Below are my best tips on how to plan a cross-country road trip for families on a budget!
My family is no stranger to long road trips. Our average family road trip is typically 1000-4000 miles in about 1-2 weeks of time. In fact in just 10 years I’ve put on over 150,000 miles on our mini van! But I had a difficult time finding resources for families in a mini van traveling a great distance, let’s say, 7000 miles!
Frugal budget, no RV or fancy hotels – just straight up wanting to see the world and make incredible memories without being overly extravagant. Our family of 5 typically spends under $1000 per week on the road including everything – lodging, food, gas, souvenirs, attractions, etc.
I recommend using a Google Sheet or Excel sheet to help you micromanage down your details! That way you can work on it via mobile or computer and on the road! You can Add your Itinerary, Budget, Packing List, etc. to different tabs and continue to update them as you go through the process of planning!
Deciding a Road Trip Route – What do you want to see?:
The first thing you need to do is decide where you want to go. My husband and I got engaged and married on Route 66, so traveling Route 66 was a big part of our initial desire for this road trip. Eventually it lengthened into a monstrosity of amazing adventures!
When I looked at how little we would be spending on attractions along the way, and how close we were to California (coming from Chicago), I added on to the route. Once your generic route is established, then look to see if you will be near any MUST SEE stops and alter the route a bit.
This is not a one day process – just so you know! It takes a LONG time to nail down a trip like this! We’ve been talking about it for 6 years but really sat down the past 6 months to establish the details. You can see above that I veer off of Route 66 for a little while to hit some awesome locations! Below is our basic route overview:
Our 7000 Miles Road Trip Route Itinerary:
Day 1-3: Leaving Chicago on Route 66 to get to Roswell, NM
Day 4: Carlsbad Caverns & Bat Flight Program
Day 5: White Sands National Monument
Day 6-12: Exploring the Grand Canyon
Day 13: Hoover Dam & Las Vegas & Area51
Day 14: Santa Monica Pier & La Brea Tar Pits
Day 15: Disneyland
Day 16: Universal Studios
Day 17: Big Sur
Day 18: Winchester Mystery House & Alcatraz
Day 19: California Academy of Sciences
Day 20: Muir Woods
Day 21-22: Exploring the Redwoods
Day 23-27: Exploring the Oregon Coast
Day 28: Mount St. Helens & Ape Caves
Day 29-30: Portland
Day 31: Bonneville Salt Flats
Day 32: Floating in the Great Salt Lake
Day 33: Digging for trilobites
Day 34-35: Arches National Park, Canyonlands & Dead Horse State Park
Day 36-38: Exploring Colorado ghost towns & dinosaur trails
Day 39-41: Headed home!
Deciding How Long to Be Gone – What time do you have?
This is a big deal! How long do you have to be gone for your trip? Do you get 1 week of vacation? Are you and the kids off for the whole summer? Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you want to see or what your budget is – vacation time is the ultimate deciding factor for your route!
Align your hopeful route with how long you have to be gone – and then adjust from there what you need. Have time to add more destinations on to your route or want to stay longer in one spot? Or do you sadly realize you just can’t fit 7000 miles in one week!
Deciding how long you can afford to be gone along with your desired route is your two biggest factors in planning for your cross country road trip with your family! This is where realism sets in and your real plans start getting laid in stone.
Deciding on Your Budget – How much can you afford?:
The third most important factor is your budget. NO – I did not list this first and for a reason! You can stretch even the smallest budget quite a long ways if you’re willing to have a matching travel style. Also, your budget doesn’t actually help you decide where to go! Just how much you can afford once you get there!
Our initial budget for our 41 day road trip with 5 people was only $4500. That included gas, lodging, attractions, souvenirs, food – the whole package! But it definitely is not a Hilton luxury vacation! (We’ve since slightly altered it to include 2 days of theme parks – which was a hard decision because that alone will cost almost half the original budget!)
Factors to Keep in Mind When Budgeting a Cross Country Road Trip:
State / National Park Entrance Fees
Different people have different methods of saving for a road trip. Over the years we have tried a little bit of everything. But for now we use a separate savings account and use travel funds as our holiday and birthday wish list items!
Travel Savings Ideas:
- Saved $20 / month based on this travel plan
- Cash Envelopes
- Open a separate savings account
- Pre-purchase gift cards
- Ask for road trip money / gift cards during holidays & birthdays
- Tax return refunds to travel savings
Deciding on Your Attractions – What do you HAVE to see?
This is where the Google Sheets spreadsheet comes in handy! I use Roadtrippers.com to search our route and find attractions, then make a list of everything that is interesting to see. We sit down as a family and then decide what attractions we absolutely HAVE to see, what would be nice to see, and what we could probably live without seeing.
I always ask each of the kids what the 1-2 things are that they would be heartbroken if they didn’t see, then try to make sure we include that! For this trip, the answers were the Hollywood sign and Roswell!
From this we then overlay these on our expected route and time frame for how long we can be gone. The “MUST SEE” items go on first and stay on, everything else we wiggle into the itinerary and estimate how long it will take for each attraction.
Lastly, I add up the cost of each of these attractions and see how they align with our budget. If one cost FAR too much, let’s say Disneyland, then that goes on the maybe list until I see how it aligns with our budget.
How to Plan for the Unexpected – Protecting Your Budget:
There is always something unexpected that pops up in a long road trip – or even a short one! We’ve done weekend only trips that turned out to be wild disasters! If you’re planning a cross country road trip you absolutely need to plan for emergencies in your budget! Generally I add $200 PER week onto my savings plan to help offset any unexpected problems.
You don’t want to come back home and be stressed because you spent too much! Some things you truly can’t plan for, but you can leave a little wiggle room to help offset the damage. Thankfully most of our journeys have gone smoothly, but we have had flat tires, keys locked in cars, dead car batteries, and even arrived at LOCKED campgrounds only to need to find a hotel for the night. All unexpected additional costs.
Unexpected Expenses that Might Happen on a Family Road Trip:
- Car Repairs / Flat Tire / Car Accident / Towing Expenses
- Hospital / Medical Expenses
- Illness and/or First Aid Expenses
- Extra Attractions
- Splurges (dessert, extra souvenirs, etc.)
- Camera batteries / Memory Cards
- Broken Luggage / Broken Camping Gear
- Broken Stroller or other Baby Items
- Unexpected Itinerary Changes
Being Out of Town = LESS Bills at Home!
One important thing to remember is that (typically), when you aren’t home, your bills are less! Your food bills, your utilities, your entertainment, etc. Obviously this doesn’t count if you’re paying for pet care. But generally, your regular monthly bills will be a little bit less at home when you are on the road – which you have already budgeted for!
I use this factor as my “emergency overflow” for funds in case something goes haywire during our road trip. It’s a little cushion to fall back on most of the time.