Hey there!

I’m back, and it’s been mega weird to be planted in one place for a while. It’s given me a ton of time to adjust, but it’s been in the back of my mind to wrap up this trip by reflecting on those five months spent travelling, particularly the numbers, since I believe it would be helpful for folks considering this kind of longer-term travel. I know it would have been helpful for me to see before setting off.

I’m a spreadsheet kind of person, and I rigorously documented every purchase related to the trip.

I did not stringently document the money I spent on souvenirs, and the money I spent on food. I chose to do this to not micromanage my own expenses related to my quality of life. I had a tendency historically to be too frugal, and choose to go without food, for example, in order to save money. I have not done that in a long time, and I chose to not document elective expenses like this in order to preserve my own mental health, and to treat myself. I also allowed myself to buy some trinkets along the way to remind me of my trip, now that I’m back home. I’m proud of myself for this. It felt like progress for me.

Let’s see — here’s a breakdown of my expenses:

(My trip lasted from March 11-August 7.)

  • Food: ~$2,000
  • Car maintenance: $1,528
  • Travel-related expenses: $816
  • Gas: $2,116
  • Travel/Airfare: $1,593

It is an important expense, though: food. It’s generally a major question I see posted to travel forums, since, depending on your setup, you may lose the ability to readily prepare cheap and healthy meals. I can say I chose to eat a bunch of fast food a la Taco Bell, and lots of cheeseburgers and fries. I also picked up a bunch of packaged salads, salsa and chips, hummus and pretzels, apples and bananas. It was important to me to eat a lot of fiber while on the road (trust me). When on the road, I also feel less urges to eat, since driving does not expend as much physical energy as on hiking and exploration days. I didn’t eat as many nutrition bars or shakes since they are just filled with sugar which made me feel kind of sick. I pretty much only drink water. I tried not to eat sit down meals unless I had company. I think I spent about $400/mo on food, after poring over some of my credit card statements. So that estimate is what is reflected above.

With regard to car maintenance, the Prius is one of the lowest-expense cars on the road. Not much breaks, and if stuff does, it isn’t too exorbitant to replace. I got 5 oil changes. I had to replace a front tire when it blew on the road, and had to get my brakes redone when I returned home. I got a windshield replaced, and already need another windshield replacement (learned my lesson about having my insurance cover it). Before I left, I had the coolant, spark plugs, transmission oil, and inverter coolant changed, and the EGR valve cleaned. I installed a catalytic converter cover. I replaced the 12v battery (which doesn’t matter, that shit keeps dying, but can’t find the parabolic power draw thus far so whatever).

My travel-related expenses included my national park pass, as well as entry fees into anything else I did, like botanical gardens, rodeos, tramways, state park fees, cave tours, train rides, etc. I chose to “do it all” this trip and try and see stuff I might never get back to see again, and told myself, “Sara, you are on vacation, spend some money.” You can 100% just get by with a national park pass and have a freaking ball, no major need to make this a big expense. I did not stay at a hotel or motel for the duration of this five-month trip. I love my Prius.

I spent $2,116 on gas. I think I averaged around 45 mpg on this trip. There was a bunch of highway driving, and a bunch of up and down windy mountain roads. And, a little offroading (do not recommend). I travelled 26,661 miles. Gas was majorly cheap some places, and awfully expensive in others (looking at you, California).

My travel/airfare expense covered my round trip flights home, and to Hawaii, and a rental car there (ugh, it was so horrifyingly expensive). Definitely not a usual expense for this kind of on-the-road life.

Another expense I just thought of but didn’t factor in is a gym membership. I use Planet Fitness and pay $22.99/month with an annual fee of $39. Worth it for showering and working out on the road.

All in all, if I’d consider it as such, 5 months of vacation across the country for ~$8300 wasn’t the worst. If I eliminated my impulse trip to Hawaii, it would have been way cheaper, too, so it’s hard to consider that added expense a part of “Prius dwelling.” I hope this helps to paint a realistic portrait of what a long-term trip could look like, financially. There are also a bunch of areas where these expenses could have been trimmed even further for folks travelling on a budget, particularly when it comes to food (cooking more and eating out less), gas (being smarter about your route and less impulsive than I or avoiding high-priced areas of the country like CA), and travel-related expenses (keeping it to national parks and monuments and milking that park pass for all it’s worth). If I had to estimate, with these changes, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to travel as much on $1,000/month or less.

How did I afford this? I work a full-time job remotely. I was working while travelling. My schedule was generally that I worked long-ass days Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and traveled the rest of the week, with some random work hours the rest of the week. I’m very fortunate that this was the case for me. Certainly, if I had to work 5 days out of the week, it would have been harder.

I worked almost exclusively on phone data and public WiFi sources. I use the Straight Talk data plan and have been for almost ten years now. I haven’t had many issues with service. The work I do involves a lot of phone and video calls, and some emails, document management, and spreadsheeting. Fortunately, I can do most of this from my phone.

Some travelers opt for a hot spot with data to use a laptop, an then use an inverter in the Prius to charge it. Although I’ve done this before, it’s not often a necessity, and I used public WiFi and public spaces (libraries, cafes, some fast food joints) to use my laptop when needed without incident. Also, I was fortunate to meet folks along the way who graciously opened their homes to me to work during the day. I also paid for co-working spaces sometimes when I tired of working out of the Prius backseat or when I was in an especially hot area.

And yes, I still paid rent at home while I was gone. This hurts, but I love my home, and do not plan on doing this full-time. There were people at my home who took care of things while I was gone, so I was fortunate to not have to worry about leaving it vacant or whatever. Only one of my houseplants bit the dust. I call it a major win.

Overall, travelling long-term would be hard if there’s a home sitting vacant. Things to think about would be running the water, keeping up with dust and bugs, ensuring the home is safe and secure, gathering mail, continuing to pay bills, making sure your food isn’t spoiling, and keeping houseplants and fish tanks or whatever else, alive. When you’re on the road, these are some of the last things you may want to think about or manage. Having a plan in place is of premier importance to keep things in order, and to keep your mind straight and focused on the trip you’re looking to enjoy.

I used Google Maps to manage my trip, way points, and desired destinations. As I traveled, I did not follow a set plan, but rather kept a running list in the “Want to Go” section of the app. I talked with people while traveling, asking them where they’ve been that they’d recommend, local places to check out, good hikes, and most of all, good food. I found most of the “good stuff” this way. People are generally very helpful and full of great ideas and recommendations.

I also saved every place of interest that I visited during my times travelling. This helped me to keep things organized, and to separate places I wanted to visit from placed I’d already been.

You may find a saved map of all the places I visited from March-August 2021, here.

Related to these destinations, folks often ask, “What’s the best place you’ve been?” And, this is a hard question. The map I shared above has 289 locations I’ve visited on this trip. That’s a lot to sort through. But I’ll do my best here.

I spent a lot of time travelling in and around national parks, so I can begin with this. The most breathtaking national parks to visit? In my opinion, and in no particular order, I recommend checking out Yosemite, Arches, Zion, North Cascades, and White Sands.

Best unexpected stop? Definitely Longhorn Caverns TX. This is on par with a national park in terms of size and interesting stuff to see, for sure. 100% an awesome cave and in my limited experience, totally worth seeing even over some of the national park caves.

Favorite natural or free spot to visit? The many hot springs in Idaho, California, Mammoth Lakes area, and Jemez Wildnerness area, as well as Corona Arch and Hal Canyon.

Food: Whoo’s donuts in Santa Fe, Derby in Portland, Wicked Maine Lobster in San Diego, Sonoran hot dogs in Arizona, and who could forget the Limon CO Taco Bell.

Finally, I find it really important to mention the most useful items I brought with me on this trip.

I can reflect on gearing up and getting ready for this lifestyle before I even bought my first Prius, and it’s overwhelming. You can watch YouTube videos of people travelling, and get great ideas on how to set up the car, but it’s hard to know what to put in it in order to be prepared, sometimes. So I’ll briefly review what I found to be most important.

Also, for those who want a more complete list, I cataloged all my gear in my February article, “My Car Camping Equipment.”

Once you have your car decked out to travel (tinted windows, rain guards, mattress, etc.), probably the most important part of being comfortable day to day is managing your temperature. Although the Prius is incredible at this, acting like a generator on wheels, and you can run the A/C or heat all day and night with minimal gas usage if you wanted to, I didn’t want to use the car for this purpose as much as possible. I think I ran the heat in the car overnight twice during these five months (when nighttime temps hit <25F), and the A/C once. I did use the A/C during the day on a few more occasions if I was working from the car in a warm area.

In cases where I needed to regulate my temperature without using the car’s engine, I found two purchases to be invaluable: namely, my packable down quilt to keep me warm, and my travel camping fan to keep me cool. I am SO GLAD that I bought these. This blanket is the warmest blanket I’ve ever used. Although it packs down really small when you want to store it, when you pop it out it puffs up, surrounding you under light, warm, pillowy layers. It was hard to emerge from during those cold mornings, because it does such a good job of keeping the heat in. And the travel fan charges by USB which makes it easy, and seriously holds enough of a charge to run all night, circulating air in the Prius so it doesn’t get stale, and keeping me cool. It has a hook so I hang it from the hook in the back with me, and it runs pretty quietly. I also hung this from my tent ceiling when camping in Moab because it was fucking HOT at night, and it kept me sane. I seriously cannot say enough good things about these two items. I won’t ever travel again without them.

Honorable mentions also include the mesh packing cubes that kept my clothes organized for the whole five months, and the USB car chargers that have 3 ports in them. I’m also a huge supporter of Huggie’s Natural Care Baby Wipes and used them every day of this trip to clean the car, my face, my body, spills, whatever, without a weird texture or scent situation. Love them.

Also don’t travel without at least one hammock. The ability to spontaneously just relax anywhere is absolutely worth the price of admission.

Thank you so much for following me on this journey. It was so needed after being stuck in my house for so long. I was grateful to share it with you, grateful to hear your positive feedback, encouragement, and suggestions. Travel can be accessible, from small weekend trips to long-ass marathons like this that you’re glad to come home from. What I’ve gained from this is motivation to keep moving forward, challenging myself, and stretching into my growth zone.

I’ll be back with more travel and Prius-related updates, but until then, enjoy your Fall season!