Frugalizing a Cross-Country Superfun Roadtrip!

Myself and two lovely teenagers just returned from a two week trip to the other side of the U.S.


The addition of the third person in our merry band was fairly recent, and at the last minute we decided to bring the dog as well, which changed our plans a bit and in previous years could have completely derailed my budget.

The past six months of redefining my relationship with money served me very well on this trip. I managed to stay within budget in spite of making a few not-so-frugal choices that were for the benefit of our whole group. There were definitely some key elements to my success:

I planned ahead.

We’d planned this over the entire year, and I’d put money aside each month. We knew after returning from a bike tour last year that we wanted to do another family vacation. I requested my vacation time in November and specifically chose a time of year that wouldn’t affect my paycheck much or my son’s ability to get a summer job.

We knew we wanted to go to the west coast, since it had been six or seven years and we’d previously visited regularly. We knew we wanted to see friends and family but also to go on a bikey hikey adventure of our own. I started looking into possible destinations that would be within a day’s drive of visiting loved ones.

My budgeting for this trip was ruthless. I did have one month where I used a portion of my vacation savings to pay down debt- a month without as large a surplus as I’d been accruing. This worked because I’d worked out a solid debt payment plan that I’d been sticking to and knew I had a little wiggle room.


We meal planned and purchased groceries.

This saved an incredible amount of cash! We did end up eating more gas station snacks on the way home, but comparing notes I think I spent $1000 less on food than the last time just my kiddo and I traveled out west years ago! I’m proud of my co-travelers for agreeing to this idea. We did go out to eat once when visiting family/friends, and visited a coffee and ice cream shop, but continued to eat our grocery store stash otherwise even in the “urban” part of our adventure.


We camped rather than staying in hotels.

If I’m adventuring solo, I tend to camp for free – there are multiple directories online showing public lands that allowing camping. This was initially our idea, but with the addition of the (elderly and deaf) dog and another person, both of whom hadn’t done a lot of backcountry camping, I decided it would be wiser to stay in established campgrounds. I’ve had great luck staying in KOA campgrounds in the past, and especially like that they allow check-in after hours without a reservation, which we did to be able to drive longer hours. Another benefit of car/tent camping is that there are always sites open in campground that also serve RVs.

When we did stay in a hotel, we got one heckuva deal.

My one regrettable decision of the trip: we have generous friends that offered us a place to crash during our urban adventure, but I felt awkward taking them up on their offer since I hadn’t seen them in years, we had so many other people to visit, and wouldn’t have been around any one place much. Of course, after seeing them, I am kicking myself that we didn’t, because we would’ve had each night together and like all lifelong friendships we’d picked up right where we last left off.

We therefore stayed in a hotel that we price shopped, talked down to a weekly rate that was even cheaper (I’ve never done this, being an introverted weirdo, but it paid off!), and used a discount code to book. The hotel offered a full breakfast (eggs, meat, yogurt, loads of veggies/cheese/fruit, cereal, oatmeal, waffles, biscuits and gravy, almond/soy/dairy milks, and on!) and had a refrigerator and microwave in the room for our other meal purchases, so that brought the value to the equivalent of staying in campsites. It was nice having our own space to retreat to and use as a basecamp, and it probably made the daily routine much easier for our dog.


We didn’t buy trinkets.

This may sound trivial, but I cannot tell you how much I’ve spent in the past on souvenirs or T-shirts or a new pair of shoes just because I’m on vacation (yeah that one) and of course, always books in local bookstores! Collectively the three of us spent less than $30 on items that we didn’t bring with us.

We made do with what we had.

This goes along with the last point as well as planning ahead. In the past I’ve done things like not bother to pack toiletries and just pick them up along the way. We made sure we brought everything we needed, and shared amongst ourselves for the times we were lacking (like an extra blanket, sweatshirt or dental floss) rather than purchasing new items.


We sought out free activities. 

On this trip, it was easy to find free things to do, since our main goals were to bicycle and hike. Our friends also share a love of the outdoors, so even in the urban portion of our trip we went hiking on two separate days (bringing our own food). For families with younger children, many campgrounds, state parks, and city parks have free events all summer long – all the campgrounds we stayed at had activities planned each night, from bonfires and s’mores making to star gazing walks through the forest. City museums often have free family days if you have the flexibility to plan around the dates they are offered. As a kid just staying in a campground and swimming in the pool every day was a luxurious vacation!


We practiced good communication and checked in regularly with one another to ensure we were all having a good time. 

This has always been important to me on trips – to make sure my son was able to do something he wanted to do, and not just being dragged around from family event to family event then whisked back home. I feel it was even more important this time, since the three of us haven’t traveled this extensively together and we all had slightly different goals. We had a rule that we’d stop off anywhere that looked interesting to any of us, which led to some great finds in places we hadn’t seen before. We also had discussions on the way home that led to skipping a day in Yellowstone, which had been on the docket “For Sure” the entire time, but all three of us felt good about the decision.

trail running on fallen redwoods: divine!

We had a fantastic adventure and bonded as a family.

I had a few hesitant moments at different times throughout the year, realizing that I was pushing my financial freedom date back by saving for this trip. But my biggest “why” for achieving that goal is to have more time with the people I love. With my son being an adult and his life taking its own shape, we both relish the adventures we are able to experience together now, and I spent too many years pushing off vacations (weekend camping trips and the like, nothing extravagant by any means) in the name of saving money. The kicker: I can’t tell you where the heck that money went, because it didn’t end up in my portfolio. It’s important to me to find a balance between my long term badassery goals and cherishing the relationships I have right now.

This trip was the right now, and it was so good to reconnect with old friends, my family, and to deepen my relationship with my son and his girlfriend. This experience only motivates me even more to buckle down now that I’m home, because it’s exactly what I want more of down the line.


Happy summer, frugal friends!

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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!

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