You know the feeling when your alarm goes off and you dread what’s coming next? Whatever your responsibilities are today, you know the feeling. You’ve felt it before an exam, before a review at the office, maybe even every day before you go into work. And it isn’t always so easily identifiable either. Sometimes life becomes difficult or slips into a rut, and just like that, you stop looking forward to each new day. It happens.
It started happening to us (again) in 2018. Our day-to-day had become more than routine — it was equal parts boring and taxing. Steven and I were starting to lose perspective on why we were working so hard in the first place.
We realized we needed a new goal, something that would bring joy and excitement back into our lives, but that wouldn’t just drain our bank accounts and rob us of the work we’d been putting into our building up our net worth.
The last time we felt this way, we developed a crazy plan to take a 6-month vacation in Hawaii without spending any of our savings, and it actually worked. With that experience under our belts, we thought about how we could repeat the same gameplan with a new and exciting goal in mind…something a little more challenging.
We’d visited a few National Parks over the years — Denali, the Everglades, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes — and their natural beauty left a huge impression on us. So on a wild idea, we set a goal to visit every US National Park in 2019. And when I say every National Park, I really do mean ALL of them, even the National Parks in Alaska that aren’t connected to any roads, and those in far-flung US territories. We actually managed to visit them all in seven months — here’s how.
Planning and Preparing for a 7-Month Road Trip
While visiting every National Park is a huge goal in and of itself, we set another big parameter around the trip: We wanted to return home without spending any of our savings — that means coming home with at least as much money overall as we set out with in the first place. It’s a goal we set for all of our big adventures, and part of the fun for us has been getting creative to make that “$0 net cost” actually work out.
Taking longer vacations can end up costing you less per day of fun compared to traditional travel, as was the case with our Hawaii honeymoon. When you’re able to shift your perspective from a spendier vacation mindset to more of a frugal lifestyle change, you can come out way ahead on your travel expenses.
But this time, unlike our Hawaii trip, we wouldn’t be moving to a particular place to stay for several months — we’d be on the move for several months. Our previous experience with road trips, especially ones that crisscross the country, was that they can get pricey pretty quickly.
Driving was the most cost-effective solution to ensuring we’d see as much as possible along the way, so our next biggest expense would be lodging. Staying in a $100 hotel or even a $50 Airbnb every night wouldn’t really be sustainable for months at a time.
That’s when we came across the whole #vanlife thing on Instagram, and after seeing all those amazing converted vans parked in even more amazing locations, it seemed like the perfect way to road trip.
We picked the Nissan NV200 and “converted” it by basically just putting a full size bed in the back of it. The van’s cargo area was just big enough for the bed and the storage space we built underneath, which would have to house all the gear we’d need in the months to come.
Rather than get really fancy with the living space inside the van (not that there was room for much of that anyway), we decided to do most of our living outside the van and only really use it for sleeping and transportation. Coffee shops would be our office, Planet Fitness would be our place to shower on the road, and Walmart stores and truck stops would be our free overnight parking spots with 24-hour bathrooms.
No matter how low we could get our expenses, if we wanted the trip to pay for itself, we would need to have some source of income on the road. We decided to approach our employers to discuss the possibility of part-time, remote work. Fortunately, since we already had more than enough money to pay for the entire trip out-of-pocket if necessary, we also weren’t in a position where we had to “ask permission.” We were able to negotiate more on our own terms — a huge benefit of spending so many years saving.
We fully disclosed our plans to our employers over six months in advance, which was a risky move, but it ended up being a courtesy they really appreciated. Because we were able to plan things out so far in advance, Steven was able to negotiate a great remote employment setup with his company working about 10 hours a week. My employer offered me a remote work option, but the rate of pay was so far reduced that it wasn’t worth it. I rejected their offer and quit my job instead.
After the fate of our jobs was decided, our timeline came more clearly into focus. We’d leave in January 2019, soon after the holidays, to give us the most time on the road. (Part of Steven’s negotiated terms included a return date in August of 2019.)
Because we’d be gone for most of the year, we decided to rent out our condo for additional income while we traveled. We had rented a spare room to friends in the past, but this was our first legit landlording experience. We listed our place on Craigslist, and after screening several people over the course of a couple months, we eventually found someone who had the deposit money and a willingness to sign a 7-month lease. It ended up working out pretty nicely.
Traveling to and Visiting Every National Park
When we started planning our trip, there were 59 National Parks, and the government was, of course, fully operational. By the time we took off in January 2019, there were 60 National Parks, and the government entered into a shutdown that would end up being the longest in US history. We decided to continue on with our plans anyway, and the budget bill that put an end to the shutdown also introduced the 61st National Park. Our task’s difficulty kept growing. Luckily, it was still early enough into our trip that we were able to fit the new park into our route.
A few months after we returned home, however, another park was added. White Sands National Monument became the 62nd National Park in December 2019. You might be thinking that this news would have tarnished our accomplishment of visiting every National Park, but we incidentally stopped by White Sands while we were still on the road before it was officially upgraded. So technically, we actually did visit every National Park during our seven-month road trip in 2019!
Before we left, I had planned a route to our first 10 parks. With our seven-month timeline, we figured we’d save the parks closest to home for last, in case we ran out of time and needed to visit them on weekend excursions (we didn’t need to do this and probably shouldn’t have, but hindsight is 20/20). So we headed west from our home state of Florida and stayed toward the southern part of the country as we crossed off parks in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. During this first leg of our trip, I had also planned for us to leave our van in California so we could fly to Hawaii and then American Samoa to visit the three National Parks located on islands in the Pacific. We figured this was the best route to avoid the winter weather, and by the time we’d get back to the continental US in February, it’d be warming back up (we’re Floridians, after all).
Two big factors impacted our route planning. The first impediment was the government shutdown. Even though we were literally right on top of Carlsbad Caverns as we visited Guadalupe Mountains in January, we couldn’t go down into the caves because the entrance to them was closed. Later in the trip, when everything was open again, we had to plan a 20-hour(!) detour just to go back to Carlsbad.
The other factor that constantly changed our plans was the weather. Being from Florida, we didn’t anticipate the icy conditions the rest of the country apparently experiences for so many months out of the year. At one point, the sliding doors to our van actually froze shut! Another time, we showed up at Mesa Verde after a snowstorm and were turned away because the roads wouldn’t be plowed for several more weeks. We had to drive well out of our way later just to get back to the southern Colorado park.
With so many navigational changes to avoid storms and to visit parks that were actually open, I had to stop planning so much in advance. What worked best for us was being loosely planned just two or three parks out, with the exception of parks that required air travel. For the parks in Hawaii, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the remote parks off the road system in Alaska, we were booked a little over a month out.
Our route ended up looking like little loops across the western US as we worked our way north, avoiding snowy conditions through the spring. By summer, we were driving through Canada to get to the eight National Parks in Alaska and comfortably still sleeping in the van. Eventually, the warm weather caught up with us as we made our way down the East Coast in July, and we had to seek refuge (and cooler temperatures) in hotels. We decided to spend one last night sleeping in the van in the Great Smoky Mountains (even though it was still too warm), and we spent the final night of our trip tent camping in Dry Tortugas (it was miserably hot, but we had no other option).
Apart from a couple of park closures, a few bitter storms, and the warm weather we hit as we came back to the southeast, our barely-planned adventure worked out exactly as, uh, planned. Waking up somewhere different every day was incredible. Our pacing may have been a little fast, but we were able to be flexible and spend more time in some parks and less in others (trust us, a few of the parks don’t really require multiple days of exploration). Along the way, we kept a list and ranked every National Park after each visit. Hilariously, the first park we visited ended up ranking dead last, and ultimately, we had a seven-way tie for best National Park.
What This Adventure Ended Up Costing Us
As I mentioned earlier, we had some plans for income while we were on the road. Steven had about 10 hours of work a week to do for his company, and we had rental income from our condo. While traveling, we also reached out to a few contacts and were able to set up some photography gigs. In fact, one of those relationships turned into a larger marketing project for me. Throughout the year, I collected a couple more clients for my freelance marketing business, helping them with social media and other promotional tasks.
Because most of our days were spent exploring parks or driving, it was actually a welcome change of pace to sit down in a coffee shop and just be productive. Our work week ended up inverting to look more like five or six days of fun with one or two days of work. We discovered that while we’d been chasing financial independence and the notion of retiring early since graduating college, we didn’t need to retire completely if we only worked a couple days a week.
Without really planning for it, our different streams of income covered the trip’s expenses almost exactly — which is pretty remarkable given the $37,000 cost of the trip. Beyond that, our portfolio of investments kept growing without us doing anything, so we actually came home from this seven-month vacation richer than the day we left.
I know that’s a huge number to look at, but keep in mind that it represents the all-in cost for two people to visit all the National Parks, along with all of our everyday expenses. It included our cell phone plan, health insurance, food, and gas in addition to all the massive expenses associated with getting to the hardest-to-reach parks. For example, we had to charter four planes to get to the remote parks in Alaska in addition to taking several commercial flights to get to the island parks in the Pacific and Caribbean.
While I encourage you to explore our budget breakdown in detail, one important thing to consider is that if we had cut the 12 most expensive parks out of our trip, it would have been 41% cheaper! That shakes out to a budget of about $2k per person each month. While that’s WAY more than we spend at home, it was still very manageable. And, when compared to the spending of a typical, middle class couple, our trip may seem pretty doable.
Why You Should Take Your Own Trip
We were reeducated on this trip. We learned more about our country — its land and its people. We learned more about each other — spending 5,000 straight hours together will do that to you. And we learned more about ourselves — growing as artists and entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, the only reason we felt comfortable embarking on this trip in the first place was the fact that we had spent the previous years focused on saving money. We credit a lot of our success to learning about personal finance early — right out of college — and it seems like no one else is really encouraging young people to take control of their finances in the way we felt empowered to do just eight years ago.
On this National Parks trip, we had a lot of time to reflect on that, and as we were driving through Washington and western Canada, this blog was born. We decided that we wanted to be a voice of encouragement for other young people and to help them realize that money can buy freedom to live your life the way you want, not just nice cars and houses.
This trip was an amazing way to end our twenties and launch us into our semi-retired lifestyle, and we hope it helps inspire you to take your own adventure soon. Waking up in the morning on your own terms — no alarm clock required — is the best feeling you can chase. So, whether you’re breathing in the smell of pine, roasted coffee beans, or a salty ocean breeze…adventure awaits!
Interested in doing something similar? Taking a big break from full-time work to go on an adventure like this is Step 4 of our Financial Roadmap.
Read more about our trip in this BuzzFeed feature