They call to you like sirens. Warm weather, beckoning tourist traps and the open road all convince you to act against your better judgment, chuck it all and head off for the sake of heading off. Problem is, the call of the road also coaxes the contents of your wallet to cut loose and run free. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to get it all — the sunburns, the flat tires and the t-shirts that inform the world you have visited the World’s Biggest Something — and stay on speaking terms with your budget.
Here are some tactics — some honest and forthright, some not so much — for how to do just that.
1. Carpool and shack up
The most drastic way to cut the biggest pieces of the road trip pie — gas and lodging — is to rope in non-freeloading friends to come along with you.
There should not be an empty seat in the SUV you borrowed from your parents. If there is no one sleeping on the floor in your hotel room, you’re doing it wrong. The more may not necessarily make the merrier, since, as all reality shows teach, more people in cramped quarters means more drama, but it will certainly make your miserable trip less expensive.
2. Explore rather than seek and find
Those tourist traps that serve as excuses for roaming the country are illusions. If you manage to have any fun on the way to overpaying to be let down by gimmickry, it will be in the trip itself rather than the destination.
So why not make the entire trip about the trip? Wander aimlessly.
Seek the unknown and offbeat. Preferably the free variety of unknown and offbeat. Hit diners. Chat up the old people. Cruise small-town festivals. Pull off the interstate to check out roadside attractions. Get lost. Just not so lost that your GPS won’t help you find the way back, because search and rescue teams are expensive.
3. Visit friends
It pays to know people, even if you don’t particularly like them. Tell them you’ll be in town and would like to catch up, accept the inevitable awkwardness, and simply ask if you can stay with them. Bingo. You’ve got accommodations that don’t cost a penny — just a piece of your soul.
If you happen to be bohemian and adventurous, you can check out offers to crash with strangers at sites such as Craigslist or Couchsurfing. Just don’t be shocked if you awake to find your host creepily watching you sleep — or worse.
4. Pre-plan your fueling
This goes for both eating and gassing up. Although it may seem to contradict my advice of venturing off the beaten path, it helps to do a bit of planning in order to make sure you don’t run out of gas or get hungry at the worst possible times.
Keep sites such as Gasbuddy at the ready in order to scope out the places that will allow you to fill up on the cheap, and scope out online restaurant reviews, such as those on Urbanspoon, to scope out the cheapest eats.
Also, be mindful of how you choose to share costs. If you want to be a jerk — and who doesn’t? — make sure your travel partner is always the first one to fill up the tank or cover a meal for the party. That way, you are assured of never shelling out more in body and vehicle fuel costs than your buddy, and have a 50 percent chance of paying less than your pal.