Now when I say California, I don’t mean the big cities, like San Francisco or LA, although you should surely visit them too. I’m talking vast nature, highest trees in the world, dramatic cliffs and ocean views on the highway 1, the desert in Death Valley, the round shaped mountains of Yosemity National Park.
To travel on a tight budget in California you have to be willing to start of with an investment, because there’s one thing you really can’t do without if you want to explore it all: a car. Now buying a car is an adventure in itself, but if you didn’t like adventures, you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place. Once you own a vehicle it will serve as your living room, kitchen, bedroom and mode of transportation. And it’s only yours for a little while, if you maintain it well, you’ll be able to sell it on for as much as you bought it. I did it twice and I’m going to share with you how I made work. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine it to be.
The craigslist website will be your starting point. Already from home you can email car owners, read up on tricks and tips for buying a car and set up appointments for when you arrive. If you’re willing to spend between $1000 and $1500 you can make it work. Doing it cheaper is possible, but be careful not to buy a ‘lemon,’ as Americans call a second hand car that will break down on you, the moment you drive off with it. Keep in mind that you want this car to work without doing any or very little maintenance, so it should drive perfectly, but it can look ugly as hell. In California every car needs to pass a smog test, the previous owner has to come up with that piece of paperwork. Make sure he does and if you sell the car within three months, you can use that very same smog test, no extra charge.
So once you find your car the only thing you need to do is to register it in your name (will cost about $50) and provide an address to send the car papers to. Maybe your hostel can help you out, or if you’re couch surfing your host might be willing to cooperate. For insurance, call or walk into an insurance office, the US has many, they will help you out and it won’t cost more than about $50 a month.
Once you’ve got wheels you are free to go wherever you fancy. To make you’re $25 a day last I recommend you to camp out, stock up on food in budget supermarkets along the way and cook it yourself as you chill out on lakesides, in ancient forests or on top of a sand dune. No matter where you are, a freely available picnic table is never far away. If you’re in need of some cheap camping gear, you’ll find that in one of the many Walmarts on the outskirts of any moderately sized city. Gas is very affordable and if you don’t get too big a car a full tank will last you many miles. To save money I generally avoid paid campsites, as there are many free ones. Check out the website freecampsites.net for some inspiration in this department.
After some serious road tripping, when the end of your visa is drawing near, put an add on craigslist or use couchsurfing and similar traveller sites to attract adventurers like yourself to buy your car. I never had any problem getting my car sold, but if you are unlucky you can always go to a second hand car dealer and settle for a little less. In the end, adding up al your expenses, you’ll see that this trip hardly costs more than kicking it in India. Be warned though: it will take more of your time and energy tramping around like this. You’ll do without the luxury of a soft bed, or a daily shower, but I guarantee that it will be worth it.
How do you like this idea of spending a day in California for less than $25?
Sara Kee is a natural born traveler, writer and cowboy philosopher from the Netherlands (Amsterdam). Sara believes that the best things in life are for free, that’s why her first English translated book is available without charge on the Traveling Kind.