How to Figure Out Your Road Trip Cost

How much does a road trip cost? Ah, this is the part of the job I hate. We have to talk about money.

Like any other vacation, your road trip will be limited by your budget. Of course, the nice thing about a driving vacation is that it's more scalable than a flying vacation. For example, if you've got your heart set on flying to Italy for two weeks, you can save a bit by only staying there for 10 days—but you'll still have to pay that whopping airfare.

With a road trip, on the other hand, your costs are divided evenly across the days. Each day, you'll probably pay about the same amount for food, lodging, and gas. Shave off a day, and you'll shave off a certain predictable percentage of your cost.

Let's look at typical road trip cost items and think about how they can affect your overall price tag:


Food

This one is fairly simple. Food prices don't vary too much across the nation. But don't take your food calculations too lightly. For example, don't just assume that on each day of your trip, you're going to skip breakfast (like you do at home), eat a couple of $1 items at a fast food joint for lunch, and then eat a normal dinner. Being on the road can make you hungrier than normal—and you certainly don't want to be cranky while you're driving.

Also, remember that your road trip is a vacation. You may want to splurge on a really good meal or two, so budget for that.

The best way of calculating your food costs is to price all the items you might eat in a typical day, add a couple dollars of "wiggle room" per person, and multiply it by the number of days on your trip.


Lodging

Your road trip may involve several different types of lodging. For example, you might stay in hotels for a couple nights on the way there, stay with relatives once you arrive at your destination, and then hit a campground or two on the way back.

If you're booking your hotels in advance, your math will be easy: just add up your total, and you're good to go. If you haven't thought that far ahead, spend some time on hotel websites—and be aware that room prices can vary widely in different parts of the country. You might pay $50 for a decent room in the heartland, yet struggle to find something under $100 in the metro areas on either coast.

If you're staying in campgrounds, you'll have a wide range of amenities available to you. Expect to pay $10-40 per night. If you're comfortable sleeping in a tent, you can really save yourself some money.

What if you drive an RV? Your lodging comes with you, and you'll have the comfort and privacy of a "home away from home." But you'll pay much higher fuel costs than you would if you drove a standard car, and you may still have to pay campground costs. (One way around this is to park at one of the many WalMarts that allow RVs to park free overnight. Another is to visit FreeCampgrounds.com.)


Gas

Gas is another relatively simple calculation. Figure out your mileage, divide it by your miles per gallon, multiply by price per gallon, and you're all set.

But as you're figuring gas into your road trip cost, keep three things in mind:

  1. Your car will be more loaded down than normal, thus reducing your gas mileage.
  2. Many people tend to drive faster to get long trips over with. This, too, reduces gas mileage.
  3. Gas prices do fluctuate in different areas. Spend some time at Gas Buddy to get an idea of the ballpark gas prices on your route.

Recreation and Entertainment

Here's where you'll see some variance. If you're planning on long days at the wheel (hopefully with lots of short breaks, right?), the good news is that your recreation costs will be low. But if you're planning on stopping and seeing the sights, factor admission fees and souvenirs into your road trip cost. If you're a family of four and plan on seeing a movie each evening after the day's driving is done, that can really add up. Factor that in, too.


Miscellany

Don't forget about the "startup" costs of your road trip. Will you need to buy new clothes? Get maintenance work done on your car? Buy a new ice chest? How much will you spend on road trip essentials? Every little bit will add to your road trip cost.

Road Trip Cost Scenarios

There's obviously no way we can tell you exactly what your road trip cost will be. Road trips are full of variables. But here are three scenarios for a family of four that's considering a 2,000-mile (round-trip) road trip.

Scenario 1: Toyota Prius
Gas: 2,000 miles divided by 45 miles per gallon times $3 per gallon = $133
Lodging: Hotels. Four nights @ $90 = $360
Food: $25 per person, times four people, times four days = $400
Recreation: $40 per day = $160
TOTAL: $1,053

Scenario 2: RV
Gas: 2,000 miles divided by 8 miles per gallon times $3 per gallon = $750
Lodging: Nicer campgrounds. Stretching trip over five days. $200
Food: Slightly cheaper from cooking meals at the campground. $350
Recreation: Lots of family card games at the campgrounds. $0
TOTAL: $1,300

Scenario 3: Honda Odyssey
Gas: 2,000 miles divided by 25 miles per gallon times $3 per gallon = $240
Lodging: Cheap and free campgrounds with a tent. Stretching trip over five days. $100
Food: Slightly cheaper from cooking meals at the campground. $350
Recreation: Lots of family card games at the campgrounds. $0
TOTAL: $690

These scenarios may or may not be realistic for your family, but we hope they'll give you a starting point for figuring your total road trip cost. Tweak the variables and see what you come up with.


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