How to travel around the U.S. for a summer as a kind-of broke nomad

On Sunday night, I had a nightmare that I got sick while back in the States.

In the dream, I had a cold that wouldn’t go away, so I went to a hospital. At the end of the appointment, I asked the doctor how much this visit would cost, sans health insurance. She wrote down and slid a number across the table that jolted me from sleep, wheezing.

Health insurance, you see, is one of the many things that just isn’t in the budget for this three-month stint in the U.S. — a venture I’m both very excited and very stressed about.

After I awoke, I lay in bed for a minute, doing a mental check of every part of my body to ensure sickness wasn’t creeping up inside of me. I considered that I should probably drink fewer beers and smoke fewer stress cigarettes. I mulled how many more tunafish sandwiches were in my future. I checked my bank accounts, again, and the tally of all the various reward points I have.

When people in the U.S. marvel at how I’m able to afford to travel full time, they’re usually doing so with a North American mindset — scrutinizing just how much everything costs, here. By moving through developing countries, I tell them, I spend a lot less money to travel full time than most people do to stay in one place. That, of course is because everything in the U.S. is more expensive. Healthcare is a pretty dramatic example (seeing a doctor and obtaining medicine in Central America are tiny fractions of what such things cost here), but vast differences, exist, too, in travel, housing and food.

In Central America, I make enough money to buy my coffee each morning, eat out three meals a day (sometimes on the street though), drink too many aforementioned beers and occasionally stay in a locale with AC, hot water or (!) both. In the States, that budget would barely get me a sandwich and a dorm bed.

On Monday morning, thinking of all this, I considered breaking all my plans and zipping back to El Salvador, stat.

But alas, I have already booked nearly a summer’s worth of travel, and have some events in the works, too. SO, I guess I’ll figure out how to make it work. Hopefully. Maybe. Con suerte.

Here’s how to do it (I think):

Work the points game HARD: The ONLY reason I even dared to DREAM that I could jet around the States for three months is because I have been playing points-o-rama (not a real thing, don’t Google it) for some time now. I am the person who scours the internet looking for miles-oriented credit cards that offer sign-up points bonuses then cancels after achieving said rewards. I’m over here researching how to make the most of every dollar I spend (yes, I am judging you, debit card users). Then I’m ensuring that every mile spent is spent in the most effective way possible. Gracias a Dios, I have a small pile of points to play with this summer. You’re quite literally the wind beneath my wings. *kisses fists, points to the sky*

Lean on yo friends: Did I mention points before I mentioned my friends? Wow, bad move. I hope they don’t read this blog. Yeah, I’m fortunate enough to have lived in a lot of places, and met people who like me enough to allow me to commandeer their couches and guest bedrooms for some period of time without calling the cops. This is incredibly vital because did I mention that housing is v, v expensive here??! Here’s the key to getting invited back: whip up some incredible meals, do all the dishes, keep your shit off the dining room table and do at least one super duper nice thing that will make you and them feel good and still be way less than you would have spent on rent. 

Be creative: Last weekend, while chewing off all my fingernails and trying to figure out where I was going this summer, I mulled an empty week between time with friends in LA (where I’m headed next Wednesday) and a couple weeks with family in my hometown of Raleigh, NC. My first thought was SAN FRANCISCO! And then I was like “Oh yeah, I literally couldn’t afford a cardboard box in SF. Seattle? A 1-way flight was only 8K points, that’s awesome. But turns out even living in a trailer without running water on the edges of the city was going to cost me $70/night. Hmmmm… Detroit? I’ve got pals there and I haven’t been in YEARS. Nope, the flight was insanely expensive. Hey, should I go down the west coast to Tijuana? On Airbnb, the prices and the design was giving me those Mexico warm n’ fuzzies. But then I looked at what it would take to get from there to NC (three connections, 12 hours and and a small boatload of cash) and those dreams were extinguished. I stared at a map of the U.S., pinching and pulling it with my fingers. And there were a couple of other self-proposed destinations before I found it: Denver. Denver? Denver. I’ve never been to Denver, I’ve heard it’s kind of fun, but MORE IMPORTANTLY, the one-way there and the one-way from there were both HIGHLY PLEASING, points-wise, and I found a hostel where I can stay for $30/night. This was a very long but hopefully effective way of explaining creativity. You don’t necessarily go where you want to go. You go where you can go.

Be flexible: You don’t have a boss anymore (except, well, yourself, and she can really be a B). You don’t have PTO to hoard. You don’t have meetings or projects to schedule around (the world is both your project and your office). So there is literally no reason that those “flexible dates” charts shouldn’t function as your new religion. You’re not only going where it’s convenient to go, you’re going when it’s convenient to go. So you’re free, sure, but kind of in the way a hapless leaf flung down a river at the mercy of the current and any big sticks is free. 

New perspective — coffee shops are a luxury: Have you seen how much a cup of coffee costs here? Have you? I don’t mean to sound like your grandfather but what do they PUT it in anyway? Oh wait, its just beans shipped directly from Honduras and Guatemala? Now, that is confusing. (But also understandable.) In any case, going out for a cup of java is now a privilege that can be indulged in only every once in a while. So find a place to stay with a coffee maker.

Be prepared to hostel: There isn’t a typo in this bullet point, hosteling is a verb. To hostel — to willingly stoop to a lower standard of hygiene, quality of sleep and personal space; to regress to your college years in a process that feels more debasing, demoralizing and more full of farts than it ever did the first time around. Does Urban Dictionary have that one yet? Maybe you think of hosteling as that thing you do through Europe or Asia, with a backpack full of dreams and half of your 20s still on the horizon, but as it turns out, it is ALSO something you do in your MID-30s in places like DENVER because holy crap Airbnbs are really expensive in the Home of the Brave. Get used to it.

Find alternate modes of transport: I’m taking a 13-hour train from New York to Canada this summer. I was browsing busses from San Diego to Tiajuana. I have already roadtripped with a friend. When flights get expensive, find another way.

Seek out cheap eats: Fancy restaurants are cool and ‘grammy but they are by nature, uh, fancy, which is code for expensive. But perhaps the biggest threat to you is not fancy restaurants which are obviously fancy but non-fancy restaurants that are SECRETLY fancy. Like the sandwich shops that have only four tables but sell things between bread for $12. Or the pho joints owned by white people that charge $9 for spring rolls that don’t even have any damned mint in them. These are your pitfalls. So do your research, and keep your ears perked for descriptions like “old school” and “dive” and “hole” and really anything having to do with hot dogs.

Wink at a lot of bartenders: Listen, I’m not above it. Did you expect me to be above it? I have a drinking habit with a money problem. And just enough of a weird background to seem “worldly” and “mysterious.” I lay it on thick. Sometimes it works. 

Consider inviting others to join: I love solo travel but sometimes traveling with others is fun too — and let me tell you, it REALLY drives down the cost. By half. That’s literal math. Also sharing food is a great thing because you get to eat more things and pay less. 

Think about house-sitting? It’s like Airbnb but free — because you’re taking care of people’s pets. Asterisk here, I’ve only signed into to browse potential fits in a place I’ve already booked. The thing that’s annoying is you have to pay the $119 annual membership fee before you get to ask any of the homeowners any questions or guarantee that you’ll get at least one stay out of it. But if you’re traveling the States a lot, it could be a great option! I’ve talked to other travelers who love it.

This stretch of the year feels crazier, already, than the rest because of the changes in cost and necessity of planning way ahead for value reasons. It’s dizzying to be in the States but not really home, to live on a series of one-ways, to make all the pieces fit together like a hectic, human puzzle. I expect traveling, this way, we teach me as much as my Central American treks, albeit different lessons.

The paramount test is already clear: whatever you do, DON’T GET SICK.

3 thoughts on “How to travel around the U.S. for a summer as a kind-of broke nomad

  1. Can hardly wait to read about your new adventures!! And you’d be welcome to stay with me girl, if I were in your path!!

  2. Ever use We used to host Couch Surfers when we lived in Minneapolis (including, one time, a 4 piece punk band). It’s a fun way to meet people!

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