John and I had an amazing seven-week road trip across the country.  We drove 6,296 miles, passed through 19 states, stayed in and explored 11 states, and only ended up needing one oil change.  Here is a summary of some tips if you’d ever like to plan your own road trip and how we went about cutting costs on ours.

Speedometer before and after!

First off, if you are going to plan a road trip, know who you are going with.  This may seem pretty straight-forward, but now having completed the road trip, I know there is no other person on earth (no matter how much I love you), besides John, that I would have been able stand for seven weeks.  Surprisingly John and I didn’t even get into any arguments!  That’s not saying that we didn’t get on each other’s nerves, believe me, we did.  I’m just saying that if you are going to spend seven weeks with someone – day and night, literally no escape (haha), and have to kill endless hours in the car, some legs of the journey being twelve to thirteen hours, you have to really, REALLY enjoy that person’s company.  Seven weeks is a long time with no alone time.  (I repeat, NO alone time).  I can imagine that 95% of the people I know would have gotten on my nerves after week one.  Also, you may think that the best person to share the trip with would be your significant other – Do NOT make a seven week trip with your significant other if your thoughts while planning it are “I hope we don’t kill each other!”  If that is your thought process, you probably will, and one of you will end up burying the other in the middle of the barren Texas desert.

That being said, here is my first rule of the road: Choose your road trip companion(s) carefully.

On our trip we drove through the following states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.  The reason we drove through all of these states is because we wanted to visit the following cities: Fairport, NY; Paramus, NJ; New York, NY; Wake Forest and Durham, NC; Jacksonville, FL; Miami, FL; South Beach, FL; New Orleans, LA; Fort Worth, NC; Santa Fe, NM; Phoenix, AZ; Sedona, AZ.; Grand Canyon, AZ; Bryce Canyon, UT; Zion National Park, UT; Las Vegas, NV; and San Diego, CA.  There are definitely more direct routes to San Diego from Buffalo, but John and I wanted to go to Miami for Ultra, and we chose to stick to southern cities because of the time of year.  Consider the time of year during your planning because for us, we had almost perfect weather the whole time.  If we were to take the same trip in August, we wouldn’t have mapped the same route because many cities like New Orleans, Phoenix, and Las Vegas would have had temperatures in the hundreds rather than mid-seventies/low-eighties.

Rule number two is: Plan your trip carefully and consider the time of year while doing so.

Rule three: Make the trip in a reliable vehicle

Thankfully, “Margarita”, my trusty Honda accord was the perfect travel vehicle for us.  This rule is pretty straightforward.  Don’t make the trip in your giant Ford truck that gets less than ten miles to the gallon.  Don’t embark in a Geo Prism that has two hundred thousand miles on it.  Do not leave in a car that has its check engine light on.  Simply be smart.  Make the trip in a reliable vehicle and get any necessary work done prior to leaving.  That means you’ll want to get the car completely checked over, get an oil change, check your fluids, replace the filters, etc.  Also pack extra oil with you in the car, don’t let the gas tank get too low, and always have water, snacks, and a blanket easily accessible – just in case.

Rule four: Consider all costs BEFORE leaving

John and I had a LOT of money saved up before this move, which is why we even considered making this road trip.  Definitely over-estimate your costs before you leave.  You don’t want to be four weeks into the seven and run out of funds.  Overall, we spent a grand total of $7,552.  That includes Gas and Tolls, Hotels, Food, Tickets to shows, and “others”.  All the amounts are the totals – we split everything 50/50.  Also that amount does not include what we lost in Vegas, but that’s classified (don’t worry, it wasn’t too much, but it doesn’t affect the costs that matter to you). Below is a breakdown of our costs and tips for each category.

Hotels: We spent $3,041 on lodging. 

It is easy to spend a TON of money on hotels, and for us, it was our highest expense.  If you think about it, the cheapest, seediest hotel could be over $100 in a big city.  We were fortunate enough to have been able to stay with friends and family for half of our trip.  The equivalent of 3.5 weeks worth of nights were spent staying in locations that we didn’t have to pay for.  Another HUGE THANK YOU to all that showed us their hospitality!  Definitely plan some road trip stops based on where you know people.  Not only is it convenient to not have to pay for hotels in those locations, it is also really fun to be able to hang out with those you are staying with and have them show you around their city!

Other ways that you can go about saving money in the lodging department is to PLAN AHEAD!  We booked all of our hotels in advance once we had the tentative dates that we wanted to be in each city.  We searched for any deals we could find – within the cities that we wanted, and for stops that were just overnight to break up a long drive, we looked for the cheapest location with good ratings.  Definitely CHECK THE RATINGS online.  Now there are so many resources available to us, so check all your hotels online before you book.  We stayed in some awesome $70 hotels, but checked the ratings beforehand to know we wouldn’t be lugging all of our belongings into a dump.

Also, when planning, use alternative methods for booking hotels – we used for a lot of our stops.  If you are staying somewhere for more than one or two nights, look into Airbnb! (and another is is a website where people rent out their apartments and it’s similar to a hotel where you would book your stay, but it’s a great way to save money because full apartments, usually including a kitchen where you can cook your own meals to once again save money, tend to be way less expensive than a hotel rate.  For instance, in Sedona, hotels were priced around $200/night, where on Airbnb we were able to find a full studio with a kitchen in a gorgeous neighborhood for $45/night.  I always check Airbnb first before looking into hotels.

Also, check deal sites such as Groupon!  Once we had our cities picked out, I monitored Groupon and Living Social, checking every day to see if there were any new deals in the cities that we had chosen.  From my experience, call the hotel and tell them that you are thinking of buying the Groupon and then check if they have your specific dates available.  If they do, go ahead and buy the Groupon!  We were able to stay two nights in Santa Fe at a GREAT hotel with amazing continental breakfast for $100!!  For two nights!  It was an awesome 50% off deal!

Basically, to save as much money on hotels as possible: Look at Airbnb first, check deal sites such as Groupon and Living Social, and plan ahead so you are able to book everything in advance!

Food: $1718

Food was our second highest expense category, because obviously, there’s no way to avoid eating.  But still, there are ways to cut expenses in this category.  If you think of how many days are in seven weeks, almost fifty, spending $1718 on food is not bad at all.  That’s roughly $34.36 a day – for both of us (only $17.18 each per day)!

The first way to save would be to try and eat out as little as possible.  John and I did a TON of eating out, at least one meal a day.  But, if your hotel room has a mini-fridge and no continental breakfast, grab yogurts at a gas station and stick them in there the night before.  John and I bought some disposable cereal bowls and spoons early on in our trip and had cereal many mornings.  Cereal is great because all you need is a small container of milk (that every gas station sells) and a big box of cereal that can travel with you from stop to stop.  It is really easy to save by just cutting out one easy meal during the day.  If your hotel has a continental breakfast, obviously utilize that.  Even if it’s a pretty crappy breakfast, you can always get some basic cheerios or a slightly stale muffin.  And breakfast is a great meal to skip going to a restaurant for – unless the place is widely known for its eggs benedict or something, all breakfast food is pretty similar and not worth spending the extra $20.

If you book an Airbnb location instead of a hotel, and the apartment or studio that you rent has a kitchen, this is a GREAT way to save money!  We were in New Orleans for five days, and were able to try some AMAZING restaurants, but we did try to restrict ourselves to one meal out a day to save on the cost of food.  Some days when we were out and about we obviously ate two meals out and enjoyed every minute of it.  But a couple of nights we bought a cheap bottle of wine and made some pasta for a meal under $10.  Booking an Airbnb location with a kitchen is an awesome idea to save some of your budget.

Another way that John and I saved a lot of money on food was by using phone apps like Yelp or Travelocity.  We also utilized large city’s Reddit pages to find local hot spots.  We probably ate less than ten meals that were over $50.  We used apps like Yelp to find hole-in-the-wall places that had decent ratings with a high number of comments to try the good, local eats.  This method turned out to be incredibly successful because for about $20, you could usually get a delicious dinner for two and be able to try local favorites.  One of our favorite places to do this was in New Orleans, where we were able to order several different small items for about $5 each, and share, being able to try 3-4 items in one meal.  It was great!  If you plan a road trip and travel to any of the cities that we went to, look back at what I wrote about our meals.  All of the good restaurants that we ate at I wrote about.

To summarize how to save as much money as possible on food, eat at your hotel or Airbnb location if possible, utilize any continental breakfast available, and try the local spots!  Try and avoid touristy locations that are typically overpriced and often not as good.

Our third largest expense was tickets.  We spent $1069 on four different shows/festivals:

Book of Mormon, Ultra Music Festival, Blue Man Group, and the LA Comedy Club.  You can easily eliminate this category as a way to save money if you are trying to do your trip on a tight budget.  Obviously if we had not attended Ultra, we could have automatically saved nearly $800 on the tickets alone.  So when choosing what you want to do on the trip, you can use your discretion when deciding what you want to see in regards to shows.  You can always research ahead of time to get an idea of how much tickets are going to cost you.  A tip for Las Vegas is to wait to buy tickets for shows such as the LA Comedy club until you get there.  If you have never been to Las Vegas, you wouldn’t know that there are 50% off ticket stands all over the strip for shows that are for that night.  Even though our comedy tickets were supposed to be about $40 each, we were able to get them for half the price the day of at one of these ticket booths.  Thankfully a coworker shared this tid-bit with me before we left Buffalo, and his advice was very valuable!

Gas did not cost us nearly as much as I would have thought.  From Buffalo to San Diego we only spent $837 on gas and $131 on tolls.

A total of  $968 got us all the way across the country.  It may seem like a lot of money to some, but if you think about how much two round trip airplane tickets are, it would be around that price – and that’s to and from just one location.  Especially if you were flying from the Buffalo airport and most definitely had a layover.  I was surprised by how little gas cost, because I would have thought it was going to be one of our pricier expenses.  Granted, I do drive a Honda that gets good gas mileage, but that just reinforces rule number three: make the trip in a reliable vehicle.

As for tolls, once you get out of New York, there really aren’t that many.  There were a couple driving through New Jersey and down to North Carolina, but from North Carolina there weren’t any tolls until we reached Florida.  And from what I can remember, there were no tolls after we left Florida.  So once you are out of New York, the tolls get much more sparse.

 Our final cost category was labeled “other”.  We spent $756 on these random costs,

which encompassed everything that didn’t qualify as food, hotels, gas, tolls, or tickets.  It included costs such as souvenirs, museum or exhibit entrance fees, parking, Laundromat costs, drinks, our oil change, John’s mid-trip haircut, cab fares, bellman tips, and even includes the $10 shirt that I bought one night in Las Vegas when I was too cold.  Although each item purchased in this category was usually pretty cheap, this cost area does add up, so definitely have enough money on hand for the random costs that you incur that you might not think about when you originally plan your trip.

I hope that these tips and cost summaries will help you if you ever decide to plan a similar trip.  Our journey was nothing short of amazing and an incredible learning experience.  I wouldn’t change anything about the last seven weeks (except for maybe the gross dinner that cost us $50 in the Grand Canyon), but besides that, I have absolutely no regrets.

John and I are so excited to be getting settled into our studio, and we hope that you decide to take a road trip out to visit us using some of the tips outlined above!  If you want to plan a trip or are wondering what would be the best places to see, ASK US!  We’d love to share info on anywhere we’ve been, offer any advice we can give, and help in any way possible.  If we are able to host you on any part of your journey, please do not hesitate to ask.  We were fortunate enough to have friends and family hospitably host us, and we would love to do the same!  Also, if you are thinking about a visit, we took the road trip from San Diego to San Francisco last summer and highly recommend making that trip!  It can be done comfortably (but quickly) in seven to nine days.  I have all our info from that trip as well if you need some tips or a travel guide.  And if you are considering quitting your job and moving somewhere else, as long as you have sufficient funds saved up in advance, I say DO IT!

I can’t wait to continue sharing our experiences with you in the future.  If you have read this whole “tips for the road trip” extensive information guide, first of all kudos, and second of all please continue checking up on the blog!  I am definitely going to keep blogging and keeping you all updated on our lives!  Hopefully soon I’ll be able to report on job leads!  Thanks for reading!

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6 Responses

  1. Ellen

    Loved this one, Melissa! We did drive NJ to CA when we moved (back in 2000) — but “had” to do it in six days with three kids in a minivan. It was great (hit the Grand Canyon in February and saw … swirling snow!) but reading your tips & summaries was also great — well done!

    • Melissa

      So great to hear you enjoyed the post, Ellen! I can imagine your road trip was a bit different than ours with three kids in the car ;), but that’s so great that you were still able to stop by the Grand Canyon along the way! Have you ever considered doing another cross-country road trip at any point? They’re quite fun! =D

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