Budget Travel Tips: How a Few Money-Saving Hacks Made the Ultimate Road Trip a Reality

By Melissa Novitski

The ultimate road trip is not a destination but a journey with limitless opportunities. Plans may unfold as you envisioned, or they’ll take on new shapes as you discover the best spots, thanks to wonderful people you meet along the way.

This kind of adventurous travel doesn’t have to break the bank, either. With a little planning and research, you can stretch your dollar across any corner of the United States. Here are some critical money-saving hacks that took me across the country and back, all while sticking to a travel budget and fulfilling a dream that exceeded my expectations.

Make a plan

While sitting around the fire over Memorial Day weekend, I looked at my cousin and half-jokingly blurted out, “We should take a road trip!” Before even hearing her response, the look of excitement on her face told me she was in. Like any grand idea, though, especially ones discussed around a campfire at 11:00 p.m., you have to let the dust settle before it becomes a reality. We knew the first steps were research and planning.

We determined that our holy grail was to see as many national parks and natural wonders as possible in one six-week venture. Since visiting parks means available spots to camp, we knew the cost of accommodations would be minimal. Immediately, we purchased an annual pass that would grant the two of us entry to every National Park in the United States.

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Choose the right vehicle for your journey 

Having just sold my car, our options were a family pickup truck or a Subaru hatchback. Factors like gas mileage, reliability, and space helped determine the optimal vehicle for our trip.

We opted to go with the pickup truck, knowing that it would accommodate our sleeping arrangements and allow us to bring more items to help sustain us while on the road. We outfitted the bed of the pickup truck with a mattress and tent we purchased online made specifically for car camping. The extra room allowed us to pack a camp set-up equipped with a portable grill, chairs, and a large cooler. That meant we would save money on dining since we could keep the cooler full of provisions purchased from groceries rather than buying meals in restaurants.

We planned our meals based on the capacity of the cooler and cooking tools available. We kept the cooler full of breakfast staples, easy lunches, and various dinners. Daily ice resupply was a must, especially for warmer destinations. The camp stove and cast-iron skillet we brought along set the stage for a wide range of gourmet camping meals.

Plan a route with purpose

For us, planning the route involved plugging in as many national parks as time would permit and crossing areas where we could stay with friends and family. From here, we mapped out our path and the time it would take to get from one place to the next.

We filled in the long driving gaps with terrible karaoke, podcasts, and snacks—lots of snacks. Using AtlasObscura.com, we found several lesser-known but exciting places to explore along each leg of our journey. And the best part? These destinations didn’t cost a cent. 

Car camp or stay with friends and family

While researching, we found out that we could stay for free on public land. This allowed us to cut down on a significant portion of our accommodation budget in between destinations.

Now, with a general sense of where each day would end, we used the app Campendium to find campsites and public land where we could park the truck and camp for free. Car camping granted us morning views not possible in the confines of a hotel room. Our four-wheel-drive helped too. Like a cat doing circles on its bed, we spent each night positioning the truck in just the right spot. Spending those extra minutes rewarded us with the joy of sleeping under the stars and early morning views of the sun painting whichever gorgeous horizon we awoke to.

We stayed with friends or family when we weren’t camping and gladly accepted home-cooked meals and the occasional visit to a local restaurant or brewery.

Leave the rest up to chance 

During the excursion from Pennsylvania to California and back, my cousin and I visited seven national parks, consumed one too many bags of baby carrots, and spent most of our money on gas. We hiked through some of the most beautiful scenery in the U.S., slept on a river bed outside of Glacier National Park for three unplanned days because of the friends we made during the trip, and hiked seven miles out of the Great Sand Dunes at 1:00 a.m. thanks to a lightning storm. Like a couple of kids, we drove across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, had an unexpected week-long stay in Lake Tahoe over the fourth of July holiday, and had the best time driving countless hours just enjoying the journey.

Living on the road for six weeks had its challenges, but we eventually eased into a routine with the truck as our home, a strict budget, and a flexible itinerary. In the days since our return, I’ve felt a constant desire to get back on the road. All the places we visited and adventures we had hardly cost us anything. While we stayed well within our budget, the trip paid off with new friends and fantastic memories that we’ll have for the rest of our lives.

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