Four years ago I was sitting in my office back at my old job when I made the decision to travel the country. I pulled up a handful of cities on Google Maps to see how long it would take. My list only included 14 cities, so the mileage came out to 7915 (this would be about half of the actual mileage). The driving time added up to 132 hours, or 6 hours a day for 22 days. Then I started to do the real math.
I speculated it would take me 120 days, and guessed I’d spend an average of $30 a night. I don’t know where that number really came from, but it seemed right considering some of my lodging would cost much more, and some of it would be free. I looked up the average price of gas in the country, added a few dimes, and came up with $1400 in gas.
Adding together my speculative figures I came up with a number close to $8,000, which I rounded to an even $10,000 to be safe. This was my goal, and I had three years to do it.
The most I paid for a bed to sleep in was $184.31 for a single night at the Sunset Inn in Provincetown, MA on the end of Cape Cod. I probably could have found much cheaper accommodations, but I hadn’t planned ahead and was feeling especially tired by the time I had to pick a bed. I chose the Sunset Inn because it was the first place I saw with signs for both vacancy and free parking.
The cheapest lodging (excluding all of the fantastic friends, family members, couchsurfing hosts and occasional free camp site) was camping for $8.32 at Chickasaw State Park in Alabama. I was the only one in the park, which was fortunate when a thunderstorm rolled in and I had to move my tent into the pavilion.
The most expensive single meal I had was split with my sister the night we got back to the top of the Grand Canyon. We had decided ahead of time that we would treat ourselves to the place we had been assured was the fanciest in Grand Canyon Village. It cost us $59 each and was the weirdest dining experience I had the whole trip. For some reason the front of house staff was in a constant panic. When we arrived at 8:13 for an 8:15 reservations, the hostess actually told us to come back in two minutes. Despite the frenzy out front, the restaurant itself wasn’t busy. It looked like a completely ordinary dinner crowd. Our waiter had a strange voice like he didn’t belong to any dialect, and the food was decent but not spectacular. I have no idea what was going on in that place.
Car Maintenance & Gas: $3,711.38
The most I paid for a single tank of gas was $59.40 in Michigan, but that doesn’t say much. I did my best never to get below a quarter tank, and often filled up just after hitting the halfway mark, so it’s likely that I just waited longer to fill up that day in Michigan. I can say that the highest single price per gallon was in the middle of the redwoods in California. I only bought enough to get me out of the area, as it was more than $5.50 a gallon.
The largest single expense was getting my driver’s side window fixed in Kansas City for a whopping $427.92.
Entrance Fees, Audio Tours, Overpriced Internet: $820.72
Biltmore (the Vanderbilt mansion) was the most expensive attraction at $69. The lowest (outside of free) was a $1 donation I made to the Old North Church in Boston.
Gifts and Souvenirs: $123.81
When you have to carry everything you buy, you don’t buy much. There are really only three things in this category:
1) Site-specific gifts for my couchsurfing hosts. I would pick up little candies and soaps along the way that were indicative of the places I had visited, then leave them as thank you presents for hosts later on in the trip. Friends in Oklahoma got dried fruit from Oregon, that sort of thing. Most people got honey sticks from Pike Place Market that I picked up before leaving, which turned out to be the easiest gift to transport, and the most forgiving of high temperatures.
2) Shot glasses. I have a large shot glass collection that I have been curating since I was 11 years old. I tried to be a bit more reserved on this trip, and purchased less than a dozen over the entire four months.
3) Postcards for Rob. Along the way I purchased postcards from the places I visited, then sent them to my boyfriend with messages that confirmed my well-being but suggested impending doom. “HAVE NOT BEEN ATTACKED BY BEARS YET.” “DID NOT FALL OFF A BRIDGE.” And my personal favorite for Roswell, New Mexico: “NOTHING HAPPENED.”
The cheapest postcards were $0.30.
Public Transit: $77.70
San Francisco wins for most money spent on public transport, with Boston a close second. However both are only in the running because their transit systems are so good I barely used my car.
General Supplies: $222.71
This is the category for hiking poles and contact solution, as well as replacements for broken sunglasses, broken cameras, and whatever it was I kept buying at Walgreens.
GRAND TOTAL: $9,633.61
I know my numbers aren’t precise (they don’t align perfectly with the bank statements), but they are within an acceptable margin of error. I won’t bother doing a line by line comparison because ultimately it doesn’t matter if I spent ten extra dollars on gifts or twenty fewer on entrance fees.
I was told I’d spend a third of my money on gas, which was true. I expected the total would be between $8,000 and $10,000, which was also true. My original estimates for food and lodging ended up being switched – I overestimated the cost of food and underestimated the price of a campsite. My original gas estimate was off because it was based on the wrong mileage (once I plugged the correct mileage number in it was almost perfect). I also vastly overestimated the cost of “fun.” Turns out a lot of fun is cheap or free.
To me, staying under ten grand for a four month tour of the entire country is pretty good, though I doubt I’ll be selling any copies of “How to Do America on $79 a Day.” And in the interest of total honesty, there was another $1000 that I spent on reusable supplies like my tent, sleeping bag, backpack, etc. But I’ve already used most of these things again since returning (and will certainly use them more in the future), so it’s hard for me to count such items as trip expenses. That’s a slope that gets slippery fast. I bought shorts right before I left, are those trip shorts or my own shorts? Do I have to count the other pair of shorts I took, even though I’ve owned them for years?
I could have easily spent thousands less than I did. All it would have required was a bit more planning, and few different choices, and an alternative outlook about what kind of trip I was on. I could have couchsurfed more and saved hundreds on lodging. I could have eaten in my car more and saved on diner food. And I could have decided that I’d rather spend an extra day in a national park than a few hours touring a deadman’s indulgent home. I could have driven less and stayed in each location longer. But these aren’t the choices I wanted to make for this trip, and I was willing to spend the money.
I make this point because I don’t want anyone to confuse my budget with THE budget. You can do America on a lot less money, and many have. I spent $10k and could have easily spent half that. Ultimately the money doesn’t matter, as is often the case with money. And don’t forget I would have spent $6,000 over the course of four months back home, just putting in my normal expenses for rent, food, etc. After asking how I managed to take four months off work, people always ask where I got the money. But the cost of travel is what you decide it is. You decide if you need a hotel or a hostel. You decide to eat at world renowned restaurants or street corner hot dog carts.
The only thing that’s difficult is that you have to decide.