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It's just the two of you, the open road, and a limited amount of cash. Just because you're on a budget doesn't mean you can't have a blast.
Step 1: Research your stops
The web is a great—and free—way to research potential stops before you leave.
Step 2: Bring an atlas
Bring an up-to-date road atlas and check out guidebooks from the library. Try to plot a route that avoids toll roads and big cities, where parking is expensive.
Borrow a friend’s GPS navigation device, or go to a site like buy.com and purchase a refurbished one that’s much cheaper than new and still comes with a warranty.
Step 3: Get inspected
Since a repair on the road can eat up your vacation time—and funds—have your car fully inspected before you leave. Ask your mechanic for a refresher course on some basic maintenance, like checking the fluids and changing a flat.
Step 4: Pack an emergency kit
Just in case, pack an emergency kit that includes a flashlight and extra batteries, road flares, a first-aid kit, towels, a whistle, jumper cables, waterproof matches, rope and bungee cords, rain gear, a box-cutter, a tool kit, duct tape, a small shovel, some water, and cash.
Step 5: Sign up for roadside assistance
Sign up for a roadside assistance plan, which can help with emergency repairs and offer discounts and maps for your trip. Depending on where you live, AAA ranges from about $30 to $80 for a primary account, plus a sign-up fee. BWC is similar with membership fees that start at around $50.
Step 6: Hit the supermarket
Stock up on groceries, and use your supply for all snacks and one or two meals a day. Pack perishables and meals you’ll want to cook over a campfire in a cooler. Go for bottled drinks, and don’t forget about paper towels, utensils, storage bags, garbage bags, and toilet paper.
Bring a refillable water bottle, and fill up wherever you can for free.
Step 7: Minimize gas costs
Minimize your fuel costs. Find a car with good gas mileage, drive during the cooler parts of the day so you don’t need the AC, and maintain a steady speed or use cruise control.
Get a rough estimate of what your fuel costs will be with the fuel cost calculator at roadtripamerica.com. Sites like gasprices.mapquest.com can help you find the cheapest gas on your route.
Step 8: Stay with pals
If you’ve got friends or relatives along the way, ask in advance if you can stay overnight. For the adventurous, couchsurfing.com can hook you up with a friendly stranger willing to host you for the night.
Don’t wear out your welcome. Keep your visit short.
Step 9: Camp out
Cheap motels are great, but if the weather’s good, why not hunker down for the night at a campsite? They generally run for less than $30 a night, and some may even offer amenities like firewood and showers.
Some campsites may require reservations in advance, especially if it’s the busy season, so plan ahead.
Step 10: Visit a national park
National parks are beautiful, offer a variety of activities like hiking and swimming, and are generally inexpensive. An annual pass, which gives you access to all federal recreation sites, only costs $80. See nps.gov for details.
Step 11: Provide your own entertainment
Provide your own entertainment. Lots of cars now have built-in auxiliary jacks for MP3 players, but you can also find relatively inexpensive car adapters at your local electronics store. Bring reading material and a portable DVD player plus a few of your favorite movies.
Step 12: Enjoy the adventure
It doesn’t cost you anything to be psyched! Take pictures, make friends, see great stuff, and enjoy the adventure!
Did You Know?
Highway routes with odd numbers run north and south, while routes with even numbers run east and west.