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Traveling by Car: A Complete Money-Saving Guide

Living a Better Life® (from the editor's desk)
by Michelle Jones

A complete guide for saving money while traveling by car. Also includes my best tips for keeping the children happy during the trip, broken down by age groups.

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Even if your personal budget is extremely tight, you can still take a break and enjoy life!

Make a list of the places you’d like to go and make it a goal to visit one soon. Even if you go for just for a short weekend, life is just too short to never leave home.

Taking a trip can be very expensive when you add up hotel bills, restaurants, gas for the car, and tickets for special attractions or sites you might see. But after 10 years of traveling on a budget with small children in tow, here are my travel tips to help you make the best of your trip.


The most obvious traveling money saver is avoiding those big hotel bills. Think of all the friends and family you have scattered all over the country, when was the last time you saw some of them? They would probably love to see you and take you on a tour of their area for free, or at least be able to give you some great tips of what to see.

If visiting family and friends is not convenient for your travel destination of choice, check out www.hotelcoupons.com or www.roomsaver.com for some great savings on hotels in the area. If you have children, the best thing about hotels is that they usually come with a pool. But ask for a first floor room if possible, upper floor balconies can be deadly for small children.

Many hotels will allow children to stay for free, and many will provide a continental breakfast as well. This is a great benefit especially if you have a large family. Comfort Suites (Choice Hotels International) is one I recommend, we have used them many times, not when traveling but while relocating to a new state, and they have always been great.

AAA membership offers great discounts; if you’d like more information on this service go to www.aaa.com. Following is a list of less expensive hotels and more information that may be helpful in planning your trip.

10% AAA discount, breakfast buffet, amenities included.

Choice Hotels International (Clarion Hotel, Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Sleep Inn, Quality, Econo Lodge, Rodeway Inn)
10% AAA discount, kids stay free, amenities included.

Days Inn
10% AAA discount, continental breakfast, amenities included.

Hampton Inn
20% AAA discount, breakfast bar, amenities included.

Holiday Inn
10% AAA discount, Kids stay free, breakfast buffet, amenities included.



Unless you live in a high cost area for gasoline, make sure to fill up at your local station the day before heading out. This will help you get on the road faster the next morning. Here in the southern states, we continue to find Tennessee charging the highest price per gallon, we make sure to fill up before we cross the state line.

In contrast, Georgia continues to have the lowest prices, so we fill up there before we head back home. There seems to be a higher tax inclusion on gasoline in the states that do not have income taxes, so those are the ones to watch out for.

Also, try to avoid the gas stations that are in the middle of nowhere, they can be hiked up an additional 50 cents per gallon or more. It seems like a crime to me, but desperate travelers who are low on gas will have no choice but to stop and pay the outrageous price, don’t be one of them.

Car Wash

You may be wondering why I've added this, but after many years of traveling by car, I've come to the conclusion that it's a waste of time and money to clean it before you leave. Having a clean and freshly washed car is nice, but if you have kids in tow, save it for when you get back. When the trip is over and the car looks like a Cheerio factory, this will be the time to get it cleaned up.

General Maintenance

Make sure the car is running well, a breakdown on the way to your destination could cost a fortune as well as putting a real damper on your trip. Get a full service oil change done before you go; one that includes inspection of the air filter, belts, hoses, wiper blades and all the fluids.

If your wiper blades are okay but not great, get them changed. At 2 a.m. driving on the pitch-black freeway with pouring down rain we certainly wished we had. Check the air pressure in the tires and make sure the tread is not completely bare. If it’s time to get new tires then get them replaced before you leave. You may need to postpone your trip to get these things taken care of, but they needed to be done anyway for your safety EVERY day.


Of course you can get wonderful maps from AAA if you are a member, including a complete booklet of detailed directions custom made for the entire length of your trip. Another great option is to purchase a Rand McNally Road Atlas at your local discount store, or you can visit them at www.RandMcNally.com. Their large maps are great to have on hand when you’re traveling from state to state, especially if you run into road construction and need to find an alternate route.

With the modern conveniences of computers, www.mapquest.com is our favorite site to get exact driving directions for any trip. You simply type in your address and the address of your destination, then Map Quest will give you a detailed list of every road, every turn, the exact amount of miles each turn will be, and the complete mileage and estimated time the trip will take. The maps are pretty great, except when traveling to a rural area they may miss a few details.

Make sure you take the phone number of your destination with you so they will be able to assist you if you’re having trouble. This is a good time to have a cell phone, but if you don’t have one yet you can borrow one or purchase an inexpensive prepaid variety before you leave. AAA or any other kind of road service is extremely helpful too; just one towing service will cover the cost of the annual membership fee.


Plan your trip to leave shortly after a meal if possible, such as breakfast or lunch. This will enable you to drive for several hours without having to stop, and save money as well. If you leave in the morning you can pack a picnic lunch and stop at a pleasant rest area when everyone’s ready to take a break.

The kids will enjoy being able to run around the park stretching their legs, while the parents will enjoy some fresh air and an inexpensive meal for the family. It will be a lot quicker than stopping at a restaurant and easier on the family budget.

The rest areas are safe and usually very pleasant, though the ones right on the state lines are usually the best. However, I don’t recommend using any of them at night, it’s better to run into a fast food restaurant or hotel lobby for any late-night bathroom breaks.

Pack snacks for the car, such as cut up vegetables and fruit. Cheerios and spill-proof cups with juice or water are great for the kids. We keep our empty water bottles and refill them before any trip, even just across town.

If you fill the water bottles up half way and freeze them over night, then top them off before your trip, the ice will thaw slow enough to keep your drinks cold for hours. This will also save a bundle and is so much healthier than buying sodas along the way. On your trip home you can stop in to the local grocery store and pick up a few items for the road, every penny you save makes a difference.


Under Age 1

If you have children this age, my best advice is to stay home. But if you simply must travel, or you just have to get out (and I completely understand!) make sure the car seat is very comfortable for your child, and especially check the straps to make sure they aren't too tight.

If you are nursing the baby it's better to stop the car and nurse on schedule, if you don’t you may have one cranky baby on your hands at the end of the day, and nothing will make up for it.

Be sure to change his/her diaper often, even though it may seem inconvenient and unnecessary. Being stuck in a car seat for a long trip requires a dry diaper, and I recommend using a diaper rash ointment (such as A&D) before and during the trip.

Ages 1- 3 

By this age the car seat is not usually a problem, but the diaper advice is the same. Bring along lots of snacks and small toys for your toddler to play with, especially ones that have faces and parts that move or make noise.

A few small books with pleasant pictures will help too. There are some wonderful cassette tapes available with children’s songs, such as the wee sing serise, the children love these and it helps ease the boredom that can come after a few hours on the road.

Ages 4-7 

Coloring books with a few crayons are great for this age, as well as whatever favorite toys they’d like to bring. I always let the children fill their backpack with their favorite items, though checking it before we leave to make sure they chose items appropriate for the car.

Books are also great, as well as any hand held games or activities that travel well. This age also enjoys the songs on tape, though they may ask you to play them for the entire trip.

Ages 8 and Up

A good long book is best for this one, maybe even a few family magazines as well. Another idea is to bring writing materials so they can journal or write their friends while on the trip, telling them about all their adventures, which they love to do.

A cassette or cd player with headphones is another great boredom buster for this age, might be a good present for their next birthday if they don’t have one yet.


There are several games that can be played in the car to keep the children happy, here’s a few of our favorites.

* Counting Volkswagens, the “beetle bugs”. Whoever sees them first gets the point.

* The Cow and Horse Game. Whoever has cows on their side gets a point for each cow, but when any body of water or graveyard appears the points are all lost (the cows drown in the water or get buried in the graveyard.) Horses equal 2 points and can swim through the water.

* The Alphabet Game. Whoever sees something first beginning with each letter of the alphabet gets to shout it out, for the rarer letters Q, X and Z you can just find something that has the letter within the word.


* First aid, at least Band-Aids and Neosporin ointment
* Prescriptions, cold and allergy medicines, dosage spoon and chart
* Tylenol for the adults, children and babies
* Coffee, this is a must if you prefer a certain type
* Sweeteners and Cream, same as above
* Camera and film
* Phone numbers and maps
* Addresses for sending postcards, and stamps
* Cell phone or prepaid phone card
* Favorite videos for the children (most hotels have VCRs now)
* Bathing suits, extra towels, and sunscreen
* Snacks and juice or water for the hotel (every penny counts)
* And last but not least… don’t forget the EXTRA pillows

I hope this will inspire you to get adventurous and take a trip soon, with some careful planning you can have an incredibly cheap and safe trip. God has given us a beautiful world to explore, so get out there and see it!

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Copyright © 2001 by Michelle Jones. All rights reserved.

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