How Much Did it Cost? Spring Road Trip 2018
By: Talor Stone April 23, 2018
“Travel is expensive.”
We’ve all heard it. Heck, most of us have said it. But, while it’s true that travel certainly CAN be quite expensive, that doesn’t mean it HAS to be!!!
This Spring I drove from Virginia Beach, VA all the way to Utah and back over the span of three weeks. It was a journey of 5,644 miles! Quite the trek in a very short period of time.
Covering all that distance would have been a truly insurmountable financial burden if I had not employed all of my budget travel magical powers! Unbelievably, the entire trip which included nearly crossing the continent TWICE, 3 entire weeks of food and 21 nights of sleep actually cost me less than $500! And if I’m being totally honest, I could have definitely done it for $400 if I had made any effort at all to conserve fuel and passed on a margarita and burrito (but they were just so yummy!). I probably would have spent more than that during the same amount of time at home simply by driving, eating out, and going out on the weekends!
So, let me break down for you how budget travel can actually end up being cheaper than living at home, and I’ll pass on some of my secrets so you can do this too.
Spring Road Trip 2018
Fuel – $ 420.44
Indulgence – $24.31
Food – $54
Total – $498.75
So, How Did I Do It?
Leave your ego at home! That’s step 1 to making travel truly affordable. You are going to be dirty. You are going to sleep in weird places. You are going to eat Ramen (not the good kind).
Just accept these as inevitable truths and you are well on your way to a cheaper life on the road. If you enjoy the finer things in life like an actual bed and running water, then this may not be for you. And that’s fine. To each their own. But extreme budget travel is the only way I can afford to do it, so I have become a bit of a pro at stretching my dollar.
Paying to Sleep, I Think Not!
First, forget about accommodation. After all, I’m only asleep 6-8 hours at the most and I come in late after sunset, go out to shoot the milky way and the moon, and leave crazy early for sunrise. When it comes down to it, with most hotels I’d be paying over $20 per hour just to sleep! Because of these reasons, I refuse to pay to sleep when I travel most places. There are tons of ways to avoid paying for accommodation, but here are my go-to’s.
In many places in America, as well as tons of other countries, backcountry camping is legal and readily available if you know where to look. There is an abundance of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land available which all permit back country camping as long as you follow certain guidelines. Also, many national parks grant backcountry camping permits for free (just check the website before you go)! So, not only do you get a free place to sleep, but you get to wake up with a view as well! That’s a bargain that’s hard to beat.
Beyond parks, websites like Free Campsites provide mapped camping locations based on user reviews and suggestions. Just use this great resource with caution. Not all of the locations may be legal, so as always use your judgement.
When it comes to backcountry camping, be sure to go prepared. There likely won’t be any facilities or running water available, so be ready to enjoy nature in all its glory. . . and with all its inconveniences. But, as long as you’re prepared, it’s free, enjoyable, and you can soak in the solitude of some of the most beautiful locations in the country. For backcountry camping in other countries, be sure to research the local laws. No one wants to end up on an episode of “Locked Up Abroad!”
If going backcountry isn’t possible or you’re just plain over it and want a shower, utilize your social network and sharing economy resources. Research your extended family. You’ll be shocked by all the places you have distant relatives who would probably love to put you up for a day! Not to mention high school and college friends who would be happy to reconnect with you. And don’t forget the extended social network you have on Facebook and Instagram! Of course use caution when meeting with strangers, but I have on many occasions asked my followers if people would be willing to host me. These meetings have always been exceptionally awesome, and it’s so amazing and rewarding to connect in person with fellow photographers who I admire as well as digital friends and followers.
My fallback for more populated areas where free camping is not easily available has always been Couchsurfing. I have been a loyal Couchsurfing guest and host for 5 years now and I have to say it has singlehandedly made many of my more expensive trips like Switzerland and Miami possible. Again, use your judgement, read host references, and always bring your manners, but don’t be afraid to meet someone new! I have made lifelong friends through Couchsurfing and have maintained those relationships to leverage them time and again. If you’re not familiar with Couchsurfing or don’t know where to start, don’t worry. I’ll have a post coming soon on how to make an effective Couchsurfing profile and utilize the amazing resource to its full capabilities.
As an added bonus, all of these social network and sharing economy options come with running water, social interaction, and no crazy wildlife! Plus you can generally get a hot shower, do your laundry, and get a hot meal. It’s really hard to beat especially if you have been backcountry for several days.
Cook it Up Emeril!
Second, become a camp stove chef. It’s simply not possible to be a budget traveler if you eat out every meal. Plus, your body will absolutely hate you! So to avoid splurging for food on the road I always bring my own. If I have a car I even keep a small cooler for more “luxurious delicacies” like yogurt and lunch meat! You can typically get free ice at most fast food restaurants and hotels. Just ask nicely…it’s amazing how far you can get with a smile!
Think about your nutritional needs and target them with shelf stable foods that are easy to make with a little heat or boiled water. My go-to’s are quality trail mix, peanut butter, pasta, quality beef jerky and cans of chunk chicken (or tuna). These snacks are easy to make, mostly ready to eat and are packed with protein, carbs and sodium which are super important after the physical exertion of the trail. When I have a cooler I also include cheese, lunch meat, yogurt, and a healthy smoothie drink like Naked to get some of those fruit and veggie vitamins.
Don’t forget that just-add-water camping meals are available (though a little more expensive and often not particularly good) if you want to go that route. One of them can usually can equal three whole meals for me, and they’re lightweight so I often use them for multi-day hikes.
When I’m craving something fresh I will pick up fresh fruit, a bell pepper, or an onion to add to the meal. They are super cheap, easy to find, and easy to cook with just a little heat. You can score salt, pepper and other condiments for free at fast food places, and you will be amazed how a quickly little bit of tomato paste from a tube can transform a meal into something yummy. If you really want to get crazy, sausage is precooked and keeps pretty well in a cooler. Even though I plan my nutrition carefully, I also bring multivitamins with me just to be on the safe side.
All of these items are super affordable. I only spent $54 stocking up for a 3 week trip and honestly I returned home with about a third of my food which tells me I could have spent WAY less. While I personally am a super lazy cook (I really hate making food when I’m tired from a full day of hiking), you may find the cooking ritual to be really enjoyable and wind up preferring it to the instant gratification of stopping at a restaurant anyway!
Bypassing the purchasing of prepared food means I have cooked in some weird places. I have honestly made entire meals in gas station parking lots and even made myself a sandwich on the side of a highway. I bring bags of stable food through airports and even pack my lunches to eat in transit on flights. By doing this, I sure do save a ton of money even at the expense of looking a little silly!
Double-down on Your Wheels
Third, make your transportation work for you. Now I’ll freely admit that there are cheaper ways to travel if you’re just considering up-front cost. Taking a bus or train can sometimes be cheaper than driving your personal vehicle or renting a car. Also, in many parts of the U.S. and in tons of other countries, hitchhiking is common, safe, and socially acceptable. All of these methods can help reduce the initial cost, but that comes with a sacrifice of some of your freedom. For me, it pays to have the flexibility to travel at your own pace and be able to stop and go at whim. This is especially important for me as photography often takes me to off the beaten path locations and requires travel at odd hours.
Whenever possible (like for this recent trip to Utah), I drive my own vehicle. I rock a decade old blue Honda Accord that I have affectionately names Buster. . . mostly because it’s a bit too lackluster to inspire a more exciting name. It is totally paid for, cheap to insure, has great gas mileage, and runs like a champ despite the unconventional rigors I have put it through. I have already accepted the unavoidable fact that Buster will die a glorious death on some adventure. . . most likely trying to traverse a dirt road he has no business being on. I’m at peace with that. After all, it’s the end he deserves after a splendid life seeing the world.
When I do have to rent, I always go with some crazy budget brand. I have rented cars in Seattle for $7 per day and in Miami for $15 per day. In Iceland I have used Sad Cars which is exactly what it sounds like and is a mere fraction of the cost of a larger franchise vehicle. Those cheap deals are out there if you spend some time looking for them, and frankly I haven’t found the quality to be significantly less than that of more mainstream companies.
But, equal to the importance of the flexibly granted by having a vehicle, that car can double-down as a place to sleep! Even after factoring in fuel, you save money over using a hotel, motel, or even a cheap hostel. In most situations, it’s simply more affordable to car camp. Plus, you can do it anywhere no matter how remote or how urban.
Now, doing this in the city comes with some questionable legality. So seriously, use your judgement and be sure to lock your doors. But when it comes to long spans of road travel or taking a break from being in the backcountry, there’s not a whole lot better than sleeping parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Who doesn’t love 24hr bathrooms and late night munchies? Not to mention the free entertainment!
When you absolutely HAVE to use other forms of transportation like a bus, train or plane, I ALWAYS book overnight transport so I can double-down on the cost by also using the transportation as a place to sleep for the night. Not to mention red-eye transit is generally cheaper!
Now, if this advice is starting to sound a bit like homelessness to you, then you’re on the right track! Honestly, the budget nomad lifestyle is basically a lite version of homelessness coupled with a robust dose of optimism. Just accept and embrace it!
You Can’t Get Something if you Don’t Ask
Lastly, don’t be shy to rely on the kindness of others! Budget travel will force you into some pretty odd places and situations. Sometimes all you really want in the world is a hot shower and that may be harder to find than you think! But you can’t get things if you are afraid to ask for them, so be smart but also bold. Talk to strangers, put yourself out there, and trust people! Once in Arizona I just wanted a shower. Oh the simple things in life! The camp showers weren’t available after 5pm, so I walked up to the ranger station and asked. What’s the worst that could happen? They could say no. . . and so what if they did! But instead I was welcomed with a smile and one of the rangers let me into their lodging unit to grab a quick hot shower. Oh the bliss!
See, here’s the thing. When given the chance, people are generally kind. When asked, people will often go out of their way to help a total stranger provided that stranger comes with a humble smile and good vibes. Once you start putting yourself out there, you will be shocked to see just how good the world can be. Bring loads of good vibes and smiles and doors will often open for you.
Of course it helps that I’m a non-threatening female, but I absolutely refuse to believe that is the only reason this happens for me. I know plenty of nomads who are men. In fact, the majority of the ones I’ve met are! Consistently I hear the same kinds of stories about human kindness from them as well. So sending good out into the world will get good back. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
So, in conclusion, the next time you think you can’t afford to travel or you hear someone say that travel is expensive, think again! It doesn’t have to be expensive at all! I always say that if I can afford the transportation (fuel or ticket), then I can afford to go. So can you! So cash in the vacation days or use that long weekend and get out there!