Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Taking a Budget Road Trip: Part 2: Lodging

Yesterday, I introduced Part 1: The Basics

Road-trip lodging might include:
  • Staying with friends
  • Couchsurfing
  • Sleeping in the car
  • Camping
  • Staying in a motel
  • Hostels
  • Informal B and Bs

All of the above have their advantages and disadvantages. Variables include:
  • Money
  • Time
  • Safety
  • Privacy
  • General hassle (however you define "hassle" for yourself)
  • Sleep needs
  • Hygienic needs
  • If traveling alone or with others

2007 Road trip - Taos

Staying with friends

On the surface, it may seem like a no-brainer to stay with a friend who lives along your road trip route.

Maybe, maybe not.

Money. Some people are inveterate "over-gifters." These are sweet folks who cannot feel comfortable staying at another's house unless they buy a meal for all household members plus bring a significant gift. If you fall into this category, weigh the actual cost of staying at the friend's house versus a viable lodging alternative. You can always meet the friend for a cup of coffee, which has the added advantage of managing the time variable.


Time includes planning time. Crashing at a friend's place requires a little or a lot of advance preparation to make sure your schedules mesh. If your itinerary is fluid, it may require numerous contacts with your friend to check back on availability.

Time also includes face time with the friend. Do you just want to get to the friend's house, chat a bit, crash, then get on the road early the next morning? If yes, will that be possible with the friend? Or will you need to invest time socializing late into the night or for a large portion of the following day?

Finally, time includes how long it will take to get to/from your main route and the friend's house. If you've got a friend who lives "in" St. Louis, does this mean s/he's within a few minutes of your route or is she actually 20 miles south of St. Louis, where you'll traverse various highways, then two bumper-to-bumper arterials, til you finally get to that side street where the friend lives? And then repeat it all the next day, hoping to miss the worst of the morning rush? 

2007 Road trip - Grand Canyon


Couchsurfing means that you're crashing at a stranger's house, who's agreed to put you up for the night, no charge. (Here are some couchsurfing etiquette tips.)

For those of us who are social creatures, what a terrific concept!  Meeting new people. Getting the insider's view of the city.

It's not for all of us, though. For example, I'm an introvert and I like to be able to escape to my cave. The idea of having to be "on" for an evening or longer with a stranger isn't relaxing for me.

The money and time variables for staying with a friend also apply to couchsurfing.

Safety. Although there are ways to mitigate the safety risk of couchsurfing, your personal risk threshold may just be too low to allow for couchsurfing. In that case, pass on it. A road trip is supposed to be fun, not create stress.

Privacy. Some couchsurfing hosts offer private rooms; some don't. Weigh your privacy needs with what prospective hosts have to offer and the cost of alternative lodging.

General hassle.

Everyone defines "hassle" for themselves. For me, "hassle" would include:
  • Complicated, drawn-out negotiations or instructions related to the lodging, whatever the type. 
  • Lots of rules.
  • Having to deviate too far from my main route to get to the lodging.

So a couchsurfing situation that pushes the above buttons for me - I'd probably take a pass.

Sleep and hygienic needs.

When you're couchsurfing, you're at someone's house, not a hotel. The housekeeping might not meet your tolerance threshold. Maybe the hosts have cats and you're allergic. Or you're not allergic, but the litter box smells. Or the host's place is right next to the airport.

You don't go into a couchsurfing place completely blind, but there are limits to what you know up front.

If traveling with others.

If you're traveling with one or two others, it may be more difficult to couchsurf.

2007 Road trip - Kayenta

Sleeping in the car

Yes, I've done this. On a road trip to the Black Hills. A road trip to Alaska. A road trip in France.  And at least one other trip.

In none of those cases did I plan to sleep in the car. It just worked out that way because:
  • We drove so late that we became too tired to drive any further to a hotel; 
  • We couldn't find a hotel; 
  • The hotel I did find was scarier than the prospect of sleeping in my car; or
  • The hotels in the area were just too expensive. 

I will say that I've never just pulled off the road to sleep in my car. Or maybe I did.

In one case, my brother and I drove into an empty campground in France and slept in the car there. It was scary, though. The trees were leafless and had been topped. They looked like headless creatures. A fog permeated the grounds. It was a veritable vampire attractant.

In at least two other cases, I slept in well-lit interstate rest areas. The advantage of a rest area is flush toilets and potable water. Plus I've found there is sufficient incoming/outgoing traffic to ensure I'm not alone for long ... 'course, that's a potential disadvantage, as well. 

In this roadtripamerica thread are suggestions for other possibles: truck-stop parking lots, hospital parking lots, and hotel parking lots. Not saying they're good suggestions, just suggestions. An excellent resource I gleaned from this thread was Free Campsites, which points you to free campsites (including the parking lots of some stores, where you could car-sleep) all over the U.S.

(Awhile back, I wrote about Glenn Campbell (not that Glenn Campbell) at Homeless by Choice and his lodging strategy at "Walmart Motels," which is sort of a cross between sleeping in your car and camping.)  

Money. Like staying with friends and couchsurfing, car sleeping saves money. For many, perhaps most of us, however, other variables outweigh the $$$ savings.

Time. General hassle. Extremely economical in time and hassle. Pull in, sleep, pull out. No advance planning. No socializing.

Safety.  Concerns about safety may rule this option out for many travelers. If you're traveling with someone else, you may be more comfortable with it.

Privacy. Another disadvantage of sleeping in your car. There really is no privacy when you're sleeping in your vehicle, unless you have a vehicle in which you can cover the windows. To achieve privacy, you can pull your vehicle over to a secluded area that draws no traffic, but that may also make you more vulnerable to attack.
Sleep needs. If I'm sleeping in my car, I'm likely to have a lighter sleep than if I were in a more traditional place.

Hygienic needs. If I'm at a rest area, I can wash my face and brush my teeth, use a flush toilet, and wash my hands with soap.  If I sleep in a place with no facilities, then I will still do OK, because I will have packed a jug of water and at least waterless soap and have a washcloth and hand towel. And toilet paper. Good to go. I don't want to do that every day, but once in awhile, no problem.

Traveling with others. Sleeping in the car is definitely safer when traveling with someone else versus traveling solo.

2008 Road trip - Monument Valley



If I camp, it's likely I'll pay less than $20 for a campsite per night. That assumes non-electric sites, which is a vanishing category in many campgrounds. (On the other hand, camping in some Bureau of Land Management and other lands is free!) The longer my road trip is, the more attractive camping becomes in my lodging plan.

Free Campsites directs visitors to free campsites all over the U.S.

Time. Assuming tent camping, it takes time to set up and break camp. It may take considerable time to drive from your main route to the campground, up to an hour, depending not only on distance, but road conditions. (Driving a switchback up a mountain is slow work even on a well-paved road.) Checking in takes time. Selecting a campsite takes time.

Safety. Assuming you're in a campground, and you don't do something completely stupid, like rub yourself with ground beef before you turn in for the night in bear country, camping is very safe.

Privacy. With some exception, privacy not much of a concern, unless you've got the rare situation of loud neighbors.

General hassle. It takes time to set up and break down camp, which is why I generally don't camp unless I'll be in the same place for at least two nights. Unless you really go bare bones on the camping bit (sleeping in your car and not cooking), there's a hassle in that you have to pack more gear that takes up more space in your vehicle - a tent, sleeping bag(s), cook stove, gas, lantern, etc.

Sleep needs. If you awaken with each noise outside your tent thinking it might be a bear or a mountain lion or a Deliverance-style local or snake, then you might have a more relaxed time in a motel.  You want to have fun on your trip - not feel anxious. 

Hygienic needs. There may or may not be showers. Or flush toilets. You'll need to have a water container and your own soap.

Traveling alone or with others. Whether alone or with a companion, it's pretty hard to beat the good time of poking a fire with a stick. I've camped alone and I felt safe. Most of the time. (One time an idiot camp host scared me with his story of coyotes invading a camper's tent the night before I arrived.)

2007 Road trip - Las Vegas, NM

Staying in a motel

I have a different standard for a motel where I'll stay only one night versus one I'll stay in for multiple nights. For one night, I can overlook charmlessness in exchange for cost savings.

A good budget motel has:
  • Clean bed;
  • Floor that I feel is clean enough to walk on barefoot;  
  • Clean bathroom; 
  • Shower that works; 
  • TV that works; 
  • Free wireless; 
  • Coffeemaker in the room; 
  • Secure door and windows; 
  • Air conditioner that works; and 
  • An ice machine somewhere on the premises. 

I don't care about the decor or how dated it is. I also don't care if it has a free breakfast, although sometimes this is nice.

General motel tips:
I prefer locally-owned, non-chain motels, but those aren't always available or within my road trip budget.

Generally-reliable chain motelsSuper 8 and Fairfield Inn (Marriott) are generally reliable cost- and quality-wise. I particularly favor Super 8s because they have free wireless, a microwave, and small fridge. Plus a free breakfast (but see note below).

Motel 6s seem to be OK if they are brand new; otherwise, my experience hasn't been good with them - they emit a sort of dodgy vibe. Motels like Days Inn and similar class - generally budget-friendly, but erratic in quality.

I do find it helpful to stop by a state's "welcome center" rest area to pick up the motel coupon books. Then I call the motel while I'm on the road to reserve a room for that night.

"Free" breakfast. Given a choice between a $50 hotel room without a "free" breakfast and a $60 or higher motel with, I'll select the $50 motel. The vast majority of time, the "free" breakfast is unsatisfying or unhealthy. I do better having breakfast out of my small cooler or by stopping at a restaurant and getting exactly what I want for the same or less than the "free" breakfast. Another thing to consider is that if you intend to get back on the road before 6:00 a.m., that "free" breakfast won't even be set up yet.

Discounts. In most cases, the AAA, AARP, and government discount rates are the same. Sometimes the government (or military) rates are lower.  If you don't belong to at least one of these sectors, join one.

Frequent sleeper plans. If you travel frequently for work, become a "frequent sleeper" member of one or two hotel chains with a large "family" of hotel brands. Both Marriott and Hilton have a nice continuum of budget through upscale brands. You do especially well if you usually stay at the higher-end brand for work and then use your free-stay points on the economical brands in the "family" during vacation road trips.

Be willing to do some footwork. When I swing into a town that has several motels, I'll gravitate to the one I think will meet all of my criteria first. But if the price is too high, I won't hesitate to hop back in the car and check out the other motels.  (If I had a smart phone with really fast and easy web access, I'd sit in the parking lot and do my checking around by phone.)

Security. If I'm by myself, I usually ask for a room on the second floor.

Money. On a road trip, budget motel means $70 or less to me. I strive for $50. Sometimes I can't get under $70, but usually I can.

Time. Other than sleeping in your vehicle, a motel stay is the most economical of your time. Other than check-in, there's no set up, and you leave as early as you want the next morning.

Safety. Lock your door. Lock your windows (if they open at all). Other than that, really, the vast majority of motels are entirely safe.

General hassle. Sleep needs. Hygienic needs. Not usually issues.

Traveling alone or with others. Pretty much, two travel cheaply as one when it comes to motel stays. If you share a household, this is a neutral factor. Otherwise, it's a cost savings for you as individuals, since you can split the cost.


A hostel is a form of lodging that:
  • Is less expensive than a motel;
  • Has some form of shared space, such as the sleeping room (i.e. dorm), bathrooms, kitchen, or living areas.
  • One generally finds in locations that draw high tourist traffic, whether that's an urban (NYC) or rural setting (i.e. the Abominable Snowmansion near Taos).

Other than the above features, I wouldn't want to pigeonhole all hostels as serving a particular age, socio-economic, educational, cultural or travel-style demographic.

Check them out! Here are websites that list hostels:
Hostelling International

Informal B and Bs

Airbnb is ... well, here's what Airbnb says about itself:  "Rent nightly from real people in 15,263 cities in 184 countries."  This video explains more:

Go to the Taking a Budget Road Trip page.  

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