple of road-trip reading lists, both from A Traveler's Library.

And here's a literary perk of road trips (or any trips) --> This is the perfect venue for reading trashy, brain-candy crap that you secretly crave, but can't bring yourself to possess in your "real" life. Go ahead - buy that National Enquirer!   

Favorite pillow - for car napping (especially when traveling with someone else) or for augmenting inadequate motel pillows

Blanket - not only does this fall into an emergency pack list, but if you're traveling with someone, it's nice to nap when you're not driving. Even in the summer, a blanket is comforting when the car a/c is on.

Good music - If, like me, you've got an older model car, invest in a car FM transmitter thingy that you plug into your lighter to access your mp3 player. Or burn some special road trip mixes onto CDs.


  • Before you leave on a road trip, take your vehicle to an auto service shop and ask that they do a trip check. Change your oil. 
  • Join AAA or a similar roadside assistance provider. Batteries drain. Starters die. You lock the keys in your car. You get a flat.
  • Have a blanket in the car. 
  • Pack a flashlight. 
  • If you're traveling with someone, you should each carry a set of car keys. 
  • Leave a rough itinerary with someone back home. 
  • Keep a jug of water in the car.


If you're already a camper, you know what to bring, and you've probably already got the equipment.

If you're not a camper, don't be intimidated. Here are some easy-button basics for you to bring:

Tent. Unless you plan to do a lot of camping after your road trip, just get a cheap tent. Do know that when the label says it's a two-man tent, that's a lie. Get a 3-man tent if there are two of you, and a 4-man tent if there are three of you. Get a dome tent. It will be easier to put up and you can pick it up and move it at will, until you stake it down. Do buy a tarp to go under the tent. These are also inexpensive. Get a tarp that is a little smaller than the tent.
Sleeping bags. You can also get sleeping bags cheaply. Or borrow them. Or make bedrolls from blankets and a comforter.

Pillows. Do bring pillows from home - you'll be much more comfortable.

Socks and knit hat. Clean socks and a knit hat will help keep you snug in your sleeping bag and tent. Remember that cotton will not keep you warm.

Cook stove. Yes, you could build a fire and cook on that. ... uh, maybe not. It's not uncommon for a park to have a no-fire order. Buy or borrow a cook stove. (If you borrow it, return it clean.) Alternatively, you could skip the cooking altogether. Instead, pick up picnic foods that don't require cooking.

Cooler. If you plan to do a lot of multi-night camping on the trip, then consider getting a larger cooler to avoid spending too much time replenishing food and ice supplies. Weigh this carefully against the vehicle space it will consume for the entire trip. Another option is to just take an additional small cooler.

Light. At minimum, you'll want a flashlight for each person in your party.

Check the list of things I stock in my camp box. All of these will come in handy if you camp.

If this article were about going on a camping trip, there would be a lot more detail. But this is about a road trip.

Tourist gear

  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Spiral notebook or journal
  • Pens
  • Addresses of people to whom you want to send postcards
  • Postcard stamps
  • Maps. Before I leave on a road trip, I pick up a U.S. atlas for less than $10 at a local Walmart. Then I pick up free state maps at each state's welcome center, which is usually the first rest area after you cross the state line. 

Part 5: Loose Ends

In Part 5, I tie up loose ends:
  1. Common budget busters
  2. Should I rent a vehicle for my road trip?
  3. Ask to see the room 
  4. Mile markers, exit numbers, and odd/even highways

Common budget busters

In the previous articles, I covered the biggest budget busters. Below are some more:

Not keeping track of your spending along the way. Write every expenditure down as you go. If you don't, I guarantee you will lose track of your spending. And this means you will over-spend. This is also important if you're traveling with others and you split costs. Avoid conflict later. Write. It. Down. Be anal about it.

Watch the card use!  Too many of us lull ourselves into thinking that if we put it on plastic, then it doesn't really count. Or we rationalize an impulse buy ("A balloon ride! Only $200? Life is short!") that is going to hurt us really bad when we're back home and have to come up with the extra $$$ to pay off that unanticipated credit card debt.

Buying new clothes for the trip. The cost of the trip starts when you start buying trip-related stuff. Instead of buying new clothes "for the trip," go the opposite direction: A road trip presents an opportunity for unloading clothes that you're ready to retire. Old underwear especially - wear 'em, then pitch 'em. Those pants that are almost, but not quite ready to be tossed? Perfect for long driving days when your only goal is to chew miles. 

Souvenirs. Consider making your road trip a souvenir-free trip. Or set a souvenir budget before you leave and factor it into the overall cost of the trip. Consider what you might do with the money if you choose not to get any souvenirs. Spend an extra night on the road? Pay for a tank of gas? Pay the admission to an additional event or attraction?  

Should I rent a vehicle for my road trip? 

There's no right or wrong answer to this question. Factors to consider include: 
  • Number of people in the party
  • Road types, e.g. paved roads, some gravel/dirt that are level and in good condition, or some gravel/dirt roads that are heavily rutted
  • Condition of your vehicle
  • Gas mileage of your vehicle
  • Your personal deal-breaker threshold re: the reasonable likelihood of a breakdown in your vehicle or your ability to deal with a break down if it happens 
  • Duration of road trip

If I use myself as an example, I won't hesitate to take my 1995 Toyota Camry (150k miles) on a road trip of any duration or distance, assuming:
  • Number in my travel party is no more than 2, maybe 3 adults
  • The roads I'll be on are paved or gravel/dirt in good condition (my car rides low)
  • My car passes a thorough pre-trip check at my auto repair shop or I can get current or potential problems fixed before the trip

I have AAA roadside service membership, so I'm not that concerned about dealing with a breakdown. I also figure that if my car breaks down on the road, it would have also broken down at home, so I just factor in the repair bill as an ordinary cost of using my car. Unlike the hapless family in National Lampoon's Family Vacation, it hasn't been my experience that auto repair people have tried to gouge me when I've had a problem on past road trips.

But on a road trip with 3 or 4 people, with all their gear, I'll be looking at sharing a roomy rental with good gas mileage unless one of my companions owns something comparable and s/he is OK  using it for the trip.

Here's another voice on the matter: Your Next Road Trip: Is it Better to Rent a Car or Take Your Own? at PT Money

Ask to see the room

When you go to a motel, hotel, or hostel, it is perfectly OK to ask to see the room before you commit for the night. No matter how low the price, it is appropriate to expect:

  • Clean bathroom
  • Working locks on the doors and windows
  • Clean bedding (feel free to pull back the bedspread a bit to ensure the sheets are clean)
  • Working shower, sink, and light bulbs
If the room you're shown lacks the above, you can either ask to see a better room or move on to another place.

But let's say you don't find out til after you check into your room that it's a bad one. Don't unpack. Leave your stuff in the room, proceed directly to the front desk, explain the problem, and ask to see a different room. Look at the alternate room before moving your gear. If it's OK, then move. If not, request a refund, put your gear in your car, and go somewhere else. 

Be calm, polite, and firm. Most places will try to make you happy.

Mile markers, exit numbers, and odd/even highways 

I'd be embarrassed to say how old I was before I knew that odd-numbered highways go north/south and even-numbered highways go east/west. Or that in most states, exit numbers correspond to the mile markers for the highway they're on.

The mile markers correspond to the number of miles on a given highway within the state you're in. So it's kind of nice to know that if you're going west on Interstate 70 in Missouri, for example, you know exactly how many miles you have left til you get to Kansas. This is because the mile markers descend in number. Once you hit the Kansas border, the mile markers start over; they begin with the last mile, thus you know immediately how many miles you've got to go before you arrive in Colorado, should you follow I-70 the whole way.


Anonymous said...

This was extremely helpful. I didn't even consider some of the things you listed. THANK YOU!

Mzuri said...

Your comment makes me feel really good - thanks!

Annnny said...

Super Helpful!! thanks so much! Seems like your quite the experienced Road-Tripper! I am currently planning a road trip across Canada and this was a great tool! thanks!

Mzuri said...

Annny - I love hearing that you found it helpful!

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely wonderful! Thank you for such a detailed list of almost every aspect of budgeting a roadtrip! I've learned so many things today, especially the informal B & B website! I am certain I will be using it in the future.

Thank you!!!

Mzuri said...

It's great to hear that the information was useful! Thank you.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say thanks! I'm going on an extended road trip soon, and I think our philosophies line up just perfectly. Lots of good tips!

Mzuri said...

Thank you! Have a fun trip!