My family and I love a good road trip and we love to save money! Here are our expert tips on how you can save money on your cross country road trip.
We are sort of, well…financially challenged, so when we travel, we spend very modestly. It’s on my bucket list to travel to all 50 states. As of now, I have visited 33 of them. In October, we traveled on a cross country road trip to Georgia to see my Uncle and Aunt and on the way, we took some time in Mississippi and Alabama since we hadn’t been to them before.
9 Ways to Save Money on Your Cross Country Road Trip!
The route or trip took was from Oklahoma to Little Rock, Arkansas. Then Memphis, Tennessee to Tupelo, Mississippi. The next leg was from Birmingham, Alabama to the Atlanta, GA area where we stayed with my Aunt and Uncle for a few days. On the way home, we drove to Montgomery, Alabama.
Then back to Birmingham, Alabama and onto Greenville, Mississippi. The next leg was to Hot Springs, Arkansas, then to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Then we came back home to Oklahoma.
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We have so much fun getting out to explore all kinds of fun and neat things on our cross country road trip. I love learning about all the different agriculture and natural beauty each area has to offer. There are very few states I haven’t loved seeing on our travels. There are a few I would NOT love to live in though. I am always surprised as we drive through a new region just what it actually looks like compared to the preconceived notions I have.
When we road trip, for health and financial reasons, we bring a lot of our own food. We also use other money-saving tricks to have a lot of fun for not a lot of money. Once we get home from vacation, we start planning and saving for vacation the following year. Over time, the savings build up until we have enough to go again.
Cross country travel
We had some amazing food on our trip through the Deep South. I had the best fried green tomatoes of my life at Blue Moon Café. Also, I had some amazing food my Aunt and Uncle cooked. And, I had some delicious catfish and sides at the Whippet in Arkansas. The most fun thing we had to eat was a hot dog from Gus’ Hotdog in downtown Birmingham, Alabama.
Gus’ was just a tiny shop not much bigger than a food truck, but they have been serving hot dogs there for over 100 years. I am not a big hot dog fan, but I loved the experience of getting the dog. They served their dogs and sandwiches with local chips from the Golden Flake Chip factory in Birmingham.
The best dog is “dog, all the way”. That’s how you have to say it. It was a good dog and the service was so fun. There was a sweet little old man making all the food. There was a young guy taking orders, exchanging payment with customers, and as soon as the guy made one order, he would tell him the next thing he needed to do.
None of it was ever written down, the young guy just remembered it all. You could tell this was a local favorite as people were lined up out the door, but it’s something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss experiencing on this cross country road trip. Good stuff!
Cross country road trip cost
Here are a few of my totally awesome money-saving ideas for your next cross country road trip:
The first thing I do when I plan the trip is to map out our furthest destination. To see every state eventually, we have to be strategic about where we go. It had been a while since we had visited our family in Georgia, so I decided to see if I could take in some new states while traveling there. I had not yet visited Alabama and Mississippi, so we decided to make the trip to Georgia via those two states.
We in Oklahoma consider ourselves southerners. We are from the south. HOWEVER, when an okie travels to Mississippi, South Arkansas, Alabama, or Georgia, they know they are not REALLY from the south. So I will deem those states we visited the Deep South. They are more Southey-South.
Memphis to Atlanta drive
I look for the roads that will lead us to our eventual goal of Georgia and see what major cities are on the highways we will be taking. Then I check out TripAdvisor for each of those cities and find the free things there are to do there. On this trip, we saw some amazing things for free that all of us really enjoyed.
Driving route planner
1. Find free entertainment:
This is a great way to find entertainment without spending a boatload on tickets or concessions. You can look on the websites for each area, or use Trip Advisor to find a ton of cool free things to do.
An amazingly wonderful thing we saw, which I love to spend time seeing anytime we cross it is the mighty Mississippi River. I have loved her since I was a small girl. I’m in awe of her. There are few places that really celebrate her greatness like I feel they should, but you can catch glimpses of her on many highways and enjoy her.
We drove down highway 1 from Rosedale to Greenville, Mississippi. On part of that stretch of road, you drive right alongside her. That was really cool and there’s some really weird and ominous weather there. She’s a powerful beauty. She always takes my breath away. She enchants me.
We enjoy going to farmer’s markets and seeing what local produce there is. This is also a great place for an inexpensive, local, and healthy treat. If you visit them on the way back home, you can replenish your snack supply there. Farmer’s markets are usually seasonal and are open on certain days, so look some up and plan to be in those places at those times.
Deep South road trip
Free museums abound all around as well. My husband is big into military anything and we found the McArthur Military Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was pretty neat. Hot Springs, Arkansas also has a free museum on their bathhouse row downtown.
The town of Hot Springs was built on the springs and the healing property thought to be in the waters, so the bathhouses were built along the springs in order to provide therapeutic services to patients and customers. Several of the bathhouses are still open as spas, and one of them has been renovated and turned into a museum for promoting health and wellness.
It’s called Fordyce Bath House and you can visit it for free. It’s beautiful and very interesting. Around Hot Springs state park which surrounds and includes the bathhouses, you can see springs flowing and feel them for yourself. You can also take free spring water in unlimited supplies.
Another cool place we visited on our trip was Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s an old furnace where they made pig iron back in the day which actually built the city of Birmingham. It’s really cool seeing how the pig iron was made and the amazing machinery and back-breaking labor it took to produce it. They turned it into a national historic site which you can tour for free.
I loved learning how men would wear shoes with wood attached to the bottom to hop on top of red hot pig iron and move it from its molds and cut it into marketable pieces. Amazing. I know I could not have done that job.
Tours of the deep south
We visited Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. We saw the house he was born in. There was a museum there, but we didn’t have time to go in it, we just checked out the house and went on our way down the road.
There are many free state parks you can visit on your road trip. They are great places to eat your sack lunch, have a snack, or even just take a break from driving and stretch your legs as you enjoy some amazing beauty! We visited Tombigee State Park in Tupelo, Mississippi, Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama which is SO gorgeous, of course, Hot Springs State Park, and a really cool cypress preserve in Greenville, Mississippi.
One of my favorite things along the trip was the cypress preserve in Greenville, Mississippi. I have always loved cypress trees because when I was a little girl, my sweet grandmother told me she loved them. She loved how their knees stick up from the wet ground they grow in, and in turn, I have an affinity for them as well. I love their wispy shaped leaves and how they are kind of like an evergreen and kind of like a deciduous tree.
Anyway, in Greenville, Mississippi, there used to be Cypress forest for miles and acres, but they were harvested and the area deforested. Some really great people who owned 16 acres of the forest preserved it as a landmark for visitors to see the amazingly gorgeous trees and enjoy their history. I loved the enchanted feeling in the forest area as we crossed quaint bridges and peered through the area to see who could see the biggest trees.
On road trips in the past, we have also enjoyed spending time touring architecture, art, libraries, and many other interesting things that different areas have to offer.
Deep south road trip itinerary
On this road trip, we paid for tickets to:
The Civil Rights Museum, in Atlanta, GA, a must-see! It was emotional and eye-opening. There is so much to learn and it teaches about all kinds of injustice and abuse in the world and it really makes you think as you learn what so many people have overcome. This makes you realize how resilient the human spirit is and how amazing people are.
I loved learning about people who have paved the way for me as well as many other people. Also, I loved seeing lots of children learning in the museum. I love that.
The Gold mine museum, in Villa Rica, Georgia was a really interesting look at how gold was mined from the area. I am intrigued by mining and I loved learning about the history of Villa Rica. It’s a great place!
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum, in Birmingham, AL was another place we visited. It gave us an in-depth study about Ms. Parks. She was a strong and fascinating woman. I did not realize she was a civil rights activist at the time she didn’t give up her seat on the bus. I admire her greatly. I’m intrigued and challenged learning about other cultures and their struggles with the white man.
I can relate in some ways as a woman in this world, but I also think I, as a white American, need to educate myself on the paths our people have taken and choices we have made as a culture so those things will be less likely to be repeated.
All of these places were totally worth the money. I would do all of them again if I visited those areas again. We balanced a few paid places with a lot of free stuff to make our trip everything we wanted it to be.
Shops along cross country road trip
We also went to a couple of fun stops along the way. We visited Margarete’s Chocolates in Tupelo, Mississippi. That was a fun and interesting treat. They had lots of chocolates and Tupelo honey, plus a fun visit with an interesting man as he told us all about the chocolates and the honey.
We found a really cool bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama that only sells first edition, hardback, signed copies of books. It was called Alabama Book Smith. They had books from $10 to over $400. We selected a few books from there, but it was really fun to look around and see what they had as well.
We also toured Fort Smith and the National Historic site and National Cemetery. It’s important to see the history of our country and the price that was paid for our freedoms. I learned a lot on this visit to Fort Smith, even though I have been there multiple times before.
Road trip food
2. Bring your own meals:
Eating out is EXPENSIVE! It’s not healthy either. I have a ton of food allergies and sensitivities and I don’t enjoy eating out for days on end. My body can’t handle all the chemicals in restaurant food, and I sure can’t eat fast food, which is nothing but chemicals.
Besides that, look into some of those chemicals and you will realize that even if they don’t make you sick every time you eat them as they do me, You DONT WANT THOSE THINGS IN YOUR BODY! Whole, unprocessed foods are full of life and vitality that is lost when foods are processed. In addition, the additives added to them cause all kinds of health risks. If you don’t pack your lunch for your trip for cost savings, do it for your health!
Meals to bring on a cross country road trip
3. Pack meals for dinner because lunch is less expensive to eat out:
We bring homemade bread and lunch meats, cheeses, and peanut butter and jelly. Also, we cook in our room by making our own tv dinners before we leave and keeping them in an ice chest on the way. We freeze them before we leave and eat them the first or second night we are out. You can take things like lasagna, soup, spaghetti, and casseroles.
You can also bring your crockpot and cook in your room. Check into your room and get your dinner going in the crockpot, then leave to do some exploring for the day, and come back to a ready meal. You could do chilis, soups, beans, and all kinds of things in your crockpot.
I have made oatmeal packs many times for our trips as well. First I pack a half cup of oatmeal in a jelly size mason jar with a pinch of salt and a few teaspoons of sugar. When I get up in the morning, I run a pot of water through the hotel coffee pot and pour it into the jars. Then I screw on the lids and cover all the jars with a towel and go take a shower. When I get done getting ready, everyone’s breakfast is ready.
I can add some fruit and there you have a meal! Oatmeal packs don’t need to be kept cold either. I like that. If you get creative, it’s not hard to think of ways to travel with your own food.
Cooking while traveling
I even cooked a full meal one night on the trip because we got a hotel room with a kitchen and I brought stuff to make spaghetti.
Also, don’t buy bottled water. It’s horrible to fill the landfill with those nasty plastic bottles and the water in them is just tap water anyway. Bring a reusable drinking bottle and refill it along your way. You can fill it up at your hotel before you leave for the day and save a ton of money and plastic waste for the planet. Most places have drinking fountains too.
While we are discussing water, try to make the switch to water. It’s free most everywhere and it’s so good for your body. Soft drinks and other beverages are not nourishing and only provide empty calories for and make you feel sluggish. Water cleanses and hydrates your body and makes your budget smile too.
Can you imagine how much money you would save over the course of a year if you NEVER paid for drinks? Quite a bit. Maybe now is a good time to switch at least a few of your beverages to cool, refreshing water.
4. Find hotels with free breakfasts:
Generally, hotels with free breakfast are not more expensive these days, but eating a big breakfast before you leave can keep your crew full for a while along your trip. There is usually a variety of fresh fruits and a few other healthy things offered at the hotel breakfast buffet.
Road trip essentials
5. Bring your own snacks:
You can easily spend a hundred dollars or more on snacks during a week for a party of four. Those treats add up, so pack some things you like and have your snacks already prepared. It’s less expensive, you will end up eating healthier, AND if you get busy driving or exploring something and you can’t find a meal quick, it will keep you from starving and keep everyone from getting grumpy if you have some healthy snacks to tide you over.
We pack things like fresh fruit, a few cherry tomatoes, nuts, dried fruits, granola bars, protein bars, cheese sticks, some chocolate, and anything else we can think of that doesn’t need refrigeration.
6. Use any frequent hotel stay points, credit card points, or travel miles you have to get free rooms:
You may have some points adding up somewhere that you didn’t even think of using. Now’s the time to enjoy savings on your trip by using them. We got two of our rooms for this trip for free using some old points off of a credit card we had never redeemed and a frequent-stay program with the Hampton Inn. Sign up for these programs, they make a difference.
Family road trips
7. Stay with friends or family for all or part of your trip:
We usually try to visit someone along our trip because we love keeping in touch. We try to plan some exploring and some visiting on the same trip to get a variety while still getting to see someone we love. Staying with friends or family will save money on lodging.
Road trip checklist
8. Plan well to avoid as many unexpected expenses as possible:
Make sure to have money saved for any car repairs or incidents along the way. This trip, a semi-truck ran over a patch of gravel and slung it at our windshield. It left a few pockmarks on my husband’s brand new rogue windshield AND a big ole crack down the middle. We had to have it repaired as soon as we got home, so we were glad we had emergency funds available for that.
When I budget the gas money for our trips, I always overestimate the mileage because you never know when you will get lost or decide to take a detour. In addition, when planning your trip, you never know what gas prices will be by the time you go. I always budget $4.50 a gallon, which is worst-case scenario. This year, we ended up getting most of our gas for under $2.00 so that left us with a lot of extra funds at the end of our trip.
Also, making sure you bring everything you need will save money in the long run. If you usually use coupons or discount stores to get your body care products and you have to run into a high dollar convenience store or pharmacy to get it, you could easily spend two or three times what you would have on that deodorant you left at home. Make a list, check it twice, and you’ll have a lot more fun not running around looking for those items anyway!
Best times to travel
9. Plan to travel at off-peak times:
Summertime is an expensive time to take a trip. Plus, here in Oklahoma and most of the US, it’s disgustingly HOT in the summer. Everything is more fun when you’re not dripping in sweat. My daughter and I are GRUMPY when we are hot. So we avoid hot trips. This saves money as well. When she was in school we always traveled on spring break or Christmas break.
Now that she’s out of school, we have even more choices of times to go and we LOVED the weather in October. There were still gardens growing everywhere, but no one was sweating except for one or two days of the trip. Stay tuned for my next post on the amazing gardens we got to see on this trip. You won’t want to miss out on that!
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. No detail is too small to plan for. You can save a ton of money on your trip if you bring all the toiletries and supplies you need so you don’t have to run to the store for medications or other necessities. Plan plan plan.
Creative road trips
People often ask me how we can afford to take so many fancy trips. We do a road trip once a year. When I tell them we eat sandwiches in the car and stay with relatives, they don’t believe me, but it really is true. We have a great time no matter how much or little we spend. My family enjoys being creative with ways to save so we can do more things. We are just happy to be getting to go somewhere and see something. We love exploring!
I love gardens and we got to see some amazing gardens tucked along this cross country road trip. There were a couple we planned and a couple of cool surprises along the way. We saw gardens at Sloss Furnace, my Aunt Jodi’s Garden, a community garden at the Gold Mining Museum in Villa Rica, GA, Joe Lamp’ls Garden from the Growing a Greener World TV series, and the historical garden at Fort Smith. Check out my next post to read all about how amazing and wonderful they were!
What’s your favorite thing to do on a cross country road trip? Do you have any money-saving ideas?
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