The American southwest is one of the classic road trip destinations. You’ve got National Parks, Wild West landscapes, Native American history and Route 66 roadside kitsch – all along the roads that criss-cross the states of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. And on our two-week road trip we tried to soak up as much of it as we possibly could, covering about 2500 miles worth of the southwest’s tarmac while trying not to blow the budget on the way. This area’s got plenty of natural attractions that don’t cost much to see, but we also picked up a few tips on how to save money on the road, as well as some general tips which will hopefully help you get the most out of a southwest USA road trip.
Don’t try and do too much
The great thing about doing a road trip is that you can see so much, but it’s easy to overdo it and end up spending your whole time in the car. The US’s huge size means you’d need years to see it all. We tried to limit the number of long driving days so we were generally doing 200 rather than 500 miles in a day. There were a couple of seven-hour driving days, but they were followed by at least two nights in one place afterwards. Mostly we tried to stay multiple nights in each place so we weren’t constantly packing up every day and actually got to see a bit of the places we stopped at.
Don’t always follow the GPS
Not being known for our sense of direction (and after the Jordan incident) we used a GPS, downloading maps onto our UK Garmin which was cheaper than hiring one from the car rental place. It was incredibly useful in big cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. But outside that it’s worth doing your own route planning as the GPS will usually take you the quickest, not the most interesting, route. Guidebooks and blogs are great for suggesting scenic routes or interesting stops along the way.
Allow extra time
If the GPS said three hours, we allowed four. Although most of the time our journeys went to plan, we did hit a couple of snags like roadworks, thunderstorms and on one occasion the traffic being stopped to let a huge paddle-steamer being carried on a truck go past. We didn’t want to be arriving into a new town in the dark so aimed to arrive around 3pm when check-in opened. One thing to beware of is the time differences in the southwest. All states except Nevada use Mountain Standard Time (GMT -7) but Arizona doesn’t use daylight savings in summer so was an hour behind the others.
Mix it up a bit
The southwest is known for it’s amazing natural beauty, but after days of nothing but National Parks and scenic drives you can get a bit blasé about yet more gorgeous scenery. So we tried to mix up the itinerary a bit with a few different experiences, like volunteering at an animal sanctuary, going wine tasting and visiting quirky attractions like a museum of old Western film sets.
Book in advance
Some places it’s easy enough to just arrive in town and find a room for the night. But the southwest can get really busy, especially at weekends, so you take the chance of either not finding somewhere or having to pay up for a really expensive room. We booked in advance but still struggled to find good places to stay in Moab and Sedona within our budget, even a month ahead. So even if you don’t want to book ahead it’s worth checking out prices and availability before you go to get an idea.
Look for accommodation with extras
With so many hotels competing for business you can often get extras thrown in for free. Outside of Las Vegas, everywhere we stayed had free wifi, but you can also get a lot more. One hotel offered free international phone calls, another had a $1 guest laundry, one gave us a glass of wine on arrival and a couple had free breakfasts or afternoon cookies.
Buy a cooler
You can pick up a small cooler for $15 from CVS or Walmart, or we got a foil-lined bag with our shopping from Whole Foods for a couple of dollars. If you have freezer blocks then most hotels have fridges with freezer compartments where you can refreeze them. Otherwise there are usually ice machines or ice bags available – I read a clever tip about putting a sponge in your bag of ice so that when it melts the sponge soaks up the water and stops it leaking out.
Stock up at the supermarket
Having a cooler means you can buy drinks, snacks and make your own picnic lunches to save eating out twice a day. I also bought some porridge sachets and teabags I could make my own breakfast where it wasn’t provided. Everywhere we stayed had a microwave (though nowhere had a kettle so I usually ended up microwaving water to make tea!). There were Albertsons and City Market supermarkets in most big towns and petrol stations selling drinks, milk etc everywhere else.
Cook your own food
Hotels/motels aren’t the only accommodation option. We also stayed in a couple of rental places – an Airbnb studio in Taos and a cabin near Durango. Both had full kitchens with hobs and ovens, so we could cook our own meals (much needed after a week of American-style portion sizes!). Even if you don’t have a kitchen then you can always get a takeaway for a break from eating out, we found some good salad bars in health food stores and every town seems to have at least one pizza place.
Bulk buy water
The most environmentally friendly way to stay hydrated would be to buy a refillable water bottle and top it up, but otherwise you can pick up a slab of 36 small water bottles for about $5 at supermarkets. We kept them in the shade in the boot of the car and put a few at a time into the cooler. Even in April the air was so dry you need to keep drinking constantly to stop you getting dehydrated.
Invest in a National Parks Pass
If you’re planning on visiting a few National Parks then it’s worth buying an America the Beautiful Pass. The pass covers the whole car, however many people are in it, and costs $80. Each park charges $10–$25 so it can be a decent saving. You can put two names on the pass too so you can always share it if you know someone else who is visiting the US in the same year.
So those are my top southwest USA road trip tips – do you have any other suggestions for trip planning and saving money on the road?