free-wheeling cross country trip on a budget.
February 20, 2013 3:53 AM   Subscribe

I want to spend two or three weeks driving across country this summer, then probably fly back to the east coast. I have a decent amount of money, but I'd like to spend as little money as possible on travel costs and accomodations (so I can spend money on activities and siteseeing)

I'd rather not use my own car, since it's not in the best shape.

What's the cheapest way to rent a compact car for this and how much would that cost? How much cheaper (if it is cheaper) would it be to take buses or trains?

How about accommodations for two? Roughing it is not a problem -- are hostels as cheap and easy to check into at the least minute in the US as they are in other places? I'd like to plan ahead as little as possible. Just skimming around, it seems like motels would be cheaper and probably nicer. What about camping (I have 0 experience camping)? What about AirB&B or couchsurfing? I have a couchsurfing account and have never used it -- has anybody her done a a cross country trip using either of those sites? How was it?

Would you recommend the lonely planet or rough guide books or something else for a trip like this?
posted by empath to Travel & Transportation around United States (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Sadly, I think you'd be better off buying a car than trying to rent one - I was poking around for you, and I think you'd be looking at thousands of dollars. It's expensive to rent a car for three weeks, and it's CRAZY expensive to drop it off a couple thousand miles from where you picked it up. (So, example: it might cost you $3k to pick it up in Chicago and drop it off three weeks later in LA, but only $900 for three weeks with the same pick-up/drop-off. Though you may still run into mileage charges etc.) If you want to do this, round-trip is your best option. (Or just using your own car. Dunno what shape yours is in - is it uncomfortable or unreliable? Unreliable is a no-go, especially if you're driving through those parts of Utah with signs like "No service next 84834 miles.")

Greyhound used to offer a "Discovery Pass," but it looks like those got discontinued, and anyway I can't, in good conscience, recommend Greyhound for anything other than short-haul trips. Amtrak has a rail pass - looks like it's $440 for 15 days and $670 for a month. Bear in mind that Amtrak limits your destinations pretty significantly.

I've driven from LA to various places - Chicago, Green Bay, Maryland - and I've usually camped or stayed in motels. If you don't camp, now is not the time to start, unless you really want to become a person who camps. It'll be an extra stress (and initial expense) to you. You can get a night in a motel for like $40-50 a lot of places, especially if you stay in off-brand places where the owner is maybe/probably a serial killer. Anyway, IMO, motels are worth it for the shower alone. Hostels might work for you for longer stays in big cities, but they're not ubiquitous like in other parts of the world. I've never used Couchsurfing but friends have - if you're not alone, and especially if you hang around the site long enough to develop some relationships, it could be a good (and super cheap!) option. Also, you can sleep in Walmart parking lots. I like them better than rest stops - better lighting, more people.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:10 AM on February 20, 2013

I would totally plan on camping - it will be cheapest and should be reasonably comfortable in the summer. Make sure your tent doesn't leak (a lot of new tents will need seam sealer) and be sure to have a good sleeping pad for under the sleeping bag. I'm a big fan of DEET for keeping away mosquitoes.

If you join AAA they will have loads of resources free for members including guides that list campgrounds, etc.

You might be able to score a "driveaway" car (google would explain better than I can). I used one many years ago to go up the west coast and it worked out great.
posted by exogenous at 5:12 AM on February 20, 2013

Not exactly what you want to do, but I rode a motorcycle cross-country without an itinerary, twice, about 15 years ago. I can't help you with the car rental bit, but I do know that one-way rentals tend to be much more expensive than round-trip. I would expect the car rental to suck up a lot of your budget.

I bought a big fold-out map of the entire country and each day I picked a state route that meandered vaguely in the direction of my destination city. I avoided freeways almost entirely and favored marked scenic routes, roads that went through mountains or national forests, or followed rivers. This put me in many unexpected beautiful places, and I found myself paying much closer attention to my surroundings because I wasn't focused on anticipating some Official Attraction all the time.

I've never used AirBNB or couchsurfed, but I'm doubtful that they'd work well if you can't schedule well ahead of time because you don't know where you'll be.

One upside of not planning is that the places you end up seeing are less likely to be popular tourist spots jammed to the gills with other tourists. I camped a lot of the time, but stayed in hotels too because many less-developed campgrounds have no showers, and I quickly got too ripe for my own comfort. The hotels I stayed at tended to be very utilitarian -- cheap and boring, sometimes outright unattractive. The more rural an area you're in, the fewer choices you'll have. Sometimes the only option is an iffy crash-pad sort of room next to the only bar in 30 miles. You avert your eyes from the nastier bits, you wake up and you continue your adventure. Sometimes, though, you find yourself staying in a lovely suite in the Sierra Nevadas for cheap because ski season is over. Hostels are great if you happen to be near one, but they do get booked up in popular areas, and preference goes to guests who arrive without the aid of internal combustion engines.

If you haven't camped, this might not be the time to start. There's equipment to buy, and a learning curve. Remote, rustic campgrounds can be fun but well-advertised national chain campgrounds in popular areas (KOA I'm looking at you) tend to be crowded as stockyards, and just about as miserable.

Unplanned travel like this is about being open to the unexpected and making the best of one situation after another. There's a fair bit of discomfort and mediocre food. Plan on stopping for a full day and staying a second night in the same location at least once a week; the constant stream of newness gets a bit exhausting. I actually prefer this sort of trip over the carefully orchestrated, let's-go-see-this-and-do-this travel that I grew up with. I wish I had the opportunity for such a trip right about now. Have fun!
posted by jon1270 at 5:18 AM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

How about accommodations for two? Roughing it is not a problem -- are hostels as cheap and easy to check into at the least minute in the US as they are in other places?

It depends WILDLY on the hostel itself, and where and when you're looking. Hostels in the IYH network tend to go a little faster - and they're also surprisingly few and far between in the US. (Although, there are way more of them in the west than the east.) Also, hostels in cities get snapped up pretty quick no matter who they're affiliated with. And if there's some big splashy event going on in the place you're looking (i.e., Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, summer vacation season on Cape Cod, etc.), forget it.

But there are quite a few cheap hotels - albeit a little seedy-looking - out in the boonies. I was on a similar trip and hit some kind of oh my god i cannot drive another second wall somewhere in the boonies in Kansas, and miraculously found this motel for $30 a night out in the middle of nowhere. It was clean, it was cheap, they had rooms. That was just slightly above what you'd pay for a hostel here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:32 AM on February 20, 2013

One way to think about your car vs. bus/train plans could be to think about what is it exactly that you want to see. A car will give you substantially greater access to (literally) off the beaten track options, like many state and national parks, or smaller towns with roadside attractions. A bus or train will give you the flexibility of not caring about car maintenance, but you'll be much more limited in terms of scheduling and areas to cover. We did a lot of car-based trips out west when I was younger-- three weeks, five weeks, six weeks and so forth. I can't imagine them as anything other than car-based, but that's because we primarily camped or stayed in tiny motels that were barely in the AAA directory. You will have a huge advantage in that you can have the internet in the palm of your hand, whereas we barely had modern cellphones. I do know someone who biked across the country for charity, and he did it primarily by essentially couchsurfing/making friends who supported his goal along the way, but that is not so much a template as an anecdote.

Camping-- the equipment costs can be kind of large, unless you can borrow materials from friends. I would start now by looking at camping supplies, considering the kinds of food you'd like to eat, whether or not you know anyone with suitable camping gear. It's not necessarily that expensive, but you should have a good tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag, even before looking at cooking stuff, a basic mess kit, cooler, etc. Some campsites do have pay-for-showers, and that is a brilliant and kind invention. We ended up in the very last motel room just south of the Grand Tetons because our campsite was so throughly infested with mosquitoes that after approximately twenty bites, my brother and I locked ourselves in the car, so sometimes, it's worth it to splurge on the room! And yes, camping in the smaller parks (Kodachrome, parts of the Tetons vs. Yellowstone, most of Montana, Teddy Roosevelt state park-- bison herd included) is a very different experience than the bigger and more crowded RV-dominated campsites.

I would actually recommend AAA in addition to a proper guidebook, if you have an account and an office near you. They'll help map out various routes and provide you with maps, often for free. Roadside America is great for finding crazy bits of Americana. If you are camping or going through many national parks, get the Annual Pass, which will save you crazy amounts of money.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:43 AM on February 20, 2013

You could go with a service like Auto Driveaway. They list the cars they currently have with the origin and destination (Washington, D.C. to Las Vegas, or Oregon.)

That will eliminate the need to rent the car. I'd recommend doing it both ways, so you can hit all the spots you want to hit. Or driving one car across country, and doing a rental at the distant end.

When we went from California to Florida, we took this route:

Los Angeles, Laughlin (more fun and prettier than you'd think!), Sedona, AZ, Albuquerque, then down New Mexico to I-10 to Carlesbad Caverns (so cool!), Across TX (Yawn), New Orleans, Tallahassee, Orlando, South Florida.

Another fun car trip we took was Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Luis Obisbo/Madonna Inn, Hearst Castle, Santa Cruz, San Jose, San Francisco.

So even in one state, there are tons of things to see and do.

When we went cross country, we stayed at Motel 6. Just be sure to vet them on TripAdvisor, or look around and use your judgement.

Most places in the US have wide spots in the road (especially off the interstates) where you have your choice of places like Motel 6, Super 8, Hampton Inn.

Have fun, road trips are the BEST!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:00 AM on February 20, 2013

I'm sorry but I don't have the time to read all of the other comments right now, so I'm sure I'll be repeating some stuff. My boyfriend and I do road trips here in Europe and I once took a Greyhound from Vancouver to Montreal, but that doesn't really count as a roadtrip.

Here in Europe we almost always camp during our roadtrips - it is so much cheaper. If you don't have your own tent, some places let you rent it or have little cabins and trailers available (check prices). We also have our own gas stove and bring our own food. So during the trip we'll stop at the grocery store 2 or 3 times to stock up. Guide books like Lonely Planet are indeed very helpful - borrow them from your local library. If you're using a GPS, set it up to help you avoid toll roads.

Good luck and enjoy!
posted by faraasha at 6:49 AM on February 20, 2013

Camping can be unbelievably cheap. When my husband and I did this, we tried to spend most nights in National Forest campgrounds, which generally cost between $6 and $14 per night and are really under-utilized in a lot of areas. We also had an Interagency Pass (which we would have bought anyway, since we were visiting a bunch of national parks) that cut that cost in half. So cheap. That said, we had lots of camping experience so we already knew we liked sleeping on the ground and had plenty of high-quality equipment. We were also pretty poor and even cheap motels at $40/night were just not going to be an option for several weeks straight. By sticking to these really rustic campgrounds, we were able to afford a night in a motel every 5 days or so. Even the lumpiest bed and weakest shower feels great if you only get it every 5 days.
posted by juliapangolin at 7:25 AM on February 20, 2013

Three weeks is not enough time to drive across the country and not find yourself completely shortchanged on many aspects of the experience. I did an eight month, 15K mile roadtrip a decade ago and I still feel left out on some of my experiences because, dude, it's a freaking HUGE country and there are a zillion things to see and do. Unless you basically want to see 2500 miles streaming slowly past your windows with barely enough time to stop and catch your bearings, don't approach it that way.

Instead, I recommend that you say "I want to suck the marrow out of 3 amazing places" and then pick those places, and then figure out the most efficient way of getting there and back again.

Maybe do a week camping in yellowstone, a week in Chicago living it up, and then a week exploring the Smoky Mountains and all the little towns and vistas staying at a new motel each night.

See then the awesome thing is that you can do it again next year, with three different places.

Well that's my idea.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:10 AM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

A Green Tortoise cross country bus trip sounds like it could be a good fit. Meals are communal, lodging is the bus, stops are varied, often spontaneous and interesting.

Hostels are few and far between in the US. You'll mainly find them in large cities and near certain popular outdoors locations. They are not the resource they can be in other parts of the world. AirBnB doesn't work that well for spontaneous lodging ime. Couchsurfing seems to be better in that way.

Car camping can be done with a minimal expense. You can pickup inexpensive tents, padding for your sheets/blankets, propane stoves can be had for about $20 at Asian grocery stores, and a cooler. May not be perfect but it will get the job done!
posted by cat_link at 10:11 AM on February 20, 2013

I've done this a lot. Here are some basic suggestions, feel free to ask if you have more questions.

1. The only way renting a car makes sense is if you can return it to the place where you got it. There are wildly variable costs for car rentals and you might luck in to finding a cheap rental someplace. I use but you could also try Priceline. The good news is it's much easier to pack and, depending on the car you get, you may be able to sleep in it (not for everyone but I am a small person and this works just fine for me).

2. AirBnB and absolutely work. I have hosted many Couchsurfing people and they have all been great. I have hosted and stayed with AirBnBers. You should set up a profile and get some people to vouch for you [there is a MeFi group] on CS and consider setting up an AirBnB profile. CS is free, AirBnB costs money, sometimes a lot and sometimes not very much. Keep in mind that camping could be free if you stay in your car or go to "rustic" campsites (googleable term: backcountry camping) or sleep in your car at rest stops. Keep in mind costwise, you can stay at cheap motels for about $40-50 a night if you just want to drive off the highway and crash, more if you want to stay in chain hotels. A campsite may cost between $10-20. When I have driven across the country I found it easier to crash in little motels than try to negotiate arrival/departure times with other people, but this is just a preference, if you're on smaller roads and highways this may be a great way to see places and folks.

3. Bus/train stuff is okay if you can spring for cabs when you get dropped off on the side of the highway someplace. Maybe not so great to see the country unless you really want to hobo it and with Amtrak at least, not THAT cheap. You may want to do what seanmpuckett suggests and take megabus to a location and rent a car and tool around in one place for a week instead of trying to stay in a new place every night.

4. I suggest AAA or equivalent for campbooks and road service (or Better World if you are concerned about AAA's politics) if you don't have one built into whatever transportation mode you choose.

Heck you could probably make a lot of this work just by staying with MeFites in various places for a day or two in most locations. You're welcome to crash at my place in Vermont, for example.
posted by jessamyn at 12:45 PM on February 20, 2013

You might also find digihitch useful for some serious budget traveling. It's mostly for hitchhikers, but there will probably be some stuff there that is of use to you.
posted by jessamyn at 12:48 PM on February 20, 2013

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