9 Best Road Trip Destinations in the USA on a Budget
Back in the early 1990s, when gas prices hovered around an inflation-adjusted average of $2.25 per gallon (according to The Motley Fool), my family took advantage of low fuel prices by going on amazing road trips. The memories I have from those trips are some of the most vivid of my childhood, and I strongly encourage a road trip on any occasion when gas prices dip.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out one of the following locations, particularly the ones that are nearest to your corner of the country. Each of these has ample opportunities for free or low-cost sightseeing and camping. The sights and sounds of American roads will not disappoint your family – and they certainly won’t disappoint your pocketbook.
The key to saving money on a road trip is to find a stunning stretch of highway that’s close to your home. Remember too that road trips are most affordable when most of your expenses are related to the car. It’s easy for well-intentioned road trippers to bust their budget on hotels, restaurants, and attractions. So keep it short and simple, and focus on the scenery, rather than the costly attractions.
You can see an astonishing amount of wildlife as you look over the vistas, and be sure to stop at free attractions like Multnomah and Horsetail Falls. Consider staying overnight at Brickhaven Bed & Breakfast in Corbett for $100 per night, or camp at Lewis and Clark RV Park and Campground for just $25 per night.
If you’re ambitious, you can certainly travel the whole stretch of highway, following the historic road wherever current routes allow, but it’s also possible to travel just a few hundred miles down Route 66 as it passes through your home state. Just try to bookend the trip with two of the route’s famous destinations, such as St. Louis, Missouri or Flagstaff, Arizona.
Many vacationers contend that the best stretch of Route 66 is in New Mexico and Arizona, where quirky Americana and history collide. Check out El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico for $100 and up per night, or spend a night camping in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona for $20 per night. Set aside at least three days for a shortened version of Route 66, or a full week if you’re ambitious enough to take on the whole highway.
Once you make it back to the bottom of the mountain, you can stay at the Top Notch Inn for $69 and up per night, or at the Passaconaway Campground near Conway, New Hampshire, for $22 per night (first come, first served). However, you can only book stays at these locations between May and October due to the area’s inclement winter weather.
If you are still interested in checking out the Mount Washington Auto Road during the winter months, you can ride to the top of the peak by hopping on a Mount Washington SnowCoach for $49 per ticket. Self-drivers are not permitted during the winter months.
As you make the trip through the Green Mountains, you can stay at a Gifford Woods State Park campsite in Killington for as little as $20 per night. The campsites are only open between May and October, so plan accordingly.
During the trip, you can enjoy exquisite coastline views, and an extended trip over the ocean itself as you make your way to the Keys. If you make it all the way to Key West, you can save a lot of money by renting a campsite at Leo’s Campground for $39 to $75 per night.
If you need a place to crash at night, you can’t go wrong with a stay at the Big Powderhorn Lodging Association in Bessemer, Michigan, for $95 and up per night. During the summer, it’s reasonable to try a night of camping at the Black River Harbor Scenic Parkway & Campground for just $14 per night.
This stretch of the highway is only 24 miles long, so you could easily complete it in a day. However, it’s best to savor the lookout points and extend the trip to at least three days. Stay at Saddle Mountain Ranch in Carmel for tent sites that start at $40 per night during the peak summer season.
The whole trip takes less than a day, unless you decide to spend the night camping at Haleakala National Park in the Kipahulu District of the park. The site is free, though you must pay the $10 park entrance fee.
Be sure to stop at Knollwood Lodge in Hot Springs to rest and recover in a cottage setting at night. The cabins start at $120 per night during the peak season of May 15th through September 15th. If that’s too expensive for your budget, stay at the Hot Springs National Park KOA. Tent sites start at just under $25 per night during the winter, and at $28.50 on weeknights during the peak summer season ($32.50 on summer weekends).
Once you’ve found a destination that piques your interest, implement the following ideas for cost-saving on the road.
A night in a modest hotel will set you back $100, but a family-sized campsite might only cost $15 to $30 per night. Of course, prices vary by location, but you’ll likely save a significant amount of money if you opt for occasional camping rather than exclusively staying in hotels.
This option makes the most sense if you already own camping gear, since tents and sleeping bags are expensive. If you don’t already own camping supplies, ask a friend if you can borrow his or her tent for the week to avoid the steep upfront cost. Alternatively, you can rent camping equipment from outdoor stores such as REI, though prices and equipment vary by location.
You may need to stop at a restaurant or fast food joint from time to time, but don’t underestimate the benefits of bringing a cooler full of food on your road trip. Load up on high-energy snack foods such as trail mix, meal staples like sandwich fixings and fruit, and plenty of beverages. Even if you regularly have to buy ice to keep your perishables cool, the $2 cost per bag pales in comparison to the price of feeding a family of four at a restaurant or convenience store.
Stay away from expensive attractions such as theme parks, and instead enjoy affordable attractions that can entertain your whole family for an entire day, such as a national park, a swimming hole, or a museum. Many towns also have a variety of free attractions – do your research on a state or city tourism website in advance so you don’t find yourself spending money to make up for your lack of planning.
Even if you only stay with a family member or friend for one night of your road trip, it can represent significant cost savings over staying in a hotel. You could save up to $250 in one night, which can be applied toward additional attractions or days on the road. Not only that, but the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends is one of the great benefits of road-tripping. Just be sure to return the favor when they travel out your way.
If you are bringing your children on the road trip, encourage them to spend wisely. Give each child a set amount of cash before you leave home, and explain that they can spend the money however they like while on the trip. But when the money is gone, it’s gone – this helps your children understand money management, and it prevents you from busting your travel fund on souvenirs.
Vacations aren’t just a luxury for people with a lot of disposable income. The great variety of American geography and topography provides a view of every imaginable landscape, from mountains, to oceans, for everyone who has the means to travel by car.
If you’re still overwhelmed by the prospect of paying for a vacation, even when gas prices are reasonable, consider driving somewhere just an hour or two outside of your hometown. Sometimes, the mere act of escaping concrete and city lights is enough to make your spirits soar.
Where is your favorite road trip destination?
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she’s therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn’t on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.
9 Best Road Trip Destinations in the USA on a Budget
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