Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Frugal Road Trip-Traveling on a Fixed Income

Glass full girl that I am, I've been experiencing a small amount of stress as we enter these summer months. In September, I begin receiving my husband's social security income. I'm working now to adjust to that normal, and I am pretty confident (it would be easier without a mortgage, but I have a hefty down payment in this house and am unsure it could be sold right now). It's the now that has me just a tad concerned.

As the summer approaches, I'm still living on a thousand dollar pension, the last of my savings and income here and there from book sales and quilt projects.  In many ways, summer is the perfect time to experience things for free. Outside concerts, sitting by the pool, and group barbecues keep me busy.  However, I also have a road trip in the mix, as usual.

Travel is an important part of my life and one that I have promised myself I will manage one way or the other. There are still so many places I haven't seen, and I enjoy changes in scenery. I am always looking for frugal ways to travel and still enjoy my trip.  I've learned that with planning and foresight, the frugal road trip is not a thing of the past.  This summer, I will travel to see family in Denver. While I stay with family for free, I always make both the trip there and back an experience. On this particular trip, I will be driving across old route 66 to Albuquerque and then taking the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe.  I'll drive to Taos for a day and then take a back road up to Interstate 25 and Denver.

Since I take lots of frugal road trips, I have developed lots of methods for keeping things low cost. I'm also always exploring new opportunities for cutting expenses:
  • I accept what I cannot control. The cost of gas is the cost of gas. Shaking my hand to the sky and cursing the gods or the politicians will help me not a whit.
  • I keep my car in excellent condition, going above and beyond recommended maintenance.  This means that I spend less on gas, have a safer trip (cutting road costs and the like) and that my car (the only one I have) will last longer.
  • I don't buy food on the road.  In my family we share gift requests and two years ago at Christmas my children got me a picnic basket similar to this one.  It has plastic plates, glass and napkins, a cutting board and a cheese knife as well as a corkscrew. I shop before I leave and fill the thing. If I need more food off the road, I hit a real grocery store (not store attached to a gas station, but a real store)I stop at rest stops, get out of the car and eat well.
  • I am by nature a person that enjoys the outside ambiance of a place just as much as the "required sights".  Purists will probably cringe at the thought that I spent five days in Venice without going into St Mark's. Even with a hotel pass the cost was extreme and the lines hours long, in the hot summer sun. I did walk almost every bridge and canal, walk into numerous churches, had a drink at Harry's bar and found many other ways to explore the city (and then splurged for the Uffizi in Florence). I'll allow myself one pay museum in Santa Fe, and one nice restaurant meal. Other than that there will be enough outside and open sights to keep me more than busy.
  • Being an extreme couponer (on a modest scale), I belong to every rewards program possible and take advantage of every deal possible. Recently expedia was giving a $100.00 hotel gift certificate for fifty dollars with no limit on the amount you could buy. Last year at Christmas, for every Best Western $100 gift certificate bought, you received a free one worth fifty dollars. I save these and use them to my advantage.
  • While I'm beyond camping and youth hosteling (and you'll never see them as a cheap option in anything I write about travel). I'm fairly low maintenance. These means that on the road I'm happy with the basics, and in the city I look for the most reasonable choice that still allows me to mainly walk and save on gas.
  • For me, the road itself is the adventure. I rarely drive on interstates, preferring secondary roads. Not only is there more scenery, but I often get free or cheap entertainment or sightseeing opportunities that others do not (although the largest prairie dog in the world IS right on I75!). Not only that, but cheap local eats are available if I want to leave my picnic behind. For a few dollars I can experience a real meal for the price of Mcd's on the interstate (I'm trying to follow the guy who looked for the best pie in every state).
  • When I do eat locally, I avoid hotel restaurants and tourist locations for the most part (Santa Fe may be an exception, I'm told that if I don't eat at The Shed, I'm unAmerican). I look for where the locals eat, and again, prefer taste to presence. After living so many years on the east coast, I know full well that the best seafood is served in the places with the paper tablecloths, not the linen ones. I figure that rule applies elsewhere.
  • I bring everything I need. Admittedly this particular tip works better for driving travel than for plane travel. Because I have my car, I can even bring my own full sizes of personal products if I need to.
  • I'm prepared for every eventuality. While this is primarily a safety tip, accidents and emergencies usually cost money as well and if we can make do in case we have to wait for a cheaper alternative, it's always better. This means that I have a blanket, small emergency/first aid kit, and water in my car. And that I know for a fact the tools necessary to change a tire is there.
  • Lastly, I do not need souvenirs. I allow myself one souvenir from each place (IF it is a local specialty, IF it is within my budget, and IF I will actually use the item). I have a good basic camera, take lots of pictures, and allow those to be my mementos. I also journal about my trip. This means that there are many places where I buy nothing

I'm sure that there are some tips I've missed and some that I simply don't take advantage of. I've lived for too many years driving on the autobahn to be willing to travel in a camper or RV at a lower speed, even if I could afford it. And although I've done my share of youth hosteling, at this point my knee is not going to allow me to sleep on a thin cot or on the floor.  I would house share with someone who loved animals if I knew them, I'm uncomfortable having strangers in my home. 

What about you?  Do you still travel?  Have you found inexpensive ways to explore and visit new locations?


  1. I would not go overboard on car maintenance. Click and Clack on NPR give some good rules of thumb. Believe me (with four members of my family making VERY good money in car maintenance) it is all about the sale! With the oil that is now produced- every 5,000 miles is actually better for the engine and fuel injection cleaning is hardly ever good.
    Tire pressure, rotation and replacement are key to good gas milage.
    That being said. I always carry peanut butter and honey. I rarely eat out (I know this is something you enjoy). Grocery stores are my friends. A six pack of Coke is still cheaper than a drive through at Wendy's. I remember that hotels are places to sleep- so clean is higher than ambiance. Safe is important and I have been known to ask to check the room before I sign on the dotted line.
    I go to the beach in late September and early May. I go to the mountains in October.
    I find that driving is still far less than flying since I have to rent a car when I get where ever I am going. My car has 70,000 on it- but most of those are steady road mile.
    Walmart is my friend for tires.
    My kids see me once every other month - so I am pretty busy doing the coast to coast thing.
    $1000 a month though----I would be hard pressed. Good job if you can do it!

  2. I stumbled across this and I love it. I'm 53 and work at home as a Debt & Budget counselor. I talk to sooo many people that for 1 reason or another are living on SSI only. It's frightening to think I may be doing the same in another 10 or so years! Actually I'm panic stricken about's just not possible to do!

  3. Anon, I admit it is very difficult to do. I am blessed that I will have hubbys social security as well as a pension, but I will probably have to sell my house earlier than I would have done under other circumstances.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. JBO, I bought my car new with cash, and I admit that I follow the recommended dealer maintenance exactly. I also get my oil changed on a regular basis. It may be that I am overreacting. I enjoy eating out in good restaurants and I am on a healthy diet, so even whenn I carry my cooler it includes salad and lean meats andthe like, i agree, I personally never fly.


Ladies Day Out-Beads and Quesadillas

You all remember those 98 degree afternoons I had Monday, Tuesday, and yes, even yesterday?  Today? Fifty Degrees. While I am normally no...