I turned 30 this month.
Over the past six months, I’ve become a grown-up really fast. I have a full-time job, a salary, a 401(k) and an apartment in a retirement community in Florida.
I used to be cool.
For the past four years, my boyfriend Stefan and I lived in college towns and hipster cities. We were broke and chasing unlikely dreams. We made the kinds of bad decisions that lead to good stories.
We lived without money, without a car for a while, even without a home for eight months. We couchsurfed around the U.S., savoring the struggle of being starving artists.
This week, my biggest struggle was digging through the Tupperware cabinet to find the lid that matched the container I was packing my lunch in.
We have a Tupperware cabinet.
Thirty never really scared me. Age is just a number, and all that jazz.
But then I found myself digging through various sizes of matching green plastic lids thinking, “We need a system for this,” and 30 suddenly hit me pretty hard.
I backed my torso out of the cabinet, snapped the lid on my lunch and said to Stefan, “We need a vacation.”
A Penny Hoarder’s Road Trip
I didn’t want just any vacation. Flights and nice dinners and mid-grade hotel rooms — those are things adults with jobs can afford.
But I wanted to do it the way we used to: broke and without a plan.
So I drew a six-hour radius around our Tampa area home and picked a destination. I pulled $300 out of the bank and told Stefan to clear his weekend.
We were heading to Savannah, Georgia.
How We Took a 720-Mile Road Trip for Less Than $300
I picked Savannah almost at random, mostly because we’d never been there.
I also knew we could drive there in about six hours for less than $30.
Thankfully, it turns out Savannah is also a gorgeous historic city on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a lovely early-spring weekend in the Southern state, about 70 degrees and partly sunny. So we could do our favorite things: walking and people-watching.
But I knew we had to do more than that. “We took a walk” doesn’t make for a very good story, even if it was cheap.
So I pulled out a few simple Penny Hoarder tricks to make the trip memorable without letting it break our budget.
- Use rewards to save money on gas.
- Find a good hotel at a cheap rate.
- Use coupon sites to save on entertainment and food.
- Pack smart, so we don’t buy things we don’t need on the road.
- Find FREE entertainment.
We took this weekend road trip 360 miles from home for a grand total of $278.64.
Save Money on Gas
What we spent on gas: $44.56
A key factor in the cost of a road trip is the price of gas. Thankfully, gas is cheap right now.
A year ago, the same trip would have cost about 50% more in gas, and double that two years ago.
We used these tricks to keep our gas cost down even more:
Cash in Rewards Points
We use a rewards card at Winn Dixie to knock pennies off a gallon of gas at Shell and other gas stations every time we buy groceries.
Most grocery cards offer similar rewards, even if your store doesn’t have a proprietary gas station.
Our Winn Dixie fuel rewards knocked 15 cents off each gallon when we filled up before leaving town.
Buy Gas in Small Towns
Avoid gas stations just off the freeway, if you can.
Wait until you get to a small town, off the main route. Gas prices will probably be cheaper there due to lower demand.
Avoid gas stations in busy parts of the city, too. Real estate is more expensive there, and gas stations are less common, so increased demand drives prices up.
Gas near our hotel 15 minutes outside of Savannah was $1.60 per gallon. A few miles down the freeway and downtown, it was $1.89.
Save Money on a Hotel
What we spent for two nights in a hotel: $131.02
We book all our hotels through the Hotels.com app. Like any aggregator, it offers reduced room rates. It also offers a free room credit for every 10 rooms we book.
We booked two nights, Friday through Sunday, at a Motel 6 in Pooler, just south of Savannah proper.
The rate was $60 per night, plus $25 in taxes. We paid $145 out of pocket, but if we subtract 10% to account for the free room rewards we earned, our total cost was just $131.02.
We stayed outside of the city — even the discounted rooms downtown were at least double that nightly rate.
Unless we find a killer deal, we never book within the city limits. It’s a road trip. What’s an extra 15 minutes to get downtown for the day?
We booked through a discount hotel aggregator, because it’s cheap. Note this can inhibit your ability to make changes or receive a refund if anything goes wrong.
If you can save money with travel rewards or a member discount, I recommend booking directly.
Finally, I’ll always take a chance on Motel 6. The low-cost motor inn is shy with amenities, but has renovated most locations over the past few years.
If you’re picky, budget for a mid-grade hotel, or collect travel rewards to save money on a higher-quality brand.
Save Money Eating Out
What we spend on food and drinks: $81.06
While many tourists are savvy enough to avoid expensive entertainment and souvenirs, it’s still easy to blow your budget on food and drinks — without even realizing it.
Either that, or you feel like you have to stick to the Dollar Menu for your whole trip.
You don’t have to do either.
Here’s how we save money on food:
Don’t Buy Snacks at a Gas Station, Ever
They may only be a few dollars at a time, but convenience store snacks will eat away at your budget.
We packed bottled water, chips, crackers, nuts and granola bars we already had in the house and skipped the convenience store goodies.
Snacks are part of our normal grocery budget, and the grocery-store price is a fraction of the convenience-store price on the road.
We buy bottled water by the case at home, which is around $3 for 24 bottles. You’ll pay more than $1 per bottle at the gas station, so it’s worth loading the car before a trip.
Take Advantage of Hotel Breakfasts
Note whether your hotel offers continental breakfast. For two people and two mornings, that could save $10-$20. The savings might even justify a slightly higher room rate.
Our Motel 6 didn’t offer breakfast, but it did have free coffee! That saved me about $2 each day.
Find Healthy Options at Fast-Food Restaurants
We did make one stop at Chick-fil-A Friday night, because… road trip through the South.
Known for its delicious fried chicken, the restaurant also offers lighter fare at comparable prices. You can get fruit cups, parfaits, wraps and salads on the go.
Outside of the South, Subway is our go-to fast-food restaurant, where we can find healthier options and get enough food for two meals each for around $10.
Before you stop for fast food, search for coupons and download the restaurant’s app. Many companies offer a freebie just for downloading the app or joining their email lists.
Find Affordable Local Restaurants
In any town, I always scour Yelp in the “diner” category to find cheap food off the beaten path. Local diners usually offer something for everyone, with most items costing less than $10.
We ate lunch at Henry’s Restaurant in Savannah’s historic district for $23, including tip.
For dinner, we picked Aroy Jung, an Asian fusion place downtown. It offered a Groupon, $14 for $22 worth of food, which was enough for two people.
Our order was just $1.54 extra, so we had a date-night-worthy dinner for a total of $20.54, including tip.
(P.S. Enjoy your Groupon savings, but remember to tip on the full amount!)
Skip Alcohol or Bring Your Own
A huge point of savings for us was not drinking. We didn’t forgo it to save money; we just rarely drink.
If you do, and you’re going on vacation, suggesting you skip it is probably not realistic advice.
But you don’t have to blow your budget on booze.
Take a tip from your college days, and drink at home before you go out. Stock up at a grocery store or even convenience store when you get to town, instead of at the bar.
If alcohol is cheaper in your state than at your destination, take it with you. Just be conscious of laws about transporting alcohol over state lines.
Also, order smart at the bar. For example, my favorite drink used to be “gin on the rocks with a splash of olive juice.” It’s a dirty martini over ice, but it usually cost about 30% less when I ordered it this way.
Saying “martini” costs money — and you’re stuck with that goofy glass.
All-told, these were our food costs:
- $13.31 for dinner on Friday at Chick-fil-A
- $23 for brunch on Saturday at Henry’s
- $20.54 for dinner on Saturday at Aroy Jung with a Groupon
- $20.80 for breakfast/lunch on Sunday at Waffle House (because… road trip in the South)
- $3.41 for coffee and beverages on the road Sunday afternoon
Find Free Entertainment
What we spent on entertainment: $14
What we spent on parking: $8
We found mostly free entertainment.
We only paid $7 each to get into national monument Fort Pulaski, plus $8 total for parking at the beach and downtown.
Even with the low cost of this trip, I’m cringing at what we paid for parking. We’d have saved $5 if we weren’t running late for our dinner reservation — so plan ahead!
Here’s what we did for free in Savannah:
- Toured the Historic District
- Walked and window-shopped on River Street
- Saw the Atlantic Ocean on the beach at Tybee Island
- Visited the historic Bonaventure Cemetery
We found tons of free stuff recommended by many tourist sites. But we couldn’t pack it all into one day!
Wherever you’re headed, start by searching “free things to do in [that city],” and you’ll find tons of interesting stuff you might not have imagined.
Also go offline, and just ask the locals. They’ll have insight into the places and events that aren’t packed with tourists — which will be cheaper.
Pick up a local newspaper. Weeklies are often free in boxes around the city or at your hotel. Browse them for local trivia nights, open mics and other free events travel sites might ignore.
Your Turn: What travel tips can you add from your own thrifty road trips?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more.