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Spring break? Road trip!

Spring breaks and road trips were just made for each other, and thousands of campus-weary kids are climbing into their getaway cars at this very moment. They all think their road trip will be wonderful and cheap. Wonderful? Probably. Cheap? Not necessarily. A cheap road trip takes a little planning.

Arches National Park

Watch for Crossing Cows

California coast

Racing pig!

Surfing Santa Cruz

Moose on spring break
Diana Sedenquist

Canoeing Colorado

Spring break? Road Trip! It's a siren call few deskbound scholars fail to hear. It doesn't seem to matter whether the alma mater is a snow-covered University of Michigan or a sun-baked University of Southern California. Weather is a factor, of course, but the real appeal is the fundamental truth that every student knows: Going someplace else for spring break is better than staying home -- and the cheapest way to go is by car.

But wait. Is that really true? No, it isn't. While traveling by car can offer some ways to save money, it can also end up being wildly expensive. You have to know what you're doing. The trick to keeping a road trip cheap while still having fun is a combination of planning, myth-busting and common sense.

There are two myths about road-trip costs that can be easily dispensed with.

Myth #1: Fuel is a major expense. While gas prices have risen substantially over the last few years, the cost of fuel might well be one of the least significant expenses of the trip. Obviously, reducing driving distances will cut fuel costs, but even a round trip from Boston, Massachusetts, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, costs only about $175 in a car that gets around 30 miles per gallon. If you have accurate mileage statistics, it's easy to get a reliable cost estimate for any length road trip by using the RTA Fuel Cost Calculator.

Myth #2: A great way to save on lodging is to sneak five people into a cheap motel room. Beyond the questionable legality of this practice, motel managers at some of the lower-cost motels charge a security deposit and impose significant check-out fees that are deducted from the deposit during spring-break weeks. And while a motel with a listed rate of $35 to $45 might seem like a better deal than one that starts at $50, that higher room rate might include a continental breakfast, which can help reduce the daily budget for meal expenses a lot.

It pays to shop around a bit, too. That run-down motel isn't necessarily cheaper than the better-kept one across the street, and chains that advertise "Low Rates!" may not actually be cheaper than others; in fact, they may have fewer amenities or charge more for extra people in a room. Room rates are always negotiable and a friendly conversation with the desk manager can often result in a 10% to 25% savings off the listed rate. This tends to work better later at night when the chances of reaching 100% occupancy for that manager may be decreased. Another option, if dorm-style lodging is satisfactory, is to stay at one of the growing number of youth hostels around the country. They offer a low-cost, clean alternative to motels. One of the best sources for local information about lodging choices can be found on the Great American RoadTrip Forum. We recommend that you look at the Discount RoadTrip section for current information.

For summertime travel, we usually recommend camping as a low-cost alternative to overnight motel lodging, but during spring break, even in the warmer southern states, camping generally requires more gear, knowledge and time than most spring-breakers have at their disposal. If camping is an option, it's a great money-saver. Campsites range in price from $10 to $40 depending on the campground's amenities and location and -- for those who have the necessary gear, time and skill -- camping is fun.

But even without tents and sleeping bags, there are plenty of easy ways to stretch a budget on a road trip. Here are a few basics.

1. Save on food. Bring an ice chest or cooler and load it up with fruit and some sliced cheese or meat; just make sure you pack it properly and maintain it at a temperature that will keep food fresh. Also consider bringing a small propane grill that will allow you to prepare and eat healthy meals, even if you aren't camping. Rest areas and parks with picnic tables abound, and it is relatively inexpensive to eat instant oatmeal or other cereal in the morning, make sandwiches for lunch, and then grill steaks, burgers or chicken at night. Restaurants are still an option, but the urge to eat fast food or diner fare is greatly reduced if you are eating at least one hot meal each day.

With planning, it's possible to eat well on $10 to $12 per person per day. Restaurant meals and evening libations will of course increase your costs. Even so, with a little restraint (no multi-course meals at multi-star restaurants), it's easy to dine adequately for about $25 per day.

Generally, it's reasonable to figure that total on-the-road expenses will run between $100 and $160 per person per day, including fuel, lodging, food, contingency funds and a few entertainment expenses. Here are some tips to cut costs even further:

2. Sleep in the car at truck stops, and take advantage of their clean, inexpensive showers. Do not plan to sleep overnight in highway rest areas. In most states it is illegal, and it can be dangerous as well.

3. Think about personal connections, and stay overnight for free with family and friends. Also, if you belong to a national club, fraternity or sorority, check to see if free lodging is available through those networks.

4. Drive at a reasonable rate of speed and abide by traffic laws. Local police departments frequently increase patrols on routes used by spring-breakers, and that $600 speeding ticket will certainly put a significant and disheartening dent in a tight budget.

5. Make sure the road-trip vehicle is truly roadworthy. Don't try to gain space by removing spare tires or any essential road-trip gear. Attending to preventable mechanical breakdowns is the saddest way to fritter away time and money on a spring-break trip.

6. Take advantage of welcome centers. Every state has stopping points located near state borders on interstate highways. These centers are usually staffed by local volunteers, and most have discount coupons for motels and attractions in their immediate area. Take the time to talk with staff members if possible. Advice about cheap lodging and food from a friendly local is often worth its weight in gold.

Road trips can easily be expensive, but with careful planning and diligent budgeting, $500 is enough to fund a memorable seven-day spring-break odyssey.

Mark Sedenquist
March 18, 2007
(links updated November 14, 2022, RTA)



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