Making a Long Road Trip Affordable

 

An 8 week long road trip could easily be horrendously expensive, in fact, quite unaffordable.  We quickly realised this fact when we started to plan ours.  In fact, for a while, we began to think we couldn’t afford this trip and would have to think again.

I have already detailed how by shopping around – a lot – we managed to reduce the air fare and car hire to an expensive, but affordable rate.

I guess, I should have added into that article on planning, that we also chose the smallest car that would work for our luggage and for the terrain.  When we had paid jobs and were travelling with the girls, we used to rent SUVs and Xover vehicles, loving the extra space and height,  and on first glance, a trip through the Rockies might indicate the need for a large 4 wheel drive.  However, we were advised – and we checked – that even if you rent a 4 wheel drive, you are banned from using it off road or even on non paved roads.  Yes!  Even if you rent a 4 wheel drive, you are not allowed – or at least covered – if you take it off road. It’s in the very small print.  So, to be honest, there’s little point in renting one in this instance.  We “might” take our regular car onto well maintained gravel roads and live with that risk, but we won’t be driving over the dirt in our hire car.  Well…. not on purpose!  We did once end up driving 40 miles in a Ford Fiesta on a boulder strewn, rutted cart track in South Africa but that’s another story..  Driving the Prince Albert Pass  and by the way, the road today looks NOTHING like the one in the little video.  The video road looks pretty civilised in comparison to what its actually like!

Ditto snowy roads.  Apparently, in the mountain states, if you rent a car and there is a risk of snow during the rental term, it will be fitted with All Weather tyres.  Or you can get them fitted FOC.  Snow chains are apparently a complicated factor and you need to check with your provider if they can be fitted to the vehicle.  Or you could just stay an extra night in your accommodation….  we’re hoping to avoid any snow but best to be prepared!

So, as I mentioned in my last blog, this time, as there’s only 2 of us, we’re going for a reasonably compact 4 door car which is big enough for us and our luggage but is cheap and more fuel efficient.  Oh, yes, and I recommend Skyscanner for finding cheap car deals.

Enough about cars…. Petrol is cheap by European standards in the USA, so as long as you pick an economic car, you can economise that way over the equivalent European trip.

The next big expense is going to be accommodation.  We are pretty lucky in this regard in that because we own Marriott timeshare, we have an enormous amount of Marriott Reward points, as well as some timeshare weeks that we can use to swap for accommodation.  We, therefore, made the decision, that where we could, we would stay at a Marriott brand hotel on points, or we would get a timeshare swap.

The timeshare swap in fact only worked for one of our weeks.  There is very little timeshare in the Rockies other than in the Colorado ski resorts.  There is some in points north, but not in places we were going, and not much.  So we got a week in Breckenridge at the end of our stay.  We tried for a week in the Durango/Telluride area but they are as rare as hen’s teeth and we eventually gave up on that.

We had much more luck with our Marriott reward points and we used them for 14 nights accommodation.  So, 3 weeks in total “for free” courtesy of Marriott.  And all of the Marriott properties give us a free hot breakfast and some of them give us free food and drink in the evening 3 nights a week.  Mostly, we used our points at Marriott Residence Inn or Marriott Springhill Suites, long stay resorts that come with full kitchens.

So, what did we do for the rest of our stay?  I must confess…. I’m not a camper…. if I was, that would have been a good option for holding costs down.  Tent camping, I mean.  RV camping is only cost effective if you own the RV and live in country.  Otherwise once you’ve paid for the rental and then added in the cost of fuelling the beast and then overnight fees, it just doesn’t make economic sense.  Plus, it’s not very flexible as a rental.  I mean, do you want to go to the movies or the supermarket or dinner in some small town in a great big rv???? And navigating narrow mountain pass roads in one???   Have you ever seen that Robin Williams film, “RV”????  That would be us…   People who live in the US and own rvs don’t have all these extra costs and they also probably tow motorbikes or a small car for running around in.    Renting an RV and road tripping has it’s many attractions, don’t get me wrong, but economy isn’t one of them.

So if you’re looking to economise on a road trip, camping in a tent could work (but not for us).

Proper hotels/motels/airbnbs it would be.

It was important to us to stay inside the National Parks when we were visiting them, rather than travel in every day.  Equally, there were other locations where we wanted to stay in a particular historic hotel.  We would try and economise around these “pegs in the ground”.

First, we eliminated the National Park accommodation that we needed.  There’s no question of getting these rooms “cheap” or discounted.  So while we couldn’t exactly make this cheap, we economised where we could by choosing the cheapest room types nearly everywhere.  There were a couple of places where we felt it was worth splurging on the “big” view rooms, otherwise we decided we’d see the view anyway…..  Although the rooms in the NP lodging are not 5 star, even the most basic are perfectly fine.  We chose the cheapest rooms with an ensuite.  We could have saved more by opting for a cabin with no bathroom.  The bathroom blocks are perfectly nice but, at our age, middle of the night visits are likely and we didn’t fancy bumping into a bear en route!  However, if you are younger or have a more reliable bladder, the basic cabins are a very good choice.

For the rest, we searched on TripAdvisor/Booking.com/Airbnb/VRBO to find the best room for our budgeted price, in the best location in the town we wanted.  It took a fair, bit of research online, but, in the end, we got it all together.  We used filters to choose places on price, location, free parking, free wifi, free hot breakfast…  We looked at reviews and eliminated any accommodation that wasn’t at least rated a 4 out of 5. We read a good number of the reviews for each property.

In a way, a road trip, helps you economise.  It’s not like a resort holiday where you are going to spend 2 weeks at the place, and it really matters that it is superbly comfortable with many facilities and that you actually like the decor.  In many cases, this will be somewhere you only sleep in one or two nights.  You’re going to be out all day.  All that really matters is that you have a comfortable, clean room with a good bed in a quiet, secure location.  At least in a good percentage of locations.  Economising by staying in chain motels when you can, allows you to splurge a bit in other locations. Like the National Parks and the rather amazing historic hotels dotted around the west.

I built up a spreadsheet of our expenses as the trip built and this helped keep an eye on costs.  I had columns for total cost of the item, what we’d paid in advance, and what we would still have to pay on arrival in USD.  I also added if it provided a free breakfast. Many of the hotels booked on TripAdvisor/Booking.com/Expedia offer free cancellation almost to the point of arrival.  This means that if the spreadsheet started to show the need for more economy, I could go back and revisit the more expensive items and trade down.  On the other hand, those booking sites sometimes offer a markedly cheaper room rate for a “non cancellation” booking and if this was well within our budget, then I felt safe going for it.

It is also worth noting that Booking.com in particular offers a “Genius discount” on some hotels.  This gives you a 10 or 15% discount on certain hotels and even a free breakfast.  You start to unlock benefits after just 2 nights booked within a two year window and once you are “in”, these benefits stay with you.  So, it is can be worth making hotel arrangements through Booking.com to get into this loyalty programme, especially as they’re a pretty good booking agency anyway.  And look for hotels offering the Genius discount after that, or if not, for a special offer rate, both of which you can filter on in a search.  We qualified due to hotels we booked through them as far back as 2012 and this enabled us to get discounts on hotels for this trip which we took advantage of.

We have booked some rooms with Airbnb and VRBO, especially in some of the more remote mountain locations (not NPs).  They work well but you have to watch the extra fees on top of the headline room rate.  For example you will see something advertised at $90 per night and then when you actually put in the dates, the total suddenly ramps up to $170 for the night due to cleaning fees, admin etc.  As a general rule, they are not cost effective for very short stays, less than 3 nights.

I want to discuss food at this point because it impacts on the choice of accommodation.  We decided for a couple of reasons that on this trip we would need to self cater wherever we could.  One reason for this, is that we are watching our weight and we know from long experience, that if we aren’t very careful we can put on massive amounts in the USA.

But, the major reason we will self cater, is cost saving.  We’re not fast food eaters, so saving money by dining out in McDonalds or KFC is not something we’re going to do, but it should be noted that there are a vast array of such dineries in the States and some of them are not too bad in terms of a healthy choice. And it is a cheap option. I’ll leave you to research that!

By self catering as many meals as possible, when we can self cater, we can afford to eat out in locations where we can’t self cater i.e. the National Parks.  So, we looked for rooms which either have a full kitchen like the extended stay hotels, or for Airbnb/VRBOs which offer a kitchen.  Even if a full kitchen is not on offer, many hotel/motels offer a microwave/fridge/coffee/tea maker and this is enough to allow you to self cater breakfast and dinner, if necessary.  Doing this, we will probably have to eat dinner out only 23 nights of our 8 weeks.  A major saving. A lot of hotels offer a free hot breakfast or at least a continental breakfast and where this is not true, (yep… the National Parks!!) we will go for a microwave breakfast (Bob really likes them!!) or have yoghurt or cereal.  This pretty much eliminates the need to purchase a breakfast.

One good tip we have picked up on the roadtrip forums, is how to carry picnic food for lunches and food for self catering in general.  Following this guidance, we will buy a large hard-shell chiller box when we arrive and we will bring with us a smaller material one, and some large and small ziplock bags. Oh, and we’ll buy some paper plates and picnic cutlery.   At the start of the trip, we’ll buy shopping (breakfasts, lunches and dinners) for the coming “phase” (say a week) of our journey, plus a big bag of ice and load it into the large chiller box which becomes our portable fridge/freezer.  Every day, we’ll make lunch (probably cold cuts or a sandwich), ziplock it,  and put it into the smaller box, with ice in a separate ziplock bag if necessary and that becomes our lunchbox.  Nearly all hotels have free ice making machines on every floor, and so we can keep our ice topped up as we travel along.    Many hotel/motels also have bbq facilities and we can also utilise these as well as the microwaves and kitchens.  As we travel, we’ll top the meals up as required.

I know…. it’s a bit of a faff.  “I can’t be bothered”, I hear you say…..  and I would agree if you were looking at a week or a couple of weeks (unless I was travelling with a big family).  But for an extended trip like this, if affordability is a concern, it is the way to go.

Another cost saving strategy, depending on your preferences, could be to have a really big breakfast, hopefully a free one,  and then to just have a soft drink and a fruit bar or snack at lunchtime, or even, no lunch and then a decent early dinner.

Frankly, we love eating out in nice restaurants, but on this trip, after a busy day, it won’t be a hardship to eat in and enjoy food and some wine in our own resort, and it will make it all the more special when we do eat in a restaurant.

We’ll also carry with us our own wine and beer.  You can buy bottled alcohol pretty cheaply in off licences, generally next door to a supermarket, but wine and beer by the glass in US restaurants is comparatively expensive.  Carrying our own works with self catering anyway.

Because we are not eating out a great deal, we can eat where we like more or less.  If we weren’t self catering then we would look for deals, often found at “family” style diners.  Yes, there still are some in small towns.  Not on the highways.  You need to get off them when looking for food.  They often offer a “blue plate special” or a “senior deal” or an “earlybird special”.  In our experience they are much better than the fast food joints.  Some chains are ok.  Dennys is quite good for breakfast especially and they offer a whole Seniors menu which has slightly smaller portions and cheaper prices.  It’s still plenty!  And don’t forget your coffee gets topped up endlessly for free!!!!

We’re going to a lot of National Parks and we will save money by buying an Annual Pass which gives us a year’s unlimited entry to over 2000 sites for $80.  This covers our car and up to 4 occupants, so one pass is all that is required.  I calculate that without it, we would spend over $200 on entry fees, so it’s definitely worth it.  We could buy it online but we’ll probably just buy it at the first park we enter.

One major plus about this particular road trip is that the vast majority of the “entertainment” is free: beautiful views and scenery; hikes, nature, wildlife viewing, national monuments.  A great deal of our time will be spent enjoying activities which will cost us nothing more than we’ve already spent in getting there.  And on some days, the journey is the “activity”.  We’ll be travelling through some of the most incredible scenery in the world and stopping and enjoying that will be “for free”.

A great thing about visiting the National Parks is that there are a lot of free activities on offer, especially if you are staying on site.  We can take part in free ranger lead hikes and walks, nature spotting, nature talks, stargazing sessions with telescopes provided, bonfires with storytelling….    Where there are charges, we will take advantage of Senior rates where they apply to non-citizens.

Other things to note.  We have a Halifax Clarity credit card which we use exclusively when we are travelling outside the UK.  It does not charge a foreign transaction charge unlike many credit and debit cards which charge you something like £2 every time you use them.  We use it to buy items, and we also use it to take cash from ATMs.  If you use it for cash withdrawal, the interest starts that day.  So, when we take cash, later that evening we go online to our UK bank account and transfer that money over to the Halifax to cover the cash withdrawal.  This minimises interest charges.  The Post Office offer a similar card.

My mobile contract is with EE.  I have a Max option on my plan which I negotiated at a really good price.  This gives me “same as the UK” access in – of course – all the EU countries but crucially, 5 others: USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.  Bob doesn’t have this option but it doesn’t matter because we only need one phone that works when we travel.  This option means that we can use my phone within the contract for calls and for data ie GPS and mapping.  No need to rent a GPS with the hire car (although you need a map book because phone signal in the wilds can be spotty).  We have used this plan in the USA, Australia and NZ and saved a fortune.  Well worth checking out with your provider as they all offer something along those lines.  Or, less good, but still better than nothing, you can buy a daily or monthly “overseas bundle”. Or consider buying a cheap pay as you go phone  on arrival that comes with a data and call bundle of some kind.  We do this in India and Turkey.

I’m sure this goes without saying, but one economy it is definitely not worth making, is not having decent travel insurance which covers at least $2 million in medical costs as well as loss of luggage etc.  On a long road trip( or indeed any holiday to the USA) , you don’t want to be worrying that a small fall could effectively bankrupt you.  It’s just not worth the risk.  If your bank account doesn’t provide this (ours does with Lloyds), then look online via Moneysavingexpert.com to find a good annual travel policy that covers the length of your entire trip.  Some do cover trips of more than 45 days as standard but if not, it is quite likely you can pay a small amount more to upgrade it.

Having done this research and made these plans, we can be much more confident of staying within budget and we can also enjoy our splurges without worrying that we’re over spending.  If we go to a restaurant for dinner we can be guilt free because we know we’ve “earned it” elsewhere.

 

 

 

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