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The ability to take a cheap cross country road trip seems nearly impossible, especially with the price of gas these days. Budget travel is always a challenge, and taking a drive across the country can’t be realistic, can it? The cost of gas, food, lodging, souvenirs, maintenance, and other unexpected expenses can destroy even the heaviest wallet…
I’m going to own up to the slight deception in the title of this blog. No, I did not complete a cross country road trip for a grand total of less than $100 – that truly is impossible. Even with a hybrid vehicle in the car, the cost of gas would push the price over $100 pretty quickly.
So what did I mean by leading you on?
What we WERE able to do was to drive cross country for less than $100 in accommodations expenses…. In other words, we spent less than $100 – for both Dirk and I – to lay our heads down every night on our cross country road trip.
We spent exactly $86 for nine nights of lodging.
The cost of gas, supplies, and souvenirs was about $300-400 each. We cooked almost all of our breakfasts and dinners. So other than what we spent on lunches, our food didn’t cost any more than what we would’ve spent at home. Our flights out west to start the trip were about $200 each. The car was already waiting in Reno for our arrival. And this does not include the expense of other supplies that we already owned that made the journey possible. So, that still begs the question…
How to take a cheap Cross Country Road Trip
The answer is simple – so simple it almost defies logic. But first, a bit of background about this trip. Way back in 2017, Dirk and I were in the midst of planning a cross country road trip in a 1955 Porsche 356 Speedster he was building. As detailed in the Astrophotography blog linked above, we discovered a last-minute engine failure that prevented us from taking that trip. No matter; we adapted on the fly and ended up taking a wild camping adventure of a lifetime.
However, the yearning to drive cross country in an antique Porsche did not abate easily. While I was taking a European road trip with my wife and daughter in July 2018, Dirk and another friend were finally scratching the itch, driving a 1969 Porsche 911 to the California coastline. The Speedster, in spite of an engine swap Dirk and I completed, was still not cooperating. After 16 days and 4,500 miles, they stored the car in Reno and flew home for winter.
In late May of 2019, it was my turn. Dirk flew to Reno a couple days before me to address a few minor maintenance issues on the 911. I flew out on Thursday evening, arriving in time for a late dinner and drinks together. We embarked mid-morning on Friday, after a hearty brunch and last minute supply run. Nine nights and 3,200 miles later, we arrived back in Pittsburgh, a bit road weary but only slightly lighter in the wallet.
Free Camping our way cross country
As I said before – the answer to how we accomplished this is really simple. We camped eight out of the nine nights we spent driving cross country. Five of the eight nights that we camped were completely free. Three of the campgrounds charged small fees – $10 per night. The one night that we did stay in a hotel, it cost us $56, including taxes.
- How to Find Free Campsites
- How to Find Cheap Campsites
- How to Find Cheap Hotels
- How to Find Excellent Wild Campsites
How to find cheap places to stay while on a road trip
The key to a low cost cross country road trip is the ability to find free campsites. It may be hard to believe, but this is actually fairly easy to do. With the advent of technology and the wide variety of smart phone apps, there are lots of great resources immediately available for finding all sorts of free campsites. Or, as was the case for Dirk and I, an adventurous spirit, a little bit of courage, and Google maps is often all that’s needed.
Wild camping is one option for free camping. Wild camping means pitching your tent directly in the wilderness, away from organized and dedicated campgrounds. Though wild camping is actually not that different from “regular” camping, I don’t recommend it for camping novices. As such, I’ll come back around to it as an option.
First, I’m going to discuss how we found the free sites that were still in organized (or semi-organized) campsites. I will also discuss finding low cost campgrounds, and as a last resort, cheap (but still comfortable) hotel rooms. That was our basic order of operations – try to find wild sites first, then free organized sites, low cost sites, and if needed, a hotel room.
How to find free campsites
There are now quite a few tools readily at your disposal to find free campsites on your cross country road trip. Unlike even 10-20 years ago, virtually all of us now have an incredibly powerful resource right in our pocket: A smart phone like an iPhone or Android. With a couple excellent apps, a good map app, and a little bit of navigational skill, you’ll be on your way in no time!
First and foremost, one of the most important parts of finding excellent campsites is to surround yourself with natural beauty. The closer you are to jaw-dropping natural vistas, the better your overall experience will be. Another key feature is to always seek out campsites that are close to flowing water – rivers, creeks, streams, etc. In addition to being a visually pleasing backdrop, flowing water provides a substantial noise barrier. If you’re going to have neighbors, or be close to a town, busy road, etc … the sound of rushing water eliminates most (if not all) man-made noises.
Free camping, as I alluded to earlier, is much easier out west. Not nearly as much of the western countryside is privately owned and developed, and there seems to be an abundance of state and national lands – parks, forests, monuments, and un-categorized Bureau of Land Management property. Virtually all space on government owned property – with the obvious exception of National Parks – is free for everyone to use.
The first thing that we always look for is the green areas on Google Maps. This is how Google designates state and national parks, forests, and other federal land. These parks often have a number of camping options available, and some even offer dispersed and wild camping (more on that below).
If that doesn’t work, or there isn’t an appealing option available, we’ll start using our apps. We were almost always searching midday, while already out on the road. It was very rare that we would have our overnight accommodations sorted out before we started driving. As such, we relied heavily on a couple apps on our phones – and also on having good cell service!
I’ll go through the phone apps that we found useful, starting with the map apps, since that’s actually what we used the most. We each had our personal preferences for which apps we liked best, but in general, the following apps were incredibly helpful in making our cross country camping trip successful.
Useful apps for a cross country road trip
- Google Maps: My personal choice for both research and navigation, Google Maps has very rarely failed to help me find awesome places to camp. This was especially critical as we made our way east from the Mississippi River, where Bureau of Land Management and other federal lands – a great option for finding free camping – become more scarce. What to look for: because it’s tied directly to Google Search, the Maps app is an excellent option to just plug in simple search terms: “free campsites near XYZ town” etc. Google Maps will bring up a number of options, often ranked by rating (best to worst), and provides you with a number of additional details. Scroll through until you find the best fit for your needs.
- Waze: Dirk’s choice for navigation was an excellent tool that we used for much of the trip. In addition to providing detailed directions and maps, Waze allows users to report up to the moment road conditions of various types. Waze offers traffic information, accidents, road hazards (debris on the road, etc), police and speed traps, etc. What to look for: We did not use Waze for research purposes, as Google Maps was a far better option. But once we found a good campsite on Google Maps, we would punch it into Waze for navigation.
- The Dyrt: Of the phone apps dedicated to finding free campsites, The Dyrt was the best of the several options I tried out. Similar in style and appearance to Google Maps, the app allows users to either scroll around the map to select from options nearby, or to type in a location in the search bar at the top of the screen. With filters, rating information, and several other very useful features, The Dyrt was an quite helpful when we needed to find free camping. What to look for: Because The Dyrt allows you to filter sites based upon a variety of factors, I’d recommend searching ahead of time for the features (and location) you like the most and go from there. In our case, we filtered by “tent sites” “dispersed (larger distances between sites)” “drive-in” and “fires allowed (so we could cook)” … and would often find a plethora of good options.
- Dark Sky weather app: We used Dark Sky for our weather forecasting – a crucial part of any camping trip…. Especially on a road trip where we had very limited storage space in the car. Though the app costs about $4 to download, it’s worth every penny. The forecasts are highly detailed, providing hourly forecasts for precipitation, rate of precipitation, temperature, “feels like” temps, humidity, cloud cover, and several others. Most importantly, we found the forecasts to be remarkably accurate – again, a must when you’re sleeping outdoors while driving cross country!
There’s also one very old-fashioned way to find free campsites that we utilized on our road trip:
We found our campsite at Dismal Falls in Virginia by talking to a local at a nearby gas station. He gave us highly detailed directions from the gas station directly to the best spot to camp near the Falls.
I’ll give you an insider tip on how to pick who to ask: choose someone (if possible) who looks like they’ve done their fair share of camping in the wilderness. I got really lucky in this regard – the gentleman in question had set up shop in the gas station (which was also a general store) parking lot to sell antiques. Dressed in overalls and a straw hat with a deep tan and scruffy beard, he looked like exactly the kind of fella who might know a thing or two about where to camp nearby.
This fantastic creekside campsite was shared with us by
the friendly local described above
If you can help it, don’t simply chat up the bored-looking teenager running the register – they likely don’t feel inclined to help you, even if they do know a good spot. You have to seek out a friendly and knowledgeable source of information.
How to find cheap campsites
Finding cheap campsites on a road trip is, in principle, a very similar process to finding free ones. You will take a lot of the same steps, and perform a lot of the same searches. One of the biggest differences comes in comparing prices online – be it on a campground’s website, Google reviews, or even by calling and asking.
But there’s definitely a certain finesse that’s required, as balancing between the cost of a site and the services provided is crucial. Low cost sites are always a bit risky, as you may end up in a place with run down low quality facilities, or worse, none at all. If a free site has poor (or no) facilities – it’s common that a free site offers little to no facilities – that’s a bit different. You’re not paying anything, so there’s no budget to draw from for upkeep.
With paid sites, it’s a different story. You (and everyone else) are paying not just for the ground you sleep on, but also for the services provided. They’ll typically be pretty rustic – painted cement block buildings housing simple bathrooms and showers, locking trashcans (to keep animals out), and maybe a picnic table and metal fire ring at each site. Don’t expect much more than that.
But you definitely want to take time to read through Google reviews, and pay special attention to those providing images. Are the bathrooms clean and attended to daily? Does the site only provide Porta-Johns? Are sites well maintained and orderly? Is there a person – or people – who lives on-site to attend to any needs that come up? Is firewood and other provisions available?
We had good success with finding pretty excellent low cost sites at State Parks and Forests. National Forests are also a good option. We did find one affordable private campground, but the services provided were quite mediocre. It wasn’t worth the small amount of money we paid.
Folks on road trips often look to KOA campgrounds as an option. KOA campgrounds, while typically very clean, well-organized and full of amenities, are often quite expensive. They’re an alright fallback plan, but with sites sometimes costing $50 or more and usually situated very close to the interstate (horrible road noise!), you’d be better off in a hotel room.
How to find a cheap hotel room
When all else fails, booking a cheap hotel room is often pretty easy. Truth be told, if you’re going to be spending a week or more driving cross country, you’ll likely be grateful for a night or two in a hotel. The creature comforts of sleeping in a bed under a roof, showering in a private bathroom, and having heat and air conditioning will be a nice break from camping.
In our case, we chose to stay in a cheap motel in Memphis, near the midpoint of our trip. In addition to the basic comforts above, having a room in Memphis provided us with a couple additional benefits. We wanted to go out and spend a night on the town; having a hotel room allowed us to clean up, shave, and wash off the days of being outdoors. It also meant we wouldn’t have to worry about storing our stuff somewhere while we were out. Last, it gave us a convenient and safe place to Uber to and from downtown.
If you want to spend time in a city – or multiple cities – while taking a cross country road trip, campgrounds likely will not be a viable option. There obviously are not going to be many campgrounds anywhere near a major city. You’ll easily spend half an hour or more driving to and from the city, if not more. In addition, campgrounds near big cities are often more expensive, sometimes drastically so. They typically are more crowded, noisier and have a good deal of light pollution washing out the night sky.
So… how do you find a cheap hotel room? First – don’t book directly with the hotel, at least not at first. That’s a great way to overpay for a room. Hotels very rarely offer the most competitive rates directly to consumers, which is a bit crazy but also true.
Instead, your better option is to book through a third party. As with free campsites, there are a plethora of apps available for your smart phone to help you find – and book – a cheap hotel room. Hotels will often work with these apps as a way to unload “excess” rooms that haven’t already been booked at discounted rates.
This is optimal for booking a hotel room while on a road trip. One thing that is very important when driving cross country is the ability to be flexible. As I mentioned in my very lengthy post about how to take back roads when you travel, flexibility in your planning allows you to adapt on the fly. Instead of being tied to an itinerary and scheduled stops along the way, booking less and adapting as you travel allows you the freedom to explore things you find along the way. You never know what you’re going to encounter on the open road, so being flexible is ideal.
I digress. Dirk and I have only ever booked one hotel in advance, and it was a $3 room for our night in Las Vegas (yes, you read that right: $3) that was an add-on to our flight through Spirit and the $9 Club. The apps we’ve used to book incredibly cheap rooms on our multiple road trips: Hotel Tonight and trivago. I’m sure there are others, but we’ve had incredible successes with those two. The search features are convenient, the deals are plentiful – and often mind-blowing – and we’ve never had a problem with any of our bookings.
There are also enough third party hotel booking websites to choke a horse. We did not book any of our hotels through websites on any of our road trips, but if you want to book in advance, I’ve used Hotels.com and Expedia.com on a number of other trips. And, of course, if you’re booking far enough in advance, AirBNB and VRBO.com both offer incredible and unique options for places to stay. I’ve used all of these services on a number of occasions and have never had a bad experience with any of them.
How to find excellent wild campsites
Disclaimer: Wild camping is not for everyone. It should only be attempted by experienced campers. Everyone got that? Good. I’m working on a lengthy post about how to wild camp for Living the Dream. In the interim, if you don’t know how or are not an experienced camper, just skip this section completely.
Wild camping is, by far, our preferred form of accommodations during our road trips. Dirk and I both absolutely love getting as far away from civilization as we possibly can, pitching our tent, and cooking over a campfire. There’s something incredible about the experience of being so deeply immersed in nature. The sights and sounds are life-changing. I’m completely addicted to it, I’ll be the first to admit.
Our incredibly serene wild camp in Gila National Forest, New Mexico
Finding wild campsites is not as hard as it may seem. In truth, they aren’t fully wild, because in every place we’ve been, it’s clear that we’re not the first people to have camped there. The sites are totally desolate – there isn’t another soul for miles. But they are established enough that we aren’t creating new sites nor negatively impacting the ecosystem.
There are a ton of places to wild camp out west – especially in the desert. Much of the property is owned and managed by the BLM … which makes most of it fair game for adventurers looking for a place to sleep.
The places we camp are easily accessible by vehicle. They rarely require 4WD, though having high clearance is certainly helpful. Not necessary, obviously, considering we camped in a couple wild sites in a Porsche 911. But still, if you want to get really isolated, ground clearance is important.
Finding a site is very simple in theory, but requires a bit of luck in reality. In all but a few cases, we did no research online. No map, no apps, no Google searches. We found almost all of our wild sites the old fashioned way – by driving around and looking for them. Sounds silly, right? But here’s the thing – it works. Once you know what to look for, it actually works really well.
The first step in the process is to keep your eyes peeled for unpaved side roads. On our road trips, we navigate on scenic byways and back roads as much as we can. Back roads are often lined with unpaved roads, tantalizingly meandering off into the wilderness. We took one on a whim during our first day of the California trip, and it caused a paradigm shift in how we travel.
Unpaved side roads often lead to a bevy of awesome campsites. They weave and wind their way between hills, along ledges, and across valleys, heading towards …. who knows where. We’ve never driven one all the way to the end, but we HAVE found most of our wild sites a couple miles back from the pavement, simply along the side of the unpaved roads. You’ll be surprised what you find when you take that first turn off-road.
We knew it was time to find a wild campsite – the sun was setting, the scenery was gorgeous, and we were approaching hills that would provide us with shelter
One thing to be aware of is to keep a sharp eye out for warning signs. If there’s a fence, a warning sign, no trespassing signs, or other indications that the land is private property – stay away. I cannot stress this strongly enough. Many people are extremely protective of their land, and are very wary of strangers on their property. It’s best to avoid any possible conflicts, especially when public lands are so readily available.
A few things to keep in mind while searching for wild campsites:
- Start searching for your site around 4PM. Yes, it means your day ends early, but you definitely do not want to be in a position where you’re looking for (or setting up) your site after dark. It also gives you time to collect rocks, firewood, and other provisions you might need while it’s still daylight … and, of course, to be able to enjoy sunset over whatever landscape you’ve discovered.
- As with finding free organized sites, surround yourself with natural beauty. There’s no point in wild camping if you don’t have something awesome to look at. Most wild sites are surrounded by beautiful landscapes, so this shouldn’t be difficult. But combine these first two steps together. As you hit the 4 o’clock hour, keep your eyes peeled for awesome vistas. When you find one, start watching for those aforementioned dirt roads. Take the one that looks like it will afford you the best view. Having flowing water nearby is nice, but not as necessary, as half the point of wild camping is to get as far away from other people as possible… so noise shouldn’t be an issue.
- Look for a flat stretch of ground that is sheltered from the wind. This is important, as you never know how the weather and temperature might change once the sun goes down. When we camped on Big Sur, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the moment the sun dipped below the horizon, a wicked wind started rushing down the mountain to the sea. It blew my camera and tripod over, and nearly took our tent away. We had to pull the truck in front of the tent and secure additional guy lines to it to ensure we didn’t blow away.
- Find a spot that has enough room. You’re going to need to park, pitch your tent, safely have a campfire, set up chairs and table (if you have one), etc etc.
- Find a spot that isn’t visible from the road. Make sure you drive far enough back on the unpaved road that you and your site – and your fire – aren’t going to be visible to everyone that drives past. If possible, you also should try to find a spot that you can pull far enough off the unpaved road that you’re not easily visible. We’ve never once had any problems with people finding or visiting our campsites, and we want to keep it that way. When you’re that isolated, you REALLY don’t want to invite trouble.
- If possible, find a spot that has plenty of rocks and natural firewood nearby. The more you can conserve the firewood you’ve brought in with you, the better. And if you don’t have to keep rocks or a fire ring in your vehicle, that’s excellent too.
- You’re going to be a significant distance from any sort of amenities, so make sure that you are well-stocked and prepared before you start looking for your site. Have plenty of food, ice, water, firewood, and TP on hand before you go off grid. Similarly, it’s a wise idea to have bandages, basic medicines, and proper tools with you in case an emergency should arise.
Our in-depth guide for where and when to wild camp for free is HERE
Our in-depth guide for wild camping gear is HERE
That’s pretty much it. If it’s a cheap cross country road trip that you’re seeking, our four step process for finding budget lodgings is a great place to start!
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