How to Plan a Frugal Family Road Trip This Fall

With strategic planning, you can keep costs low as you enjoy quality time together.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Plan a Frugal Family Road Trip This Fall

Happy family inside car

Bringing along a tablet to play movies can keep your kids busy for hours during a long drive.(Getty Images)

Road-tripping seems simple: Just fill up the tank, pack up the kids and trade long security lines and costly flight tickets for quality time cruising together on scenic routes, right? But seasoned parents know planning a road trip that satisfies everyone's needs isn't always that easy. Settling squabbles in the back seat. Organizing activities that cater to youngsters and grown-ups. Finding an affordable place to stay overnight. It can be challenging, especially if you're on a tight budget.

Well, families, fret not. We're here to help. With some guidance from travel experts and globetrotting parents, we've pinpointed smart strategies for orchestrating a cheap, comfortable and fun family drive this fall.

Drive to Destinations With Seasonal Discounts

"The best availability and pricing are available to those who plan ahead," says Julie Hall, a spokeswoman for AAA Travel. For families who have flexible schedules, she suggests planning a trip during the shoulder season to score reduced rates on attractions and lodging. "If you're planning to travel to the theme parks or beach destinations, oftentimes those destinations will lower those rates during the fall," she explains. Plus, traveling by car is still more cost-effective than flying, with national gas prices averaging $2.34 per gallon last month, down from $3.39 in September 2014, according to an October AAA Travel report.

Beyond securing better pricing options by traveling to destinations with deals, Colleen Lanin, founder and editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com, advises timing your trip strategically to avoid battling heavy traffic on the roadways. "It's cheapest to travel when others aren't," she says. "Roads are also less congested when traveling during off-season. That means steering clear of hitting the road around major holidays, like Thanksgiving." It's also advisable to dodge peak-season traffic by staying off the road at Christmastime and New Year's Eve.

A Little Pre-Trip Planning Goes a Long Way

If you want to maximize savings, put in some preliminary legwork to outline your itinerary and create a well-thought-out budget. Even if you have a GPS, map out your route in advance with a paper map or a website like MapQuest, Lanin says. "This allows you to determine the best places and times for pit stops for play and meals and will give a realistic picture of what to expect on your journey," she adds.

You should consider your kids' interests to get them invested from the get-go, suggests Amy Norman, co-founder and co-CEO of Little Passports, a company that helps budding globetrotters through adventure kits and educational tools. "The first thing I do to make sure it's fun is to get my children involved from the beginning," she says. "Make sure it's somewhere they want to go," she adds. And if the kids are old enough, Norman advises breaking out an old-fashioned map and soliciting their help to determine where to stay each night.

Load Up the Car With Entertainment

To trim extra costs throughout the journey, stock up the car with games, books and pre-downloaded apps and entertainment, Lanin suggests. "Play old-school games like 20 Questions, I Spy or License Plate Bingo. Plenty of board games come in travel versions, like checkers, chess, Connect Four and many more," she says. She also suggests picking up travel crafts to bring on the road. "Children love Crayola's Color Wonder kits with 'magical' markers that only color on special paper; parents love that the markers won't make a mess of the car's interior or the kids."

Traveling with older kids? "Parents can make the miles zoom by with books on CD," Lanin says. She advises selecting crowd-pleasers such as "Harry Potter," "Little House on the Prairie" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." If you're not a fan of audiobooks, she recommends creating a soundtrack filled with your favorite tunes. "Electronic entertainment is always a hit with young travelers. Movies played on a travel DVD player or smart tablet can entertain kids for hours," she explains.

Factor in Fuel Expenses

It's a smart idea to download handy money-saving apps, like GasBuddy, Lanin says. "I love the GasBuddy app for finding the lowest gas prices in the U.S. and Canada," she says. "You can take a peek at gas prices at different locales along your route via their website, too, so you can plan your fuel-ups ahead of time." She also notes that gas prices can change significantly from state to state, so it's smart to research the gallon costs before you go. "For example, my family is always sure to fill up our gas tank in Arizona before crossing the California [border], where prices skyrocket. Gasoline in remote locations also tends to be quite high because of the costs to transport it there," she adds.

Hall suggests using AAA Travel's Fuel Cost Calculator to estimate the approximate cost of your journey. She also recommends using the AAA Mobile app to take advantage of routing tools and easily pinpoint the nearest gas stations throughout your trip.

Stretch Often and Sprinkle in Stops at Educational Destinations

Norman suggests traveling to destinations that allow kids to "combine learning with fun." Rather than hitting the beach, she suggests seeking out history-rich destinations. For instance, if you live on the East Coast, take the kids to Charleston, South Carolina, to brush up on history. Or, if you're based on the West Coast, fall is a prime time to visit Arizona and see the Grand Canyon, she adds, since sizzling temperatures have subsided and bargain-friendly lodging options abound.

No matter where you're headed, Hall advises stopping every hundred miles to stretch your feet at roadside attractions, which is not only good for the kids, but also helps drivers stay mentally alert on the road.

Carve Out Times to Recharge

Lanin advises mapping out plenty of pit stops along the way, so youngsters can burn off any lingering energy. But bypass the sit-down restaurants, and stick to dining in the car. "Eating on the road keeps young passengers entertained while driving, and then you can stop to play instead at a park, rest stop or roadside attraction," she says. "After hours cooped up in a car, kids may not be so good at sitting still and using their 'inside voices' during a long restaurant meal," she adds, noting that if you do stop to eat, choose a kid-friendly establishment with "a play area for kids, video games, kitschy gift shop or other diversions." Another tip: If you're traveling with another adult, take turns driving, she says. "It always helps if one grown-up can ride in the backseat to help entertain the children with crafts and games for at least a portion of the road trip. This minimizes sibling disputes and increases the fun factor."

Norman says the key to mitigating frustration on the road is planning breaks each day. She suggests organizing an educational activity for an hour every day to keep young kids stimulated. "Recharging time allows us to go back out in the afternoon," she explains, and for elementary school kids, she suggests taking a couple hours to recoup and enjoy a little peace and quiet. "You really need to meet kids where they are and set realistic expectations."

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