Planning a Road Trip on a Budget

Long down sloping road

I took a road trip with my friend Jim one summer From California to Texas and back and it sparked the desire to see all 50. In this article I will outline some of the steps we used to plan unforgettable adventures.

I didn’t realize just how much I would enjoy seeing different parts of the country. The first trip covered Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Kansas. It took a lot of planning. We covered a lot of ground in just over 2 weeks.

Here is how we planned our Road Trip

#1 Planning Sessions

We had several planning sessions were we met and discussed which states we wanted to visit. We then drilled down to the particular cities and sights that we were interested in. Finally we used google maps a lot to determine optimal driving routes to minimize the total miles and time on the road. This would be a factor in certain destinations not making the cut or other attractions being swapped in if it fit a better overall driving plan.

#2 Transportation

Since we were leaving from our home state we did not have to worry about flights on the first trip. For subsequent trips this was a critical task and required the most planning. The trick to making these trips affordable is finding the best combination of cheap flights and a low cost one way rental car. After we had a general outline of which states we wanted to visit and had a rough route planned out we could then search for inbound and outbound flights from each direction.

Generally we were indifferent to where we started or ended the trip. This allowed us a much broader search for airfare and increased the chances of finding low fares. The next challenge is the rental car. Sometimes we could get great plane ticket prices, but the rental car was very expensive or vice versa. It took real juggling and even sometimes changing the proposed route to a nearby city to get both the rental car rates and flights cheap enough.

On one trip we even accepted several hours of extra driving and backtracking just to secure the lowest priced airfare and rental car combination. If you are on a budget this is likely worth it, but don’t underestimate the toll of the extra miles you have to drive.

#3 Refining the Itinerary

Once the airfare and car reservations have been secured it is important to go through the google maps and realistically evaluate the drive times between destinations. We generally did not have hotels booked all the way through unless it was a touristy area. However, we would look at the cities to get an idea of what hotel prices might be to see if it was affordable to stay there. Some trips we would book the first few days or so into the trip. The most critical step is to be sure the total miles per day is both manageable physically, but also mentally does it leave enough time to actually enjoy the sights upon arrival. It took a couple trips to get a feel for what was too much driving. Having 2 drivers make a huge difference though. One of the most challenging Itineraries for me was factoring in a trip in which we saw a Chicago Cubs game and attended a Nascar race. Having two set events at specific times in different cities made the planning extra crucial. We had to be very sure about mapping it out, but it worked out.

#4 The day of departure

I always had trouble sleeping the night before. So much planning goes into the trip and you always wonder if a small mistake was made somewhere. Even worse, even if I did not make an error there was concern that one of the services did. I suggest not doing an early morning flight for this reason. I preferred to leave in the afternoon and arrive at night. I normally don’t do well on flights and just want to relax afterwards anyways. So I usually plan to make the first day all about the flight and picking up the rental car. I go straight to dinner and the hotel after. That way with timezone changes you can get a good night sleep and start the trip and your driving on the right foot the next day. This may result in an extra day of rental car and hotel costs, but I believe it is well worth it. It also helps to lessen the stress of things you have to do if you didn’t sleep the night before. Once the plane takes off you can feel good that you have done everything on your end and are well on your way.

#5 Landing

Once the plane lands this is when all the excitement begins. As you exit and go to baggage claim you want to be scanning for where the rental car companies are stationed. A lot of these places only have one or two attendants if you are lucky. If you can grab your luggage first that is ideal, but if the counter is open, it might be wise to go secure your rental car reservation before picking up your baggage. Now as I would approach the desk I would have anxious thoughts, “Did they have my reservation, am I too early, or too late.” When you book a car they want a specific time to the hour for pickup time. I always worried if the flight was late would I lose the car? This never happened, but there were some close calls. Apparently the rental car companies overbook reservations. I have had to wait sometimes more than an hour for a car to be available. One time they stuck me with a compact when I reserved a full size. It is a scary feeling as the car is of course critical to not only seeing the trip, but necessary to get to the airport in a city far away to fly back home.

#6 Once you have the car

I always go straight to the hotel right away. I book the first night hotel before I leave. This way I get out of the airport and to my homebase for the night. Once I am checked in, then I look for food or entertainment if I am energized. Hotels also can overbook or give away the best rooms early, so the sooner you get there the better.

#7 Checking out of the first hotel

Set your alarm to aim to leave just before the hotel checkout time. I have found that after the first day of travel especially flying from coast to cost that I would be very tired and getting as much sleep as possible that night would set the tone for the rest of the trip. We want to do everything we can to be well rested and feeling well. There have been times I have felt a cold / flu coming on after arrival on the first day especially in the winter. I just went straight to the hotel, went to sleep, and stayed in bed until I had to checkout. I am connived that saved the trip for me especially since this particular trip was a solo adventure.

#8 Enjoy your trip:

Be sure to enjoy every aspect as much as you can. Even the drive can be fun at times seeing the unique features of the land in different states as you cruise the highways in between. Be conscious of photos and what they mean to you. I have made the mistake of not taking enough at times. My rational is that there is a professional photo one click away on google for anyplace I visit. While, this is true, having a personal photo of a meaningful place can be really special. I regret some places I did not take one, but in general I am glad for staying in the moment. I think sometimes we can ruin an experience if we worry about getting that perfect picture instead of just taking in what is happening around us.

#9 The final day

This is just as critical as the first day. Your main responsibilities are to be sure to gas up the rental car, get to the care return by deadline with plenty of time to make your flight. Most rental car companies are extremely efficient as they know how critical it is that their clients do not miss their flights. However, you can find yourself waiting in a line for someone to check out your car and you should factor in extra time to be sure. Some rental car centers can be an a long ways from the airport requiring a shuttle service. The shuttle services also do a great job, but again it can be nerve racking finding the one for the company you used and trusting they get you there on time. This is a situation where I get up extra early no matter how tired I am. I don’t mind being at the airport 3 to 4 hours early before my flight. I know I have the whole day just to get home. After a road trip you are going to sleep like crazy when you get home either way, so be sure to make your flight home.


Road trips offer a unique experience where you can see the space in between destinations. You can get a feel for the climate and people even through mundane tasks such as refueling and getting lunch. I think you will feel more connected and satisfied with your trip than a destination or all inclusive trip. Those of course can be a wonderful experience as well, but completing a road trip is something to be proud of.

Bonus Tips

One of the things I worried about the most other than of course if the flights will be on time is if the rental car will be there. Most of the time they had them ready to go and even offered me a choice on a couple of occasions. One of the more fortunate times in Hawaii they gave us a free upgrade to a Mustang convertible.

When a Car Reservation Goes Wrong

I have also been on the short end of the stick with the rental car companies. One time we arrived pretty late at night. After 10pm. We had a reservation for a full size car. They gave us the keys and we went to the lot. I misread the stall number, but before realizing we were high fiveing as we got into a hot yellow Charger. The thrill didn’t last long as the garage attendant wouldn’t let us out of the gate. I handed him our ticket, but he pointed out the correct stall number. Embarrassed we went back to find the correct car knowing we had to now unload all our gear and setup again. This was the least of the trouble as the “correct car” was a Chevy Spark compact car. I went back to the front desk and told them that this was not what we ordered. They told me it was all they had at the moment, but we could wait and see if something else came in. It was already late so we accepted it. We barley fit all our luggage in it and went to the hotel.

By the time we were unloaded at the hotel it was after 11pm and we were both tired from the day of travel. We also realized that driving a compact across several states was going to be uncomfortable and potentially less safe. I called the car company back, and they told us we could come back in the morning and see if they had a full size car. I of course now barley slept at all worrying all night if they would have a bigger car. I broke the rule of sleeping in until checkout as well, knowing it would be wise to get up early to have the best chance of getting the right car. The good news is that in the morning they did have a larger car, albeit a midsize instead of the full size, but we gladly took it. Luckily we could trade off the driving after having a lousy nights sleep the first night. The whole trip I was pretty tried, and it all stemmed from the starting point. This is why you want to do all you can to not end up in a situation like this right out of the gate. Alas sometimes it is inevitable. For all the trips I have done, I have been very fortunate with services lining up so I have to be prepared for and accept a setback. Also I was very happy this was not a solo trip so we could rely on each other to get through the long drives.

Advantages of Not Booking Hotels Ahead of Time

I believe booking the first night of the trip is a good idea so you don’t have to worry about where you will stay with all the flight stress. Outside of that it can be nice to have flexibility. My first trip my friend and I really went on a budget so we almost exclusively stayed at Motel 6’s. One benefit from this is that as one person drove the other would call hotels or use travel websites to check prices in upcoming cities to find low rates. This way we could really make the drive match our stamina. Having a set route before hand is critical, but it is nice to have some leeway to go longer or shorter on a day if that is what is needed. There isn’t too much margin for change as the return flight date is set and that destination has to be made on time. In general being able to adapt to the situation and make the trip what you want with flexibility made it much more enjoyable.

Traveling With a Friend vs Solo

There are advantages for both. Sometimes doing something solo can really help you learn about yourself, while traveling with a friend allows for shared experiences. A major advantage is having two drivers. One can nap, while the other drives. If both are very tired making frequent shifts every hour can really help get through a long haul. If taking a solo trip I think it is important to temper expectations of how much ground you plan to cover each day on your own. It is okay to plan some long hauls, but it would be wise to add an extra flex day in the itinerary so you are able to take a rest day somewhere in the trip.

The day of the Flight

Try to schedule it so the arrival in the destination city is not too late. It really helps if there is some sunlight out when you first start driving in a new city. There were times I had to drive a few hours late a night to my first hotel. After a long flight and being tired in a new city this was a little stressful, but is manageable.

Rental Car Center Airport Fees

When comparing rental car rates once you get to the subtotal you will usually see added fees for the rental center. Generally they are reasonable, but there are some airports that have very high fees. Try to avoid using that airport if possible. As this can affect the daily rate for the whole trip. I have adjusted flights and flown into different cities just to find a rental car company that was more reasonable.

Rental Car Reservation Tips

Another interesting find is that most rental car companies drastically discount the daily rate the longer you have the reservation. In some cases renting a car for 2 weeks could end up costing the same as 1 week. If you have flexibility in your schedule sometimes increasing your trip lengh can reduce the rental car price significantly. However, you will have more days of hotels and incidentals to factor in as well.

When you book the car makes a big difference in fares. A lot of companies will let you cancel without a penalty if early enough. So it is a great idea to plan to book about a month before your trip for the best rate. If your plans change, then cancel. Otherwise waiting to reserve one week before it will cost much more similar to what is expected with airfare.

Exact Planning

Only after having a few Road Trips under my belt was I prepared to add specific events to the itinerary. On one trip we were able to attend a Nascar race in Michigan and a Chicago Cubs game on the same trip. This took a lot of planning to be sure that we could cover the miles necessary each day to arrive in the particular cities by the deadline needed to make the event. It was a challenge, but we made both events, and they were very memorable.

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