Planning a road-trip vacation: Traveling cross-country dirt cheap

This article is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; 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.

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.

This article was written by Michelle Russo. All photos by Michelle.

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There are 75 comments to "Planning a road-trip vacation: Traveling cross-country dirt cheap".

  1. Lori H says 30 May 2010 at 05:01

    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!

  2. Kat says 30 May 2010 at 05:30

    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!

  3. Mike says 30 May 2010 at 07:01

    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.

  4. Chiot's Run says 30 May 2010 at 07:11

    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 a must for saving money. We love quinoa salad with fresh veggies, quick to make (saves stove fuel), healthy and it’s good hot or cold! We can stop at a local farmer’s market for in season veggies to mix in.

    Mr Chiots and I love doing this in our MINI, we do have to pack light!

    Also filling up your iPod with books before your trip helps with any boring moments (and it’s FREE).

  5. Leah says 30 May 2010 at 07:34

    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.

  6. Shara says 30 May 2010 at 07:48

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

  7. walk says 30 May 2010 at 07:58

    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! 🙂

  8. Caroline says 30 May 2010 at 08:08

    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 is a huge country and it’s amazing how different the landscapes look and how much you can see in just one country. It was an experience that created oodles of memories and it’s not something everyone finds time to do. My friend and I made a point of quoting ourselves in notebooks and we still laugh hysterically about what we said 7 years later. Would have been nice to have a digital camera then, but o well 😛

  9. Rob says 30 May 2010 at 08:36

    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.

  10. Neel V Kumar says 30 May 2010 at 08:41

    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. 🙂

  11. Lady J says 30 May 2010 at 08:44

    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!

  12. snappy says 30 May 2010 at 08:45

    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,

  13. [email protected] says 30 May 2010 at 09:06

    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:

    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!

  14. Hannah says 30 May 2010 at 09:28

    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 says 14 May 2012 at 04:15

      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.

  15. Suanne says 30 May 2010 at 09:36

    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.

  16. Jack Bennett says 30 May 2010 at 10:05

    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? 🙂 )

  17. finallygettingtoeven says 30 May 2010 at 10:16

    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 stayed in an old converted fort for a night and then caught a train for 15 hours through the Copper Canyon and ended up in Chihuahua. Stayed there for a night and flew back to the states.

    Had the absolute time of our lives. Just the hubby, 2 backpacks, a translation guide and not a care in the world. We immersed ourselves deep into the culture not knowing really what to expect and we came out glowing.
    The key is really to just go with the flow as was suggested. Stop trying so hard and accept things for what they are and relax.

    We are currently in the process of planning our next excursion.

  18. Joel Runyon says 30 May 2010 at 10:37

    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 =)

  19. seawallrunner says 30 May 2010 at 10:44

    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!

  20. TosaJen says 30 May 2010 at 10:58

    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.


  21. Cody says 30 May 2010 at 11:47

    I just want to emphasize 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.

  22. Elizabeth Howell says 30 May 2010 at 12:08

    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.

  23. Dreamchaser57 says 30 May 2010 at 12:40

    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 the spirit of this article. I want to see a lot more of this country. Intra-country travel is easier on the pockets and logistically.

  24. Jessica @ Life as I See It says 30 May 2010 at 12:44

    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!!

  25. Sarah says 30 May 2010 at 14:13

    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 in for a night, do a load of laundry, and head on your way.

  26. Will says 30 May 2010 at 15:43

    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!

  27. Nicole says 30 May 2010 at 17:45

    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.

  28. Samantha says 30 May 2010 at 18:47

    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 🙂

  29. Walden Pond says 30 May 2010 at 19:51

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

    • Cleve says 09 October 2012 at 10:42

      Interesting question.

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

  30. Tony Dobson says 31 May 2010 at 02:19

    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).

  31.! says 31 May 2010 at 03:01

    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..
    Financial advice + Ridicule + Quality HipHop

  32. S says 31 May 2010 at 03:58

    #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!

  33. Deb says 31 May 2010 at 05:25

    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 to a family crashed out in their station wagon. When I awoke, the family was gone, and I was alone in the pitch black night in the middle of nowhere. Won’t ever do that again, I was pretty scared.

    This is an amazing country and there is SO much to see and do. Even at age 48 I’d take an adventurous road trip anytime – but I need vertical sleep now.

  34. Lisa says 31 May 2010 at 05:33

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

  35. Alexandra says 31 May 2010 at 05:43

    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.

  36. Jason B says 31 May 2010 at 07:44

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

  37. MM says 31 May 2010 at 08:04

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

  38. 3rd Generation says 31 May 2010 at 08:32

    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 and met everyone from true crazy down-and-outers, to those that wished they could trade places. I would recommend everyone try a variation of living cheap on-the-road. You will be surprised: One Way or the Other! Safe Travels.

  39. Rove says 31 May 2010 at 09:02

    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.

  40. Funny about Money says 31 May 2010 at 12:01

    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 times than I can count. We were never dirty. We both bathed every day, and SDXB shaved every day.

    It was very cheap. My cost for the entire three-month junket, which included plane tickets to Seattle, bus fares, and a trip up the Inland Passage on the Alaska ferry, was well under $1,000.

    • Ash says 24 January 2019 at 22:08

      You’re my hero!

  41. Bobbi says 31 May 2010 at 15:12

    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!

  42. Samantha says 31 May 2010 at 16:00

    @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…

  43. basicmoneytips says 31 May 2010 at 17:52

    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.

  44. Lisa says 31 May 2010 at 19:23

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

  45. bogart says 31 May 2010 at 20:38

    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 truck in the sun (as I could hardly avoid; I’d then find a quiet, private spot if I needed to wash up without (otherwise) having access to (free/included) facilities.

    I bought ice. Another option is to buy a cooler that runs off electricity and plugs into your cigarette lighter.

  46. Michelle says 31 May 2010 at 21:34

    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.


    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.


    We did indeed sleep in the car most of the time. Because I am a night owl and my husband is a morning person, we would trade off driving, and our sleeping times didn’t overlap enough to make camping worth the trouble of setting up. Doing that also allowed us to cover the dead spots more quickly and get to the next destination. As far as finding someone you can tolerate long enough to do this…the first trip was actually our honeymoon. It was definitely a crash course in married life!

  47. mythago says 01 June 2010 at 02:08

    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.

  48. mark e says 01 June 2010 at 05:49

    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 I started out my trip thinking I would camp each night but only did so on the very first night. Every other night I had a place to stay with somebody who opened their home to me. Sent the camping gear back home. Enjoyed the lighter load on the back of the scooter!

    My final tip is a reminder how great it is to travel away from the bland interstate highways. On those back roads and state highways one finds so much more local color and odd roadside kitsch to be amused by. Get out there and enjoy it!

  49. Dan says 01 June 2010 at 06:34

    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.

  50. Devbeth says 01 June 2010 at 06:42

    Two words – I’m jealous!

  51. Kevin M says 01 June 2010 at 07:28

    I’d love to try something similar when our kids are older. Great story!

  52. Tiffany says 01 June 2010 at 09:54

    Well when I think of vacationing i think of luxury, pampering, and treating myself to things I would not otherwise do on a regular basis. However this post gives true meaning to the words Road Trip and it doesnt sound too bad. Thanks for sharing!

  53. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff says 01 June 2010 at 11:46

    This sounds awesome! My husband and I couldn’t rough it like this (too spoiled), but it sounds like you and your hubby had a great time! Very cool.

    If I had a month’s of vacation saved up, I think we’d take a cruise to Europe and hang out over there for a couple of weeks before flying back. Hubby really wants to see Rome and a few other places. Isn’t it great to be married to a teacher? Someday we can actually pull that off…

  54. mike says 01 June 2010 at 14:53

    This is exactly how my wife and I intend to spend retirement. I’ve been fortunate enough in my job to see large parts of the world, but have unfortunately only experienced the east and west coasts of the USA, without much time spent in between.

    With young kids now, we’re hesitant to take any long road trips – as our youngest just makes life miserable after about 3 hours on the road anywhere. As they get older, I’m hoping we can take them on a lot of adventures like this.

  55. sasper says 02 June 2010 at 06:37

    I just gave notice at work that I will be leaving for 6+ months to travel across the US, Mexico, and through Central America on my motorcycle. I’m purchasing a new bike this weekend (a new used bike, setup for a trip just like this) and have budgeted about $10,000 for the entire 6 months.

    Long-distance motorcycle travel to foreign countries has some unique challenges that you have to plan for, including safety on and off the bike, handling the elements day in and day out, and being unprotected on roads where the drivers don’t really follow any rules.

    I can’t wait for my adventure to start.

  56. frugal charlie says 02 June 2010 at 14:13

    Sounds like so much fun. Several years ago we bought a van and the 2 of us and a granddaughter camped for 6 weeks. We took out the 2 middle seats, the back seat was turned into a “double” bed, and used a youth sized mattress for the granddaughter’s bed. We put most of what we needed in a huge plastic tote and most our food in small totes under the bed. We did laundry and bought groceries along the way, including apples fresh off the trees in North Carolina (I have been on the search for apples that good since then and cannot find any). We usually stayed in campgrounds so we had electricity and water most of the time. We cooked most of our meals outdoors, but I prepared some simple meals in the van as well. With an electric skillet and a well stocked cooler, we had some amazing meals. It was so much fun. We have since had many wonderful trips in that van, but recently bought a small used camper as at our age (we have been retired for several years), we were feeling the need for a/c in the summer and heat in the winter. For short trips in pretty weather though, the van will definitely continue to be used as a camper. So many wonderful memories with both the van and our real camper, and hope that we are just getting started on our adventures.

  57. Bruce says 07 June 2010 at 21:20

    I am a single male,48. When I need a break, I take a $3 map and a well-worn atlas…no electronics except maybe Sirrius/Xm in the car. I generally take only a very small cooler or thermal bag for food. There are so many economical choices for breakfast, I opt for convenience. Avoid fast food for the most part, and try the Mom & Pops. Every couple days I get fruit and durable snacks from a grocery store. 2 lane roads are much preferred, and I avoid major cities like the plague. I have had a lot of luck with motels from the 1950’s era in small towns. Drive the length of the town around dinner time, then double back. Try some grocery deli chicken for dinner and talk to a few locals at the store. Often,when paying in cash,the room may be $35-45 a night. If you don’t wait until dark, they will usually show you a room before you decide. I always take my own pillow, and live out of a box or two in the trunk of the car, taking in only what I need for the night in a cloth shoulder or grocery bag. The dirtiest part of any motel room is the bedspread–take it off and put it in a corner. Ice machines and lobby keyboards may be a tad dirty as well. I love the old rooms with real woodwork and big space heaters. You can also carry a wooden wedge to put under any door for added security. Snag grooming products from the room when you can. Read the house newspaper at breakfast. Follow rivers and major lakes to see great landscapes. I only make a vague plan for the day…and never make reservations. Its fun & cheap, and very rewarding. Just allow enough time for the last miles home!

  58. Bradley says 08 June 2010 at 14:06

    My girlfriend and I are considering a similar, but shorter trip next spring.

    Great tips throughout!

  59. Cleve says 09 October 2012 at 10:25


    I love how thoughtful and detailed the “bullet-pointed” work plan was!

    Very creative.

    And the way you subtly let Us know where to “take note” of things that may be of importance is nice. A kind reminder that IF so-and-so is important to You, pay attention here! Thanks.

    Not only was this writing useful, it was also well written in my opinion…a pleasant mind journey, if you will. (I got to go on a bullet-point ride of your trips!)

    Thanks again.


  60. David Johnson says 28 February 2013 at 19:44

    Hey great article! I’m pretty impressed that you’ve been able make that trip under $2,500! I guess every time I’ve done it, its been with a U-haul… so it was a little more pricey haha. Anyways, these are good tips and I love the comments…good stuff!

  61. Micheline Cordy says 18 March 2013 at 13:05

    Was so happy to read your article, my family and I are planning to travel the states in 2 weeks and are driving well over 20000 miles…. We are also all sleeping in the van and everyone says we are crazy but we are so excited about it and making amazing memories and experience things most people only dream of

  62. Caleb Peasant says 25 May 2014 at 23:37

    Without doubt, one of the greatest train travel experiences, is to explore the splendor of beautiful Canada and the incredible Rocky Mountains by train. I’d be happy to share with you, more details, on how you can achieve this.

  63. april says 13 July 2014 at 16:47

    thanks for the great tips, definitely some things i didn’t think of. i’m strongly considering a cross country trip with my dog for at least a month, longer if i can handle it. i’m having a 40 year old, almost done with my phd, what am i going to do with the rest of my life, why do people suck, and what makes me happy crisis of faith. i spend a ton of time alone at home, watching tv, which allows NO time for reflection or introspection. i never even left my home state till i was 21. i want to see every state i can, and plow through my bucket list (i had one a decade before the movie, never even saw it), and i want to face this obstacle and challenge myself to see what i really can do, and maybe find out who i am in the process.

  64. Greg says 19 September 2014 at 17:03

    Loved reading this even in 2014.
    I suffer from either ADD or wanderlust as I love travel in the US and have traveled and moved across the US many a time so I can relate to say sleeping in a reclining drivers seat.
    Id like to mention many years ago I moved to Seattle as a single guy I had plenty of time to explore which to me was like offering free crack to an addict. Anyway I purchased an old Saab 900 hatchback and one evening drove from Seattle all the way down to Canon Beach, OR the place with the amazing sea stacks jetting up from the ocean. To cut corners(Im a single guy with limited funds) I reclined the back seats in the Saab and because it was a hatchback the entire rear end of the vehicle became a very comfortable steel and glass tent at a campground near Canon Beach. Cheap and safe harbor for the trip. Waking up and watching the sunrise on the Oregon coast was breathing taking enough to make a Natural Geographic photography drool!

  65. westwindspiritworld says 01 November 2014 at 16:52

    I couldn’t agree more about the hotel situation. You are paying loads of cash to be in a room you will be unconscious. It adds up big time.I know people who insist on including that in the budget and as you probably guessed , it translates into “maybe next year” or more accurately NEVER HAPPENING ! I have come to the conclusion more people than not are content with daydreaming about a cross country road trip. I learned the hard way. Unless you are wealthy you have to MAKE it happen. Thanks for the tips. Great advice.

  66. Tera says 07 April 2015 at 10:10

    I’ve just come back to read this article for the third time in a year. My 13yo homeschooling son and I are leaving to drive around the US this Sunday. I appreciate your wisdom and humorous writing style! Thanks.

  67. Angie says 10 June 2015 at 08:11

    This was a great article. My boyfriend and I are actually planning a trip from NYC to Cali in a few weeks so any advice is so helpful. Thanks for sharing your trip and advice with us all.

  68. Walter says 16 June 2015 at 10:00

    My girlfriend and I are planning a trip like this one now, but we have one secret. Our ’99 528i Station Wagon. The rear seats flatten out to reveal over 6ft in length by 37 in. (46 at the cargo) with a height of 29 in. which which is surprisingly a lot. We’ve stacked luggage underneath us and slept on top of it!

    We bought a $120 twin matress from Amazon made of memory from, and it’s more comfortable than our queen size bed! Albeit smaller.

    Camp grounds near national parks, monuments, and historical places offer showers for as little as $5 the night, along with electricity.

    There really is no excuse for spending $60 a night, unless you’re having dinner in the city with friends.

  69. Tonya says 26 April 2016 at 15:48

    This sounds like so much fun! We are into geocaching and I think it would be fun to take a trip like this and cache. I think we’ll try a week for now since our youngest is only 10 months. Thanks for the info.

  70. Mallory says 19 May 2016 at 05:55

    I’m wondering about how/where you decided to pull over and park your vehicle to sleep? Safety concerns like other traffic, or cops. Where were the best spots/any advice on this front? Thank you!

    • BuffaloGal says 27 May 2016 at 18:18

      It’s funny that you mentioned “cops” when it came to safety and security when napping at road stops overnight. I had a couple of jarring experiences while napping during road trips. I was sleep deprived, so pulled into a grocery store parking lot in Ohio. I was parked out a ways, not close to the store, but still among other cars. Suddenly I was awakened by a loud thump-thump-thump banging on the drivers side window. I almost jumped out of my skin. I was so scared. A woman was standing there, looking mad. I rolled down the window. “You okay in there? Just want to make sure there isnt a problem.” Then she filled me in on the whole “not sleeping in public” thing. So I left and took a nap down the road at McDonalds instead. They didn’t care.

      On the same road trip I parked at a rest stop to catch a few hours of sleep. I woke up, suspecting something suspicious. Behind me was parked a cop car, the lights flashing. He asked for my identification, questioned me about where I was headed, if I was moving, if I had a permanent residence,etc. He made me feel like a homeless, car-living bum. Again, I was intimidated – this was probably the point – so I kept driving tothe next road stop where no one bothered me and I get an hour or two of sleep.

      I would never dream of banging on someone’s window, waking them up. My philosophy is to leave well enough alone.

  71. Kelly says 13 July 2016 at 12:05

    I have tried to decide to buy a trailer or buy a nice sub andtravel. This article has encouraged me to keep planning my trip. Would love to know more about where you stay and other technical things I might need to know.

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