How to Save Money on a Fun, Relaxing, AND Educational Road Trip!
Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full advertising policy: How we make money.
Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
Summer’s a popular time for families to travel and spend quality time together. Not only is this a chance to mix education and vacation, but with COVID-19 still being a concern, there’s a real opportunity to turn your summer vacation into a road trip. By traveling in your car, you’re largely avoiding other people and places where transmission of the virus is of a higher risk. Plus, travel as a child is correlated to better educational attainment, and thus a higher earnings ability as an adult!
There are plenty of ways to cut down on costs and save money on a fun, relaxing, AND educational trip — like with a travel credit card! And what better way to do it than to take a road trip to see more things en route to your destination!
Region-by-Region Guide to Educational Spots to Visit
Everyone says that at a young age, the brain is like a sponge. So what better way to expand your child’s horizons than by feeding that sponge with knowledge from aquariums, zoos, museums, and more?
If you’re thinking of a road trip this summer, here are some great places to visit no matter where you are in the US!
- Kopernik Observatory & Science Center (Broome County, New York): This is a great site to visit if you have young children interested in anything related to science or engineering. The Kopernik Observatory and Science Center also has a number of school programs in a variety of subjects, so your children can learn about things like rocks, volcanoes, astronomy, our solar system, and more! Kopernik is currently closed due to COVID-19 but is offering educational summer camps for kids this summer.
- Historic Philadelphia Center (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): If you have kids who are history buffs, they’ll love Historic Philadelphia. Depending on the season, you can enjoy historic district tours, storytelling, benches, and get a glimpse of historic reenactments! Right now some locations are closed due to COVID-19, but you can enjoy walking around outside.
- The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore (Baltimore, Maryland): This should definitely be on your list of places to visit if your kids love animals. Outside of learning about different species and their habitats, you can also learn about how to lend a helping hand towards the support and conservation of wildlife.
- Acadia National Park (Maine): One of the most visited parks in the US, this park has a number of spectacular views. It’s a great spot to visit if you’re looking to get away from the fast-paced city life and slow down for a few days.
- Fort at No. 4 Living Museum (Charlestown, New Hampshire): History buffs should get a kick out of this attraction. You’ll get a very authentic feel of old times as the museum gives tours by guides dressed in traditional 18th century clothing. You’ll also get to see demonstrations of cooking routines and methods, military drills, and more! The museum is only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and social distancing and masking is enforced.
- Apalachicola Maritime Museum (Apalachicola, Florida): Enjoy spending time near the ocean? You might enjoy the Apalachicola Maritime Museum! They’ve got a variety of educational and recreational boat tours, historical tours, kayaking, and sailing! The museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19 and currently has no set date to reopen.
- Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo (Gulf Shores, Alabama): If you’re a fan of zoos and nature in general, you’ll enjoy a trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo! Not only are there a number of fun-filled activities to do, you can also enjoy the zoo’s green certified restaurant, The Safari Club!
- Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta, Georgia): Here you can learn about a variety of aquatic animals and their natural habitats.
- Aiken County Historical Museum (Aiken, South Carolina): Immerse yourself in the history of this region as you learn a variety of historical facts about the town!
- North Carolina Zoo (Asheboro, North Carolina): See a wide variety of animals at this gorgeous zoo. Reservations are required due to COVID-19, as well as face masks.
- Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park (Morton County, North Dakota): This is one of the oldest state parks in North Dakota, and with it you’ll have the opportunity to embark on a number of different activities! Not only can you learn about the cultural, historical, and natural influences of the area, you can also camp overnight, hike, and have a fun horseback ride around various trails!
- Native American Educational and Cultural Center (West Lafayette, Indiana): This cultural center gives you the opportunity to learn about various indigenous cultures, and is home to a number of staff that represent over 45 tribal nations!
- Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary (Buffalo County, Nebraska): Here you can look forward to a hands-on outdoor, experience-based educational environment through various trails, wetlands, and wooded areas. If you keep your eye out, you can even book a spot in one of their nature camps depending on availability!
- Western Historic Trails Center (Council Bluffs, Iowa): You can check out various exhibits, films, maps, and more as you learn what early travelers to Iowa went through during the Lewis and Clark, Oregon, California, and Mormon trails.
- Jeffers Petroglyphs (Cottonwood County, Minnesota): This is home to over 5,000 sacred rock carvings made by ancestors of today’s Native Americans, and you can learn about the history, anthropology, and archaeology of this place! The site is currently closed due to COVID-19 and doesn’t have a set date to reopen.
- Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma): There are lots of fun and educational opportunities at the Oklahoma City, including classes, programs, special events, camps, and birthday parties! You can also look forward to other fun-filled activities, including educational and interactive signs and encounters with zookeepers.
- Space Center Houston (Houston, Texas): If you have children that look up at the stars at night and wonder what could be, then they should definitely enjoy a trip to the Space Center Houston. There are tons of science-education resources that your kids will love, and they can learn all about the history of America’s space flight program!
- Tsankawi Prehistoric Site, Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico): Here’s another for those who love spending time with nature! The visitor’s center here will give you a glimpse into the area’s history, culture, and the wildlife and plants native to the region. Hiking trails are also available for you to explore and enjoy the scenery!
- Grand Canyon (Arizona, check out the Junior Rangers program!): If you ever plan a visit to the Grand Canyon, you’ll have to look into the Junior Rangers program for your kids! It’s a wonderful program where they’ll have the opportunity to learn about nature, history, and be able to explore the park itself.
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico): Here’s another National Park that also offers ranger programs throughout the year. You can look forward to guided tours, and you’ll also have the option of exploring over 9 miles of trails on your own as well!
Rocky Mountain Region
- The Hoover Dam (Clark County, Nevada): Tours of the world-famous Hoover Dam are available daily, and you’ll be treated to guided tours describing the operations of the Dam, its purpose and contributions to the American Southwest, and a variety of exhibits and galleries with additional educational content. Some areas are closed due to COVID-19.
- Historic Silver City (Idaho): A bit off the beaten path, Silver City is a ghost town that’s rich with history! You can take a step back in time and look at old buildings and architecture, and you can explore the various hiking trails in the area.
- Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, Montana): This is the place to visit if you’re into paleontology. You’ll be treated to a number of different exhibitions, including an extensive collection of dinosaur fossils, planetarium shows, lectures, and more!
- Grand Teton Wildlife Safari (Jackson, Wyoming): If you’re an adventurous one, check out the wildlife safari tours here! You’ll be able to view wildlife while getting an overview of the area’s geology, history, and ecology. These tours are limited to small group sizes with an abundance of wildlife to see, so it’ll be sure to be a memorable visit!
- Loveland Living Planet Aquarium (Draper, Utah): Discover and learn about Earth’s many ecosystems at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium! The aquarium also offers workshops for both Boy and Girl Scouts, along with a number of workshops and hands-on learning activities.
- Pacific Aviation Museum (Hickam Field, Hawaii): If you make a visit to this museum, you’ll be treated to plenty of hands-on experiences to learn about the history and technology of aircraft! Plus, the museum has scout programs for kids who want to learn even more about aviation, weather, and aerospace!
- USS Midway Museum (San Diego, California): Interested in visiting a historic aircraft carrier? Then you’ll want to take a look at the USS Midway Museum! You can experience over 60+ exhibits throughout the carrier, as well as take part in a number of family-oriented activities for all ages such as flight simulators, island tours, and more!
- The Pacific Science Center at Seattle Center (Seattle, Washington): A great place to learn about science! Exhibits vary throughout the year so no 2 visits are ever the same, and your kids can learn about things like our solar system, planets, weight, gravity, and so much more! The science center is currently closed due to COVID-19 but is planning to offer summer programs for kids.
- Pendleton Underground Tours (Pendleton, Oregon): History buffs will love the guided tours in the underground world of Pendleton! Learn all about the history of the town, the purpose of various buildings and tunnels, and more!
- The Space Needle (Seattle, Washington): A great visit if you’re looking for breathtaking views of the city. You’ll be treated to floor-to-floor glass so you can take memorable photos with Seattle in the background!
Ways to Save on Travel Expenses
Ways to Save on Car Expenses
Prepare Your Vehicle With Proper Maintenance and Inspections Before the Trip
A road trip, by definition, can’t happen without a functioning vehicle. So before you embark on your road trip, you’ll want to make sure your car is in tip top condition! To minimize the chances of unforeseen breakdowns, it’s a good idea to have a mechanic inspect your vehicle and have them do any maintenance deemed necessary, which might include:
- Checking your tire tread and air pressure
- Changing your car’s oil and oil filter
- Changing your car’s air filter
- Topping up any fluids (oil, windshield washer, brake fluid, coolant, etc.)
- Checking the status of your car’s battery
- Checking all brake lights and headlights
Maximize Your Use of Gas Points and Other Rewards
Whether you’ll be driving your own car or renting one, you’ll probably be going through several tanks of gas, so you’ll want to be prepared with one of the best gas credit cards to maximize rewards whenever you fill up at the gas station.
Some of my personal favorites are the Chase Ink Business Cash Credit Card and the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi.
Utilize Grocery Store Loyalty Programs
For long road trips, chances are you’ll be stopping by some grocery stores somewhere along the way to restock on supplies and snacks. Here are some tips to make the most of these stops!
- Utilize grocery store loyalty programs to earn and redeem points: Look up which grocery chains are along your road trip route and register for a few different loyalty programs if they have one!
- Pack a cooler with ice packs: You might want to pick up some perishable snacks on your way, and they’ll last a lot longer for everyone if you have a cooler and some ice packs!
Ways to Save on Lodging
Sure, sleeping in the car might be the cheapest option, but it’s not the most comfortable. Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable options through VRBO, Airbnb, hostels, and hotels!
Award Stays with Hotels
If you’re sitting on a pile of hotel points, or if you find a great deal at a nearby hotel, then by all means pull the trigger! Many award stays have no added room taxes or fees, so it’s a wonderful way to book a room for no cash at all.
Depending on where you stay, hotels could wind up being quite expensive. For instance, I’ve seen hotels around the Grand Canyon area go for as much as $300 per night. Imagine if you were staying for a few nights, that could easily eat up nearly $1,000 of your hard-earned cash.
VRBOs or Airbnbs
If hotels aren’t your thing, VRBOs and Airbnbs could be perfect for your home away from home. You’ll find a LOT more availability for these compared to hotels. So if you’ll be traveling off the beaten path or can’t find any hotels, these make a great alternative.
And if you can find a great Airbnb host, you could get amazing insights from a local! I stayed at an Airbnb last year in Italy, and had great hosts who shared their insights on the best places to eat, sightseeing, and how to get around. It was almost like having our own personal tour guide!
The setups of various hostels vary, but in general, you can expect to share some facilities with others, like a kitchen, lounge, and bathroom areas. There are lots of nice hostels where you can even rent your entire private room, which can be great for families.
Be sure to do your research though, because not all hostels are created equal. Hostels typically offer a lot less privacy than an Airbnb or hotel rooms, so if that’s something you care about and you’re not able to find a good enough deal to justify giving up that privacy, you might want to look into VRBOs or Airbnbs instead.
If you’re planning a family trip this summer, know that there are plenty of ways you can save money AND be able to embark on a fun, relaxing, and educational experience. Though COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into many travel plans, the country is recovering and opening many places back up for us to visit.
There are historical attractions, zoos, museums, aquariums, and more educational sites all throughout the US for all sorts of budgets. And if you’ll be traveling with kids, going on a road trip is arguably the best way to include some sort of educational component into your vacation because they’ll be able to see a lot more out of the window of a car than out of a window on a plane.
These trips can be expensive, but you can save quite a bit if you follow these tips:
- Make sure your car is in tip top condition
- Use one of the best gas credit cards at the pump to get the biggest return for your money
- Enroll in loyalty programs for grocery stores
- Save on lodging expenses by considering alternatives to hotels, like VRBO, Airbnb, and hotel points
Have you gone on a road trip recently? Let us know what methods you used to save money on your vacation! And comment with your favorite educational destination.
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)