Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Updated: Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 4: Pack List

On June 24, 2011, I published Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 4: Pack List. This was from my Take a Road Trip series.

Below is the updated version:

Road to Monument Valley. October 2007.

There are 6 categories for road-trip packing:

1.    Personal
2.    Picnic
3.    Road-trip comfort
4.    Emergency
5.    Camping, if applicable
6.    Tourist gear

Clothes drying on a tree branch. Rustavi, Georgia (Caucasus). September 2011.

Personal gear

Clothes - How much should I pack?

There should be an algorithm to calculate the answer to this question, considering:

Duration of trip + number of days you're willing to wear each clothing item before washing it + (un)willingness to wash clothes in sink or laundromat + diversity of temperatures on route + diversity of road trip activities, e.g. athletic, casual, or dressy.

Here's what works for me:
  1. If my road trip is for a week or less, I don't want to launder clothes on the road, so I'll bring enough to last the duration. 
  2. If my road trip is for longer than a week, I'll assume a trip to a laundromat and pack accordingly. Note: Most motels have coin-operated washing machine and dryers.
  3. I wear trousers for three days and a shirt for two days.
  4. I pack specialty items (e.g. a dressy outfit) in a separate bag and leave that in the car until I need it.
  5. If temperature variations are in play, then I think layers, and I also pack a coat or jacket. I usually keep temperature-specific items in the car til/if needed, rather than pack them in my main luggage.

If you over-pack, the main consequence is that it will be more of a hassle for you to find stuff, carry stuff, and fit it in with other stuff. Let your frustration threshold be your guide as to how much you want to avoid these consequences. Otherwise, road trips are forgiving to chronic over-packers.


For God's sake, bring a comfortable pair of shoes! Uncomfortable shoes will keep you from doing or enjoying activities that you would otherwise love to do.

Something warm

No matter how warm the destination, there will always (ALWAYS) be a place that will freeze you out. A motel room. A restaurant. A museum. A nightclub. A cave.

Bring a sweater, sweatshirt, shawl, jacket - something - that will keep you warm when that happens.
If you fail to do this, do not whine about how cold you are. At your next opportunity, stop at a second-hand store and buy something.

Toiletry bag

My perfect bag:
  1. Has a little hanger or velcro loop design so I can let it hang from a towel rod or door hook. It won't get damp from a wet counter surface. It won't take up limited counter space.
  2. Has compartments that let me segregate cosmetics, dental care items, cleansers/lotions, and all the rest: deodorant, small scissors, mirror, comb/brush, tweezers, clippers. Three compartments needed at minimum, but no more than four.
  3. Fold/rolls into smaller mass for packing

eBags Weekender


I love my lightweight, durable eBag Weekender bag for road trips. The outside and inside compartments maximize organization. Adding the three large eBag packing cubes maintains order, and if I pack the cubes so each has all that I need for one or two days, then I can just take the cube and my toiletry bag into the motel and leave the larger bag in the trunk.

If you looked at the price of this bag and blanched a bit – no worries. I invested big money in this bag because of my long-term needs. For a budget road trip, if you don’t already have luggage you like, then check out your local thrift stores such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc. and buy something that looks like it will work for you. Or borrow a bag.

Dirty laundry

Option 1 - I collect my dirty laundry in one of my packing cubes and keep it in my "weekender”

Option 2 - I toss it into a plastic or cloth bag and keep it in the trunk.

Either way, it's easy to lug it to a washing machine on the road or back at home.

Picnic gear

For now, let's assume camping is not involved. The purpose of the picnic gear is to let you enjoy good food and drink without having to go to a restaurant. It also lets you manage your time and itinerary - you can eat when you want, where you want.

Lunch on Jemez scenic road, New Mexico. August 2013.


My perfect road-trip cooler is my old Igloo Playmate cooler (in photo above):
  1. Has a top handle for one-handed carrying
  2. Is large enough to hold one small bag of ice (i.e. 7 pounds) + 4-6 cans soda + food items for a couple of days (e.g. hard-boiled eggs, roast chicken or beef, cheese, some fruit, and carrots/celery)
  3. Is small enough to fit on the floor behind a front seat - and small enough that I feel comfortable replenishing the ice from a motel ice machine
  4. The lid slides open with the push of a button
  5. Because of the tent-like peak, I can over-load it a bit.

The exterior dimensions are about 14"x10"x13." That 13" is the height, which is misleading as it measures the peaked lid. The Playmate "Boss" seems to be the closest to my older model.

Unless I'm going to camp, this size cooler is fine for a road trip. There are grocery stores everywhere - no need to carry more than a couple of days' vittles at a time.

My camp box.

Camp box (or "chuck box")

I have a cool jeweler's sample box, made of fiber board, I think, bought at a flea market, that I re-purposed into a camp box. Important features include: 
  • It has a handle on top for one-handed carrying
  • The lid closes securely with two draw bolt latches
  • It has two shelves that are are deep/tall enough for me to place smaller, clear-plastic containers on them for organization 
  • It is sturdy
  • It's big enough to do the job, but small enough not to take up too much vehicle space

You can make a great one on your own using a clear plastic storage bin and smaller transparent storage containers within. Watch the dimensions; you don't want to go too big.

My camp box is always stocked with:
  • Salt and pepper
  • Plates (plastic washable/reusable or paper)
  • Utensils
  • Corkscrew
  • Can opener
  • Sharp knives
  • Table cloth
  • Cloth towel
  • Aluminum foil
  • Fire starter
  • Matches
  • Rope and clothes pins
  • Candles
  • Cups
  • Sanitizer
  • Recycled plastic grocery bags that I can use to collect and dispose of trash - these are tucked into an empty, cardboard paper-towel tube to conserve space 
  • Ziploc-style bags - quart size
  • Small bottle of dish washing liquid

Bag for consumable goods

In this bag, I throw dry items that I'll consume along the way, such as:
  • Bread
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Ground coffee
  • Paper towels
  • Three 1.5-2 cup, round, microwave-safe plastic containers with lids  - for oatmeal and other picnic-style menu items that require bowls

By using a bag instead of a bin or basket, I can collapse the bag after the items have been consumed, which opens up space in my car.

Bag for durable goods

This bag is for small appliances that I might never need during the trip. Depends on what's in the hotel rooms I end up in.
  • Small coffee maker and, depending on type, any accessories (e.g. filters)
  • Hot plate
  • Small pot with lid to heat things up in
  • Maybe you're a tea drinker and dislike the after-coffee taste of running water through the motel coffee maker. On a road trip, you can bring your own tea kettle or brew pot.

A sibling traveler, making himself comfortable.

Road trip comfort

If a road trip is intrinsically good (and it is), bringing familiar comfort items from home make it even better.

Some ideas:

Books: real, virtual, or audio. If you're a regular reader, this is a no-brainer. You know you'll bring reading material. If you're an occasional reader, consider a book that relates somehow to the places along your road trip path. Or a book about road trips. Here are a couple of road-trip reading lists, both from A Traveler's Library.

54 Road Trip Books and Movies (by state)
Top 5 American Road Trip Books and The List

And here's a literary perk of road trips (or any trips) --> This is the perfect venue for reading trashy, brain-candy crap that you secretly crave, but can't bring yourself to possess in your "real" life. Go ahead - buy that National Enquirer!

Favorite pillow - for car napping (especially when traveling with someone else) or for augmenting inadequate motel pillows

Blanket - not only does this fall into an emergency pack list, but if you're traveling with someone, it's nice to nap when you're not driving. Even in the summer, a blanket is comforting when the car a/c is on.

Good music - If, like me, you've got an older model car, invest in a cigarette lighter FM transmitter device to access your music player.

Emergency preparation
  1. Before you leave on a road trip, take your vehicle to an auto service shop and ask that they do a trip   check. Change your oil.
  2. Join AAA or a similar roadside assistance provider. Batteries drain. Starters die. You lock the keys in your car. You get a flat.
  3. Have a blanket in the car.
  4. Pack a flashlight in addition to the flashlight app you may already have in your smart phone.
  5. If you're traveling with others, bring your spare car key so that two of you have a key.
  6. Leave a rough itinerary with someone back home.
  7. Keep a jug of water in the car.

Grand Canyon campsite. September 2007.


If you're already a camper, you know what to bring, and you've probably already got the equipment.

If you're not a camper, don't be intimidated. Here are some easy-button basics for you to bring:

Tent. Unless you plan to do a lot of camping after your road trip, just get a cheap tent. Know that when the label says it's a two-man tent, that's a lie. Get a 3-man tent if there are two of you, and a 4-man tent if there are three of you. Get a dome tent. It will be easier to put up and you can pick it up and move it at will, until you stake it down. Do buy a tarp to go under the tent. These are also inexpensive and you can use them for other things in the future. Get a tarp that is a little smaller than the tent.

Sleeping bags. You can also get sleeping bags cheaply. Or borrow them. Or make bedrolls from blankets and a comforter.

Pillows. Do bring pillows from home - you'll be much more comfortable.

Socks and knit hat. Clean socks and a knit hat will help keep you snug in your sleeping bag and tent. Remember that cotton will not keep you warm.

Cook stove. Yes, you could build a fire and cook on that. ... BUT: It's not uncommon for a park to have a no-fire order. Buy or borrow a cook stove. (If you borrow it, return it clean.) Alternatively, you could skip the cooking altogether. Instead, pick up picnic foods that don't require cooking.

Cooler. If you plan to do a lot of multi-night camping on the trip, then consider getting a larger cooler to avoid spending too much time replenishing food and ice supplies. Weigh this carefully against the vehicle space it will consume for the entire trip. Another option is to just take an additional small cooler.

Light. At minimum, you'll want a flashlight for each person in your party. This is in addition to any flashlight app you have in your smart phone.

Check above for the list of things I stock in my camp box. All of these will come in handy if you camp.

If this article were about going on a camping trip, there would be a lot more detail. But this is about a road trip.

Tourist gear
  1. Camera (with extra memory card and an extra battery)
  2. Binoculars
  3. Spiral notebook or journal
  4. Pens
  5. Addresses of people to whom you want to send postcards
  6. Postcard stamps that you buy in advance
  7. Maps. Before I leave on a road trip, I pick up a U.S. atlas for less than $10 at a local Walmart. Then I pick up free state maps at each state's welcome center, which is usually the first rest area after you cross the state line. I recommend these even if you’ve got a smart phone with map and GPS features. Paper maps give you - literally - the big picture of where you're going, alternate routes, and where you might want to go. Also, phones fail. Satellite and tower connections fade in and out. The paper map is right there. 

See more details about gear in Part 6: Road Trip Technology.

To see all chapters of the Take a Road Trip, click on the tab of the same name at the top of the blog. Or click here.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Opelousas: The Casino Hum

The Evangeline Downs Casino is in Opelousas.

I hear tell some of the money from the casino gets earmarked for road maintenance in St. Landry Parish (and Opelousas is in St. Landry Parish), but I'd like to see which roads actually get such attention. The potholes in Opelousas - and even Interstate 49 that runs through St. Landry Parish - are plentiful and vicious.

Evangeline Downs Casino, Opelousas, Louisiana. June 2015.

 But that's not what I'm writing about.

I'm not a gambler, because I figure if I want to piss my money away, it would be more entertaining for me to light a match to it and watch it burn rather than lose it to a whirlybird machine and go into the pockets of ...who, exactly? Somebody who doesn't need any more of it, I'm quite sure. On the other hand, I guess burning my money won't create local jobs.

But that isn't what I'm writing about, either.

No, it's about the hum. I go to the casino to listen to music at Zydeco's, the smoky circular bar, or to the Friday Fais-Do-Do in the Event Center. I walk through the casino with all the machines and I don't always hear it, but I often do - a static hum that ripples the air. Maybe it's like when a choir gets warmed up and sustains the same note for a long time. I think it's a result of many machines singing their songs and, while the machines might have different songs, there are notes that overlap to create a wide, sound-wave swath.

Some day I'll ask one of the casino workers if they hear the hum when they go home, too.

I thought to google on this topic, and incredibly, here is a two-hour 'soundscape' of a casino - sometimes you can hear that hum.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Opelousas: The Fall of a Blessed Tree

Blessed tree, Opelousas, Louisiana. June 2015.

Once upon a time, I read a magazine article by a man whose hobby was to travel to different parts of the world while history was being made in those exact parts. When the Berlin Wall fell, for example, he scooped up his kids and they flew to Berlin from the US to be witnesses.*

I've often thought about that practice, it's damn cool, but how many of us have the means to do the same? Not me.

Well, not me on such a large stage.

But I can be a witness to some historic events, and the recent fall of a blessed pecan tree was one of them. When I say blessed, I mean the Virgin Mary appeared in this tree during the 1970 and 1990s, prompting many folks to visit the backyard of a house on Larry Street, where the pecan tree stood.

Blessed tree, Opelousas, Louisiana. June 2015.

I read about the tree in this Opelousas Daily World article: A Dramatic Final Act for a Famous Local Tree, by Cheryl Devall.

I couldn't get over there for a few days, and I was a little worried that it'd be all chopped up by the time I did get there. But it wasn't, and I was even able to chat with the owner's caregiver and grown daughter.

Blessed tree, Opelousas, Louisiana. June 2015.

And the daughter let me take a stick that came from the blessed tree. Personally, I don't put much truck in these kinds of things, but I don't demean them, either. Blessed sticks are no less magical than nutritional supplements, juicing cleanses, or Warren Buffett, and we know all those things to be holy. 

It feels good to have this stick from a tree beloved by many people, and some day I'll come across someone who needs it.  
Blessed tree, Opelousas, Louisiana. June 2015.

I like the intimacy between the sacred and mundane in the picture above - a holy tree with pretty offerings, next to a stubby, cheery barbecue grill. There's a little flavor of the magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the impossible and the possible get along just fine.

There's nothing I can add to what the article covered, except for one thing: I asked the daughter if it had been a good pecan producer in its day, and the immediate response was a chortled no!

I am pleased to offer a cat pic (!) on this blog, thanks to the blessed tree visit. She bewitched me into taking her photo and publishing it here, that green-eyed temptress: 

Opelousas cat on Larry Street. June 2015.

*This reminds me of a sci-fi story where people from the future came to the past and rented rooms in a - let's call it a form of airbnb - house somewhere in Italy. They knew this particular house in this city in this country would have a commanding view of the sun going supernova or something, and they wanted first row seats. .... Then there's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, one of the books from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where people can travel far (really, really far) into the future, just before the universe collapses, but have a good meal first.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Updated: Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 3: Food and Drink

Salt Flats Cafe, Salt Flats, Texas

On June 23, 2011, I published Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 3: Food and Drink. This was from my Take a Road Trip series.

Below is the updated version: 

Restaurants will eat up your budget. If you and your travel companion are a couple and you use the same piggy bank -- double ouch.

Diner, Lafayette, Louisiana.

To save restaurant expenditures

  1. Don't order a beverage with your meal. Drink water instead. By “water,” I mean tap water in a glass, not a bottled water.
  2. Eat only one meal per day at a restaurant. Eat other meals picnic-style out of your cooler or from a grocery store deli.
  3.  When you eat at a restaurant, do it for breakfast or lunch, as these meals are usually less expensive than dinner.
  4. In a restaurant with a buffet, look at the buffet offerings, check the buffet price, and then compare that price with menu prices. Ordering a meal from the menu is sometimes more economical, both dollar- and calorie-wise.  
  5. If you're traveling with someone else, consider splitting a restaurant meal, especially if it's dinner.

Hood's Restaurant, Bois D'Arc, Missouri.

To save money on beverages

  • Many convenience stores discount your coffee if you bring your own cup, so remember to bring your travel mug from home.
  • Ditto for fountain drinks – recycle a beverage cup from a past visit to a c-store; the brand doesn’t matter.
  • Pack your coffee maker and favorite coffee, and brew it in your room each morning. Put extra coffee for the road into a thermos you've also brought.
  • If you're a soda drinker, pack a 12-can or 24-can box at the start of your trip.
  • Bring your own mixed-drink ingredients and alcohol from home and create your personal happy hour in your nightly abode.

Lucille's Roadhouse, Weatherford, Oklahoma

To save money on food (other than restaurants)

1.                  Don't overstock on the quantity of food for the road. There are grocery stores and other food vendors everywhere. Besides, food brought from home gets less appetizing as the days wear on, and you may end up pitching some of it or forcing yourself to consume stuff you don’t really want.
2.                  Don't overstock on “special” foods when packing for the road. The idea of a road trip is to sample new things - so it’s more economical (and more fun) to spend finite trip dollars at a special restaurant, food truck, or roadside stand on the road.
3.                  Many grocery stores have good deli sections and even in-store restaurants - substitute a visit to these instead of a traditional restaurant. 

Fast Eddie's, Alton, Illinois

Healthy eating on a road trip

"Healthy eating" and "road trip" --> oxymoron?

Road trips and junk food tend to go together.

To offset the worst damage, here are some tips:

1.                  Avoid bringing "car food" such as chips, nuts, and candy. Instead, pack crunchy carrots, crisp celery, sweet grapes, and salty pretzels.
2.                  To manage costs and reduce over-indulgence, maintain some of your eating routines. For example, if your usual breakfast back home is oatmeal, bring along oatmeal packets that are easy to prepare in a motel room. (Run water through the coffee machine and mix up the oatmeal in a motel cup.)  
3.                  YMMV, but my experience with some regional foods is that the reality is vastly underwhelming and costs more in money and calories than I wished I’d spent. A Navajo taco is a good example. Poutine is another. On the other hand, regional dishes such as green chile stew or menudo – you’ll respect yourself in the morning for having sampled them. (Cracklins should fall into the Navajo taco and poutine category, but you know, we need some sin in our lives, and besides, you can get a teeny bag of said sin to mitigate the remorse.)
On fast food chains

Sure, go ahead and sneer at fast food chains, but before your face freezes that way, know this > in some towns, your only choice is between fast food or the home-style diner with food that's all fried, all the time. A reliably tasty, economical, and relatively healthful fast food place is Subway. You do lose the budget benefit when you add a soft drink and a bag of chips, not to mention a cookie. So buy the sandwich and augment that with a cold drink you've got in your cooler, plus one of the crunchy sides you've got in the car (e.g. carrots, celery, pretzels).

Chope's, La Mesa, New Mexico

Relying on restaurant reviews -- OK in moderation

The myriad restaurant review sites on the web are a wonderful resource for road trippers. But sometimes we get sucked into an over-dependence on restaurant reviews -- we rely too heavily on others' explorations instead of taking a chance on an as-yet unreviewed place.

Popular restaurant guides are:

A common road-trip pitfall is the search for the Holy Grail of certain foods (e.g. the Best Chiles Rellenos, the Best Green Chile Cheeseburger, the Best BBQ). I’m probably spitting in the wind here, because we all need to learn from our own experiences, but after years of Holy Grail thinking, I learned relative tastiness is largely a crap shoot, no matter how much advance research I conduct for the Best of ….. These days, I focus less on research and more on serendipity, and most importantly, I manage my expectations. The quality results are about the same as before (i.e. crap shoot), but there are no dashed expectations to mar my road trip.

Hot Tamale Heaven, Greenville, Mississippi
So is there any fun left? 

Sure! Notwithstanding the caveats above, part of the coolness of a road trip is trying new foods.

One strategy is to have a road trip theme, where you seek the variations of a particular food item that a region is famous for, such as boudin or BBQ or tamales. My mother is always on the lookout for ribs and the crab cakes wherever she goes. Others seek out microbrews or pie or pork rinds.

In the context of a budget road trip, choose indulgences that are affordable to you.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Updated: Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 2: Lodging

On June 22, 2011, I published Part 2 of my Take a Road Trip series, on lodging.

I present below my updated version: 

Lodging options:

All options have pros and cons, based on these variables and their importance to you:

  • Money
  • "Administrative overhead"
  • Safety
  • Personality
  • Comfort

Lincoln Motel, Chandler, Oklahoma.
Crash with friends

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

Mmm, not so fast.  It may make more sense to stay in a motel and just meet a friend for a drink in a mutually-agreeable location for an hour or two rather than stay at his place. Here’s why: 

This is a budget road trip, remember? And you can’t show up empty-handed to a friend’s place to crash. You know yourself and you know your friend – what will it cost you in real bucks to stay with the friend? A dinner out? A bottle of wine? A pound of the coffee you know he loves? Whatever it is, you need to factor it in to your budget. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But read on because money isn’t necessarily the biggest consideration.

Administrative overhead
  1. Planning time. Staying at a friend's place requires a little or a lot of advance preparation to make sure your schedules mesh, not the least of which is your projected arrival time in his city.
  2. Face time with 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?
  3. Getting to the friend’s place. 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?

White Sands Motel, Alamogordo, New Mexico.


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!  Meet new people. Get 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 does not relax me.
  • 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.

Administrative overhead

If any of the following is a factor with a particular host, then couchsurfing may not be worth the hassle for you:

1.                  Complicated, drawn-out negotiations or instructions related to the lodging, whatever the type. 
2.                  Lots of rules.
3.                  Having to deviate too far from my main route to get to the lodging.


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 about fun, not self-imposed stress.


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.

Frontier Motel, Cuba, New Mexico.

Sleeping in the car

Yes, I've done this.

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

Once, my brother and I drove into an empty campground in France and slept in the car there. It was spooky. 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 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.)



Administrative overhead

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


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. 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. If I'm sleeping in my car, I'm likely to have a lighter sleep than if I were in a more traditional place.
  • Hygiene. 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.

Anasazi Inn outside Kayenta, Arizona.



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.

Administrative overhead

1.                  Assuming tent camping, it takes time to set up and break camp.
2.                  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.)
3.                  Checking in takes time.
4.                  Selecting a campsite takes time.
5.                  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.


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

  • Privacy. With some exception, privacy is not much of a concern, unless you've got the rare situation of loud neighbors.
  • Campfire! It's pretty hard to beat the good time of poking a fire with a stick.

  • Sleep. If you awaken with each noise outside your tent thinking it might be a bear or a mountain lion or a Deliverance-style local, then you might have a more relaxed time in a motel.  You want to have fun on your trip - not feel anxious. 
  • Hygiene. There may or may not be showers. Or flush toilets. You'll need to have a water container and your own soap.

Buffalo Inn, Canyon, Texas.


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-enough budget motel has:
  • Clean sheets
  • Floor that is clean enough that my feet won’t get dirty walking on it
  • Clean bathroom, even if it’s not been updated since the 1960s
  • Shower that works
  • TV that works
  • Free wireless
  • Secure door and windows
  • Air conditioner that works
  • An ice machine somewhere on the premises

I don't care if it has a free breakfast, although sometimes this is nice. I like a coffee maker in the room, but I’ve learned to bring one with me on a road trip, as I’ve discovered a lot of locally-owned budget motels don’t provide an in-room machine.


1.                  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
2.                  "Free" breakfasts. 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. 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 price or less than the "free" breakfast. Another thing to consider is that if you intend to get back on the road before 6 a.m., that "free" breakfast won't even be set up yet.
3.                  Discounts. In most cases, the AAA, AARP, and government discount rates are the same. Sometimes the government (or military) rates are lower. An AAA is a good investment, anyway, in the event of car trouble.
4.                  Frequent sleeper plans. If you travel a lot 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 "hotel family" during vacation road trips.
5.                  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:

  • Before I had a smart phone: Drive to other choices and check ‘em out
  • Now that I have a smart phone: Do online research on the fly, and call the motels to check their rates.

Administrative overhead

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.


If I'm by myself, and if the neighborhood feels a little sketchy, I ask for a room on the second floor.

Camp Meade Motor Court, Vermont.


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 hostels as serving a particular age, socio-economic, educational, cultural or travel-style demographic. However, some hostels do have age ceilings, so if you’re over 30, check for that when you look into potential sites.

A lot of hostels do offer private rooms, which can be an economical way to go if you’re done with the backpacking experience. Check the fine print, though: Often the price quoted is per person, with a two-person minimum.

Here are some websites that list hostels:

In general, hostels don’t figure much into USA road trips unless you’ve got a popular tourist city on your itinerary. Sometimes the hostels cost more than what you’d pay for a motel that’s in the outskirts (and where you’re likely to enjoy free parking). 
Leroy Percy State Park cabin, Hollandale, Mississippi.

Airbnb and the like

Airbnb has grown like mad since I first wrote about it five years ago. Some entrepreneurs buy properties for the sole purpose of letting rooms via airbnb. In such cases, the owner does not live on the premises, and sometimes two strangers are sharing a house with little or no face-to-face contact with the property owner.

For the most part, my airbnb experiences have been good ones. A host's drive to get a good guest rating, however, can result in tiresome pressure to: a) give a rating, and b) give a five-level rating.

Generally speaking, airbnb differs from couchsurfing in these respects:
  • You will pay a fee for an airbnb acccommodation; couchsurfing is free.
  • You’ll have a private bedroom and an actual bed with airbnb, whereas with couchsurfing you might be sleeping in the living room on an actual couch. Note: Some hostels use airbnb to advertise and in these cases, you may only have a bunk in a shared room.
  • The airbnb host is less likely to be your best new friend than a couchsurfing host. And this makes sense – an airbnb host wants to supplement his income in a pleasant way, while a couch host’s main driver is to meet and interact with interesting people.

Airbnb and couchsurfing are alike in these respects:
  • There is mutual vetting/ratings for hosts and guests, which helps keep the process safe for all parties (although this is not foolproof).
  • In traditional airbnb accommodations, like couchsurfing sites, you’re in someone’s home.
  • The hosts are often quite interesting in a good way!  Also, with airbnb, fellow guests are almost always interesting.


On a road trip, where I’m just passing though, the only reason for me to use an airbnb instead of a motel is the lower cost. If I can’t find an airbnb with a room significantly less than a motel, than I’d much rather stay in a motel. And that’s the beauty of airbnb – most of the time, it is less expensive than a motel.

Administrative overhead

There’s not a lot of administrative overhead to booking a room on airbnb. But:
  • Read the host’s fine print about his cancellation policies, his house rules, and any fee add-ons.
  • Look carefully at what amenities are and are not available.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions before pulling the trigger on the booking, such as alignment between a room’s readiness and your anticipated arrival time.


There are a few scary stories out there, but that holds true for motels, camping, and anything else. In general, an airbnb is very safe. Read the reviews the host received from past guests. Respect the vibe you get from a host before you confirm a reservation.


I have always felt comfortable bowing out of any social interaction at an airbnb. Hosts understand that you want to do what you want to do, and they leave you alone to do it.


I’ve been sufficiently comfortable at all of the airbnbs I’ve used. I’m not crazy about having to share a bathroom if I’m in a house, but that’s tolerable for a short term.

So there you have it - we've got several lodging options on a road trip. What you choose depends on your budget, disposable time you have available on your trip, your tolerance for administrative overhead, your personality, and comfort needs.