hot water + food
June 19, 2012 3:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I get hot water whilst traveling in the U.S.?

I am preparing to go on a long trip around the U.S. on a low budget. I won't have a car (so I can't use one of those portable kettles that plug into the lighter receptacle) and will be traveling solely by bus and rail.

I want access to hot (like near boiling) water so that I can make oatmeal, macaroni & cheese, rice, etc. All I really need is boiling water in a cup that I'd add these dehydrated food stuffs to. I need to travel light so bringing along a standard electric kettle won't work, but I like the idea of bringing a super small electric kettle. Most of the buses I'll be taking will have outlets. Amtrak trains have outlets too.

I've seen the heating coils on amazon that plug into a wall that you stick into a cup of water but they seem to have really bad reviews...

Does anyone have any ideas of where I could get hot water for ramen/oatmeal on the road? Any places that I could hit up that would willingly give me what I need? Starbucks maybe? Or any recommendations for a mini portable water kettle?

posted by bluelight to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In a bit of a pinch, I once asked for hot water at Starbucks at 6 am and used that to mix some instant Cream of Wheat. I don't know how they'd respond if you're not a regular and you look like the traveling kind.
posted by WasabiFlux at 3:30 PM on June 19, 2012

7-11, Super America and similar sized gas stations will probably have the following: a soda fountain that dispenses cold water, thick paper cups for coffee and a microwave. If you buy one other thing from the store, they should be wiling to give you the water and cup for free. Some might even have a dispenser for hot water near the coffee that people are meant to use for tea.
posted by soelo at 3:35 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Practically any hotel will give you hot water for the asking, either directly from a tap on a coffee machine or via a microwave that you can put a cup into. Amtrak trains have hot water available in the cafe car for free (but do tip the bartender).

Honestly I would not bother bringing a portable kettle or heating device unless you are going camping. What I would bring is some sort of plastic or (better yet) sturdy glass cup, preferably with a lid. Make sure it is microwave-safe.

Starbucks locations will generally give you a free cup of hot water, although I've run into a few places that have signs out saying "no hot water" or something similar -- I guess people might have gotten a bit greedy. But even if they do say that, if you have your own cup and ask politely I'd be you won't be turned down. (It's the cups that cost anyway, not the water.)

Most McDonalds locations will probably also give you free water, although I've seen a few that charged 25c or something for it. Probably varies by location. And again, even if they say this, you might get it for free if you have your own cup and are really polite, and particularly if you're buying something else (but then again, then you have to eat McDonalds).

Electric kettles aren't nearly as popular in the US as they are in the UK, but my experience is that there are far more microwaves. Many hotel rooms will have one, or will direct you to one if there's not actually one in your room. Amtrak trains have one (although you'll have to ask nicely to heat food up in it that you haven't bought). The waiting rooms of some bus and rail stations have them (typically disgusting, but OK if you're just heating water). Nearly all homes and offices have them, of course. So I really think you should just have a microwave-safe cup with you and then you'll be fine.

Not sure where you think you'll be staying, but it's hard to imagine many situations where you'd have 120V power but wouldn't also have access to hot water or a microwave. At least IMO, it wouldn't be common enough that I'd care about hauling around a kettle.

If you're really hell-bent on carrying something with you, I'd get an electric immersion heater like this. But they are sort of obnoxious to use (you have to let it cool down before you can put it away), arguably dangerous (easy for the cord to catch on things and spill hot liquid everywhere), and may be more load than you're supposed to put on bus/train electrical systems. There's a reason why they were popular before microwaves became popular and are less so now.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:37 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of grocery stores, gas stations / convenience stores, etc., have microwaves available that you can just put whatever in, so I guess there's that.

What about just carrying a thermos? A good one will keep water Really Darned Hot for a long time.
posted by brennen at 3:37 PM on June 19, 2012

I was gonna come in to suggest the heating coils (I've seen that used quite a bit in Russia/Ukraine). I don't have a specific one to suggest.

Yeah, other options is to rely on various fast food places.
posted by pyro979 at 3:37 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most Amtrak trains have a club car - I would bet they could hook you up with some hot water. And even if the bus has outlets, I don't think that would work - surely you're not going to boil water on a moving bus? And the outlets go off when the bus engine is off, so you wouldn't have much of a chance to boil water when the bus is stopped.

I would buy a good thermos and fill it up with hot water before you leave, then dispense it over the course of the trip.
posted by mskyle at 3:37 PM on June 19, 2012

Actually if you're going to get an immersion heater, get this one. It'll also run on 220 so it's not totally useless when you get home. (Probably works twice as fast there, too.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:41 PM on June 19, 2012

I have a teensy electric kettle that plugs in and is very light; I imagine you could pick up one easily at a CVS or other larger drugstore. However I can say that the bus outlets very rarely actually work and that trying to plug one in would be somewhat of a nightmare (and possible burn hazard) on both Amtrak and the buses. Not that they aren't handy, but not for this. I would pack a microwaveable cup with lid; heavy pyrex or china if you can. I keep a set at work with really thick walls for soups and tea and they haven't been dinged up yet. A sealed lid will help with heat and also with splash problems in borrowed microwaves.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:07 PM on June 19, 2012

When I want hot water for my tea, while on the road, I head for a Burger King -- that chain always seems to have DIY beverage bars with a hot (i.e. boiling) water tap near the coffee pots. I fill my Thermos, and leave without a word. Nobody ever notices, or says anything. As noted above, other places have similar set-ups.
posted by Rash at 4:12 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Any gas station with more than one soda cooler will also have a coffee machine. These dispense hot water, as well. If you go in casual and ask, "Hey can I have a little hot water for my oatmeal?" 95 out of 100 clerks will say, "sure." I keep a travel mug in my road trip kit specifically for this. Pour in two packets (or four), THROW THE FUCKING WRAPPERS IN THE TRASH CAN outside the door (serious - it establishes that you're not a douche), and ask. Pour the water on, mix as well as you can, wait 15 seconds, pour some more. Maybe a bit more than you think - stir like crazy - and while it's cooling down it'll be absorbed.

I started doing this in 2006, when I decided that I didn't use the camp stove enough if I was just car camping. I've never been turned down, from Montana to the east coast.

Pro tip: QT is pretty swell (and treats its employees relatively well) so you're less likely to get an eyeroll with your "Well, ok". Their bathrooms are also usually well kept and have large counters for the lavs.
posted by notsnot at 4:33 PM on June 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't count on being able to plug an electric kettle in on a bus or train. Those things pull a LOT of current- 500-900 watts or more- and the systems in the busses and trains (esp busses) aren't meant to handle it. Just get your hot water from gas stations or the club car. The cup is the most expensive part of serving coffee- so if you have your own cup, nobody cares.

I would aim for a Jetboil system if you really want to be independent. I just used a MSR pocket rocket when I did my epic bus trip, but would have used a Jetboil had they existed. When the bus stops for a bathroom break, get it out and heat your water outside- a couple minutes for a .5 L of water and you are set.
posted by rockindata at 4:43 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

What rockindata said.

I'd invest in both a medium thermos & a wide coffee cup with simple lid, & a couple of spoons. Small bag and bar towel to keep it all together.

Generally there are restrictions against heating up non Amtrak food on Amtrak club cars, but asking for hot water & tipping should work out.

Most hotels/motels I've stayed at had microwaves in room, in the common area at hotel, or coffee maker/hot water tap.
posted by tilde at 5:27 PM on June 19, 2012

many motels also have a small coffee pot in the room that you can use to make hot water.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:31 PM on June 19, 2012

Be advised that Convenience-store microwaves are not the same as a home-grade microwave-- they are much more powerful, designed to reduce heating times. You will never need to heat something for as much as a full minute in one of those machines. So whatever you have learned from home microwave use, in terms of time, divide by 5, at least.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:49 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot of non-affiliated convenient / gas stop stores will refuse anything to you if you're not paying. It's their business and they'll protect it in almost illegal ways (no bathroom use w/o purchase is a killer) Stop at the bigger chains IMO
posted by MangyCarface at 6:12 AM on June 20, 2012

I am a tea drinker who travels in America. Every time I stop for a restroom break or to buy a little nosh, I go over to the hot water dispenser at the self-service coffee machine and fill up my travel mug. Then I tell them at the register "This is hot water." They never charge me.

You don't need to use the microwave.
posted by RedEmma at 10:37 AM on June 20, 2012

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