How Much You Should Realistically Budget for a Road Trip?

A family sits in their car while parked on the beach during a family vacation.
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Road trips are often a much cheaper option compared to flying; however, the expenses can add up quickly with all the costs of motels, gas and food. In order to leave room in the budget for road trip snacks and ease anxiety, let’s learn from some experts how to best prepare and budget for excursions in the car.

How Much Money Should You Spend on a Road Trip? 

The answer depends on how far you are traveling on the trip. If you are traveling one state over, you might not need to budget as much money, but if you are crossing through five states, you may need to do more planning to set aside a greater sum of money. 

“In general, people should budget around $1,000 for a long road trip,” said Kyle Kroeger, the founder and CEO of the travel website ViaTravelers. “This will ensure that you have enough money to cover all your expenses and have some leftover in the budget for souvenirs.”

If you’re not planning on taking a long road trip, a good rule of thumb is to budget about $150 per day. Broken down even further, this budget per day would look like $20 for snacks, $30 for gas and $100 for hotel costs, according to Kroeger.

What Should Be at the Forefront of a Road Trip Budget?

When budgeting for a road trip, the most important factor to establish is where you want to go. From there, you can go about figuring out how much to budget for the trip and what factors to consider.

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How To Budget

In order to put together an estimate of how much money to put aside for the trip, it is important to consider all the factors you need to integrate, starting with food and fuel costs. Additionally, you might need to consider hotel, motel or RV expenditures.

Budgeting for Fuel

One of the largest chunks of your road trip budget is going to be gas costs. In order to estimate how much gas will cost for your trip, there is a simple four-step process you can follow to streamline your budget planning. 

The first step includes using an app like Google Maps or Apple Maps to chart where you will be going on your trip, said Joshua Davis, founder of OutdoorFamilyHQ, a website about traveling and enjoying the outdoors.

“Using an app like Google maps, plot a course between home and your destination, making a note of which states you will be traveling through and the total round trip mileage,” Davis said.

According to Davis, the next step of the process is using a travel website, such as AAA, to get an estimate of the price per gallon of gas in the states you will be traveling through. 

The next step of the process entails getting inside the car you will be using for the road trip and checking the average fuel consumption of the vehicle. This will allow you to get an idea of the rate at which your car burns gas compared to the miles the car has been traveling. 

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“Finally, grab a calculator and do some quick number crunching,” Davis said. “Divide the round trip mileage by your car’s fuel economy and multiply by the average fuel price. For example: 2,000 miles ÷ 16 mpg x $4.49 per gallon = $561.25.”

While this may seem like a bit of an overestimate at this point in time, with AAA indicating current average national gas prices are about $3.70 per gallon, it’s wise to have some padding built into any budget.

Budgeting for Food 

Following gas costs, food will likely be the next most expensive factor to budget for when planning a road trip.

“If traveling via RV or camping with cooking equipment, you’ll save a substantial amount by cooking your own meals as opposed to eating out,” Davis said. “On average, it costs about $4 per person per meal when doing the cooking yourself.”

By using this cost estimate, you can get ahead on planning by multiplying $4 by the number of times a day you will be making meals at home, and multiplying that number by the number of days the trip will be.

“On the other hand, if you plan to eat out, things will be substantially more expensive,” Davis said. “The average fast-food price of a meal per person is currently $6.50 and for higher quality food, you’re looking at $13 per person per meal.”

Budgeting for the Unexpected When on the Road

From car breakdowns to being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no signal, there’s the potential for a lot to go wrong during a road trip. Experts recommend traveling with a few quarters just in case you have no access to a cell signal and need to use a toll phone. Additionally, have about $200 extra budgeted for the trip for any unexpected costs that might arise.

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Does Renting an RV Actually Save Money?

When considering travel plans, it is helpful to be aware of all the transportation options in order to find the one that works best for you. While the idea of staying in an RV as opposed to a hotel might seem like a cheaper option, it comes along with additional factors that are important to contemplate before renting a vehicle.

“Unless you are planning to stay in a place that is remote or where hotel prices are astronomical, it probably wouldn’t make sense to rent an RV, especially if you have little to no experience staying in one,” said Melanie Hartmann, founder of the travel website Dreams Built In.

Staying in an RV while traveling may add some freedom; however, it comes with many responsibilities and often requires learning new driving skills and mastering water tanks and electrical systems.

“Depending on how far you’ll be traveling, the expense of renting an RV and paying for the increased fuel cost will be the same or more than staying in motels or hotels,” Davis said.

If you are weighing the options and looking for a road trip experience with more freedom and time outdoors than staying in a hotel — without the additional costs and responsibilities of an RV — you might want to consider camping.

“One way to save money on a road trip is to plan your route around free camping sites,” Kroeger said. “This can be a great option if you’re comfortable roughing it for a few nights.”

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