Frugal Tips for a Fun Day Trip

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We are going vacation-free this year so that we can work on saving up for our emergency fund.  Sounds crazy, right?

How on earth can anyone make it through the year without a break?

Well, just because you aren’t going on a real, honest-to-goodness vacation doesn’t mean you can’t take a break.   You can always go on a FAKEcation.   In fact, that is exactly what we did.

We went to visit my family and used their house as our launching pad for some amazing day trips.

Everyone had a great time, and we stayed within a reasonable budget for each adventure.  You don’t even have to visit a new town to pull off an amazing day trip—it can be done from home as well.

When my husband and I were dating, we made every possible financial mistake when we would go on day trips.  As a result, we would end up spending way more money than we planned!

Now that we have a baby and we have cut our expenses down, we have mastered the cheap day trip…even with a one-year-old in tow!  I want to share our tricks so that you and your family can have a fun day out without busting the budget.  So get your car packed, and get everyone excited—here we go!

Set a reasonable budget FIRST.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it took us a while to figure out.  We used to choose where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do, and then we would set a budget that would get the job done.

This is totally backwards!

In order to work within your budget, you have to set it FIRST!  Take a look at your ledger, your vacation savings, or any windfalls that may have come your way, and then decide how much you want to spend on your day trip.

What is comfortable?  What amount can you spend without affecting your other savings?  How much change is in the couch cushion and in a jar above your washing machine?

Make sure you have the money on hand—and in cash!  Do not use a credit card for day trip expenses or a vacation.  It isn’t worth it!

Choose a destination.

Okay, now that you know how much you have to spend, it is time to pick a destination.  The amount of money you are willing to part with will have everything to do with how far you can go and how much you can do.   

If you don’t have a lot, you can still have a fun day out.  For $10 or less you can go to a local park or museum that is an hour away or less.  Look for free activities like hiking or visiting a landmark.  Use that $10 for gas money and food for a picnic.

If you have a little more to spend, look for fun places within driving distance.  What cities are within a few hours of your home?  Is there an amusement park, national park, or some other place you have always wanted to visit?    

For example, from my home, I could visit a cute hamlet close by, or I could go to Philadelphia, Hershey Park, or Washington, D.C.   My budget determines which location I choose.  Hershey Park requires tickets to get in and is therefore more expensive, but the Smithsonian museums in DC are free.

In fact, a few months ago, we decided to go to the National Zoo in DC and spent a whopping $23 on a whole day of fun!

If you have kids, I recommend not going anywhere farther than a 3-hour drive—it will be easier on everybody. Remember, this is a day trip, so no hotel.  Have one spouse drive there and the other drive home so that everyone is rested and you arrive safely.

If you have a list of possible destinations but can’t decide on one, calculate how much it will cost you to go to each location (include gas, parking, tickets, etc.).  Have a really good idea of the exact cost before you commit to a particular destination.

Bring what you need.

Seriously.  EVERYTHING you need.

Umbrellas, sunscreen, sippy cups, bug spray, extra socks, aspirin… It helps to write a list.   The key here is that you do not want to forget something important, because you will have to purchase it while you are on your day trip.

It will ruin your best-laid budget plans if you forget to pack something. It is a complete waste of money because you do not actually need it—you already have sunglasses, so buying a second pair because you forgot is just wasteful.

Pack food.

Eating out on a day trip is expensive.  Instead, pack a cooler with drinks, water, sandwiches, and snacks.

We usually make egg salad for day trips because it is very filling and everyone loves it.

Make sure you have enough to eat for the amount of time you are planning to be gone.  If you are going to be gone all day, have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at least two snacks with you so that you do not cave to temptation and go out to eat because you are peckish.

It is better to overpack than to overspend.

Buy the cheapest gas.

If you are going far from your home, it is well worth it to do some research and fill up on the cheapest gas around.

I am a huge fan of the GasBuddy app on my iPhone.  It uses your phone’s GPS to find the cheapest gas near you.  You can even set it for different grades if your car takes midgrade, premium, or diesel.   The app is free, and it saves you a ton of money if you are going on a road trip.

Don’t waste money overpaying for gas!

Day trips are already cheaper because you don’t need to get a hotel room.  But to make things even easier on your wallet, set a budget first, find an appropriate destination within driving distance, pack your food, and buy the cheapest gas you can find.

Following these tips will save you a ton of money and will allow you to actually relax on your day trip instead of worrying about how much everything is costing you, or worse—forcing you to put expenses on your credit card.   So collect that extra change and have fun out there!

For more on how we are saving up for bigger vacations, check out Why We are Planning a Trip to Disney World Years in Advance.

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