Summer and vacation time are approaching and I think it’s a perfect time to share some of my tips on how to do a successful road trip on a frugal budget. These tips are based on our road trip experiences.

This summer we are planning a road trip to Canada. It may sound crazy to you, but we both love traveling by car. Road trips are a lot cheaper than flying. Besides that, we can also visit many places during one long trip. “Killing 2 birds with one shot.”

Planning a road trip can be a hassle sometimes, especially if kids are  involved. In this article post, you will read our experiences, both good and bad dealing with all the situations during our last extreme road trip . Hope this article will help you plan a better road trip!

Santa Fe
Last year we went all the way to the Grand Canyon from Atlanta, GA. The stopping points of our trip were

— Little Rock
— Santa Fe
— Grand Canyon
— Sedona
— Flagstaff
— Bluff Utah
— Colorado
— Back to Atlanta.

Of course the historical route 66 road trip was part of our schedule too.
Even though we didn’t really focus on the route 66 road trip, but at least got a glimpse of what some of the famous route 66 roadways looked like.

We did the whole trip within 2 weeks (15 days total). We really had a blast and we want to try again this year.

  • Planning.
    Good and thorough planning can make your trip run smoothly, the way you want it.

    First of all I created a document called “Road Trip Planner.” It’s actually a series of road trip ideas.

    In this road trip planner, I wrote every single detail involved in road trips, such as: The route, stopping point, road map, where to stay, top 10 places to visit during the stay, any other activities (if available), where to contact in case of emergency, second plan in case of emergency, safety requirements, etc.

    I also wrote: The name of the hotel we want to stay, how long we’ll stay, price range, the address of the hotel, hotel phone no. etc…

    For more details you can see  my Road Trip Planner Template.

    Another document I prepared as well was a Travel Essentials document. Here’s the list of what to bring for the trip such as, clothing, camera, books, music, cooler and etc. The hotel choice and other things were decided based on research, reviews, price, and location.

Road Trip Planner

  • Read Reviews
    You can read any review about anything from, hotel review, restaurant review, etc… The more information you get, the better.
    The way I do it by comparing one review to another. Sometimes even after reading reviews you still don’t always get what you wish for. Can you imagine if you didn’t read any reviews at all?
    For me reviews are a really important part of my decision process.
  • Sort it Out
    Once we have our road trip ideas documented, then we can always sort it out.
    Eliminate things to fit our schedule, budget and priority.
    Talk with your spouse or people who are involved in your trip so they can get a picture of your trip planning. Once they agree, then start booking hotels and finding the right vehicle.

    I used all these online travel portals, Expedia, Orbit, Travelocity, Price line, Kayak etc. There are tons of them. Compare all of them so you can get the best deal. Then read the reviews.
  • Documenting
    Once we reserved hotels and a car, I then printed out all emails, receipts, and any documents from the travel sites and rental companies. The entire documents will go with us on our trip.
    The reason for this is, if something happens with the hotel or a deal goes badly, you have the documents and phone no. within reach.
  • Emailing
    Once everything in place, a few days before the actual road trip we’ll send our “Road Trip Planner” to parents and family. The reason is because we want them to know where we are. In case something happens,  they know where to contact us. All for safety reasons. It’s better to do too much than, not enough. I am a believer in “preparing the umbrella before it rains.” Better to be prepared than sorry.

Here are a few tips which I think are important for a successful road trip

  1. It’s always better to rent a car for long road trips.

    The reason is because we need a reliable car. We want to minimize stopping on the road due to a car break down. Car Rental companies usually provide you with a replacement car in such situations. And they do check all the rental car before it goes out.
    They will also provide you with road side service or change your car in case of emergency. It’s hassle free and you don’t need to worry about anything. You just need to focus on your road trip instead of worrying about your car.

    Note: Of course you need to keep the car clean to avoid any additional charges in the end.

    Here’s our experience:
    Last year we rented a car from Budget Car Rental. We rented Ford Escape but the Budget car rental was really nice to upgrade our car to a luxury one, a Lincoln MKX! Oh boy that’s a really sweet ride. Not just roomy, the car also has ergonomic seats, good stereo, XM Radio and all other nice features that help you enjoy your trip.
    We didn’t have any problems driving miles and miles.

    Our Rental Car Lincoln MKX
  2. One thing to remember is to make sure you rent a car with unlimited mileage.

    The unlimited mileage gives you freedom to drive outside your state line without being charged additional mileage.
    Limited mileage means more money (be aware of that). Check and read carefully the terms and conditions before you rent a car. Gather as much information from the Car Rental Company as possible. Why? Because you don’t want to get shocking news or hidden fees at the end of your trip.
  3. Look for a car for convenience (based on how many people will go traveling), a car with good gas mileage.

    The convenience of the car is really important too for a long trip, especially because you drive miles and miles and you want a car that comfortable for your body and for everybody.
  4. When you do a road trip always use the major highways as your route. Don’t use hidden roads or back roads.

    Stick to the highway most of the time. It’s always best for your safety. It’s not just that you have easy access to everything (hotels, restaurants, rest stop, police etc) but it’s also good for phone signals.

    Here’s our experience:
    We drove from Utah to Colorado Springs, it was late a night around 2: am and we found no phone signal because we were in high elevation in the middle of nowhere. The road was so quiet and dark. Just a very few trucks passed from the opposite direction. We thought oh God if something happens to us, nobody will help us.
  5. Don’t drive too long between one point and another.

    My suggestion is, stop driving when the dark approaches. Even earlier than that if you have children traveling with you. It’s not just good for your safety but also good for your body. Remember! Safety is one of the top important considerations in road trips

    In the summer you should stop driving around 8/9PM. It will give you plenty of time to rest and look for a hotel if you need too.

    Here’s our experience: In our last road trip, we made a mistake; we drove up around 7-8 hours before we stopped. A few times we arrived in hotel around 2 am. For safety, that’s not good.  Our next trip will be arranged differently.

    Mesa Verde Utah
  6. Don’t book hotels ahead.

    At least book hotels only if you know its high season and there’s likely a difficulty in getting a room if you walk in. This is especially true with big hotels or hotels located in a tourist area.

    There are several key things to consider when you book a hotel. Ask yourself this, what is important for me when I get a hotel? Location? Convenience? Price? Service? Those are the top priorities, right?
    Sometimes you can’t get all of that in one package. In this case, try to think priority.

    Mesa Verde Utah
  7. Make a decision when to book a hotel online or walk in.

    A cheaper price comes with hidden things too.
    Based on my experience, when you book a hotel trough a travel agent or site, the hotel can’t guarantee the room you’ve ordered. Everything depends on availability. They can put you in queen bed if you book for a king. There is no agreement between you and the hotel. When you complain they tell you to call the travel agent. Duh!!  Also travel agents in fact mark up the price.

    Here’s our experience:
    During our trip to Santa Fe, we stopped in Arkansas overnight. The next morning when we were ready to pay, the customer service desk gave us a total price $50 cheaper than the price we got online. I was shocked and told him the actual online price we got and it had already been paid in full. And he told me sometimes is better to call the hotel directly to book the room.
    That experience taught me a lesson about when to book a hotel ahead and when to get a hotel walk in.
  8. Base your search with reason.

    As for me, here is some of consideration of choosing a hotel. When we transit in one city, we want to get a medium star hotel with good bed. After long driving, nice comfortable bed will rejuvenate your body for the next day of driving. Of course a hotel must come with a complimentary breakfast. It will cut your time running around looking for a place to have breakfast.

    I am usually a fanatic about convenience. I like to choose the closest hotel to the venue/tourist area within walking distance to the main tourist spots. But after a bad experience we had last time, I think I need to reconsider my fanatical view.

    Here’s our experience:

    Last year because I think it was during peak season (Our trip was in July) and I was worried we couldn’t get a room; I booked the Best Western hotel for 4 nights in Grand Canyon Village (Tusayan).
    Of course, I thought, it would be convenient, just walking distance to the Grand Canyon (South Rim). There’s shuttle bus from the hotel too. How convenient!
    It’s quite expensive but since the hotel was located inside the Grand Canyon, of course you pay for the convenience.

    I chose this hotel after reading all the reviews. It got good reviews by the way. When we got there, the hotel was far from good. It’s an old hotel and the room had a strange odor. Combination of mildew and smoke smell together (I can’t explain the smell).

    They put us in the front, in the busy area where people are going back and forth to and from their rooms.
    We asked the customer service desk to change our room because of the odor and the location; since the hotel was fully booked they couldn’t move us to another room.

    When I pulled the bed sheet there was a crumple of hair underneath it (really disgusting). I was so upset.
    We called customer service once again, reported the odor and the hair on the bed. I was upset because the reason I wanted to pay extra was because I thought it was a good hotel (based on the reviews). I guess maybe we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe others didn’t get that kind of experience but we did. And that experience was enough for us to decide to move to another hotel even if we didn’t get refund (think about how bad it was).

    We planned to try to get our money back. Since it was late at night we decided to just stay for one night and move to another hotel the next day. We tried to call another hotel in the Flagstaff area. It is about 1 hour drive from from Grand Canyon and we found a Comfort Inn. And it was the best hotel we got–40 % cheaper, cleaner and had nice customer service.

    Once we were sure we had our hotel, we then called customer service and told them our situation, about how unhappy we were. We told them that we wanted to cancel our stay and asked them to refund our money for the rest of the stay. Based on the fact (they saw it with their own eyes), they couldn’t argue and agreed to refund our money.

    Oh yea, another bad thing was all restaurants at Grand Canyon village (Tusayan) closed at 9. The exception was Mc Donald’s at 11PM. And they charge you $7 for a burger. And when I asked the server why, he was just flat out rude.

    That’s what happens when you go to area where you don’t have any choices/options. They don’t need to care about service or being nice because they know people will buy from them anyway (because there’s no other option).

  9. Note to remember!

    Next time, before you decide to stay in a tourist area, remember to expand your boundaries. A lot of good hotels in the surrounding area are better and a lot cheaper.

    I’d rather get a good hotel and service at a cheaper price (drive 30 minutes or 1hr farther) than staying in a smelly hotel with bad service and more expensive in the location. The convenience is not equal to the satisfaction I got. You just need to choose one or another. Priority is the key.

    When you get a hotel (walk in) try to bargain, ask the customer service person about special pricing or deals. It is always good to ask. You don’t get it because you don’t ask.

    Grand Canyon

  10. Take your trip after school starts or before summer break.

    If you can, try to take your trip after school starts or before summer break (ignore this suggestion if this road trip is for taking your children during summer break). The occupancy of the hotels are going down and the hotels are a lot cheaper. A lot more bargains are out there and the tourist area is not as busy/crowded after school starts. The weather is nice and the heat won’t stop you from going to more places.
  11. Be Street Smart.

    Be a smart traveler. Be nice but don’t let your guard down. You just never know who you might meet with. It can be a killer, sex offender, or kidnapper out there. Just be careful and use your own judgment. Be nice but be wise at the same time.
  12. Always stop within a few hours driving, walk and stretch regularly to refresh your body and of course your bottom too ;)

A few small small things you might need:

  1.  Don’t bring too many clothes. In many hotels nowadays they have laundry. You can always wash your clothes (unless you want to take picture like me ?
  2. Don’t bring a big cooler. Bring a small one, enough for 3-4 drinks. You can always stop at a gas station and buy some more drinks. Make your trip as light as possible. It will cut your packing time in half.
  3. Have plan B if you decide to stay in one place. Don’t assume.
    The right time calculation can really maximize your stay if you know where to go. Even after you plan it sometimes in reality it does not always go as planned out. It is always something that changes your plan or elongates the time you have planned.

    Be flexible! It’s just a trip. It’s not the end of the world. Don’t fight and keep your company happy.
  4. I love to make my own snacks. Or when we stay in one place we go to grocery store and buy healthy stuff like fruits and other healthy snacks.
  5. Once in a while it’s okay to eat junk food like McDonald’s, Burger King, or other fast food places like these but only if you want to save time and you can’t find other more healthy places to eat.

    Valey Of The Gods Utah

Best of all, I hope these lists help you in planning your road trip. Have a safe trip and don’t forget to pray ;) May God protect you the whole trip from the beginning to the time you get back.