We love to travel! Many of our favorite memories both before and after kids involve road trips. Obviously, traveling can be quite spendy... but we are learning to economize in this area, too. I'd rather be frugal on trips, and get to go more often, than make one big splurge and then have to stay home for a long time afterwards. Here are many of the ways we have learned to save money, and some good ideas we haven't tried yet, but probably will.
Lodging: The cheapest lodging for road trips is often camping. While camping typically involves carrying along a lot of extra gear, or pulling a travel-trailer, it can be done quite simply when you just need a place to sleep for the night. We spent one night in the van as we traveled through Yellowstone Park last summer. Seems like the camping fee was about $15. Much cheaper than staying in one of the lodges, but it still allowed us to spend more time in the Park. Another year while traveling, we rented a cabin at a KOA campground rather than a motel room. It was very comfortable, with a double bed, plus a set of single bunks. We needed our sleeping bags and pillows, plus towels for the bathhouse... and of course, there was no TV, but the cabin was heated and completely adequate. The campground had a playground and a pool. It cost about $25 as compared to $50 or more for a motel room.
Food: Take a cooler! Pack chilled, canned pop rather than buying it from the convenience store every time you stop for gas. Although, some convenience stores do have a good deal on refills, so it might be worth it to take along your travel cup to fill up when you come across deals like that. Sometimes they will let you fill up your cup with ice for free when you purchase gas, too. Also, fill some water bottles three-quarters full and freeze them. They will help keep your cooler chilled, and when they melt you will have cold drinking water.
Plan to stop at rest areas or parks for picnic lunches rather than fast-food places, if the weather allows. If it's too cold or wet, you can also eat as you drive along, but we don't do that much as it's good to stop to stretch at mealtimes. Buy your picnic stuff at a regular grocery store before you leave home, or a regular grocery store along the way... Yes, picnic foods are more expensive than cooking but regular grocery stores are typically much cheaper than convenience stores where you get gas.
Pack snacks to take along, too, rather than buying them at the convenience stores. I usually make a big batch of oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies to take along. These are great for breakfast, as well as snacking. Pop some corn the night before and put in bags for snacking. Buy large bags of M&Ms or Skittles and divide into smaller zip-lock bags for traveling. Do the same thing with chips... get 2 or 3 kinds and divide into smaller bags. If you have stuff like this in the car, you won't be tempted to buy the over-priced snacks when you stop.
Take along your coffee pot if you will have electricity when you stop for the night. There are several things you can make with hot water... ramen soup in a cup, oatmeal, hot cocoa, tea, coffee, etc. If you won't have electricity, a good thermos will keep water hot for several hours. Another idea is to pack a thermos full of heated hot dogs for a hot picnic lunch.
When you do eat out, order ice water to drink. It's usually free with a meal, but I've noticed some fast food places charging a dime for it recently. (That annoys me, if I'm ordering food!) Pop at restaurants is way over-priced and can add quite a bit to your meal cost. If you have chips and drinks in the car, sometimes just a .99 sandwich from a fast food place is enough for a meal. (I know, most sandwiches are more than that, but you can usually find at least one for that.)
Entertainment: I am somewhat of a history buff, and over the years that has "somehow" rubbed off on my family. As we drive along, if we have time, my husband knows I always want to pull off and read the historical markers to know what happened on this site. Before a trip, I will scout out the road atlas for historical places, and then research to see if it looks like there might be some interesting museums, visitor's centers, or state parks along the way. We've hit a few duds, but typically these types of places aren't very expensive (often free) so we just go on our way. Usually, though, we find the stops very interesting, educational, and yes... fun!!! We try to plan in time for "scenic detours" like this when have a long roadtrip to visit relatives or another destination. It breaks the trip up, creates memories, and is not very expensive at all.
Last summer we took our bikes along. We planned one night's stop at a place that had a bike trail, so that was our "entertainment" for that evening. It was a beautiful trail along a river and through a park... something we would have never seen from the car. If you don't have room for bikes, the same trails can be used for walking or roller-blading. Also, we often try to plan to stay at places that have a place to swim included in the lodging cost.
Well, there's much more I could post on the subject, but I guess that's enough for now. I'm posting this for my own future reference... if anyone has any other tips on this subject please post them!