Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Updated: Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 5: Loose Ends

On June 30, 2011, I published Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 5: Loose Ends. This was from my Take a Road Trip series.

Art and ATM in Armenia. March 2012.

In Part 5, I tie up loose ends:
  •     Money
  •     Should I rent a vehicle for my road trip?
  •     Ask to see the room
  •     Mile markers, exit numbers, and odd/even highways
  •     Road-tripping while brown

Ware Street car, Jefferson City, Missouri. December 2006.


Common budget busters

In the previous articles, I covered the biggest budget busters. Below are some more: 

Not keeping track of your spending along the way. Note your expenditures in a small notebook as you go. (This is actually faster than using your smartphone to do it.) If you don't write down what you spend, you will lose track of your spending. And this means you’ll likely over-spend. Writing down the expenses is also important if you're traveling with others and you split costs. Avoid conflict later. Write. It. Down.

Watch the card use!  We can lull ourselves into thinking that if we put it on plastic, it doesn't really count. Or we rationalize an impulse buy ("A balloon ride! Only $200? Life is short!") that is going to hurt us really bad when we're back home and have to come up with the extra $$$ to pay off that unanticipated credit card debt. But see "forms of money to take" below.

Buying new clothes for the trip. The cost of the trip starts when you start buying trip-related stuff. Instead of buying new clothes "for the trip," go the opposite direction: A road trip presents an opportunity for unloading clothes that you're ready to retire. Old underwear especially - wear 'em, then pitch 'em. Those trousers that are almost, but not quite ready to be tossed? Perfect for long driving days when your only goal is to chew miles. Wear them on those long driving days, then pitch them when done.

Souvenirs. Consider making your road trip a souvenir-free trip. Or set a souvenir budget before you leave and factor it into the overall cost of the trip. Consider what you might do with the money if you choose not to get any souvenirs. Spend an extra night on the road? Pay for a tank of gas? Pay the admission to an additional event or attraction?

Highway 104 between Las Vegas and Tucumcari, New Mexico. August 2013.

Forms of money to take

When I'm at home in the US, wherever that might be, I operate almost entirely by debit card, thus carry minimal cash.  But if I'm on a road trip, I'll consider these options:

Credit card. I have a cash-back credit card, so as long as I have the money set aside to pay my credit card in full after my trip, using my credit card on a road trip offers some advantages. One benefit, of course, is the cash back. Another benefit is that the credit card statement serves as a tidy tracking and analytical tool post-trip. Finally, the credit card company offers me some protections in case I lose the card or I buy defective goods or have a dispute with a vendor.

Paying with a credit card is NOT a good idea for those of us who already have a lot of debt or who tend to be over-spenders.

Debit card. My debit card is my usual payment method of choice for a road trip. Because the money is withdrawn from my checking account immediately, it keeps me on my budget. I also take a credit card; sometimes I'll use it throughout the trip to pay for gasoline.  

Checks. Not an entire checkbook, which is bulky and just weighs me down, but depending on the road trip length, one or several loose checks. There are many small vendors out there who don't take plastic, but they will take checks, even an out-of-state check. I burn a check when the desired purchase will use more cash than I want to release at one time, such as for a local artisan item at a market or fair.

Cash. There are several ways to go with this, such as: 
  • Assume 80% reliance on plastic, and bring 20% of your budgeted amount in cash.  
  • Decide to go primarily with cash so you are more likely to stay within your budget, and in that case, distribute the cash among three places: your wallet, a piece of luggage, and perhaps a money belt.

For me, it's annoying to have to replenish a cash supply, so I prefer to estimate how much cash I'll need and have it with me from the start. My default is the first option above. 

What to have in your wallet

This falls equally into a security category as it does in a money category. Don't take wallet items that will be a pain in the ass for you to replace if your wallet disappears.

  • Credit cards: Take only one. Leave others at home. 
  • Debit cards: Ditto.  
  • Library cards and other local membership cards: Leave at home.
  • Social Security card: You shouldn't have this in your wallet even at home. 
  • Driver's license: Take. 
  • Car insurance card: Take.
  • Health insurance card: Take.
  • Travel club membership cards, e.g. AAA: Take

Should I rent a vehicle for my road trip?

There's no right or wrong answer to this question. Factors to consider include: 
  • Number of people in the party 
  • Road types, e.g. paved roads, some gravel/dirt that are level and in good condition, or some gravel/dirt roads that are heavily rutted 
  • Condition of your vehicle 
  • Gas mileage of your vehicle 
  • Your personal deal-breaker threshold re: the reasonable likelihood of a breakdown in your vehicle or your ability to deal with a break down if it happens 
  • Duration of road trip

If I use myself as an example, I won't hesitate to take my 1995 Toyota Camry (150k 199k miles) on a road trip of any duration or distance, assuming:

  • Number in my travel party is no more than two, maybe three adults
  • The roads I'll be on are paved or gravel/dirt in good condition (my car rides low)
  • My car passes a thorough pre-trip check at my auto repair shop or I can get current or potential problems fixed before the trip

I have AAA roadside service membership, so I'm not that concerned about dealing with a breakdown. I also figure that if my car breaks down on the road, it would have also broken down at home, so I just factor in the repair bill as an ordinary cost of using my car.

Unlike the hapless family in National Lampoon's Family Vacation, it hasn't been my experience that auto repair people have tried to gouge me when I've had a problem on past road trips. (I’ve had a flat tire on the Denali Highway in Alaska, a flat tire in Nebraska, locked my keys in the car in Sedona, needed a jump start in Albuquerque, and needed a couple of new tires in Cuba, New Mexico.)

On a road trip with three or four people, with all their gear, I’d likely be looking at sharing a roomy rental with good gas mileage unless one of my companions owns something comparable and s/he is OK  using it for the trip.

Here's another voice on the matter of renting or not: Your Next Road Trip: Is it Better to Rent a Car or Take Your Own? at PT Money.

Vaughn, New Mexico. July 2013.

Ask to see the room

When you go to a motel, hotel, or hostel, it is perfectly OK to ask to see the room before you commit for the night. No matter how low the price, it is appropriate to expect:
  • Clean bathroom
  • Working locks on the doors and windows
  • Clean bedding (feel free to pull back the bedspread a bit to ensure the sheets are clean)
  • Working shower, sink, and light bulbs

If the room you're shown lacks the above, you can either ask to see a better room or move on to another place.

But let's say you don't find out til after you check into your room that it's a bad one. Don't unpack. Leave your stuff in the room, proceed directly to the front desk, explain the problem, and ask to see a different room. Look at the alternate room before moving your gear. If it's OK, then move. If not, request a refund, put your gear in your car, and go somewhere else.

Be calm, polite, and firm. Most places will try to make you happy.

Columbus, New Mexico and Las Palomas, Chihuahua border

Mile markers, exit numbers, and odd/even highways

Which way? I'd be embarrassed to say how old I was before I knew that odd-numbered highways go north/south and even-numbered highways go east/west. (Don’t try to apply this in Lafayette, Louisiana, however, because you will go mad in the attempt.)

Exit numbers. In most states, exit numbers correspond to the mile markers for the highway they're on.

Mile markers. The mile markers correspond to the number of miles on a given highway within the state you're in. So it's kind of nice to know that if you're going west on Interstate 70 in Missouri, for example, you know exactly how many miles you have left til you get to Kansas. This is because the mile markers descend in number. Once you hit the Kansas border, the mile markers start over; they begin with the last mile, thus you know immediately how many miles you've got to go before you arrive in Colorado, should you follow I-70 the whole way.

Going around. Want to avoid going through a city and instead go around it? Cities of sufficient size build highways that divert traffic around them. They mark such highways by adding a numeral (e.g. 1, 2, 3, or even a 4) in front of the through-going highway’s number. For example, Highways 170, 270, and 370 in the St. Louis Metropolitan area move you temporarily from Interstate 70 to a highway that swings you around parts of St. Louis, and then returns you to Interstate 70 on the other side.

The hotel so hard to find in Dubai's Gold Souk, you need a map.

I mentioned this in Part 4, but it’s worth repeating here: When on a road trip, have paper maps on hand even if you’ve got a smart phone or a GPS.  Phones and GPS devices are too small to give you the big picture you may want (or need) to make informed decisions about where you want to go. Also, mechanical devices and connections fail on occasion.

The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1940, by Victor H. Green. Credit: Wikipedia

Road-tripping while brown

At the time of this update in 2015, there seems to be a spike in overt racism (and, at the same time, an environment of greater harmony). The vast majority of time on a road trip, I'd not anticipate any ugliness. But as one friend has told me, he never knows when it's going to pop up and surprise him.

From 1930 to 1966, African-American road-trippers could consult The Negro Motorist Green Book for guidance on how to get from Point A to Point Z safely and enjoyably. (You can read the entire 1949 issue here.)

You might think such a guide isn't necessary today, but you never know.

NPR's Latino USA did a show on Traveling While Brown, which you can listen to here. Summary: "For people of color, travel can bring all sorts of unexpected experiences, both good and bad. We talk to journalist and author Farai Chideya about how blending in or sticking out can affect travel."

If you run into unpleasant situations in restaurants, motels, or stores, there are good mechanisms for dealing with these (usually after the fact, alas), such as traveler review sites (e.g. tripadvisor and yelp) and letters to managers, owners, or corporate headquarters.

Police stops have the potential to be a different matter, so:

Police stops

Road trips, by their very nature, take us through speed traps and into areas that are hyper-alert to people who look different from the usual residents. If we've got out-of-state plates on the car, all the safer (politically) to stop us.

The following guides are good for all of us, but especially for road-trippers who are brown, for those who are under 25, and for those who appear poor (i.e., without allies):

Be a more boring driver when you're on a road trip. Watch your speed. On the interstate, stay in the right lane unless you're passing. (On the first day of one road trip, I got pulled over - and received a ticket! - for driving in the left lane on a Missouri interstate.) Use your turn signals. Come to complete stops at stop signs.

Tickets are expensive. They could raise your car insurance premiums. They really mess with your happy road-trip vibe. 

Near Capulin Volcano, New Mexico.

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