Summer is the season for road trips, and for PCS moves with the military. If you are road tripping or moving, this post is for you.
The first step in the road trip is planning. Where to stop, where to stay, what to explore.
Websites to use for planning
Roadtrippers: This site has a whole host of places to see across the nation. From Yosemite to Mount Rushmore, this site helps you zero in on places to visit. You can add up to 6 stops, including your start point, for free. It gives a great cost estimation for the trip, including gas. If you want to add more visits to your trip or plan multiple trips, the paid version is $29.99 per year, about $2.50 a month.
AAA – This paid membership site allows you to make a “Trip Ticket.” While in the past, when you went to AAA and asked them to plan a trip, you would get a highlighted map. Now you can make an exclusive trip map online, including each stop. The downside is you must research the places to stop alone. But you can get books on each location you visit that detail cost for outings and hotels in the area. AAA membership depends on what type of service you are looking for. AAA is used chiefly for roadside assistance, but don’t forget the benefit of travel if you have it.
Library: I also head to the library to check out travel books for our travel areas. This gives me an idea of what’s available in the area and its cost. We use this to get ideas of what everyone wants to do. There isn’t something to do for everyone had its location, but we do try to find something for everyone on the road trip. The best part is it’s free!
Gas expenses: Use the Fuel Economy tracker to estimate your fuel use. Input the make, model and year of your car for the most accurate fuel estimate. Prices will increase a little in the summer as people travel more so do expect a slight increase during the summer months.
The final step for us typically goes onto an excel sheet with the categories for the actual stop, places to see, food, where to stay, and the overall visit cost.
One of the most significant expenses for the road trip is lodging. Don’t be afraid to ask about discounts! Many hotels offer discounted rates to first-line responders, military, AAA members, etc.
Check out travel credit cards: some offer free rooms or points for rooms when signing up. But don’t use the credit card, unless you’re going to pay it off before or on the due date. Credit card debt is not worth the free space.
Military families: don’t forget about on-base lodging. For instance, if you were going to I-40 and passing through Oklahoma City, Tinker Air Force Base is all on that route. Stay there, and you can save what can be expensive lodging. When searching on a map where to stay, look for a nearby military base. Lodging varies from hotel rooms to homes with laundry but is generally more affordable than staying off the post. If the military makes you move, you might as well utilize it. If you are road-tripping without PCS orders in a high-PCS period, those with PCS orders take priority at military bases.
This one can be tricky. You want to try the local fare but don’t want to go broke.
After our 5 moves across the country, we decided we wanted to enjoy the local fare for one meal but would have the other meals from the grocery store or part of the free hotel food. So, pick one meal you want to eat locally and then eat the rest cheaply.
The grocery store is a great place to load up on healthy essentials. Grab cut fruit, cut vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, or prepared salads. While this may be more expensive than a typical grocery trip because it includes prepared food, it is much cheaper than eating out. Keep a cooler in the car that can be quickly brought into the lodging at night.
Don’t forget about grocery pick up: if you’re running low on supplies, find a Target in the app at your next location and fill your cart with things you need, and you just make the time it well to pick items up and go straight to the hotel.
Look for lodging that includes complimentary breakfast. Many major hotel chains, even on-base military lodging, include breakfast. This may consist of yogurt, cups, hard-boiled eggs, and pastries, so choose wisely. But included food is much cheaper than getting the hashbrowns at Chick-fil-A.
Some hotel chains offer dinner as well. And dinner will sometimes include local fare. We stayed at a Texas hotel with a salad bar, nachos, and local taquitos. They even had a local beer on offer. This was all included in the hotel cost.
On the road
You can fix snacks or sandwiches from the cooler for family members to enjoy without stopping. This allows for continued drive time without stopping.
Many stores, including Dollar Tree or Target, have school supply bins that can be used to hold a drink and food to prevent spilling.
We also bring Mason jars filled with our favorite snacks to prevent boxes from being crushed.
Explore On the Cheap
Check with local library systems to see if they offer discount passes for local attractions. If they don’t offer tickets to local museums, ask for free or discounted days for the local museums, aquariums, or zoos. Ask them about local hiking recommendations. Get outside and get your vitamin D without having to spend money. Or just spend a few hours in the public library – you may not be able to get a card without an address, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy reading a few books in the air conditioning. Some libraries even have board games to play, which is great if the day is rainy and you can’t explore outside.
Check out a local Farmers Market – this is a great way to check out local food and not spend a ton.
The National Parks offer an annual pass America the Beautiful program that will get your family into any National Park and Museum for free. There are even pass programs for the elderly and the military. In fact, the annual military pass became a lifetime pass for veterans, allowing free entry into National Parks for life.
Blue Star Museums
The Blue Star Museums is a partnership program between Blue Star Families and the National Endowment for the Arts. Museums apply to become a Blue Star Museum. As a Blue Star Museum, the museum offers free admission to active-duty military personnel, including the National Guard and Reserves, and their families from Armed Forces Day to Labor Day.
Local parks: don’t forget the beauty of checking out a local playground or park. Bring kites and a soccer ball to stretch your legs. Kites can be folded up, so don’t take too much room in the car.
After 7 cross-country moves coupled with road trips, 5 in the last 10 years, we have done a fair bit of planning for road trips. What are your favorite road trip tips?
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