This weekend, my wife and I are traveling to see her younger sister graduate from college and also attend a small family reunion. We’ll have to drive at least seven hours this weekend and also spend three nights away from home, which in the end implies a lot of extra expenses.
Here are ten things that we do on such a family trip to save money. Some might seem obvious, but keeping them in mind will save you money on a trip like this one.
Pack meals for the road trip, at least when departing. This way, we avoid the need to stop and buy expensive and unhealthy roadside food. Homemade sandwiches, finger veggies and cheese curds, and a drink make for a much cheaper and healthier meal on the road for everyone.
Air up the car tires before we leave. Having properly inflated tires can significantly improve your gas mileage, and with gas at $3.24 a gallon right now, it’s worth the effort if you can save a few gallons of gas on a long road trip.
Plan your trip in advance. Make sure you know the route, and make sure you know which states along that route have the least expensive gas prices, then optimize things so you can fill up on the appropriate side of the state border to maximize your dollar. It takes only a minute or two to use Google Maps and check on gas prices online, but it can save you significant cash.
Stay with family if at all possible; otherwise, consider camping. Both options are much more thrifty than a hotel. We camp regularly on such visits, but this time we’re actually staying with relatives, which is even cheaper.
Eat communally with other family members if possible. We’ll do such things as order food together or even make meals together at the house we’re staying at. This cuts down greatly on food expenses per person for all involved. The more you can avoid eating out, the better. Even if you do something like ordering pizza, getting everyone involved and chipping in means a big savings.
Bring along homemade foods to share – and convince others to do the same. We often bring jars of our homemade salsa, and then we talk to others in advance and encourage them to bring things. The end result is cheap and delicious food for everyone: my mother-in-law’s tremendous dessert bars, her sister’s fantastic ethnic treats, and so on.
Drink lots of water. When I was younger, I was strongly tempted to start downing sodas and other beverages whenever we went on such a trip. Now I drink lots of water and maybe a hand-crafted beer or two in the evening. Why? Water is cheap, it hydrates you quite well, and it’s free of corn syrup and other additives. In fact, I tend to drink water more often when I’m traveling, perhaps because I’m conscious of it.
Carpool heavily once you’re all together. Don’t take four cars to transport nine people; instead, pack as many as you can into someone’s Suburban and have everyone chip in a dollar or two for gas. We have relatives with SUVs and minivans who just volunteer to haul everyone around at such events.
Suggest cheap and free activities over expensive ones. Play card games or frisbee or touch football. In order to open the door to such things, we bring the needed items along: our trunk has a deck of cards, a few frisbees, a football, a horseshoe kit, and a few other items that can get people to hang out and do something free rather than wanting to go out and burn a bunch of cash on a tourist-type situation. Quite often, we’ll get out frisbees and touch footballs for the children and teenagers, while the adults wind up playing card games.
If you feel an urge to get out, let the local host show you great free stuff to do – or research the area in advance. There’s always something culturally interesting in any area, even in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. Instead of dropping $20 a head to go to an amusement park or going to a gigantic shopping mall, see if there are any free museums or historical sites to see or any cultural festivals going on. Many of my best memories are from doing things like visiting the twine ball in Arthur, Minnesota or checking out the Spam Museum, not going to the Mall of America or an amusement park. And guess which one is cheaper?