How to Make a Travel Budget That Works

Alright team, let’s get into the meat and potatoes of budget travel: your actual budget. Because it’s all fun and games until you get home from your magical time spent frolicking and forest bathing and soaking up that Vitamin D…aaaaaand then you look at your bank account. Your stomach clenches, and a single bead of sweat starts to roll down your forehead. All you can think is HOW WAS I SO UNPREPARED FOR THIS?! Our goal here is to avoid that moment. 

Photo courtesy of Michelle Berkes

When I travel, I don’t stick to a super strict budget, but I go into every trip with a very clear idea of how much money I will be spending. This makes it much easier to enjoy my time without having to devote a lot of brainpower to money along the way. And as a bonus, it is much easier to do this on a national parks trip than in a city, because the opportunity to spend is much lower. 

My main three categories for my trip budgets are gas, lodging, and food.

To get an idea for my gas budget, I divide the distance to my destination (let’s say 600) by the miles per gallon my car gets (let’s say 30). Then I multiply that number by the average gas price for the area, which you can Google (let’s say $1.50). So it would look like 600 miles / 30MPG = 20 gallons of gas; 20 gallons x $1.50 = $30.00 of gas (or $60 roundtrip, plus more for driving through the park, so maybe $80 total).

Photo by Michelle Berkes

I camp, so lodging is relatively cheap and easy to research by looking at the park website. Food is usually my most variable category. I like to stop for fast-food on drive days, and if someone tells me there’s a cute bakery with flaky pastries in the direction that I’m going (this happened to me in Washington), you better believe I’m stopping! If you’re not sticking to a very strict budget, then this is okay. If you are, I would encourage you to create a daily meal budget for yourself, and try to stay under it on some days to give you the freedom to make unexpected stops on other days!

I want to show you a cost breakdown from a trip I took in 2018 as a case study:

Gas (filled up 6x)137.44
Walmart (groceries and a cheap cooler)44.67
Park entrance30.00
Mathews Arm Campground – 1 night15.00
Big Meadows Campground – 1 night20.00
Loft Mountain Campground – 1 night15.00
Shower and snacks10.00

This was a five day/four night trip I took to Shenandoah National Park, which is about 550 miles from my home. The cost of gas reflects prices that were a little bit higher then they are as I’m writing this, and you can see that gas was by far the most expensive part of this trip. I also left home in the afternoon on the first day, so I napped in my car the first night. I also arrived at Mathew’s Arm at 8 a.m. the next day, so I was able to take another nap there, but only paid for one night of camping.

Photo by Michelle Berkes

Overall, this breaks down to $56.52 per day. It’s not the absolute cheapest trip I’ve ever taken, but it should give you a solid idea of what a budget can look like. Travel actually can be a reality for you, no matter how rich or poor you are.

Read more about this trip to Shenandoah National Park here!

Header photo by Michelle Berkes

Michelle Berkes is an adventurer chronicling her travels on her blog, Head Along with Heart. She started visiting national parks at age 23 on a very limited budget. Since then, she’s been pushing her boundaries as a road tripper and outdoors-woman in order to see all 62 national parks as completely and affordably as possible.


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