Ready for a vacation but don’t have a lot of extra money? That’s ok! A couple of years ago, Jason and I were able to go on a six night/seven day road trip for less than $300 total! Road trips are the way to go if you want to do a vacation on the cheap. Not only do you save on airfare, but you can take food along as well. On our route, we started out in Green Bay, WI, then traveled to Louisville, KY, to Gatlinburg, TN, Asheville, NC, back to Louisville, KY, then home to Green Bay. I have broken down our trip into the categories of gas, hotels, entertainment, food, and credit card rewards in order to share our money-saving strategies.
There is only so much you can do when it comes to saving on gas. However, there are a few things! We took Jason’s 2008 Chevy Malibu on our trip, which averaged around 29 miles per gallon. This decision alone saved us a bundle on gas and allowed us to keep our road trip less than $300 overall. Take or rent the most economical vehicle possible to stretch your gas dollar. If you need a rental car for your trip, we suggest checking out Fox, Dollar, and Thrifty car rental for a great deal.
Also, don’t be afraid to shop around for your gas. The website gasbuddy.com allows you to enter your location and find the cheapest gas nearby. On one of our recent vacations, there was a station that was 10 cents a gallon cheaper less than two miles away! Finally, take advantage of gas station gift card deals. Every once in awhile there will be a deal at the local Kwik Trip where you can buy $100 worth of gift cards and receive an extra $10. If you know a particular station will be available along your route, you can grab one of these deals and use it to lower the cost of your fill up. Our total gas cost for our trip ended up being around $100.
Hotels will likely be the largest expense on your cheap road trip. We were able to save a bunch of money by staying in very reasonably priced hotels that were still, in my opinion, good quality. Here is the breakdown of where we stayed and the cost:
Louisville–Baymont by Wyndam: $41.82 (1 night)
Pigeon Forge–Super 8: $85.84 total ($38.24 x 2 nights, plus tax)
Fletcher (Asheville): Fairfield Inn: $150.18 ($67.20 x 2 nights, plus tax)
Louisville (on the way back)–Radisson: $93.24 (1 night)
As you can see, the hotels were a significant cost in this trip. However, they could have ended up costing much more. We saved some money by using the Expedia app, which allows you to rack up points for every trip you book and use them on future purchases. I also make sure to always check Ibotta and Rakuten (formerly known as Ebates) for applicable deals. You can usually receive a 4-10% back rebate off Expedia and Orbitz purchaes. Use the referral code rakuten.com/r/PICTON14 to receive an extra $25 when you sign up and make a qualifying purchase in the next year.
We had a ton of fun on our cheap road trip, and our total entertainment cost came in at only $186—for two people! One of the first stops we made was touring Churchill Downs. The museum tour was only $16 a person, which we considered money well-spent. We were able to tour the track as well as the good-sized museum.
In all, we spent around four hours there. They had a large gift shop, but we try to refrain from buying things at gift shops. In general, the only souvenirs we buy are postcards and one Christmas ornament per trip. This not only helps keep costs down, but allows for more space in our luggage.
Our next stop was Gatlinburg. In Gatlinburg we spent a whopping total of $6 on our entertainment, but we were still busy, busy, busy! There are a ton of wineries with free wine tasting, which we took advantage of. There are also stops with free moonshine tasting, which we did not try. One thing we wish we had splurged on was a bottle of muscadine wine. Muscadine grapes only grow in the south-eastern and south central United States, hence muscadine wine is only available in that region. We didn’t realize until it was too late to buy bottle how much we really enjoyed it!
The biggest surprise and hidden gem on our trip was the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg. It is literally a museum of over 20,000 pairs of salt and pepper shakers and a must for your cheap road trip! We had fun looking at all of the different designs and pointing out which ones we remembered from our childhood. The entrance fee was $3 a person and was well worth it.
After leaving Gatlinburg, we toured Smoky Mountain National Park. There is NO ENTRANCE FEE to the park! We were able to drive to the ranger station and get a free stamp in our National Parks passport book (around $10 if you don’t already have one). These make for another great inexpensive souvenir. The drive through the park to Asheville was breathtaking.
Our biggest entertainment expense in Asheville was touring The Biltmore Mansion. We knew this would be expensive, but we both had it on our bucket list. We purchased the least expensive ticket, which was $64 a person. This ticket gave us admission to a lot of the grounds and a self-guided tour. If we had to do it over again, we would have spent the extra $12 a person for a headset. A friend of Jason’s did this and said it was worth every penny. Our tickets did include entrance to the Antler Hill Village Winery, with a complimentary tasting.
Following our tour of the Biltmore, we drove back to Louisville. I wanted to visit the Howl at the Moon piano bar there, since I had been to the one in Orlando and had a blast. Fortunately, there was a Groupon for $20 that included four drinks. The drinks there were around $10 a piece, so that was around a 50% savings! Be sure to check Groupon for great deals on tourist activities–just remember to change the name of your location for the search.
Another big expense while road-tripping can be food because after all, you have to eat! Eating on the road can be pricey, but there are ways to save. We chose hotels that offered a free breakfast–most of them even had hot food options. This helped eliminate the cost of one meal a day. We brought food from home including snacks and sandwich fixings. We ate a few lunches and dinners from the food we brought along.
For the lunches we ate out, we used the Burger King and McDonald’s apps to locate the best deals. Both of these apps post coupons such as “Buy one Big Mac or 10 pc Chicken Nuggets, get one for $0.01”, or “$8.99 Whopper Meal for Two.” When there wasn’t a decent coupon deal, we would order off the dollar menu. This kept our lunch costs to around $8 a meal for the both of us. We used the Subway app as well when we wanted something a little healthier.
We had a couple of dinners out including one at an Asian buffet. For around $12 a person we were able to choose from a wide variety of Asian and American food options, and we left absolutely stuffed! Our nicest meal was at Longhorn Steakhouse, which of course, I had a coupon for. The coupon was good for $5 off one entree. We ordered the New York Strip steak meal to split, and added an extra order of fries. After the coupon was applied, our total was around $20. A steak dinner for around $10 a person is not too bad in my opinion.
The total cost for the trip was $778. You are probably thinking, “But Dawn, you said you paid less than $300.” That is right–with a little help from a credit card cash back offer. Churning credit card deals is a great way to save on travel. On this trip, we used the Capital One Savor card. At the time, there was a sign-up bonus of $500 when you spent $3,000 in the first three months. Read about how to get started churning credit cards here.
We signed up for the card a couple of months before our trip and put EVERYTHING on it, from car insurance to home owners insurance to groceries. We also put all of our trip expenses on the card. Doing this, it was not difficult to reach the $3,000. Once we reached the $3,000, a $500 cash back bonus was automatically loaded onto our card, bringing the cost of our trip down to $278! I have done this several times and still have great credit.
So there you have it–how we managed to take a six night/seven day trip for under the $300 mark. What are some of your favorite ways to save on travel?