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Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip on a Budget

A Sociology UC Davis alumni and career journalist, Ellyn creates content on a super-super wide array of interests, including budget travel.

Guadalupe Mountains, NM

Guadalupe Mountains, NM

It's All About Preparation

As much as we love Jack Kerouac, his depiction of traveling across the U.S.A. in On The Road is more capricious than realistic.

In June, 2015, I was about to graduate from UC Davis. I had a little bit of pocket money saved up, plus an online job that I could do from anywhere with Wifi. Wanderlust had always made a home deep inside of me, and as I approached the end of the spring term, I decided there may never be a better time for me to hit the road and experience the country to which I belong.

Planning a 50-day long adventure was no easy task, though. It required hours upon hours of research, correspondence and compromise (due to a tight budget).

Here, I intend to share with you the valuable things I learned, and the steps it takes to prepare such an endeavor.


1. Pick Your Pals

2. Plan Your Route

3. Assess Your Budget

4. Find Your Lodging

5. Prep Your Vehicle

My two trip-mates and I at the Grand Canyon.

My two trip-mates and I at the Grand Canyon.

1. Pick Your Pals

This is easily the most important step to ensure you have a good time on your trip. If you're planning on doing your adventure solo, I applaud your courage and vigor! There are definitely reasons to do a trip like this alone. If you're seeking spiritual or emotional clarity, the aloneness could act as a catalyst to help you find what you're looking for within yourself.

However, there are many perks to having mates on a trip with you. One person can only drive so far in one sitting. But when you rotate between two, three, or four people you can go a much further distance each driving day, greatly cutting down on the time spent between destinations. Each additional person in the car also cuts down travel expenses (like gas, tolls, etc.), but you will have to sacrifice the car space, which is a big deal depending on the vehicle you're taking. The greatest plus to traveling with mates, though, is the deepening of friendship through the experience, and memories that you can share with them for your entire life.

If possible, you should try to recruit trip mates that you're already good friends with, because you'll be spending far too much time with them to choose someone you find even mildly annoying. I give this advice, but I certainly didn't heed it myself—I chose two mere acquaintances to accompany me on my trip. Luckily, they ended up being amazing individuals and became two of my closest friends.

When you first come to the decision that you're going to do your road trip, start telling your friends about it and asking them to spread the word to find others that would be interested. Even if your closest circle isn't able to go, maybe you will luck out and find a mutual friend of theirs that is the perfect match. I would not recommend doing a road trip of this caliber with more than four people, (even that would be a stretch).

Upon considering different folks for the spot, talk a lot about potential compatibility issues and rules for healthy communication. Do they have a similar sleeping schedule as you? Are they going to want to go out at night a lot? How messy are they? Do they have a valid driver's license? How much money can they spend on the trip? Do you have similar tastes in music? Are they considerate yet comfortable admitting when they're irritated? All of these are vital to discuss before coming to a decision on who gets the seat in the car.

Once you have people that are ready and committed to join in your awesome adventure, you can start to think about where you would all like to visit.

My trip mates and I in the Guadalupe Mountains, NM.

My trip mates and I in the Guadalupe Mountains, NM.

2. Plan Your Route

Usually, everyone has at least one specific thing they want to see on the trip. From all of the insanely beautiful national parks this country has, to the hip and happening cities sprinkled across our land, there will be a handful of sites you all agree upon as must-sees.

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One guy went so far as to scientifically compute the most optimal U.S. road trip possible. While this road trip would realistically take between 2-3 months to complete, it might give you some good ideas for stops you want to incorporate.

Keep in mind that it is common to have disagreements about which stops to take and when, but do your best to compromise.

Mapquest was my favorite tool when it came to planning the route—you can input up to 26 stops, and it gives you tons of information about the mileage, route, and stops. Mapquest is a bit dated now and most people use Google Directions.

I would recommend noting how long each travel distance and time will be between each destination, and noting it on a document. Then, if you'd like to be stricter with your schedule, you can use Google Calendar to plan the days you will be traveling, and the general hours you plan to be in the car. This is also great for helping you keep track of how much mileage you'll be racking up, which will come in handy when trying to anticipate gas costs.

While I am a believer in being organized and prepared on road trips (especially when you have camp-site reservations at various national parks), there is definitely also merit to embarking on your journey with only a vague idea of the stops you'll be going and "winging it." I think that taking the days as they come on a road trip is definitely more relaxed and a valuable experience. But when you're on a tight budget or a schedule of some kind, these tools I have listed come in handy.


3. Assess Your Budget

After you have your route and your days planned out, you can begin estimating your budget.

While they will never be spot on, there are tools you can use to help you assess how much money you will need on various elements of the trip.

Gasbuddy and Fueleconomy are both sites that can help you guess how much money you'll need to spend on gas, for instance. (This is also where having more trip mates really shows its value—when you divide that number by three or four it will seem a lot less scary!)

If you're planning on going to multiple national parks on your journey (which I highly recommend you do) be sure to invest in an annual national parks pass. It only costs $80 for a pass that will get you into any national park for a whole year. Otherwise, you'll see the $20-$50 fees to get into each park add up too quickly for your budget.

Food will be your biggest expense on the trip, hands down. It's way too easy to spend over $10 a day on food when you're on the road and don't have a kitchen. If we would have stuck to the $10/day rule, we would have spent $500 just on meals on our 50 day trip. A good way to dodge this expense is by shopping in bulk and carrying as much with you as you can.

Before you leave, hunt down a friend or relative that has a Costco or Sam's Club card. Stock up on canned meat and beans, applesauce, jerkies, trail mix and nut spreads, granola bars—anything that won't perish during the time in your trip. You can always stop in nearby cities and eat produce as you go along, but you probably need to forfeit the idea of eating extremely healthy while you're on the road. If you need to stop again at a bulk seller but don't have a membership, you can stop at a Sam's Club free for one day with this pass that we used.

The Guadalupe Mountains

The Guadalupe Mountains

4. Find Lodging

This is the other hum-dinger of an expense if you're not careful. The first thing that you should do when thinking about your lodging is start reaching out to everyone you know (and ask them to reach out to those they know as well) to see if there are available hosts in the various locations you plan to visit. Let them know what respectful guests you are, and that you'd be happy to help with chores and cooking during your stay (come on, it's the least you can do). You might have to sleep on the floor, but your wallet will be happy the next day.

You might be surprised how many people are okay with hosting weary travelers if they know someone who will back up your good character. If you have bad luck with that, you can always try couch surfing—a wonderful community of travelers that offer their couches for free to one another, in order to continue the cycle of sustainable travel.

If you're not comfortable with that you can always also try finding a cheap Airbnb. Or if you don't mind a getting a little dirt under your fingers, you can try WWOOFing across America to save money on lodging.

It's entirely possible that you may not have decided to plan your trip soon enough to get reservations at the parks that you really wanted to see. Also, while camping is one of the cheaper lodging options, those fees can add up quickly as well. For both of these dilemmas, our solution was searching for free campgrounds. It's not foolproof, as it is first-come-first-served, but it worked well for us. There is always the possibility that you'll need to shell out for a motel at the last minute, or worse—sleep in the car. But that's a chance you sometimes have to take on an adventure.

New York City, NY

New York City, NY

5. Prep Your Vehicle

You're going to basically be living out of the trunk of your car for the foreseeable future, so here are some tips to make sure it all runs smoothly:

  • Have a mechanic check your car's fluid levels, brakes, tires and anything else that could cause problems on the road. Make sure you have a fully inflated spare tire, jumper cables and extra wiper fluid on hand.
  • Depending on the type of car you're taking on this trip (hopefully, it is a fuel efficient one), you might want to get a rooftop carrier to expand the space you have for your luggage.
  • Be sure that your car also has a large water supply in it, as there will be times in the desert regions when you're unsure where the next stop will be.
  • Get an app on your phone like gas buddy onto your phone so that you will always know where the best gas prices are.
  • Buy an atlas in case you lose GPS service in an area you are lost in.
  • Download tons of entertainment on your phone or MP3 player ahead of time (audiobooks, podcasts, music, etc.) don't rely on streaming services because much of the country doesn't have cell phone service.
  • Get a small crate to keep your foodstuffs organized in the car.
  • Don't overpack! You can always stop and wash your clothes if absolutely necessary.
I had to put a cargo carrier on top of my Prius to fit all of our gear.

I had to put a cargo carrier on top of my Prius to fit all of our gear.

Part 1 of the route I took summer 2015

Part 2 of the route I took summer 2015

© 2016 Ellyn Beale

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