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It’s Roadtrip Season — How to Travel In Style and on Budget

2021 is shaping up to be a big year for road trips. Millions have received the vaccine and the pandemic is waning, but many people still feel apprehensive about flying.

July 7, 2021

Road trips are an American rite of passage. As a kid, your family may have packed the car up to visit the grandparents or tour national parks. Hitting the road is a mainstay of spring breaks and a classic way for graduates to celebrate the end of school. The tradition is enshrined in popular culture from books like John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” to movies like “Easy Rider” andPeewee’s Big Adventure.” 

2021 is shaping up to be a big year for road trips. Millions of Americans have received the COVID-19 vaccine and the pandemic is waning, but many people still feel apprehensive about flying. In fact, during the Fourth of July weekend, an estimated 91% of travelers chose to drive to their destinations. Many see the great American road trip as an excellent opportunity to have new experiences in their own backyard this summer. With everyone else taking a spin out on the open road, you might be wondering “how much does a road trip cost?”  You can join their ranks road-tripping in style without breaking the bank. Here’s a look at how to budget for a trip: 

Renting a Car for a Road Trip or Driving Your Own 

One of the first things you’ll need to decide when planning your summer road trip is what vehicle you’ll use. On the one hand, renting a car can be pricey; on average it costs $98 per day to rent in the U.S. On the other hand, driving your own car can mean wear and tear, as well as racking up miles on the odometer. This may not be an immediate expense, but you’ll eventually pay for repairs. While there are no hard and fast rules about which is the better option, there are a number of factors you should consider.  

Renting a car 

Renting a car can give you a lot of options. This gives you flexibility when it comes to how many people, and how much stuff you can fit in your car. Size of the vehicle will have a big impact on price, with an SUV likely costing much more than a midsize sedan or economy car.

Other costs to consider include insurance. Before you rent a car, find out if your current car insurance or the major credit card you use to rent the vehicle covers rental damage. Otherwise the cost of supplemental liability insurance can range from $8 to $12 per day, while loss damage waivers or collision damage waivers could be $20 to $30 per day

Consider too, the cost of state and local taxes for renting a vehicle, and be aware that if you want to switch off driving duties with a fellow traveler, you’ll likely pay extra for each authorized driver on the vehicle. 

Driving your own car

One way to compare the cost of driving your own car versus a rental is the IRS’s deduction for standard mileage rates. In 2021, the IRS allows you to deduct $0.56 per mile when a personal car is used for business travel. This deduction is supposed to cover the fixed and variable costs of owning and operating a vehicle. 

Setting the association with business travel aside, that would mean a weeklong 1,000-mile road trip could end up costing you approximately $560 for fuel, wear and tear, depreciation and insurance. In some parts of the country, you could potentially rent a car for much less than that. Just be sure to figure the price of gas into your calculations. 

Building a Road Trip Budget

One of the best ways to make sure you have a great road trip that doesn’t break the bank is by starting off with a budget. Here’s a look at how to plan for the price of gas, food, lodging, and other incidentals. 

Costs on the road 

The price of fuel is one of the biggest factors to consider when budgeting for your trip. To get an estimate for the total cost of gas:

  1. Map out the total distance of your trip. 
  2. Divide this distance by the miles per gallon your car gets to determine the approximate number of gallons you’ll need. 
  3. Multiply this figure by the current price of gas, and you’ll have an estimate of how much fuel for your road trip will cost. 

Tolls are another cost you’ll need to consider. There are more than 5,000 miles of toll roads in the United States, and countless toll bridges, and even ferries. If your road trip takes you along one of these routes, you’ll need to budget for this expense. 

The price of tolls varies widely. The most expensive toll road is the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway in New York, which costs $1.25 per mile. The most expensive bridges are the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia and the Verrazano-Narrows in New York City, at $15 one-way. Not all tolls come with these eye-popping price tags, some roads may be just a few cents per mile. You can set your GPS to avoid tolls, which can help you keep this cost down. But depending on where you’re going, there may be no way around them. 

Food 

Sampling local foods and visiting famous eateries is one of the joys of road tripping. Yet, eating out all the time can be a budget buster. Even grabbing snacks and drinks at the gas station can add up quickly. The average cost of food per day on a road trip will vary greatly based on your dietary preferences, destination and where you choose to dine. 

To cut down on costs, consider carrying some groceries, like sandwich-making supplies, with you and buying snacks, like fruit, nuts and chips in bulk to reduce the need to buy overpriced gas station fare. While you’ll of course want to try some restaurants, consider limiting yourself to one or two a day. Supplement your other meals with the food you have on hand, and you can always make a pit stop in a grocery store when supplies run low. 

Overnight accommodations 

Where you decide to rest your head at night will have a big impact on your budget. Camping may be your cheapest option, (aside from staying with family or friends,) and allows you to stay overnight in some of the most scenic spots in the country. The cost of a campsite for the night can run about $20 to $30. Though if you’re used to roughing it, with no access to amenities like water or bathrooms, you can camp on Bureau of Land Management sites for free. 

Those not so keen on spending their nights in the great outdoors will want to consider a hotel or short-term rental. The average price of hotels in the U.S. was about $90 per night in 2020. Prices of rooms can of course vary widely depending on the quality of the hotel and whether you’re in a high-demand area. Short-term rentals, like those offered by Airbnb, may be a bit pricier, but may also allow space for more guests and provide the opportunity to cook meals at home. The average price for an Airbnb in North America was about $160 per night in 2020

Once you’ve mapped out how much your trip will set you back, you’ll no longer need to wonder “how much does a road trip cost?” Of course, by nature, travel requires us to be flexible, so if you find yourself wanting to upgrade to a more expensive hotel, or you encounter an unforeseen auto repair, you may have to adjust your spending elsewhere in your budget by nixing a fancy meal in a restaurant, for example. Being mindful of your spending means that the souvenir you bring home won’t be a mountain of credit card debt. 

Dreaming of hitting the open road, but feel the burden of credit card debt dragging behind you? It can be hard to let go of stress and enjoy a road trip with debt on the mind. That’s where Tally may be able to help. The smart debt-payoff tool can potentially help you reduce your credit card debt much faster so you can take off with nothing but wide-open roads and sunsets on your mind.