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Preparing for a Frugal Road Trip
Minh writes in:
My family (husband and two kids) are going on a very long road trip next weekend. We are moving across the country and our stuff will already be unloaded when we arrive with my sister handling the unloading. We are currently staying with a friend and the few possessions we still have (a few changes of clothes and electronics) will fit in two suitcases, so the real work of the move is complete until we arrive.
What I am looking for are some strategies for making this trip as inexpensive as possible. We have nothing at all planned for the trip except arriving in Boston on Sunday.
I’ve done many very long road trips with children over the last few years. There are a lot of little things you can do, both before you depart and during the trip, to make the entire trip tolerable and to save a lot of money.
So, let’s break this down.
First of all, your trip is going to be about 46 hours in total on the road, spread over three days. That gives you an average of 15 hours on the road per day. You absolutely have to be driving in shifts. One person should not be driving this entire trip, for that person’s health and mental acuity and the safety of the other people in the car. (Honestly, if it is at all possible, I would split this trip into four days, perhaps by leaving mid-day or in the early evening of the day before your currently intended departure.)
Also, when you’re driving that many miles in a single day, your best approach is to leave incredibly early the first morning and then gradually leave a little later each day. The time zones are going to work against you during this drive.
Before the Trip
There are several things you can do this week before you leave. It’s likely that at least one of you is currently not working, so that person can handle many of these tasks in the few days before the trip.
First, take your car into a trusted mechanic for full maintenance and a checkup. Explain that you’re going on a long road trip in the next few days and you want to do all you can to ensure that your car arrives with ease. This should involve a fresh oil change, tire inflation and rotation, and so on.
If you do not know how to change a tire and how to get your spare out of your car, ask the mechanic, who should be able to explain how to do it.
Second, plan your trip out in detail. Figure out in advance where you’ll be stopping each night. Given your rough itinerary and assuming you must do this in three days, some good stopping points would be Cheyenne, Wyoming, the first night and Chicago the second night (preferably on the southern end of the Chicago area).
For each of those nights, figure out your hotel before you depart. This gives you some time to shop around for hotel rooms and save some money.
While you’re doing this, figure out which states along your route have low gas prices. In general, you’ll want to buy gas at spots on this map that are green, the darker green the better. Often, crossing a state line (such as the Nevada-Utah border or the Iowa-Illinois border or the Ohio-Pennsylvania border) can make a large difference in gas prices, so knowing whether you should stop before crossing a state line or after can save you enough money over the course of the trip to make a real difference.
Third, go on a grocery shopping trip the day before you leave. You’ll want to fill up as much space in your car with nonperishable food items as you can. Consider buying a smallish styrofoam cooler that you fill with ice and items that you need to keep cool on the trip.
This will enable you to make simple meals on the road instead of stopping at restaurants. Stopping at a park with children for lunch and for dinner, allowing the children to play while the adults stretch and walk around and make a simple meal out of what they have on hand will not only save money, but it will make the trip more pleasant for everyone.
Some suggested meals include breakfast cereal (buy a few plastic bowls and spoons, keep milk in the cooler), sandwiches (bread, cheese, condiments, and meat, partially cooler-stored), pre-washed and pre-cut vegetables (you can buy these at the store and prepare them before you leave, keeping them in small containers in the cooler), fruits, nuts, crackers, and so on. You don’t need to eat gourmet meals on this trip; rather, just aim for “simple” and “keep costs low.”
Fourth, make sure you have some basics in the car. I’d make sure everyone has an empty water bottle. I’d make sure that there are some reading materials in the car for entertainment’s sake. I’d have some backup device chargers. I’d have an emergency roadside kit and a first aid kit.
Those steps will head off a lot of issues that can cost you money and time along the way.
During the Trip
There are a lot of things you can do during the trip to make everything more efficient. Here are some tips for a very long car trip with children in tow.
First, when you stop for any reason, make everyone use the restroom. This should just be standard policy for any road trip, but it’s particularly true with kids. Everyone needs to try to use the bathroom whenever you stop at a place with a bathroom.
Second, alternate drivers and encourage the passenger to nap. A fresh driver will make everyone more safe in the car. We usually bring along audiobooks and podcasts to keep the driver occupied (and often the passengers, too).
Third, stop at parks for meals. I mentioned this earlier, but parks are the best places to stop on a long road trip if you’re trying to be economical. You can eat a meal made up of things you bought at a supermarket (far cheaper than fast food or a restaurant stop) and it gives everyone a chance to stretch, move around freely, and get some fresh air. Encourage your children to run around a lot while you’re stopped and they’ll be less stir crazy in the car.
Fourth, check with the hotel and, if they allow it, refill your cooler with ice each night and morning at the hotel. This amounts to free ice. Some hotels don’t care if you do this, while others have a policy against it. Check and make sure. I always ask and have only been told “no” once. The person at the desk generally doesn’t care unless it becomes problematic for other guests (meaning you’re hogging the entire ice machine for a long period of time or using all of the ice yourself).
Fifth, drive the speed limit and use cruise control on the interstate. Speeding saves you only a few minutes per hour while significantly hurting your fuel efficiency, increasing your likelihood of an accident, and increasing your chances of a traffic ticket (and the time lost there blows away the few minutes you might gain by speeding). Just set the cruise control to the speed limit, especially on long interstate legs, and just cruise along.
Finally, a long road trip with kids is not the time to discuss contentious issues. Leave issues of contention behind. There is nothing more miserable than a long road trip when you’re in strong disagreement with the people you’re riding with. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, you’ll want to stop more often; the more often you stop, the more likely you are to spend money and the more gas you’re wasting. If there are issues of contention, just don’t bring them up. Find something else to discuss.
No long trip like this is ever going to be perfect. There are going to be rough moments and challenges and choices to be made. You’re going to be tired and cranky, particularly on that third day.
The more you do in advance to make the entire trip smooth and the more tactics you have in your arsenal during the trip to avoid rough edges, the more likely it is that your trip will be an inexpensive one and as pleasant as three sixteen hour days in a car with a full family of four can possibly be.
Good luck! (Hope you don’t need it!)