How to Survive a Frugal Road Trip With Toddlers Cross Country

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Are you dreading trying to take a frugal road trip with toddlers? Don’t! This is how we’re preparing ourselves, our kids, and our car for a frugal road trip from Kentucky to Washington. This is as low budget and low waste as we can get!

frugal road trip with toddlers

If the first thing you’re asking yourself is “are we crazy” then let’s just stick a pin in that and explore some options. We can always come back to that at the end.

Let me answer all your questions about how to survive a frugal road trip with toddlers across the country (and back again).

Planning a Frugal Road Trip with Toddlers

The first step is to have a plan. Know the distance you’re driving, and how much of it you can expect to do in a day. Know what time you expect to leave, how many drivers you have, and have a reasonable expectation for how long your toddlers can happily sit still in the car before they need a potty break, a good stretch, and snacks.

If you’re traveling during the day, you’ll need more frequent stops, as it is reasonable to expect your kids to be awake for the majority of the day. They’ll likely nap slightly more than they would at home, purely out of boredom, but they will also need you to stop to give them a break – after all road trips are hard when you don’t even understand why you’re stuck in the car for so long or where you are going.

You also will need a break, whether that’s from simply driving and watching the endless miles pass under your tires, or from sitting in one position listening to the (hopefully) comical conversations your kids bring up.

My favorite way to plan stops is around meal times. But I don’t plan to just stop long enough to buy or eat food, I plan it as if we were going to have a picnic and a playground stop, and I do in fact attempt to stop at a playground.

If you choose to travel by night, which is my preference, then you can expect to stop less frequently for the kids’ sake, but you may need more to help you stay awake and alert as you drive. Fortunately for many adults, the stops “necessary” during the night could just be a drive through for a coffee to reboot your energy.

Either way, keep in mind details like approximately how long you can expect to drive without having to stop for gas, how long your kids will stay happy, how much water or food you have with you, and other pertinent details about your actual travel plans.

How to keep your road trip frugal

One of my goals with our coming trip, as with most of our road trips, is to keep our whole road trip as frugal and low budget as possible. Traveling can be expensive, so any ways I can find to limit spending is high on my priorities list. We also try to travel with as low waste as possible, partly for my sanity in cleaning out the car after a leg of the trip, and partly because we’re pursuing a low-waste lifestyle as much as we can.

Fortunately, traveling in a low budget, low waste manner often has a lot of overlap.

Here are some of the things we do to keep spending down on a long road trip. There will obviously be things you can’t skimp on, like making sure you have enough fuel despite varying prices across the country, but following these methods helps us to keep our travel “cheap.”

  1. Bring a cooler with snacks you or your kids will need. This is great for limiting pit-stop spending on snacks that would have been cheaper at the grocery store if you went there instead. It is also good for portion control so you can monitor if you’re just mindlessly snacking, or if you’re actually eating because you’re hungry (same goes for your kids)! Another great perk of bringing whatever snacks ahead of time (props if you also made them at home!) is that you’re not going to be purchasing snack sized items on your trip, leading to astounding piles of discarded wrappers, bags, and containers along the way.
  2. This same idea can be applied to actual meals in addition to snacks. I like to make sandwiches ahead of time, partly because they’re easy to eat quickly, they’re more nutritious than most fast food, and they keep relatively well. Putting a handful of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on an icepack can be an extremely economical option, and again limits waste. For myself I prefer a good ham, cheese, lettuce sandwich, but sometimes I’m not too picky. You could also opt to just throw bread and the jar of PB and J, or your other sandwich fixins into the cooler and assemble en route for a fresher feeling meal. (Though I love having the “work” of it already done beforehand personally.)
  3. Coffee is probably one of my most frequent road trip purchases, especially when traveling through the night or without another driver to alternate with. A good low budget low waste alternative is to bring hot coffee in a thermos, either black or with your cream and sugar already added, and just consume as you go. No cash, no foam or paper cups to ditch at the next gas station. If you’re not happy with how long your coffee stays hot, you can opt for a really great thermos like a Stanley, or you can go to cold-brew route. I like to make cold brew ahead at home, and again either leave it black or add my cream and sugar at home, and bring it alone in a huge glass jar keeping cold in the cooler. Then I keep a reusable travel mug to pour my cold brew into from time to time as needed. Note: coffee lasts longer and stays fresh better when left black, but I totally get if that is not how you usually take your coffee!

That covers how we try to stay as low budget and low waste as possible, and keep our travel habits as close to our at-home habits as possible.

But what about keeping kids happy and pleasant during a cross country road trip? This is going to vary a lot by the ages and interests of your kids, but here are some ideas that have worked for us in the past and which I intend to lean into on this upcoming trip.

A Happy Road Trip with Toddlers Cross Country

  1. Bring two or three favorite (or new!) books per child. Books can keep kids entertained for a long time, especially if this is a treasured activity at home. Know what the books are about so that you can kill time (or grumpiness) by discussing the books with toddlers who are “reading” all the pictures and have questions. They can also alternate who has which books if they’re relatively close in age and interest. 
  2. Bring a toy or two per kid that is easy to hold onto in their seat and they won’t easily drop. My girls love to have their baby dolls with them on long trips, and often do some ridiculously goofy stuff playing with them. It’s too bad I have to keep my eyes on the road, because this is some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever seen. Other good toys are those that are interactive in some way, whether its manipulating parts of the toy, or something with buttons that they can interact with more – though be ware of toys that make noise. While they’re great for kids they can easily drive you nuts!
  3. Bring music CDs of things your kids love, or have your aux cable ready to play some downloads from your phone. My kids love to “sing” along with things, especially tracks to movies they know.
  4. If your car/van has the capability, bringing DVDs can be an option too. This is one of my less preferred methods of entertaining kids on long road trips, but it sure can come in handy too. This is the first time we’ve had a vehicle with built in DVD player, and I definitely intend on bringing a couple of favorites to help when I get desperate and just want to keep driving.
  5. Planning stops strategically is important. You want to keep things in mind like hunger, bathroom needs, and what their normal activity level would be like at home at given times. When you do stop, don’t carry your toddler into the rest stop bathroom – hold their hand and let them walk! It’ll feel like a more substantial break if they get to move. Doing toe touches, jumping jacks, and “Simon Says” stretches with them will both get them laughing and in a good mood, and allow their little bodies to recover from those rigid car seats!
  6. Set your toddler’s expectations as much as possible beforehand, by talking about how long you’ll be driving, where you’re going, who you’ll see, what they may observe out the windows, if they’ll be sleeping in the car, etc. Knowing that there’s a hotel or a campsite at the end of a long day of road tripping may be just what they need to keep their enthusiasm up. 
  7. Be prepared to play car games with your kids or to entertain to some degree from the driver’s seat. Things that keep them feeling like you’re all together rather than parents in the front, kids tucked in the back are helpful because even for toddlers there’s definitely an element of inclusivity that helps prevent irritability.

Hopefully these tips arm you to the teeth with ideas for keeping those little guys happy in the car. So much depends on their individual routines and personalities, and your personal dynamic with your kids. A good idea is to evaluate the sort of things that make them happy and content at home or places you routinely go, and brainstorm ways to replicate that enthusiasm in the car. 

How to budget ahead for a frugal road trip

Like with any budget the main key is to know what your needs are and to meet them as cost effectively as possible. Begin by making a list of the things you need to survive your road trip, from gas to food, water, coffee, etc. Using the tips above will help to limit “extras” simply by purchasing ahead at the grocery store or making things ahead at home. 

For trips like this where things inevitably come up, or I’m traveling with slightly volatile companions, I like to add a buffer to my budget in case of “emergencies”. This amount will depend on the type of emergency or how well your kids seem to travel, so I’ll leave that part up to you.

Practical preparations for a road trip with toddlers cross county

There are a few last things we’re working on in the coming week before the road trip to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.

Firstly, we’re planning out what time to leave and how soon we’ll need to stop based on that. This includes deciding if we’ll be stopping for the night near enough to someone we know whose house we could crash at for the night, or if we need to book a hotel on our way over. 

Secondly, we’re getting our vehicle up to snuff for a significant trip. We just did our own oil change a couple weeks ago, so we won’t do that again until after our trip. But we’re doing things like topping off fluids, changing the coolant and transmission fluids out, and replacing our front two brake pads. These little bare minimum things that you can do yourself at home can have a huge impact on your trip and save you time and money. We’re going to do what we can ourselves after work this week and then if there’s more we need to do but we’re running out of time, then we’ll take our vehicle to a local shop we know and trust to have the rest done.

Thirdly, we’re making a “packing” list of things we need to bring with us. We definitely want to pack light, but it’s still important to have a list of essentials so we don’t forget anything in the hustle and bustle of loading the car and pulling out of the driveway.

Our list will include everything from the food we’re prepping beforehand to phones, chargers, personal ID for ourselves and copies of documents for the kids’ identities, etc. The key to this step is to imagine various scenarios and to have what you’d most need to get yourself out of a potential pickle. And odds are you won’t need them at all, which would be ideal!

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These are our best tips for preparing for a frugal road trip with toddlers cross country. These plans are in full swing for us currently, so I’ll add to this if I think of anything else. But we’re really praying that this level of preparedness helps us to be as frugal and low waste as possible while having a fun, safe road trip and making some incredible memories with the kids.

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