How We Saved $1,280 on a 10-Day Road Trip
Taking road trips can get pretty expensive, especially if you live on one side of the country and travel to the other to start your trip. Flights, rental cars, hotels, food, and everything else that's involved adds up quick. Because of where we live many of our road trips involve flying, renting a vehicle, and bouncing around from place to place hiking, backpacking, climbing, etc. There are plenty of ways to cut costs on road trips, some easy and others that require a bit more commitment. If you're willing to immerse yourself in the outdoors you can save a bunch of cash and below are a few ways to do just that.
Camp on Bureau of Land Management or USFS Lands
Land operated by the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service offers free dispersed camping, which is one of the best ways to save. The Bureau of Land Management's interactive map is horrible to use, so head over to freeroam.app, select the layers icon in the top right corner, filter by BLM Land and USFS, and you'll find all the established campsites to choose from. Orange are free, green require a fee. Keep in mind that these are only the established sites. You're free to disperse camp virtually anywhere on Bureau of Land Management and USFS lands. Any questions on campfires, length of stay restrictions, etc. contact the local or regional Bureau of Management or USFS field office.
An America The Beautiful park pass is likely one of the best investments you can make if you're planning on visiting multiple national parks, monuments, or any other land managed by the National Park Service and US Fish & Wildlife Service. Purchase one from REI or the USGS and all of your entrance fees are covered for 12 months beginning from the first time you use it, not from when purchased. Military veterans and those currently serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members are entitled to a free lifetime pass.
Flying is often one of the largest expenses of a road trip, but there are a few ways to cut corners. You can always apply for an airline credit card and get a statement credit when you apply and book your flight. With rising transportation costs this one can shave off a few hundred bucks right off the bat and even though it's a one time savings it's something. Be sure to check your current credit card rewards programs to see what they offer in terms of points for booking flights and vehicles, gas and dining perks, etc. Points equal dollars.
Vehicle rentals aren't cheap, but you're not going anywhere without one if you're flying. If you're not familiar with the car sharing company Turo give it a look. You're basically renting other people's vehicles and it's often cheaper than what the major companies like Enterprise, Hertz, Dollar, etc. charge. It's not always the case, but we've had success several times. Most owners will deliver the vehicle to you at the airport.
If you do go through a traditional car rental place don't get conned into a toll transponder. Rental agencies charge a per day fee for the transponder and you still have to pay the actual toll charges when you return your vehicle. The only time these can be helpful is when you pass through the rare unstaffed cashless toll. In that case, if you don't have a transponder the rental car agency will pass along the fee plus a bogus administrative fee. Either way you shake it you're never going to get your money's worth.
The GasBuddy app is a no-brainer. Check out what gas station nearest you has the cheapest gas or search an area that you'll be passing through a few hundred miles away to find out where to stop. Works great on longer road trips. If you don't want to download another app to your phone keep in mind that highway exit gas stations tend to charge north of 10% more than gas stations in town. $4/gallon versus $4.40/gallon on a 15 gallon tank earns you a cheap sixer. Google Maps also displays the cost of gas at stations along your route, but is less reliable than GasBuddy.
Food & Drink
If you're on a short trip the cost of food might not be that big of a deal, but if you road trip for weeks like we often do it can be a huge expense. If your trip involves flying, pack a soft shell cooler bag that collapses easily and you have a temporary mini fridge. Stop every few days to re-up on groceries and a new bag of ice and you're saving. Instead of buying bottles of condiments like ketchup, mustard, the devil's creation aka mayo, and other condiments which you'll likely not fully use, collect condiment packages throughout the year and take with you. Or, gas stations that serve days old hot dogs typically have them readily available to snag. Maybe it's penny pinching, but if you travel often it adds up. If you're worried about food getting waterlogged in the cooler, pack a few food storage containers like a Rubbermaid in your luggage to keep it all dry. They take up little room if you fill them with socks and other small items when packing.
We tend to eat from the cooler during the day and cook backpacker food in the evening at camp. The average backpacker meal right now costs roughly $12, typically quite a bit cheaper than most meals from a non-fast food restaurant. Gastro Gnome, Backpacker's Pantry, and Mountain House make some pretty tasty pouches. Hot dogs around a campfire is also a pretty damn cheap option as well. Extendable marshmallow roasting sticks pack easy and light.
We're fairly big coffee drinkers and have learned to live with instant coffee. It's cheap, takes up little space, and saves from scrambling around in the morning for a place to grab a cup. Just fire up your camp stove and you have free coffee. If you're on the road most decent gas stations have a hot water tap at their coffee station, so take your own cup in, snag some hot water, and you're off. 4 oz. of Maxwell House instant coffee is about $2.50 and yields almost 60 cups. With the average cup of coffee at $2.50 right now you can rack up a pretty decent savings with instant, especially if you guzzle it like we do.
Pack reusable water bottles like Nalgenes and pickup gallons of water which yield less trash than bottled water. It's not going to save you a ton of money, but those empty jugs come in handy for other things along the way. If you're a guy or tremendously talented gal you can always use the empties as a mobile bathroom while driving. You can also cut the bottom off an empty jug and throw your headlamp under it as a light diffuser at night in your tent. If you're using a Shower Toga as a mobile shower you'll also want a jug to use when showering.
Showering & Laundry
We've used a Shower Toga on our road trips for years and are big fans. With just a jug of water and a little soap you can clean up just about anywhere. We've showered with one at gas stations, parking lots, at camp, and even the side of the highway. Super easy, super cheap, and just enough birthday suit cover. Showering at truck stops is an option but they average about $15 and that adds up. Of course you could just hop in a river or stream and rinse the funk off your body naturally, but there's not always one around.
As a way to cut costs and stay in the outdoors we prefer avoiding hotels and Airbnbs, but sometimes that's all you have. In those cases laundry is usually included, but if you're sticking to the great outdoors you have a couple options. Scrubba is a bit of a game changer when it comes to laundry on the go. It's basically a dry bag with a washboard inside. Add clothes, water, and a little soap, scrub and hang to dry. No need for a laundromat.
Or, if you're hauling around a bear canister you could always throw in your funky undies and socks, add soap and water, slosh around then hang to dry. Dr Bronner's pure castile soap comes in travel sizes and works great in either situation. Remember your plicord for a clothesline.
How We Saved $1,280 on a 10-Day Road Trip
Here's how we saved a boat load on a road trip through Southern Utah recently. The savings we received on this one ended up paying for an eight day road trip through Arizona a few months later.
Average cost for a campsite per night = $28 x 10 days = $280
Camping on Bureau of Land Management Land = $0
Park Fees ($45 + $545 in additional savings throughout the year)
Entrance fees for Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park = $125
America The Beautiful Pass = $80
Ford F-150 rental with Alamo = $97/day x 10 days = $970
Ford F-150 rental with Turo = $61/day x 10 days = $610
Food & Drink ($595)
Conservative cost per meal dining out = $20 x 2 meals per day x 2 people x 10 days = $800
Groceries and backpacker food for 9 days + dining out for two meals = $300
Average cost for a cup of coffee = $2.50 x 2 cups per day x 2 people x 10 days = $100
8 oz Maxwell House Original Roast Instant Coffee = $5
If you have other effective ways of saving a few bucks let us know in the comments below. Have a blast and make a ton of memories on your next adventure!