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Money-saving tips for family roadtrips

We just got back from a week of visiting friends and family in Orlando, Florida.

Lots of people we talked to about the trip asked us: “So you’re going to go to Disney World, right?” They were surprised (and even, in a few cases, offended) when we said that, no, we weren’t going to go to Disney. We simply can’t afford it right now.

But you know what? We had a fantastic family vacation. And we didn’t spend a ton of money. There are lots of ways to get creative about pinching pennies on trips; I’ll share what helped us this past week, and then open up the floor for readers’ suggestions!

Visit the Library Before You Leave Home

Your local library has a great selection of family-friendly audiobooks (and, of course, regular books, for kids who can read in the car). We listened to TumTum and Nutmeg and a lot of Sandra Boynton music on our trip.

A well-read audiobook helps the time pass more quickly, and even if the reading level of the book is above some of your kids’ ability, they’ll still enjoy the story.

You can also pick up a travel book for the area you’re going to.

Research and Download Apps That Help You Save Time and Money

The next couple of ideas require a smart phone. If you have one, there are a bunch of ways it can be a super-useful tool on the road. Both of the iPhone apps I mention here are free, and awesome. You can also check out Tsh’s list of favorite apps.

Good Food on the Road

You’re coming up to an unfamiliar town, and everybody’s famished. Sometimes a quick stop for fast food makes sense. But at other times, you know you need a more restorative meal — one that won’t leave you feeling like you need a nap. Ideally, it would also meet some other criteria:

  • you want the meal to be tasty
  • you want it to be relatively quick
  • you want it to be reasonably-priced

Yelp has a great app that we used multiple times each day. It helped us find local coffee spots (surprisingly hard without Yelp!), a great, super-cheap Tex-Mex place buried in a mall, a cute soup-and-sandwich joint in a converted Victorian house, and an affordable-but-delicious burger place to take our cousins out to dinner.

Because Yelp’s app knows your phone’s location, it’s trivial to ask it to show you what’s in your vicinity. You can filter by price, by distance, and by rating. And if you’re on the road, you can just scooch the map over a bit and redo the search, so you know what’s coming up in the next town you’ll hit.

There are probably some other great apps that can help with this (Foursquare, for example). If you have any suggestions for other apps, I’d love to hear in the comments!

Cheap Gas

I always get frustrated when I stop for gas and then, a few miles down the road, see it for significantly cheaper. We used a free app called GasBuddy to check in on the prices all along the road we were on, to see what the best deal was. (A lot of people like another one, Waze.)

It uses user-submitted data, so sometimes it’s a little out-of-date. But we’d try to submit new prices whenever we stopped to fill up. It helped us know if there were cheaper places coming up in a couple of miles.

ProTip! If you’re below half a tank, and you’re getting close to a state line, use GasBuddy to see what the prices are like on both sides of the state line. Because of state taxes, one will usually be a much better deal.

Photo by Yvonne Thompson

Use Your Memberships

AAA Cards, Sam’s Club / Costco Cards, Veteran’s Administration ID Cards, and even some credit cards — all of these groups have membership benefits that can give you significant deals when you’re on the road.

If you’re already a member, you should be sure to get all of the benefits that come with your membership. Spend a few minutes on the organization website and you should find a “benefits” section that tells you about the deals you can get.

One of the best purchases our family makes each year is a membership to a nearby science museum. The museum itself is actually a few hours away, and so we don’t get to go there as often as we like, but it’s a partner institution with science museums all around the country.

Where it would normally cost around $70 for a family of 5 to go to one of these museums for a day, we spend $125 once, and have a full year where we can go to any science museum in the country. It’s great for vacations, since we can explore new museums for free.

Vacations are important for family bonding and for making great memories together. And whether you go on vacation in your own hometown or across the country, a few simple steps can help you save a lot of money.

I’d love to hear your tips! What tricks have you used to make vacations less expensive?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Victoria

    I have heard of people getting great deals by joining Groupon and other daily deals in the area they plan to visit as soon as they know they will be traveling there. This includes discounts on local attractions, bed and breakfast, and restaurants.

  2. Mrs. Waste Not

    We got back from Orlando, FL on Saturday. We stayed with friends, did not eat in a restaurant even once and did not do Disney. With that, we returned refreshed and rejuvenated. And the kids did not even ask about Disney!!!

  3. Jennifer Tankersley

    My family just finished a 4-week road trip covering 24 states. I’ll admit that it was frequently easier and less time-consuming to just stop at a fast food restaurant, but there were times when fast food just would not do. During those times, we would stop at a grocery store for some healthier options: pre-made salads, sandwiches, soups, etc. We could get a quart-sized bottle of tea and split between all of us (much cheaper than buying individual drinks) or a bag of chips or baby carrots for us all to share.

  4. Helen

    On beach vacations, we’d wake up early and enjoy the beach all morning. Then we’d leave around lunch when the sun got super hot and the beach got too crowded. If we wanted a restaurant meal, we’d go out for lunch instead of dinner to save money and avoid the dinner crowd. Then we’d spend the evening back on the beach and eat sandwiches or something for dinner.

    I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to limit restaurant meals to one a day while traveling and then enjoy a picnic or sandwiches or something else from a grocery deli for the other meal.

  5. Robin from Frugal Family Times

    We did a week long holiday in Orlando last spring – also we didn’t go to Disney – other than Downtown Disney which is free!

    One of our best money saving and fun-maxing tips for travel is to explore nature where you visit. The beach, trails, parks are inexpensive and beautiful. One of our best days in Orlando was a day at the beach at Cape Canaveral.

    I love your science museum tip Charlie, I hope our closest one has a similar arrangement!

  6. Jessica

    We just returned( a little early )from a road trip. We were camping and it turned out we were in the middle of a really hot heat wave. Too much for all of us. Instead of going to a hotel for relief, we packed up camp, and drove the three hours home. I slept all day yesterday in my bed, in the air conditioning, and let my sunburn soothe. My tip is, get away, but not too far if you want to call it quits. PS. We will not be visiting Disney anytime soon either, unless we win an all expenses paid trip 🙂

    • Charlie Park

      Oh, camping can be hit-or-miss. I can completely understand your decision to get back home.

      We did this same trip two years ago, and camped one night on the way down. It was during a heat wave, and I believe it was over 90 degrees at 1 in the morning. One of our kids woke up with night terrors at 3:00, and was just about inconsolable. We hadn’t put up the rain fly to help with air circulation, and at 4:30 it started raining.

      It’s only in the last few months that I’ve been able to get Sarah to even consider going camping again, and I didn’t even *try* to bring it up for this trip.

      I hope your sunburn heals soon!

  7. kimmie

    The last time we were in Orlando, we stayed at my in-laws timeshare. We DID visit Disney World but spent the rest of the week at each of the 5 swimming pools we had available to us. The kids didn’t complain once. I really got tired of people asking if we got “park hopper” passes. No. No. Way. One day of complete crazy was enough. LOL

  8. Katherine

    Great article, Charlie. As a coffee drinker, I especially liked the idea for locating local shops!

    We scaled back our beach vacation this summer after replacing our minivan unexpectedly. It was a great reminder of why we have savings; we were empowered to meet our family needs without adding any debt. The purchase did, however, significantly reduce our summer travel plans. 🙁

    At the beach, we cut out one night’s expenses by changing our traveling times. Though we outgrew the standard room when baby #4 joined the team, we discovered that for about $20 more per night, we could stay in a beach condo, providing us access to laundry, kitchen and parking amenities.

    For food, I plan our beach/vacation menu just like I would at home. Interestingly, even after adding in vacation treats ,we easily spend less than our weekly food budget. We saved money by recreating the fun, vacation experiences at our condo. This year’s big hits were 1) movie night + popcorn, 2) microwave s’mores after lunch, and 3) sparkling juice with dinner.

    Thanks for the reminder about museum benefits. I’ll have to look into our local options.

  9. Gary @ Work From Home

    I have been using Gas Buddy or something similar for a couple of years now. It really does work pretty goof actually. It has saved me a ton on gas money. It does not work as well where I live, because I live in a small city. But when I am going to the bigger cities near by, it is like gold. So I would also highly recommend this one. Thanks, for all of the other great tips as well.

  10. Ruth

    We’ve been doing a lot of vacationing with other people, which helps because you can share costs of food and housing. And especially when those people are doting grandparents, it means you can actually have a few minutes to yourself/a date night during vacation.

    I made a trip to the used bookstore in town before our recent road trip and spent $20 on kid books from their $1 clearance section. Then I wrapped them all up as presents and passed them out everyone once in a while. Huge hit, not very expensive.

    One tip someone gave me which we didn’t end up using this time but I really liked was to consider renting redbox movies at locations along the way. That way you could turn on a movie for the kiddos and return it at your next stop. No need to pack it or remember to return it.

    Audio books were also a HUGE hit for us 🙂

  11. Danica

    We’re going on a trip to Disneyworld in a couple of months and we’re so excited! We’re saving money in several ways. We got a Disney credit card a few years ago that we pay off monthly and have earned a ton of points. This year it will completely pay for our Disney resort hotel, all of our food, and hopefully some souvenirs. We are also prior military so we’re getting park hopper tickets for 1/2 off. The other money saving thing we’re doing is traveling in September. Simply by traveling off-season we’re getting a discount on our hotel and many other things. Plus we get less crowds and heat!

    Thanks so much for your great tips! I love the library and yelp ideas!

  12. Jennifer

    Here are a couple of tips we’ve learned over the last 10 years traveling with our 6…
    1. If you’re driving bring a crock pot to your destination… you don’t need a kitchen, but you dump the ingredients in early in the day (most hotels/motels will give you a mini fridge if there isn’t one in the room) and when you get back after a day of activities chili/stew/soup are waiting for dinner… our kids were usually exhausted by night time and wanted to hang out in the pool or stay in for dinner, and this made it really easy. We many times would bring a few frozen premade crock pot meals in a cooler, and we’d be all set for the first few days of meals.
    2. If you have a big family, consider looking into VRBO condo rentals (if you aren’t lucky enough to be visiting family and friends for free)… we’ve had great luck and have really gotten to know the places we’ve visited as locals. Airbnb can be great too… or we’ve done house swaps, which can work well in some cases (house swaps with friends are a great idea if it works for both sides)
    3. Pack GREAT road food… we all know are families favorites (home made chocolate chip cookies or sandwiches on fresh bread made just the way the like them)… when the food you have in the car is better then anything you can get on the road, there will be few complaints… it’s cheaper and healthier- and faster for the first day of travel at least.
    4. Water bottles are the best… with names on them. I would will them up the night before and have them chilled when we left the hotel (with ice if needed), and we were set to go, and can be filled up at any rest stop for free (with free ice).
    5. Go to the local (at your destination) library and get the local paper… there are many times great deals, and discounts which you can get just by asking.

    • Charlie Park

      Wow! What awesome ideas! I especially like the crock pot idea. Getting back from a long day out and arriving to a hot meal sounds pretty great!

  13. Alissa

    Great timing – I’ve been planning our family road trip for August. We were hoping to save money by staying in KOA camping cabins – bringing our sleeping bags, but not having to haul all the camp gear. It turns out that the KOA cabins are pretty pricey – often more expensive than the Travelodge or Rodeway Inn level motels… and those come with free breakfast!

    Love the suggestions to seek nature for free entertainment – we’re hitting the Redwoods! and I have a list of the reciprocal museums along the way. It’s nice to know that we can stop in those places for just and hour or two and not feel like we have to commit the whole day because we’re trying to get our money’s worth. They’ll be free!

  14. Kristin

    Too funny…we also returned home from Orlando a few weeks ago. (Traveled about 1,200 miles one way!) We ate simple picnics for breakfast and lunch and allowed for an inexpensive dinner on the road to stretch our legs. We never did Disney…but we did “Downtown” and quite frankly, my kids thought it was Disney anyway! We found a local park that had a splash park for the kids and we also swam in the pool where we stayed and cooked all our meals in. It was one of the most adventurous and memorable trips to date. I agree with Gas Buddy as well as Yelp. And we also really took advantage of our AAA card too! Great tips!

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