A road trip is as much about the 'getting there' as it is about the 'there'. So this creates time to deepen ties with friends, see incredible places, have a blast and, naturally, make some crazy-good memories. There’s always a risk that expenses can add up quickly though, so if you haven’t actually planned at least some of the holiday it’s possible that you’re going to stitch yourself up with unexpected costs, or have to skip some of your hoped-for activities. However, there are ways that you can plan your road trip to be as cheap and easy as possible, so if you’re on a budget and want this all to go super easy, grab a cuppa and read on.
There's a lot of info here, so you can also feel free to just skip to the sections that you think might be most relevant for you, but hopefully there'll be some little gems throughout that could add some value to your next vacation.
Plan what you hope to do on your holiday:
If you don’t plan out your holiday at least a little bit, things might go sideways, especially in the finance department. Not only can this make the holiday more stressful (basically negating the whole idea of taking a holiday in the first place), but you might also end up spending way too much money on the wrong things, and not leaving enough in the kitty to even do some of the main drawcard activities along the way, or at your destination.
Plan where you are going:
Firstly, it’s good to have a rough idea of where you hope to road trip to. We’re great believers in having flexibility in our plans so we can respond to opportunity or change (such as taking a five-day, unplanned detour while in Katherine to see Uluru), but we’ve also found it’s really helpful to have a rough idea of where you’re going and what you want to see so that you don’t run out of time or incur too many costs.
Planning helps to make sure you don’t cover unnecessary miles and it gives time for research, while you have power and internet, into different activities and places. It will also make it easier for you to book key events at low prices. We have found we’ve been able to get tickets to outback events that otherwise sell out, by booking early – imagine being in Kununurra during the 'Ord Valley Muster’, the largest Rodeo in the Kimberley region, only to find you can’t get a ticket as they’ve sold out, or dropping into Sydney to find Hamilton is in town but the only tickets are reduced vision seats.
Plan when you are going:
It’s also worth planning when you hope to travel. Factors we bear in mind beyond our availability are school holidays, weather conditions and key events that are on.
Skipping school holidays is a definite money saver for those without school age kids. It will also most likely save you more time, as traffic can be insane at certain hot spots during the holidays. This can also potentially provide more adventure opportunities because things aren’t all booked out. Have you tried going to a theme park on a school holiday?! Dude… Yes, I know we’re just big kids but there’s no chance that we’ll queue a half hour for a two-minute waterslide, when we could have just planned the holiday outside peak dates and waited only five minutes for the same slide.
Weather is also an important factor to consider from both a safety perspective (we talk about bushfires a little later, but there’s also cyclones, floods and snow to consider), and a packing perspective (taking appropriate clothing and kit for the conditions). We have the WillyWeather app on our phones and often check out the BOM radar.
This early work means less stress as you’ve got a plan and framework for your holiday.
Plan each Trip Leg:
As you’re on a road trip, it’s often helpful to break your trip into shorter legs or journeys.
Plan ahead around fuel:
Australia is a big place so it’s good to know the size of your tank, usual distance your car or van will cover with the weight it’s carrying, and where the next fuel stop is.
Always look at the signs on the highways which tell you the distance to the next fuel station. If you’re heading to the outback We also always carry a jerry of fuel, just in case we missed one of those signs or we need to change course unexpectedly. But also, the cheaply bought jerry fuel can be used sometimes instead of buying fuel if it’s at exorbitant costs. Towns vary remarkably with fuel costs, so at least it’s an option. Some deep outback fuel stations only cater for diesel, so you’ll want to at least do some cursory research of the route if that could be an issue.
You might also want to check out Petrolspy.com.au to see the latest prices and where the stations are. That site caters for all kinds of fuel types and really is pretty awesome.
Lastly, if you’re really on a fuel budget, you could save a tonne of money just by choosing vacation spots that are closer to home and perhaps spending longer in one place, rather than a trip where you’re constantly moving. If nothing else, these road trips have a tendency to be the most relaxing.
Consider your Accommodation options:
Accommodation is normally the other largest expense. A good way to work this out is to consider where you want to get to after each day’s driving, then find the spot that suits the budget. Mixing campsites with Airbnb or motels is a nice way to do this, but you’ll need to consider how long you want to or are able to travel each day, when you want to stay a while, as well as what you hope to see at each stopping point.
Self-Styled Accommodation – Camping and Campervans:
Now, if you’re looking for a road trip that’s cheap and easy on the budget, then we think camping is your best bet for accommodation, either tent or swag camping or in campervans. These will definitely be more affordable than a hotel, and they’re also much more eco-friendly, as the resources, like water and electricity, that you use become so much less.
You should take with you whatever makes you feel home away from home, and actually look forward to the process of setting up camp, of cooking and of bedding down for the night. Each of these points can be a bottleneck of stress for a person, so work out what will do the trick for you to thoroughly enjoy that process instead of dreading it. Everyone is different, so make your style of camp comfortable for you, make it attractive, inviting and well lit, and feel safe and cosy - and you’ll absolutely love the experience – and want to do it again and again.
Your self-styled camping gives you so many more options for where to go, what to do, when to do it, your personal travelling style and where to stay, that hotel or B&B alternatives don’t even compare, so that’s why we’re all for it and want to encourage it as much as possible. Actually, as many of you know, we’ve built a business around doing just that!
Useful Camping Apps:
One way to figure out where to stay is to use the apps Hipcamp, Wikicamps Australia, Travellers Autobarn or RoadTrippers, all of which give great options for camping, directions and site details, as well as other attractions along the way. Perfect for campers on road trips, these apps will likely save you a tonne of time and money, and, except Roadtrippers, which is a webapp, all are available on both Android and Apple.
A lesser known point to be aware of is that some rest spots aren’t open to everyone - campervans can get into some places that tent and swag campers can’t. We’ve seen this at town cricket grounds and town showgrounds that are offered up to road trippers. This has been because campervans have self-contained toilets – swags and tent campers don’t. This is a very fair and justifiable rule, and they enforce it. It’s rare, but it’s worth knowing about.
Saving money with camp food:
Camping gives you more food options as well, as you’ll have eskies or fridges on board, as well as easy ways to enjoy that food wherever you like, like throwing up a table, chairs or blankets with a random beautiful natural view.
Having ready to eat sandwiches or snacks like fruit and nuts in easy to reach places lets you eat on the go and can even prevent impulse buying at places like fuel stations. Campervans can easily store a SodaStream appliance, which is a brilliant alternative to buying soft drinks or energy drinks. Same deal with coffee machines, as these can pay for themselves quite quickly too these days.
Take your favourite herbs and spices. You should try to make sure you look forward to your camping meals, or you’ll keep avoiding cooking – and you’ll end up buying meals more and more.
Not Camping? What are the Options
If you’re not looking to camp while you’re on your road trip, then staying at a motel or B&B’s might be the way to go. Don’t just check out Airbnb though. Try other sites like Stayz, Booking.com, Trip Advisor, Wotif etc. These should give you other options, reviews and ideas. Staying in a tiny home is another option, and is a unique and entertaining experience, although not always cheap - these seem to be really popping up a lot these days.
If you search in Google rather than going straight to an accommodation website, try adding keywords to your search, like ‘deals’, ‘discount codes’ and ‘Groupon’. Also be sure to expand your location a little bit, you will likely get some interesting and helpful results. Getting away from the main highlight may make the accommodation cost a little less too.
Is breakfast included?
Try to ensure that your breakfast is included in the cost, as that can save quite a bit of money. Naturally, these are already included at B&Bs. You could also try to get accommodation that comes with its own kitchenette and cooking facilities to cut the total cost down even further.
A good tip when staying at B&Bs is to have a chat with the hosts and other guests over breakfast as you can get fantastic local knowledge and insights into their own experiences, which may provide some activity ideas. Their advice and experiences can save you time and money and make your road trip that much better.
Money-saving ideas when planning what you hope to see on your road trip:
Explore Less Obvious places:
If you don’t mind road tripping in a region that’s less popular, then you can have a different kind of adventure with more exploring, as you don’t know what you’re going to get. There are a lot more options for this, as you’d expect. If you’re headed to a coastal-based destination, there are literally hundreds of spots on the way along the coast that everyone else skips because they’re only focused on the big hotspot. We’ve had some of our best holidays in sleepy beach towns, and they’re often much cheaper, with brilliant unknown gems of activities and coves to explore.
Consider a Local Road Trip Option:
You can also stay closer to home – a great option if you have less time. The road trip benefits of choosing closer spots will be lower cost of fuel and much more holiday time. Plus getting to know your own back yard can be pretty enlightening. If you have limited time and you were planning on flying somewhere and then hiring a car to get around, then this alternative can really save you money. Staying local means no long drive or flight incuring costs, no vehicle or gear rentals and a freedom to camp saving higher accommodation costs. This local trip could also be much more relaxing, as you might not have to plan or book as much in advance.
Holiday in a National Park:
National parks are also often more affordable than many other holiday spots, as they allow visitors to travel around and see a whole lot of natural sites in one spot. Since the government and local rangers have already done the hard work of putting in roads, toilets, showers, sometimes accommodation, and maintaining these, you can be driving much less, relax much more and still retain your comfort and safety. They’re often set up for activities that are family friendly too, so visitors of all ages can make the most in a natural environment without breaking the bank.
Consider if you should take adventure equipment or hire it:
It’s worth considering what activities, sights or experiences you are looking for. These can be paid, like kayaking or SCUBA diving day trips, or can be free, like the beach, waterfalls and national park day trips. If you have your own gear, and the room to carry it, you can obviously save a lot of money from rental fees if you take it with you. Consider the extra fuel you’ll use in carrying it though. We have a bit of a serious dive habit, so for us, even though it’s heavy, it makes perfect sense to take our own dive gear just about everywhere we go when we’re on a coastal-trip. This allows us to take advantage of beautiful shore dives or to save money on a guided dive, as rental rates can really add up for a couple of days’ diving.
Get Intel from the Tourism Operator:
A top tip is to also ring tour operators and find out the least expensive times, dates or seasons to do their tours – you might be amazed at the differences in prices. Also, with tours, you really want to make sure you sign up to the operator’s email subscription. We’ve saved a lot of money from doing this, as they’ll always let subscribers know when they’ve got deals on.
Talk to the locals:
Besides being a positive way to learn about other people, talking to locals can provide local knowledge about hidden gems and activities that you might otherwise not come across.
Carry spare Dollars and Add a Time Fudge-Factor:
It often helps to have a little cash on you. Sometimes there are little things that only cash can buy, like using laundry facilities, national park fees, or fruit and veg stalls along the way that you didn’t anticipate. Whatever it might be, some spare cash is helpful.
Plus, it’s really a good policy to give yourself a couple of extra days free and have ready access to some savings in the bank. More time gives you an ample fudge factor for any mishaps, which itself can save money by not needing to rush to fix something. More time also allows you to just chill when you want to. More time and more money can also give you the opportunity to do unplanned activities that you didn’t even know about before the trip started, making even more of your road trip holiday.
Think about Safety
Follow The Rules:
This is pretty straightforward. It’s an especially straightforward reason too – safety. Oh, and fines cost money, and they cost a lot more money during holiday seasons in Australia.
Don’t just park anywhere because you’re remote or it’s ‘just a small town’ when you’re doing a toilet stop. Becoming a safety hazard is a good way to cause an accident.
Don’t speed, no matter what. Besides the obvious accident reasons, police and radar technology are everywhere. Cruise control helps with this, so if you don’t have it, it may be worth installing an aftermarket one - they’re surprisingly cheap. If a massive truck or 4WD is tailgating you, as sometimes you’ll find they will (even if you’re going the limit) just indicate early, and safely get out of their way. Hopefully they’ll get a ticket up the road, but it’s not worth you stressing out or getting a speeding ticket because you’re trying to stay ahead of someone’s crazy aggressiveness. Even if you were going 20k’s over the limit this kind of driver would still tailgate you – best to disengage from that and just enjoy your holiday.
Get a cradle for your mobile phone. Distraction laws are hardcore, and rightly so. There are cameras all over the place to catch that too now.
Never drive tired. Some of our long roads can be dull. And by ‘dull’ we mean these roads can be mind-numbingly, insomnia-curingly, give-you-a-glass-of-warm-milk,-tuck-you-into-bed-and-read-you-a-bedtime-story-level, sleep-inducingly dull. If you’re going through some of these long stretches, prevent sleepiness by taking regular breaks. Don’t push your fatigue limit. It can feel crazy that driving can make you so tired – but it does. If you find yourself anywhere near drifting, swap drivers or pull over and sleep - do anything else, but you must stop driving. Driving fatigue can be amazingly insidious, you don’t think it’s there but it’s creeping up and then, boom, you have a microsleep. You might not wake up again, and you might take out a family of travellers with you too. It’s an awful thought. When you’re planning the legs of your road trip, this is something you should keep in mind.
Consider the risk of Bushfires:
No matter what type of road trip you’re doing, in Australia we’ve always got the shadow of a bushfire risk. This is especially important in summer, but certainly not limited to that season. The risk of fires is a very important consideration for your route and where you plan to go, and might result in unforeseen but preventable costs. There’s plenty of historical info and data about where fires hit hard and often, so you might like to do some homework on them if you’re not sure, so the whole trip isn’t scuppered.
It’s obviously also a good idea to be aware of the bushfire situation while you’re on your road trip as well. As of only a couple of days ago, Google has added a bushfire locator in its Maps app. When you’re in your map with the route showing, go to the ‘Layers’ icon and the new ‘Bushfire’ icon is at the bottom. When pressed, it will show on your map, but the route disappears, so it doesn’t actually overlay over your intended route, yet. Basically, at time of writing, the bushfire overlay doesn’t work with your navigation - it’s either one or the other - so it’s best to exit your navigation and check in with the bushfire overlay every now and then, as nobody likes surprises by fire. It’s quite handy and possibly lifesaving.
Another option is the Bushfire.io app, which looks to be a great app if you’re not planning on using Google Maps, and it's available on both Android and Apple.
Be weather aware:
Flooded rivers, fires, cyclones can happen quite quickly and in places not immediately related to where the news is focusing, so staying up to date is smart.
Always carry water:
This is a simple one, but given the risks around temperature and distances, we recommend always carrying spare water. You never know when something might go amiss and it’s good to be prepared.
Make sure your vehicle is ready
Know the Roads and Your Vehicle:
Australia has some seriously mind-blowing roads that are gazetted and are hundreds of kilometres long, and look normal on Google Maps, but instead, they’re hundreds of k’s of sharp rock, ruts and gravel. It’s important you know your car or van and know where potential issues may pop up.
Basically, some roads are only meant for massive road trains and not little domestic vehicles, as they’re mainly there to service the mines. Ask locals about the roads coming up, at service stations for example. Also check Google for current conditions, and of course read the big electronic signs outside small towns which show conditions of roads ahead and road closures between nearby towns. This will stop you being faced with a decision of a 20km dodgy road, or a 200km detour back and around.
Very Important Road Trip Vehicle Prep:
Our main recommendations on vehicle prep are threefold:
(1) Keep your vehicle maintained (even while on your trip). Maybe get your vehicle serviced before you leave;
(2) Know your car’s weak spots and drive only on the road it’s designed for, that might mean mentally preparing yourself to turn back if needed; and
(3) Ensure you have at least one good spare tyre and a jack – and know how to safely use it. We’ve spoken to people along remote bush roads that were not sure if they had a spare tyre – they just assumed they did. Unfortunately, not all cars have suitable tyres as spares, or they’ve been removed entirely (Some new cars are not even sold with spare tyres.) That could be very bad news on some of those roads where you can go a couple of days without passing another car.
Carry Spare Vehicle Parts (or know where to get them):
Have a quick look to see if there are mechanical services in the towns along your intended route. If you know there’s a potential vehicle issue or one of your car’s parts is wearing but not quite ready to be changed, either just opt to get it fixed before you leave, or if practical, buy the part and carry it with you, as who knows what parts the mechanic will have, and how long the waiting time will be for them to get it in. Mechanical problems can be a large expense at the best of times, but when you’re in small towns, in unplanned accommodation and under the pump to get home again for work, vehicle repairs can really strip the bank account.
Besides being able to create and share some brilliant experiences and memories with your friends, the whole road trip experience is often more relaxing with friends, as travel decisions and stresses are shared by everyone. But there are some financial advantages to taking more people along with you too, as you can bring down the total price per person for everyone involved. Accommodation is shared between more people, fuel is shared, some paid activities are shared, food and snack bills are shared, some meals can be shared, other sundry items like laundry costs can be shared, and sometimes even clothing and gear can be shared. Our experience over many road trips on this balance of cost to social dynamics is that four people is the magic number. Your number might be way different though.
Also, many places offer better deals for activities once a minimum number of participants is reached. And some places won’t run activities unless they have a minimum number of participants, so more people along with you could ensure some awesome holiday experiences that you may not have otherwise had.
As you can see, there’s lots of ways to make your road trip a little less expensive and stress-free, and combining them will go a long way to making your holiday the cheapest and best it can be.
So, planning is key, and preparation once you’ve decided on where and when pushes the whole process in a much better direction again. Then, continually gathering intelligence as you go, being flexible and actually having that mentality to save money when you can, will smooth and chill it all out nicely, leaving you in control and much more content with the experience.