Parents Perspective

5 Ways to Make Road Trips Rock (on a Budget!)

Long summer rides with your kids can be a blast—and don't have to break the bank.

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Planning a big road trip with your kids this summer? With some strategic travel planning, you can save money and your sanity. I speak from experience: We moved our family of seven 15 times in 18 years and took lots of road trips. Here are some suggestions.

Healthy Eats and Treats

One of the biggest expenses on the road is food. It takes a toll on your wallet and, if you make the easy choice and go for fast food, your health as well. Whenever we traveled, we packed a lunch for the first day and then stopped at a roadside park to eat. It's easy to plan these rest stops by using the Roadtrippers app. To reduce expenses on snacks, pack healthy options—carrots, grapes, cherries, pretzels, trail mix—in individual bags for each family member. Bring snack-size plastic bags so you can split other treats you buy on the road (fresh popcorn, anyone?). Also check out these smart savings tips.

Busy Hands, Happy Hearts

Among our main challenges was keeping the kids occupied. Older children can use a tablet or portable gaming system to stay busy, and everyone enjoys movies on the go. But even with these tech options, kids tend to get bored and restless. That's where creativity comes into play. When we had a long trip (or a military-related move) in the works, I shopped ahead for small games and toys, books, activity puzzles, and other trinkets from a dollar store. Then I'd wrap these "surprises" and put a different child's name on each. At the top of every hour, we'd give them out. The kids got super excited—and it made the trip go so much faster. Click here for more great ideas.

Smarter Places to Stay

There are plenty of ways to save money on lodging during a family road trip. You can find vacation rentals by owners at vrbo.com or book an apartment or a house at Airbnb.com. Suite hotels, which offer extra space for a big family, are another option; find one at hotels.com, orbitz.com, or cheaphotels.com. Or try a family camp, which lets you stay in a cabin while enjoying horseback riding, canoeing, and other bonding activities for a fraction of the cost of a conventional resort. Google "YMCA family camps" to find one that meets your preferences and geographic needs.

Food and Entertainment Discounts

Use Yelp to find good restaurants at a good price—and to snag bonuses such as free appetizers or desserts. Download the app RetailMeNot for codes on everything from souvenirs to attractions. Enter your current zip code at restaurant.com to see half-price dining certificate options. While you're there, see if the site has any special sales. I recently bought $25 certificates at the site for $4 after applying a coupon code.

Saving Time and Gas

Enter the year, make, and model of your car into the AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator to compute how much you'll spend on gas. Download the GasBuddy app to find the cheapest fuel prices along the way. We use the Waze app to find real-time road conditions and plot the most efficient route. On more than one occasion, it's saved us 30 minutes or more by avoiding a crash or a slow-down—which is a big deal when you're driving for hours on end with young kids.

ellie kay Ellie Kay
Ellie Kay, a family financial expert and Moms Money Clinic advisor for Parents, guest blogs regularly about personal finance issues. She is also the mom of seven and author of Heroes at Home. Read more of her advice at elliekay.com.