By Molly Barnes, Digital Nomad Life
Road trips are a blast, but they can also be complicated, especially with kids in tow. Unless you’re flying by the seat of your pants (so to speak), you’ll have to set an itinerary, work out the details of how long it’ll take to get from one place to the next, and, of course, budget and save for the whole thing.
Budgeting can be the most difficult part of planning — a fact that became even more true in 2020, with fluctuating prices, limited options, and safety factors all put into play by the pandemic.
There’s a lot to juggle when you’re budgeting for a vacation, but it’s far from impossible, and you don’t need to let money concerns spoil your fun. When planning for your road trip, take the following steps to make sure it’s a success — and not a source of financial stress.
1. Save up ahead of time
If you’ve got a tight household budget, you may not have much wiggle room — unless you’ve got a vacation savings plan built in. Which you should.
Set aside a little each month to save up for your road trip. It’s impossible to know exactly how much it’ll cost far in advance (especially with gas prices fluctuating and the cost of accommodations in flux). But you can map out a general budget, then set aside a little extra in case of emergencies.
When you leave will likely depend on how much you save, so if you’ve set a specific target date (or scheduled your vacation with the boss), you’ll have to be diligent about sticking to your pre-trip budget. Otherwise, you might have to shorten your trip, pick a different route, or, worse, wait ‘til next year.
2. Map out your route
How much you budget (and spend) will depend at least in part on where you plan to go. Road trips are great because they can cost less than buying an airline ticket, and you can see a lot of things you’d just be flying over otherwise.
Many of the most eye-catching and beautiful sights are visible from the side of the road, or with a short detour. There are many scenic highways from which to choose, all across the country, with plenty of opportunities for “oohs” and “ahs” and making photographic memories.
Take your camera (or camera phone) and be on the lookout for breathtaking overlooks from mountain roads, historic bridges with majestic arches — even in this U.S., some are nearly a century old — timeless forests, or gigantic rock formations.
3. Give your vehicle a checkup
The last thing you and your budget need on a road trip is to have your car break down, so make sure its service record is up to date before you go.
Check the tread on your tires (you can use a coin to see where you stand) and replace them if any are too bare. Also, get an oil change and/or a tuneup — even if you aren’t quite due yet. You don’t want to have the oil light go on halfway through an extended trip and make you interrupt your fun with a few hours at a service station.
Take along an automotive tool kit, just in case you run into trouble despite your preparations. While you’re at it, make sure your car insurance is up to date and covers everything you need it to cover. Also, having a roadside assistance plan isn’t a bad idea for long trips.
4. Have a credit cushion
No matter how carefully you plan, something can always go wrong. Be prepared to roll with Murphy’s Law by making sure you’ve got enough credit to handle the unexpected. You may even have credit problems, but don’t let that stop you from taking your trip.
You can secure a fixed amount of credit on a card by depositing a few hundred dollars in an account to cover emergency expenses, if need be. With this kind of card, your deposit amount will be your credit limit, so you can’t go over. It’s another form of budgeting that helps you build your credit as you go.
5. Stock up before you drive off
Taking your own supplies on the road became a common practice during the pandemic. Disinfectant wipes, masks, and hand sanitizer became must-have supplies. It’s also become routine to stock up on food, water, and other essentials before departing — since the fewer stops you make, the less likely you are to come into contact with someone who has the virus.
Even as conditions improve and restrictions are lifting, these are good habits to maintain. Grabbing granola bars, water, soft drinks, snacks, and essential items before you leave will save you time and money: It’s a lot cheaper at your home grocery store than at a convenience store along the way.
6. Look for deals on gas, lodging
Discounts are always worth pursuing, regardless of your budget. Why pay more than you have to? There are plenty of tools to help with that. Download an app to find the cheapest gas and qualify for deals, or grab a loyalty discount card from a chain you trust.
Hotels offer preferred-customer deals, too. Some travel apps give you a free night after you’ve reserved 10 nights through their service, and hotel chains offer similar deals for repeat customers.
Budgeting for a road trip doesn’t have to be a headache. Just the opposite: It can save you headaches down the road. If you know how to find deals, prevent trouble, and put yourself in good financial shape ahead of time, there’s no reason your road trip can’t be full of awesomeness.
Samantha A. Gregory is an author, consultant, and speaker. She’s a single-mom lifestyle, money, and parenting expert featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Essence Magazine, HuffPost, ABC News, and Mint.com. Samantha founded the award-winning RichSingleMomma.com™, the first online magazine featuring personal finance, parenting, and personal development content and courses for single moms. She aims to inspire women who are ready to thrive and not just survive in their single motherhood journey. Connect with her on Instagram @richsinglemomma.