How to Budget for a West Coast Road Trip

Katie Crenshaw sits in a car on her west coast road trip. She's holding up her camera and taking a photo of herself through the side view mirror. You can see greenery in the background.

Earlier this summer, I took some time for myself and checked off something from my bucket list that I’ve been wanting to do for years — a west coast road trip. I flew into Orange County, California and made my way up to Seattle, Washington over 8 days. One of the questions I’ve received the most is how to road trip on a budget, and specifically how to budget for a west coast road trip. Here are some tips for budgeting for a road trip, how to keep things budget-friendly, and what to splurge on. 

A detailed Google Map of a west coast road trip along Pacific Coast Highway. Markers are on Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Muir Woods, Fort Brag, California, then Gold Beach and Portland, Oregon, and lastly Seattle Washington.
West Coast Road Trip Google Map

How to Budget for a West Coast Road Trip

A woman's hand holding a colorful map of Central California.

Budgeting well for a west coast road trip just takes a little research and pre-planning so that no unexpected costs derail the experience. Further down I’m sharing ways to save money and when to splurge on your road trip, but here are the overall things you should plan for. 

  • Map your road trip. Determine destinations for sleep or adventure so that you can figure out your estimated gas mileage. Here is a trip cost calculator to determine what you should save.
  • Next, plan your accommodations at each stop. Option to consider: staying with family/friends, camping, hostels, or hotels.
  • Meal plan. Determine what meals you’ll make yourself on the road and a budget for dining out. Maybe you eat a muffin and fruit that you pack but grab Starbucks on the way back on the road. Plan ahead but give yourself some room to change your mind a bit.
  • After determining gas, stay, and food, start working on your itinerary. Figure out what your must-sees and must-do consist of. Many of the things you’ll do on a West Coast road trip are free. Plan to visit various beaches or state parks. Take car breaks or have a zero driving day where you just explore a small coastal town in California.
  • Be sure to budget for souvenirs and gifts. If you love shopping, you’ll want to give yourself a larger budget for everything you’re sure to find in California, Oregon, and Washington. Give yourself a daily spending or overall budget, but stick to it.
  • Lastly, allow for incidentals. Make sure you have extra funds saved or a credit card available in case of any incidentals on the road. This isn’t permission to blow your shopping budget but for true emergencies or things that cannot be helped.

Ways to Save Money on a Road Trip

A woman standing in front of a huge sequoia tree in Muir Woods. She has one hand on her hip and the other on her head and is smiling.
  • Bring friends! The best way to save money on a road trip is to do it with friends. Not only is it way more fun but you can split all the costs associated with the trip.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous on your road trip, you can save money but staying in hostels or even camping. For a shorter trip, you might even consider car camping. Sometimes you need a permit to do this but it’s popular at a ton of campgrounds and state parks in California. Plan ahead to pre-book campgrounds or Air BnB’s (what we did!) because they’re often more budget-friendly options than a last minute hotel.
  • Plan for the weather. Watch the weather leading up to your trip so that you can pack accordingly and not have to buy clothes on the road. Keep in mind that it’s cooler and windier near the coast, and rainy as you drive north into Oregon and Washington.
  • Plan route to avoid fees. This isn’t something people think much about day-to-day, but when you’re planning a long road trip, you should look closely at your route to avoid tolls and entrance fees, as well as calculate mileage to budget gas funds
  • I realize not everyone loves planning quite like me, but I find that my research and pre-planning with spreadsheets helps me to save money. I like to research more expensive towns, to avoid paying premium for food and stay. Otherwise I am purposeful about my visit there with an intentional splurge. Exploring smaller towns will not only save you on food and lodging, but gas will generally be cheaper as well.
  • Prioritize your must-see locations and must-do activities so you have a plan for them in your budget.
  • Avoid peak travel season for areas you are visiting. When you’re planning a west coast road trip, specifically along Pacific Coast Highway, keep in mind that summer brings more tourists to the area.
  • If renting a car, choose a fuel-efficient one. If taking your own, be sure it is tuned up, has good tires, and make sure you have oil, coolant and other auto necessities on hand.
  • Take advantage of local tourism websites. Many CVBs (Convention & Visitors Bureaus) often share things to do as well as discounts and coupons for local attractions.
  • Bring your own food. It’s no secret that you’ll save money grocery shopping snacks and easy meals in bulk than driving through or eating every meal out. Be intentional about the food spots you want to check out and what you can eat on the road.

When to Splurge on a Road Trip

A beautiful charcuterie boar and 4 champagne flutes sit on a table on a deck overlooking the Pacific ocean.

If your west coast road trip is anything like mine, part of the experience means treating yourself along the way. The key to having the best time and not worrying about your budget, is to plan ahead. Plan to get dressed up and go to dinner with your friends. Stay in the cute Air BnB with a view. Drink champagne and go sit on the beach at sunset. It’s okay to treat yourself and you should definitely work that into your trip.

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