Packing for any kind of trip can be daunting. Figuring out what you’ll need, and what you’ll wish you left behind can be a headache-inducing event. From clothes to toys, tech gear to phone apps this post will give you a road trip packing list to make sure you have the essentials for your next budget road trip!
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A Road Trip Checklist: The Essential Road Trip Packing List for a Budget Traveler
Membership Cards & Accounts
Gas Station Membership Cards
Many gas stations offer points programs or discounts on gas with the use of their ‘club’ card. While it may be annoying to carry multiple cards, saving $0.03/gal can add up when you’re road tripping! And if you’re a coffee or soda drinker, you might benefit from the ones that offer a free drink after so many purchased, like Flying J/Pilot or Thornton’s. If you’re not a fan of cards, see which ones have apps that you can scan, instead!
A Costco &/or Sam’s Club card
If you’re a Costco member, you already know the wonderfulness that is a samples run. If you’re not, you’re missing out! They typically have anywhere from 4-15 sample stands at once, and they can honestly feed you an entire meal! Sam’s isn’t so much on the sample train, but they do have a good cafeteria. A meal at either cafeteria can run $1.50-6/person. (The $1.50 hotdogs are huge, delicious, AND come with a beverage!) When road tripping on a budget, these are great options for a cheap and filling meal, not to mention a great place to stock up on bottled water or snack foods! An added bonus, and possibly more relevant on your road trip packing list, is that Costco’s gas stations are typically priced lower than most surrounding stations, so you’ll save everytime you fill up!
A Groupon account
From restaurant discounts to oil change bargains, Groupon is a literal treasure trove of good deals! While the options are more abundant in larger cities, you can find deals in MANY places around North America. Check out my post on maximizing your discounts on Groupon for some great ideas! Get the app to make looking for and buying deals easier, and to get a notification when they are offering additional discounts!
Roadside assistance (AMA)
This is a must have for any road trip packing list! Whether you get a flat tire, run out of gas or lock your keys in the car, help is only a phone call away. Plus, most roadside assistance programs are partnered with local attractions so you can score some decent discounts on things to do wherever you travel.
Allstays Truckstop App
There are many truckstop apps out there, but this is the best one I’ve found. It shows the locations of any Flying J, Pilot, Love’s or TA in the US or Canada. It also shows details about each one, including how many truck stalls there are, what restaurants are on site, how many showers it has, and more.
Even if you’re not planning on car camping or RV camping in a truck stop, this is a great app to have. Truck stops are along all major highways, and offer a great place to stop for a meal, to gas up, and to stretch your legs.
Allstays Walmart Parking App
If you’re the kind of road trippers that look for free places to park overnight like us, this app is a must on your road trip packing list! It will show you all Walmart locations in Canada and USA, and whether they allow overnight parking or not. It includes comments from previous parkers, so gives you great information to help you choose where to park. They also offer a website with all the same information, if you’re not interested in adding another app to your phone!
Hotels.com App (or your favourite booking engine)
Car camping is our preferred way to sleep, but sometimes a night in a hotel is needed! We are huge Airbnb fans under normal circumstances, but when road tripping it can often be difficult to know where you’ll stop for the night so a last minute hotel booking just might be in order! I use Hotels.com and Priceline most often. Hotels offers a free night with every 10 you book, and Priceline has a cool ‘offer’ system that lets you save a bit of money on a room, which is always nice!
Google Maps, with your area of travel downloaded
Google maps might be a given. But what you may not know is that you can, and should, download the area you plan to drive so that you can see it offline. This is handy in case you enter an area that doesn’t have the best service, and because it will help reserve you’re data for other things. Here’s a tutorial to show you how to do this.
Another cool feature of Google Maps is the ‘My Maps’ application. You can actually create your own map, with your stops highlighted and directions to each one.
One thing we noticed in the US is that gas prices vary SO much. You can be at one station filling up, and directly across the road the gas price will be $0.20/gal higher. GasBuddy helps you avoid this, by showing you prices all over the country. You can even help them run, and take a chance at winning some gas cards, by reporting prices along your route!
This is our preferred site for finding accommodation, regardless of how we’re travelling. It can be a bit more difficult to arrange last minute, since we generally travel without much of a planned itinerary. But it’s an essential app for when we want to stay put for a few days! The app offers the ability to filter the ‘instant book’ rentals, so you can find ones that you can book immediately without waiting for the hosts approval. This is helpful for those days you need to book something quick, and don’t have time to wait for the host to see and approve it.
TripAdvisor is my first stop when looking for things to do in a given area, so definitely an essential item on this road trip checklist. Packed with reviews, photos, prices and tour offerings, TripAdvisor is a helpful app for any adventure.
Food & Drink Supplies
There are 2 different mugs we carry with us. A contigo mug, and a Flying J/Pilot refillable insulated mug. As you know, I’m a budget traveler, so it should be no surprise that I’m not one to buy drinks from the gas station! We carry our own drink mixes, so we just use these mugs to get hot water as needed!
Most truck stop gas stations sell reusable insulated mugs in store, we just like the Flying J/Pilot program. They usually give a bit of a discount for refills, which is a nice perk if you’re a coffee drinker! But we make use of these mugs for more than those discounts… We’ll use these mugs to make soup, since it’s bigger than my contigo mug, and Seth uses it for hot chocolate.
Easy to grab snacks
The last thing you need to do while driving is dig around for snacks or worry about messy fingers! Our trick is to keep a dedicated box/bin in the backseat with some easy to open and not-too-messy munchies. This makes reaching for snacks easy, AND keeps our car organized!
Powdered soup, tea bags, hot chocolate, drink mix, etc
What do all of these have in common?? They all require only hot or cold water to become something tasty! This qualifies them as the perfect addition to your road trip packing list. Use your reusable coffee mug to make soup or a drink with water from any truck stop or gas station. As long as you aren’t using any of their products, they don’t have a problem with you using their water (yes, we always ask!).
Whether you’re making your drinks or soup, buying lunch meat to make sandwiches, or carrying a cooler and making salads, a stash of utensils is handy to have on your road trip packing list!
Most condiments- like mayo, mustard, ketchup and BBQ sauce- require refrigeration. When you’re road tripping, that can be hard to manage. Single-use packets are the perfect solution! We just made sure to grab a couple extra anytime we ate out in the months leading up to our road trip to build up our supply.
Refillable water bottle
Having water on hand is a necessity on any road trip packing list. But constantly buying bottled water can get expensive, AND they take up valuable car space. So carry a refillable bottle, and fill up at gas stations and restaurants along the way! If you prefer bottled water, you can even buy 4L jugs at any grocery store at a much cheaper price than a case of smaller bottles.
TIP: Any fountain soda stand will have a button for plain filtered water, and no gas station will mind you filling up your bottle with it!
We travel with computers, cameras and phones that all require charging and a single cigarette adapter just isn’t enough. We have this adapter on our road trip packing list so we can plug in our regular outlets at any time. Be careful though… That dead battery I mentioned earlier was the result of trying to charge both of our laptops at once! We learned that we can safely charge one laptop and one phone or GPS at the same time.
If you’re anything like us, you have a few electronics to plug in.. and while the standard cords will do the job, we’ve come to love the braided ones for their durability. This one isn’t a need, but it’s definitely a nice extra to have on your road trip packing list
One of our road trip hacks is to hit up fast food places and restaurants along the way for internet and device charging… Particularly at truck stops! Those ones usually don’t even mind if you sit there without buying anything if you ask nicely and explain what you’re doing ;). Catch is, by the time we find a place to settle in for awhile to get charged, we usually have several items that need charging! This unit allows us to plug in several things at once, which is a lifesaver at times!
Sure, you can use your smartphone instead of a GPS unit. But I’ve always appreciated having a separate unit for this function. I often pull out of my maps function to research places to visit, so it can get annoying switching between apps or exiting the navigation to check out a new destination. Having the dedicated GPS unit in a holder on my dash just simplifies the navigation process. Plus, it works even without a wifi signal!
Handsfree Bluetooth Speakerphone/Transmitter
One of the essentials to any road trip packing list is a steady stream of music. One can only switch CD’s so often, so carrying a separate mp3 player full of songs was the best option for us. It keeps my phone free for phone-related tasks, and means precious data space isn’t taken up by songs. But since our car doesn’t have an aux input, it’s essential to have a Bluetooth connection for it to connect to the radio. This little unit was perfect for that, not to mention the ability to answer phone calls without the distraction of playing with my phone!
We’ve spent a collective 6 months road tripping around USA, so have developed a pretty good system for covering our car windows to sleep. Note that we travel & sleep in a 4 door car, so if you are using something different, your needs might differ from ours.
Rear passenger windows: These window covers have been a key part in this system, because they make covering the back passenger windows a cinch! They just pull over the door like socks, so are super easy to put on. Bonus is that they still allow air through them without making it obvious your window is open, so no worries on cracking the window while you sleep! We actually have 2 sets, because through trial and error we’ve found that doubling them up offers a darker interior, which we prefer.
Front & back windows: The second stage to covering our windows comes with these covers. One for each of the front and back windows.
Obviously towels are great for bathing, but there are several other uses you might not consider until you start out on your road trip. One of our main uses for these microfiber towels is to close them in the front roll up windows to provide shade and privacy when we’re parked for the night. They are thin enough that the window can still seal, and if it rains they dry off quite quickly. Plus, they fold up nice and compact into the bag they came with!
We use ziploc bags for SO many things. They are a requirement no matter where we’re going! Whether storing snacks, toys, rocks we’ve collected or even dirty socks and wet clothes…. They’ll no doubt be put to good use! Bring a handful of a couple different sizes so you have options when the need arises.
When road tripping it would get awfully expensive if you ate out every meal! Bring these containers along to use as a bowl for fruits & veggies, cereal, salads or anything else you can think of! Pop the lid on when you’re done, and wash them the next time you stop at a gas station.
We learned the hard way that booster cables are a must for a road trip packing list… Thankfully at the time we were in a fast food place parking lot, and a couple of their staff members were willing to come out and lend us their cables and give us a boost! We had a happy ending, but it definitely made for a stressful evening! I won’t be traveling without them again, that’s for sure!!
This one might seem like a natural addition to our road trip packing list, but it’s easy to forget about! We’ve made our own first aid kit with items that we know are useful to us, but even a standard one like this will be a great addition to your arsenal. While road tripping it may be easy to stop at a pharmacy to pick up whatever you need, but if a cough strikes in the middle of the night or a cut happens while you’re out on a hike, you’ll be thankful that you carry a supply in your car!
Blankets and Pillows
Even the warmest places can get cool overnight, so it’s always a good idea to have a few blankets at the ready! If you bring a few thinner ones for each of your travelers, you can layer as the weather dictates, keeping everyone comfortable. And if your fellow travelers are anything like Seth, they’ll make good use of the pillows on driving days!
If your night ends up on the cooler side, you’ll want to make sure your head and feet are well covered. We learned pretty quickly that it’s much harder to keep a blanket on your feet when you’re already cool and trying to pull the blanket higher on your chest! Slippers were the perfect solution to this. They keep your feet toasty warm, without causing you to sacrifice precious blanket space! Plus, they can be stuffed into pretty much any small space, so if you don’t end up using them, you won’t even notice they’re there!
Hopefully this road trip packing list will help you plan your next adventure, and ensure you have all the essentials items for successful road trips on any budget! Do you have suggestions on things to add to this road trip packing list? Leave a comment below!
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