How to Travel The USA With No Money.

When the Covid-19 lock-down started, I realized I was in trouble. Both my jobs, travel writer and entertainer, suddenly tanked. No one wants to read articles about places they can’t go and every event my company had booked from Easter through the summer started canceling like toppling dominoes. I had trips scheduled to Quebec, India, Burning Man, and Italy that suddenly were no more. Even my trip to Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day canceled literally 2 days before. Within a couple weeks, the entire planet shut down and the world was stuck at home watching Tiger King and foraging for water and toilet paper. Things looked grim.

Why watch The Tiger King when you can go see it live? Photo: Rhonda Martin

There was no “working from home” for me like so many others could do. I organized travel photos, worked on my book, created some quarantine travel-in-your-home videos for my Youtube channel and hoped that things might get back to normal soon. My roommate is a driver for Uber and recommended that I give it a try until my businesses bounced back. I never really thought I’d be doing ride-sharing as a driver, but there are opportunities to make a little cash if you have a reliable car. I signed up for Lyft and Uber. I soon realized that I liked driving much more than I thought I would. I was meeting people from all kinds of backgrounds and occupations. I would use the opportunity to talk to my guests about their future travel plans or dreams. I’d ask them where they wanted to travel. I’d plug my YouTube and Instagram and wear my Traveling Wizard shirt. You can never have too many followers.

My 50th state! I drove there using Lyft to pay my way. Photo: Linda Borgen

As things started to open slowly around the country, I took the opportunity to work on an experiment that had been hatching in my mind for several weeks before. Could I travel around the US and use apps to fund my adventures? I’m happy to report that yes, it can be done. If you have a fairly recent model of a car, or even better a van or SUV,and you have more time than money, than this article is for you. For three weeks I traveled to some amazing destinations in the US and knocked out my 50th state. I did all of this without touching a dime of my savings.

Lyft driver app starts at $0 and adds income after each ride. Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Lyft is the only domestic rideshare app that allows you to drive in other states. To become approved your car must be 2003 or newer. For a few cities such as Minneapolis, Seattle, Washington DC and Portland, the vehicle must be 2010 or newer. Some states such as the Carolinas, require an additional inspection of your car. Lyft requires that you watch a few instructional videos, keep your car sanitized, be Covid-19 compliant, and not have any felonies. You’re required to upload your license, registration and once approved, you’re ready to go. The app is very intuitive and tells you where to pick up your client and automatically queues new rides so that you can stay as busy as possible. You don’t know where your passenger is going until you pick them up, so you might drive 15 minutes to drop someone off 5 minutes from where you picked them up. In the end it all balances out. Lyft was my main moneymaker for my trip. When you go online, you will get ride offers and you click on them and follow the map. When you arrive, the app loads your next map to where you’re taking your passenger. As soon as the ride is over, your app will show you what you got paid. Lyft will deposit the money in your bank account in a few days or you can send it to a debit card immediately for 50 cents. You can apply here.

So, let’s say you have no money to start with. As you accept rides, your earnings appear in the app. At any point you can transfer the money to your debit card to pay for gas, buy a meal or book a hotel. If you hustle, you can make $20-30/hr with tips. I would plan on driving at 6 am and then by 10 am I’d usually have at least $100 balance. If I was in busy town and had nothing to do in the evening, I might drive a few more hours to make a few more dollars. Some of my passengers were content with being on their phones and not talking to me. Sometimes I’d tell my story and would be invited to connect later. One passenger insisted I play Top Golf with him and his friends and tell them my travel stories and about my Tiger King visit in Oklahoma.

The Roadie app lets you choose delivery routes from wherever you are. Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Roadie is another app that connects drivers with items that need to be delivered. Some of the distances are hundreds of miles, some are just a few blocks away. The bigger the item and the further away, the higher the payment. Dropping off a painting from Michael’s to someone’s front door usually fetches around $11. Taking a sofa to Boston might pay $700. To make this work for you while you’re traveling, click on the app and look at the map. The numbers represent the miles. Click on the number and you’ll see the route and what it pays. If you’re staying in town, you can deliver locally all day. If you’re heading towards another town or don’t care where you go, click on the routes and see if you can find one that works for where you’re going or willing to go. While in Nashville, I found a gig that paid $75 for delivering coca cola products to a restaurant 2 hours west. It was on my way and paid for my next 3 tanks of gas. Win Win.

Instacart app comes with a reloadable credit card to pay for purchases Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Instacart is another app I discovered that’s a good way of earning money while traveling. Instacart sends you a credit card in the mail that you use to pay for grocery items for your clients. Open the app and you’ll see the “batches” or potential deliveries in the area. Once you get the gig, the app will guide you to the grocery store of the customer’s choice and you’ll pick up the items on the list. Your phone will scan the UPC labels to make sure you got the right item and then you enter the number of units that you are picking up. The app matches the quantity, the brand and the price to make sure that the customer gets what they want. If the store is out of an item, other suggestions are offered and the customer can choose to accept or reject the substitute items. You use the card to pay for the groceries then drop them off a the customer’s home. My first order was shopping for 2 different people. The bottom of the cart was one for one and the top for the other. We bagged one in paper, the other in plastic and paid for them separately. It took about an hour, probably twice as long as it would take a pro because of the learning curve, but I made $22 for shopping and dropping off both orders.

I found myself pretty busy just using the Lyft app, but I tried the others when there was a lull or I was traveling from one town to the other and thought a delivery might subsidize my trip. I also downloaded apps such as Dasher and Uber Eats for food delivery as well as Postmates (Fleet), Amazon Flex and Shopper, but never really got a chance to use them.

Gas Buddy app can save you a lot of money on a road trip Photo: Bill Wiatrak

To keep travel costs down, I used the Gas Buddy app to find the cheapest gas in the area and discovered sometimes there was a price difference of as much as 75 cents/gallon between stores. The gas buddy app shows the prices, distances and offers a discount at some stations by just uploading a picture of your receipt. A few extra moments on the app saved me anywhere from $3-10/fill-up. If the station was a Shell I used my Shell card for an extra 10 cents/gallon savings.

Hotels/lodging can be the biggest travel expense. The cheapest hotel you’re likely to find in a US city is going to be $60 minimum and it’s unlikely that you’re going to love it. There are often less expensive options. Staying with friends is a great alternative if you know people along your route that are willing to put you up for a night. Using Facebook and other social media apps lets your friends know where you are and can bring some great suggestions on places to visit and possibly garner an invitation from an old friend or relative. Couchsurfing is a great app that allows you to stay with hosts in the Couchsurfing community who charge nothing for you to stay with them. My first Couchsurfing host took me out for king crab and an amazing seafood dinner. He was a fellow international traveler and we had a great time talking about our adventures around the world.

My view from Caddo Lake State Park camping site. Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Airbnb sometimes offers rooms in someone’s home for as little as $25/night, but you need to keep an eye out for cleaning and other extra fees which can triple the price. Camping in state parks can be as little as $10/night (or free if you get there late and leave early) and gives restroom facilities and often a beautiful place to wake up to. If you don’t want to spend any money at all, Walmart allows you to sleep in your car or camper in the parking lot. Setting up a tent is likely to wear out your welcome, but if you’re getting into town late and you have enough room to stretch out in your vehicle, you can always grab breakfast and have a restroom break when they open at 7 in the morning. I met one traveler that spends a night in his car one night and then a nice hotel the next. He would also use truck stops to take showers if he missed a hotel day.

Walmart and Dollar Tree together? A winning combination for a budget traveler Photo: Google images

Finally, one of my best discoveries was Dollar tree. Instead of spending $50 on toiletries and food, I found many of the same products for 1/4 of the price. Why spend $3 on a bag of ice when you can get one for a dollar? Deodorant, socks, books, electronics, snacks, and everything you need to keep goingtrip on your road can be purchased for a dollar. How can there be such a big price difference? I have no idea, but don’t ask. It’s one of the best secrets in the travel universe.

As the world changes, so does travel and the way that we look at life. Looking for options that allow us to travel in comfort while social distancing is paramount. Have some budget travel app suggestions? Feel free to share.

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