College can be stressful. Between lectures, term papers, clubs, sports, part-time work, and some shred of a social life — it’s no wonder students need to unwind every chance they get. And if you’re looking for the ultimate way to unwind and get a taste of adventure, a road trip could be the perfect solution.
You might often catch yourself fantasizing about jetting off to some exotic location, but that can cost a whole lot of time and money. Most students don’t have much of either to spare. That’s why you should really consider taking a road trip closer to home.
By hitting the open road, you’ll be able to save money, explore some hidden gems you never knew existed, and spend a lot of time enjoying the highway with your favorite people. What’s not to love?
This guide explains how to plan a road trip, the safety precautions you’ve got to take, and the top ten cheap road trips for college students.
How to plan a road trip
Before we speed right onto some of the cheapest college road trip ideas, let’s pump the brakes and talk logistics. There are a lot of fundamentals you need to bear in mind when planning a trip on the open road.
To help you prep for your big trip, we’ll quickly walk you through the basics.
Plot your route in advance
There’s something romantic about just hopping in the car and hitting the gas without thinking about where the road is going to take you. But if you want to make sure you’re going to actually see and do things you want to do without wasting all your time on boring towns and quiet truck stops, it makes a lot more sense to plan your route ahead of time.
You should start by plotting out all of your favorite cities you want to visit on your trip on a map (or a map app). You can then link those major cities or locations together along main roads to create an achievable route.
If you’re using something like Google Maps, you should get inundated with suggestions about the best places to eat, coolest things to see, and best activities along the way — not to mention your estimated driving time.
It’s also important that you plot out rest stops and overnight stops. Be realistic about your route, and do your best to keep drive times down so that you’ve got more time for spontaneous tourist traps, truck stops, and hidden treasures along the way.
It might sound old-fashioned, but you should pack a paper map of your route in the car, too. Depending on where you're heading, the reception might get spotty. Having a hard copy could end up saving you a lot of time and sanity in the long run.
College road trips can be stressful, so you’re going to rest a lot easier and have much-needed peace of mind knowing that all of your important accommodation and event bookings have been organized in advance.
If you’re planning on camping, a lot of campsites book up several months in advance — so get in there quickly. Likewise, suppose you’re organizing a road trip to a popular spring break spot or a skiing destination in the peak season. In that case, you should think about reserving your hotel or hostel early to avoid having to shell out for an overpriced AirBnB at the last minute.
Make sure your car is prepped
Before taking off down the open road, you’ve got to make sure your car is up to the journey.
That means you need to take your car in for a service appointment at a garage. Your oil, tires, fluids, and air filters will all need to be checked by a professional. Yes, it feels like an unnecessary expense if your car is running ok right now — but you don’t want to live to regret trying to pinch a few pennies in the middle of some deserted highway.
Just get it done.
You’ll also need to make sure your lights are all working, you’ve got a decent spare tire, and you have up-to-date documentation and insurance in the glove box. You may want to invest in a cost-effective safety kit with stuff like jumper cables and a flashlight in case of emergency.
If you’ve got a car rental for your road trip, be sure to double-check the rental agreement for mileage limits and any emergency contact information. If you’re road-tripping abroad, make sure you’ve got a driver’s license that’s recognized in that country and that you understand the rules of the road.
Set a budget
Gas is normally the highest cost on any road trip — and you need to budget accordingly.
Do your research ahead of time and try to figure out the fuel prices for all of your stops along the way. This will help you work out the average price per gallon so that you’ll have a pretty accurate idea of how much money you’ll need to pay for all your gas stops.
Don’t forget to budget in for toll roads, too. Most highway tolls aren’t very expensive — but you should always have change in the car or a card ready so that you don’t end up stuck.
Your next biggest expense is probably going to be accommodation (unless you’re camping in the wild), followed by your food and whatever entertainment you want to explore along the way.
You just need to make sure you’ve got the money you plan on spending. A budgeting app can really save the day in this department.
We apologize for the public service announcement, but this one is so important. You’ve got to make sure you rest, drive carefully, and take all the necessary precautions.
Car accidents are the number one cause of death amongst young people, and drowsy driving causes thousands of deaths a year. By simply taking breaks, wearing your seatbelt, and taking your time, your road trip is going to be a whole lot safer for everyone.
You also can’t forget that we’re still dealing with a major pandemic. You’ll need to be careful about where you go and how close you’re getting to strangers. You should bring cleaning supplies, masks, and lots of hand sanitizer just in case.
Finally, do everyone a favor and tell your friends and loved ones where you’re going and make sure to keep in touch with them.
By letting them know your route and what you plan on doing, they’ll be able to stay in touch to make sure your trip is going ok — or step in to lend a helping hand if required.
What are the top 10 cheap road trips for college students?
Now that we’ve covered how to plan a college road trip, let’s get down to your dream destinations. There are plenty of amazing road trips you can take across America, but some are more expensive than others.
To help feed your wanderlust and get out on the open road, we’ve rounded up ten of the best (and cheapest) road trips for college students.
1. Pacific Coast Highway
Without a doubt, one of the top cheap road trips is the Pacific Coast Highway in California. This scenic stretch of road makes for an epic spring break road trip, a great way to spend part of your summer vacation or Labor Day, or just for a cheeky weekend out of town.
It’s a simple route, too. You can either start in LA and head north on Highway 1 or start in San Francisco and head south on Highway 1. In terms of navigation, that’s genuinely all there is to it — but the sights are to die for.
You can go hiking in Big Sur, check out McWay Falls, or explore Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and it all costs next to nothing. Just make sure to check ahead online to see what’s open, as a lot of trails are seasonal.
2. Route 66
Nothing is more All-American than a road trip across Route 66. Also known as Main Street, USA, and the Will Rogers Highway, the famous road trip starts in Chicago and winds all across the midwest until you hit Santa Monica.
That means you’re able to start the trip just about wherever you happen to be, and you can drive as far as you want. Route 66 runs through loads of big cities and hidden gems alike — including St. Louis, Tulsa, Amarillo, Santa Fe, and everywhere in between.
3. San Juan Skyway
If you’re looking for a scenic trip, you can’t do much better than the San Juan Skyway. This trip is composed of winding roads through the Rocky Mountains, and it’s essentially just a loop between Santa Fe, Denver, and Colorado Springs.
Along the way, you’ll find world-class hiking, ski spots, camping, and beautiful hot springs.
4. New Orleans
New Orleans is on every music lover’s bucket list. Between the jazz, voodoo, amazing creole cooking, and extraordinary culture, this college town is definitely one of the most unique cities in the world.
New Orleans makes a great road trip around Mardi Gras season or spring break, but it’s also ideal for summer break or a bit of winter sun. If you’re trying to travel cheaply, consider staying in the Central Business District or Faubourg-Marigny rather than the bustling French Quarter.
If you want to make your road trip longer, it’s worth trying the route from Nashville to New Orleans — that way, you’re going to get your fill of music and amazing food.
5. Overseas Highway
There’s nowhere in the world quite like the Overseas Highway. Running 113 miles from Miami to Key West, the Overseas Highway connects all of the Florida Keys. Making your way across the Keys means driving surrounded on all sides by tropical blue water, sunshine, and blue skies.
What’s not to love?
Key Largo is renowned for its diving. But if you’re traveling on a budget, you should definitely stop in Islamorada. The food is way cheaper, and the beaches are relatively quiet most of the year.
Further north of the Overseas Highway, you’ll find Florida’s scenic 30A Highway. The 30A offers a relaxing trip across Florida’s calm waters and white sandy beaches. You’ll get breathtaking views, and there are plenty of amazing stops along the way.
Unlike the Overseas Highway, the 30A is pretty quiet — which makes this a great road trip if you want to chill out and go at your own pace.
7. South Padre Island
South Padre Island is the stuff that spring break dreams are made of. This Texas hotspot offers wild nightlife, relaxing beach days, and fun activities to boot.
The route to the island through Texas is incredibly scenic, and there are loads of great AirBnBs and other rentals that you can stay at. That means you can keep your trip to South Padre pretty cheap if you book in advance and split it with a few friends.
8. Olympic Peninsula
There’s never a bad time for a road trip across the Pacific Northwest — and the Olympic Peninsula loop is one of the most gorgeous drives you’ll find in the area.
You can start in Seattle and follow Highway 101 in a loop around the stunning Olympic National Park. You’ll be driving through ancient forests and past unique little rest stops. It’s perfect for camping, hiking, fishing, or simply getting out of town to reconnect with nature.
9. Great Sand Dunes
The Great Sand Dunes is a unique destination for college students. Surrounded by mountain forests, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is a huge and out-of-place desert — and it’s a college hot spot as the unofficial sandboarding capital of the Rockies.
There are plenty of businesses outside the park that rent snowboards, sleds, and skis designed for sand in particular. The entrance fees to the park are low, and it makes for a unique day you’ll never forget. There’s also horseback riding, kayaking, hunting, and fishing.
The route from Colorado Springs up to the Great Sand Dunes is breathtaking and only takes a few hours. This makes it the perfect destination for a day trip.
10. Las Vegas
Las Vegas is one of the most famous cities in the world — and for good reasons. But it doesn’t have to be an expensive luxury destination full of gambling. If you play your cards right, you can enjoy all the free attractions at high-end hotels on the Vegas Strip without spending much at all.
Just hold on to your cash and enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of Vegas. There are a couple of great road trips you can take to get to Vegas, but Los Angeles to Vegas is the classic desert road trip. It only takes about four hours, but you’ll never forget it.
By hitting the open road, you’ll be able to save money, explore some hidden gems you never knew existed, and spend a lot of time enjoying the highway with your favorite people.
It’s important to note this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are loads of incredible (and affordable) road trips out there — just do your research, do everything you can to prepare, and hit the road.
Make sure you keep an eye on CouponFollow for specific college coupon codes that you can take advantage of.