Because I came in over budget so much on my trip to Utah and Wyoming this past summer, I had to really double down on my most recent trip. A budget travel road trip is my cup of tea because the less money I spend, the more trips I can take.
After getting home from Utah last August, I was already planning for the next adventure. But because I busted my budget by $300, I knew money was going to be tight. I have been wanting to go see the saguaro cacti for some time. One night when I couldn’t sleep, I worked out what exactly it would cost me to take a budge travel road trip to Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona. I promised myself it came to a certain cost or over, I wouldn’t go. Well, I added up the camping fees, estimated the gas cost, and added in the cost of food. And I came to $25 over my target budget.
Trying to be responsible, I told myself that, settled that I wouldn’t go. As a joke, I texted my best friend and said, “If you go to southern Arizona with me, I promise a stop in Roswell, New Mexico.” (She really, really likes the X Files.) But I knew she wouldn’t be able to go.
Still obsessing with going instead of sleeping, I prayed to God to please take away the obsession or help me find the money. I like to give God options in answering my prayers.
To my surprise the next morning my best friend said she wanted to go. That meant that the fuel and camping cost would be cut in half.
Unfortunately at the last minute my best friend received some bad news and was not going to be able to make the trip. I debated whether I should continue to go solo, go somewhere closer and therefore cheaper, or just not go.
I thought long and hard about it because I knew I would spend more money than I budgeted for. Then I got an email notifying me I had been paid for a magazine article I wrote back in August. So I took that as a sign.
Because I had already made reservations I decided to keep with the original plan. However, I decided to wait to go to Roswell when my best friend could join.
The Itinerary and budget
Any budget travel road trip is going to involve a lot of driving. I left my home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at 7 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18, and drove 13 hours to White Sands National Park. (Hooray for our newest national park!) White Sands does not have campgrounds so I stayed at the KOA in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 15 minutes away.
Sunday I explored White Sands National Park, and after the sunset, I drove about an hour to the KOA in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This put me a little closer to my next destination.
I left Las Cruces early and drove six hours to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the Mexican border in Arizona. I camped two nights at the park, and then on Wednesday, I drove two hours to Gilbert Ray Campground on the outskirts of Saguaro National Park in Tucson.
Saturday, Jan. 25, I left Tucson and drove 11 hours to Abilene, Texas, where I stopped for the night at another KOA. The next morning, I drove six hours the rest of the way back to my home in Hot Springs.
After the adjustment of going solo, I gave myself a $500 budget for the entire nine-day trip. In the end, I came in at $485 – $15 under budget. And because I was so much over for my Utah trip, I was ecstatic to come in under budget.
So where exactly did that $485 go?
Total cost $250
Gas is definitely the biggest part of a budget travel road trip. On this trip, I drove nearly 3,000 miles. In some places, I only paid $2 a gallon for gas, while in other places I paid about $2.50. The most expensive gas was in a tiny town on the border of Mexico. It was around $3 a gallon, but I only gassed up there once.
I drive a Honda HRV, and it gets wonderful gas mileage. So that definitely helps keep the costs down.
Total cost $160
In my research before the trip, I did not find many places where free dispersed camping was allowed. I did find a few casinos that would allow people to park overnight, but I’d rather stay in a campground. It’s also safer than a parking lot.
KOAs are expensive, but I like the security of staying at them, especially when traveling solo. I also like that they have tons of amenities, like wifi, and, you know, showers. Most also have laundry. The KOA campsites were about $30 a night for each one where I stayed.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s campsites were $20 a night. And Gilbert Ray’s campsite was $10 a night.
Total cost $75
Because I was on a budget travel road trip with the emphasis on budget, I rarely ate out. I stopped at Walmart on the way and stocked up on sandwich makings and snacks. Throughout the year, I pick up a dehydrated meal here and there because they have a long shelf life. That way you don’t have to buy a whole bunch of food just before your trip.
My Walmart bill was about $50. I ate at Dairy Queen on the way, indulged in Starbucks for one breakfast, and has an authentic border-town burrito in El Paso on the way home. Those were the only times I ate out. The rest of the time I ate turkey and ham sandwiches and dehydrated meals.
Total cost $0
Last summer while I visited five national parks in Utah I invested in an America the Beautiful Pass. White Sands and Saguaro National Parks and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument charge entrance fees of about $25. But because I had the pass, I did not have to pay.
Budget travel road trip
The cheaper you go, the more you can go. That’s my motto! The only way I could have made this trip any cheaper would have been to stay in free campsites. But camping in a casino parking lot wasn’t really what I wanted to do.
I could have also saved $25 by skipping Dairy Queen, Starbucks, and an authentic border-town burrito, but you have to indulge a little.