How to Save Money on the Road

Words and photos by Gale Straub

Life on the road is life. Little expenses add up, but it’s also important to make the most of your every day. So while the following tips may help you save money while living on the road, make sure to read, digest, and still splurge once in a while. It’ll be worth it.

If you’ve saved up for a big road trip, you’ll want your money to take you as far as possible. Here are some ways to save money on the road:

Camping in Ventura, California — by Gale Straub & Jon Gaffney

Camping in Ventura, California — by Gale Straub & Jon Gaffney

Lodging

In and out of the vehicle you’re traveling in, lodging can be your highest monthly expense. Because you don’t pay rent, it’s highly variable depending on location, circumstances, and even mood.

Camping:

  1. Search out free camping through National Forest & Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land. You can camp for up to two weeks straight, and often National Forest land borders National Parks, which are not free to camp at. Easy access at a great price tag. They also hold thousands of miles of hiking trails and tend to be less crowded than National Parks. Often there are no trash facilities, however, so make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles.

  2. Stealth camp. If you have a vehicle that you’re able to sleep incognito in, stealth camping can be a money saver on city streets (but you didn’t hear that here). Seek out level spots in safe neighborhoods where overnight parking is allowed.

  3. Walmart. The behemoth retail store famously lets RVs, trailers, vans and other campers sleep in its parking lots and use its facilities, but make sure to check with the manager that sleeping is actually allowed. If the parking area is not owned by the store, then it may not be. There are also recommended areas to park.

  4. Download Allstays Camp & RV App ($9.99). A smartphone is more expensive but its apps save time and money. There are alternatives out there (likely with a better user experience) but Allstays has a huge database of campsites, Walmarts, and other resources for long-term campers on the move.

Friends and Family:

  1. Make your own database. Create a spreadsheet of friends and family around the country that you’d be comfortable stopping in on, parking in their driveway, or just saying hello. Keep it on hand when you go to a new place, you might be surprised what high school friend moved to Austin, TX.

  2. Meet people. (But use your best judgment.) Locals have great recommendations for stealth and inexpensive camping, or may even open their driveway up to you.

Hotels/Rentals/Motels:

  1. Download HotelTonight. It’s an app that aggregates last minute hotel deals.

  2. Use Airbnb. While it’s becoming more expensive, airbnb is still a good option if you want to rent a room share or a whole apartment. Odds are you’ll save money by having access to a kitchen.

Meals

It’s irrefutable that making food for yourself saves money over eating out. When you’re visiting a place for the first time, though, part of experiencing it is trying the cuisine. So here are some tricks for dining in and out:

Dining in: 

  1. Buy an energy efficient fridge.

  2. Stock your pantry with basics. What do you normally cook with at home? Beans, quinoa, oatmeal, soba noodles, and canned foods like tuna and sardines all come in handy when you need a meal in a pinch. Same goes with keeping a full spice rack, including vanilla extract. Being able to dress up something boring can be the difference between spending $20 at a restaurant and $3 in the van.

  3. Storage for leftovers. Grab some nesting food containers so leftovers don’t go to waste.

  4. Water bottles. If you find yourself buying throwaway bottles at rest stops, invest in some BPA-free hand held water bottles.

  5. Drink boxed wine. Of course you save more money if you don’t drink, but boxed wine is an economical alternative to individual bottles (less waste, too)

  6. Perfect your camp coffee kit. Even if you intend to just buy a $3 coffee at the artisanal shop, odds are you’ll come back for a refill or add a chocolate croissant to the order. Coffee tastes better at the campsite, anyway.

Dining out:

  1. Do your research. Ask locals for recommendations and yelp for deals and quality. Make sure that the meal is worth the extra cost.

  2. Ask yourself why you’re eating out. Is it because you’re excited to try a new restaurant in a new city (or to return to an old favorite)? Awesome. Is it because you’re feeling lazy or you’re out of olive oil or you just don’t feel like living in a van? Well, maybe that’s OK, too. Listen to yourself and question your motives. Think beyond the hunger.

  3. Skip the drinks OR Stick to drinks. Beverages add up on the bill, so a good rule is to skip drinks when you’re eating out. Or if you just want the “going out” experience, just have drinks.

Travel

  1. Move slow. If you like a place, stay there for a while. Costs go up while you’re on the move: gas/diesel, inconsistent meals, and unknown sleep spots are all contributing factors.

  2. Choose a vehicle that reflects your travel style.

  3. Consider the cost/benefit of route choices. We’re all for mountain passes and cliff side drives, but they aren’t always energy or time efficient. Build that in when pouring over the map the night before.

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park

Communication

Like every element of this guide, cell phone and data plans are dependent on your personal needs and use. If you work from the road, your data costs are likely to be higher, but are a necessary business expense. Keep that in mind when reading the following tips.

  1. Consolidate your data plan. If you’re traveling with a significant other or friend, think about getting a family plan.

  2. Enable Mifi on your smartphone. Whether you use a laptop for work or play, it’s great to be able to tether your phone as a wifi source. It may seem more costly than seeking out free wifi at coffee shops, but the price of coffee and snacks starts to add up. It’s also a pain to search out coffee shops with a strong connection, amiable work environment, and the ability to hang around for hours.

  3. Visit public libraries. Find the public library in town for 100% free wifi and lounge space. Sometimes you’ll have to sign up for a membership, but most often you can just speak to a librarian and settle in for hours of quiet time. You might even be able to park outside and use the wifi from your “living room.”

  4. Turn off your data. When you’re driving, hiking, meeting someone new, reading a book… (you get the idea). Limit your phone time, it’ll clear up your headspace and lower your bill.

Health

It’s easy to neglect your health. Doctor’s checkups and visits to the dentist are first to fall off when you’re traveling full time, but can also add up in the long run.

  1. Acquire health and dental insurance. Stride Health is a great tool for finding health care for travelers and freelancers alike. Healthcare.gov is also sufficient. Both factor in your income to determine whether you are eligible for subsidies. You may be subject to a significant tax penalty if you aren’t covered with health insurance.

  2. Practice preventative care. Eat healthily, exercise, meditate, destress, and get annual checkups.

Hygiene

Showers are notoriously scarce in #vanlife, but that doesn’t have to be your norm.

  1. Visit gyms, recreation centers, and YMCA’s. If you stop in and explain your situation, odds are you can get a cheap (or free) shower. Always barter the attendant down – you don’t want the day rate, you just want to take a 10 minute shower.

  2. Get a membership at a nationwide gym chain. Gyms like Planet Fitness offer (slightly) elevated monthly plans that allow you to exercise and shower all over the country.

  3. Refer to that friend/family spreadsheet. If someone offers you a hot shower, say yes!

  4. Be willing to pay a premium at campsites. Every now and then, splurge on a state campground with full facilities.

  5. Buy a pressure shower. The NEMO Helio is a space efficient option that doubles as a dishwasher. If you have the space, the Rinse Kit is a high pressure option that feels like the real thing!

  6. Perfect the hobo bath. A friend recommends using park bathrooms when there are no other options: take in a small dish tub and fill it with hot water. Grab wash cloths/towel and soap and wash up in the privacy of the stall.

  7. Use baby wipes in a pinch.


Editor’s Note: This guide contains affiliate links, in which Ravel Creative earns a small commission when you order a product at no charge to you.

Hailey Hirst