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Budget-Friendly Road Trip Ideas

budget road trip tips
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Road trips sometimes get a bad rap — mostly because people tend to think of them as simply a way to get from Point A to Point B. But a well-planned road trip can be much more than just a cheap alternative to flying. Rather, says XTRORD.com publisher Alan Rider, they are an ideal way for travelers to get a taste of authentic Americana.

“Interstates were designed for efficiency,” Rider, a practiced road-tripper, points out. “Once you get off, the pace is much more leisurely, and you’ll see things the average person would never see from the interstate.”

Perhaps more than any other type of vacation, however, having a successful, budget-friendly road trip requires that you be properly prepared.

Here are just a few things to keep in mind before you take to the open road:

PREP YOUR RIDE

Whether you take your own car or a rental may depend on the condition of your car and how many miles you’re willing to put on it. But if you do decide to take your car, give it a check-up before you leave to avoid any costly emergencies while on the road. Investing in a simple roadside emergency kit that includes basic tools, like set of jumper cables and some duct tape, is also a good idea — especially if you’re traveling through unpopulated areas, Rider says.

PLOT YOUR COURSE

In order to plan a budget for your road trip, you need at least a loose idea of where you’re going and how many stops you want to make along the way. Potential gas expenses are pretty easy to figure if you know the total number of miles you plan to travel and the number of miles your car gets to the gallon. But gas won’t be your only major expense — lodging can also make a pretty serious dent.

Morgan Murphy, President of Motorpool.com, a social networking site for car enthusiasts, suggests planning your journey so that overnight stays fall in smaller cities and towns along the route. “There are huge disparities between cities,” he says. “Staying in Washington, D.C. for example, versus staying Roanoke, VA — you’re going to have a price point swing of probably $150 for a hotel room.”

And there are other lodging options, too: when a 48-state tour with Motorpool.com requires him to stay in some expensive markets this summer, Murphy will be crashing with friends and family.

“Staying with friends makes a trip more interesting,” he points out. “You’ll have some memorable moments you might not have at a hotel.”

KEEP THE PEACE

Companions are assets to any road trip, especially when it comes to navigating unknown routes. Just make sure you set some rules at the outset to ensure you’ll still be on speaking terms at the end of vacation. Decide ahead of time how you’ll allocate expenses. Murphy also suggests allowing a different companion to be in charge of each day’s itinerary. And — perhaps most importantly — be flexible. On Route 66, Rider and his friends were spontaneous to the point that they made no advance hotel reservations.

“We just went with the flow,” he says. “And that opens the trip up to a whole lot more serendipity. That’s where the magic is.”

AMERICAN BEAUTY

Now that you know how to plan the perfect road trip, here are three great routes to try out:

ROUTE 66
At 2,400 miles stretching all the way from Chicago to L.A., it’s easy to see why historic Route 66 is still referred to as the “Mother Road.” Featuring everything from trading posts to classic diners to a motel where guests stay in concrete wigwams, this old road gives travelers a real sense of what America was like in early to mid-1900s.

Bonus features: Because it starts and ends in major cities, Route 66 road trippers can take advantage of all those areas have to offer too — like the Lollapalooza music festival taking place in Chicago August 7-9.

Helpful Hints: XTRORD publisher Alan Rider, who tackled the Mother Road a few years ago, recommends stocking up on a few good maps and guidebooks, since the route is poorly marked in some spots and actually nonexistent in others. “You need to be laid back and have a sense of humor,” Rider says. “Cause you’ll inevitably wind up making wrong turns.”

ROUTE 127
This route is home to the World’s Longest Yard Sale, an event that stretches 654 miles from West Unity, Ohio to Gadsden, Alabama, and allows travelers to shop for everything from antiques to local art to garden tools at roadside stands along the way. The “official” event takes place from August 6-9, but vendors often set up a few days ahead of time and linger a few days after.

Bonus features: Much like Route 66, Route 127 gives travelers a glimpse of the treasures small town America has to offer, like Historic Rugby and the Highland Manor Winery, Tennessee’s oldest winery.

Helpful Hints: Walt Page, Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce in Fentress County, Tennessee (where the sale started 22 years ago), recommends practicing patience while visiting the various yard sale vendors. “A lot of the parking itself is on the shoulders, so traffic can get a little backed up,” Page says.

ROUTES 5 & 20
Winding through the Finger Lakes and Greater Niagra regions of New York, Routes 5 and 20 merge for at least part of a 154-mile stretch, taking travelers through a series of quaint, small towns and villages past historic sites, rural landscapes and some modern attractions, like a Six Flags theme park.

Bonus features: For grown-ups, Routes 5 and 20 feature several wineries, as well as the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, which features tastings and classes about the wine and food of New York state.

Helpful Hints: Meg Vanek of the Cayuga Office of Tourism suggest making hotel reservations in advance, especially when traveling during peak season, from July through October.

Copyright 2009 Shoestring, LLC. Photo: iStock

  • chucksense

    My grandparents started a family tradition: taking a cross-country road trip at least once while children are in high school. With 4 kids, that meant they needed to do it a couple of times. My parents (with only 2 kids) only had to do it once.

    To keep it affordable when in places with no family or friends, plot a course of campgrounds and bring a family-sized tent and a camp stove! Many of the great places to see in the US are within a quick drive of quality (and not-so-quality) campgrounds.

    The stories that come out of a trip like this are a great family bonding experience–like when we were in Vegas in a torrential down-pour that flooded the highway and we had to drive through 2 feet of water!

    There is truly nothing like the open road.

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