economics 101: never pay for accommodation

In the late summer of 2007 Jessie and I set off on our first true road trip. We called it our West Coast “Epic” Road Trip, and epic it was. During the span of two months we covered the whole western coast of the US, from Vancouver down to San Diego. What was so special about this trip, though, was that we did it very, very cheap.

First off, since Jessie had finished her job and I my Master’s degree just a few months earlier, we had plenty of time to work with. So instead of booking our airplane tickets the conventional way, we used standby tickets which cost us $75 each. Our flight was scheduled to go from Detroit to Seattle by way of Newark. Yet when we got to Newark the airline employee informed us that they were very backed up and we wouldn’t be able to make it onto any flights that night or the next day. Luckily, with standby tickets we were able to change our destination without any penalties. We switched our city to Portland, which had two dozen available seats first thing in the morning. Then we found a quiet corner, pushed two benches together and tried to get some shuteye while we waited.

Once we made it to Portland, I called up the rental car company and told them about our change. They switched the port of origin for us. When I originally booked I’d selected a compact car because it was the cheapest. We were planning on picking it up in Seattle and dropping it off in San Diego, so we had to pay a fee for this on top of the 6-week rental fee. Even so, at $1,300 this was the most expensive part of our trip. An added benefit of flying into Portland, though, was that the rental companies didn’t keep many cars there because of the lower volume of customers. All the compacts had already been rented out, so they asked if I’d accept a free upgrade to a Jeep Liberty. Ah, let me think about this one for a second. Yeah!

Throughout the whole road trip, when we weren’t staying with friends, we’d drive until it was getting late, then stop in a big city and find a 24-hour supermarket. We’d park in the back of the lot, far away from the store. Often we’d see trailers parked up as well. Cramming our toothbrushes and hand towels into our pockets, we’d go in and wander though the aisles, sometimes finding a nighttime snack or breakfast for the morning. Then after hitting up the bathroom, we’d head back to the Jeep to convert it into our hotel. Front seats went all the way forward with bags piled high. Back seats folded down flat. Extra baggage got pushed to the sides. Sleeping bags and pillows went down the center. The doors were locked and we settled in for a rest.

Several times we couldn’t find a 24-hour, or the parking lot had a “no overnight parking” sign, so we found a strip mall to park in. Once, in a small town in Oregon, we drove into a residential area, pulled up to the curb in front of a house and slept there. We also stayed at several campgrounds along the way. Some of the national and state parks have alternate “primitive” campsites further out in the wild where you can stay for free or a fraction of the cost. Just drive in and use the showers on the way out the next morning. If your goal is a free place to lay your head, who needs that campground atmosphere anyway? And of course, there are always the interstate highway rest areas, although these can somewhat scary in certain areas. In more remote places of the country you can even get away with pulling to the side of the road and pitching a tent. We did this a couple times when we were touring the south island of New Zealand a couple years ago.

All in all, a parked car just looks like a parked car. As long as it’s in a legal zone there’s no reason for anyone to suspect that someone’s sleeping in there. The point is: look for creative ways to save money when you’re traveling. If you splurge a little to get a more spacious automobile, you might not have to pay accommodation costs at all. I estimate that for the 14 or so days that we slept in our car we saved about $1,000 by skipping the hotels.

West Coast Jeep picstitch

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