Traveling on a Scratch Budget

I recently took a two-day road trip out of state to take my son back to school after winter break.  The last time we made this trip I easily spent over $600, on meals, my hotel stay, multiple takeaway coffees, and a few purchases at stores.  Every time I purchased gasoline on the way to and from I bought snacks and caffeine (licorice and trail mix have long been my road trip fuel) (OK and Pringles too).

This time, including all food, gas, hotel, and taking my son and his friend to dinner for $53, I spent $228.12.

Things I did differently this time:

I Brought My Own Food

I shopped my kitchen, and my food list for two full days and one night included dried nuts and fruit, canned tuna (brought a can opener), tea, bananas, and eggs.

Where the food-making magic happens!

Eggs?  Yep!  I’ve had an Instant Pot for a couple of years and it makes a great traveling companion.  I used it to hard boil eggs in the morning and have also used it for steel cut oats in the past.  On trips where I’ve stayed more than one night I’ve used it as a slow cooker and have had hot soup or chili after a day of winter hiking.  I have a large soft sided cooler that I normally use as a lunch bag, which can easily hold enough food for three or four days’ worth of perishables for hotel room cooking.

I brought my container of nuts and fruit with me throughout the day so I’d have a snack handy instead of mindlessly buying a granola bar or sandwich.

I Brought My Own Caffeine

I made coffee at home before we left – this seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve long used the excuse of a road trip to justify picking up a latte at my neighborhood coffee shop…. and any local shop I spot along the way…. and sometimes St*rbucks.  I had free hotel room coffee in the morning, then filled up my travel thermos with more free hotel room coffee before I checked out.  Using my thermos meant that even though I didn’t leave town until later that evening, my coffee was still hot for the drive home.

I Price-Shopped My Hotel With Google Maps As A Guide

I think many of us do this already, but in the past I’d just go with the cheapest offering on Priceline or Hotwire.  This netted me some fantastically low rates, but often meant staying in a suburb, necessitating driving in and out of the city for the event I was attending.

This time around I still used Priceline, but kept a map of downtown open in another tab – I could see exactly how many blocks each location was to the university campus where I’d be spending most of my time, and could see the parking options.  Choosing a hotel within walking distance of campus meant I could leave my car overnight for free and not pay for parking or driving, which saved more than the $15 difference in rates between downtown and the suburbs.

I Altered My Hotel “Spa Night” Routine and Savored the Morning

I don’t stay in hotels very often – I prefer camping – and in the past I’ve resented the cost when I’m coming in just to go to bed and then check out in the morning.  This year I’ve focused a lot on the abundance and, well, plain fun in my life.  I’ve made a ritual out of getting in to my room, running a bath, opening a newly purchased book, and sipping wine while surrounded by bubbles.


Since I’ve given up purchasing alcohol as part of the Uber Frugal Month Challenge, I brought tea from home instead.  I also brought a paperback my mom sent me for Christmas.  The ritual was just as luxurious and relaxing and felt so good after walking in the winter air.

My room was on a high floor, with a mix of building heights scattered around it, so I kept the shades open on the windows, waking to my alarm before dawn.  I started the coffee maker and pulled the armchair over to the window, marveling at the shadows of the buildings with older architecture and the sleek reflections of the moon on the newer glass-fronted buildings.  I sipped coffee and watched the sunrise, the shapes around me turning from black to blue to golden as the sun came over the horizon.

Cuppa coffee and this view…not too shabby….

My room was not booked “with a view” (this downtown has quite a spectacular one depending on location), but what I could see was still amazing.  Instead of dragging myself grudgingly out of bed after too little sleep and heading out to find a latte, I spent an hour watching the city slowly come to life, the empty streets starting to sporadically fill with cars, the changes in light, and appreciating the sheer wonder of the sun rising at all.  What a great way to start my day.

I Spent the Day Writing and Reading Without Spending a Dime

My son wanted to spend time together in between his classes, so I planned to bring my book and laptop to stay busy.  Historically I love spending time in a new coffee shop, scribbling notes, typing, and absorbing the scents and sounds of espresso machines and people studying and working and visiting around me.

I’d even planned to do so on this trip – there is a local small chain that roasts their coffee beans daily and has great ambiance.  Instead, I stayed in the campus center and made myself at home at one of many study areas.  I had my tea for the hot beverage crutch, but my son actually treated me to a coffee as the campus center served the local chain’s brand.  It was so, so, so good 🙂

Delicious brew and free wifi

The big temptation of being in the campus center is that I love bookstores and office supply stores.  I’d left my trusty journal at home, and I spent an entire day sitting within view of a bookstore full of notebooks and pens that were desperate to get my attention, looking all crisp and colorful in their window displays.  Between the support of the Uber Frugal Challenge Month community and my commitment to spending nothing on unnecessary items, I discovered the notepad function on my laptop and had fun exploring a different way to get my scattered thoughts into writing.  Posting in the community not only gave me suggestions, but just the act of saying out loud that I wanted to Buy Something Trivial showed the impulse for what it was.

Being tempted to purchase something gave me the chance to practice saying no to myself, and also resulted in a better appreciation of my usual routine of writing on paper.

I Said Yes To Dinner At a Restaurant

I treated my son and his best friend to dinner before I left for home.  I ate a good-size snack beforehand, so I kept my order to a salad.  All of us stuck to water, and we had a great time talking and telling stories about Christmas and college roommates and crazy things our dog has done.

I Avoided The Snack Traps

Brrr. If I could’ve filled my tank without leaving my car, I would have.

I filled up my gas tank before I left my hometown, and then immediately upon arriving in my son’s college town (it was nearing empty).  This ensured I wasn’t stopping midway to be tempted by candy.  On the way home I stopped once to fill up and use the restroom, but ignored the food offerings and had no problem going back to my thermos and fruit/nut mix.  It probably helped that the air temperature reading in my car was -10F the whole way home; I didn’t want to get out of the toasty cabin any more than I had to 😉

Overall, it was a combination of knowing that I had $0 budgeted to spend on fluff, and planning ahead for my food and beverages, that kept me on track. 


Have you traveled with a frugal outlook?  I’m sure there are lots of great tips I haven’t yet thought of!

Please follow and share my adventure!

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