Too Expensive to Travel Across the Country? Think Again. We Did it for About $300
Last summer, I drove from Florida to California and back with my husband and dog. We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and the Blue Ridge Parkway, all in two months and for just a few hundred bucks.
Our route was nothing more than a rough outline with only one goal in mind: get to the west coast and back in two months. We saw the sunset on red mountains against the Rio Grande in New Mexico. We hiked under the aspen trees to discover waterfalls in Utah. We dipped our toes in the aquamarine water of the Pacific Ocean and watched the waves crash on the cliffs of Big Sur, California.
Whether you’ve got a few months or a few days, taking a cross-country trip isn’t as expensive as you’d think. Here are some tips for scoping out America the Beautiful on a budget adventure.
1. Camp For Free
In July, I hiked to the top of a mountain in the still snow-capped Rockies after having spent the night around a campfire. I fell asleep to the sound of mountain water rushing through the stream next to my tent, and I awoke to the sun spilling through the pine trees. After breakfast, I left my car at the campsite and spent the day hiking.
Mountain lodging with waterfront views and access to trailheads can cost hundreds of dollars a night. But this spot — and plenty others like it — is on public land so I didn’t have to spend a dime.
Living on the land of the free can be, well, free. Because so much of America is public land, you can camp on a lot of it for absolutely nothing. Some of the most pleasant camping experiences I’ve enjoyed were in national forests and public land.
I used Freecampsites.net as my faithful guide on many a night during the voyage. Just enter a zip code or the name of a town, and you’ll get a list of the nearest free campsites. A lot of the sites listed include amenities like fire rings, picnic tables and even toilets!
Be sure to call or visit the website of the national forest or Bureau of Land Management office that oversees the site to check out the road conditions, make sure there’s no burn ban and find out the best way to get to the site. Remember: leave no trace!
2. Buy a National Parks Pass
I had many firsts on the trip. I watched Old Faithful erupt in Yellowstone. I scrambled up rocks under a waterfall in Yosemite. I stood on a ledge at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Had I paid the $30 entrance fee for each park individually, I would have spent $360. Instead, I invested $80 in an annual national parks pass. It paid for itself after just three of the twelve times I used it.
Because so many national parks are bordered by national forests, you can take that dream vacation in the wilderness without having to shell out hundreds of dollars for housing.
For a picturesque vacation to Yosemite, camp out in the Stanislaus National Forest on Hardin Flat Road, just half an hour southwest of the park’s Hetch Hetchy entrance. The earlier you get to the park, the less time you have to spend in tourist traffic jams! (Trust me.)
Campsites have their caveats. Some can be hard to access without four-wheel drive. Others might be closed for the season or due to inclement weather. It’s also difficult to find free camping right outside of a city. And, of course, camping isn’t for everyone.
In the college town of Provo, Utah, I was able to realize my childhood dream of sleeping in a treehouse. Not just any treehouse, but a four-story treehouse complete with a living room and multiple bedrooms. The massive tree grew from the earth of a one-acre food forest cultivated by the property owner. She is just one of many kind souls who loan out beds and rooms for free through the website couchsurfing.com.
I’ll admit, at first I was wary of the idea of sleeping at a stranger’s place. After all, who offers up their home for free?
But I used the site six times on the trip and only had one odd experience: That was with a host who was a little too eager to plan my itinerary for the following day. Awkward pushiness aside, through their advice and the advice of my other hosts, I was able to learn about all kinds of free local art and entertainment.
For a week I woke up in northern California on a bed in a stable to the sound of a rooster crow. I started my days by collecting eggs from a chicken coop, then used them to make a communal breakfast for a crew of volunteers. Like me, they had signed up to volunteer on an organic farm through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.
Don’t have farming experience? That’s ok — neither did I. A lot of the farmers on the WWOOF network are happy to have the help, and many will let you work in exchange for food and a place to stay.
At the farm in California, I used my baking skills to make goodies for the farm stand. I also learned how to milk a goat! On a farm in Idaho, I picked strawberries and helped at the farmer’s markets. If volunteerism is your thing and you’re a fan of free travel and the outdoors, WWOOFing is a must.
5. Go Grocery Shopping
Nothing will eat through your budget like eating out. The best way to save money on groceries (and some calories) is by going to the grocery store and making my own meals.
For lean, protein-rich meals I stocked up on salad greens, which I stored in my cheap and trusty cooler. I also stocked up on beans. I whipped up hearty meals like sweet potato and chickpea curry with my old camping stove.
If you don’t already own a camping stove, you can find one on eBay or Craigslist for under $50.
6. Save Your Money for Gas
I spent the majority of my trip budget on fuel. I lost count of how many times I filled my gas tank.
So make sure to buy some instant coffee in bulk before you go, skip Starbucks, and store your cash for Shell, which offers a handy fuel rewards program.
7. …And Once-in-a-Lifetime Splurges
After living in New York and eating some of the world’s best pizza, I made it a bucket list goal to get to Chicago and decide for myself which city really has the best pizza.
So, I took a 14-hour detour from Colorado to Chicago solely for the purpose of trying the city’s finest. I spent at least an hour reading reviews on the top pizza places before choosing Pequod’s in Lincoln Park.
For about $30 my husband and I split a pepperoni and sausage pie, an order of garlic bread and two beers. It was the most expensive food purchase of our trip, and it was worth every mile and every cent.
People called me crazy for putting myself out there in the natural and social wilderness, but swapping tent pads and crash pads for hotel rooms didn’t just save me money — it made me appreciate America at the ground level. So for your next trip, skip the fancy accommodations and enjoy the experience.
Cat Modlin-Jackson is a freelance writer and nature lover who lives to save so she can travel the world and eat delicious food. She is the aunt of two nieces and four nephews who follow her adventures on Instagram @wheresauntcatie.