When the Covid-19 lockdown started, I realized I was in trouble. Both of my jobs, as a travel writer and an entertainer, suddenly tanked—no one wanted to read articles about places they couldn't go, and every event my company booked from Easter through the summer toppled like dominoes. Trips I'd scheduled to Quebec, India, Burning Man, and Italy were no more. Even my trip to Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day was canceled, literally two days before the event. Within a couple of 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.
But my roommate, who drives for Uber, recommended I give it a try until my businesses bounced back—you can make a little cash if you have a reliable car. I quickly realized I liked it much more than I thought I would. I met people from all walks of life, and I used the opportunity to talk to them about travel and their dreams, plugging my Youtube channel, social media, and wearing my Traveling Wizard shirt. You can never have too many followers.
As things started to open slowly around the country, my travel bug kicked in, and I pondered an experiment that had been hatching in my mind for several weeks. Could I travel around the US and use apps to fund my adventures? I’m happy to report that yes, it can be done, especially if your car (or even better, van or SUV) is a fairly recent model and you have more time than money.
For three weeks I traveled to some amazing destinations and even knocked out my 50th state, all without touching a dime of my savings. Here's how.
Use apps that pay your way.
Lyft was my main moneymaker of the trip. It's the only domestic rideshare app that allows you to drive into other states, so long as your car is a 2003 or newer, or 2010 or newer in a few select cities (Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, and Washington, D.C.). You'll also need an additional inspection if you want to drive for Lyft in the Carolinas.
Mostly all that's required is that you watch a few instructional videos; keep your car sanitized and compliant with Covid-19 regulations; and not have any felonies. You upload your license and registration, and once approved, you’re ready to go. The app is very intuitive and tells you where to pick up your client; automatically queues new rides so that you can stay as busy as possible; and loads maps so you know where you're going. Of course, you won’t know where your passenger is going until you pick them up, so you might drive 15 minutes to pick up a person going just five minutes down the road, but in the end it all balances out.
As soon as the ride is over, the app shows you what you got paid, and Lyft deposits the money in your bank account within a few days. You can also send it to a debit card immediately for a 50-cent fee.
This app connects drivers with items that need to be delivered. Whether that means driving a painting from a Michaels to a local doorstep for $11, or hauling a sofa across the country for $700, the bigger the item you deliver and the longer your trip, the higher the payment.
To make this work for you while traveling, simply open the app, look at the map, and click on a number (which reflects the mileage you'll have to drive), 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 toward another town or don’t care where you go, you can see if a longer route works for you. While in Nashville, I found a gig that paid $75 for delivering Coca-Cola products to a restaurant two hours west. It was on my way to another destination, and paid for my next three tanks of gas. Win Win.
A good way to earn money while traveling, Instacart sends you a credit card in the mail that you use to shop for another person's groceries and then deliver them. Open the app, and you find “batches” (deliveries) available in your area and—once you get the gig—a route to the customer's preferred grocery store with a list of items to pick up. Your phone scans UPC labels to make sure you select the correct groceries, and the app matches the quantity, brand, and price that the customer expects. If the store is out of an item, it even offers substitute items that a customer can accept or reject in real time. You use the card to pay for the groceries and drop them off at the customer’s home.
During my first trip for Instacart, I shopped for two different people. I used the bottom of the cart for one order, 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.
Though I found myself pretty busy just driving for Lyft, I tried Instacart and Roadie 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 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.
Use apps to save on travel expenses.
To keep travel costs down, I used this app to find the cheapest gas in the area, and I discovered sometimes there was a price difference of as much as 75 cents per gallon between stores. The Gas Buddy app shows the price per gallon and distance to each station, and offers a discount at some stations if you upload a picture of your receipt. A few extra moments on the app saved me anywhere from $3–10 per fill-up. If the station was a Shell, I used my Shell card for an extra savings of 10 cents per gallon.
Hotels and 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. Less expensive options usually involve having connections—staying with friends is a great alternative if they're willing to put you up for a night, and posting your travels on Facebook (or other social media) can sometimes garner an invitation from an old friend or relative.
When you don't have those options, Couchsurfing is a great alternative. The app connects you with hosts who don't charge 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.
The short-term rental platform sometimes offers rooms in homes for as little as $25 per night, but always keep an eye out for cleaning and other extra fees that can triple the price.
Rely on tried-and-true money-savers (no app required).
Staying overnight in a state park can cost as little as $10 per night (or free if you get there late and leave early), complete with restroom facilities and a beautiful environment to wake up in—just make sure to make a reservation in advance these days, as many parks are currently operating with limited capacity.
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.
I met one traveler who alternated between staying in his car one night and then a nice hotel the next, and he'd use truck stops to take showers if he missed a hotel day.
This was one of my best discoveries on this trip. Instead of spending $50 on toiletries and food, I found many of the same products for a quarter 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 going can be purchased for a dollar. How can there be such a big price difference? I have no idea—I don’t ask. It’s one of the best secrets in the travel universe.
As the world changes, so do 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.