1 Week Southwest USA Roadtrip On a Budget

Travel can be expensive. And if you’re not keeping an eye on your spending it can be so easy to overspend, especially when paying with a currency that is foreign to you. We meant to take a little break from traveling, after a 3 week trip to Europe in fall and another 1 week trip to Scotland just last month. We want to pay off our debt, get our little farm in order and explore more of the Pacific Northwest…but man, am I sucker for a good deal.

We found a killer deal on Groupon. 1 week campervan rental through Escape Campervans for just $350! It includes 100 miles/day for free, bedding, and all the cooking gear we would need. We booked it and decided that this trip will be our last hoorah, at least until summer is over. My brother who I’m really close to will also be traveling with us, which I’m very excited about. We haven’t traveled together since we were kids so it will be fun to have an adventure together.

The deal we booked gave the option of departing from LA, San Francisco or Las Vegas. We have all been to California before, and other than Yosemite, didn’t feel like there was much we wanted to see right now. The Southwest was calling our name.

Jake and I have been to the Southwest before, which was the very first trip we took as ‘Dailey Adventurers’ and documented on this blog in summer 2014. The only places we really spent much time though was in Flagstaff, Arizona and Moab, Utah to explore Arches National Park. It was July and extremely hot and busy and overall we had an okay time.

This trip will be cheap, because we are on a budget. But it will also be full of outdoor adventures, exploring new destinations and photographing otherworldly views. It is also going to be full of something I am unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable with: spontaneity.  I am a planner. I like to have everything planned out and even have a backup plan for if things go awry. But we are trying some new things with this trip, which requires some flexibility.

How to Pay $0 for Accommodations

We are boondocking. Also called ‘free camping’ or ‘dispersed camping.’ Apparently it is legal in the United States to camp on federally owned lands such as National Forests (not National parks) or land owned by The Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The great thing is, there is usually a National Forest very close to popular National Parks! I just read this article about 16 National Forests Near National Parks, which gave us some good ideas of where to stay.

The rules of free camping can mostly be summarized by the Leave No Trace Principles.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors.

Some forests may have other rules as well, such as setting up camp at least 1/4 mile from a road, or so many feet from a river, etc. There should be signage though to alert you to rules like this. For the best information on the best places to free camp, talk to a park ranger. They will have the most up to date information and can alert you to things like areas that have flooded recently, or places that may have a lot of other campers, etc.

Resources for Free Camping:

The Route

While we are trying to keep things spontaneous, we do have a route loosely planned and have an idea of what we would like to see. Since we are not booking accommodations though these plans are loose and can be adjusted based on how we are feeling.

Day 1- Las Vegas to Zion National Park (2.5 hours / 160 miles) 

We pick up our car in the morning and we will probably do some grocery shopping in Las Vegas before we hit the road. We will arrive to Zion National Park in the early afternoon, and will probably sneak in a short hike before finding a place to camp for the night.

Day 2- Zion National Park

This will be a full day of exploring some of the top highlights of Zion, including:

  • The Narrows
  • Temple of Sinawava
  • Emerald Pools Trail
  • Weeping Rock
  • Canyon Overlook Trail
  • We will be skipping Angels Landing, but if you’re a more experienced hiker it seems like the most popular hike in Zion*

Day 3- Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park (1.5 hours / 75 miles)

It seems that Bryce Canyon is often overlooked for Zion, but we want to devote a whole day to exploring all the beauty it has to offer. Bryce Canyon is where you can find the iconic ‘hoodoos’ which are the rock formations that stick straight up out of the earth.

Day 4- Bryce Canyon  to Page, Arizona (1.5 hours / 95 miles)

There are 2 things that we want to do in Page, just like everyone else who goes there I’m sure. The first one is free; visiting Horseshoe Bend (HSB). I don’t know how we didn’t know about HSB when we went to the Grand Canyon in 2014! I have seen so many pictures of it since then, I’m dying to see it in person and photograph it.

And the second thing we want to do is go on a tour of Antelope Canyon. There is the Upper Antelope Canyon, which is a slot canyon famous for its beautiful sun beams. It can apparently also be quite busy. We hate crowds, so we will probably opt to explore the lesser-crowded-but-just-as-beautiful Lower Antelope Canyon. Both canyons can only be visited with a tour group. So we will likely visit the Lower Antelope Canyon with Ken’s Tour, which costs $25/pp.

Day 5- Page to Monument Valley to Page (?) (4 hours / 245 miles)

Day 4 & 5 are actually still kind of up in the air. We would like to visit Monument Valley if we have enough time. We may just go straight from Bryce Canyon to Monument Valley and then backtrack to Page. Or we may make a day of it on day #5 and return back to Page for the night.

Day 6- Page to Grand Canyon National Park (2.5 hours / 135 miles) 

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is still closed in March due to snow, so we will spend 2 days exploring along the south rim. There is plenty of free camping options in the Kaibab National Forest, just south of Grand Canyon Village. Campgrounds in the Grand Canyon can fill up quickly and are quite expensive, so I’m excited that we have found this free solution. We can shower at nearby Mather Campground for $2 and even do some laundry if we need to.

Day 7- Grand Canyon/Flagstaff, Arizona (1.5 hours / 87 miles one way)

Flagstaff, Arizona is one of our favorite towns in the United States, so we a super excited to be returning! We haven’t really planned this day. We may return to the Grand Canyon to do one of the short hikes listed above and spend the afternoon in Flagstaffs awesome downtown. Or maybe we will spend the whole day, we shall see.

Day 8- Flagstaff to Las Vegas, Nevada (3.75 hours / 250 miles)

We are due to return our campervan at 10AM in Vegas, so this is shaping up to be a long day. Our flight home doesn’t leave until 8 PM, so we will have about 8 hours in Vegas before it’s time to head to the airport. I have been to Vegas twice, but my brother has not. And Jake doesn’t have the best memories of Vegas since it was friggin July and hotter then hell when we were there together. I hope to show them the fun side of it though, and maybe watch my brother jump off the Stratosphere Tower like I did last year!

How Much Will it Cost? 

Much less than a week vacation would normally cost!

  • $391 –> Escape Campervan rental (+ taxes)
  • $75  –> Additional 300 miles ($0.25/mile)
  • $33  –> Flights from Portland, Oregon to Las Vegas (+28,000 points on Southwest Airlines*)
  • $75 –> Lower Antelope Canyon Tour ($25/pp)
  • $24 –> Navajo Land Fee for Antelope Canyon ($8/pp and must be paid in cash)
  • $20 –> Monument Valley fee
  • $30 –> Transportation to/from airport (Lyft, Uber or Airport Shuttle)
  • $360 –> Food (about $15 pp/day since we will be cooking nearly all meals)
  • $220 –> Fuel (Guesstimate for Sleeper Maverick based on: 18mpg, 1300 miles driven & gas at $3/gallon)
  • *$80–>  Jake gets free admission to National Parks because of his disabled Veteran card. For most people, by far the cheapest option is to get a America the Beautiful Pass for just $80 (lasts for 1 year)

= $409/per person (or $1,228 total) 

*If you are interested in getting a Southwest Visa credit card email us at [email protected] and I will email you a link to sign up and you can get 50,000 points if qualified**

As you can see, traveling on a budget is quite possible. There are sacrifices that we are going to have to make, such as the convenience of having a toilet and shower nearby, or eating out for every meal. But I am confident that we will come back from this experience healthier and with no regrets about taking this alternative approach.

Have you ‘free camped’ before? If not, would you? And if so, any advice to give? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below! 


2 thoughts on “1 Week Southwest USA Roadtrip On a Budget

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