Heavily photoshopped photos with curly text preaching pithy sayings are things I usually scroll past and ignore, but several of the painfully elaborate letters caught my eye and I spent a minute reading it.
"You say you don't travel because you don't have money, but you eat McDonalds, drink Starbucks, and eat donuts. You don't travel because you're poor, you don't travel because you spend your money on stupid things"
While harsh, I started thinking about how much I spent on just the things mentioned above and realized that over the course of the year I probably spend the same as a big trip on those things which, really, it's better for my health to give up anyway. Spurred on by this epiphany, I started figuring out a big trip, in the continental US, that I could do on the cheap. If nothing else, this helps me cope with saying goodbye to soda and Taco bell.
For a big trip on the cheap, getting there is always going to be the most expensive part. While hitchhiking works for some people, it's not an option that's reliable for (a) getting there on time and (b) getting there alive. The most obvious option is driving in your own car to the far reaches of the US. While it takes more time, you can take more gear with you, you can move around easier at the destination, and unless you have a gas guzzler of the worst variety it's fairly cheap. Averaging 22mpg, you could drive to Seattle Washington and back for $500 which for a car with 4 people plus gear is an amazing deal. If you have a truck with a camper top, you can even camp out of the back which just makes everything even easier. However, 84 hours of nonstop driving would mean you'd spend nearly 4 days realizing there's only so much music you can listen to before you snap.
If your plans fall anywhere within 700-1000 miles from home, I can say from experience just take the plunge and drive. Flying to Miami or New York only takes 2+ hours in the air, but getting to the airport early, getting through security, waiting for baggage once you land, getting a rental car, etc usually means you're taking an extra 4-5 hours in addition to flight time. Sure, you save 2-3 hours, but flying is boring after you've done it more than once and you miss out on all the interesting sights in between. You also shell out more money for the flight than you would in gas, and then you have to pay for all of your transportation on top of it.
Even though you're saving money for this trip, I'm sure that means you're not able to take off 4 months at a time where you can afford to drive everywhere. That's where air travel becomes a necessary evil if you want to go to the west coast or anywhere in the middle of the US. When searching for fares, I like using sites like Skyscanner, which shows the daily rate fluctuation so while you might not think leaving on a Thursday makes sense instead of a Friday, the $150 cheaper rate might change your mind. For less than $500, you can fly to Seattle, for less than $400, you can fly to Denver, and for a whopping $200 you can catch a round trip flight to Dallas Texas. Putting that in Starbucks equivalent, that is 100, 80, and 50 Venti Caramel Macchiatos; if you have 1 every day of the week when you work, you can save up these amounts in a few months just by cutting out coffee.
Transportation once you arrive from your flight runs the gambit from a rental car to public means like buses and trains. Major airports that are jumping off points for National Parks can sometimes have buses available, but more than likely you'll be renting a car or using a service like Uber or Lyft. Sometimes sites like Groupon will offer discounts, and RetailMeNot always has at least one coupon code for a rental car company that can really save you big bucks over the course of a week. In larger parks, or where there's no set plan, not having transportation always available to you will make things difficult or even impossible. A drop off for a weeklong backpacking trip and a pick up at the end is a lot cheaper than 8 days of wanting to "see Yellowstone" which is roughly the same size as Delaware. If you're traveling on the cheap, keep it simple and focused. Rambling is expensive.
Housing and shelter is easy if you're camping because it forces your hand, but even camping comes with costs. National Forest and National Park campgrounds can average almost $20 a night in the front country, but depending on the park some backcountry sites are all free. Again, this is a case where a focused plunge into the deep woods costs less than other options. If you need a night with a bed and a hot shower, hostels are a good option if you don't mind giving up some privacy. In Seattle, I stayed for 4 nights in the Green Tortoise hostel for a whopping cost of $50 and that included the free breakfast and random meals; compared to the cheapest hotels where that would have only been 1 night, it was a steal. AirBnB is another option, where you can find deals on anything from crashing on someone's couch for the night to having an entire house to yourself; I've done that in Idaho and at $45 a night I had a bedroom, bathroom, laundry room, and the best blueberry scones I've ever had in my life. Sure you have to give up coffee for a few more weeks for the luxury of having a bed, but it may be worth it depending on the trip.
Food can add up quickly while traveling, almost as quickly as caramel macchiatos can add up through the year. Buying food from a local grocery store after arriving will be the cheaper option just like when you are at home, and probably have less of a chance of making your stomach a liability. Apps like Yelp and Urbanspoon help weed out restaurants not worthy of your victory meal at the end of a long trek, but if all the options are showing high dollar signs, go into a gas station and ask the attendant where they go out to eat when they have a few extra dollars in their pocket; not where the tourists go, but where they go. I've had some of the best burgers of my life by doing that, and even in a place as familiar as SC you can sometimes turn up a BBQ joint that belongs in the record books but doesn't show up anywhere including the phone book.
Breaking bad spending habits and turning them into travel cash doesn't happen overnight, but planning that amazing trip doesn't happen that fast either. Slowly save up those dollars and instead of spending time in the drive through line, search for deals on airfare and rental cars. No matter what, just be sure to go! As Mark Twain famously said, "...nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people."