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Recap of our 11 Day Road Trip to North Carolina and DC

Jun 23, 2024


For many people, vacation means not cooking at all. As a family of 6 wanting to travel often in a financially sustainable way, this is just not a feasible thing. Because of that, I choose to lean into simple meals that are quick, filling, make leftovers, and keep everybody happy. I have even found that for young kids on the road, they become even more selective about what they'll eat, when, and how much. Nothing will get under my frugal skin more than ordering 4 kids' meals and watching most of it go in the trash because the kids didn't want it and I don't have a way to store it.

By finding a grocery store, stocking up on familiar foods that I know the kids will eat, I can reduce our costs drastically.

While on the road:

It took us 2 days to drive from Illinois to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Here are all of our meals while on the road:

  • Day 1
    • Breakfast: homemade mini chocolate chip muffins and apple slices right when we got on the road around 6am. We stopped and bought a couple Chick-fil-A breakfast biscuits about 4 hours later to share. $19.80
    • Lunch: I packed mini lunchables (the ones that don't include a drink) for the 4 kids. They ate them in the car as we drove and then Kyle and I got burritos at Chipotle and the kids ran around at a park while we ate! This type of stop is PERFECTION for us and our kids ages 3-9. When we stop, they don't need to sit more, they need to run! $21
    • Dinner: Mcdonald's happy meals for the kids and Taco Bell for Kyle and me. $40
  • Day 2
    • Breakfast: ate at the hotel in Virginia! Holiday Inn Express and Suites is always a win for us: 6 people can sleep in one room and there's always hot breakfast. $0
    • Lunch: Kyle made PBJ, fruit and chips for all of us while I drove! We stopped and grabbed iced coffee and snacks for the kids while they played at the park. $15
    • Dinner: we made it to the vacation house in North Carolina by 4pm where we met up with Kyle's family. One person ordered pizza and we all venmo'ed her for our portion of the meal! $45
  • Total spent on the road for 6 people and 2 days: $141 

While on Vacation with Kyle's Family:

Both of our families have used this meal strategy for the last several vacations and it works SO well: each family unit (parents and sibling/couples) is responsible for one dinner that feeds everyone (our families are both 16-18 people total). We discuss who will cook when and then fill in the other days with eating out, eating leftovers etc.

Each family unit then gets their own lunches, snacks, etc. but no one is really upset by someone else eating their food. You just can't be dogmatic about Goldfish when sharing a house with 17 people!

One morning, I made a double batch of the mini chocolate chip muffins including half of them gluten free for several GF family members. Some people ate them, others made their own breakfast. One other morning, I made a big batch of pancakes from a box I brought from home. The other mornings we just grabbed cereal, eggs, etc.

Our Dinners for 7 Nights at the Beach House: ordered pizza and split the cost, 3 meals cooked by siblings including us, one night of everyone out to dinner paid for by parents, one night of the siblings out to dinner while grandkids stayed back with grandparents (paid for ourselves), one night of leftovers and everyone using up whatever was in the fridge = 7 dinners.

The Dinner I Made for Everyone:

 I doubled this pot roast recipe and made one in the oven and one in the crockpot. I chose this recipe because I know it's a winner, it's SO easy (I did not spend that much time in the kitchen at all. Less than 30 minutes for sure), and it's Gluten/Dairy Free without making any adjustments.

Kyle also grilled 2 NY Strip steaks we found for 50% off.

I served it with boxed mac n cheese for the kids, a ceasar salad (just sliced up romaine lettuce and added croutons, parmesan, and pre-made dressing). 

Finished the meal with a pan of gluten free brownies (I brought a box mix from Aldi) and vanilla ice cream.

I spent about $150 and we had leftovers. That's less than $10 per person. Which is more than I normally spend for a home-cooked meal and WAY less than I would spend if we took 16 people out to a restaurant. Wins all around.


I would choose paying extra for a place to stay with lots of amenities over saving a few bucks on a cheap hotel then needing to pay for daily activities. Our family beach house (that we chipped in for 1.5 bedrooms worth based on how many people we brought) included a pool, hot tub, 3 hole putt putt green, pool table, arcade game, 18 bikes, walking distance to the ocean.

It was certainly not the "cheapest" place to stay. But once we were there, we had no reason to really leave or pay to do scheduled activities. The kids had the time of their lives boogey boarding with their cousins, playing video games with their uncles, riding bikes in our culdesac, staying up late, etc.

We went to Jockey's Ridge State Park one morning to run the sand dunes (free) and Kitty Hawk Wright Brothers Memorial (normally $10 per adult and kids free, but their register was down so they just let us in free) another morning.

Thankfully we did not have any rain days where we had to plan an indoor day so we were able to take full advantage of the pool, ocean, and fun around the house.

When the siblings went out to dinner together without kids, we also hit up an arcade: $20 on a game card. :) 

Souvenirs: I didn't grow up in a "souvenir family" lol. So I think that impacts my sentiment towards them: I don't get it. 🙃 I have purchased a shirt from a vacation spot before, but other than that everything else feels cheap and trinkety. I'm practical to a fault: when I see a souvenir shop and what's inside, my first thought is "what would I do with this?" Because of that, we didn't buy any souvenirs on this trip and usually don't. We did find a very cute little local bookstore and each of the boys and myself bought a book: total $60.


Super deep, profound, secret of budgeting: the longer you do it, the easier it becomes.😉 We went on a whole family beach vacation with Kyle's family 2 years ago. It was about 8 days and it cost $1,500. So I budgeted $1,500 this time.

We had played around with adding a day or two to the end of our trip to visit Washington, DC since it's relatively close to North Carolina and only adds an hour of total drive time to the route home. By Tuesday or Wednesday of the trip, we decided we wanted to go for it! I knew we would be over budget because of this. I had $300 budgeted in that pay period to add to our vacation fund towards our Europe trip in July. I decided to go ahead and use that towards this trip, increasing the budget to $1,800. 

Credit Card Points: I used points to cover our 3 hotel stays: one in Virginia on the way there, one in DC and one in Pennsylvania on the way home. Without credit card points, we would have spent over $700 more than we actually did. For this trip, I used Chase Ultimate rewards points on my Chase Sapphire Preferred card (referral link) that I earned by referring Kyle to a Chase business credit card (referral link. yes, you and your spouse can each open the same kind of card and yes, you can earn credit for referring someone even if they are your spouse). 

Sometimes I break down my budget ahead of time. I often do this very generally. I calculate gas budget (distance travelling round trip plus 200 miles divided by your vehicle's MPG times the cost per gallon. Example: 1600 miles + 200 extra for driving around = 1800 miles divided by 25 miles per gallon times $3.80 per gallon = $273.60 gas budget). Then I budget generally for the other categories by looking back at past vacation spending. This time, I didn't break it down into categories since I was fairly confident in my $1,500 budget based on previous travel. Here's how that spending ultimately worked out including our DC trip.

Travel Days + Transportation: $588

Tolls $16
Gas $320
Travel Day Food $250.66

Food during Vacation: $565

Restaurants $240
Groceries $282
Coffee Shops $43

Entertainment + Prep before Leaving: $341

Walmart Prep $216
Binny's for Shared Drinks $43
Books $61
Arcade $20

Washington, DC $332

Restaurants $157
Hotel Fee $50
Ice Cream $44
Coffee Shops $48
Parking $25
Bus Rides $12

Total: $1,826 - $26 over budget after accounting for $300 extra to DC. 

This doesn't include contributing $600 towards the beach house for the family and as I mentioned the 3 hotel stays that were fully covered on points so our actual out of pocket was $2,400 for 11 days for 6 people! Most of all, this was a trip full of memories, relaxation, and NO car accidents! Hallelujah! 

My advice if you've got small kids and you're not road-tripping regularly but would like to: Just start with a weekend trip! I am not here to say you'll realize nothing goes wrong. Instead, you'll realize even when things do go wrong, you'll still be ok. We've had trips where we're sick, car accidents, kids who need to go to the bathroom so many times that we feel like we'll never arrive, hotels that give up our room, etc. The more you practice, the more you and your kids get used to being away from home. The experiences are worth it and yes, even the wrenches thrown in your schedule become memorable too!