Traveling cross-country dirt cheap

This guest post from Michelle Russo is part of the “reader stories” feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Some reader stories contain general “how I did X” advice, and others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity, and with all sorts of incomes. This story is perfect for Memorial Day weekend, which kicks off the summer holiday season in the U.S.

I've traveled the continental United States, sampling a wide variety of cuisines, and I can say without reservation that the best meal I've ever eaten was a hamburger at a fast food chain just outside Mount Rainier National Park. But in all fairness, I'd spent the past nine hours climbing a mountain, the granola bars were long gone, and I was beginning to see spots.

Twice I've spent a month driving across the country, from Philadelphia to San Diego and back. I've logged over 20,000 miles, and I've seen more during that time than all the rest of my vacations combined. I've also done it for less than $2,500.

If your idea of a vacation involves a pillow-top mattress and spa treatments, this isn't the trip for you. But if you don't mind sacrificing a bit of comfort for the sake of adventure, here's how to do it.

 

Logistics aren't Easy

A month-long trip is a luxury in time alone. My teacher husband had no issues, but the majority of us will need to do some finagling. First, I saved all my paid time off for two years. This meant no holiday breaks, no long weekends, nada. Second, I approached my boss with a three-month plan: a detailed list of what I would accomplish leading up to the vacation, what needed to be done while I was gone, and where I would pick up upon my return. Bullet points listed resource materials, contacts, and due dates for each project. Because she could see that I would be working ahead of schedule and understand how to manage in my absence, she was open to the idea.

Online bill pay was invaluable, and checking our credit card site on the road helped us adjust our spending as we went. Snafus like underestimating gas usage were immediately obvious and easily managed by cutting costs elsewhere to stay on track. To keep receipts organized, we categorized them and mailed them home every few days.

Love Your Car

You will become intimately acquainted with your vehicle during this trip, so start off right. Check it thoroughly, and spring for a professional inspection if you aren't mechanically inclined. Remember that you will be driving through vastly different climates and elevations. Are your tires up to it? Change the oil before you leave, and be prepared to change it again during the trip. When you're logging hundreds of miles a day, your maintenance plan accelerates quickly.

Realize, however, that you can't account for everything. In Oregon a strange wobbling made us stop for a check-up. We learned that our mechanic hadn't balanced the tires when installing them—something we thought was common sense. They were worn through to the cord in several places and had to be replaced immediately. That was a $165.84 bill we hadn't anticipated, and we had to cut several destinations off our list to make up the cost.

Tell the Nice Credit Card People

Most of us are creatures of habit. We go to the same stores and spend roughly the same amounts from month to month. If you suddenly start logging transactions all over the country, your credit card company may wonder who made off with your wallet. Call them before the trip and ask them to note that you will be traveling extensively in the near future. It's better than sleeping at a gas station because the 24-hour pump rejects your cards and there's no one around for miles. Not that I would know.

If you've been thinking about researching rewards credit cards, now is a great time to follow through. Gas cards will probably be most profitable, but make sure you aren't locked into a single company that has limited availability.

J.D.'s note: Here's more info about how to choose a credit card.

Pack Lighter Than You've Ever Packed Before

Everything you put in your car is taking up room you could be using, and creating weight that affects your gas mileage. Gas will probably be your most expensive category on this trip, and a month's worth of supplies hauled across ten thousand miles adds up. On the first trip, we borrowed a rooftop cargo carrier, which acted as a drag parachute and dramatically affected our gas mileage. On the second trip we fit everything into my two-door coupe, cutting our gas total from $928.77 to $736.73.

Use multi-tasking and unisex health and beauty products, and streamline your routine. Avoid liquids whenever possible: several specialty chains offer shampoo in bar form. Wear basic clothing that can be mixed and matched, and layer in lieu of bulky coats. Suitcases themselves are often heavy, so consider lighter options like duffel bags. We used ten-ream paper boxes: they're lightweight, strong, and stackable.

One heavy item you can't do without is quarters. Packing a month's worth of clothes is impractical, both financially and spatially. Laundromats will keep your load manageable. Coolers are another heavy item that will save you cash. Grocery stores always have sandwich ingredients and snacks, and will help you avoid overpriced gas station goodies and fast food. Buy reusable cold packs to cut down on the amount of ice you'll need. These also come in handy in case of hiking mishaps with clumsy people. Ahem.

This ain't the Ritz

Rest stops don't have chocolates on the pillows. Campsites don't have turndown service. If you want to stretch every cent, you have to get used to the idea that hotels are not your friends. You're paying for a place in which to be unconscious. A relaxing vacation has its place—there's nothing like waking up late and sitting poolside in a foreign land. On a trip like this, though, you're balancing comfort against experiences. Every bed you sleep in cuts a slice out of your destinations. Only you can decide on the ratio that makes it worthwhile.

We stayed in hotels about six nights of each trip, totaling $559.51 and $446.91, respectively. We gave in only when we couldn't take it anymore and needed a bit of civilization (and plumbing). As nature buffs, we weren't overly concerned with what the moose would think of our hat heads and wrinkled tee shirts. Someone planning to spend time in urban areas will probably want more access to hair dryers and ironing boards.

Plan in Excruciating Detail — Then Throw it Out the Window

Every time we thought we knew exactly where to eat or what to see, fate threw us a curveball. Mount Rushmore was crawling with bikers in town for Sturgis, and prices for everything had tripled. Mesa Verde was undergoing extensive roadwork, and our quick drive through turned into hours of gridlock. Glacier National Park was on fire, and thus not good for hiking. Or camping. Or breathing.

Learning to roll with the punches resulted in some of the best memories of each trip. After finding a well-reviewed California restaurant closed for renovations, we drove down the coastal highway and stopped at a little Mexican dive barely hanging onto the cliffs overlooking the ocean. I don't know what it was called or how to get back there, but the food was amazing and the scenery was one of a kind. I'll never forget it.

 

You'll be Surprised

When we tell people about living out of our car during our trips, the most common response is “Ewwwwwww”. Reclining in the driver's seat isn't the most restful night you'll ever spend, but I guarantee that your encounters will make up for it. There's nothing like opening your eyes to the sight of the sun rising over Little Big Horn, or being woken by the rustling of an elk and her calf grazing just ten feet away. Immersing yourself in the spirit of the road trip will bring you closer to your destinations in a way you never anticipated, while also freeing up enough cash to make the trip truly memorable.

All photos by Michelle.

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Lori H
Lori H

Really great advice! With the price of gas, we will want to follow these ideas even if we aren’t driving cross-country. Our trip to the beach this summer will be a lighter load having read this!

Kat
Kat

My husband & I travel on 2 motorcycles, loaded with camping gear, food and clothes. I hated it at first, this frugal and odd way of travelling, but we’ve seen some wild things and been some interesting places along the way. Now, I wouldn’t go any other way!

Mike
Mike

Terrific post! My wife and I moved from MA to CA with nothing but what we could fit in our little Honda Civic… California didn’t work out but and we ended up moving back, but we got two cross country trips on it. When I look at the pictures we got I still can’t believe how incredible it was.

Chiot's Run
Chiot's Run

My family have made 3-4 cross-country trips when I was in school – we had a great time and did it all very inexpensively (a must when traveling with a family!) One way to help with the stress is to have a trip emergency fund much like the one you have at home for all those expenses you weren’t planning on. Then you won’t have to cut out portions of your vacation when you need new tires or buy a new tent after a big storm. Also learning a few delicious, healthy, quick to make meals on the road is… Read more »

Leah
Leah

that sounds awesome! I’ve moved cross country several times and always taken an extra week or two to savor the journey. My boyfriend and I are someday going to take a year off (once we have kids and they’re old enough to enjoy it) to travel around the country. I loved roadtrips when I was little 🙂

It was only briefly alluded to here, but buying your own groceries and a camp stove are invaluable for cheap eats.

Shara
Shara

If you don’t stay in hotels, how do you recharge your ice packs?

walk
walk

@Shara:
I was wondering the same thing about how to re-freeze your ice packs while sleeping in the car or camping sites.

Cool article… Can’t say I can take the camping/sleeping in my car route with my wife though. I would imagine the second night in our MINI with a dog would start getting old pretty quick! 🙂

Caroline
Caroline

I did this in 2003 – except without nearly as much planning (we definitely took more stuff than we needed for 3 weeks and we only used the bikes once but spent a lot of time locking them up so no one would steal them off the back of the mini van). I can’t even remember how much my best friend and I spent, but we saved money by sleeping in walmart parking lots (don’t know if you still can) and seeking out destinations with aunts and uncles that would put us up for a night or 2. The USA… Read more »

Rob
Rob

I would also recommend trying couchsurfing: it’s a great way to meet people who live in the places you’ll be visiting and to get a resident’s view on the best places to visit nearby.

Neel V Kumar
Neel V Kumar

I wonder how economically someone can see all of USA with a combination of driving, couch surfing and camping…

BTW, I am jealous of the author. 🙂

Lady J
Lady J

I think it sounds fabulous! But then again I grew up taking two-week road trips every summer, and we’d sleep in the van, only stopping at hotels every 3rd or sometimes 5th night. I would add, make sure you pack a first aid kit and a road emergency kit. You can easily find lists of what to pack by doing an internet search, but even on short road trips I’ve been so thankful I had some of these precautionary items!

snappy
snappy

great story,im a trk.driver been living in my trk.for 3 years,no bills,cept for flying j.wi fi,$140 a year,$500 a week into ing.saving,im getting rich slowly thanks to this website,if yor in need of a shower go into trk.stp. ask a driver if you can buy a shower from them,they will say no but i will give you one,we get two with each fillup,saving you $10bucks,

Steven@hundredgoals.com

I have also done the month-long roadtrip around the United States. It was the greatest time of my life and I was able to see and do so much! We also spent just under $2,500 for the entire month. Check out my story here:

http://hundredgoals.com/2009/07/07/a-summary/

Thanks for reminding me how much fun it can be to travel within our country, I have been focused on international travel recently so it was great to remember how much fun I had on my roadtrip!

Hannah
Hannah

When we did this ten years ago we got AAA and used the guide books, maps and hotel discounts frequently. Nowadays we could use our gps and smartphones for the research, but it’s good to have a backup in case there’s no cell signal for miles. We kept a cooler in the car, minimizing restaurant stops. It was definitely the best vacation of my life and I would love to do it again!

Aline
Aline

We have traveled across country 3 times, but the last time I packed lunches, and we ate them at roadside parks. We had the most amazing views in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. All along the Mississippi and Yellowstone Rivers.

Suanne
Suanne

Great advice! Ditto, ditto, ditto! I’m almost 2 months into a 6-month cross-country trip … living out of a Toyota Prius. I’ve got it set up with a cot-sized bed inside. I figure I’ll have well over 20K more miles on it by the time I get back to WA after visiting as many national parks and friends as I can fit in.

Jack Bennett
Jack Bennett

Great advice! As an aspiring minimalist, I look forward to putting some of these tips into practice. (Perhaps in the USA, perhaps in Australia or Europe who knows? 🙂 )

finallygettingtoeven
finallygettingtoeven

2 years ago we wandered our way around Mexico in this manner. Started by flying into Cabo (largest cheapest airport we could find), took a Mexican ‘chicken bus’ 3 hrs north to LaPaz, stayed there 3 days with a Mexican family in their bed & breakfast (couldn’t and still can’t speak a word of Spanish but i had a great translation book and we had just as much fun trying to work it out). Grabbed the ferry to the mainland of Mexico, Topolobambo (we were probably the ONLY foreigners on the ferry of over 1000..interesting to say the least). We… Read more »

Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things
Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things

Great advice. I love how cheap travel can be if you just put the effort into planning ahead. Sure it’s not always glamorous, but it sure is memorable =)

seawallrunner
seawallrunner

what a great article. I will be driving around iceland for two weeks, later this summer (a trip for which I have been saving two years) and the advice in this article – and in the comments – is very valuable!

TosaJen
TosaJen

Nice article.

We took the kids (six and eight) for a Spring Break road trip, and were planning to do a month or longer trip this summer, until I got a temp job. OK on temp job. 🙁 🙁 on missed opportunity.

Envious!

Cody
Cody

I just want to emphasize couchsurfing.org. I used it to travel Europe, and if you get really nice people to stay with, you can often make drastic cuts to what you’d spend on food. Though you’re already saving tons on lodging. The money saving aspect is only the second best part thought since you also make really good friends wherever you travel.

Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Sounds like fun trips! Another option to camping, if you don’t mind sharing a room with strangers, is to hostel it along the way. I’ve had great luck doing this through Europe and also major U.S. and Canadian cities.

All you have to do is remember to bring your own towel, shampoo and soap. Generally it costs around $40 a night. Some places even include breakfast.

Dreamchaser57
Dreamchaser57

Incredibly well-written article. DH and I recently did a short road trip to a metro area, it took just 4-5 hours, and we stayed three nights. It was so freeing and the drive was exhilarating! We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, very cheap rates, pretty good free breakfast every morning with variations each day, free parking, microwave and fridge in each of the rooms, – no full scale room service which was fine. The third night was just $25 bucks, the room slept six. It is the quintessential road trip hotel. The song “What About Now” by Lonestar embodies… Read more »

Jessica @ Life as I See It
Jessica @ Life as I See It

Love this!!
We have done two short trips similar to this – sleeping in our car – but just for 3 nights in a row. It was a terrific way to stretch the budget and have a really fun experience!!

Sarah
Sarah

I’ve done this a few times myself (NYC to Chicago to Seattle, Austin, Chicago; Chicago to Nova Scotia and back; Austin to San Francisco & back). We do the same thing. We have our Honda Element set up so the back is a bed, and stay in a hotel every 3-5 nights just for a warm shower and a good night’s sleep. We keep a cooler with hummus and cheese and bread and other snack/lunch food and do laundry along the way. It also helps having friends in random cities across the country who are happy to let you stop… Read more »

Will
Will

For a cross-country trip, I’d recommend looking at Amtrak as well. You can get from Seattle to DC for less than $300 if you’re willing to sleep in coach and bring your own food. If you’re willing to stick to destinations that have train stops (which includes places like Wisconsin Dells and Glacier National Park as well as cities like Seattle), it’s remarkably affordable and lots of fun!

Nicole
Nicole

The recent hot weather reminds me what a wimp I am. I tried going to bed without taking a shower last night and it did not work, even though I’d taken a shower earlier in the day. So cheap long-term road trips sound fun, but I think maybe I can only handle them in tiny bites with real beds and working showers.

It’s hard being a tender sweet young thing.

Samantha
Samantha

Hopefully you aren’t being sarcastic, Nicole, because I agree. Travel like this is fun (and cheap!) for some people, but it just isn’t for me. I would rather have a budgeted vacation that includes showers, beds… conveniences. But for people who like it, this is all great advice 🙂

Walden Pond
Walden Pond

Don’t bloggers who travel start to lose touch with readers who slog M-F/9-5? Just asking.

Cleve
Cleve

Interesting question.

How does one lose touch with a “slog,” pray tell?

Tony Dobson
Tony Dobson

Great story, very inspiring! Thanks for sharing.

My only worry would be about sleeping in my car. I happen to remember what happened to James Jordan (Michael’s father).

Thisiswhyubroke.com!
Thisiswhyubroke.com!

Hmm…may have to try this. I also read alot about people who use community couch crashing sites to find people to put them up for the night. Might be another nice frugal addition to this..

http://thisiswhyuBROKE.wordpress.com
Financial advice + Ridicule + Quality HipHop

S
S

#27 + #28 – you are not the only ones! I can barely stand 4 hours in the car, with breaks, going cross-state. I can’t imagine weeks spent that way!

Deb
Deb

I used to love road trips! In my early 30s we did a 35 day cross country trip in an Isuzu Trooper – Oregon to NY, to FL, to CO, back to Oregon. We outfitted the back with a foam platform bed and were able to fit our things underneath the platform. I admit, though, that I did feel a bit vulnerable and exposed at night even with my hubby next to me. At age 18 I drove from Oregon to TX by myself, again slept in my car. Somewhere in Utah, I pulled into an isolated rest stop next… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa

My partner and I are taking 2 months to travel across Canada this summer. This article is perfect timing!

Alexandra
Alexandra

Yeah, this sounds like torture to me. I wouldn’t waste my vacation days on a week like this – I’d rather stay at home and have a nice stay-cation right in my backyard.

Jason B
Jason B

Fantastic writing! Kept me riveted from beginning to end. And this sounds like my kind of trip! Consider this guy inspired!

MM
MM

This trip sounds Amazing. I am not sure i could do it. But i love knowing someone has!

3rd Generation
3rd Generation

Nicely written and very readable. Sounds like you had a ball! What planning. After a 25+ year outside sales career, with untold nights out in hotels/motels of all ilks, I too thought I’d never like ‘camping’ on-the-road a’la Peter Egan (of Road & Track magazine). I took a two year sabattical, bought low-mileage BMW tourer and went for it. I will say takes a little getting used to, but I soon was living as elegantly as I could out of the hard bags, formed a new network of acquaintances, some of which are now visiting me while on their journeys… Read more »

Rove
Rove

Inspiring reading!
I have driven from Canada to Central America two times. We took turns driving through the night, sleeping in Californian friends backyards, and some of the places we stayed….oh my!

Eating instant oatmeal with water warmed by the sun…(once we hit mexico, tasty tacos made things more enjoyable).

This summer I’m heading to Scandinavia for 7 weeks and will try to see if I can pull off frugal traveling practices up there. Couchsurfing will be something I’ll try.

Funny about Money
Funny about Money

Argh! Brings up vivid pictures of the time Semi-Demi-Exboyfriend and I spent three months — on foot — in the outback of Alaska and Canada. We hitchhiked and rode buses when we needed to get across large distances. Otherwise we hiked. We spent two (count’em, 2) days in a motel, only because it was raining so hard we could no longer reasonably pitch our tent in a parking lot. In towns there are lots of public places to shower, BTW. In the woods, you quickly grow accustomed to bathing in streams and lakes. I’ve washed my hair in snowmelt more… Read more »

Ash
Ash

You’re my hero!

Bobbi
Bobbi

I love this story but have a question. Did you not camp at all? I just wasn’t sure if I missed something. You slept in the car almost the whole time? Nothing wrong with it, just checking. My car is wonderful inside and I could live in it too, lol. IF I had to that is. This trip sounds wonderful but I would think you would have to do it with another person & I am not sure I know anyone I would want to spend 3 whole months with, lol. But it is something to think about. 🙂 Great… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha

@40 Funny About Money : Not related to anything, but what does Semi-Demi-Exboyfriend mean? I googled it and everything that comes up is PF, but nothing explains it…

basicmoneytips
basicmoneytips

Sounds like a fun trip. I think more people do this type of travel thru Europe rather than in the USA. The USA is such a big place, you almost have to do a trip like this to see it all.

Lisa
Lisa

Hi! How about camping in National Forests? It doesn’t cost to cmp in them.lisa

bogart
bogart

Sounds great, and great tips. I did a similar, though briefer, trip — did some sleeping in my vehicle (a p’up, so had a bed) and some in tents. For those concerned about safety, I was a woman traveling solo and did (pay to) stay in campgrounds but never felt concerned, nor had any problems. Somewhere along the way it hit me (I was traveling in summer) that I had a ready-made source of solar-heated water: the cab of my p’up. I kept bottled water in there and it would heat up a ton (of course) if I parked the… Read more »

Michelle
Michelle

Shara and walk, You are correct. We could only completely refreeze ice packs when staying in a hotel/motel. You can partially refreeze them by stuffing them at the bottom of the cooler right before buying a new bag of ice. Hannah, AAA was definitely helpful, but the article was getting long. 🙂 We started with a box full of AAA guide books, then recycled them as we finished the area they covered. A few times we had the chance to give them to a fellow tourist, and it was always appreciated. Bobbi, We did indeed sleep in the car most… Read more »

mythago
mythago

I would be EXTREMELY wary of relying on the nice credit card people’s ability to remember that you called them. Consumerist is full of stories of people who got stranded for days without access to their credit cards when the nice credit card people ‘forgot’ they’d been alerted to a vacation trip.

I am interested in whether (as Elizabeth @22 notes) you considered hostels, which are very economical; though I guess if you were going the more rural route rather than staying in cities they might be harder to find.

mark e
mark e

I traveled the country for 5 months on my Vespa scooter, which solved the “gas will be the most expensive part of your trip” problem. For instance, I spent a leisurely month just getting from Oklahoma to Seattle. The cost in gas? $90.00. Another cost saving tip: stay with people instead of hotels. Yes, I had a few friends along the way, but I stayed with a bunch of new friends by tapping into the incredible network that is couchsurfing.com. I started out my trip thinking I would camp each night but only did so on the very first night.… Read more »

Dan
Dan

Here’s a suggestion for sleeping in the car: rig up some nylon screen with magnetic strips around the perimeter for your car windows. Before I figured this out waking up in the car was a choice between a nasty damp mess from respiration or filled with flying bugs. Leaving a couple of windows cracked makes it much more comfortable.

Devbeth
Devbeth

Two words – I’m jealous!

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