Everyone knows the impossible sense of jealousy you feel when you see one of your acquaintances posting pictures of their intrepid journey across the country, seemingly worry-free as they go weeks on end without working, while you’re stuck in the office for yet another soul-smothering day. It seems undoable, to pack up and leave everything behind for the simple sake of satisfying some of your insatiable wanderlust. Where does the money come from? How do you even go about figuring out where to go? How in the freakin’ heck do they manage to look so cute every damn day while living on the road? There are millions of questions to answer, but here are a few tips from a self-proclaimed semi-pro at cross-country trippin’ it.
1. First of all, be realistic. The idea of a road trip can inspire a wealth of ideas in any sojourner with a nasty case of the travel itch, but it’s important to keep your feet on the ground even while your head longs to be up in the clouds. The last thing you want is to be somewhere in Middleofnowheresville with only a few pennies left in your account. Set a limit on how much – or how little – you are okay with dishing out for your excursion, and be firm with it (it doesn’t necessarily have to be $25/day, this is just to say, it is possible.)
2. Figure out your time-frame. Maybe you have a month of vacation tine from work, or maybe you need to be on the opposite coast by Monday morning. Yes, I know there are 17 different landmarks and cities you want to hit up, but can you make it happen in 72 hours?
3. Make a list of the places you want to go, and factor in your budget and time frame. Take that budget and divide it by the number of days you have available to find out how much you have to spend each day, including gas. Now that you have a reality-based idea of how much time and money you have to spend, start cutting down your list. Figure out entrance fees, daily rates, etc. for all the places you’d like to check out. I know this isn’t the fun part, but I promise you that researching the hell out of your trip will pay off in the long run.
4. Convince as many people as possible to join you on your expedition. Still need a little more dough to make this journey of a lifetime possible? Split the cost 2 or 4 ways and have quadruple the funds with a quarter of the cost for things like travel and lodging.
5. If you’re lucky enough to have a hybrid car of any sort at your disposal, ABSOLUTELY DRIVE THAT SUCKER. My husband has a hybrid and it is our default road trip machine. If we didn’t have it we would still probably try to borrow one. They only seem gimmicky until you realize the outrageously high mileage you can get on a single tank. Plus, contrary to what cynics say, they’re fun and zippy to drive.
6. Whether you do or don’t have a hybrid, use an app like GasBuddy to chart out your gas stop options. Apps like these enable you to see who has the cheapest price and where they’re located relative your current location. This way you can plan ahead if you’re still doing okay on gas, or you can find the nearest pit stop if you’ve realized you’ve been running on empty for the past 10 miles. It may seem minute, but saving 5¢ on a gallon of gas really adds up.
7. This sounds so over-the-top semi-psycho controlling, but legitimately, do this: Figure out how many miles you’re gonna be schlepping across the country and divide that number by your average miles per gallon. Then multiply that number by the national gas average is (you can find that online) to find out approximately how much you can expect to spend on gas. For example, I can get across the country in my car for just under $220 right now. If I have 3 other people traveling with me, that’s just over $50 per person. If that doesn’t sell you on driving, I don’t know what will.
8. Keep tabs on where your friends live. Kill two birds with one harmless little stone by hitting up an old roommate or co-worker when you’re hitting the old dusty trail: you not only get to catch up with a friend, but you can potentially have a place to rest your weary little head at the end of the night.
9. Also, keep track of which of your friends have friends in cities (or countries!) you’d like to visit. And then befriend them. This actually works. I once texted a friend I hadn’t seen in 3 years and asked if she still had “that one friend who lived in NYC somewhere”. Turns out, she did, and that night we ended up staying in a sweet apartment in Brooklyn with a new awesome friend. It never hurts to ask.
10. Make a multi-stop itinerary on Google Maps. Once you’ve figured out where you’re headed and who you’re going to bunk up with along the way, pop on Google Maps and input each destination consecutively to get the breakdown of how far and how long you’ll drive each day. You’ll also get the option to choose faster routes vs. the more scenic route. Star each location for easy reference. (Sidenote: Do this on a computer, not your phone, if you can. A lot of these options are harder to do or unavailable on even the smartest phone, and things are just easier to see on a big screen.)
11. Avoid tolls. This is an actual option you have the ability to use with Google Maps. Sometimes there are tolls you just can’t avoid, but if you can get around paying $13 for the freeway in the middle of Colorado, I would highly suggest doing so.
12. Save that itinerary offline. Now that you’ve mapped out the perfect route, open it up in your starred locations on your phone and save the routes offline. You never know where you’re going to run into a digital roaming zone in Kansas or find you have absolutely zilch service in Nevada. Save yourself a headache and screenshot those directions.
13. Or, map it out the good old traditional way (if you have a dumb phone or if you’d rather be more authentic.) This is a lot more labor intensive, but it can be entertaining, and it’s an even better way to “save your map offline.” Sit down with your friends and highlight the crap outta that map. Makes a nice keepsake, too.
14. Pack lightly, but appropriately. Road trips are not the time to lug along your entire fall essentials wardrobe. Bring only the bare minimum and wash what you brought when you have a chance. If you can, see if you can fit everything you need into one backpack! But be mindful you get everything jammed in there you’ll really need because the last thing you want to do is spend extra money on a toothbrush just because you forgot to pack one.
15. Drive as far as you can possibly stomach each day, and factor that into your mapped out driving schedule. Driving for 13 hours may sound like the most hellish experience you could imagine, but if you only have a certain amount of money and a short length of time, maximizing your miles each day is key. Plus, the longer you’re on the road, the better mileage your car will start getting throughout the day.
16. If possible, plan your route so that it takes you past the places you’d like to go on your way to your next stop. Want to go to Yosemite and Nashville and Charleston? Okay, cool. Put that in your travel plans and try to find a place to stay nearby those locations so you can start and end your days in a place you really want to be. This doubles your potential time there as well as getting you off to a good start for your next day of travel.
17. Bring a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and jelly with you. This sounds totally like something your mom would encourage you to do and you’d roll your eyes at, but she told you to do it because it actually makes sense. While you can (and rightly should) find and enjoy awesome local cuisine along your drive, you and I both know 50% of the time you end up stopping at McDonald’s because Hicksville has either that or the local gas station for options. So instead of paying to eat cardboard, opt for a less exciting option you can make on the road. It saves you the time you would take to stop, and you can use the money you didn’t spend on a double quarter pounder for a steak at the super swanky bistro downtown tonight.
18. Stay with friends and family and extended family and friends of friends and family of friends – in other words, use your networking skills, you social media guru, you. Hotels and other forms of lodging usually wind up being the biggest expenditures on a trip. Carve out a little more room for fun money by staying with friends or family. It may not be the lap of luxury, but maybe it will enable you to afford day passes to that one music festival the next day.
19. Be willing to accept whatever your host family of the night wants to bestow upon you. When you stay with people, they usually want to send you off with something for the road. It can take a little like highway robbery (pun intended, sort of) to take something from someone who already put you up for $0, but it’s a hospitality thing, it makes them feel good, and you’ll probably appreciate it later.
20. Be kind in return. Host families generally won’t expect payment of any kind – that’s the beauty of making an effort to network your way into a home stay with a distant relative or your old roommate’s parents – but it’s still nice if you can do something to show your gratitude. Offer to buy them a drink, make breakfast, or at least leave a little thank you card. A little bit goes a long way, especially if you’d like to stay with them again.
21. If there’s just absolutely no way to stay with someone you know on one of your stops, you can use a cool website or app like Airbnb or Couch Surfing. The people are all screened and sometimes required to be background checked as well. So they are generally fairly uncreepy and welcoming. This way is more expensive than a home stay, but still less expensive than a hotel.
22. And if you can’t make either of those options work, Google area hostels and see what comes up. Again, less than glamorous, but oh, the stories you’ll leave with!
23. And if none of those options work out for you, camp! Car camping, tent camping, whatever! You’ve got some blankets and a little bit of shelter, so you’re set! Pull off to a roadside rest stop for a few hours of shut eye, or reserve a campsite for $5.
24. Leave early in the morning and stop an hour or two after sunset if sleep and rest are nonnegotiable commodities for you as you travel. Starting early in the morning is a great way to get motivated; you feel as though you have the whole day before you… because, well, you do. It might be hard to get going, but watching the sunrise is a pretty killer way to start out your day.
25. If you’d like to avoid that nasty traffic coming into the city, drive between 8pm and 6am (EW, but yeah, it will help.) Bring an energy drink or two and some really loud music.
26. If sleeping in a conventional bed isn’t all that important to you, take driving shifts and go all night. Make a roster and assign a schedule! If it’s all about getting where you’re going, just don’t stop.
27. This sounds borderline insane and dictator-y, but try to get everyone consuming liquids on a similar schedule, as much as possible. Streamline those potty break stops, ya bish?
28. Pack dry shampoo. Sometimes a shower just isn’t in the cards in circumstances such as these. You can buy a can of the good/cheap stuff for about $3 at basically any self-respecting drugstore and voila! Your locks look like those majestic just-rolled-out-of-bed-but-magically-never-ever-greasy tresses of that angsty twenty-something in your favorite Sundance film.
29. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the coffee: it must be a priority and you will be living in a world of pain if you pass up the bean juice to save a few bucks. Need I say more?
30. You can, however, find some sort of decent coffee at a chain, and you won’t break the bank. If caffeination is the goal, not taste or high-end quality, go cheap. I know, I know. But honestly, Dunkin Donuts has 32 oz. iced coffee for like $3, and it doesn’t taste half as awful as you’d expect/it actually tastes sort of like, pretty good… ?
31. And lastly, this has nothing to do with money, but you need these things: a killer playlist, good friends, lots of pictures, absurd amounts of pillows and blankets, and crappy snacks. The best parts of road trips have nothing to do with money and everything to do with memories. Make sure you make a butt load.