Budget-Friendly U.S. Road Trips

Before I pick any city to visit on road trips, I open our magical U.S. road atlas and plan the route according to where National Parks are. A task that aligns easily with any desired destination or departure, as America hosts a whopping 59 National Parks (that’s not even counting the equally beautiful 154 protected National Forests and 20 National Grasslands).

Since, I do not swim in a pool of money like Scrooge McDuck, our road trips are always very cost conscious and thankfully National Parks fit right into our budget. Stephen’s RAV4 doubles as our glamorous hotel room with the backseats pushed down and a yoga mat and sleeping bag spread out, we get to wake up with better views than the Ritz-Carlton can offer.

The past few winter months have been especially ideal for Stephen and I’s adventurous little hearts as the parks have been borderline deserted. With the exception of the Grand Canyon, none have even had entrance attendants taking fees (though, we did break down and purchase the annual pass for $80 to eliminate any guilty feelings for seemingly sneaking in).

Background aside, here are my tidbits of “wisdom” for an enjoyable road trip on a budget:

1. Don’t Underestimate the Cost of Gas

Nothing quite ruins a trip like budgeting too tightly and having to worry about money. There are several apps and website out there to help you estimate your gas expenses; I like to use Rome2Rio as it gives me an idea of alternative options with prices attached.

2. Bring along a Cooler Bag & Shop at Grocery Stores

Ah, the difference between a $30 day and a $30 week. Not only is grocery shopping financially smart, it’s also much healthier! Make sure you pack some cutlery and get creative. I usually make sandwiches or salads on the road.

My go-to ingredients: Spinach, Hummus, Carrots, Bell Peppers, Cold-cuts, Boiled Eggs,  Avocados, Bananas, Apples, Peanut Butter, Bread, Trail Mix

3. Bring a Physical Map & Turn Off the Navigation System

Road Maps have nifty features, like scenic route indicators and campground markers. They cover more than Lonely Planet is capable of and allow you to ditch Google maps beaten path routes. Personally, I find maps more adventurous than a plugged in cellphone, though combined they offer good time estimates.

4. Find a Good Travel Companion

May it be a partner, friend, pet, podcast, or music. America is big and empty in many places, keep yourself sane by having good company. Some are able to find solace in solitude, I’m not one of those cool people.

5. Expect Poor Cell Reception

Going along with tip four, try not
delaying your search of a virtual companion. I’ve had experience with AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, all have had an amplitude of dead-spots. So be sure to download entertainment ahead of time.

Likewise, make sure you check-in with someone whenever you do have reception to let them know where you are and where you are headed. America is beautiful, but frankly, we have a bunch of nuts out there too. So, be safe and smart.

6. Pack a Warm Sleeping Bag

Regardless of whether you are traveling in the summer or in the winter, cars do not
protect you from the cold, in fact they can get hella cold at night. My advise, pack two sleeping bags and layer.

7. Don’t Waste Your Money on Drinks

Pack a reusable water bottle and thermos mug and take advantage of free hot and cold water at gas stations and rest stops. I always remember to pack tea bags for the thermos mug. It may not save you a lot, but to me money spent on drinks is money wasted. Unless you want to venture into neat little juiceries or coffee shops, which I do enjoy from time to time myself.

8. Break Your Isolation by Asking Locals for Tips

Speaking of juiceries or coffee shops, a great source to find these gems is simply by asking (common sense, right?). We stumbled across the coolest coffee shop in Salt Lake City by asking a local; the menu was fabulous! More importantly though, in smaller towns locals will often provide you with far more than a simple location once they discover you are passing through. A young woman in a South Dakota breakfast diner of a town of maybe 300, gave us the most heartfelt directions and suggestions, when we inquired for a pit-stop.

Side note: Shoutout to the Midwesterners who seem to always be eager to help!

9. Stop for Scenic Hikes, Runs, or Yoga Sessions

The. Body. Loves. To. Move. Sitting in a car and driving all day, can be exhausting in the bad kind of way. It’s easy to hunch your back, eat junk, and miss out on all the beauty surrounding you. Even if you are in a rush to get somewhere, take breaks and make them count! This is where National Parks or Forests come into play.

Sure, a week at Zion National Park would be great, but I’ll take whatever time I can get, even if it’s just 30 minutes. Try to schedule your breaks so you can catch the sunrise or sunset. I try to park the car either in national conservation areas or near them, so that it is the first thing I get to experience in the mornings before hitting the road.

10. Lastly, as Always, Be Flexible

You never know where beauty will floor you and require you to readjust your travel plans. An enjoyable road trip cannot be harnessed with overly ambitions plans or deadlines. Allow yourself the freedom to wander to your hearts desire by packing clothes for all weather and dedicating more time than you expect it should take to cover your distance.

Bonus Tip

Pack some wet wipes and consider them your shower. If you’re like me and the hair gods are not on your side when it comes to not showering, be sure to pack a hat. I assure you it’s  not as gross as you think, you can still brush your teeth every day and wash your face.

I hope these tips can be of some use to you. As always feel free to shoot me any questions, suggestions or comments.

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Safe travels millennials!

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