How I Took a 7-Week Road Trip for Less than $2,000

Like most of us, I’ve used a litany of excuses over the years about why I couldn’t travel more.

One of my favorite stops was Halifax, Nova Scotia
One of my favorite stops was Halifax, Nova Scotia

However, I have really made an effort not to complain too much about travel being expensive, because it doesn’t have to be. I’ve taken quite a lot of trips on a shoestring. My biggest one to date is the 7-week road trip I took last year through Canada and the United States. I started in Portland, Oregon, drove through the midwest, up into Canada where I visited 5 provinces, and then down though New England and the east coast before ending in Miami, Florida.

It was an incredible, enriching experience. I’ll share with you some advice about how I did it.

FAIR WARNING: This is not luxury travel. By a long shot. When I travel, I’m interested in seeing what’s out there and meeting new people, not in posh accommodations and spa days. If you’re into that, that’s cool! But you’ll probably be a little traumatized by my suggestions here. My willingness to go ‘grunge’ on occasion has been the exact thing that’s opened so many travel doors for me.

1. Find A Way Not To Pay Your Rent/Mortgage While You’re Gone

 

If you’re going to travel for more than a couple weeks, having rent or a mortgage to pay is really going to cut into your travel expenses. It’s worth getting creative for this one.

First option, obviously, is to sublet your place. If you’re renting, make sure you check with your landlord before you sublet. A couple years ago I sublet a room from a guy in Portland for 5 weeks while he went to Germany, and it worked great for both of us.

You could also list your home on AirBnB while you’re gone, if that’s something you’re ok with. Consider paying a friend or family member to tidy up in between guests, hand off the key, keep an eye on things, etc.

Finally, if you’re renting: travel in between your apartment leases. If you’re planning to move, once your lease is up, stick your things in storage and travel before you sign your next lease. I’m traveling full-time now, so I actually sold and donated nearly all my stuff and don’t have a storage unit, but paying a storage bill for a month or two is still a lot better than paying for an apartment or house and all the utilities they come along with. There’s no way I could have taken a 7-week trip if I’d had to also pay for all my expenses back home at the same time.

 

2. Don’t Pay for Accommodations While You’re Traveling (Or Keep it to a Minimum)

 

Again, you can be creative with this one. Perhaps you can rent or borrow a pop-up trailer. Maybe you’re ok with tent-camping. I have several friends who retro-fit the backs of their vehicles with mattresses! All completely doable options. You may have to pay for campsites sometimes, but it would be better to find free areas to stop, or sleep in a Walmart parking lot or truck stop if you’re ok with it.

Before resorting to a hotel, see if the city you’re visiting has any hostels. They’re not as common in the US and Canada as they are in other parts of the word, but some larger cities do have them. From what I’ve heard they can book up in advance so it may be worth looking ahead for this option.

You can also try AirBnB. Although it can be pricey, depending on the room you choose it can still be cheaper than a hotel. If you’re new to AirBnB, you can click here to get a $20 referral credit from me! 🙂

My favorite option, though, is Couchsurfing. If you’re into traveling at all, you’ve probably heard of it at some point. It’s a hospitality exchange website where people allow guests to stay at their homes for free. I hosted guests in my home for two years before giving it a shot as a guest myself, so I’ve been on both sides of the coin and can tell you I’ve had an amazing time in both roles. I have way too much to say about it to include everything in this post, so I’ll write another post about that. In the meantime, you can check out the website at www.couchsurfing.org (there’s an app, too) or read more about it online.

Me with some Couchsurfing friends in Chicago!
Me with some Couchsurfing friends in Chicago!

Anyway, with the exception of a couple relatives here and there, I stayed with Couchsurfing hosts for my entire road trip. Some of them I had hosted in the past and they were returning the favor, but many of them I had never met before, so I made many new friends! I spent a grand total of $0 on accommodation on my trip.

3. Avoid Restaurants: Buy Groceries

After accommodations, food can be one of those expenses that tanks your budget in no time, particularly if you’re going to restaurants where the food is overpriced and you have to leave a tip. A road trip is a traveling style more conducive to controlling your food costs. Pack a cooler and some cooking utensils: knife, cutting board, big bowls, even a propane stove. You can whip up some easy meals at rest area picnic tables.

I hardly ever had to do that, though, because many of my Couchsurfing hosts graciously let me use their kitchens to cook my own meals. (Be a good guest: Always eat your own food unless they offer to cook for you, and if you’re going to cook, share your food with your hosts!). I loved cooking for my hosts, and since I try to eat vegan, I was happier cooking than picking around restaurant food, anyway.

That time I cooked a huge meal for my hosts in Boston!
That time I cooked a huge meal for my hosts in Boston!

These methods should keep your budget roughly to what it would be if you were buying groceries at home, and if you’re frugal, you can probably cut it down even lower than that.

A tip for buying groceries on the road:

“Sign up” for a shopper’s card wherever they have them. For example, I live out west where we all have Safeway grocery stores, but on my road trip in the east I kept seeing Krogers stores. You have to have the shoppers card (a loyalty card, not a credit card) to get their lower prices. I just asked for one at the register and they gave me the plastic card and a postcard registration to ‘fill out and bring back next time.’ I never filled out the registrations but was able to keep using the card. You can do this at literally all the stores with no problems.

 

4. Maximize Your Gas Mileage & Park Like a Ninja

There are tons of resources online where you can find out all the tips and tricks for maximizing gas mileage, like this article for example. Keeping your tires inflated properly seems like negligible stuff, but hey, if you’re going 8,000 miles like I did, it can’t hurt.

I took good care of my vehicle during the trip!
I rotated my tires and got an alignment before I left!

Do make it a point to plan your route ahead of time, though, so you don’t end up driving further than you need to. Use apps like GasBuddy, which works in both the US & Canada, to find the cheapest gas (hint: it’s often the most expensive right next to the highway!). If you can, plan your trip around times when gas prices are traditionally lower. You can use a chart like this one from GasBuddy.

Match up the gas points you’re getting from grocery shopping to their fuel rewards stations. For example, if you spend $100 at Safeway and use your Safeway loyalty card, you can turn around and swipe that loyalty card at one of their participating gas stations and get 10c off per gallon next time you fill up. Pay attention to that if you’re shopping at large chain grocery stores.

An expense that seemed to come out of left field on my trip was parking. As a midwestern girl I had almost never had to pay for parking before and I nearly fainted when I discovered it can easily cost $50 to park your car in downtown Chicago for a day. Needless to say, I sharpened some parking skills toute de suite.

Your best option, of course, is to park near your Couchsurfing host’s home and take public transportation if possible, and that’s what I did in many cases. My host in Chicago let me leave my car at his place and he drove me to the train station every day to drop me off! You can also use websites such as www.bestparking.com or try a parking app to compare garages and find availability. It’s worth it to walk a little farther to save $10 or $15 on parking!

5. Spend Your Entertainment Dollars Wisely

Doing “the big things” in each city can get extremely expensive. Many museums cost $15-20 per person these days, and when you take ‘free’ walking tours, you really should still tip your guide. This is the time to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about what’s really important to you when you travel. Do you really need to see “the big thing” in every city, the same thing every other tourist does when they are there?

My answer when I asked myself these questions differed based on where I was and how I felt. When I was in St. Louis and discovered it only cost $10 to go up in the Gateway Arch, I said “Sure!” But in Boston, the Tea Party Ships & Museum cost $25 which got a big veto from me. Instead, I stayed home with my Couchsurfing hosts that day and cooked a gigantic meal, and I have better memories from that than I would have playing tourist in the Boston Harbor.

The view from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis
The view from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis

There are many other free or low-cost things you can do and still appreciate a city. I went to many beautiful parks on my trip, including one in Toronto that had broken columns, gates and statues that made me feel like I was in Narnia. Since I love reading and history, I made a game out of finding the graves of as many authors and historical figures as I could, and visited their cemeteries. I love cathedrals, so I spent a lot of time exploring those and even went to a French Mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal (I didn’t understand a word of it, but since I was raised Catholic I got the gist). Many places I walked around downtown or in historic districts and took pictures of the unique culture, architecture, and the people.

On the beach at Prince Edward Island, Canada
On the beach at Prince Edward Island, Canada

When you do want to spend money on attractions, and you will sometimes, check out the reviews on TripAdvisor and/or ask locals about it to make sure it’s worth going. See if you can book tickets online in advance as sometimes this saves a couple dollars. Check Welcome Centers when you enter new states/provinces because often they have coupon books. If you’re going to do several major things in a single city, buy a CityPASS (some cities have different names for theirs).

6. Pinch Every Penny You Can Think Of

To some extent, you have to do this on your own, since only you know what you’re spending your money on and where you can cut costs. But some things I did were:

  • I suspended Netflix while I was gone
  • For driving entertainment, I downloaded audiobooks for free on my library’s app rather than paying for Spotify or Sirius radio
  • I did go to Starbucks a lot to use the WiFi, but I learned that a regular coffee comes with milk and a pump of syrup included in the price! So I started getting a black coffee with a pump of hazelnut and a splash of soy for somewhere around $2.50 instead of the $5 my soy mocha had been setting me back. (Starbucks prices seem to vary by location, FYI.) If you’re less of a coffee addict than I am, you can always find the local library to use WiFi for free.
  • Consider suspending your cell phone service if you’re going internationally. I didn’t when I was in Canada because I didn’t think about it, but I only used WiFi while I was there. Verizon will let you suspend your phone for up to 90 days (extending your contract by the same length) so that would ease up on your expenses while traveling. You can still make phone calls through WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc. over a WiFi connection. You’ll have to check if other carriers will let you suspend your line.

 

Well, I think that pretty much covers it! Have fun out there, and remember to connect with me on social media to follow my current travels in South America!

 

 

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    1. I think it’s normal to be nervous about traveling, alone or not! Maybe start out by taking a small trip and build up to it? I haven’t experienced any situations where I felt threatened or uncomfortable, so the stress of traveling alone for me is focused on things like getting lost! When stuff like that happens I just deal with the problem in front of me (not gonna lie, there have been tears a few times, haha) and somehow always come up with a solution. It’s good for building self confidence! 🙂

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