How to Drive Across the Country Cheap

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You can travel across America and see some magnificent sights and scenery without spending a fortune. You may give up comfort and convenience, but if you have time and patience, travelling cross country can be a rewarding and economical activity. It's best to have no firm time commitments. It's also beneficial if you have a reliable recreational vehicle with sleeping facilities. It will help cut costs.

Things You'll Need

  • Reliable vehicle
  • Tent (optional)

Calculate your time and plan a route. Very few people can take an unlimited amount of time for travel; don't fit a specific schedule, but know the maximum amount of time for your travel. Then plan a general route - America is so vast with so many unexpected things to see and visit, that you want to allow flexibility. Look at a national map and decide which corridor you will take -- northern, central or southern. You also can do a zig-zag, but you'll basically want to head east-west (or west-east) and not try to cross the country north and south.

Get your vehicle. An economical car will be cheapest on gasoline, but a recreational vehicle or other type with some sleeping arrangement will save on motel and lodging bills. Check your vehicle thoroughly before leaving (and be sure to take a repair manual and tools with you). If you don't already know how, learn to check your oil and other fluids, how to change a tire and do other maintenance; you don't want to break down in Nevada or eastern Oregon miles from any help. Estimate your fuel costs by knowing your gas mileage and get some idea of gasoline costs (they'll be higher in the west and in any remote areas).

Decide on lodging. You can find cheap motels all across the country, but even $30 a night adds up. Investigate hostels and similar group lodgings if you don't mind sharing. Look up old friends and relatives who might put you up for a night. Consider tenting, especially if you are used to camping; there are hundreds of parks and other campsites along almost any route. Some people even sleep in cars; that's an option and you can always find a truck stop with showers and other amenities. If you're using motels, at least some of the time, check in advance for a list of economy motels on your route.

Pack light, but prepare for emergencies. Every pound of extra clothing or other luggage will take up space, add weight and affect your gas mileage. But don't skimp on emergency gear -- sweaters, jackets, a blanket, flashlight, cell phone, extra water, jumper cables, emergency flares, possibly emergency tire repair. Take an atlas and get state maps everywhere you can. Ask locals for information, such things as good places to visit or eat well and cheaply. You may stumble on some magnificent sights and delightful meals in unexpected places (like a gourmet restaurant in Nowhere, N.M., or a magnificent breakfast in Sagebrush, Ore.).

Remember your basics -- and have fun. Be sure you have your personal identification, automobile registration and insurance information, personal medical information and insurance and other important documents. If you'll be near a border, take a passport in case you want to cross to Canada or Mexico. Don't drive too many hours at a time. Expect the unexpected -- a road closed for construction (or by a rockslide or snow), a surprise two-hour (or longer) traffic jam, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some sight or event. It's a wonderful country to enjoy.

Tips & Warnings

  • Take credit cards, but make a list of numbers to keep separately in case of loss.
  • You may want to notify card issuers of your plans; sometimes if a credit card is used in unexpected places, the issuer will put a stop on it as a fraud preventive.
  • When driving in the west, remember this rule: Fill your gasoline tank and empty your bladder at every opportunity -- there are stretches of 80-100 miles or more with no services, no amenities and almost no help.

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