The Cost of Driving Cross-Country

Navigating finances on a road trip with a traveling companion who makes more than you do.

Photo credit: Daniel Ramirez, CC BY 2.0.

Part graduation celebration, part final hoorah with my best friend before I moved three states away, the eight-day cross-country trip took us farther than we could have imagined. Leaving our home in Cincinnati, Ohio, we went through the surprisingly green hobbit-home hills of Kansas, the blue mountains of Colorado still covered in snow, the Arizona cacti popcorning the horizon — all the way to Las Vegas, so bright and sparkly even the postcards glittered.

We’d planned to bring a cooler of groceries and tent-camp four of the seven nights we’d be traveling, and we were only going to spend one night in Vegas—no gambling—so I naively thought we could do the whole thing for $350 each.

Boy, was I wrong. I have a pile of ripped receipts and a long bank statement explaining exactly how I went $250 over.

As expenses racked up along the way — picture dollar signs spinning in the eyes of cartoon characters, and that’s how the highway looked at me that week — so grew the tension between myself and my best friend. The money spent was a bigger deal for me than it was for her. I’m a graduate student, and I make the notoriously low stipend of one. Steph works an administrative job at a home health care company which, though she has never disclosed her salary, definitely makes her the higher earner. She also saves money on rent, electricity, internet, and more by living with her parents (she isn’t completely without expenses, of course; she pays a doozy of a new car payment).

This is all to say that Stephanie could roll with the monetary punches on the road better than I could. But the punches still hurt. Coming home, there were long stretches of nothing but red dirt and awkward silences.

If you’re thinking of hitting the road this summer, with a budget and with a companion, here are a few things about finances (and friends) I wish I’d known beforehand:

No matter how careful you plan, you are going to spend more than you think.

Despite what I’ve told employers my whole life, I’m not a detail-oriented person. Some of the reasons I went over budget could have been predicted — like the fact that we’d grow tired of eating sandwiches every day and would want to try the local cuisine. Other reasons would’ve been avoidable entirely with proper research — like not realizing we had to pay to enter national parks like the Petrified Forest or the Grand Canyon. But there were also some… let’s call them hiccups… along the way that even the most cost-efficient, budget-following individual couldn’t have planned for.

For one thing, we vastly overestimated our ability to drive upwards of ten hours a day. When I told the Petrified Forest National Park guide—a wild, white-haired man with a mustache and mad-scientist gleam in his eye—that we only wanted to stay long enough to see the “highlights” of the park because we had to make it to Amarillo by nightfall, he laughed, loud and rude.

Sweetheart, he said, You’re not going to make it to Amarillo today. He predicted that even if we turned around now without looking at anything in the park, we wouldn’t make Amarillo until midnight.

I’m pleased to say he was wrong. At midnight, we were nowhere near Amarillo. Between stopping for gas, dinner, and the dogs (we were traveling with two, who always had to pee), we were terribly behind. Steph, the driver, said, Listen, I don’t think I can make it — I can’t see anything in the dark. Let’s get a hotel. I balked — and balked — thinking to myself how I couldn’t afford an additional night in a hotel, how we had already paid for the nonrefundable campsite. What a waste, I thought, but I agreed to get a room. By morning, we were out the cost of the hotel, the campsite, and an additional no-show charge for never checking into the KOA.

Don’t be afraid to mention finances to your traveling companion.

I didn’t want to bring up the fact that our trip going over the estimated cost was going to hurt me financially — that, in fact, even the estimated cost was hurting me. It was embarrassing, and I didn’t want to be a killjoy. But even without discussing it outright, the tension built: when I paid for gas, I saved my receipts; when she paid, Steph didn’t even ask for one. Finally, I told her to start keeping track, with the intention of adding and splitting the cost later. (We took turns filling the tank, which meant things weren’t distributed equally, depending on how much we needed at that stop and the cost of gas in that state.)

In Vegas, after a particularly intoxicating visit at the Margaritaville bar, we were bold enough to start arguing. I can’t believe you want us to save our receipts, she said. What does it matter? It’s not like we need to keep track to make sure we’re not getting screwed over by the other person.

Don’t you want to make sure we’re splitting everything fifty-fifty? I said.

God, Samantha, you’re so stingy, she said, which hurt. So I berated her for several minutes about how I had more expenses than she did but had less of an income, how expensive it was going to be to move in two months, how I didn’t even know how I was going to make rent when we got home. It was not my most tasteful, nor tactful, argument ever.

Here’s the thing about Stephanie: she didn’t always have this much money. When we were younger, I had a bit more pocket change; in high school, she was often the one that would say to me, Could we possibly see the movie next week, after my paycheck? or Maybe we could eat somewhere cheaper?

Which meant when it finally came out that I was worried about money, the argument died mid-screech. She told me she understood, and tried to help keep cost down to the point where, instead of splitting fifty-fifty, she even absorbed some of the expenses completely. She’s pretty awesome. I should’ve talked to her sooner — and without the alcohol.

Sometimes the money saved isn’t worth the price you pay in time or frustration.

This was something that Stephanie — and our mothers — knew before we started our trip, but I had to learn on the road. You’re not going to like doing all that set-up and tear-down, my mother said, when I told her about our plans to save money by tent-camping. It won’t be worth it.

This was particularly true on our last night, when we had planned to stay at the KOA in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We arrived with plenty of daylight left, a campsite close to the pet area for the dogs to play, and a notification that a tornado warning had been issued for our area. Maybe you should get a hotel, Stephanie’s mother texted when Stephanie told her the news. Stephanie agreed: I’m not going to spend the night in a tent if it’s pouring. That sounds miserable.

I told Stephanie it would be a waste of money to leave and get a room, especially since we had just done that the night before. At my insistence we put up the tent — a half-hour-long activity — but Stephanie wasn’t enjoying herself, nervously waiting for the rain to start. Honestly, I just want to leave, she said as soon as the tent was up. We fought again, me maintaining that this was the cheapest option.

Then everyone from the camp employee to the security guard warned us that the weather could be worse than just rain. Our bathrooms are designated safe areas in case of a tornado, they said. Everyone else left; we were the only tent-campers there.

At the thought of hunkering alone in a basement with our dogs while a tornado tore apart our campsite, I was convinced to pack our things and drive eleven hours through the night until we were home. I was also angry, and so was Steph. We barely spoke to each other in the two hours we spent at that KOA, half of which we were packing and unpacking. That would have never happened at a hotel.

What a waste, I thought again, when we were back in the car. Then, when Steph and I heard the radio weather channel crackling with static, losing its signal because of the storm clouds behind us, we started laughing together for the first time in hours — and I realized that some things were more important than saving money.

Samantha Edmonds is an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee. She holds an MA in English from the University of Cincinnati. Her fiction has appeared in Pleiades, Midwestern Gothic, Monkeybicycle, the Indiana Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines such as Santa Fe Writers Project, The Scold, and Ravishly. Follow her on twitter @sam_edmonds122.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.

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