5 Tips for a Frugal (& Fun!) Family Road Trip

5 Tips for a Frugal Family Road Trip

The price of gas may be soaring, but come August, my family will once again be hitting the open road for our annual summer road trip.

With three growing kids, traveling long distances by car can be a bit dicey.

We want to keep our trips affordable, but we also want them to be enjoyable for everyone. It’s a tall order!

After many years of practice, though, we have the road trip down to a pretty well-oiled routine. Here are five of my best frugal tips:

1. Take advantage of FREE media

Our biggest road trip to date was 14 states in 17 days. The most important thing I learned on that trip is that there can be no such thing as too many DVDs, books-on-CD, or video games.

I’m not normally a fan of too much TV-watching, especially when they’re really little, but on road trips, we have virtually no limits. In fact, we even bring a second portable DVD player and the Kindle Fire, so that each kid has a screen — and there are less reasons to fight over which movie or TV show to watch.

We also make this tip budget-friendly by taking advantage of all the sources for FREE media. Instead of going out and spending $8-10 a pop on a bunch of new DVDs, we check-out half a dozen of them from the library before we leave.

When that selection gets old, we stop at RedBox kiosks across the country.  Since you can return a DVD to any Redbox, we just drop it off within 24 hours wherever we happen to be. There are frequently FREEBIE codes for Redbox, but even at full price, it’s just $1 per rental.

We also check out a number of books on CD. Over the years, our children have really seemed to enjoy the Fudge series by Judy Blume and Ramona by Beverly Cleary. I will often pop in an audio book closer to bedtime, to help them wind down.

2. Bring your own food 

Sure it would be convenient to rely on drive-thrus, but since I have yet to see a kosher McDonald’s in America, we just pack everything we could possibly need into a cooler chest and a crate of dried goods.

I keep costs down by stocking up in advance at stores like Target or CVS, getting all sorts of staples – plus a few extra treats to make the ride even more special.

I also pack of cloth bag filled with a reusable vinyl tablecloth, fun paper goods, hand sanitizer and wipes, and a good knife. That way, when we stop at a rest area for lunch or dinner, we have everything we need for an impromptu picnic.

3. Keep the car clean

This tip may not matter to everyone, but I for one cannot stand riding around all day in a garbage dump masquerading as a van.

When we reach our destination, I drop a few quarters into the vacuum machine at a gas station and suck out that crumb carpet. I might even splurge to drive through a car wash. It’s a small expense that goes a long way to making me feel more dignified.

I also bring plastic bags for trashcans, which we empty out at least once a day. And I make the kids tidy up their books and toys before we start each morning. We make it easy for them by giving each of them a small tub in which they can pack all their car entertainment. Once a day we have a three minute pickup and Mommy is much happier.

Depending on the length of our trip, I also do my best to pack strategically. If we’re road-tripping to a grandparent’s house, for example, we pack one big family duffel, which stays in the truck during the drive, and then stock individual “carry-on” bags to come into the hotels with us each night. Learn more about my no-fail packing system for kids.

Lest you think that these tips keep my van pristine during road trips, think again! But they do help me to feel a little bit more civilized, which allows me to more fully embrace the open road.

4. Make a budget so you can say YES! with a whole heart

Before we hit the road, we make a careful budget – gas, hotels, food, sight-seeing and “treats”. Yes, we budget for treats, so we can say yes to our kids and ourselves as freely as possible.

When you have the cash to spend intentionally, there is no guilt when you do just that. On the other hand, when we used to just swipe the credit card, our enjoyment was significantly diminished.

In order to keep us on track, I quickly tally up our expenses at the end of most days. You can do this by saving receipts in an envelope – or checking in with your Mint.com or YNAB account.

Some days we spend more, some less – but we have yet to go over budget on the full road trip!

5. Invest in preventative car maintenance

A week before our trip is set to begin, we bring our van in for a tune-up. At a minimum, it’s wise to check your tire pressure, replace clogged air filters, and look for any nicks in your wiper blades.

With an older car (our “new” van is a 2004 Odyssey, purchased in 2010, with over 150,000 miles on it), we have found that it’s even more important to stay current on maintenance.

One year before a trip, we were just 2,000 miles shy of Honda’s 105K timing belt service. We went ahead and had it done early, which was an expensive pre-trip investment, but I think it paid for itself in peace of mind.

Plus, not only does preventative maintenance help avoid costly repairs on the road, it also improves your gas mileage and saves money at the tank.

Are you a fan of road tripping? What are your best tips for making driving vacations both enjoyable and affordable?


  1. Need to implement “keep the car clean” rule on our trips!
    What kind of cooler do you use to carry all the food you bring with you? Do you have any recommendations/deals for coolers?

    • Lily – There is actually a deal at Target this week.

      Igloo, 60 qt Wheeled Cooler – $28
      Use $5/1 Igloo MaxCold Rolling Cooler 40-60 qt Target Printable Coupon
      = $23 after coupon

      We have this same one and it fits really well in the deep well of our minivan.

  2. Vicki R-C says

    It’s funny that you mention the keep the car clean. We actually own a car vac that plugs into the lighter, that way we clean up whenever needed. We also check out a ton of stuff from the library. However we’ve found out that a lot of DVD’s don’t work, so you certainly can never have too many.

  3. When the children were preschool/early elementary, I would make my own Happy Meals for road travel. A regular brown bag lunch ( including a small sweet) and a cheap toy or stickers I got from the dollar store. They LOVED them!

    On very long trips, I would give out surprise bags every couple of hours, based on good behavior in the car the previous couple of hours. Planned in advance, they were inexpensive and easy to assemble. This may be especially helpfulfor the child who has AD/HD.

    • We did something similar Kathy for the gifts. Each morning, the kiddos got a present (dollar store fare).

      I love your happy meal idea. That’s so clever! I often made smiley face plates – cut a HB egg in half for the eyes, used cut up peppers for the hair, cookies for the cheeks, etc. etc. Since I only do that on road trips, the kids always look forward to it!

  4. Shulammis says

    Great tips! I have a couple to add: We always bring a Frisbee and/or ball with us, so when people start getting restless, we can pull into a rest area and throw it around for a while. If it’s REALLY hot we may even have a water fight!

    Also, when my kids were little and we regularly took two-day driving trips, we would leave in the early evening after I dressed them in pajamas. We’d travel a couple of hours, eat, and then I’d say Shema with them and they’d go to sleep in the car, while we drove through the night. Doing their regular routine really seemed to help!

    Another idea I’ve often done is to bake breaded chicken and then freeze it in a foil pan. The frozen pan goes in the car with us in the morning, and by dinner time it’s fully defrosted and ready to eat…that meal in whatever motel we happened to stop at counts among my kids’ favorite memories!

    One more thing–if you’re traveling with a newly-toilet-trained child, buy the best plastic bags you can find to use as liners (I actually found ones that were made for sanitation purposes and were 100% leakproof), and bring along a small bucket–even a Negel Vasser cup works–for an instant potty. When we were stuck on a NYC bridge for an hour in traffic this really saved the day!

    • Water fights are awesome! We also “put our kids to bed” in the car. They’d always wake up when we got to our hotel (around 2 in the morning), but I could usually get them back to sleep quickly.

      I’m LOL at the washing cup as a port-a-potty! We traveled with my daughter about a month after she toilet trained and it was definitely stressful! I used some disposable chux pads to “line” her seat in case of accident.

    • Emergency Preparedness stores also sell a toliet seat with a lid that fits right on a bucket. It’s a bit small for an adult, but perfect for children.

  5. We do a lot of loooong car trips, so I have to second nearly all of your advice. One tip I saw a long time ago and use myself is to fill an empty pop-up tissue box with plastic grocery bags so that you always have them at hand to use for garbage. Also, I read a tip on this site last year (I think) about packing kids’ clothes by complete outfits in labeled ziplocs, and on our most recent trip we went ahead and did it. It was a REALLY worthwhile thing to do–yes, we spent a few bucks on the bags, and some extra time during the packing process, but it made life on the trip a thousand times simpler and neater. I highly recommend that people try it.
    One other thing we do on multi-day car trips is to pack a large backpack as our overnight bag, with however many outfits and pj’s (+ an extra outfit for babies/toddlers) and toiletries for each person that we need while on the road, so that we don’t have to go digging through all the suitcases before we are ready to unpack the whole car.

  6. On our trip last week, we brought along our sandwich maker and kettle from home, and had grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. If we ever take a longer trip, I might try bringing some other small cooking supplies. And we bought snacks and cold drinks at a local grocery store in the area we were visiting, instead of the expensive snacks at rest stops.

    • Mara Strom says

      Great tips, Elana! I’ve had friends tell me they bring their InstantPot with them. One year, we were in a hotel over Shabbat, so I brought our crockpot for cholent on Shabbat! It smelled like cholent all the way down the hall! LOL.

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