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.

More about...Travel, Frugality

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