Determined to take a cross country college roadtrip but don't know if you can afford it on your minimum wage salary? Take it from someone who's been there and back, it's totally doable and worth it!
As avid roadtrippers, my husband and I have done the cross-country roadtrip a number of times, with friends, throughout our college years, for very little money compared to what most spend. We've been from Milwaukee to phoenix to La and back twice, from Wisconsin to Montana to Calgary and back, from Milwaukee to Niagara falls to NYC and back, sometimes with four people, sometimes with five, all within the span of 3 1/2 years and I'd say we've spent an average of about $600 total, or $150 each, on each trip. Amazing, right? That's less than the cost of a plane ticket! I'll share a few of our tips for making this work, which involve a few sacrifices and connections here and there, just in case anyone else is looking to take a cheap, but rewarding, trip.
Here's how you can make a cheap (yet amazing) roadtrip work:
#1. You must make sacrifices. A high maintenance person can not take a cheap roadtrip, that's all there is to it. If someone in your group hints at wanting to stop at a myriad of hotels and restaurants, your trip will NOT work. If someone simply cannot sleep in a car, your trip will not work. If someone demands a shower on a daily basis, or has any kind of special needs, your trip will not work. Remember, the trip may not go as planned, but you will still see some amazing things. Once, friends and I got lost in the desert and couldn't find the grand canyon (long story). We were completely tired and cranky, but as a result, we arrived at the Hoover Dam at sunset, and it was GORGEOUS. Totally worth the day driving pointlessly around the desert. Another time we got a flat tire in Montana and to top it off, Canada wouldn't let us in their country due to lack of car insurance. Plans destroyed, we ended up sleeping at a hippie commune and had one of the most memorable experiences of our entire trip. Ruddy, relaxed people without any sort of agenda who can shrug off misfortunes are the best roadtrippers. People who don't mind sleeping near each other or smelling each other also work well.
#2. Plan, but prepare to have your plans changed. Figure out costs and distances, but as far as sightseeing goes, it's almost better to plan on a daily basis. For instance, if you didn't make it to Denver like you thought you would, driving to a certain sight might be out of the question that day. Be willing to adapt. Also beware that four or more agendas are difficult to work out. If someone really wants to see the Grand Canyon on Tuesday, for instance, while someone else has their heart set on driving southwest to Mexico, you're screwed. Make sure everyone agrees to take things in stride and one person isn't dead-set on visiting their aunt Lou 200 miles off your track. Map out your drive and agree that you'll see whatever comes along that's affordable that everyone can agree upon. Plan some day excursions to particularly amazing places like Yellowstone or the Redwood forest, but don't necessarily plan out every evening event in every city. More plans can mean more stress because you feel pressured to do everything you planned and find yourself not enjoying the trip in the process. Also, agree beforehand that majority rules. If three people want to see something and the other doesn't, he or she has to go along with it and cannot complain. Nothing makes a roadtrip worse than a lot of arguing.
#3. Sleep for free, even if it's slightly awkward or uncomfortable, whenever possible. Stay with friends along the way or check out www.couchsurfing.com (most amazing sight ever) for people offering their floor or couchspace for free (be sure to screen them first). Staying with people is way better than staying in hotels anyway, because it's a better way to sample local culture. Be sure to exchange SOMEthing with your hosts, however, especially if you don't know them. This could be a souvenir from home, a meal that you make, stories that you tell, or an offer to let them stay with you next summer. Whatever you do, don't hole up in a stranger's basement with your friends and ignore your hosts completely. Get to know them; the experience will be more rewarding that way.
To start out your trip, pick an overall first destination. I.e. "Phoenix" or "Denver" and drive there in more or less a straight line, without too many major detours. This destination should be a place where you know you'll be able to lie flat and sleep, whether it be at a friends' house or at the home of a random couch surfer. It should be a place that you plan to recharge from your travels for awhile. Maybe you even plan to stay there for two days or more. Plan to drive a certain amount each day and arrange a free stay every evening, or cover more miles by driving multiple days at a time. If the destination is more than a day's drive away, leave on an afternoon and drive through the night. While one person drives, the others should sleep, so that when the driver gets tired, they can take over. Devise some sort of plan, whether it's "everybody sleeps but the driver" to maximize on sleep or the team method where "shotty doesn't sleep" in order to keep the driver awake, then the two swap with the sleeping team in the backseat. I personally prefer 2, only because it's less lonely. Whenever you find that everybody in the car is too tired to drive, pull over at a truck stop, Wallmart, church parking lot, or fast food joint, lock the doors, and try your best to sleep. Cars that aren't moving aren't the easiest to sleep in, so don't expect to sleep very soundly. If you sleep into the morning in a public place, expect that people may be peering into your windows questioningly when you wake up.
If you just can't stand the thought of sleeping in the car but also don't want to pay for a hotel, camp out. State parks with camping are often marked with little tent symbols on roadmaps (which you can grab at welcome centers by borders). They're often only $15-$20 bucks, and usually worth the ability to lie flat and sleep. If you camp, though, be prepared to stop well before it gets dark so that you can get your tent set up and maybe a fire going while you can still see. And make sure somebody has a flashlight in case you have to pee in the middle of the night.
If you don't want to pay for camping, be sneaky and set up your tent in a place that is in the middle of nowhere where you're probably not supposed to camp. Make sure you're well-hidden, and that there aren't any residences or clear "no trespassing" signs around. Also, don't go TOO far into the "wilderness." If you don't know what you're doing, you could get lost or eaten by wild animals or something. Be sneaky, but not stupid.
One example: on Lake Michigan, a rest stop/truck stop is very near to an uninhabited beach. Footpaths indicate that people who stop at the reststop to pee often walk through the trees and along the lake to stretch their legs or run their dogs. Having nowhere else to go, my friends and I arrived at this stop just before dusk, found it absolutely beautiful, and sneakily unloaded our camping gear. We walked around a bend in the sand, crossed a small creek using a log, and set our tents up beneathe the shelter of a few trees in the sand. Large boulders littered the sand and a hand-made firepit indicated we weren't the first to discover the free campsite. We spent the night sleeping upon soft sand lured to sleep by the sound of waves crashing on the beach and awoke to seagulls calling...for free!
Also consider: In remote areas, if you're feeling bold, ask the locals if they know of any hippie communes or have a field where they wouldn't mind you pitching a tent for a night. In city areas, check out hostels
#4. Pool gas, lodging, grocery food, and any other mutually-responsible unavoidable expenses IMMEDIATELY. For entertainment, souvenirs, snacks, and restaurants, do not pool your money. People tend to want to spend different amounts on these things and it isn't fair to make someone else shoulder your steak dinner or front row tickets. Whatever you do, do not try this: "you pay for gas this time, Mike pays next time, Sarah pays the next time...then Molly can pay for breakfast tomorrow...etc." This does not work because someone ALWAYS ends up paying more than someone else. One roadtrip we tried each covering our own food and such and then trading off paying for gas and lodging. The problem? Sometimes gas was 2.25, sometimes it was 3.50. Those that got stuck paying 3.50 were a little grumbly and resentful. We tried to arrange a "keep track' method in which we all promised to pay each other back for any amount of gas that someone went over budget, but that didn't happen, naturally. By the end of the trip that seemed a little petty. In order to make sure money (especially concerning gas, because everybody uses it) is fair, pool a set amount at the beginning of the trip. Let's say everybody puts $100 into a gas and lodging envelope. When that money runs out, everyone contributes $100 more. At the end of the trip, if any is left over, it's divided evenly. Make sure everyone has a bank card that allows withdrawals from any ATM in the country for this. Or risk carrying a lot of cash. If you practice money pooling effectively, you will save a LOT of fights and resentment which would otherwise happen, even if you're the best of friends. Trust me. The first step to a cheap roadtrip is a content carload. Fights are what cause people to pull the car over and scream "THAT"S IT. I CAN"T TAKE IT ANYMORE. WE"RE GETTING A HOTEL TONIGHT."
#5. Pack lightly and efficiently. This will save on gas, time, and sanity. Nobody wants to be packed in the back with somebody's rock collection. Restrict everyone to one school-sized backpack, pillow, and warm blanket. Put the backpacks in the trunk and spread the blankets over the back seat, so that everybody can sit on top of them. This saves a TON of trunk space. Put the pillows in the backseat as well. People sleeping back there will want them anyway. Personal belongings that people will need often at rest stops along the way or on the drive like cameras, coloring books, purses, ipods or license-plate bingo games can go on the floor in the car or on peoples' laps. There may also be room for a small cooler if someone is willing to put their feet up or if only four people are in the car. Otherwise, try to fit everything else in trunk, if possible. One backpack per person, a large tent, two large sleeping bags or an air matress that can be laid down for padding (with everyone sleeping on top of it with their blankets) in event of a camping situation, this is really all you need to bring on a successful roadtrip. If you plan to cook while camping, bring along a hardy pot and maybe some pudgy pie makers, as well as a box of matches or a lighter and a small stack of newspapers. If you camp in a forest and it hasn't rained, collect free wood from the forest floor. If you know how to start a fire, you could probably even get away with packing less. And if you plan to grocery shop, make sure you have a cooler. Most trunks should accommodate all this stuff and more. You may even have room for that inflatable kayak. Do NOT overpack clothes-wise. Remember, when you're driving for days at a time, you will be so lost enjoying the new sights that you'll lose track of time a little bit, especially if you drive through the night and sleep at odd intervals. You probably won't get to shower daily, and thus will not find an opportunity to change your clothes until everybody together wakes up and realizes how smelly it's become in the car. By then, you may have worn an outfit for two days or more. If you do go through all your clothes, you can always stop at a laundromat or wash them at a friends house while stopping for the night. Or heck, just febreeze 'em. The extra space is more than worth the less than orderly appearance.
6. Travel someplace that no one in the car has visited before. New places mean easy entertainment. Everything is a new experience and thus, exciting.
7. Sightsee for free. Don't just gravitate toward the paid tours. Stop along the way at places that look interesting. Climb a rocky hill at the side of the road and view the sunset. Visit outdoor historical monuments or cool buildings (like the St Louis Arch, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial or the world's largest cross in texas). Peruse ethnic gift shops (but if you're trying to save money, don't buy anything). Wade under a waterfall. Take an elevator to the highest floor of a tall building. Take pictures and make videos. Get out in a city downtown and just WALK. State parks usually offer hiking and most of the time, it's free.
8. Don't buy souvenirs. The very first roadtrip I took was a small one to Canada. As soon as I got over the border I went nuts buying souvenirs for everyone I knew. I ended up spending $80 there alone. In order to remember your trip, buy postcards. They're usually extremely cheap and disposable. Thus people appreciate receiving them more than tacky picture frames shaped like mooses. And you don't feel guilty buying them for yourself. Also, take lots of pictures (digital ones are cheaper!) and keep a "roadtrip notebook." Make a rule that whoever's sitting "shotty" has to write in it. I made this rule on a trip once and a friend complained at its lameness, but once he realized how many fun memories we were all writing in there (or perhaps once he got bored enough of the flat new mexican scenery), he got really into it! Soon he was exclaiming "this was such a good idea!" The notebook is definitely a really fun record of our trip.
9. Save on gas simply by the way you drive. Fill up more at stations where gas costs less, and less where gas costs more. Follow large semi trucks down the highway and take advantage of less wind resistance. Use cruise control. Pack lightly. When in an extremely hilly mountainous region, shift to neutral while coasting down hill (just be careful not to shift into reverse).
Any other tips?