How to Road Trip on a Budget – Part I

The road has always been there. Your whole life, there’s been a path connecting from where you are to some point — near or distant — that holds adventure.

All those places you see in pictures on our continent? Many of those can be reached by road, followed by a hike in. You don’t need anything outside of time.

Well, and money.

So how do you make the road trip affordable?

I lived off of $420 a month while living for three years on the road. This covered my car insurance (~$80/month), food, gas, and splurges every now and again — like a ready-made hot meal. You don’t know how luxurious that is when you’re on a budget.

Side note: I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so factor that in, because it’s dumb that I was out rock climbing, skiing and mountain biking without it—even though my health insurance would only cover emergency costs outside of Utah (which was pretty much all of my time).  

My above-mentioned invincible perceptions aside, in the next few posts, I’ll share how I squeezed every penny out of my dollar and ended up stepping foot in some spectacular places. I’ll go over travel and lodging, food planning, fitness, and staying clean (yes, solo travelers, you can even drive yourself crazy with lazy hygiene practices).  

And no, you don’t have to buy a van. I did all of this from a 4-door, non-hatchback Mazda 3.

But before we dig into keeping spring fresh in small quarters, let’s hit the road with some foundations. The following may be a review for veterans; for newbies, these tips are just the start of your road-tripping life. 

Save on Road-related Expenses

Road Trip Budget-Gas Savings

Download the “Gas Buddy” app

Gas is expensive. This app will help you locate the cheapest gas in a defined radius from your location. Just keep in mind that the further you have to drive to get to the cheap gas, the less you’re actually saving to get it.

“You’re welcome.” – Captain Obvious


Set your GPS to avoid tolls and ferries

Tolls can be in excess of $6 per station and ferries are an even bigger expense. My GPS system allows me to set avoidances like tolls and ferries. Bonus: it allows me to choose a gas-saving route, so I double that up with that Gas Buddy app.


Slow down, Tiger

Slower speeds generally mean better gas mileage, so stay near the speed limit. Traveling just a few miles over the limit can put a big dent in your gas mileage and you won’t get to your destination all that much faster.

Besides, speeding tickets are highly counteractive to your budget.

Save on Lodging

Road Trip Budget - Car Camping
My Mazda 3 home with makeshift kitchen — camp life in rainy Squamish, BC.

Sleep on the cheap in the wild

National park campgrounds: They’re scenic, come with some (relatively speaking) creature comforts, and cost a lot. Turn away and instead seek out national forest and BLM land. These often border national parks and have cheaper, or even free, tent sites.

Catch zzz’s for free in the city

If you’re passing through an urban setting on your road trip and have to call it a night, check out Walmart’s parking lot, a 24-hour fast food chain, a truck stop (park closer to the store to help avoid some of the shenanigans that happen in trucking stops) or a hotel parking lot. I’ve even pulled into neighborhoods for the night if they looked safe and it was late enough to not draw suspicion. But this is a last resort as many neighborhoods have patrol cars to keep dirtbags like us out.

The obvious: couch surfing

AirBnB this is not. The couchsurfing.com and bewelcome.com networks allow you to find places to stay based on location and other filters (like a host’s interests, for example), but these platforms are based on hosts providing free lodging. As a guest, please show your gratitude by cooking your host a meal and cleaning up after yourself!

Ready for more? Check out How to Road Trip on a Budget: Part II — Food

Have more suggestions on gas and lodging savings? Lemme hear ‘em on Twitter via @ginabegin.

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Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Leaving home to journey westward alone, she chased the sun to Utah. Over the years, she was consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. But exploration continued to call. After closing her bakery — which funded college courses and adventure — she stored her possessions and hit the road again, on a quest to reach the distant places of North America. For three years she lived in her little Mazda 3 and skied the backcountry of Alaska, slept under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climbed Colorado's frozen canyons and rock climbed across the continent, photographed Nova Scotia’s coves, backpacked in southern US wildernesses and munched on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But living in a car started to feel limiting, so after seeing the many glories this continent had to offer, she chose the only place fitting for an explorer to spend a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is now making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.

1 COMMENT

  1. […] I lived off of $420 a month while living for three years on the road. This covered my car insurance (~$80/month), food, gas, outdoor permits and fees, and splurges every now and again — like a ready-made hot meal. In this series, I share how I squeezed every penny out of my dollar and ended up stepping foot in some spectacular places. I’ll go over travel and lodging, food planning, and staying clean (yes, solo travelers, you can even drive yourself crazy with lazy hygiene practices).   And no, you don’t have to buy a van. I did all of this from a 4-door, non-hatchback Mazda 3. But before we dig into healthy, budget-conscious eating on the road, make sure to check out Part I of the series: Cutting back on Road-related Expenses. […]

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