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Written By Colin Graves

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Hey freedom fighters! We’re officially past the halfway point of the Mystery Money super frugal road trip, which makes for an opportune time to check in with an update.

In case you missed my last post, our family left home on July 21st. During our trip, we’re staying in hotels and with family, covering over 4000 miles across five states and three Canadian provinces. It’s a trip we’ve made annually for over fifteen years, with some variation, so needless to say we’ve become pretty savvy doing long trips with kids.


We’ve also learned how to pull off a road trip on a budget. During our 2016 vacation, we spent a grand total of $650, and this year we shouldn’t be far off of that number!

We do this by saving money in key areas while splurging in others, to gain the maximum enjoyment for our family. In this post, I’ll share some examples of how we strike a balance between saving and splurging.


A lot of people disagree with the whole concept of being frugal when they go on a vacation. After all, shouldn’t a vacation be a time to splurge without concern for frugality, or money in general?

I agree with this to a point, however there is a downside to overindulgence. Here’s an example:

Someone I know took their family on a similar road trip to ours last summer. Like us, they stayed in hotels and also with family. They travelled approximately the same distance. After they returned, they told me that the vacation cost them over $8000! I almost fell over. This wasn’t a Disney vacation, and they didn’t board an airplane or cross an ocean. How could they spend 1200% more than our family on a very similar trip? The worst part was that they didn’t seem to have that great a time. The entire family complained about some aspect of their journey.

Pretty sad, considering how much the vacation set them back. I didn’t have the heart to tell them we had spent less than $700, they were frustrated enough.  This family felt as though they needed to spend big at every opportunity to get the most out of their vacation.  In the end, the sheer cost cast a shadow over their experience.

super frugalFRUGAL VS. CHEAP

I should point out that being frugal isn’t the same as being cheap. A person who’s cheap will almost always opt to avoid spending money, even if it means obtaining something of value. They will accept inferiority for the sole purpose of saving a buck.

On the other hand, being frugal is about making choices which promote financial freedom. It means opting to spend less on things that add little to no value, in order to gain the ability to spend money on things that improve one’s quality or enjoyment of life.

It’s all about saving and splurging. To illustrate, here are some ways we balance frugality with targeted indulgence:


When we embark on long driving days, all of our food is prepared in advance. We pack wraps and sandwiches, as well as yogurt, fruit, water, and other healthy snacks in a plug-in cooler. On our current trip, we had enough food to easily last us two full days.

Not only does this save a boatload of money, but we also arrive at our hotel earlier, not having had to stop for meals along the way. Trust me, nothing makes a long drive feel longer than lengthy pitstops throughout the day.

There’s a payoff.

By arriving on time, and because we didn’t spend money on costly restaurants, we were able to reward ourselves with a relaxing dinner near the hotel, when we arrive.

On travel day 1, we took the kids to a Red Robin in Chicago, for burgers and shakes. The kids had a blast, and we created a fun vacation memory. Saving and splurging.

We could have opted for cheap and ate dinner from our cooler in the hotel room, but we indulged, and created an enjoyable family experience that everyone appreciated.


super frugalAs I mentioned above, there’s a difference between being frugal and being cheap. If we decided to go the cheap route, we would have taken our chances on the nearest roadside motel at $50/ night.

Instead, we stay at fairly nice hotels, while making sure we find the best deals to keep it frugal.

During our first two nights on the road, we stayed at a Best Western Plus in North Dakota, and a Hampton Inn and Suites outside Chicago. Thankfully, using Booking.com, we saved over $220 for the two nights, getting each room for under $100.  Saving and splurging.

While neither hotel are the Ritz-Carlton, they were clean, the rooms were spacious, and they shared a couple of important amenities:

1) A (hot) continental breakfast, and 2) a great swimming pool!

Because we’re travelling with kids, these are two luxuries my wife and I want to have whenever we stay at a hotel.

A hot breakfast.

Nowadays, many hotels offer a complimentary hot breakfast, served as early as 6 or 7 AM. This provides a number of benefits if you have a long drive ahead of you, especially when you have kids in tow.

It Saves Money – A complimentary breakfast covers your first meal of the day, at no cost. Our kids LOVE having the choice of waffles, scrambled eggs, sausages, sugary cereals we refuse to buy at home, you name it.

It Saves Time – When travelling, any time you don’t have to plan a meal, it’s a good thing. If you have a ten hour drive ahead of you, rather than wasting precious minutes eating at a restaurant or looking for a drive thru, grabbing a healthy, nutritious breakfast at the hotel before you head out is the way to go.

With our family, the promise of a great breakfast also acts as an incentive for our kids to get up and get going, as they always look forward to it. This is a real bonus when you have to set out early in the morning.

A great swimming pool.

I know, I know, it goes without saying. When you’re travelling with kids, the hotel pool makes for great entertainment. In fact, it’s the perfect way for EVERYONE to unwind.

When our kids were very young, the goal was simple: to reach our final destination. Because of this, we would often drive through the night, knowing that they would sleep for long periods of time.

Now that they’re older, we travel at a more relaxed pace, and hotel pools are a highlight, not to mention a perfect reward after a long day of driving.

In summary, by saving money using tools like booking.com, not to mention the travel reward points from our credit card to pay for the hotels, we can splurge by staying in nicer places.

You got it…saving and splurging.


I’ve got one final save & splurge to share with you! This year, we wanted to try something new, so we decided to spend a day at Canada’s Wonderland, which if you’re not familiar, is an amazing roller coaster/water/theme park near Toronto.

It wasn’t cheap, the tickets were $40/person ($40 X 5 = $200.00). However, I was able to purchase them on Costco’s website a few days prior to leaving on our trip. This alone saved us $120, as the price at the gate was $64/person.

While we did purchase some treats for the kids, we packed a picnic lunch which spared us the inflated prices inside the park. Halfway through the day we found some shade under a tree near where we were parked and had sandwiches, apples, chips and ice cold water.

Saving and splurging.


Sometime in the next couple of weeks, after we arrive home, I’ll write a post and breakdown all of our vacation expenses. In the meantime, I hope this update gives you some insight on how we’re creating a family adventure, while keeping it frugal. : )

If you’re planning a trip, you’ve got to check out Booking.com!  I use them for all of my hotel reservations, and am always impressed by how easy it is to get the information I need on different properties, and lock in a great deal!  Feel free to use my exclusive link to book your next stay.  

I have an affiliate relationship with Booking.com.  This means I receive a small commission (at no cost to you) when you use my link to book your next hotel stay.  Please note that I only promote products that I myself use, and have confidence in. 



  1. My kids are so excited to stay at a hotel – any hotel. Going downstairs for breakfast in their pajamas at a Comfort Inn is heaven for them. We splurged on a nice hotel in the Adirondacks this summer, but my kids would have been just as happy at a roadside motel. But my husband and I enjoyed having a few days of luxury. We did a lot of hiking and packed lunches to try to even it out. Theme park prices – ouch, no way around that biting a bit. But as kids grow older, those are some great memories and well worth the cost of admission. Have a great time with your family on your road trip MMM – it sounds epic (as my son would say)! Stay safe – we had a terrifying close call on our way home as a speeding drive lost control of his car right behind us and spun into the shoulder. We had to speed up to avoid him. It was a scary reminder that no matter how safe a driver you are, there are dangerous idiots out there. This should be good driving practice for your son…

    • Wow Linda, glad to hear you avoided the close call! The Adirondacks are beautiful, we’re not terribly far away from there now. This trip has been great driving practice for A although I didn’t give him the wheel in Chicago or Toronto :). I will say, I have noticed his confidence growing along the way. Just having an additional driver has made for an easier journey all around. The theme park was a blast and worth the money, but it was a lot of walking and standing in lines in the hot sun. I don’t know that we would want to do more than the one day. We’re in Ottawa now, which is the more laid back stretch of our trip. It’s always nice coming home. 🙂

  2. It’s great to see how you guys plan. As it turns out, it’s fairly close to what we do. We stay in “reasonably nice” hotels for the exact same reasons plus one extra – cable! We don’t even have an antenna in our house so having access to Disney, Disney Junior, etc is a BIG splurge for the kids.

    We also pack our lunches so we don’t have to pay for those on the road – that alone has saved us tons for our wallets and waistlines alike 🙂

    • Hey Chris, thanks for reading! That’s the beauty of the frugal approach. By saving on things that don’t matter that much to us (fancy restaurants, shopping), we’re able to direct funds to the areas that do matter, within reason (comfortable hotels and rollercoasters : ) ).
      The thing is, others will have a different opinion on what’s important to them, and they can design their vacation to fit their tastes.
      Are you back from your road trip, by the way? I’d love to know how it turned out! 🙂


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