Super Frugal Road Trip Recap

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Written By Colin Graves

We are a family that loves to road trip.  In fact, over the past 18 years my wife and I, along with our three kids, have logged more than 65,000 miles on over 20 road trips.

During this time, we’ve learned how to create some pretty memorable vacations with our kids.  We’ve also figured out how to make them extremely affordable.

When I began blogging a couple of years ago, I decided to document these “Super Frugal Road Trips”, as I now affectionately refer to them, to show others just how affordable a family vacation can be.

Road Trip Recap

This summer, we set a budget of $1000, as we had managed to keep the cost of our trip under that amount in previous years.

I’ll admit, while we were on vacation, I had some doubt as to whether we could pull it off.  Well, I’m pleased to announce that we did pull it off, with a couple hundred dollars to spare!

This trip was one of the best yet, proof that a memorable family vacation, filled with adventure, can also be affordable.

Here are a few of the highlights:

  • 18 day road trip.
  • We travelled over 3700 miles
  • I met up with a fellow pf blogger! – a highlight for me 🙂
  • Visited 8 states & provinces
  • Stayed in nice hotels
  • Ate at nice restaurants (and a few fast food joints)
  • Our kids went swimming no less than 11 days. (they love water)
  • Saw Paramore/Foster The People in concert
  • Shopped on Michigan Ave in Chicago
  • Spent a day canoeing/kayaking
  • Drank great coffee
  • Visited a nature conservatory
  • Played tennis
  • Spent time outdoors everyday
  • Most importantly, spent lots of time with family.

Remember, we did all of this while keeping the cost of our vacation under $1000.

Without further ado, here is the full breakdown of our vacation expenses, followed by a more detailed description of each line item:

Note:  All amounts are in US Dollars. 

affordable family vacation


We spent four nights in hotels, which came in at $671.  Fortunately, we were able to cover the full cost with our credit card reward points, resulting in a net expense of $0.00.  I should note, spending two nights in downtown Chicago definitely drove up the price of hotels. But because I booked a suite, complete with a full kitchen, we were able to prepare healthy meals in our hotel room, and avoid the expense of eating in restaurants.  We did splurge a couple of times, however.

road tripFOOD

There are two parts to this.  First of all, we spent $377 on food (restaurants $176, groceries $201), but our net expense was $0.  How is that possible? As I explained earlier, when you’re budgeting for a family vacation, it’s important to realize that there’s a cost to staying home.  Had we not gone on our road trip, we would still spend approximately $400 on groceries over an 18-day period.  By subtracting this from what we did spend on food, we arrive at our net vacation expense.

The other part of this is the $377 we spent on food during our trip.

To make this happen, we:

  • treat restaurant meals as an exception rather than the rule.
  • pack a cooler with healthy food and snacks for long driving days.
  • book hotel rooms with kitchenettes for multi-day stays.
  • only stay at hotels that serve a hot, continental breakfast.
  • wherever possible, we buy food form grocery stores, as opposed to restaurants.

I should note that we do splurge on a couple of nice restaurant meals, as well as a few fast food stops, for the kids.  But it’s not every day.


We load our family of 5 into a Toyota Sienna, which in my opinion, is simply the best vehicle on the market for families with more than two children.  There are many reasons for this, which I’ll share in a future post.  As for fuel prices, they were slightly higher this year than last, but we still did fairly well.  We spent $386 on fuel, with our net expense coming in at $265. I’ve discounted what I would have spent on gas for our two vehicles, had we stayed at home ($120).

And if that seems like a lot, it is, because I don’t love close to where I work, plain and simple.  Hoping that will change someday soon. 🙂


I got an oil change and inspection on our van prior to leaving on our trip.  The net expense is pro-rated to reflect the number of miles we would normally drive at home.


We paid $48 driving on toll highways during our road trip.  $18 was incurred in the Chicago area, and we also paid tolls at the US/CAN border.  The most expensive however, was taking the 407 tollway in Toronto to avoid the insanity that is the 401.

Someone told me it’s the most expensive toll highway in the world, and I believe it! Normally I wouldn’t splurge on something like this, but I wasn’t in the mood for sitting in Toronto traffic on that particular day.


This expense hurt.  We spent $122 for valet parking (2 nights) at our hotel in Chicago.  Fortunately, the amount was added to our hotel bill, so I was able to cover the full amount using our credit card travel reward points, making our net expense only $4.50.

By the way, I would love for someone from Chicago to tell me how I can spend less $$$ on parking. Is it possible?

I will say, the valet parking was incredibly convenient, the attendants even unloaded our van and delivered our bags right to our room!  Our only other parking expense was at a nature conservation area we visited.


I’m a big believer that money is better spent on experiences than on stuff, and for me, this was Exhibit A.  While we were in Chicago, my son, youngest daughter and I, went to see two of our favourite bands play at the Huntington Bank Pavilion.

Watching live music with 8000 other people, in 90 degree weather, while behind the stage the sun sets on the Chicago skyline is something to behold.

It’s a memory that none of us will ever forget, and was certainly worth the expense, which was $202, by the way.


While we were in Ontario, we spent a day at a provincial park with some friends and family.  We swam at the beach, and decided to rent a couple of canoe’s. It was a great idea, as the kids loved being out on the water.  Again, experiences > stuff.


We did buy a few small items during our trip, including two pounds of coffee from a shop we love, a few books from a used bookstore, and some clothing items from a couple of thrift stores.  Every year, our daughters love to go “thrifting” with their grandmother, so this was a must-do.

I also bought a Paramore tour t-shirt for my daughter, from the aforementioned concert. It’s now her favourite piece of clothing.


While experiences > stuff, Mrs. MMM and I are not so restrictive that we don’t allow our kids to spend any money on vacation.

Not by a long shot.

Our kids brought their own spending money to do some shopping, but we also gave them some extra cash for the trip.

While in Chicago, we spent a few hours shopping on Michigan Ave, and we also went to an outlet mall in Ontario.  I included the money we gave them ($160) as a vacation expense. road trip

Gross vs. Net Expenses

Our gross vacation expenses ($2,102.50) represent the money we actually spent on our trip.  By leveraging our credit card reward points, we reduced that expense by $775.

We saved an additional $500 by taking into account something that a lot of people overlook when they’re planning a vacation.

From our gross expenses, we also subtract the money we are saving by not being at home.

In other words, when you’re away on vacation, you’re not buying groceries or putting gas in your car for the daily commute.

As long as you haven’t removed these items from your regular budget, you can subtract them from the cost of your vacation.  Make sense?

When you look at it this way, travelling instantly becomes more affordable.

In our case, we saved over $500 by not being at home, making the final cost of our vacation less than $900!


There you have it, Super Frugal Road Trip 2018 is in the books!  In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your road trip experiences as well as any related money-saving tips you have to share!



10 thoughts on “Super Frugal Road Trip Recap”

  1. Your road trips amaze me. I am one day into my family’s road trip to Maine and I think my beer budget and my husbands lobster budget alone are half what you spent on your entire trip! This inspires me to do better today! We’re hiking today so hopefully I can reign it in a bit. Lol.

    • Ha, as a native Nova Scotian, I can definitely relate to your husbands love of lobster. Sounds like you’ve got a fun trip planned Linda, I look forward to seeing a recap post of your own? Have a great time! 🙂

  2. Sounds like an amazing trip and wonderful memories as a family. I look forward to taking these kinds of trips with my kids and will definitely be coming back for reference on how to do it all so frugally. Very impressive!

    • Thanks for reading, Cody! It really is a highlight of our year every year. In fact, looking back over the years, it’s amazing how much detail we can recall from our different trips. As my wife and I are passing the hours in the van, we’ll bring up a memory, and then it’ll be like. “Oh, that was 2006, or 2009”. It’s pretty cool.

  3. Every time you summarize your road trip costs, I’m blown away. We certainly love to road trip too, but we’re still far from your level of cost optimization!

    It was awesome getting coffee with you – definitely something I’m hoping we can do next time you swing through!

  4. Great breakdown of what seems like a fantastic trip. I’m impressed you could take 18 days off for a wonderful road trip like this too, jealous!

    My wife have done the same thing when it comes to food and gas on our vacations. Those are already things that are in the budget and for the most part we can stay at or under those amounts when we travel so that is a great way to decrease expenses while traveling. Also, being gone 18 days probably reduced your utility bills a bit too? I don’t think that factors into vacation expenses necessarily, but always nice to save some money on utilities.

    Great article MMM!

    • Hey Cooper! Thanks, and yes, I definitely made the most of my eligible vacation days on this trip. : ) Thankfully I still have a couple weeks left, so I’ll probably take some time in the fall. You make a really good point about utility bills, including them in the equation would have lowered our net costs that much more. Thanks for reading!

  5. Hello MMM, I am new to your blog, and maybe missed it somewhere in previous posts. You show 4 nights in hotels out of ~17 nights, where did you and the family sleep and shower the rest of the time and are those costs included?

    Thank you for the article.


    • Hey Kris, thank you so much for stopping by and reading! I really appreciate you pointing this out, from a new reader’s perspective.

      A big portion of our trip was spent visiting family; my parents, my brother & his family etc., during a couple of different stops along the way.

      The reason I didn’t get into those details is because I have a follow up post coming out next week that will be dedicated to that aspect of not only OUR trip, but family vacations in general. (stay tuned! 🙂

      I did begin to write about that in this article, but found myself losing focus and heading in a completely different direction.

      I really wanted this post to be strictly a recap of the numbers.

      To completely answer your question though, staying with family does help reign in expenses quite a bit, especially lodging, and food costs. Family isn’t charging us to visit, but we do buy groceries while we’re staying with family, to share the cost.

      So, some of our food expenses were incurred while we were visiting family.

      If we were planning a vacation without any stops to visit family, as we have done in the past, there are a number of things we would do to keep expenses down.

      This would likely include accumulating/using more credit card travel reward points. With some reasonable travel hacking, I could earn points at a far faster pace than I do. We would also avoid getting hotels in high price areas like downtown Chicago, opting for the suburbs.

      There are a number of things.


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