There’s nothing quite like the wide open road and its endless opportunity for adventure. With your hand gripping the steering wheel, the world is quite literally at your fingertips. Nothing can stop you from chasing sunsets and living the life of your dreams. Well, except maybe your bank account.
Two months ago, I set off on my latest road trip. I didn’t have a plan or an itinerary, and quite frankly, I just winged my budget. My two-month road trip ended up spanning eleven states, with countless miles spent on the road. To my surprise, this socially-distanced road trip did not even come close to breaking the bank. I expected to spend far more money than I did, especially since I was prepared to splurge in order to travel responsibly in the midst of a global pandemic.
Despite needing to do a little more planning on this trip, I still maintained a high level of spontaneity. Road tripping is a much different style of travel than I’m used to, but one that I quickly adapted to. I was able to use a combination of my usual budget travel methods and a variety of useful apps, websites, and forums to help me cut costs as much as possible. Here’s how I pinched every penny.
Camping or Boondocking on Public Lands is Free
A lot of people don’t know this, but you have free access to Bureau of Land Management Public Lands. Guess that’s why they call it public lands, hey? What that means is that you can sleep for free. Whether you’re camping, sleeping in your car, or in your RV, it’s a great way to keep costs low by saving on a night of accommodation. If you don’t mind skipping the hotel or Airbnb for a night or two, this option can end up saving you quite a bit of money.
Sure, it might not sound like the most glamorous option. But honestly, it’s pretty great. Some of the best places I’ve ever camped have been public lands. The long list includes the otherworldly Bonneville Salt Flats to the movie-worthy Alabama Hills in California.
Book Accommodation in Advance
I’m not much of a planner when it comes to accommodation. When traveling internationally, I typically just roll up to a hostel and assume they have space. Usually, they do. If not, it’s likely a short walk over to the next hostel. Unfortunately, you can’t really do that with Airbnbs. You have to give your host time to prepare and accommodate for you, especially during the pandemic when extra care and effort needs to go into cleaning and providing a sanitary environment for travelers.
That being said, Airbnbs get more expensive the longer you wait to book. I can go on Airbnb now and search a property for tonight and it’ll be almost twice as expensive as if I were to book the property next month. An Airbnb that costs $50 a night could be $20 a night if I book a month in advance. Again, I’m not much of a planner so a month in advance is not really my style. However, a few days in advance still makes a huge difference.
Hotels will also tend to jack up prices as demand grows and supply decreases, so if you’re booking for a holiday weekend, definitely do so in advance. Fleeing the California wildfires on Labor Day Weekend, I couldn’t find a single place to stay under $500 near the Lake Tahoe area. Guess who found some public lands and slept in their car that weekend? Being spontaneous often leads to amazing adventures, but planning a little bit ahead can definitely save you some money.
Grocery Shop and Cook Your Own Meals When Possible
One of the priciest aspects of a road trip is food, especially not having access to your own kitchen. This results in people eating out for most meals, or subsisting on overpriced gas station snacks for extended periods of time. I’ve had a few meals where I’ve decided to splurge when I was with friends. While fun every once in a while, it is pretty mind-blowing that one meal and a few drinks cost the same as a week’s worth of food from the supermarket.
I’ll admit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches do get dull after a while. However, I’d rather lose a little originality in my diet and gain a lot of originality in my environment. Of course, shopping wisely goes a long way towards maintaining variety in a diet while sticking to a budget. While traveling, I tend to cut out meat, as it is more expensive and harder to cook on the fly. Fruits, vegetables, bread, and cereal are all cheap ways to get your nutrients and calories.
I also try to stay at a place with a common kitchen every once in a while to spice things up. I’ll take advantage of having a kitchen at an Airbnb or at a hostel to meal prep for at least the next few days. For those living the van life and have a kitchen, y’all better know how good you have it.
Use Pigly Budget Planner to Create and Stick to a Budget
Budgets are annoying. I’ll admit I have a problem with keeping an eye on my budget. I’ll accidentally spend way more money than planned, and then just turn a blind eye and pretend that everything is okay. I know I’m not the only one. In reality, saving money while traveling starts long before the trip even starts.
One of the best tools you can use to help you budget for travel is Pigly’s Personal Budget Planner. While budgeting can seem like a chore, Pigly makes it easy and already has plenty of tools to help you out. Managing your money well beforehand is huge to even having the funds to go on the adventure of your dreams.
Budgeting isn’t the only tool you’ll find on Pigly, either. Pigly has an opportunity cost calculator where you can enter something you plan on giving up, and it gives you an idea of how much you can save when you give that up. For example, giving up smoking not only results in tens of thousands of dollars saved throughout the years, but Pigly will also calculate the opportunity cost of if you were to put that saved money towards investments. Saving $20,000 on cigarettes in 10 years quickly turns into $30,000 or more when you realize how you could be investing that money.
There are quite a few budgeting tools if you just browse through Pigly’s website. It’s great for any occasion, and not just budgeting for a road trip. Best of all, Pigly is free. It’s an amazing budgeting tool because there are so many resources for almost anything you could think of.
Working Remotely or From “Home”? Invest.
Speaking of investing, let’s talk about investing real quick. If you’re lucky enough to be getting a paycheck during this time, try to set some of it aside if you can. I’ve met quite a few people who have abstained from renewing their leases to be able to travel. With remote work becoming the norm, it makes a lot of sense. Seriously, living nomadically can often be cheaper than living in one place. I’ve never been one for comfort, if you couldn’t tell by how devoutly I adhere to the backpacker life. I sacrifice comfort to save money, and then invest that money into experiences and well, actual investments. From property to stocks to virtual currency, I try to diversify where my money goes.
I save a lot of money when I don’t have to worry about big monthly expenses like rent. I use a variety of different resources to invest that extra money. Of course, most of them are mobile apps or online options. I don’t know too much about the actual process of investing myself, but I do know where to put my money. I trust apps like Robin Hood, Acorns, and Stash to invest and manage my money.
You can also use Pigly, the tool that I mentioned earlier, to help you plan and estimate the trajectory of your investments. There are tons of different tools for all your financial needs on Pigly, no matter where you currently stand in life. Whether you’re a student hoping to pay off loans, a homeowner figuring out their mortgage, or anyone else you could think of, Pigly is worth checking out.
Use GasBuddy to Find the Cheapest Gas Nearby
On a road trip, gas is one of those unavoidable expenses that you just have to deal with. If you haven’t gone electric yet, then you’ll have to scour for the cheapest gas near you. A little research can can make a huge difference. The Coronavirus pandemic has driven down gas prices substantially, but you should still try to maximize your savings. While road tripping, you’ll find that gas prices are much more expensive in tourist towns and near national parks. When they are the only gas stations around for miles and miles, they’ll get you that way.
GasBuddy is a great tool for finding the cheapest gas along your route. When filling up, those extra dollars go a long way. Take my trip through Death Valley National Park, for example. In Lone Pine, California, gas was $3.79 per gallon. In Pahrump, Nevada, it was $2.09. GasBuddy helped me save a whopping $1.70 per gallon by letting me know that cheaper gas was on the horizon.
DO Spend Money on High Quality Gear
If there’s a time to actually spend more money, it’s when investing in high quality gear. Don’t skimp out on important things that you’ll need on the road trip. Let’s use my mistakes as our first example. I bought a cheap tent that apparently wasn’t waterproof. A week into my road trip, I had to buy a new tent. I could’ve just bypassed the wasted cost on the first tent by spending the money on the more durable, longer-lasting gear.
Sometimes, it makes sense to splurge on quality equipment rather than trying to cut costs. If you’re camping on your road trip, buy high quality equipment that will last. Anything that goes towards sleep, health, and safety, splurge on it. I can’t tell you how a crappy night of sleep on a tent has led to me splurging on coffee or a nice hotel afterwards just to sleep. Once I got comfortable inside a tent with nice pillows, an air mattress, and a better sleeping bag, I realized I had no problem sleeping in a tent, but instead a problem with how I was sleeping in it.
This mantra goes for more than just camping equipment. Make sure your car is up-to-date and well-equipped for whatever terrains you might face. Durable clothing for hiking and backpacking trips are essential as well for the outdoorsy road tripper.
Camping at National Park Campgrounds is Pretty Cheap
Camping but want something a little more scenic or less rugged? If you want a break from the barebones, primitive camping style on public lands, then national park campsites are a great alternative. National Park campsites typically provide facilities like restrooms, potable water, and of course, some of the best scenery that the country has to offer.
On this current road trip, I’ve camped at a few different national parks. The prices ranged from $20 in places like Zion, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon, up to $36 in Grand Teton National Park. Considering this is the price per campground, which usually accommodates up to 8 people, this can be pretty cheap. As a solo traveler, I would avoid paying for campgrounds if possible. However, whenever I was with friends, a $20 per night campsite was a negligible cost when split between all of us.
Get Your Car Checked Out Before Setting Off
One of the worst things that can happen on a road trip are car problems. I always make this mistake, but you should make sure you never do. It’s a lot cheaper to maintain your car than it is to find yourself in an expensive emergency. Before setting out, get your car checked out to make sure there aren’t any dire problems that need to be fixed.
On this latest road trip, I pushed through despite having issues with my engine starting consistently. Wiggling a few cables in the hood would typically get it started after a few tries, but in the process, I ended up causing more problems. The battery turned out to be a quick fix, one that I didn’t even get charged for. However, while wiggling some wires around, I ended up blowing a fuse that ended up being around $400 in repairs. Getting my oil changed also revealed an oil leak that added another $300. That soul-crushing amount, especially on my birthday, was almost enough to convince me to turn back. But you know me, full send always.
Use Resources From Fellow Travelers on FreeCampsites, Campendium, and Other Sites
The nice thing about the Internet age is that it’s so easy to find information. While we adventurers like to think of ourselves as trailblazers paving our own way, it is admittedly much easier to follow in the footsteps of those before us. We live in the age of information, and Google searches can tell us everything we need to know about traveling to a certain destination. FreeCampsites is a no-frills website that lets you browse through free and paid campsites, all user-reviewed. Campendium is another great resource, and a bit more modern. The Dyrt is another great resource.
If you’re looking for mobile apps, The Dyrt and Campendium both have mobile apps. Another simple but great app would be iOverlander. It points out anything from free campsites to shower spots to overnight parking. Seriously, the Internet has made it so that we are never truly alone in our adventures. Wherever you hope to go, there’s a good chance someone’s already been there.
Road trips are some of the best adventures one can have. If you’ve been following along for a while, you already know how dedicated I am to having the time of my life without breaking the bank too much. Whether you use all or just a few of these tips, you’re guaranteed to save some money on an adventure of your own.
Sections of this post were written in collaboration with Pigly, where I received payment in exchange for my honest opinion on their excellent budgeting tools.