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8 Budget Tips for a Cross-Country Road Trip

by Julie Schwietert Jun 29, 2009
A road trip is meant to be a fun, affordable way to see the country. Here are 8 ways you can save money on a U.S. cross-country road trip.

Transportation. Food. Lodging. These are the three key elements of any road trip. Well, and music, too, but we’ll get to that later. First things first: the logistics.



Despite all the recession travel deals currently being hawked by the tourism industry, rental car companies haven’t taken notice.

If you’re without your own wheels, you won’t want to go the rental route.

An “economy” car from Hertz, picked up on June 1 at JFK in New York and dropped off on June 14 at SFO in San Francisco would have run you $164.99 a day.

That’s $2,309.86…before insurance, gas, tolls, and other hidden costs, like extra driver or “age differential” fees if you’re under 25. For that amount of money you could go to the other side of the world in style.

But a road trip does require a vehicle, so to cut down on costs, you’ve got to get creative.

The Beauty Of Ride-Shares

Consider ride-shares (glorified long-distance carpooling) or contract arrangements.

People are always looking for someone to drive their car across the country.

You can search for possibilities on Craigslist or advertise an arrangement yourself on Matador’s Forum.

Be sure to get all details in writing, and don’t forget to check with your insurance company or the owner’s insurance company to make sure you’re covered.


While gas prices are a lot lower than they were this time last year, filling up a dozen or more times is still a painful proposition for your wallet.

You’re not likely to get around this expense (unless you’re driving a veggie oil powered vehicle), so plan smart.

Websites like GasBuddy help you map your route around the gas stations where prices are lowest. Its database, updated daily, lets you search by state or zip code to find specific stations with the cheapest gas.

You can also look up lowest prices by state and city. (Currently, Tucson, AZ looks like a good stop: It’s got the cheapest gas in the country.)



Snacks are an indispensable part of any real road trip.

Stock up before you hit the road. Mix up some perennial favorites, like trail mix, or bring along a cooler with sandwich fixings that can be replenished at local grocery stores along the way.


If you’re taking the back roads, there’s no better time than summer to sample some tasty roadside grub.

But unless you’re already a foraging expert, be sure to check out David DeFranza’s guide first.


Local cheese in Vermont. Grits in the Carolinas. Gumbo on the Gulf Coast.

America doesn’t really have a single defining dish because every region offers something delicious and unique.

Pull into the most podunk town you can find and sample their specialty — you’re sure to get a lot of local flavor, and we’re not just talking about the food!



Camping is one of the cheapest sleeps you’ll ever enjoy (and one of the most adventurous and romantic, too).

The U.S. offers some incredible and affordable overnight camping options in every single state.

National parks will guarantee you the most beautiful surroundings. Options and requirements (advance permits, for example) vary, so be sure to check the NPS website for information about the parks along your route.

If you don’t have the gear or the budget to buy the basics — tent, sleeping bag, and camp stove, minimum — now’s not the time to make that investment. You have at least two other comfortable and affordable options…


You’ve probably heard about Couchsurfing already; if not, you can read all about the wonders of sharing a couch.

If you’re traveling solo (which is completely antithetical to the road trip vibe), then Couchsurfing your way across America is ideal…and it’s free.

If you’re traveling with a full car, though, or just want some privacy, don’t forget to consider…


You get a lot of bang for your buck in some hotels these days — including privacy, your own bathroom, continental breakfast, and the morning paper.

Sign up for a rewards program before your trip and plan to stay at the same hotel at each stop along the journey; you’ll be able to rack up free nights, gift cards, and many other rewards — your choice — and get a head start on your next trip.

Join a rewards program from a hotel group that offers lots of lodging options.

We recommend Choice Hotels, which includes Econo Lodge and Rodeway Inn hotels and eight other affordable and convenient hotel brands.

If you’re concerned about staying connected, many of these hotels offer free Wi-Fi. And though you may think hotel stays are expensive, they often offer deals that can help you earn points towards free nights on your next trip.

Now about that music…

Check out the Greatest Roadtrip Soundtrack Ever.

Community Connection

Get fired up for your road trip by taking in the The 5 Best Roadtrip Scenes Of All Time or reading this essay about the great American tradition of roadtripping.

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