The cost of riding a bicycle cross-country depends on a lot of things. During my bike tour in 2016 I heard the story of two young British ladies who had set the lofty goal of getting from coast to coast without spending a single dollar. I also met Dan, a middle-aged fellow who had no desire to haul groceries with him or sleep outside so was comfortable paying for food and lodging in every town he visited (also known as credit card touring). Dietary needs, preference for camping, presence of hosts along your route, your personality, the weather, dumb luck and countless other factors will determine what your self-supported bike tour costs.
In preparation for my self-supported bike tour I had a hard time figuring out how much it would cost to ride cross-country, so I thought it would be helpful to provide an honest assessment of how much my bike tour cost and how to make sure you aren't left bankrupt.
It cost $4,350 to bike across the U.S.
These numbers cover the three-and-a-half months it took to ride 4,718 miles from DC to the Pacific, including 76 riding days and 28 rest days; indicating costs of $1,242 per month or $42 per day.
How to save money on a bike tour
So, now that you now how much it costs, you are probably interested in knowing how you can save money. There are lots of ways to make your ride more affordable, but nothing comes without a trade-off. In the end of the day, what's most important is that you are comfortable and content with the ride the route that you follow. Below I offer my six suggestions for how to make your bike tour more affordable, ordered by potential for savings (e.g. #1 offers greatest savings potential, #6 the least):
1. Hurry up!
This sounds silly, but it is true: Time will be the biggest cost of your bike tour. The less time you spend on the road, the less money you will spend. Take this hypothetical example: If I decreased my rest days and increased my daily mileage to complete the tour in two months rather than three-and-a-half months, it is safe to assume that the cost of my ride would have decreased by about 40%. With that being said, I do not advocate rushing through your cross-country bike tour; it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be cherished. But, being the pragmatist that I am, I feel forced to acknowledge the adage that time is money.
2. Be a couch surfer
There are lots of generous people out there who accommodate travelers without asking for anything in exchange. The free lodging provided by members of the Warm Showers and Couchsurfing networks saved me somewhere between $240 and $1,140. Not only will these folks offer to put a roof over your head for a night or two, but sometimes they may even treat you to a meal. Though you don't have to spend any money to be part of the network, it is totally expected that at some point in the future you pay it forward by offering shelter to travelers in the network.
3. Buy groceries
You are going to eat such an absurd amount of food on your bike tour and, oddly enough, you will find yourself losing weight. I didn't realize until Colorado that despite eating copious amounts of food I was still running a pretty drastic calorie deficit. It is not a good idea to skimp on consumption while on the road, especially because being fatigued on the shared roadways could get you into a lot of trouble. Alleviate some of your budgetary concerns by purchasing groceries from the local supermarket rather than eating at restaurants, it will help you to control your food costs.
4. Do not over-pack
Over-packing will screw you in more ways than one. First, it will weigh you down and cause additional wind resistance, exhausting you in a way that you didn't think possible. As a result you'll find yourself having to consume even more snacks to replenish which equates to more expenditures. Second, after weeks of slogging your bike through rugged terrains and foul weather, you will ultimately get sick of the excess weight and either throw stuff away or spend money to mail stuff home. On my tour I made four trips to the post office which racked up $75 in unnecessary expenditures. Being able to efficiently pack will reap dividends. I recommend outfitting your bike with a rear rack plus panniers, saddle bag and handlebar bag to minimize weight and wind resistance.
5. Camp out in unconventional places
Along well-established bike routes you will find plenty of towns that embrace touring cyclists and permit them to camp out in public parks. A friendly check-in at the police department or visit center is a good way to gauge how amenable a community is to cyclists setting up their tents. There were many towns, such as Ness City, Kansas, that made camping out both affordable and enjoyable. Outside of towns and in places where it's not as clear where you can camp or not, people sometimes stealth camp. It basically implies that one sets up their tent after the sun sets and leaves before it rises so no one ever notices that they were there. Stealth camping may not be necessary, given that there are a variety of lands, including those managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which fall in the public domain.
6. Ride in a group
Hitting the road with other price-conscious cyclists will allow you to share the inevitable costs of food and lodging. Simply put, splitting a motel room four ways costs way less than paying for it yourself. Plus, if you ride with a crew then you'll be able to share the burden of purchasing and transporting groceries.
Self-supported bike tours are a particular kind of ride that entail a great level of freedom but a similar level of burden from planning. If managing all the moving parts of a cross-country bike tour feels like too much, perhaps a guided bike tour with a group like the Adventure Cycling Association would be a better fit. There are countless ways to explore atop your saddle and sometimes its just a question of finding the right fit for your preference and budget.