Camp, the man said.
It's cheap travel. You'll save a lot of money. Trees. Fresh air. Crackling campfires with roasting marshmallows.
After returning from a May, 1976 camping trip to New England with my wife, Betty, and 15-month-old son, Casey, I calculated the expense as averaging $60 a day. That's right, $60 a day (which seemed high back in those days).
And that's not including any allowance for the $1,200 cost of the Apache brand of camper, or whatever we've invested in gears over the years. The type of camper we have, a pop-up that we can now erect and have sleep-ready in less than 10 minutes, rents for about $125 a week. A family renting one and incurring expenses similar to ours would see their daily cost figure about $16 higher.
Sixty dollars a day for those who own campers - more for those renting - will buy one whale of a resort vacation. It's something to consider for those who are contemplating buying or renting a camper to save on the high costs of vacation travel.
If camping is your bag, sleeping or not, by all means don't let the dollar figures get in your way. Camping offers a lot of attractions. But cheap travel is not one of them, I've found.
Oscar King, manager of the Memphis office of AAA, a travel club, said the AAA figures that a family of three who drive 300 miles a day, eat three meals a day in restaurants and stay in motels and hotels spend an average $80 a day. "It's expensive, I'll tell you."
He said he did not have any camping figures available, but felt that the $60 we spent might be on the high end of the average. Nevertheless, the figure is not much lower than the $80 it costs for similar travel without camping.
Even with camping, it seems there just isn't any way to beat the high cost of vacation travel, unless you hitchhike, carry a pack and scrounge meals. Some travel expenses, such as gasoline, just can't be trimmed. Gasoline might even be a little higher for those pulling camping trailers. No matter what mode you take to the woods in - tent, trailer, pop-up camper or motor home - you have relatively fixed costs for moving down the highway, for buying ice, for bridge tolls and - if your luck runs no better than ours did - for repairs.
Our trip covered some 2,500 miles. We went from Memphis to Niagara Falls to Bar Harbor, Maine, to Cape Cod and back to Memphis, with a lot of side trips. We camped all the way, ate only two sit-down meals in restaurants, tried not to go overboard on souvenir purchases, kept our admission fees to attractions at a minimum and still ended up spending $1,074. We kept an exact daily travel log, noting each expense to the penny as it occurred. Here is what we spent, a family of three making a conscious effort to hold the expenses down. Figures are rounded to the nearest dollar.
* GASOLINE - $188. We found that gasoline was plentiful all the way, but willingness to wash windshields was not. We felt we only got clipped one time, at Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the next Winter Olympics. Regular gasoline there was 67 cents a gallon. Otherwise, prices were about the same as Memphis prices.
* REPAIRS - $189. I stood under the hood of my Jeep in garages located in some of the most scenic areas of the country. A run of bad luck, or faulty preparation compounded by the rotten roads of New England, included a wire short at Crystal Beach, Canada; replacement of a voltage regulator at Bar Harbor; a battery terminal repair and a tire purchase at Cape Cod; and replacement of a water pump in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. I was glad I had a supply of credit cards along.
* FILM - $59. That included developing and purchase of slide trays for eight rolls of 36-exposure film. The expense could have been shaved, but picture taking is a vacation hobby for me and an infliction I bestow on my friends and neighbors.
* TOLLS - $33. They really sock it to you in New York. It seems that every few miles some guy has his hand out and charges you extra for pulling a trailer. The expense included $6.75 to cross Lake Champlain on a ferry and $15 to ride a boat out to Nantucket Island and back.
* CAMP FEES - $90. Daily expenses ranged from $3.50 in state parks to $6.75 in private campgrounds of varying quality. In some cases we had to pay extra for electrical hookups. It seems to me that some campground fees are beginning to approach economy motel rates. But, those who haven't camped in years would marvel at the facilities many campgrounds provide in the way of swimming pools, stores, laundry areas, playgrounds, entertainment and tour services. Those in parks frequently provide golf, horseback riding, boating, movies and other outdoor recreation of every description.
* ADMISSIONS - $7. This included parking fees at Niagara Falls and entrance to the Whaling Museum at New Bedford, Mass., very worthwhile expenses. We were successful in avoiding the wax museums and dolphin shows along the way. The best sights and experiences are always free, like talking to lobstermen unloading their catch and listening to local residents talk about boating perils above Niagara Falls.
* FOOD - $203. Restaurant food came to $65. It included a mediocre lunch at a Niagara Falls restaurant recommended by a Canadian policeman and a dinner (ruined by our child's temper tantrum) at an expensive restaurant on Nantucket Island. Most of the food in the category was carryout, coming from places like Maine's answer to Colonel Sanders, where outdoor lobster pounds sell fresh lobster, cooked and cracked, for $2.95 a pound. Grocery store food, which we prepared, came to $138, including ice, and we didn't eat any steak. Meals were kept simple on purpose - and, unfortunately, consisted of a lot of junk food.
* GIFTS - $194. These, including personal purchases, covered such things as boating gear not available in Memphis, Tee shirts for friends and a fancy belt buckle. Others could spend as little or as much as they like in this category, but our gifts and personal purchases averaged less than $4 per head for the family a day.
* LAUNDRY - $11. My advice to anyone planning a long camping trip would be to take fewer clothes than you think you will need, as coin-operated laundry facilities are widely available at campgrounds. Besides, the laundries are nice places to get to know your camping neighbors.
* MISCELLANEOUS - $8. This included coin-operated showers at one campground in Maine, post cards, stamps and a few small purchases which didn't fit into other major categories.
* HOMEFIRES - $92. This included $70 to a veterinarian for boarding our dog and $22 to neighborhood youngsters who tended to the grass and plants.
I think it's fair to speculate that other families could make the same trip cheaper than we did, but some might very well spend more. Because of special interests, some families' expenses might vary widely in the optional categories such as admissions, film and gifts.
Something worth considering in planning extended trips is to figure that some expenses, such as food costs, remain whether you are at home or on the road. Other expenses, such as home utilities, will be substantially less when you are on the road. And, if you have car trouble, you can always rationalize that it would have happened anyway.
(Article first published in The Memphis Commercial Appeal, July 12, 1976)
Click here to return to Nolan Travels