How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap: Although air travel can be more convenient, there is something very fun and satisfying about completing a large road trip. You get an entirely different perspective driving to a far away destination than you would when you’re 30,000 ft in the sky. One of my favorite parts about a large road trip is the feeling of freedom. You can choose your pace, route and destination. With all of these options, you can craft a perfect vacation for a once in a lifetime experience.

My First Cross Country Road Trip:

Last summer, I went on a cross-country road trip with a friend of mine. It was somewhat spur of the moment decision but it worked out perfectly because I had a flexible job (I was working per diem for several companies at the time which gave me complete flexibility and agency for my hours) and he was on sabbatical so the timing couldn’t be better. We decided to leave from NJ and drive out towards California, choosing a southern route because there were so many things we wanted to see along that route.

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap
Overall, the trip was a blast. We met lots of really interesting people, saw plenty of cities and landmarks. In the course of the trip we started in south NJ and went to:

  • Nashville, TN
  • Memphis, TN
  • Austin, TX (one of my favorite cities)
  • San Antonio, TX (and we got to see the Alamo)
  • Roswell, NM (ever go to a UFO museum?)
  • Albuquerque, NM (great mountain tram ride and saw Walt’s house from Breaking Bad)
  • Santa Fe, NM
  • Grand Canyon
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles (specifically Saint Monica and Venice Beach)

After that, we flew back home. In this epic, once in a lifetime journey we learned a few great tricks to save money and also a few painful lessons on how we were charged way too much in some areas.

Here are some pictures:

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap - Epic Road Trip Pictures How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap - Epic Road Trip Pictures How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap - Epic Road Trip Pictures

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap Tip 1: Rental car or Your Own Personal Vehicle?

I never attempted a large road trip like this before so research and planning were very important. The main part of the planning stage was getting a good vehicle for long distance driving. Initially, we planned to be ridiculous and do the whole trip in a convertible sports car. Unfortunately, any convertible would have been double the cost per day of a nice cheap, fuel efficient hatchback. We ended up with a new model Hyundai Accent, which initially I wasn’t too happy about but the more I drove it, the more I liked it. It was a perfect road trip car because you could drive fairly quick (75-85 mph) which lets you make great time and still get fantastic mileage (I think we varied between 35-45 mpg). The other nice thing about this vehicle is that it had plenty of storage because it is a hatchback.

A slight miscalculation

The reason we needed to use a rental car is because our entire plan hinged on flying back at the end. This was essential because my friend had to start his new job a day later so we didn’t have enough time to drive back. Knowing what we know now, it actually would have been much cheaper to drive the rental car back home. The one critical part that we didn’t realize with our plan is that when you drop a rental car off far from its destination, you are charged a “drop fee”. Considering we took this car across the entire country, our drop fee was huge (I think it came our to $2,000 just for the fee). In our quest to¬†on figuring out how to drive across the country for cheap, this was a major fail!

If we chose to take one of our own cars, we would have been able to save considerable amounts of money.

Rental car pros:
  • Huge vehicle selection
  • Mostly vehicles that are 1-2 years old at most (which hopefully improves reliability)
  • Avoid wear and tear on your own vehicle
  • Flexibility and increased travel options such as being able to leave the car at the end of the trip
Rental car cons:
  • More expensive than using your own car
  • Fees, with the worst one being the “drop fee”. Other fees can include things like damage fees that would be enacted if the car incurred any damage during the trip.

Rough estimate of our total rental car bill came out to around $3000. In large part, this was due to the huge drop fee. If you took the rental car round trip, you could probably skate by on $1000 to rent the car for 10 to 14 days depending on the going rate.

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap Tip 2: Gas Rewards Points Credit Card

Using a credit card that has a built in reward for fuel purchases is a good idea. In order to be really effective, you will need to be purchasing a ton of fuel. Considering the vehicle we used was an awesome fuel sipping machine, we didn’t spend that much on gas. At the end of the trip our gas expenses came out to a paltry $250.

If you were using something like an RV to travel across the country, a Gas Rewards card could really be effective in saving some money.

For our specific trip, I used my Bank of America Cash Rewards card, which has a 3% credit on all fuel purchases. If you want to learn more about this card, NerdWallet does a comprehensive review here: Bank of America Cash Rewards Card Review.

If you’re looking for the best fuel rewards card, consider checking out this list here: Best Fuel Rewards Cards of 2019.

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap Tip 3: Travel Rewards Credit Cards

This was actually one of the more effective travel hacks we used. My friend had travel points saved up from getting one of the super lucrative sign on bonuses. This let us book nice hotels using these travel rewards points so we didn’t need to pay to stay anywhere. From what I could recall, we got most of our hotel stays for free using these points.

The card we used was the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card. One of the best thing about this card is the massive sign on bonus, check it out below:

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap - Travel Rewards
Considering how potent this card is, it is easily one of the most effective travel hacks you can use. If you want to learn more, check it out here: Information on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card.

If you would like to support the site, consider using our Refer-A-Friend link. You get the same great card at no additional cost and we’ll get some points for sending you there! Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card Refer-A-Friend link.

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap Tip 4: Gift Cards

This was an idea that was discussed but we never really made happen. The logic behind using gift cards for a trip like this would be to save up applicable gift cards prior to the trip. Ideally, you would want ones that you could use for almost anything such as American Express Gift cards. Gift cards that can be used for anything provide you with either a financial cushion if you use them before your cash or credit for funding road trip necessities or you could save them at the end as an emergency fund. Either way, their flexibility is what makes these items so nice.

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap - Gift cards

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap Tip 5: Gift Card Hack

One way to get your hands on hundreds of dollars of gift cards quickly (and legally) would be to consider another awesome credit card sign up bonus. Although I didn’t use this method for our trip, I did use it on another project. In my post: How Renovating Your Home can Help Pay for the Holidays, I used the sign on bonus of an American Express Gold card to provide several hundred dollars in rewards points that could be used on gift cards or for Amazon purchases. Although the initial plan was to use gift cards to help with the holidays, we ended up using these points for Amazon instead.

For the American Express Gold card, the sign up bonus works like this:

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap - American Express Gold Card Sign up bonus
So for only spending $2,000 within 3 months (which is very easy to do), you will get the 50,000 reward points. With these 50,000 points you can exchange the points for up to $500 in gift cards. Here is an example of some below:


If this is a card you would like to try out, I recommend using our American Express Gold Card Referral link. This gives you the same great card and let’s them know that we sent you there. You won’t be disappointed!

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap Tip 6: Packing and Preparing

Supply prep

The biggest expense we have found out on the road wasn’t gas or even hotels (when you use travel points) but food. In this article on How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap – your food costs can get outrageously high if you’re not careful. Food costs add up quickly when you consider that each person will be eating 3 meals a day, snacks, beverages. Even if you’re going to cheaper food establishments, you will still do some considerable damage to your food budget.

So what do you? In our case we brought along plenty of our own snacks that could purchase at the grocery store for a much more reasonable cost. We prioritized food that was higher in protein so that we would feel full for longer. Items such as mixed nuts, protein bars, granola bars were great options. Another essential option was keeping plenty of bottled water on hand. Being thirsty is never fun and when you’re traveling in a desert climate for large part of the journey, dehydration is always a concern. Be prepared and stay safe!

Vehicle Prep

The next area to consider when considering “how to drive across the country for cheap” is taking a close look at the mechanical condition of your road trip vehicle. Before leaving, taking care of any and all critical maintenance items is very important. Breaking down in the middle of a desert where cell phone reception is non-existent could be deadly.

Considering that the vehicle we used was a brand new car with 2,000 miles, we were pretty safe in the reliability department. At one point, we chose to opt to get an oil change for the car due to the fact that we were at the recommended oil change interval and had been driving almost continually. Keeping an eye on all the car’s fluids (coolant, power steering, brake fluid) is good practice to avoid any potential breakdowns and/or expensive component failure.

The other easy but important maintenance item was monitoring the tire pressure. When you’re out on the road and using almost all highway, having properly inflated tires can make a huge difference in your vehicle’s mileage. Knowing this, I would check the tires daily for any damage and making sure all the pressures were even.

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap: Summary – Overall, how did we do?

Areas we did well in:
  • Choosing a fuel efficient newer car to drop our fuel costs
  • Packing water and food supplies to lower our food costs
  • Keeping a close eye on vehicle condition and maintenance to improve reliability
  • Using Travel Rewards to pay for hotel stays to drop lodging costs
Areas we could have improved on:
  • Reading the fine print and avoiding the very expensive drop fee for our rental car
  • Using more gift cards to provide a financial cushion
  • Doubling up our travel rewards/sign on bonus before leaving for the trip
  • Mapping out our hotel stays to lower costs
  • Eat less in restaurants, more in the extended stay hotel where we could prep food

Our overall costs for the trip were on the high side, with a total cost of around $6,000.

What I would do differently:

If I could go back, these are the things I would do differently:

  • Plan a “round trip” route that let’s me drop the rental car off at the same location and save $2,000 + plane tickets
  • Not using a plane on the return trip means we could carry more in the car, saving on costs
  • Have all parties come equipped with the travel rewards bonuses
  • Bring gift cards for gas, food and essentials
  • Book almost all hotel stays in advance to improve planning and prioritize using points over using cash
  • Consider looking into other cheap lodging arrangements such as staying with friends and/or family
  • Save up a travel budget for any and all expenses that come up
  • Research further into using an RV – although the fuel costs would be higher, the amount saved on hotels and restaurants might offset this

How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap – Road Trip: Round 2?!

Ironically enough, I ended up doing a second “cross-country” trip with my wife two months later. Although this wasn’t a true cross-country trip itself, as we ended up doing a big loop in the center of the U. S, I was able to apply some of these lessons to make the costs much more reasonable and avoid some previous mistakes.

Overall, a big road trip is something I recommend everyone do at least once. The amount of things you will see in a 2-week span is mind blowing and when you consider how much time and expense you would have to incur flying to each of those cities, the road trip is a much more efficient option!

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3 thoughts on “How to Drive Across the Country for Cheap

  1. Oh my gosh what a great article. Thank you because we are actually sitting down tonight with family to discuss our summer road trip. We have never really been out west but we are thinking about trying that this year. My limitation is time off from the fire department.

    Cost is always a factor to when you know that you have to stay in hotels.

  2. Thank you for making this informative article. I never thought of the car drop-off fee, but now I know. $2000 is insane! It makes sense to use a fuel efficient car. I’m wondering if it would be cheaper to rent a hybrid car such as a prius. They may cost more per day but It would use up a lot less gas. I didn’t know that a well inflated tire would improve gas mileage. Good to know!

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