Spending a lot of money on a family road trip is easy. The first step is simply to say "Hey! Let's go on a family road trip!". But if you want to save money while holidaying, especially in peak periods, it gets substantially trickier.
Image: Jak Sie Masz
That's the prospect I faced recently taking my family away for a two-week break up towards the Gold Coast theme parks in Queensland, although that wasn't the only planned activity I had in mind.
The only issue is that as a freelancer, I'm on a wildly variable income, and with a family to feed and house, every single cent counts. As such, while I wanted to have an enjoyable holiday experience, the budget was important. This is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few observations from my own trip:
Shop around for your theme park entry price
Theme park entry is expensive, especially when you have to multiply it by five. There are discounts to be had buying online, although they're relatively slim for most of the year. In my case, because I've got the benefit of a family member with a holiday house not too far from the Gold Coast (more on this later), I opted for a nearly full-year's Dreamworld pass, because a return visit or two maximises the value. It's also worth noting that some parks do offer slightly cheaper tickets if you're within a certain set of "local" postcodes.
Plan your food choices
This can be tricky if you're driving to new locations, because for a lot of longer road trips, it can be hard to discern upfront how many food choices you're likely to have. But to throw a particular example into the mix, the first day of hitting theme parks, we opted to buy food from the theme park as a treat for the kids. $75 later, we had some burgers, which weren't bad, but certainly weren't worth $75. A little planning — and realising that the associated water park next door would let you bring in a picnic (but not "fast" food) — and our food choices were sorted, because $75 can buy you quite a luxury picnic, as long as you bring some frozen water bottles to keep everything cool. If the theme park in question allows you to come and go with a pass out system, you can even go and explore other options before returning to eat.
Don't overpack the car
Travelling with kids always brings with it the temptation to just throw a few more things in the car, whether it's entertainment options or just more clothing choices, because kids are great at getting bored and/or messy on long road trips.
If you're truly heading off the beaten track it makes sense to pack things you might need, but if you're closer to populated centres, it's always feasible to buy things on an ad-hoc basis from a nearby supermarket.
The issue here is that every extra bit of weight you throw in the car is mass that your car has to push forward, and that means a higher overall petrol bill. Petrol prices are unusually low right now, but that's unlikely to last, and there's still a lot of variance between city and country petrol prices.
In any case, there's an added benefit to maximising your fuel economy, because it minimises the number of petrol station stops you have to make. Does anyone enjoy hanging around petrol stations?
Balance driving, stopping and enjoying
As mentioned, I had the distinct budgetary benefit of having access to somewhere to stay that was within driving distance of the theme parks I wanted to visit, but only just. My location was around two-and-a-half hours from the Gold Coast, which meant a few early starts, although daylight savings was my friend there moving from NSW to Queensland. Experimentally, we tried renting a family room a fair amount closer to our destination for an overnight stay, with the idea being one long day at the park, a drop and sleep at a motel and then a later start because of the shorter drive the next day.
It's a tricky balancing act, because the petrol savings weren't equal to the price of the room, but extra sleep is nice for balancing moods and enjoyment as long as the room is suitable. Again, research is your friend, because some motel "Family rooms" can be quite lush for reasonable money, while others can be basic with just beds crammed together, and, as I found on this trip, a picnic table (complete with benches) in the middle of the room.
Stop and smell the (free) roses
The return journey from a family road trip is always the exhausting one, because by and large, you just want to get home, and while they won't always state it in words, the kids do too. That doesn't necessarily mean hooning down the road as fast as you can manage it, and not just because of poor fuel economy or speeding fines, either. Again, dipping into recent examples, on the way back to Sydney, there's a large services centre just outside Taree with a variety of fast food outlets and a large petrol station. No disrespect intended to the fine people who work there, but in the middle of the day during school holidays, that place (and many like it) are sheer hell if you're a driving parent.
So I tend to drive into the township itself, and that's a trick you can apply anywhere along the road. You gain the benefits of a wider choice of food outlets (or you can, again, bring your own) as well as public parks for the kids to run around in with plenty of space, instead of the inevitable small plastic play park that outlets such as McDonald's love. It doesn't even have to take longer if you plan with a GPS or Google Maps, because quieter establishments have smaller queues. The end result? Cheaper food, faster service and you're significantly less stressed than everyone fighting for a plastic table at the service centre.
What are your best road trip saving tactics? Tell us in the comments.
Lifehacker's Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.