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5 tips for planning a Road Trip on a Shoestring Budget

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

I'd say we probably have something in common. We both want to maximize the amount of fun we can have while simultaneously minimizing the cost of our adventure. For those of you like me (broke), the idea of being able to still travel on a shoestring budget is not only attractive, sometimes it's the only way we can make it happen! In the Fall/Winter of 2018, I was able to travel about 13,000 miles across America. While the lessons learned on this adventure were innumerable, one of the greatest things we learned to do was stretch our dollar to make every cent count. I'll be drawing on that experience heavily here!

I want to preface this conversation by mentioning I haven't always been the most.... frugal with my money. Being fully transparent, when faced with the opportunity to put $50 in my savings or buy my friends a round of drinks at the bar, I've usually drifted towards the latter. These suggestions below will help you cut costs in other places on your adventure, so you don't have to cut out the post-adventure beer!

(There are a few links to products in this article, some of which are Amazon Affiliate links that I make a small commission on. If you're ready to buy it, consider buying right from these links!)

1. Dumpster Dive

The name of the game for traveling inexpensively is to exist outside of your comfort zone. For most of us, jumping into a dumpster is probably somewhere within the area of initial discomfort. First and foremost, you'll have to get over the negative connotations associated with the realm of dumpster diving. The most prevalent objection I hear to dumpster diving is how gross it is to be inside of a dumpster. As someone who's found himself knee-deep in rotten pumpkins, you wouldn't be totally wrong about that. I also want to say that I cannot guarantee that you won't eat something that'll make you sick. There is a unique risk/reward factor in gathering food from dumpsters, so dive at your own risk!

The key to success is knowing which dumpsters to go for! If you visit the right dumpsters, what you'll find is the best produce you've ever eaten in your entire life! Some of the best fruit I've ever had has been pulled from the dumpster. We saved hundreds of dollars on our trip by stopping at lucrative dumpsters and taking just a few minutes to fill up our food bin. We also were able to keep a healthy diet, since a majority of the food we were scooping up was fresh fruit and vegetables! If you're wondering where to check out, here are some ideas:

  • Grocery stores- May have a lot of produce and bakery items but everything will be tossed in together. Some stores close around 8-9 PM, so your risk of being bothered can be mitigated.

  • Sporting/Supplement shops- Supplements and other meal replacements might be your reward!

  • Certain fast-food chains- Many of these aren't actually worth your time, but certain chains will be. Think, if you needed some free bread, who might have that?

Minus the almond milk and protein powder, all of these items came from a dumpster. Including the blender!

Before you hop in a dumpster, always look up local laws related to dumpster diving! There was a 1998 Supreme Court Case that technically makes it legal, but locks and no trespassing signs can make it a different story. Follow this link to get a good idea of what rules you should be aware of and save that money!

2. Utilize Free Lodging

Lodging can be perhaps one of the most costly aspects of planning your road trip. I can tell you right now that if you are looking for a posh place to lay your head down every night, you're reading the wrong article. Not every night is going to be 5-star comfortable and you'll have to be fairly flexible as you go. With this being said, there were only a few times where I didn't sleep well during our nearly 3 months on the road and these instances were probably at the fault of our planning. Two of the greatest resources we had while traveling were and We also used a few times too!

A free campsite only a few miles outside of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon!

More often than naught, we picked the place we were going to sleep just a few hours before arriving there. Since we loved the flexibility in our schedule, this allowed us to be extremely mobile and to visit all the places we really wanted to see. It also meant that some nights were spent in the seats of the Jeep while inconspicuously sleeping in the parking lots of Walmarts, hospitals, and other places that allow overnight visitors (or didn't necessarily say they didn't allow them...).

If you're going to end up sleeping in your car a few times on your trip, I'd recommend having windshield/window covers, a good sleeping bag, and all your toiletries readily available in the car. Walmart doesn't mind if you brush your teeth in their bathrooms and many gyms offer a free/discounted day pass if you find yourself in dire need of a shower. By utilizing free/cheap lodging options, you'll be able to spend more money on experiences and flights of beer as you go!

3. Visit Friends and Family

Make part of your traveling purpose to see those who matter most to you! There are so many benefits to traveling to see your friends and family. They are the greatest people in your universe! I'm sure it's been too long since you've seen someone near to your heart. From my time as a football player in high school and college and then working seasonal jobs for several years, I've made a lot of great friends that are now spread out across the United States and elsewhere.

These relationships helped us plan where we wanted to travel during our adventures! During our road trip, we were fortunate enough to stay and play with so many great people that we hadn't seen in a long time. For some of them, it had been several years! Many offered a place to stay and even a hot meal or two! I could go on for hours talking about the generosity of friends and family that we experienced just on that road trip. For those of you who helped us along the way, I'm forever grateful.

Use an adventure as an excuse to see your people and share some experiences with them along the way. Even if you didn't save any money by crashing with your buddies, this advice is so good for the soul I'd include it no matter what! Feed what makes you joyous and surround yourself with the relationships that make you the best person you can be.

Now here is the stipulation of this idea. Remember the generosity shown to you during your adventure and RETURN IT! Let your home be a safe-haven for friends and family who are looking to do some budget traveling of their own. Invite people into your home and cook them dinner. There is nothing like the joy of being surrounded by the ones you love.

4. Be ready to do it yourself

Depending on the duration of your travel, you're going to end up in situations that you didn't totally expect. This could be as minor as struggling to locate your car keys to having your trailer blow a major suspension component on a no-name highway in the middle of the desert in Boron, California.

While both of those things happened to us on this 2018 road trip, I bet you can guess which one slowed us down the most! Thankfully, we were as prepared as we could be for mechanical difficulties! With a little elbow grease, a run-in with a very kind local stoner named Terry, we were able to piece things back together after about 32 hours of delay. Over the course of three months, we faced obstacles like blown trailer tires, soggy hiking boots, and seized axle bearings. I'd say that the next greatest thing to being physically prepared for an unexpected incident is being mentally equipped to handle the struggle ahead of you. Very few situations have ever been made better by staying angry! Take a few minutes to be mad about it if you need, then take a few big breaths and start thinking forward. That will make all the difference in the world!

Making time for a little humor after a trailer tire blowout in Texas

To be ready to do it yourself, carry around the basics of a tool kit (I'd recommend both a general tool kit and also a set of sockets), remote battery pack to jump your vehicle, blankets, tire changing tools, and whatever else you deem necessary for an "oh shit" moment of your own (shoe goo, duct tape, and WD-40 are always good options to add to your kit). By being prepared to handle things yourself, you'll save the money you'd need to pay to have someone else do it. For our trailer incident, the average quote for repair was $1200-$1600. After our repair, we snuck out of that problem for about $200, including the gas money it took to find our replacement part. Luck is all about when preparation meets opportunity, right?

5. Get thrifty!

A favorite pastime of the dirtbag, make sure to visit the local thrift stores in your town or on the road as you go! Buying something second hand is going to cut down on the cost dramatically, and you really never know what you're going to find! There is a certain joy that comes with finding an underpriced treasure. This is a great way to find essentials for your trips as well!

Lunch in the Barnes and Noble parking lot after using some free wifi

You'll likely need some cookware and other necessities for your adventure. If you're pressed for cash, check out the thrift store instead! The same goes for bins used to store gear, field guides, books to read in your free time, footwear, and more. I've even scored a never before worn drysuit for kayaking at a Goodwill for 1/8th the original price! You never really know what you'll find and I promise you that you'll end up saving tons of money at the same time!

While there are a ton of ways to save money on your next road trip, here are 5 of my favorites! Let them be a guide in how you plan your next shoe-string budget adventure! In a time where social distance is creating new rules on how we can safely interact with each other, a road trip to see the world is always a great plan. As always, I hope you enjoyed my ramblings. If you think this is helpful, please pass it on to someone else! That's how we grow our little community.

Adventure comes to those who GO!

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