It’s no secret that vacation planning can be headache-inducing. The logistics, scheduling, and reservations are painful enough to figure out, but then there’s that money issue. If you’ve decided to swap the sky-high cost of airfare for a more affordable car trip, you’re already on the road to big savings (all puns totally intended). But even if you’ve figured out the tricks for snagging sweet hotel deals and cutting corners to save cash, you’ll still be faced with plenty of financial decisions as you drive. The best way to avoid an unpleasant post-trip credit card bill is to set a realistic budget that keeps you in check while leaving room for plenty of fun—this is a vacation, after all.
Here’s how to calculate a daily road trip allowance:
- See what you’re working with. To get the ball rolling, it’s best to know exactly how much money is in the pot, so to speak. To do that, take your monthly income and subtract all your expenses (car insurance, rent, phone bill, cable TV that you sadly won’t be watching while traveling, etc.). Once you have that leftover number, consider that your limit. Sure, you could charge outside your means, but that pretty much defeats the whole “traveling on a budget” concept. Unless you have a special savings fund to pull from, stick to spending within your monthly net income.
- Figure out your fueling needs. The most obvious expense you’ll encounter on a regular basis is, of course, gas. If you’re traversing the country, it may be tough to pin down an specific price per gallon, since costs vary from place to place. Even if you can’t land on an exact dollar amount, you can take an educated guess and round up, just to be safe. And if you have no idea where the open road is taking you, just rely on the national average, which is currently $2.85 per gallon.
Your total for the day will of course depend on your vehicle’s tank and the amount your driving per day. But for clarity’s sake, here’s an example: Some of the most common cars in America have gas tanks that hold about 15 gallons, and get up to 30 miles per gallon on the highway. If you’re driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles one day, that’s about 383 miles, which you should be able to do on one tank of gas (15 x 30 = 450 miles). Based on the national average, that’ll cost you about $43 if that’s all you’re driving in a day, but it’s worth rounding up to $50 to be safe (or more to be extra safe).
A few more ways to save on gas:
- Gas Buddy and Gas Guru are two apps that help you locate the cheapest fuel around.
- Community-based app Waze offers real-time traffic information and gas prices. Be sure to keep your oil fresh, engine tuned, and tires inflated to ensure better mileage, and when you can, fill up outside of big cities, where prices are often way higher.
And of course, if you’re a Metromile customer, you’ll want to make sure to keep an eye on your daily distance since you have the benefit of pay-per-mile coverage. If you’re worried about accruing a big bill because you’re traveling—relax. Metromile caps the daily mileage costs at 250 miles/day (150 miles/day in New Jersey). But if you’d prefer to stay under that limit, map out your daily route ahead of time, and make sure to pull over once you’ve hit that self-imposed max. Metromile charges a low monthly base rate as well as that pay-per-mile rate, so chances are, you’ll still save big—whether you’re driving all day or limiting your miles—just because you’re a Metromile customer. Congrats!
- Factor in accommodations. This will of course vary tremendously depending on whether you’re camping, glamping, or going for full-out luxury (that last one probably shouldn’t be in the cards if you’re trying to save…but you knew that). While the current average daily rate for a U.S. hotel hovers around $127, that amount could fluctuate a ton. The good news is, there are plenty of ways to sidestep exorbitant hotel costs, so take advantage of every tip and trick you can ahead of time!
- Eat economically. The simplest way to slip up and spend way more than expected is to fall into a “treat yo’self” mentality when it comes to food. Yes, you’re on vacation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a steak dinner is in order every night (those four bags of chips at each rest stop may not be a great idea either). If you have no idea how to begin calculating an approximate food allowance, consider allotting $5 a day for breakfast, about $10 for lunch, and $15 to $30 for dinner. That should give you a fair amount of wiggle room without leaving you ravenous. But eating cheap doesn’t have to mean subsisting on an all-junk diet. Some ways to spend less that don’t involve drive-through at every stop:
- Hit the grocery store. Better yet, before your trip, pay a visit to a bulk store and stock up on big quantities of wholesome car-safe snacks that don’t require refrigeration (think: rice cakes, pretzels, popcorn, etc.). And invest in a cooler to pack nutritious perishables (yogurt, string cheese, hard boiled eggs, etc.). The accessory will pay for itself when you realize how much you’ll be saving on road snacks.
- Go halfsies. Traveling with family or friends? Consider splitting entrees when you sit down for meals. Portion sizes at most restaurants are way beyond single serving, and since you probably won’t be hauling leftovers with you, order a single meal for two.
- Eat breakfast before you go out if you can. If you are staying in a hotel, you might just be able to score a free breakfast buffet. And even if that’s not the case, you can still make a pretty hearty morning meal without overspending at a diner. Oatmeal packets are awesome options to keep on hand (just add water!), and fruit, granola bars, and more can set you up with a solid base so you’re not starving by lunchtime.
- Eat like a local. Talk to people around town and ask where they love to dine. Chances are, it probably won’t be at a chain restaurant. You’re more likely to find a delicious, affordable destination off-the-beaten-path if you do a little research.
If you’re not a Metromile customer, what are you waiting for? Visit metromile.com for a free quote today. Happy trails!
Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist/writer/editor and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets like Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, Seventeen, and a whole lot more. She’s also a contributing editor at Fitbit and the social media director at California Home + Design Magazine. She is an avid admirer of shiny objects, manatees, and preteen entertainment.