On June 1st I hit the road in my '09 Mazda3. Eighty-five days, 19,000 miles, 3 oil changes, and 38 states & provinces later, I'll have found myself in Tennessee (next week) to start anew. But what I really want to convey in this thread is how cheaply and easily this extensive road trip was done. The entire journey only put me out about $3,300, which equates to roughly $35-40 per day.
On that budget, you could do a two-week, cross-country-and-back trip for about $600
in an efficient car like the Mazda3. And that's traveling alone. Buddy up with a friend or two, split the bill, and you're really talking budget travel now.
The tricks? Well, you have to be willing to rough it a bit.
1. Sleep in your car.
It's not that bad. Really, in the driver seat of the 3 with a pair of sweats folded into the crease (where the back meets the seat), it's perfectly fine. I'm 6'1" and had little problem getting a good night's rest. Where to park? Back corners of motel parking lots is usually a safe bet (and provides wireless Internet for your laptop, if you have one), but county parks, free campgrounds, some highway pull-offs and rest areas, and even truck stop and Walmart parking lots (if you don't mind lights and traffic) all work just as well. One in twenty times you'll have a tap on your window at 2am asking you to move, but never anything more. What to watch out for? Empty parking lots of closed businesses. Stick to 24-hour operations.
2. Shower at truck stops
. Combined with sleeping in your car, this completely eliminates the need for motel rooms, which is the biggest money saver. The interstates are littered with truck stops/travel plazas (Pilot, TA, Loves, Flying J, etc.), but you'll even find some on the highways and state routes. Cost is usually $8-12, you get as much time as you need (so you can shave and clean up as well), everything is clean including fresh towels. And more often than not, soap is provided as well, but it's a safer bet to have some of your own just in case (as well as shampoo). I've also never run into a truck stop that was too busy at all, so don't worry about encroaching on truckers.
3. Eat wholesome & healthy
. Restaurants and fast food are off the menu on the road. Best idea, in my opinion, is to decide on a meal plan before leaving, but you can also see what works best for you as you go. Grocery stores are everywhere, and have everything you need for a lot cheaper than any dine-in meals. My diet mostly consisted of garbanzo beans (good staple food), whole grain bread, peanut butter, fresh fruits, V8s, mixed nuts, and a daily protein bar and multivitamin. I'm already a healthy weight and didn't gain or lose a pound on this diet, and had plenty of energy. So barring special circumstances, I'm sure most anybody can do it.
4. Wash your clothes at laundromats
. Again, along with points one and two, this eliminates the need for motels. Laundromats are in every town, big and small. They're not hard to find. Cost is usually a total of about $3-4 for one load of laundry. Extra bonus is, it sometimes gives you an opportunity to get to know a local or two in that town as well, which is something a lot of travelers pass up on. Truck stops also usually have coin-op washer and dryers, but usually only one set, so I avoid those to leave them to the truckers who might need them. At most laundromats, you'll be in and out within an hour or so.
5. Budget the rest of your expenses
. Depending on your resources and what you want to do (of course), there's a lot of small ways to squeeze your budget on the road as well. Want to get off the highway and do something? State parks are usually cheap and/or free and often offer various activities and scenic views, as well as camping. Side treks to lakes and other scenic destinations will provide some free entertainment as well. More touristy attractions (caverns, museums, national parks, etc.) will cost you a bit more, so choose wisely if you'd like to explore those options. But really, it's the small things that make road-tripping memorable and enjoyable, and money doesn't have to be spent to achieve that. And since you're saving so much money in other areas (above), you have that flexibility to venture off the beaten path some more.
That's really about it. Of course, this kind of traveling isn't for everybody. But if you're the type that can rough it a little, and just likes to hit the road on a summer vacation, or just wander and discover new sights & sounds, I hope this shows that it's really a lot cheaper and easier to accomplish than most people imagine. So I'm hoping maybe I provide some fodder for inspiration by posting this.
If anybody has any questions at all about this kind of travel, feel free to post here or PM me any time.