I’m writing from the passenger seat of a Subaru Forester from somewhere in Alabama.
I’m on a road trip from Massachusetts to Southern Utah, up to Western Montana and back via the Great Lakes region that should take about two months to complete. This trip has been a pipe dream for seven years but up until a month ago, I was wondering how I was going to pull it off.
There was so much to anticipate and pack for. I knew we needed to pack a tent, sleeping bags, and clothing for three seasons but what if we got sick? I packed a medicine bag. How would we cook? We packed cookware, cleaning supplies and a spice bag. What would we do for fun at camp sites? We packed books to read aloud plus card games and a chess board. Where did all this end up? My kitchen floor. Between the front door and the back door creating a narrow pathway much like the ones we shovel out after a snowstorm from the front door to the car.
Now would be a good time for me to mention that I grew up in a hoarder’s house so as an adult, so clutter in my living space triggers some serious PTSD. My biggest pet peeve is having to move something not kitchen related to get to something I came to the kitchen for. Yet, for the month leading up to my 2-month cross-country road trip, I allowed my kitchen floor to become a loading dock with everything we might possibly need sprawled across the linoleum.
Each time I walked the path, I wondered how it was all going to fit. How would I avoid being triggered by a cluttered car? Should I start minimizing now? No, I decided. I didn’t want to forget anything we might possibly need or want. Why? Because we were on a budget and having done many road trips in the past, I knew the temptations of the road all too well. It’s a coffee here, a burger there, and next thing you know you’ve maxed out your trip budget and you’re only a week and a half into your trip! There would be not option but to stick to the budget.
Budgeting is tedious whether you’re at home or on a road trip, but it is especially hard when you’re out of your comfort zone like you are when you’re on a road trip. You can’t avoid paying for gas, but you can minimize spending on creature comforts for those long stretches of lonely interstate driving that overpriced gas stations and fast food restaurants know are bound to make a person purchase food and sweets for a little bit of comfort.
To succeed at keeping costs low on my trip, I created systems to make living out of a small space efficient and as comfortable as possible, so I wasn’t tempted to buy unnecessary things at rest stops and gas stations. Since your vehicle becomes your home away from home, you have to create compact routines and treats that will replace the feeling of temporary relief you get from buying unnecessary stuff when you stop for gas or to pee.
From making our own coffee to creating a space to write or study in the car, my travel tips are for average travelers who love to have adventures but need to stick to a budget. I’ve also included budget-friendly tips for keeping your mind stimulated to help stave off the boredom that can lead to budget-breaking bad habits.
Here are my top travel hacks for road-tripping:
- Get a Lap-desk for writing
This is a must have for creative road trippers. It is my number one hack that I recently instituted in my road travels. As a writer, having the ability to set up your laptop on a flat surface with room for a mouse, phone (and even a cup of tea) has completely changed the game for me. It puts you in the creative headspace necessary to get work done on the road, despite lots of visual distractions passing outside your window. Better than your lap, it’s easier to type, journal and take notes about your impressions from the roads.
Bonus: It doubles as a craft table if you’re scrap-booking, sewing or knitting while on the road. It even functions as a table for preparing quick meals and snacks for you and your driver.
- BYO Caffeine
Make your own coffee and tea with free hot water from gas stations. No, it’s not stealing, because you’re usually there to buy gasoline anyway. Caffeine, like gasoline, is also an unavoidable necessity. However, all those miles + cups of bad gas station coffee at $2 a cup can put you over your budget fast. Solution? Gas stations sell hot coffee, which means you can also get hot water for free if you bring your own thermal cup and go confidently and swiftyly in the direction of the coffee pots. Pack your favorite teas and a steeper and make yourself an afternoon cup of tea from the car outside. Pack your favorite local ground coffee beans from home and get a melitta for $5. Bring some creamer pods and sweetener along, available for a buck at any Dollar Tree and you have yourself a fancy cup of freshly brewed coffee or tea that’s better than what’s available at any roadside stop.
Bonus: It will remind you of home and comfort your weary soul. 😉
- Get a Sterilite shelf for organizing snacks and activities
You will find on a long road trip that there are lots of miscellaneous things that can easily clutter a small space. Get a Sterilite 3-Wide Drawer Cart that college freshman often use to store things under their bunk beds. Take the wheels off and trap it to the seat with the seatbelt to secure it. They work great for organizing eating utensils, books and games, and easy-access snacks!
Bonus: It fits perfectly in the backseat so it’s easy for the passenger to reach.
- Get a seal-tight plastic storage container
You’ll likely be camping or picnicking at times on your trip and you’ll need to prepare a meal. This can be tricky to pull off if your cold food storage isn’t stellar. Nonperishable foods such as cans of tuna or chicken make hearty sandwiches packed with protein to keep you fuller longer, so you’re not tempted to hit up those drive-throughs. Meal prep for these types of meals is pretty simple and mess free if you use a seal-tight plastic storage container such as Debbie Meyer Greenboxes. You can shake to distribute ingredients right inside the container.
Bonus: It also acts as a mess-free dishwasher! When you’ve finished your meal, place your utensils into the container and add a few drops of dish soap and water. (You should be traveling with a 3-5 gallon vessel especially if visiting the desert). Secure the top and shake vigorously for a minute. Empty the liquid and use a sponge to wipe any residue and dry with a dishrag. Voila! Mixing bowl and dishwasher in one.
- Get audiobooks for free with Libby app
If you’re a reader and a budgeter, the Libby app is a M-U-S-T. This is Overdrive’s new app, available for free in the Google Play Store or App Store. You’ll need an active library card to fire up the app but with your local library membership you have access to tens of thousands of audiobooks for F-R-E-E! You can request up to 9 books to wait for and borrow up to 7 at one time. The one caveat is that unlike Audible, you don’t buy the book, so if there aren’t enough copies to go around, you will have to wait for it. For that reason, try to request multiple books at one time so that you always have something queued up to read. E-books are also available if you prefer to read the book digitally. There’s less of a wait for these but unless you’re the passenger, you can’t read and drive at the same time, obviously. There’s nothing like listening to a good book or learning something new to pass the time on unremarkable interstate roads between destinations. When the 14-day rental period is over, the book will be returned automatically (whether you’re finished with it or not).
Bonus: Download your books onto your phone when you have Wi-Fi so you can listen to your books even on stretches of road with no service. Do this with your favorite podcast episodes too so you can learn about new topics or study that language you’ve been meaning to learn!
- Get a Power Inverter
If you plan on writing or doing any work on your laptop in the car, have you given much thought to how you’re supposed to charge your computer? You’ll need a Power Inverter. Under $30 these devices are digital lifesavers for long road trips. They plug into the cigarette lighter to generate power. Plug your wall charger into it and your computer will charge as usual. With a full battery, you can finish up whatever you were working on at your campsite, regardless of whether there are electrical hookups or not!
Bonus: They have a USB port so you can charge your phone and other devices, too.
- Buy the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass for National Parks and Forests
For $80 you can get into any National Park or Forest without paying the extra fee. If that sounds like a lot, consider this: each National Park costs about $30 just to enter the park, not including camping sites. So if you plan on visiting more than 4 parks on your trip, or within the year, it pretty much pays for itself. I personally make it a point to visit 3 parks a year at minimum so to me this pass is a no brainer.
Bonus: You can camp in Federal Recreational Lands across the country for $2.50 for the night with this pass! How’s that for budget traveling?
Getting excited? Good. Go ahead, call that friend you always talked about taking a road trip with and have a serious chat about making it happen the next time you find yourselves between jobs or in a major life transition.
Seeing your country is something you can do at any age, as long as you have access to a reliable vehicle. With a little time, money and these 7 travel hacks, you can make a once-in-a-lifetime trip affordable and comfortable so you can focus on taking in the road, the cities, the desert prairies and coasts to make memories that will stick with you all of your life.
Follow my road trip adventures on Instagram @thetypeabohemian
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