How to Drive Across the Country and Not Go Broke or Crazy

DISCLAIMER: This blog post does not serve as any hours of driving lessons, no matter how long it takes you to read.  Please head to your local drivers’ ed for actual driving lessons.  If you can’t drive a car, maybe you should find a friend who can or plan something else, like a bike riding trip.

Having driven from Massachusetts to California earlier this year (I’ll write about the actual trip sometime, I promise!), I realized I learned a lot about how to save money, be safe, and just overall not fall victim to any disasters along the way.  Nomadic Matt has a great blog post specifically about saving money, and I might have some overlapping advice.  Plus, considering I have the longer drive ahead of me, I could find out that I actually know nothing and this is all terrible advice.  Fingers crossed that isn’t the case!

HOUSING

  1. Use the Couchsurfing app to save money.  If you haven’t heard of it, this app connects you to people who will open their home to you and let you sleep on their couch, air mattress, or if you luck out, a bed!  Fo free!  Beware that if you are just looking for a place to crash and keep to yourself, this is not where to find it.  People on CS are sociable and love to hear about your travels, talk about their own, and just meet new people and bond in general.
    • It might sound creepy at first, but every surfer has to leave a review about the host, so you can read all of them to calm yourself.
  2. Reach out to people you know, or people they know, around the country.  You’d be surprised how many of your friends and acquaintances will be happy to hear from you.
  3. Don’t be afraid to use different Airbnbs in the same city.  I didn’t learn this on purpose, but I stand by it.  When I was in Nashville, my friend Alora (aka freewheelinalora) and I stayed in a nice spot pretty close to downtown.  However, I was planning on continuing my road trip the morning after her flight, so I found a cheaper option about 20 minutes outside of the city that was aimed at travelers looking to break up their drive.  Not only was it cheaper, but it also got me away from the city and potential traffic the next morning.  If you don’t mind shuttling your belongings around a little, I recommend finding a no-frills room for your last night (or even couchsurfing!).
  4. Outside of cities, try to camp when possible, because it’s fun, and Couchsurfing options in rural areas ARE creepy.

FOOD

  1. Cook your own food as much as possible.  This I cannot stress enough.  So much of your road trip budget will be on food, and there is so much room to save.  Whenever I book an Airbnb, I make sure the host allows kitchen access!  If you are with a friend and on a more “vacation vibe”, remember that you can still go out without eating dinner out.  Even if you just have a light meal at home, you won’t be as hungry when you’re out and won’t need to order as much food.  Or buy oatmeal or bagels and eat breakfast there before you head out!
    • If your friend is a bigger spender and you feel weird about talking about money, suggest wanting to cook a meal in because you miss your typical meals or are getting sick of the heaviness of restaurant food.
    • If you have a copilot, make a plan to cook your food a certain number of times per week or per destination.  (However, you should definitely have a conversation about budgeting and finances with your road trip partner, and communicate about it openly to avoid tension.)
    • This point supports my advice to use Couchsurfing, because often hosts will love a home-cooked meal as a thank you for letting you stay.  Hotels don’t have that!
  2. Along that same vein, order inexpensive meals/drinks when you go out.  Cocktails are pretty much the same wherever you go, but trying local beers can be exciting while also saving you a few dollars.
  3. Don’t eat fast food.  Actually, you can really only learn this for yourself.  Every once in a while, especially at the beginning, you’ll be really excited about all the junk food at your fingertips.  However, after eating comes more sitting in the car, and you will feel gross.  Get it out of your system when you feel you need to, or reserve it for emergencies (low food supply).  I recommend buying pre-made salads at grocery stores, but be careful to not OD on chicken caesar like I did.  Since I’ll be on the road for longer this time, I hope to come away with more of a strategy on how to keep produce around while on the road.
  4. My advice sounds like I’m telling you to be miserable and not have fun, but it’s mostly out of concern for your budget and stomach.  Obviously try local favorites and live it up!
  5. Bring a gallon of water (or a few) so you don’t die.

THE DRIVE

  1. Before you leave home, go to your auto repair place and get your car looked at.  Get an understanding of how much different services cost.  It’s important to get this information from someone you trust, like the place you go back home or a family member or friend, so you know if someone is trying to take advantage of you if you have to get something fixed on the road.
  2. That being said, remember that your mechanic’s job is to sell jobs and make business, so he/she will likely suggest a few different jobs to do.  However, if you aren’t sure, keep in mind that if something happens on the road, you will NEED to get it fixed, i.e. once it’s broken, you will not have the opportunity to say no the price (within bargaining reason).  Plus, if you don’t do what your mechanic suggests, any time you hear a weird sound or smell something, you will be haunted by the job you didn’t get done to your car and convince yourself that your car is going to break down right there in the middle of nowhere.
  3. Don’t make every day a long driving day.  It can be miserable to feel like you’re running behind schedule (for check-in times at campsites or Airbnbs) and you can’t stop spontaneously to look around or move your body.
  4. Download a bunch of audiobooks.  If your library at home has a way for you to do it online, like through Overdrive, it’s the best!  Just make sure you test out the narrator’s voice beforehand, because a voice you don’t like can make you not want to listen to the book (my sister’s advice).  That happened to me twice.
  5. You will think this is a great opportunity to finally listen to Radiohead’s entire discography, but you will not do that, so make sure you download music you will be able to scream-sing every word to, because you will do that for hours.  And hours.

MISCELLANEOUS

  1. When going out, I follow my brother’s rule of always walking or taking public transport to the destination, no matter how annoying it is.  Then on the way home, get a Lyft, but not an Uber because remember they have some sort of connection with Trump.  (I need to look into that more.)
    • This is also a general life tip.
  2. Talk to the people around you.  Literally everyone will think it’s cool that you’re doing a cross country road trip (and if you’re a girl going solo, like I am, then people will think you’re insanely brave, which I can’t tell if I like or not).  Lean into it and talk about yourself, because YOLO, but also listen to their stories, because you can learn a lot, meeting new people is fun, and you’ve probably been thinking about nothing other than this road trip for a while now and you’d like to think about something else.
    • This is also a general life tip.
  3. Every once in a while, just… clean the car.
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