Those who know me well know that I’m a big fan of the following:
- seeing just how far I can make a dollar go
I realize not everything in life needs to be documented, but for those who are financially conscious, you might find this useful. Or perhaps you’ve just wondered if it would be cheaper to drive somewhere instead of fly.
In this article, I’m going to break down every dollar I spent while driving 1,680 miles from Richmond, VA to Boulder, CO.
A few notes before I get to the numbers…
If you’re comparing the cost of driving vs. flying, please also factor in how much your time is worth. Even when you add up travel time to the airport, security lines, waiting to board, unboarding, and actual flight time, you’d be able to make this trip in under 8 hours on a plane. It took me 3 full days to drive it. What are those 2+ days worth to you?
I mapped out a few potential stopping points for each leg of the trip. I originally planned to do it in 4 days, but ended up knocking it out in 3. For each day, I gave myself a 5hr stopping point, a 6.5-7hr one, and another about 8-8.5 hours out. I gave myself options depending on how I felt each day.
This will give you an idea where good stopping places are located. And it’s good to know about how many hours until you hit the next city. That way, you’ll be able to make smart decisions about whether to call it a night or press on.
But if you’re feeling good and still have daylight left, don’t be afraid to deviate from your initial plan. I did, and it worked out beautifully.
If you plan to drive through multiple states for any reason, it’s a good idea to give your credit card company a heads up. Most financial institutions monitor spending, and some will temporarily freeze an account if they suspect abnormal behavior. Let them know what states you plan to visit so they don’t freeze your card when you stop for waffles in Kansas at the Colby Corner Café.
* Some larger companies allow you to do this completely online. Others, you might have to call.
I toyed with the idea of taking a scenic route. After little consideration, I decided to take the fastest possible route. Nothing against the Midwest, but most of the places I’m excited to see in this country are West of the Rockies.
This cost analysis is based on the fastest possible route, with my only goal being to get there as soon as possible.
Only drive what you are comfortable driving for that day. You might be tempted to push on to the next big city, but driving on a major highway while tired, at odd hours of the night, is just not your best idea. Be smart.
Hotel vs. Airbnb vs. Friend’s Place
If you have friends who live along the route, that’d be the best way to save money, with the added bonus of catching up with a buddy you haven’t seen in a while. Just be prepared to forgo extra driving if you have plans to stay with a friend. Going this route could limit your freedom.
I thought about finding a few Airbnbs along the way. However, the challenge is not knowing exactly where you’ll end up. Some Airbnbs also aren’t suited for last-minute bookings.
It was mainly because of this that I decided to stay in hotels. I think you’ll also find that hotels are probably cheaper.
Not knowing good/bad neighborhoods in foreign cities was a bit unnerving, as well. With Airbnb, there’s just a lot to figure out last minute. For this reason, hotels became my preferred choice of lodging.
Without further ado, here are the numbers. I’ve broken them out in categories, and totaled them up at the bottom.
$84.42 Days Inn, Lexington, KY (Night 1)
$52.93 Motel 6, Salina, KS (Night 2)
$137.35 TOTAL Lodging
It’s challenging but doable; just be prepared to spend more.
I opted for convenience, but threw a few healthy options in along the way.
TIP: Bring lots of snacks with you. I packed about 10 nutrition bars, a few apples, bananas, and some trail mix. This will help reduce the total number of stops you have to make, and keep your cost down, all while being a little healthier as well.
$3.48 Burger King, Lexington, VA (Day 1, mid-afternoon lunch break)
$1.07 McDonald’s, Charleston, WV (Day 1, coffee to keep moving)
$4.03 Starbucks, Beckley, WV (Day 1, charge phone + coffee)
$12.50 I Love Juice Bar, Louisville, KY (Day 2 breakfast, healthy smoothie)
$2.33 McDonald’s, Nashville, IL (Day 2, fries + apple pie)
$3.06 Starbucks, St. Louis, MO (Day 2, charge phone + tea)
$2.98 Starbucks, ??? (Day 2, probably just another coffee :-))
$5.00 Smoothie King, O’Fallon, MO (Day 2, mid-morning snack)
$21.43 Applebees, Kansas City, MO (Day 2, dinner, I had a gift card so I’m leaving this out of the total since I didn’t really spend any of my own money)
$8.21 McDonald’s, Colby, KS (Day 3, big meal before entering Colorado)
$2.50 Colorado Welcome Center (Day 3, Monster energy drink)
$3.74 Starbucks, Denver, CO (Day 3, hot tea + banana to get me to Boulder)
$48.90 TOTAL Food
There are quite a few long stretches with no gas stations. Fuel up before you need to. If you find yourself with half a tank left when you stop at your first hotel for the night, and there’s a gas station right next door, fill up before getting on the road.
$17.93 GoMart, Charleston, WV (Day 1, already stopped, next to McDonald’s)
$17.57 Marathon, Lexington, KY (Day 2, before leaving hotel)
$23.82 Exxon, O’Fallon, MO (Day 2, while already stopped for food)
$15.51 BP, Kansas City, MO (Day 2, before nothingness in Kansas)
$14.37 Shell, Salina, KS (Day 3, before leaving hotel)
$15.73 Colby, KS (Day 3, already stopped at McDonald’s)
$104.93 TOTAL Gas
Just because I told myself I would document EVERYTHING, I had to throw this in. My phone was about to die. I wanted to do another 3-4 hours of driving. And I was getting a little sleepy. Unfortunately, I happened to be right in the center of St. Louis, so I stopped at a Starbucks downtown, and had to pay for parking.
$1.50 Parking, City of St. Louis
Lodging + Food + Gas + Parking =
$292.68 TOTAL trip expenses
Under $300 for a 3-day trip. Less than $100/day. I’m pretty happy with that.
Just for comparison, a round-trip plane ticket from Richmond, VA to Denver, CO is about $400. That includes BOTH directions. You also have to think about transportation costs to-and-from the airports, which for me would be about $40 one-way, or $80 round-trip.
So, driving round-trip would cost about $600 and take roughly 5-6 days.
Flying round-trip would cost about $480 and take ~2 days (1 day each way).
When you compare the two, flying is still by far the more cost-effective way to go. For me though, my car doubled as a freight vehicle, carrying all my belongings to my new home. Had I shipped those things, it would have cost me a small fortune.
If you’re considering driving cross-country for whatever reason, I hope this can help you, even if in the smallest way. And I can also say this: it was not nearly as tiring or boring as I thought it might be.
Happy Travels 🙂
Addendum: Financing the Trip
Obviously, all of my stuff wouldn’t fit in a little Hyundai Elantra. And the truth is, I didn’t need a lot of it anyway. So why not sell it to help finance my trip.
Here’s a quick rundown of what I sold & donated, and how much I made to help with trip expenses.
$450 – Casper Mattress
$350 – Fuji road bike
$100 – Sleeper sofa
$70 – Large, square rug
$50 – Nightstand
$10 – Pole lamp
$10 – Cycling shoes
$10 – Vacuum
$1,050 – TOTAL
- Tons of clothes
- Handful of books (to library)
- Wooden stool
- Cooking set of pots & pans
- Kitchen utensils
- Clothes hangers
- Several pairs of shoes
- Yoga mat
- and much, much more