Updated on 09.26.14

Twelve Tips for Frugal Christmas Travel

Trent Hamm

Winter driving on I-84 at Meacham Hill Oregon by OregonDOT on Flickr!As you read this, my wife and kids and I are in the midst of a lengthy Christmas trip. We’re visiting friends and family strewn all about the Midwest, and that means lots of hours in the car with two small children.

Much like everyone else, we strive to minimize both the time spent in the car and the financial cost of our car trips, and this week is definitely going to give us a chance to try out our tactics.

Here are twelve things we’re doing this week to shave some of the cost from our Christmas travel plans.

Twelve Tips for Cheap, Low-Stress Christmas Travel

1. Air up all of the tires before you leave.

A day or two before you depart, take your car to the local service station and check the pressure in all of your tires. Don’t know what the pressure should be? Check the sticker inside your door jamb. Make sure all of your tires are filled up to the maximum recommended pressure. Proper tire inflation can save you 3 to 4% on your gas bill during your trip, and over several hundred miles, that can really add up.

2. Get a tune up.

If you can’t remember the last time your car received a tune up, get one before you go. A proper tune up is your best insurance that your car will operate in an optimal fashion while traveling, and a tune up from a quality professional can identify any major problems that may interfere with your travel.

3. Prepare an emergency kit.

Traveling in winter can be hazardous, and the best way to minimize the risk is to be prepared. Pack some blankets, an extra charged cell phone (for 9-1-1 calls in a pinch), extra clothes, some food, and some road flares in your car and make sure you have a spare tire and equipment for changing it if you need to.

4. Make sure your auto insurance is up to date.

A long car trip is not the time to be caught with out-of-date insurance. Make sure your insurance is up to date, and if it’s not, make every effort to get the premium paid so that your insurance is in effect over the course of your trip.

5. Pack food and beverages before each long leg.

Tasty and nutritious snacks are always a hit in our car – we like granola, raisins, and dried cranberries for long trips. They’re perfect for taking the edge off of hunger, enabling us to happily survive without hunger pangs until we arrive at our destination. We also pack water bottles to keep us on the road instead of stopping for expensive beverages.

6. Plan for simple entertainment for the kids.

Bored children can make a long trip miserable and can often cause you to make unplanned stops along the way just for a break from the noise, which wastes time and often wastes money, too. We usually pack a “trip bag” for our kids – a few familiar toys, some books that my son knows by heart (which he then reads to his sister) – and have some ideas in mind to keep the kids interested, such as pointing out interesting roadside items.

7. Check the maps, even if the trip seems very familiar.

Use a mapping tool like Google Maps to plan your trip, even if you’re very familiar with the route. Since moving to my current area just a decade ago, the optimal route to visit my parents has actually changed four times, and now, compared to the original route, the trip takes more than an hour less than it used to. That’s pure savings.

8. Time your trip to avoid obvious traffic issues.

If you know you’re going to be driving into a major metropolitan area, try to avoid entering the metro area during morning or evening rush. This can usually be done with some careful planning in advance. Leaving a bit later (and eating at home instead of on the road) can actually end up getting you to your destination just as quickly with a lot less time on the road and a lot less money spent.

9. Eat a homemade meal thirty minutes before you leave.

Being purely sedentary right after a meal isn’t particularly healthy, but you should plan your trip so that you’re not hungry along the route (which will almost always result in unintended expenses). We try to leave roughly half an hour after meal time. Quite often, this coerces the children into taking a nap (which, again, makes the trip less expensive as there’s less need to stop) and also keeps the adults from being hungry along the way.

10. Use your cruise control over long stretches.

This not only keeps your speed at a steady rate (keeping you from wasting money from accelerating and slowing down over and over again), but it can also keep you at a speed that will ensure you’re not pulled over and issued an expensive speeding ticket. In Iowa, most trips involve long, straight sections of highway, so we utilize our cruise control on almost every trip.

11. When you do stop during the trip, make everyone use the restroom.

Trust me, with two young children, bathroom stops are a constant part of any long trip. Every time you stop, though, you lose time and you also lose a bit of money wandering around in a small town searching for a gas station that doesn’t make you afraid to use the toilet. When you do find a gas station, though, have everyone use the restroom. It might take you a bit longer while stopped, but it will keep you from making multiple stops later on, which will save you time and money.

12. If you need food along the way, don’t use fast food.

Not only is it unhealthy, it’s often sneakily expensive. Instead, stop at a grocery store. You can get all the supplies you need for an easy meal right there – cold cuts, a loaf of bread, and some finger vegetables can be had for just a few bucks and will feed everyone in the car.

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  1. Scordo.com says:

    Eating before leaving for a long trip is a good idea. There’s something about the open road and craving fast food (so, like you suggest, bringing real food with you is also a good move).

    Have a good holiday.

    Vince from http://www.scordo.com/blog/blog – a practical living blog

  2. Johanna says:

    You should maybe have specified in the title that by “travel” you mean “travel by car.” My #1 tip for reducing stress during busy travel periods is to take the train, if you’re lucky enough that there’s a train that goes where you want to go.

  3. Trevor - 14 Year Old Money Blogger says:

    Listen to the music you enjoy is a great tip you missed.

    I don’t know if this works for everyone but for me, as long as I have my music, i’m fine for the whole trip. Stopping often at every little free tourist destination is also a great way to keep interest high and boredom low.

  4. Nanc says:

    You need to be careful when using cruise control on wet and snow- and/or ice-covered road. If you start to skid and step on the brake to disengage the cruise control you could loss control of your car.

  5. Ian P. says:

    I’m not sure about the midwest, but I’ll be traveling up I-95 on the east coast, and we have plenty of rest areas along the highway. Rarely do you have to get off the highway unless you want to. I’ll be taking three kids with me from FL to NY. I’m going to bring a cooler with drinks, and jars of PB & J, along with a loaf of bread. I figure if I bring a tablecloth, I can put together a nice little picnic at a rest area.
    You are absolutely right about the fast food. It’s best to avoid it. Just hit the grocery store before you leave and get fresh fruit and stuff to make sandwiches.

  6. greg says:

    I did not know you had a daughter – congratulations! they must be about the same age as our kids.

  7. Brian says:

    Depending on your area a shovel and cat litter should also go into the emergency kit.

    This tip is only for good weather and small kids, at rest stops take a small ball and play catch, overthrowing the ball and have the kids run after it, thus burning off some of their energy, the only downside with my kids was 10 minutes after leaving the rest stop my son would be ” I have a idea why don’t we stop and throw the ball.

  8. Kevin says:

    +++++++ to comment #2.
    In Iowa your emergency kit should include the warmest weather gear you own – should you become stranded.
    Now if you only have tips for making our trip tomorrow to NY (Lincoln to Albany,NY via O’Hare) stress-free, I’d be all set.
    Wish us luck – I fully expect to arrive in NY on the 24th rather than tomorrow. Have a great – and safe – Holiday!!

  9. KoryO says:

    Don’t know where you are going right now, but will be hoping that you stay warm and safe. Take care, Trent!

  10. Kate says:

    The best thing we ever did when traveling with small children was to take books on tape and a tape recorder (which has been replaced many times over with new technology).

  11. Rich says:

    Wow I am so glad I don’t have to drive in conditions like those in the picture. Good ol California!

  12. Jade says:

    My boyfriend needs to read tip #11…

    We added an extra 15-30 minutes to our 13 hour drive to Las Vegas last summer because he just got off the freeway to use a bush. If he had asked me if I needed the restroom as well, I would have said yes and we could have made one stop at a gas station, rather than stopping once for him to go, and then again for me to go at a gas station.

    And why he didn’t just go at Barstow I have no idea… For all we know, the extra stop may have added 2 hours to the trip as we got stuck in traffic due to night time road work. At least it was only 80 degrees out by then!

    So there’s another reason to use the restroom at every stop, you never know when you’re going to get stuck in traffic along the way…

  13. Yes I have gone to a grocery store during a travel stop!

    We picked up some of those cheese and meat lunch packs on the trip I recall. Yes, they are pricey but have you paid attention to the fast food menus these days?

  14. Diane says:

    An emergency car kit should also include a pee jar. Use a quart canning jar and don’t forget the screw-top lid. We were very grateful this was in our our kit when a Christmas trip in the early 90’s included being parked for 9 hours on I-95 in southern Georgia in bumper to bumper traffic with three small children. They had 1/2″ of snow and no road cleaning equipment or salt trucks. Being from the snowy north, we could NOT understand it.

  15. CathyG says:

    When my children were small, we always insisted that everyone use the restroom every time we stopped. Of course, our little independent daughter said “I don’t have to go.” Rather than argue with her, we agreed. “You don’t have to go. BUT you need to come inside with the rest of us, sit on the potty and count to 10” (We made it 20 when she got older.) Trust me, if you can sit on a toilet for 10 seconds and not actually “go”, then you’re right, you don’t have to go.

  16. bentley says:

    Tip #13 for low-stress Christmas travel: if necessary, postpone the trip for a week or two (or three). It won’t kill you, but black ice can.

  17. Jayson says:

    Tip #1:

    Make sure to air up tires based on the numbers on the tires themselves. The door jam might not reflect upgraded tires either at purchase or after market and could result in big problems.

  18. Sharon says:

    RE Tip #11′
    My father’s rule was “If the gas tank isn’t empty, your bladder is not full.” It made for some really uncomfortable rides…

  19. Another Marie says:

    Pack a bag with a complete change of clothes for each person traveling and keep it easily accessible. Then when a child dumps their drink in a parent’s lap you don’t have to unpack the entire car looking for dry underwear. Packk a couple of grocery store bags for the wet clothes.

    Pack bags by stop not by person. If you will spend one night at a hotel bring in only one bag. One bag for the two days at Aunt Bee’s etc. Plus one “shaving kit” that goes in everywhere.

    Pack a laundry bag or two. At the last stop sort your dirty clothes and repack by the loads you will wash (this suitcase underwear that one dark clothes etc.) You can start laundry as you unload.

    There are at least two different books (The Next Exit and Exit Now) that list what’s at each highway exit in the US. When my car made started making funny noises on a trip this fall we found a dealer two exits away.

    We drive 1000 miles in a minivan with 5 kids between 8 months and 10 years old in one day. You don’t need a DVD player or lots of electronics. You do need a parental attitude that it’s no big deal for the kids to do it. (My mom pointed this out and as always she is right.)

    When driving long distances in winter tuck the snowpants and hats and gloves under the seats. They will be accessible without opening the door if you get stuck. Travel wearing boots – pack the less bulky shoes.

    If you bring a training potty line it with a disposable diaper – makes cleanup easier.

  20. Nick says:

    Just don’t forget to turn that cruise control off when the roadways are wet.

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