Here’s how to state the obvious: America is BIG!
There’s no way to fully understand this until you travel it in a car. I knew it was big – you know it’s big – but you really have to get out there and cross just a couple of states to truly get a feel for its vastness. The terrain constantly changes and it does so often without warning. And travelling across it is not cheap either. Unless you’re used to being extremely thrifty and living almost like a hobo, you won’t enjoy life on the road without some cash in your pocket. Taking all this into consideration I’ve got some tips to help anybody that is thinking about doing a trip like ours.
Know this upfront: No matter how hard you try you WILL go over budget. It’s inevitable. There will always be that little memento that you just have to have or that cup of coffee that you won’t survive without. We did a pretty detailed day-by-day budget well before we left home. We tried our hardest to stick to it, but things come up out of the blue, like the $2,000 car repair bill. That was a kick in the…well, you know, it sucked.
HOTELS – Fact: The biggest chunk of your budget will go on hotels. Now, you personally may be able to stay in any kind of rundown motel, but you still won’t get a room for less than $50 a night. It’s just not possible; the days of cheap motels in America no longer exist. As comfort is a big deal the $50 a night hotel was not going to cut it for us. And you will find where you stay actually does affect how much you enjoy a long trip. If you’ve spent 8 hours driving the last thing you want is a craphole for the night. Trust me on this.
A little tip: Try to stick with the same hotel chain and join their rewards club. We completely lucked out when a month into the trip our chosen chain started a double points promotion. We were piling points on like crazy! So much so, that by the time we hit the East Coast we’d reached Platinum status and overall we had enough points to get 9 nights free!
FOOD – We tried our best to eat cheap and healthy, but sometimes when you’re on a tight schedule your choice is limited. Truthfully most of the time you wouldn’t want to know what we ended up eating – we’re ashamed of how many meals we had from Arbys. Try to stay at hotels that give you free breakfast, although we don’t need to see biscuits and gravy again for a looooong time…The days we were driving at lunchtime we tended to just eat pre-packaged gas station sandwiches because they were easy and cost next to nothing. We budgeted $50 a day on food and I’m happy to say we came in under this, even with a few ‘splurge’ meals.
GAS – You can’t do over 13,000 miles without having a huge gas budget. Because there’s no way round it, I have no real tip on this subject other than to share our calculation. We based it on the fact that a few years ago it cost us about $60 in gas to do the eight hour drive from Chicago to St. Cloud. We made this roughly $7.50 for an hour of driving. Of course this isn’t accurate, it was a guesstimate at best, plus it seems the price of gas is a lot less since our last Chicago pilgrimage and as such we came in well under!
ENTRANCE FEES – We researched everywhere we were going before we started this trip so we knew exactly how much each place would cost to get in. We didn’t want any nasty surprises! If you’re going to a lot of the same places we went make sure you invest in an annual National Parks Pass. It seems pricey at $80, but when you consider without it we would have spent well over $200 you start to realize it’s a great investment and the best part is you need only one as it usually covers up to 4 people. To put it into perspective, just driving into Grand Canyon State Park would be $25 a car.
So those were the big things and it may sound like we saved money on our budget by getting free hotel nights and coming in under budget on things, but this was all evened out by the things that hadn’t really occurred to us:
TOLLS – America has a lot of these things. Believe it or not, we went through so many that tolls ended up costing us nearly $100.
LAUNDRY – Most hotels have guest laundries you can use, but bare in mind these eat up a lot of quarters. This painful, but necessary chore came in at about $50.
TEA & COFFEE – Sounds stupid, but we didn’t really think to add in the cost of the Starbucks run. Maybe we thought we could get by without caffeine. We couldn’t. On the flip side though, a good tip to keep in mind (and helpful to the environment!) is reusing water bottles. We would buy two bottles of water and then just refill them everyday from the tap. This saved us a small fortune!
MEMENTOS – We didn’t think we’d want stuff, but then when you’re stood in that gift shop you can’t help but come up with a million reasons why you need something that reminds you of where you’ve been. We didn’t even think to add in a budget for this and it cost us dearly!
EVERYDAY ITEMS – You will still need soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc. This stuff over two and a half months adds up. There will also be bills to pay – phone bills, car insurance, health insurance. You may be travelling, but the world still turns without you. Even my roots needed doing – hair still grows don’t you know! Also being in the car a lot gets boring, so we had to invest in some CDs, books, magazines. The incidentals of everyday life are a necessary evil.
CAR – You will be putting a lot of pressure on your car. We had to get 4 oil changes and we had the tires rotated twice. Even without the $2k repair bill we invested nearly $200 in keeping the car running. It’s important – No car, No trip.
COPING ON THE ROAD
Who you travel with is very important. Don’t underestimate what being tied with someone for a substantial amount of time can do to a relationship. Whether you’re with a partner or a close friend, the chances are you’ve never spent that many 24/7’s together without a break. It may seem like an easy task, but you have to REALLY like a person to not go nuts.
When our friends and family heard we were taking this roadtrip most had the same reaction, knowing full well that Joe and I being trapped in a car together is volatile at the best of times and our car clashes have become somewhat legendary. Some even had firsthand experience of this (Sorry Steve…and Mike & Meghan…and Dawn…Hell, anyone whoever drove with us!), but most of these blow ups came courtesy of navigational issues, i.e. Joe can’t read directions for *BEEP*…but this trip we invested in something that probably saved us from a roadside divorce – a GPS. This thing was a lifesaver and we literally could not have completed the trip without it. In fact I have no idea how anyone did something like this before GPS’s were invented!
Navigation aside there will be little things that start to drive you crazy when you don’t have a break from each other. Pick your road buddy carefully or you may end up ditching them at the Grand Canyon or at the side of the road in rural Georgia. I’m not saying we ever got close to this, but let’s just say these locations are pretty specific and mentioned not by chance…
Other than that, here are some general things to keep in mind:
PACK SMART – We took roughly 10 days worth of clothes and by the end we were tired of wearing the same outfits over and over, but there’s not a lot you can do about this. You will have to do laundry; it’s just a fact of life. But if you want to leave room in your trunk for anything you accumulate along the way, don’t take more changes of clothes than this. We nearly ran out of space in the last few days and are glad we didn’t have to ditch any clothes to make more room! And clothes aren’t the only thing to consider when packing light. Somehow the fact that my new American cell phone and both our old English cell phones are all Nokia’s managed to go unnoticed and we ended up bringing 3 chargers for phones that all could have shared the same charger. Doh!
TOLLS – I mentioned tolls before, but apart from remembering the money side of them, it’s also worth noting that it’s easy to miss these things because of a lot of lanes merging at once. We missed two in NJ and one in IL – we’re waiting to see if fines turn up for these – but my best advice for you to not have this worry is when you see that a toll is coming up head straight over to the furthest right lane as that is always where the ‘cash only’ booths will be.
KNOW YOUR ROUTE – It’s important to know where you’re going before you go there. You can’t try to guess at how long it’ll take you to drive somewhere two states away unless you really don’t care about your time schedule. Some people thought our plan was too precise and didn’t allow room for changes if we just felt like doing something on a whim, but that wasn’t true as everything we discovered that we wanted to add we found a way to include. And we even moved around the last 10 days of the trip to include our detour to St. Louis, MO and Springfield, IL. But just don’t wander into something like this blindly or you’ll waste a lot of time and money.
WEATHER – Consider the time of year you’ll be doing this, we could only do this trip through Sept and Oct and were worried that fall and the start of winter would mean some tough days weather-wise, but we planned a good route that tried to follow the weather. Because of our cruise we had no choice but to do the top of the country first, but this was smart anyway because this is where the cold weather starts. We knew we shouldn’t have too much trouble heading down the west coast, but we also knew the east coast (which sees winter much sooner) might be a problem if we left it until last, so the obvious solution was to head there asap and that’s why we did the middle crisscross. Coming down the east coast instead of up it meant we left the south until the end and as the south is where the heat stayed the longest it made sense to leave the last leg for there.
All in all we lucked out. The weather was pretty much sublime the whole trip, even into the Oct/Nov months. We had about a week of rain around the Detroit/Niagara Falls/Maine time and then didn’t really see much of it again until we got to Memphis. I can’t stress enough how chasing the sun paid off in our enjoyment of this trip. Miserable weather makes for miserable travelling.
KEEPING IN TOUCH – This blog was the best way to record the trip not just for friends and family back home, but also as a lasting memory of each day for us. Anyone that cares about you will want to know how you are doing and if you’re safe and enjoying yourself. We were blown away by how many people were reading along and don’t take their interest in our wellbeing for granted. Although at times keeping the blog up-to-date everyday was a struggle, I’m glad we stuck it out.
If you’re worried you’re not tech savvy enough to do something similar let me put your mind at ease. The personalized domain name was cheap and easy to set up, just purchase it through Google for the measly price of $10 a year and this will also give you a personalized email address to go with it. I didn’t think anyone would actually email us at it, but they did and so it was a cool little touch to add. The website I used to host the domain name was Blogger because they have a really easy to use blogging system; literally anyone would be able to figure it out. But be aware that if you’re going to post a lot of pictures you will need to purchase extra storage space, again don’t panic, this only cost $5 via Google.
BREAKING DOWN THE STATES:
In MN we said goodbye
In ND we nearly ran out of gas
In SD we rode a crazy horse
In WY we played chicken with a moose
In MT we experienced nothing for a far as the eye could see
In ID we frequented a brothel
In WA we watched fish fly
In AK we had a whale of a time
In OR we had a brush with the law
In CA we got peanuts
In NV we got drunk & lost money, mostly on our car
In AZ we were dammed
In UT we wandered through the desert
In NM we peed
In CO we fell for fall
In KS we didn’t get to meet the wonderful wizard…nobody does
In MO we avoided going down in flames…just like Jesse James
In NE we slept comfortably
In IA we dreamt in a cornfield
In MI we crooned through Motown
In OH we rocked Cleveland
In PA we greeted the forefathers
In NY we inducted ourselves into the Hall of Fame
In VT we screamed for ice cream
In NH we discovered the world’s best onion rings
In ME we should have ate lobster, but we didn’t
In MA we landed on Plymouth Rock
In RI we pumped some gas
In CT we couldn’t afford to stay
In NJ we violated some tolls
In DE we almost blinked & missed it
In MD we didn’t even realize we were in it
In WV we turned our noses up
In DOC we got political in Abe’s shadow
In VA we snoozed through America’s birth
In NC we changed our plans to visit Dawson
In SC we tried not to restart the civil war
In GA we found out life being like a box of chocolates is best filled with praline
In FL we worked on our tans
In AL we skipped stopping due to time
In MS we felt we hadn’t wasted enough on slots, so we wasted some more
In LA we dabbled in voodoo, not alcohol
In TX we blasted off in the Space Center
In OK we gambled in luxury
In AR we lost the scenic view to fog
In TN we shook our hips in the rain, Elvis style
In KY we were all about friends and furlongs
In IN we flirted with Dillinger
In IL we went to the movies of course!
In WI we retraced our steps
Finally, back in MN we went home…