Author Topic: Frugal road tripping advice wanted  (Read 2440 times)

ontheway2

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Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« on: May 24, 2018, 08:04:13 AM »
If I can arrange it with my employer, we (family of 4) want to take a national parks road trip summer 2019. Because we live in the land of (almost) no national parks, the plan is to fly into LA, rent a minivan, and travel around to a Denver ending point with flying out from there. Transportation (flight, rental, gas) is planned at almost $3500 because of this.  We can get into the parks for free and camp for half price due to the Access card.  Any other tips to save money? Are showers really $5 each, or is it true we can shower free with our own towels?

Plan is for 5-6 weeks. Tent camping with a few AirBnBs sprinkled in. Would love to rent a campervan, but that seems cost prohibitive. Food budgeted at 120% of home spend due to allowing for some conveniences.

Also, any must see stops/parks from southern California through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, etc? I have a tentative list but haven't been to any of the parks besides the Grand Canyon as a child

nereo

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #1 on: May 24, 2018, 08:20:41 AM »
Sounds like an awesome trip! We've done similar things but not quite as long or extensive as what you are planning.

In terms of advice I'd recommend that you incorporate a good camp stove and cooler into your setup, which will keep your food budget manageable. 
Showers vary from location to location.  Most parks have coin-operated facilities, with a typical (yet water frugal) 5 minute shower costing roughly $2-5 in quarters.  You'll want to keep several rolls of quarters on hand (I'd go to a bank and take out $40 in quarters to start, and replenish as necessary).

Campsites outside the parks often cost about the same and some offer more ammenities, like a small pool and free showers, so it's worth looking around.

In terms of parks, Joshua Tree,  Zion and Bryce are near the top of my list in that region. Death Valley is also heartbreakingly beautiful.  If you venture further up California Kings Canyon has much of the scenery that Yosemite has, but with a fraction of the crowds (they are next to each other). The Grand Tetons are also not to be missed, and they are less than a day's ride from Yellowstone (Yellowstone, like Yosemite, will be slammed in the summer).  Arches (technically a NM) is a few hours from Zion and worth a day or two of poking around if you are already going to be in that region.
If you want to see some slot canyons Glenn Canyon is a bit out of the way but with the ongoing drought you can see some amazing features that were underwater just a decade ago when the CCC flooded that whole region.

During the summer I'd avoid Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. All are great parks but they are SO popular it (to me) isn't worth visiting during peak season, especially when there are SO MANY OTHER great parks around.

Finally, while 5-6 weeks sounds like a ton of time I wouldn't try to squeeze in every park you can; with the bigger parks I'd plan on spending 3-5 days in each, plus a day or so to travel between them.  That means you might focus on maybe 6 parks during your whole trip you'd like to see.  Otherwise you will spend so much time traveling and not enough seeing.  Just my 2

Lady SA

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #2 on: May 24, 2018, 08:39:06 AM »
I went on a 3 week national park roadtrip 4 years ago, exclusively tent camping (except for one hotel night that I insisted on lol!). I highly recommend Rocky Mtn National Park (right by Denver) and Canyonlands National Park (Utah). Both were fantastic. We missed Zion but I have heard really good things about it. Also, if you get a chance to catch Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons (just south of yellowstone) those are beautiful as well. We went to Glacier on a separate trip last year, and it was incredible, but it is pretty far out of the way so we skipped it on our roadtrip. Rocky mountain, Canyonlands, and Clacier are our favorite parks by far.

Food tips:
Bring a cooler, and head to the local grocery store every so often to get supplies for tortilla wraps (meat, veggies), trail mix, and other cheap, filling foods with plenty of calories (you'll be hiking around all day every day). We ate tortilla wraps for lunch every day for 3 weeks, and that worked really well (started to get a little boring though!). Plus granola bars, fruit, cheese sticks, hard boiled eggs, crackers, salami for snacks, and then easy-to-make dinners back at our campsite--some favorites were spaghetti/noodles, scrambled eggs, etc. We would also hard boil eggs every few nights for snacks.
Handling most of our own food from grocery stores cut down significantly on our food costs. We did go out to eat a few times, but I would say at least 80% of the food we ate we purchased and prepared ourselves.

We tried to eat as much "finger food" as possible to cut down on plates/utensils and dishwashing needed. This is why the build-your-own wraps were such a hit.

For showers, eh. Try to shower only like once per week (yes, it sounds gross, but hear me out). Bring a pack or two of baby wipes and that will remove the worst of the grease and sweat between showers. You are camping outdoors, no need to smell pristine the entire time :) I would wash your face every day, but your body does not have to be cleaned quite so often. Find a few lakes to jump into, and boom, free bath! Everyone should have a hat, both to keep the sun off and to hide the grease.

I also recommend making a "rule" to fill up for gas at the first gas station you see after hitting a half tank. Especially in rural Utah and WY between a few of the parks we went to, gas stations are few and far between, and having this rule saved us more than a few times!

edit: removed confusing information. DO NOT use biodegradable soap in lakes/rivers! :)
« Last Edit: May 24, 2018, 01:32:57 PM by Lady SA »

fell-like-rain

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #3 on: May 24, 2018, 08:44:54 AM »
I mean, you really cant go wrong with any of the national parks in the region- I think any recommendation would depend a lot on what kind of terrain you want to experience. Canyonlands, mountain meadows, boreal forest, craggy ridges- what sounds most appealing? Personally, Im a big fan of Zion (if you pick a quiet section) and Yellowstone, but I think you could have an incredible experience in any of the parks. Id also throw out a plug for northern New Mexico, which has no national parks, but theres tons of quirk and charm, plus Colorado-esque scenery without the same crowds.

The #1 thing Id recommend is to get as far into the backcountry as possible. The big-name national parks get absolutely slammed with visitors in peak season, and the numbers just keep going up year over year. However, less than 5% of visitors will go more than 1/4 mile from a road, and less than 0.5% will apply for a backcountry camping permit. Obviously, you should stay within the limit of your comfort and experience level, but even hiking a few miles into the woods to spend the night will let you escape the traffic and experience the peace and beauty of these places in a different way.

terran

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #4 on: May 24, 2018, 09:09:14 AM »
One way rentals are usually much more expensive than roundtrip, so if you can figure out a round trip version that would probably be cheaper. We flew in/out of Vegas a few years ago, rented a car and did a big loop of Utah/Arizona parks.

lentil

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #5 on: May 24, 2018, 09:22:43 AM »
Camping in national forests or BLM land is usually cheaper than inside National Parks, and often just as scenic. But with the 1/2 price deal, you may find the savings aren't really that much. Some state parks have shower facilities, so it is often worth doing your research to see if you can spend the occasional night in a state park. Or find a public pool in a nearby town and see what it costs to take the family swimming (which would include showers too). On extended camping trips, I tend to just do "sponge baths," with showers as a rare treat, but YMMV. And I think I am probably mis-reading the suggestion above regarding bathing in lakes, but just in case: It's cool to swim in lakes, but not to use soap (biodegradable or not) in any water source. Use the biodegradable soap to wash off all your bug spray and sunscreen a couple hundred feet from any water, then go swimming ;-)

The $5 shower thing sounds like you've been researching YNP -- definitely one of the more expensive parks, in my experience (but awesome). Every park is different in terms of amenities and options, so do your research. Half the fun of a trip is in the planning anyway! Generally speaking, if you have the option to stock up on groceries outside of parks (and often outside of the gateway towns), you'll save a bit. Doing laundry outside parks will also be cheaper. Agree with the advice to get a camp stove and cooler, and it's smart to budget extra for food. Also smart to plan for regular decompression stops in AirBnBs, I think.

National parks/monuments have junior ranger programs, as well as (mostly) free ranger programs of various sorts (campground talks, group hikes). We're taking our eleven year old nephew on a road trip later this summer, and I know he's super into the junior ranger stuff. But also, since he'll be stuck in the back seat for hours, I'm going to plan on bringing some audiobooks, playing some car games, and generally trying to make the driving part less tedious for him. I actually like long drives, but that's probably because I get to do the driving/planning and other fun bits.

All the parks are beautiful, but some are better at certain times of year. If you're going during July, for instance, many of the UT parks are too hot for me (you may feel otherwise!). If you get sick of National Park crowds, then hit some national monuments, national forests, and other less-well-known sites. If you're going during peak season, there are many parks where it is wise to reserve sites well in advance. Yosemite, Yellowstone, most of the UT parks, Rocky Mountain NP, and probably others.

Everyone has a different travel style. I've done "sampler" trips, where I road-tripped through a ton of places with just brief stops (then came back years later to dive into my favorites), and the slow-down-and-enjoy-where-you-are kind of trip. Slowing down tends to be more frugal, because you learn the ins-and-outs of wherever you are (like where to grab a cheap shower or groceries), and spend less on gas/fees/etc.. Plus there's more time for hiking and enjoying the small wonders of wherever you are. So you might pick one area to focus on -- California, Utah, the Rocky Mountains, whatever -- and spend your time there. I can promise you that you won't run out of parks! But whatever you do, it sounds like a fabulous trip.

FireHiker

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #6 on: May 24, 2018, 10:47:04 AM »
If you make it through Utah, Goblin Valley State Park was REALLY cool. You'll likely have to pay for it since I don't think our national park pass worked there, but it was absolutely worth it. It is HOT in the summer though, so go early in the day. It's basically a bunch of older hoodoos and you can climb all through them. We did a road trip a few years ago where we visited: Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef (eh, worth if it you're trying to check them all off your list, but not a lot to do there), Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods. We didn't do Bryce or Zion because we'd been there before. Bryce is fantastic; the Wall St. hike is awesome and it's pretty short. Zion will be crowded in the summer; I think they have mandatory shuttle inside the park.

In Sequoia be VERY cautious with food/smelly items in the car. The bears WILL break into the car; it happens often. Most trailheads and the campgrounds have large bear boxes. We were even told to put our carseat inside it while backpacking because the bears there know that car seats = food snacks.

Depending on how long you spend in California, there are a lot of great parks here. We like to camp at Prairie Creek up in the redwoods, but it books well in advance. Redwoods NP is great; the Lady Bird Johnson grove is a lovely, easy hike. Getting to Fern Canyon you'll feel like you're on Endor...because that's where it was filmed. If you have more time in California, Lassen Volcanic is less-frequently visited and might be a nice break from the crowds of Sequoia and Yosemite. If you get all the way up to Oregon, Crater Lake is one of my favorites. They have a very nice campground and everything is beautiful. It may be doable to include it in a 6 week trip depending on what else you do.

If you do go to WY/MT, Glacier is my favorite national park. The Going to the Sun road is amazing, and the hike to Iceberg Lake is my all time favorite. When we did it my now-17 year old was 7.5 and he did quite well (10+ miles round trip), but I don't know the hiking stamina of your kids of course.

I haven't been to Rocky Mountain NP yet but I understand it's pretty crowded in the summer. I have been to Yellowstone in the summer, and it wasn't all that bad, but it was 10 years ago. We tent camped at Madison (reserved in advance) and waded in the stream right there to clean up (w/o soap as Lentil mentioned). Baby wipes are definitely your friend for this sort of trip! We camped a few nights then did a hotel to clean up/do laundry. Now we do airbnb or stay with a friend for a night or two depending on our route. We LOVED Durango; stayed there 3 nights when we visited Mesa Verde (you need to get tickets for the good tours a day or two in advance; they are often sold out day of), went river rafting, and took the railroad to Silverton. Actually we loved Durango so much that we are considering retiring there even though it's not LCOL (it can be a fair bit lower than where we live now at least).

Carlsbad Caverns is a good one in New Mexico; I went there on a road trip years ago that included the Grand Canyon.

Have a great trip! I want to visit all of the National Parks and have checked off a good number of them, but still have several to go. We're flying to the northeast this year and renting a car to do a road trip there since I've never been to the northeast. I'll finally get to see Acadia!

Now I am inspired to plan another National Park trip...sorry for my disjointed rambling!

Loren Ver

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #7 on: May 24, 2018, 11:40:26 AM »
Ohh Fun!

DH and I are converting a van to a camper so we can do more of this stuff.  Love the list.

A few things I have a to add:
Once you know where you want to go, book the camping.  Places fill up fast!  Especially if you are hitting the big name parts around peak season. 

Make sure you check out the camping ahead of time. Some places will not allow tents due to animals (mostly bear).  DH and I encountered this outside yellowstone a while ago.  You couldn't camp nearby unless you had something hard sided to be in (like an RV).  We ended up 13 miles away (if memory serves). 

Don't try to do everything.  Others have mentioned it.  You can reach burn out really fast.  I like to travel under the assumption I'll be back in the future so i don't have to do everything the first time :).

Take a water jug for potable water (we have a 3 gallon).  So many uses and just good to have. 

If you plan on having fires, check for wood transport restrictions.  Ash bore is a real issue and many places wont let you transport wood (or types of wood).  So plan ahead as much as you can if you want to have a fire pit fire.

LV

canyonrider

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #8 on: May 24, 2018, 12:05:14 PM »
IMO, hitting the southern Utah parks with kids in the summer is crazy talk, especially when you are considering such a wide range of other options. Zion and Bryce would probably be somewhat reasonable, as they are a bit higher elevation, but I would skip Canyonlands, Arches, Goblin Valley, etc. that time of year. Think 100+ degrees every day with zero shade and minimal cool-down at night.

Other random advice:
- Our kids much prefer to camp in one spot for several nights (or as long as possible) with  travel days spaced farther apart (vs. moving every day or two).

- Reservations are nice (especially for weekends), but a lot of national park and USFS campgrounds are still first-come, first-served. At the popular parks (e.g., Grand Teton) there are a lot of sites and lot of turnover every day, so you can usually snag a spot. Scope out all your options at the target location, not just reservable ones.

- Don't plan around showers, hit a local rec center or stay at campground with shower facilities (or AirBNB) once a week and call it good.

- Second the advice on investing in a camp stove/cookset/cooler. Must-haves if you are going to do this.

- Second the NP junior ranger program, our kids love it. Plus it often gives some ideas for structuring our visit to a particular park (i.e., kids help set the agenda!).


HipGnosis

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #9 on: May 24, 2018, 12:36:50 PM »
Once you have your route planned, look around https://www.roadsideamerica.com/ and see if anything interesting is along or near it.  Even if not very interesting, most anything will a change of pace from travel, camp, travel, camp, travel...

Figure out how you will get regular weather forecasts.

I also second the suggestion of looking at making it a loop.

bognish

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #10 on: May 24, 2018, 12:52:02 PM »
How old are your kids? I would repeat the recommendation to try for a loop trip instead of 1 way. Unless there is a big reason for LA, I would look into flying to Las Vegas, Denver or Salt Lake. LA's not that close to Yosemite and Joshua Tree is not that great unless you are in the area (especially in the summer). There are lots of other places to stop, see and camp for free outside of the National Parks. Arches, Zion, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstore are all great, but will be really busy in the summer. Mesa Verde, Capital Reef, Dinosaur NM are fun and less busy. Goblin Valley is a great small state park in UT. Was just there a month ago and my kids loved the goblins, big cave and easy slot canyon close by. Lots of free camping in the area. The desert heat in the summer is no joke and there will be no shade or water. You can buy car camping gear that will last a 5 week trip very cheaply and easily lots of stores like Walmart.

I live in Salt Lake and have been to most of the places on your route with my family of 4 in our minivan, so  let me know if you need more or specific advise.

mm1970

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #11 on: May 24, 2018, 01:47:09 PM »
If I can arrange it with my employer, we (family of 4) want to take a national parks road trip summer 2019. Because we live in the land of (almost) no national parks, the plan is to fly into LA, rent a minivan, and travel around to a Denver ending point with flying out from there. Transportation (flight, rental, gas) is planned at almost $3500 because of this.  We can get into the parks for free and camp for half price due to the Access card.  Any other tips to save money? Are showers really $5 each, or is it true we can shower free with our own towels?

Plan is for 5-6 weeks. Tent camping with a few AirBnBs sprinkled in. Would love to rent a campervan, but that seems cost prohibitive. Food budgeted at 120% of home spend due to allowing for some conveniences.

Also, any must see stops/parks from southern California through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, etc? I have a tentative list but haven't been to any of the parks besides the Grand Canyon as a child

Grand Canyon is amazing - Mather Campground.  We've camped there twice.  I don't remember how much it costs to shower there. 

Joshua Tree National Park is a must-see, but it's going to be hot in the summer - so I wouldn't actually camp there.  No cost to shower at Joshua Tree because not showers!
I'd look for an AirBNB during that time frame.

In Utah: Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches.  When we went to Utah a couple of years ago, we stayed in an AirBNB in Kanab, UT and did day trips to Zion and Bryce (1-2 hrs).

If you are heading north at all from LA, then Yosemite, but the southern route (Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Utah - easier).

At one point I looked into Escape Campervans.  They were reasonably priced at the time (out of LA), more like a rental car.  But the bummer was that they were closed the day we wanted to do drop off (Memorial day), so we just tent camped it.

Anyway, here's a summary of our road trips.
1.  Kingman, AZ (hotel) -> Grand Canyon (camping at Mather) -> Sedona (B&B before the days of AirBNB) -> Santa Fe (stayed with friends) -> White Sands, NM (cheap hotel) -> Tucson, AZ (stayed with relatives) -> Joshua tree (camping).  About 10 days, pre-kid.

2.  Kingman, AZ (hotel) -> Grand Canyon (camping at Mather) -> Page, AZ (cheap rental) - took a boat trip down the Colorado -> Phoenix, AZ (visited a friend) -> Tucson, AZ (visiting relatives) -> Home (did this trip with 1 kid, he was 5)

3.  Victorville, CA (cheap hotel) -> Kanab, UT to see Bryce, Zion, and Coral Sand Dunes NM (AirBNB) -> Barstow, CA -> Home  (Did this trip with 2 kids, aged 10 and 3)

4.  Durango, CO (flew in) -> from there visited Telluride and Mesa Verde National Park, and Canyon of the Ancients NP. Flew out of Durango again.  Kids were 11 and 5.

5.  Joshua Tree NP (camping) -> Kingman, AZ (hotel, it was freaking cold in November for camping) -> Grand Canyon (cheap hotel, see: cold) -> Phoenix (stayed with cousins) -> Home  Kids were 11 and 5.

Things I wished I'd had more time for: 

The Durango trip, I really wanted to drive and camp and see Grand Canyon again, and then Bryce, Zion, Grand Escalante, and Canyonlands - all on the way to Durango.  Then, I was super hoping that we could come home the northern route and see Great Basin, NV, Death Valley, CA, and Sequoia.

I agree a loop might be better.  And like I said, Joshua Tree is AWESOME (we go almost annually), but not in the summer.

We hit Utah on spring break, so it wasn't super busy.  My kids definitely prefer to stay in a place at least 2 days, and for sure they like swimming pools.  So on our last couple of trips we used points to stay at hotels with pools for 1-2 nights.  It made them happy.

http://www.randalolson.com/2016/07/30/the-optimal-u-s-national-parks-centennial-road-trip/

As far as campgrounds filling up fast...that is for sure true here in California.  It seemed to me on our Colorado trip last summer (where we didn't camp), that campgrounds were much more plentiful.
« Last Edit: May 24, 2018, 01:54:03 PM by mm1970 »

NV Teacher

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #12 on: May 24, 2018, 02:13:02 PM »
Skip LA and fly into Vegas.  You can go west and see Joshua Tree NM and then head east again.  Also know that it will hotter than the surface of the sun in the middle of summer.  Tent camping would be quite uncomfortable in my opinion.  Southern NV and CA in the deserts will be 105-110+ for days on end.  Southern Utah is better but still over 100 degrees everyday.  The Grand Canyon is warm but not miserable in the summer because of the elevation.  Maybe consider starting in the PNW and working your way down to Denver. 

AMandM

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #13 on: May 25, 2018, 01:26:48 PM »
Sorry to be a downer, but I think your food budget is overly optimistic. Based on my experience, 200% of normal is more realistic. Grocery shopping and cooking your own food while traveling is much cheaper than eating out all the time, but in my experience it's very hard to do it as efficiently as at home.

These may not all apply to you, but I have found:
-We can't take much advantage of bulk buying
-My repertoire of what I can cook is limited by the limited cooking facilities
-I'm not familiar with the local stores and may not have access to cheap ones
-We're hiking etc., so we eat a lot more
-Some aspects of convenience become more important (e.g. granola bars for snacks on the trail instead of bread and butter we'd eat at home)
-It's vacation so we feel more self-indulgent (e.g. smores every night, more likely to grill meat than make a stew)

Trifele

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #14 on: May 26, 2018, 05:29:21 AM »
I would second the recommendation for Mesa Verde in SW Colorado -- that is UNESCO World Heritage site and an absolute must-go.  We went with our kids aged 9 and 12 and they had a blast climbing the huge ladders into the ancient cliff dwellings.  In NW New Mexico we also enjoyed El Morro -- a small but very cool national monument with a small campground.  If you like history you will love that one.  We did not make it to Sand Dunes NP in Colorado on that trip, but a friend of mine says it is spectacular -- her favorite place on earth.

Unless you are going to drive north in California (feel free to PM me if you are -- we did a two week camping road trip of northern California) -- I would skip LA and fly into Las Vegas or maybe Albuquerque.

Have fun! 

diffusate

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Re: Frugal road tripping advice wanted
« Reply #15 on: May 26, 2018, 08:46:19 AM »
I'm sure you've considered it, but I want to put in a plug for just driving from your home town. Not sure where you live, but even from the east coast it's just 3 days of driving to Denver. I know this might be a bit painful with the kids, but with a total of 5-6 weeks you could take your time and even enjoy some stops along the way.

You would be putting a few thousand miles on your car, but the savings would still be considerable. You'd also be able to fully stock up at home on low-cost camping gear instead of trying to fly with it.