Planning your next big “freeing” road trip? Want to feel the wind in your hair? Don’t we all (well, those of us with a proclivity for adventure). However, the flip side of that is the memes we all see on Instagram or TikTok where families are talking about expectations of road trips versus reality, and the parents start off gingerly smiling and the kids bopping along only for the ‘expectations’ of the video to turn into a crying toddler, surly teenager and two parents annoyed with one another of who’s fault it is that one missed the exit sign.
A spade’s a spade: road trips, while liberating, can also be stressful. When I first began van life and took off in my Ram Promaster in 2021, I was wide-eyed ad completely idealistic. Little do I know how much I would need to learn over the years about ways to save my time, money, and sanity.
Whether you’re embarking on a cross-country adventure or just a weekend getaway, road trips are usually a valuable way to explore new places and create lasting memories. However, the process itself can sometimes be a bit challenging. To ensure an enjoyable road trip experience, Here are some essential road trip hacks that will save you time, money, and a family argument three hours into the trip:
Looking to Save Money and Time On Your Next Road Trip? Start with These Easy Tips
1. Check Out Tolls on Your Route
If you’re anything like me, the self-proclaimed “nomad” and “free spirit” I had a difficult time with this… until I ended up owing something like $50 for some missed Florida panhandle toll that was originally $1.87.
After cursing the corporate tax gods, and paying the late fee, I have since learned the lesson. Check the routes ahead of time so you can plan ahead for toll expenses. Don’t wait, like me, and assume you can scrounge up change from the middle console or the crusty bottom of your backpack. Not only are tolls increasingly expensive, but most of the time, I don’t have cash and while many tolls now take credit cards, some still don’t and it will inevitably cause you to forget about the measly little $2 toll fee you’re meant to send back in a white envelope.
In addition, before hitting the open road, help yourself by looking for the unnecessary detours due to construction. In today’s world, construction is a given. Be sure to check for any road closures, construction zones, or traffic delays along the way. Staying updated on current road conditions can save you both time and frustration.
2. Don’t Pack Like You’re Headed to Europe
When I first took off in my van, I kid you not when I say that I packed multiple cocktail dresses just “in case” some magical experience happened where I’d need that. Now, granted, I did actually end up using one of the dresses at a random Oregon costume party I was invited to while on the road, but in general it was a complete waste of space. I basically wear the same 4 outfits, altering between a set of overalls for driving, joggers for a hike or run somewhere random or the Planet Fitness I go to in each state, and then a couple “nice” outfits for a dinner out. Now, not everyone would be happy with this of course, but my point is that you don’t need as much as you first believe you do. It just never comes to fruition.
Take the time to make a checklist of essential items, toiletries, and travel documents. If you’ve got a cat or dog cruising with you, double check you have what you need in case of an emergency pet visit or if you plan to roll into Canada or hey, even down to Mexico.
Use packing cubes or vacuum-sealed bags to maximize space in your luggage. I have two easy-to-transport camping boxes that slide easily in and out of the back of my van, and also have firm handles. Firm handles that clip in are a must, otherwise that lid will end up causing you so many headaches (take it from firsthand experience).
3. Invest in Future Time-Savings Items
When I say time-saving items, the first thing that comes to mind is a cooler.
If you don’t have a great fridge already installed, buy a good cooler. It’ll save you so much headache and spilt juices and food that’s only half-maintained. Having a cooler saved me when my fridge went out, when my solar battery was low and also it was generally great to have it in the front seat with me at times where I was on the road driving. For those already with a great RV fridge, this couple apply to other things like coffee makers or fancier tubberware. RV life on the road is messy no matter how any influencer tells you differently. It’s messy and there’s always random stuff somewhere no matter how many times you clean up a day which leads to more and more opportunities for loose pasta sauce to spill out the sides of things or chips crumbs bouncing along the RV floor.
Invest what you can in quality items that help save you cleaning time and keep organized.
4. Technology Really is Your Friend
I say go for Waze, but others are staunch believers in Google Maps. Regardless, make the most of technology to enhance your road trip experience. Another recommendation is to invest in a good smartphone holder or mount to keep your device easily accessible while driving. I bought one flippantly at a gas station in the beginning and it was a pain and barely could contain my phone. Once I took some time to really research one, it ended up saving me a lot of time and was quite useful (and safer). On that note, I’d also recommend an extended phone charger USB for the car. That way, you can easily move your phone around to the passenger if you need direction help or something akin.
5. Plan Ahead … But Not Minute-to-Minute
My first extended road trip, I planned everything down to an absolute art, including where I planned to stay, what I’d do at each stop, and what restaurants and cafes to explore.
Funny thing with road trips is right when you think you have a plan, they have a tendency to flip you on your side.
What I didn’t take into account was the freedom of the road. Unless you really have an exact time and location in mind that you need to be there at a certain time, then allow for the “side” trips” of a road trip. Take into account that you may meet some other road trip people and want to hang out in one place longer. During my first adventure, I had originally planned out every stop and paid ahead. Ultimately, I ended up losing money because I understandably couldn’t get a refund on short notice at pre-paid campgrounds and missed my reservations by staying in some places longer than intended.
6. Take Advantage of (KOA) Rewards Programs
When it comes to lodging, don’t forget to login and/or register for your KOA Rewards to save money each and every time you stay with KOA. If where you’re going doesn’t have a KOA campground near it, there are a variety of options to save money. While hotels are a comfortable choice, you can also explore budget-friendly alternatives like motels or Airbnb rentals. Many campgrounds and rest areas offer free or low-cost overnight parking for RVs and campers, which can significantly reduce your accommodation expenses. Just be sure to plan your stops in advance to secure your spot.
With careful planning and some road trip hacks, you can make the most of your journey while saving time, money, and stress. Remember that the road trip itself is an adventure, so enjoy the ride and create lasting memories along the way. Safe travels and happy road tripping!
Lindsey Hall is an award-winning mental health speaker and writer, focusing on what she refers to as “the nitty gritty topics not discussed.” She is the author behind “I Haven’t Shaved in Six Weeks,” a blog written to humanize the stigmas of eating disorders and treatment.
Through her published writing and work in public relations, she has had the privilege of speaking around the world on nuanced topics such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Exercise Addiction, Orthorexia and other eating disorder behaviors, and has been featured in publications including TODAY Show, CBS, Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SheKnows, SHAPE Magazine, Refinery29, and more.
An outdoor enthusiast (and Colorado girl) at heart, Lindsey loves to hike wherever possible and is currently focused on taking her white Dodge Ram ProMaster van around the world with her lovely cat, Smudges. Together, they have traveled in over 40 states and even across borders into Canada to conquer the trails!
Follow Lindsey Hall on Instagram.