Traveling on a budget: Planning a Road Trip

When you are on a budget, careful and smart planning is key.

Right now I’m in the middle of planning our big summer temple tour, so I thought I’d share a little bit of my process.

It is never too early to start planning.

Mind you, if you have a trip that is five years down the road, you’re not going to be able to book hotels or flights. But you can put together a Pinterest board or dream book or whatever it is you do, and start dreaming of what you want to do and where you want to go.

The trip I’m currently working on is in five months. I started brainstorming about a month or so ago, and am now in the throes of planning accommodations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself..

Step One: Dream it. Dream big…

You will likely have to do some paring down later on in the planning process, but this will allow you to pick the most important or most exciting things on your list and cross out the others.

Step Two: Create your route and price it out…

smaller mapHere’s an example. For our summer temple tour, we will be stopping by most of the Utah temples, Las Vegas, and then some of the California temples. On top of that, we’re going to be touring several college campuses for my oldest son. So I started by logging all of the destinations on Google Maps and working on a route. It starts the day we pick the boys up from EFY in Rexburg and ends at a beach house on the Oregon Coast.


Once I know my route and the mileage, I can estimate my fuel cost. I guess I’m a nerd, but it’s really important that I know how much money I’m going to need to save. So take your trip miles, and don’t forget to add in some extras for around town driving and other excursions, and divide that by your car’s average gas mileage. So if you’re driving 2000 miles and your car gets 20 miles per gallon, you’re going to need to plan on pumping 100 gallons of gas. Multiply that by the current price of gas (+ a little more in case the price goes up) and you have your gas budget.


bedThen next big thing to think about on your route is where you’re going to sleep. Highlight any location where you’ll be staying overnight and decide if you’ll be staying with family, camping, or needing a hotel or other accommodations.

My trip is five months away, but I am still a little late to the game. August is a busy vacation month. And since we’ll be staying in places that are pretty popular (LA, San Francisco..) we are already at a disadvantage. Along my route, most places are already heavily booked, which drives up prices.

Our route is divided into two legs. Leg one is just our family, and then my parents will be joining us for leg two. So leg two’s budget will be divided between our families. That is super helpful financially. If you ever travel with a group it can cut your budget sometimes in half.

I just finalized our overnight stays for leg one yesterday. We’re staying at a hotel one night for free thanks to our reward points at Holiday Inn Express. (We try to use the same hotel often because the points do add up!) The other nights are all Airbnb.  We chose Airbnb for two reasons: Affordability and Interaction. We’ll get a little more space for our money, and get to know some interesting people along the way. (PS- this is not a sponsored post, I just like to use these guys.)

Leg two will be a little more difficult. California is practically booked up AND is freaking expensive so I’m going to have to get creative. Finding deals is important to me- I never like to feel like I could have paid less. I have found that more often than not, the best prices are found on the hotel’s own website. There are a lot of travel websites out there that compare prices, and I usually start with those just to get an idea of who will be in my price range. But I ALWAYS book through the hotel directly. It gives me a sense of security, and if they have a rewards club you can end up saving more in the long run.

I’ve priced out the areas we will be staying and have a general idea of how much it will cost. From there, I decide how much I actually want to spend and then get to work finding something in my budget. It definitely takes some effort but it is worth it to me.

One thing that I spend a little extra on when making reservations is a flexible cancellation policy. When you’re planning this far out, you just never know what will come up. At Holiday Inn Express, it’s usually just a few dollars more and I have the comfort of knowing I can cancel up to the last minute if I need to, without losing any money.

Step Three: Schedule Unscheduled Time…

This is so important. You need to enjoy your trip. You don’t want to come home exhausted!

Our upcoming trip is pretty extreme. We’ll be visiting 18 temples, 5 colleges, and some fun touristy things like Hoover Dam, the Santa Monica Pier, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Googleplex (for my son). But we also want to really enjoy our time. I haven’t been to the central coast of California for 20 years. My parents are from there and really want to catch up with family and visit the beaches and places from their younger days.

This is one of the reasons why we cut out two temples from this trip. Sacramento and Fresno can wait. Instead of trying to cram in another 10 hours of driving, we’ll spend an extra day in Arroyo Grande and then leisurely drive up the coast visiting Cambria, Carmel and Monterrey along the way. Which sounds more enjoyable to you?

While our trip will be a lot of driving, we actually don’t have more than 5 hours in a single day. Most travel days will average only around 3 or 4. And there are several days with no travel at all.

Plan to explore freely, or so sit on the beach without having to look at your watch. Let it be a vacation.

Step Four (and beyond): Be Flexible…

Once you’ve planned out the route, the gas, the hotels, and anything else you want to do and know how much it’s going to cost you you need to do three things.

  1. Add at least 10% to your budget. You will always spend more than you think you will.
  2. Decide if that budget is reasonable. If not, start cutting.
  3. Start saving

We just cut two temples off of our tour because it would cost just way too much, and would add too much time to our trip. It would also make for a pretty crammed days, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Anyway- you have to be willing to let go of a few things. Maybe leave a day later so you have one less night in a hotel. Or consider alternate accommodations like Airbnb, staying with family, or even camping. Plan to eat out less, or cut off a day or two of your trip. Make the trip work for your budget.

Once you know how much your trip will be, start saving. My trip is five months out. I will look at how much I have in savings now, and then decide how much I need to save each month to have enough. If you are excited and invested emotionally in your trip, you will have that added motivation to set the money aside, or to spend less of less important things.



  • Will you need to do laundry? When and where will you do it?
  • Bringing kids? Encourage them to save and bring their own money for souvenirs and snacks.
  • Speaking of food… if you will be eating out a lot, don’t forget to plan in tips.
  • Also speaking of food- staying at a hotel that offers free breakfast can save your budget!
  • Don’t go into debt for your vacation. Make it fit into your budget so it can be a pleasant memory and not a burden.


Traveling on a budget: Saving for the trip

When traveling on a budget, the first step – before you even leave your house – is figuring out how you will pay for it. Saving for the the trip. For many people, this may not be that big of an issue. But for those of us whose budget is already tight, the idea of paying for a trip or vacation can be stressful or even unrealistic.

Here’s my number one rule when it comes to budgeting:

Never let lack of funds keep you from truly living!

So let’s say you want to take the family on a summer vacation, or you have to attend a wedding in a different state, or you are finally going to Italy with your spouse. Here are some steps to prepare financially for the trip..

If possible, plan your trip far in advance.

My year at a glance poster calendar

I’m a planner, so this is easy for me. It can sometimes be stressful or even disheartening because of course sometimes things change and plans fall through. Carey losing his job in December is a great example of this. We don’t know what our situation will be in the coming months, or if he’ll have time off available to travel. But we make plans nonetheless and then allow for some flexibility.

Planning ahead allows you to search out more affordable accommodations, flights and activities. And it gives you more time to save. Knowing what is coming builds excitement and gives you motivation to set a little more money aside. I’ll talk more about trip planning on a budget in a later post.

Save! Save! Save!

This can be particularly depressing if you are on a tight budget and don’t have much discretionary income. I promise you that is is possible. You just need to get creative. Here are a couple of ideas:

Our change jar
  • Start a Change Jar – it isn’t going to garner thousands of dollars, but it certainly adds up. Start using cash more often for groceries, gas, and other miscellaneous items. Then simply bring home the change and put it in the jar. I intentionally try to spend less when paying with cash just so I’ll have change. When the jar is full, take it to the bank and put it in your savings account, and then start over. It is extremely motivating to see the jar fill up. Even the kids like to put their change in it.
  • Get Creative – Look through your stuff. Like all of your stuff. And get rid of stuff you don’t use or need. Sell your stuff on craigslist or ebay and throw all of your profits into your savings account. When looking at that dvd or clothing or obscure toy that you just can’t get rid of, ask yourself, “Would I rather have this sitting in my closet collecting dust or be sitting on the beach?”
  • Use Your Talents  – We all have skills. Some are obvious and others not. But you can use your talents to help bring in some extra money. First the obvious- if you play an instrument, teach lessons. Even one lesson a week can garner $50 a month or more depending on your experience. Same thing goes with art or tutoring. Are you creative? Start an etsy shop and put some of your creations on there. I link alot of photos on this blog to items I sell on etsy. Other marketable talents could include gardening, babysitting, cooking/baking, sewing, communication or tech skills, auto repair or detailing, dog grooming or sitting, hair cutting, etc.
  • Sacrifice – This one might not be as fun, but it is definitely worth it and can bring in some big numbers. Stop eating out (or eat out less), buy less shoes, take more time to plan your groceries so you can cut your grocery budget, watch fewer movies, cut your subscriptions to hulu, netflix, or whatever site you’re paying for. Cut back and put the difference into savings. But here’s the key: Put that money into savings AT THE BEGINNING of the pay period. Don’t just take what’s left. Plan the sacrifice and put the money away so you aren’t tempted to spend it in the moment.
  • Automatic Withdrawal – Have a set amount of money automatically transferred to your savings account every month. You can easily choose the amount and transfer date online with most banks. This may require reworking your budget a bit, but even if it’s just $25 a month to start, it will make a difference.
  • Open a Savings Account – This should be obvious. Have a place to keep your money and don’t touch it. It is helpful to have your travel account separate from your regular savings or emergency account. This way you can know exactly what you have and how much you need.

Saving money is hard, but oh so possible! Heck- Carey doesn’t even have a regular job right now and we’re still putting money away. Traveling on a budget is possible- and so worth the extra effort you will put into it!