How We Saved Money on Our Cross-Country Road Trip

Visiting 33 states and logging more than 13,000 miles taught us a few things about life on the road.
Mickey Kay
By Mickey Kay 
Published
Edited by Laura McMullen

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My wife, Britt, and I had always dreamed of traveling across the U.S. — there’s something special about exploring our own incredible country. But we felt daunted by the cost of airfare, accommodations, food and other travel expenses. So, for years, we shelved the dream.

Then, in 2010, we decided we’d waited long enough. We got serious about bringing our vision to life and figured out how to cut costs and get the best mileage for our money. Here's the story of our grand American road trip.

Our trip in a nutshell

  • Total mileage: 13,069.7 miles

  • Total days: 89

  • Total cost: $6,250 (estimate)

  • Nights in hotels/motels/hostels: 7

  • Nights camping: 14

  • Nights couch surfing: 15

  • Nights with friends: 53

  • States visited: 33

  • National parks/sites visited: 37

Here are a few tactics that helped us plan and pull off such an epic trip:

We made a loose budget and tracked expenses

We've never been great at budgeting, and we didn't want money to dictate our plans. But we didn't want to overspend, either. So we compromised by making a basic weekly budget that included food, accommodation and gas. (See how to map out your own road trip budget.)

Our budget established a shared expectation about just how decadent or sparse we’d be living and helped us make financial decisions based on their trade-offs. For example, dining at a fancy restaurant one night might mean we cooked for the next two nights.

Tracking our expenses turned out to be another great way to keep our spending in check. Our method? We taped a piece of binder paper to our dashboard and hand-wrote every bit of money we spent, down to the dollar. Not only did this help us accurately tally our expenses, it also reminded us of our financial commitment every time we buckled up for the next leg of our trip.

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We skipped the hotel

Time and again, I was pleasantly surprised by how many affordable and comfortable alternatives there are to hotels (and I normally swear by my memory-foam mattress at home). Here’s how we saved on lodging:

Mickey Murlas Kay and Britt Kay Murlas continued their road-tripping ways, including a journey to Northern California in 2016.

Friends. Staying with friends is a win-win. Not only is it affordable, it also guarantees quality time with loved ones. We found that most friends were delighted to host us as long as we reached out to them well in advance of our arrival. And before departing, we almost always repaid the hospitality by cooking a meal or cleaning their home.

Couchsurfing.com. Couch surfing is a global community of locals who offer free accommodations. Don’t let the name fool you — more often than not, we had our own bedroom, and in one instance we even got a luxury treehouse to ourselves.

Even if you don’t need a place to stay, the couch surfing community is a great place to discover fun community events led by locals that can jump-start your experience in a new city.

Camping. Camping is an inexpensive way to get up close and personal with the natural splendor of our country. For us, getting out into nature and pitching the tent was always a welcome reprieve from a long car ride between destinations. Campsites book up fast in peak season, so make your reservations early. But, if you can’t book early, many campsites offer drive-in sites for day-of bookings.

We found activities that stretched our dollar

During our travels, we discovered that certain activities consistently got us the biggest bang for our buck. For example, we loved national parks, where the cost-to-reward ratio is fantastic. Not only are these some of the most majestic places in our country, but they’re also very budget-friendly. (And, as a disabled traveler, I get free entry and half-off camping.)

Sites like Kayak and Travelzoo make it super simple to find great deals and affordable experiences. That’s where we found many helpful discounts on attractions, meals and even accommodations. And when in doubt, you can always ask the locals, as they will often have the best insider tips for making your money go as far as possible.

(Photos courtesy of Mickey Murlas Kay.)

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