Saving Money on a Road Trip with Kids

Our life is fraught with road trips.

Roughly once a month, we make a four hour road trip (one way) to visit either my parents or my wife’s parents for the weekend. We usually make a several hour road trip (one way) or two each year to visit the Chicagoland area, where we have a lot of friends and family.

This experience has taught us two things: even simple road trips can be fraught with many unexpected little expenses that really add up, and children make the problem substantially worse as they often cause extra stops on their own.

Over the past few years, we’ve tried lots of different strategies for reducing the cost of such trips. In the end, though, a handful of techniques have served us better than everything else.

5 Techniques to Save on Road Trips with Kids

1. Avoid stops

This is your biggest challenge. Every time you stop on a road trip, you’re opening the door to a lot of impulse buying opportunities. A thirsty or hungry traveler stopping at a gas station in the middle of a long leg is very likely to spend cash that they really don’t need to spend. So, what can we do so that the chances of such gas station stops are minimized?

2. Do some prep work before you go

Air up your tires to the maximum recommended pressure to maximize your gas mileage. Pull anything heavy and unnecessary out of your car. Make everyone go to the bathroom before you leave. Make sure you have a map of the route, even if you have a GPS device (the paper backup can save you if you run out of batteries or the GPS unit fails). And, perhaps most importantly…

3. Pack reasonable supplies in the car

Pack healthy snacks, plenty of drinking water, and supplies for cleaning up small messes. In the winter, make sure you have blankets as well. If riders aren’t hungry or thirsty when the car stops, they’re much less likely to spend money unnecessarily.

Our tactic is usually to fill four or so large refillable water bottles with a lot of ice and filtered water. As the trip goes on, the ice melts, but the water remains quite cool, giving us cool water to drink even in the later stages of the trip.

Healthy snacks vary based on what’s on hand. We usually stick to fruits and vegetables, as they’re inexpensive, quite healthy, can be eaten without a mess, and generate few leftovers (and what is generated can be disposed of easily, like a banana peel). A bunch of bananas, some carrot sticks, and a box of raisins make for some very healthy and inexpensive options in the car.

4. Keep plenty of distractions in the car – and a few aces up your sleeve

Another key to making long trips work is to make sure you have plenty of distractions for the kids – and for the adults, too. Our process usually involves allowing our son (who is three years old) to pack a small “car bag” for himself that includes some books and toys. We also pack several items for our one year old daughter in the diaper bag. For ourselves, we usually pack a few CDs or an audiobook for those times when we can’t find a public radio station.

I usually pack a surprise or two for the kids. I hold onto the item until the kids are getting very anxious to get out of the car, then I spring it on them. I often use the family portable DVD player for this purpose (it was given as a gift to the entire family this past Christmas), but I also bring along a few of their favorite books, which either myself or my wife will read aloud.

5. Make “long stops” rather than short ones

When we do stop, we make the stop into a “long stop.” Usually, this means that we stop at a gas station solely for refueling, then all of us go into a grocery store, where we pick out a few low-cost items for a picnic lunch while also ensuring everyone has time to go to the bathroom and get necessary diaper changes.

We usually then look for a park in whatever town we’re in, then assemble and eat our picnic dinner in the park. We then allow the kids to run around for a while to burn off some of their pent-up energy. Before we get back into the car, everyone uses the restroom again.

Doing this causes a significant drop in the number of stops made on the trip. Thus, even though this makes for a fairly long stop, it often means that there won’t be any other stops on the trip – and if this eliminates a couple additional stops along the way, then it not only saves money, it saves time, too. It allows everyone a chance to get out and stretch for a significant period of time, which helps quite a bit with the road weariness of a child.

In short, the “big stop” has become a consistent part of our road trips as of late – and it’s proven to be very successful for reducing our costs and our time (as compared to three or four “quick” stops).

Good luck!

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  1. BethBeth says:

    Sounds terrific! Just a fun suggestion that I really enjoyed when my kids were young like yours, and we were taking a road trip – I would play a childrens music cd and sing along with the kids. This was a lot of fun.

  2. J Brown says:

    We try to vary our departure time to make it easier on us, the kids and traffic. We leave late at night or early in the morning. Another thing we learned, mainly when flying is to pack extra clothes for the kids and you in the carry-on. We have learned the hard way that kids get sick all over you. A long flight smelling like vomit is no way to travel. A final tip is that we never leave anywhere without some wipes, paper towels and plastic bags to mask the evidence.

  3. Alan says:

    Good post. Besides saving money, you are creating memories that the children will cherish their entire lives. My parents did similar things, although there were significantly more of us (I am 11th of 12 of our collective). Heh. :D

  4. Maureen says:

    My kids were very prone to car sickness. When planning a long drive (about an hour- longer would have made them totally miserable) we would leave before breakfast so they had empty tummies. We would give them gravol and plan on stopping midpoint just so they could walk around. (After cleaning up a few messes in the car, stopping for a break seemed like a much better idea) This strategy seemed to work out best for us. We would buy breakfast when we reached our destination.

    Be glad that your little ones tolerate the trip. I think a rest stop each hour would be desirable. An hour in a carseat feels like an eternity to a child.

  5. Anne KD says:

    I’m going to pass this along to family members.

    When we take road trips, my husband and I pack water and munchies, and use the same ideas for longer breaks. When time permits, we like to plan out the stops ahead of time and do research on the planned stops.

  6. Anne KD says:

    Forgot to mention, we also plan the trips to avoid city traffic/rush hour around cities. That’s really important here on the East Coast.

  7. If you find a park or rest stop with a really great play area mark it on the map as the family stop. Then you can remind the kids of the really great play area to look forward to, then if they begin to get antsy a before you would like to stop you can remind them & get a bit more driving time.

    It also helps to have two favorite ways to get to the relatives – some are better in one season than another. With our older kids we look for free attractions to stop at: a historic park, a scenic outlook, something that can be enjoyed about an hour.

    If you find a great state rest stop mark it on the map too. Some are more enjoyable than others and over time it doesn’t hurt to know where the good *emergency* stopping places are. We have a few that only get visited every few years but it is good to know that it is family friendly when someone suddenly decides to be sick.

  8. Oh I meant to add that a good emergency stop might not be the same as a good long rest stop. One with a good family restroom might not have a good play area so is good for throw-up emergencies but not for a long stop.

  9. Alexis says:

    I wonder what your trip will look like after both your kids are potty-trained. I just took what should have been a 9 hour car trip (it took 11 hours both ways) with my kids. You stop every 50 miles or so because one of the kids needs the bathroom. Even though both go every time you stop.

    Every stop at a gas station means the kids want to buy something (food, drink, toy, etc) – which we almost NEVER do – but still.

    Good tips for those with older (or no) kids, though. We utilize most all of those on our trips!

  10. Margaret says:

    Great ideas. The kids will probably always remember stopping at the park and playing on the____. Especially if it’s got some plaything that is very different from the local parks.
    Friends from church always leave in the middle of the night to/from their week at the beach which is 12 or so hours away. Their youngest is now 4, but all of them sleep for at least a state or more, and they avoid most of the heavy traffic during the day.

  11. J says:

    We have acquired more vacation time as we’ve worked longer, and we’ve found that adding a day on the ends of major holiday weekends makes a huge difference in stress level, since you don’t have to deal with Carmageddon when everyone is trying to leave town.

    Also, we’ve driven from Boston to DC a number of times and found the best way to do it is to leave Boston (or DC) at 6PM, and get in a 2 AM. The driver gets to sleep in late the next morning while the passenger gets to deal with the kids. Luckily, we stay with family so there’s always extra hands to help out, too.

    We’ve also used this trick for the 6 hour trek to the in-laws — and made it with NO stops, in 5.5 hours.

  12. Michele says:

    We drive to Florida every year from DC, and for long trips (more than 6-8 hours) we have found that leaving at night and letting the children sleep in the car is the easiest to do! No “Are we there yet?” interruptions!

  13. Jennifer says:

    I alway pack a deck of Uno cards when we travel. Our first deck was purchased when our daughter was 14 months old. (bored toddler + small country gas station = limited options) We would pass the cards back and forth, she’d examine them, bend them and crumple them and kick them off her car seat. And at the next rest break I’d gather them all up and let her do it again. (Yes, the deck was trashed, but it was great entertainment. I kept that deck until she was old enough to play games that depended on a complete deck.)

    When kids are older you can work on color and number recognition. A little older and you can play games like old maid, crazy 8s, and go fish. The non-numbered cards are great for smaller siblings who want to be included. And eventually, you can play Uno.

    I like to bake cookies for a road trip. Seems like the unhealthy snacks are the most tempting, so I bake ahead. I also like to buy some pretzels or healthier chips for snacking so we aren’t tempted by the junk in the gas stations.

    The other big expense for us is that first meal once we return. We often get home around dinner time and its too tempting to stop at a restaurant if I don’t have something quick and easy stashed in the freezer.

    Keeping food cold for more than a day on the road can be a challenge. The ice packs only stay frozen for a day. And bagged ice makes a soggy, wet mess. My husband found a short tupperware-type container that fits perfectly in the bottom of the cooler. Each day on the road he fills it with ice from the hotel ice cooler. It works great.

    Our local library has backpacks of books and activities that are available for checkout. Each has a theme and contains a few books and a game or two. Libraries also have kids stories and music on tape and CD. We’ve learned from experience to preview these before leaving, as they may be damaged or the contents unbearable. There’s also tons of free recorded stories and printable activities on the web.

  14. Brittany says:

    Just make sure your little stops are intended only to get out and stretch your legs. (This is important!) My dad would get blood clots from sitting for too long on a road trip.

    Make good use of those rest areas on the highways. Normally, there aren’t any shops there to tempt you into buying things. Just bathrooms, information, and places to relax.

  15. Carmen says:

    Our kids are a little older, so Nintendo DS’s usually come with us in their ‘car bags’ which are good for about an hour of peace and quiet. We also have a portable DVD player and individual iPods/CD players so that the kids can choose their own music or audio books (= minimal friction).

    Additionally, I always bring at least one picnic style meal (usually based around sandwiches or wraps) with us in addition to multiple snacks and drinks. This saves a lot of money and helps if traffic is really heavy. We also find people tend to eat more on long road trips! Boredom probably.

    Looking forward Trent to quicker journeys, we now only stop for fuel/toilets on trips up to say 9 hours now that our kids are a little older – 7 and 9 (party today – now recovering!)

  16. Kate says:

    Aahh…driving with kids. We used to drive from the Southeast to the northeast and always left late in the afternoon, stopped somewhere for supper and just kept on driving straight through. Our cooler had several jugs of frozen water–we would drink soft drinks (a treat for the kids) or juice until it ran out and then we had the melting water. breakfast,

  17. Bill says:

    It’s really important to cut as many costs as possible to cover that new car payment.

  18. bob says:

    we’ve always found that stopping at one of the chain burger joints with the kids play area and letting them burn some energy off made long trips much easier – even 15 minutes while everyone else is taking turns through the restrooms makes a big difference in their ability to sit in the car – but we’ve also done the stop in a park and run / play option also.

    Also, definitely the “suprises” are a big part of trips

    portable electronics (dvd, gameboy, etc) are great for keeping them occupied

    another great post…

  19. Cheryl says:

    Every other year, we go to Letchworth State Park in New York, which is 400 miles from our house. This year we rented a 12 passenger van to hold 9 of us, that was our big expense but well worth it. We rented 2 cabins for a week at $232 each, its such a bargain! We cooked foil dinners over the fire and went hiking and swimming. Our secrets are leave early in the morning, so the kids fall back asleep, bring an empty ice cream bucket and lid or a ziplock bag if your kids are prone to carsickness. (Though I guess now they have medicines for that, or wristbands?). They like to play the license plate game and see how many state plates we can find. They bring their walkmans so they have their own music for the drive. We each bring a suitcase of clothes and a backpack of fun stuff, like books, candy or games or whatever we want for the week, and we manage to cram it all in. I find the early leaving time reduces the stops to a breakfast stop, a pee stop, then we are there by lunch time. The return trip seems ages longer, as we leave at 9AM and get home for supper. A few weeks after vacation last summer, my husband got laid off of his job of 26 years. He was out for 6 months and just went back to work. I was so thankful we got our wonderful vacation in before he got laid off unexpectedly! It may be our last before 2 of the kids get married next summer. (Oh yes, we have 5, ages 14-24. Two fiances also joined us on the trip!) Never a dull moment, and God has provided for us over the years. Keep blogging, your advice is practical and interesting!

  20. Lorna says:

    Great post- I felt I used to live on I95 when my kids were smaller, as both my parents were sick and we needed to see them regularly. I love your idea about the picnic with supermarket items; my tip is to make sure you have a stash of utensils, straws and napkins. It’s hard eating that cup of healthy and cheap yogurt without a spoon!
    We are “lucky” that our route includes DC, so we would frequently stop at a museum or monument to stretch our legs and get some education. A little research planning may help you find a botanical garden, museum or quirky landmark to stop at.
    Happy trails to you-

  21. Sandy says:

    I agree with everything people said about this topic…as always, thinking ahead really helps your pocketbook!
    On our longer trips (more than 6 hours)for vacation, we always try to find a park for our picnic lunches…not the reststops. There are always interesting historical items available. A recent one was driving through I90 from Cleveland area to Boston. We stopped outside of Erie PA and had lunch at a little park on the shores of Lake Erie where a whole lot of ships went down (whether by war or weather). There were potties, and we took a walk on the pier there, and learned a little bit in the process. If you don’t plan ahead, the toll booth people can be very helpful with this too….just ask them where a great picnic spot is as you get off the tollway. They are always happy to oblige! Give yourself a little more time, as sometimes it can take 10 minutes or so to get to the spot…but it’s usually worth it…better than a messy rest stop if you have a little time wiggle room.
    Our favorite book on tape series is the Juni B Jones book series on tape…if you aren’t aware of her, she’s a Kindergartener who has a really funny view of life! We roared laughing with the girls listening to her antics!

  22. Sandy says:

    Another thing that we do for when we are going to be driving for long hours, we bring a gallon of filtered water to refill those fefillable bottles, thus saving a trip to buy more good water. We always have 4 regular plastic cups for when we have our picnic…somehow the water tastes different out of a cup!

  23. Debbie says:

    My daughter (now 22) has always been an artist, so we carried a small plastic case with paper, markers, stencils, etc., and a clipboard to hold the paper. My husband hung a small fluorescent light from the back of the driver’s seat, so that she had light even at night. She could entertain herself for hours drawing in the back seat. Also, we were sure to carry what we came to call a “cranky toy.” This is a toy which has lots of ways to be twisted and turned and manipulated. We’ll still see toys like this and laugh as we point out that something is a perfect “cranky toy.” I sure do miss those days–some of the best hours of our family life were spent travelling for 12 hours to or from our beach vacations. Good times and good memories.

  24. Tanya says:

    For the last several years, before each big trip (long car or plane ride) I have seriously considered buying a portable DVD player. Each time I have decided against it. I want my children to learn how to entertain themselves and not always expect to be able to have something to watch. I feel it is important for kids to learn how to just sit and look out the window and let their minds wander.

  25. T. says:

    We keep the kid up a bit late and leave the house in the middle of the night. She sleeps a good chuck if it.

    Instead of waiting for her to wake up, we wake her up for a pit stop. This way she is still groggy and doesn’t ask for junk. Plus, junk stores in truck stops are usually closed over night.
    Also, we pick out most of the stuff to amuse her leaving out, of course stuffed animals. She gets a shoe box with a lid. She can fill it but the top must be able to go back on. Usually, she picks out 1 or 2 stuffed animals and the box is full. She spends a good chuck of time just looking through the stuff we bring for her.

    We also listen to audiobooks. She gets caught up in them and forgets that she is stuck in a car. I try to find one that is about the length of the trip one way. It usually lasts round trip.

  26. mes says:

    Maybe I’m a travel wimp, but I like to drive in the evening when my kids are likely to be asleep. We have a nice dinner at home, kids get pottied/diapered and change into jammies. By the time we’re 30 minutes from home, they’re asleep, and the rest of the 4 hour trip to Grandma’s house is time for the adults to talk without constant interruption.

  27. Rebecca says:

    Motorhome…with very small children, 2 & 4, we’ve made 6-700 mile trips. There is always a toilet (a big plus when traveling with small children, especially girls), lunch is a no-brainer..pull over at rest stop and make a few sandwiches. Leapfrogs and coloring books kept the kids occupied. Most important, we normally left at night. The girls slept on the dinette (strapped in folks!) and would sleep most of the way there. We miss our old RV…had to sell it due to sick child…and are looking forward to purchasing a camper.

    Vacations with our children, not matter how far or how long, are some of our most fun memories as a family. We always find a neat and sometimes educational stop and take lots of digital pictures!! It really is like the RV commercials…getting there is the fun part.
    The official “nagivator”,
    Mom

  28. partgypsy says:

    I know this blog is not pro-consumer, but we borrowed someone’s portable dvd player for an 8 hour driving trip, and what a difference it made for our 6 and 2 year old. The movie ate up almost 2 hours and made the difference between sanity and insanity.

  29. Lynne says:

    We always stopped at regular “rest stops”. These have clean bathrooms, maps if you need them, and picnic areas. Many have areas where you can walk about, scenic views, etc. Because we stopped only at rest stops, we spent no extra money on food & drinks. We carried picnic foods with us. When we stopped at gas stations our only expenditure was for gas. (We traveled by truck from mid-California to Anchorage, Alaska with 2 toddlers and a dog. We saved a bundle following our travel plan. The only time we spent on stops was night lodging and a warm dinner.)

  30. kristen says:

    So, this may or may not have already been said, but… we don’t even stop for picnic supplies– we pack sack lunches. This works for at least the first meal of the trip. And you can usually get your host on the other end to let you pack a sandwich. :)

  31. Pam says:

    If the weather isn’t the greatest, we’ll often do long spots at a place like Sam’s Club – the kids have plenty of room to run around, and the prices of pizza/ hot dogs is quite reasonable.

  32. Mercy Mei says:

    Great post. Here’s another suggestion: last family trip, I took a prepaid cellphone loaded with minutes to beat the roaming charges. My Net10 phone is 10 cents a minute for calls and 5 cents for texts so we were able to avoid the extra charges.

    I also came across this article which is pretty cool about cellphone costs:

    http://www.ajc.com/services/content/printedition/2009/03/05/prepaid0305.html

  33. CindiC says:

    We get books on tape (and CD) from our local library. We usually have two or three in the car. We also used to stop at colleges and eat in the cafeteria. It was cheap, had lots of green grass to run around on, and nobody seemed to might two kids playing (Evergreen College between Portland and Seattle was a great stop). One time we tried heating hot dogs on the car engine – that was so much fun! They got barely hot but it was fun to predict what might happen. For us the stop has to include some gross motor movement (two boys you see).

  34. J-Lynn says:

    Thanks so much for the info! I am making a trip in a few days with my two daughters (2 &4) and my mother to see family in Baton Rouge. We are driving from Steamboat Springs, Colorado (22 hrs!) This is a big help. We will leave at night and definatly plan on bringing plenty of snacks & activities. I like the idea of baking cookies before hand & bringing a potty seat. Thanks so much!

  35. Georgia says:

    This may be extremely late, but I remember a true story I read in Readers Digest years ago. Just remember that the money may not seem much, but it wasn’t a great lot even at the time.

    A single mom had 3 children. They lived on the East Coast and her children always wanted to see the West Coast. They bugged her and bugged her and finally she said, “I only have $400 in savings that I can use on a vacation. We will use that money and go as far as we can. When I spend my last $20 of $200, I will turn around and head home again.” To make a long story short, she did not have to put up with a lot of whining and begging. They wanted to make it to Portland. They cashed their 10th $20 bill as they pulled into Portland. That left the same amount to get home. The kids even helped with washing windshields, etc. at stations. They did all they could to make certain they made the trip to the Pacific Ocean. That left her wondering what she could come up with in the next year or two that would give as much satisfaction and cooperation.

    This could bring many ideas to mind for people. Find out what your kids want to see desperately and set the limit on spending.

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