“All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road.” ― Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"
There’s arguably no country better suited to a road trip than the United States of America. For the past 70 years, explorers have been hitting the highway to discover precisely what makes the journey of America’s backroads and raw wilderness more noteworthy than the final destination.
It’s a phenomenon known as the “Great American Road Trip.”
The Great American Road Trip has no defined route. Allowing you the freedom to link national parks, noteworthy destinations, and a web of scenic highways through the remarkable, but lesser-visited, landscapes of America. Either circumnavigating or cutting through the heart of our sprawling nation. You’ll traverse snow-capped mountain passes in Colorado, drive through herds of roaming bison in Wyoming, and pass under the crisp fall leaves in New England. You’ll immerse yourself in the varied cultural pockets of America and come out with a better understanding of our own backyard.
While many past nights on the road ended in seedy motels, road-trippers of today have another option. Vanlife. Whether you rent an RV or build your own budget-friendly DIY conversion van, you’ll be free to linger between towns, sleeping under a blanket of stars all while surrounded by the country’s stunning natural beauty.
Van life and the iconic U.S. road trip are a romantic idea, but in practice, it takes planning, both logistically and financially.
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Van living changed the game for American road trips. Not only are you able to get further from urban centers, since you’re no longer tied to motels and cheap lodging, but the overall cost of travel in America is dramatically reduced.
But vanlife isn’t quite as cheap (or glamourous) as many Instagram influencers want you to think. Don’t get me wrong, it’s undoubtedly the cheapest way to see the United States. But for seasoned budget travelers, the price tag of gas alone raises eyebrows.
My Route Across America
Setting our sights on seeing as many iconic American cities and National Parks we could muster in several months, we set off in September 2020 from Seattle, Washington. After countless hours spent pouring over road maps, we shaped our route, connecting the dots between bucket list destinations in the most scenic way possible.
To save money where we could, we planned to cook our own meals, drink less (if any) alcohol, and visit all the contiguous U.S. National Parks, but like all well-laid plans on the road, things go awry.
In the end, we ate much more take-out than we thought. Under the guise of eating our way across America, we spent one-third of our total budget in restaurants. We covered a whopping 18,000 road miles across 37 states and thoroughly explored 28 of America’s most striking National Parks.
So, how much exactly did this fantastical cross-country road trip in a van cost?
My Complete USA Road Trip Budget Breakdown
Here’s exactly what we spent while traveling the United States for three months in a campervan.
The average fill-up was $49.08
Eating in Restaurants: $1,876.04
Most Expensive Stops: $44 lobster rolls in Maine, $59 for an iconic southern home-cooked meal at Mary Macs in Atlanta, and $80 for an Asian-fusion smorgasbord dinner in D.C.
Average restaurant meal cost: $22.88
Alcohol (local breweries & restaurants): $746.37
National Parks Pass: $80
State Parks Passes & Canoe Rentals: $81.50
Mostly was spent in Florida. Their state parks each cost around $6.
Parking & Tolls: $83.50
INSIDER TIPI highly recommend setting your GPS to “avoid highways & avoid tolls.” You’ll find the most scenic routes across the U.S. and won’t accidentally end up paying a fortune in tolls.
Speeding Ticket: $30 (North Dakota)
Water Refills: $46.85
Van Repairs/Maintenance (oil changes): $120.15
Extra Clothes & Accessories: $80
Snorkel gear, warm (dry) socks, & an extra sweatshirt.
Total Cost: $6,267.07 for two people on the road for 3 months.
A trip of this magnitude could easily cost twice this amount if you relied on staying in motels instead of utilizing a van or RV.
10 Tips to Save You Money
You can spend a lot less than we did on the road. Here are some tips to help you save some serious cash as you crisscross America.
Choose a Smaller Route
Your Great American Road Trip doesn’t need to cover the entire United States. Focus on a few regions that fascinate you and spend more time in them. Cutting down on miles is one of the biggest money-savers for long-term road trips.
Choose a Vehicle With Decent Gas Mileage
Many van models only get an average of 10 mpg.
Plan to Cook 90% of Your Own Meals and Keep It Simple
At the end of a long driving day, the last thing you’ll want to do is cook a gourmet meal. Save money by having easy-to-make meals on hand.
Use Gas Buddy for Cheap Gas
This app helps you to locate the cheapest gas stations along your route.
Buy the “America the Beautiful” National Parks Pass
If your cross-country road trip involves more than three National Parks (and it should), this annual parks pass will save you money.
Avoid Fast Food & Coffee Shops
Although these seem like road trip staples, they’re going to cost you a fortune in unnecessary expenses on a long-term road trip. We saved more than $600 alone by making coffee in our French press each morning versus stopping for espresso.
Use Spot Angels for Free City Parking and Utilize Grocery Store Parking Lots
It’s not always glamorous, but it’s always free.
Ioverlander Will Find You Scenic Parking
One of the major benefits of road-tripping in a van is the ability to wake-up surrounded by nature. This app can help you make it happen.
Have a Shower Plan
Whether it’s a gym membership like Planet Fitness or a solar-heated shower bag, you’ll want to have a plan in place for showering. Especially if you’re traveling during the winter months. Campground showers are few and far between, with some costing up to $5 a shower.
Drink Less Alcohol
Those post-hike beers and brewery stops after a long day may seem essential but they add up quickly.
Although $6,000 is no small chunk of change, if you break down the total cost per person per day it comes down to a measly $14.82. Nearly the same as the Great American Road Trip would have cost in the 1950s when it was founded. And you could easily spend far less if you diligently follow the cross-country campervan road trip tips listed above. There’s no better time or better way to hit the open road and explore our vast backyard.