Money stuff, Road trip guide

Budgeting on the road: How to save money on your road trip

When we told friends about our road trip, a typical reaction was, “Wow, how are you going to afford that?”

Well – first read our post Saving Money For a Long Adventure – where Anna talks about how she saved money for the trip.

I won’t lie; this isn’t the cheapest trip you’ll ever do. If you want to really do budget travelling, have a look at Ukraine or the Philippines, or somewhere else where your money will go far. The USA is not that cheap – and now, thanks to Brexit, the pound is weaker than ever, meaning that our money didn’t go as far as it would have a few years ago.

Still, travelling doesn’t have to be the most expensive thing ever. So, here’s how we were able to save money along the way!

  1. Rent your car through a Europe-centred company – As we wrote in this post, there are companies specifically aimed at British/European travellers doing road trips in the USA and Canada, and these include all the insurance you need for every state and Canada – we used Netflights. They work out much cheaper than renting directly through a US company. Buying a car might look cheaper on the surface but mean tons of extra dollars thrown into fixing it (not to mention the stress of it breaking down on you in the middle of the desert). Gas/petrol is also pretty cheap in the States – so for the 17,000+ miles we drove over 3 months, the total gas cost came to $1238. Of course, you can also take public transport (although that’s not really a road trip), but flights, trains and buses are pretty expensive in the States.
  2. Stay with friends, or Couchsurf! – We actually spent very few nights in motels or Airbnbs, and when we did, we made sure to find the cheapest (or almost cheapest – accounting for location and perceived safety/hygiene of the place) accommodation we could. After living in a variety of cities with international communities, between us we’ve managed to build up a great network of friends in the US and Canada, and part of what made the trip so amazing was being able to stay with them and catch up. We also used Couchsurfing for a few of our nights, and we had some amazing experiences through that!
  3. Camp – we also spent a few nights camping. You can camp in all the National Parks, with prices usually around $20 a night (not bad at all when you divide it between two or more people) – but make sure to book far in advance! Even better – if you don’t mind “wild camping” (e.g. no toilets), you can do this in most parks as long as you go to the Visitor Centre and get a permit; these are sometimes free, or at most very cheap (around $5). There’s also a great site that I haven’t tried called Camp in my Garden, where people rent out their yard space. The initial cost of a tent and sleeping bag might set you back, but we got our sleeping bags from Walmart for about $20 each. Our tent was from REI and it was good quality as we were wary of buying a super cheap tent from Walmart, but there are other options, too – you might find a local Facebook group with people selling second-hand tents, or you might luck out and find that you can borrow one from a friend in the States etc. If you have time, you can also sell it again at the end (e.g. local Facebook groups, sell it to your friend…).
  4. Sleep in your car! – OK, we didn’t do this, but I have read some other road trip accounts where people slept in their cars. Pick a quiet, safe place and maybe research the legality of it first. We didn’t end up doing this, although Daisy was pretty comfortable so I imagine it would have been quite nice.
  5. Make your own food – Especially when camping, our routine was to find a grocery store and buy food for breakfast and either lunch or dinner. Our breakfast was usually bread and peanut butter, but when we stayed with people it was porridge (oatmeal). For dinner, we often made wraps – we bought tortilla wraps, hummus, avocado, a red pepper and cherry tomatoes. Buying one good knife to cut the vegetables is also recommended – and we made sure to keep any plastic cutlery that we were given. You could probably make something even cheaper, but we were trying to stay healthy on the road!
  6. Tupperware/to go boxes – Portion sizes are pretty big in the USA, so instead of forcing yourself to finish a meal, you might find that you can take half of it with you! We bought a couple of cheap Tupperware boxes because we didn’t want to keep taking disposable boxes with us.
  7. Eat cheap – Restaurants are not super cheap, especially when you factor in that they will add tax onto the written price and you’re expected to tip 15-20%. However, there are some good lunchtime specials around – especially in diners – and places like Denny’s have $2, $4, $6 and $8 meals which are pretty good.
  8. Reuse your water bottles – I sort of hope that I don’t have to say this, because I want to believe that nobody would buy brand new water bottles every time, but I’ll say it anyway. Buy a couple of bottles of water at the beginning or bring reusable ones from home, and fill them up whenever you have access to water (campsites, taps, restaurants). You shouldn’t underestimate how much water you’ll want, either, as you might have some pretty long drives!
  9. Free or cheap events – Sometimes, Groupon can give you good deals for fun things to do in the area (although it did lead us to some pretty awful ‘comedy’ in Las Vegas). I also find that can lead you to some cool free or cheap activities, and Facebook now has a setting where you can search for events in your local area based on the day. Also, try googling “free ______” in whatever city you’re in – there are sometimes free walking tours, free yoga classes, and special offers (for example, the world-famous Museum of Modern Art in New York has free admission on Friday afternoons, and I saw that some aquariums have “pay what you feel” afternoons once a week)! We took advantage of a couple of free or pay-what-you-like yoga classes in Austin and New York, as well as the free museums in Washington DC!
  10. Walk a little – It seems that most Americans will pay a fortune to avoid walking too far. Most downtown areas have expensive parking – sometimes $4 an hour, sometimes $20 set fees for the day. However, we discovered that if you drive a little bit further from the downtown areas, free parking starts to appear quite quickly. This usually means you’ll have a 15-20 minute walk to your main destination, which is also a good way to counter all the sitting you’ve been doing in the car!
  11. America the Beautiful National Parks Pass – For $80 you can get the America the Beautiful Annual Pass, which gets you (and a car-load of people) into all the national parks in the US. If you paid to get into the parks on a case-by-case basis, the costs would rack up quite quickly as they’re $20-30 a time. If you have a few people going, sharing the cost of one of these passes could save you a bunch of money!
  12. Use Waze to find the cheapest gas – We were able to get short-term (month-by-month) contracts on our phones through T-mobile, and so we used our phones for sat nav. Waze is a really cool app that lets you navigate your route, but which also re-routes you if there are traffic jams and accidents, warns you about speed cameras and police, and lets you add stops along your way. When you’re on your route and click “add a stop”, you can see gas stations on your route – and the prices of gas, meaning you don’t have to drive around trying to find it cheap. However, Waze did once try to direct us to a gas station on a military base… the guy was very polite and let us turn around (after I showed him my passport), but it was a little scary!! Also, Costco looks cheap but you have to be a member to buy gas there.
  13. Set your GPS to “avoid tolls” (maybe) – you can’t always avoid tolls, e.g. driving into San Francisco or New York, or just being in darn Florida. And sometimes, avoiding tolls will save you around $0.50, which you’ll easily spend in gas by driving around a longer route. On top of that, Google Maps and Waze get a little confused around National Parks, so if you’re routing to your campsite, it’s probably better not to have this setting on as it mistakes the park entrance for a toll. All that aside, sometimes driving for a little longer can save you a fair amount on tolls; I’d suggest looking at your route ahead of time to see if it’s worth it.

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