Let’s say there comes a time when you find yourself pretty broke (or maybe even in a bit of debt), and 5000 miles away from your desired destination. All you have to work with is a tight budget and a beat up car.
Sure, you could sell your beater and buy a plane ticket… but where’s the adventure in that?
Having found myself in such circumstances, I have taken the liberty of crossing the USA engaging only in tactics which would result in spanning over 5000 miles, using the least amount of money possible.
The tactics used are as follows.
This is the most crucial bit of advice I can offer to anyone at any time, and I mean it to it’s fullest extent. We are all faced with many obstacles of varying degrees throughout every journey in life. The best way to tackle them is with calm rationality, and a mind open to explore all possible paths to solution.
Keep your car organized.
I like to travel with old cardboard boxes. You can use Tupperware, plastic containers, or whatever works best for you — but if you’re truly on a budget, hit up the local recycling center and grab some boxes. These boxes become the rooms in what is your vehicular home. I designate boxes with various categories such as “Medicine Cabinet,” “Toiletries,” “Kitchen,” “Easy Access Box,” etc.
The boxes vary in size depending on their category: the smallest one being a cardboard box top (or a box cut in half) that lays on the floor of my passenger-side seat. This is where I keep things I need easy access to daily, even while driving (phone charger, hairbrush, coffee mug, makeup bag, hand sanitizer, face wipes, etc.). Larger boxes can be organized in back seat or trunk depending on the size of your car and passengers.
Keep plastic bags from grocery shopping, or invest in a small trash receptacle. This will be much more helpful than you would expect. Keep the bag or receptacle within easy reach, and empty it daily. Trust me, you’d be surprised how many small bits of trash compile throughout each day of the trip.
Know your vehicle.
If the check engine light comes on – know that there are places that will diagnose your car for free. In fact, it’s a great idea to have your own car scanner on hand. Each vehicle make and model has their own car scanner models, so be sure to research which car scanner works for you.
- Check your fluids (oil, coolant, brake & steering fluids, etc) every day.
- Keep an eye on tire pressure with your own gauge on hand.
- Have a tire jack and the correct tire wrench for your make and model. Know where the jack goes, and make sure you are equipped with a spare tire.
- Have a basic tool kit in your car. Even just a couple of screwdrivers, pliers, and a socket wrench go a long way.
- Keep a bottle of distilled water in your trunk. If your car is overheating from a coolant leak, know that you can fill the difference in your antifreeze tank with distilled water. It’s important to know that in emergencies your car can run on a majority mix of distilled water in your coolant tank so that you can get your car to a shop.
- Listen to your car. If something goes wrong, you can tell the difference between how it should sound and strange noises. Have a general idea about how things should look under your hood.
- Have a good, easy-to-access lantern or flashlight. Trust me, there will be times when your phone is dead or dying. Get yourself a singularly dedicated light source, and some rechargeable batteries. Also extremely useful for camping.
Avoid toll roads.
Large interstates and toll highways may be a slightly more direct route… but they are often the more congested, more expensive, less scenic, and thus more stressful routes.
Get an atlas, or put your phone’s maps to use. There is always, ALWAYS another road either parallel to, or heading in the same direction as major toll roads or more cluttered highways.
It’s true, there are times you can’t avoid driving on toll roads if you are heading directly into a city center, or are in a time crunch. However, if you are on an extended road trip — get an atlas, look at the big picture, and plan some free route stretches to your destination. It’s often more quiet (in off-seasons) and much prettier to take scenic roads rather than major interstates.
Gas filling strategies.
It becomes quite a fun game. If you are avoiding major interstates when possible, you are likely taking routes that allow you to pass by local gas stations, which often have lower prices than large corporate-owned truck stops and other stations that you can see from a major highway.
Things to keep in mind on an extended road trip with a beat-up car: you don’t need the nicest gas
because a) your car is a beater, and b) the gas will be passing through your car quickly due to the extent of driving.
Therefore, go to the cheapest gas station possible.
Be warned – if you are driving through more sprawling states where gas stations are few and far between, it’s safer to top off your fuel tank at every station… however, be sure to plan for these long stretches and fill your tank entirely at the cheapest station possible before hitting the vast emptiness.
There have been times when I was nearing empty, and only within reasonable range of overpriced gas – but knew that there was much cheaper gas in my not too distant future. In this scenario, I have stopped at the over-priced place and put a few bucks in the tank — just enough to get me to the locally owned, cheaper station where I fill up the tank. Save filling your gas tank for the places that you know you can get the most for your dollar.
If you’d like to stay on the safe side of cheap gas: fill up with good gas (87, 91) once in a while, and/or get some fuel tank cleaner to run through your car at some point during the trip.
Be friendly to cops.
If you’re going to be traveling in your vehicle for an extended period of time in different states, you’re likely going to get pulled over. Speeding tickets are expensive. Watch your speed and try to blend in with the locals’ speed… for the most part. If you still get pulled over for one reason or another, a crucial thing to remember is to be calm, apologetic, and respectful. Whatever your opinion is about the reason for your temporary detainment, keeping a friendly and cooperative demeanor may very well change the outcome of your traffic stop — so suck up that ego for a second.
Think of it this way — if you are rude and argumentative, 99% of the time you’ll end up with a ticket. Simply acting politely will lower that percentage. Why not do all you can to turn the odds in your favor?
Take it easy your on vehicle.
This one is pretty straightforward. Drive safely, be cautious with other drivers, and stay alert and smart. Don’t push your vehicle to drive more than it can handle in a day — stopping to check out scenic places and points of attraction allows you to see some cool stuff while giving your vehicle a break. Keep an eye on weather forecasts, and be aware of your fluids and tire quality. Problems on the road can get costly, so it’s always cheaper to stay safe, and be familiar with your vehicle.
Public land camping.
In the spirit of open-mindedness and adventure, a truly budget road trip is not possible without much Googling and research of back-country, dirt road camping on public land.
Before I continue to explain this, it must be made clear that this step needs to be followed with very clear and rational caution.
That being said, there is a fine line between an instinctual feeling of threat and simply stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Almost every state has some bit of public land which can be used for free recreational and camping use. Granted, the western half of the US is much more abundant in sprawling public lands, however that is not to say that the eastern half is without. Simply Googling the name of a state followed by “public land” or “free camping” should return plentiful results. A couple of helpful resources are the Bureau of Land Management and Freecampsites.net.
When all else fails, everyone should know that most (nearly all) 24-hour Walmart stores allow you to sleep in your car in their parking lot. No, I’m not kidding, it’s actually a pretty regularly used rest area for cross country drivers. Here is a really good guide to Walmart camping etiquette.
Car window draping devices (scarves, blankets) are useful to obtain some privacy when camping in close quarters like you would find in Walmart parking lots.
Make your vehicle comfortably sleep-able.
If you’ve just banged out a long driving day, or you’re not prepared with below-freezing camping gear on a cold night, you need to be prepared to sleep in your car. Some models allow for more luxurious sleeping conditions than others. Vans or trucks are the obvious epitome of car camping, however you can even sleep quite comfortably (for solo travelers) in a four door sedan. It’s all about creativity and lots of comfy sleeping gear.
If your road trip is spanning over a period of days or weeks, you may get burnt out and want a bed. Rather than completely blowing the budget and staying in a hotel, or risking bed bugs at a low-budget motel – it’s important to know that every city and most large towns have hostels. Dorm beds at a hostel can be as cheap as $18-25 per night, and depending on location, you may be able to get a private room for as low as $30 per night.
Hostels are a fantastic way to meet fellow travelers and exchange stories and tips, as well as network with like-minded folk. As with everything, there are some hostels that are better than others – so always check reviews online before booking.
It’s hard to eat healthy when living out of your car. It is ideal to have an affordable small camping stove to cook your own food. This stove is fueled by small gas canisters which you can either pre-pack, or pick up at hardware stores along the way. The only other bit of equipment you need with a camping stove is a compact travel cookware set, and a lighter. A travel mug/french press combo is also key if you are a coffee drinker – there are many different versions out there.
Make note, all the preceding equipment is extremely affordable, and will likely reduce your food costs over a long roadtrip, and trips in the future.
If for some reason, you are unable to get your hands on the preceding equipment at a reasonable price – don’t worry – there are still certain steps you can take to avoid overspending while not cooking your own food.
Avoid buying food at gas stations.
Gas station food is ALWAYS ridiculously overpriced – while simultaneously rarely offering any sort of nutritional value. Instead, stop at grocery stores when you can, and look for sales and store brands of things you find reasonable to eat on the road.
Don’t forget that these days – most large-scale grocery stores have savings Apps you can download to your smart phone to find coupons. Not to mention, using these Apps can usually earn you seemingly unrelated benefits – like earning gas rewards simply by having the app on your phone – and using it to purchase your groceries.
The point is, there are plenty of ways to get creative. And remember, no one will judge you if you shove a fistful of kale into a Cup Noodles to meet your nutritional and budget requirements.
Godspeed, road warriors.
“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
-William A. Ward