Taking a solo road trip across the country was a pretty crazy undertaking — and, as you’d expect, a life-changing one.
I saw 20 states, 10 national parks and about 50 cities. I totaled more than 350 hours of driving and 11,000 miles during the 48-day trip.
I also spent about $5,000 — not bad for two months of near-perfect freedom.
I could have done it more cheaply had I been able to take advantage of some well-known shortcuts. My family begged me not to sleep in my car, and accommodations were a huge part of my expenses.
I also splurged when I wanted to — how could I not enjoy a Vieux Carré at the bar where it was conceived? — because I’d been saving for months to enjoy this trip.
But I could have spent thousands more on the road for such a long time, particularly with a dog in tow. (So yes, I went mostly solo, with one greyhound-shaped exception.)
Here’s how I managed to road trip on the cheap, and what I’d do differently next time to save even more money.
What I Did Right
Doing my research ahead of time helped me stick to my bottom line.
1. Take Advantage of Couchsurfing and Other Alternative Accommodations
Accommodations were the biggest expense for me outside of gas. Unconventional accommodations can help you slash that part of your travel budget.
In addition to saving me money, couchsurfing actually enhanced my adventure. One of my hosts took me on a hike in Tucson and shared his extensive knowledge of cacti and desert fauna; another host actually worked for Couchsurfing in San Francisco and invited me to the startup’s gorgeous, dog-friendly office space, complete with swings.
If you’re worried about privacy or need specific options (for instance, pet- or kid-friendly space), use filters when you search for hosts — options range from the living-room floor to separate, furnished in-law’s quarters.
I never felt unsafe, even when I was staying solo with male hosts — though I did bring pepper spray, just in case.
On the contrary, couchsurfing reinvigorated my faith in the goodness of humanity and the importance of personal connection and vulnerability in this digital age. I made lasting friendships and have kept in touch with many of my hosts.
2. Bring a Cooler
With a cooler, travel eating doesn’t have to be about beef jerky and protein bars! On the road, you can stock up on fresh fruit, cheese and pre-packaged salads. (Pro tip: Do not put an open package of cheese on the bottom if you’re using cubed ice. Thank me later.)
In addition, you can make your own food when you’re staying put for a few days. Many couchsurfing hosts let you use their kitchens, so by bringing my cooler, I could purchase and keep real, perishable foods and make many meals myself. I saved a ton of cash on eating out, which adds up, even if it’s only fast food.
If you’re not couchsurfing, try finding hotel rooms or Airbnb locations with kitchens, or using grills in public parks.
3. Splurge Wisely
That said, you want to enjoy your trip and experience the places you’re visiting. If there are restaurants you absolutely must experience, go to them!
Is that place you saw on the Food Network a mile off your route? Definitely make the trip — but don’t waste money at a drive through at 11 p.m. And when you do eat out, use these tips to save some dough.
Prioritize by location and food preference. Are tacos your thing? If you’re passing through San Diego, make sure you budget for a few extra meals out. If you’re not huge on barbeque, save your dollars (and time!) by avoiding the three-hour lineup outside of Franklin’s in Austin.
4. Avoid Tourist Traps
They’re inevitably both overpriced and underwhelming.
Red flags include a prime location in well-travelled, known tourist zones (the Wharf in San Francisco, for instance), a photographer who insists you stand in front of a green screen, or employees in kiosks handing out maps and trying to get you to purchase the “Super Saver Package.”
Look up your destination online, find the top 10 must-see attractions and do a self-guided tour. Look for interesting options in local alternative weekly papers, on community websites or travel forums. Find the off-the-beaten-path bakery the locals have voted best in town. Don’t spend top dollar for mass-produced, one-size-fits-all food or “fun.”
5. Avoid Expensive Souvenirs
Take lots of pictures. Science shows you’ll get more out of the money you spend on an experience than on a snow globe or shot glass, which will inevitably collect dust once you get home.
I decided to bumper stickers and postcards, super-low-priced souvenirs that gave me both something tangible to hold onto and a fun scrapbooking project.
I also collected bottles of sand from various beaches and a tumbleweed I found in New Mexico – though if you want to do the same, check the rules first. Some areas, such as National Parks, prohibit collecting and gathering.
6. Use Apps to Compare Hotel Prices
On nights you do need a hotel, use your smartphone to find the best price.
I found rates up to 40% cheaper than the price quoted online or over the phone using Hotel Tonight. One night, I paid $90 rather than $130, and to my surprise ended up in a beachview penthouse suite!
Using this or other apps can sometimes get you rooms on the cheap at hotels that are “booked” if you check online or call them directly.
Plus, you might discover local gems instead of staying — again — at one of the same five franchises available at every exit, though some of these do have money-saving loyalty programs.
What I’d Do Differently on My Next Road Trip
I did a lot of things right, but a few of these strategies could have helped me save even more money.
1. Bring a Friend
I went alone, which was exhilarating (and gave me full control of the radio), but I could have split all my expenses by bringing someone along.
2. Ditch Fido
Bringing my dog was wonderful in many ways, but it definitely cost me more than I would otherwise have spent.
On nights I did have to stay at a hotel, I had to pay pet fees. I also spent a lot of money getting appropriate veterinary paperwork in case our travels took us outside U.S. borders.
Having a pet with me also made me feel a bit more like a pain in the butt to my couchsurfing hosts, and kept me from doing awesome free things that don’t allow dogs, such as certain hikes in National Parks.
3. Prepare to Spend a Lot on Gas
About a quarter of my budget went into my tank; you always need it and you’re at the mercy of the area you’re in.
I saw a huge variability in price: from $2.40 all the way up to $5.20 per gallon for regular. Budget accordingly, and research the prices in your destination areas ahead of time if possible using these apps that help you find cheap gas.
4. Don’t Speed
I can tell you exactly where $157.08 of my road trip savings went.
5. Plan as Much as Possible
Being footloose was a priority for me on this trip, so I never planned more than three days out — I wanted to be able to get on the road or stay an extra day or two if I wanted.
However, if I’d had my itinerary planned as well as my route, I would have saved significantly on lodging, and probably also on food and gas.
I was sometimes unable to find cheap or free accommodation through Couchsurfing or Airbnb. Hosts have lives and aren’t always available five hours before you need space to crash.
Furthermore, several friends along my route had offered me their couches, but because I didn’t know exactly when I’d be in their areas, by the time I arrived, they often had other commitments.
6. If You’re Adventurous, Sleep in Your Car
This was my initial plan, but my friends and family talked me out of it, and with good reason. Car camping and overnight parking are illegal in many areas, and a cricked neck and iffy night’s sleep are not the biggest risks you’re taking in sleeping in your vehicle.
However, a good friend of mine and her then-boyfriend took a similar road trip for three months in an old Volkswagen van they purchased for $500. They built a space for an actual bed and lived almost exclusively out of their cooler, traveling that way for about three months. Altogether, they spent about $4,000 — less than I did for a longer trip.
So if you’re planning for it, sleeping in your vehicle could be an option. If you’re going to try it, look into free camping and parking spots.
In the end, travelling cheaply is all about balancing what you want to get out of the trip with what you’re willing to spend — and figuring out which corners make the most sense for you to cut. Safe travels!
Your Turn: What’s your best strategy for saving money on a road trip?
Jamie Cattanach is a writer and adventurer who lives in Saint Augustine, Florida. She spends her hoarded pennies on fine wine, dark chocolate, gasoline and sweaters for her greyhound, Odin.