How to Drive Across the Country and Save Money By Sleeping in Your Car

Jim Dee
Jim Dee
Oct 22 · 6 min read

Recently, my wife and I had a long road trip to make. We weren’t keen on dropping $100/night on hotels, especially considering that we planned to be on the road for up to a couple of weeks. Between the prospect of dropping $1,400 or so AND having to sleep in a ton of hotels during Covid, it became clear pretty quick that maybe we could/should just sleep in the car.

We do have an SUV, though. It’s an old one, but pretty roomy. So, what we did was to make up a bed in the back, with the seats folded down. Our stuff went on top of that and then, each night, we’d move the stuff to the front seats and hop into the back. This part worked fairly well, especially once we came up with a way to hang some tapestries along the side windows.

The tricky part, though, was: Where do we sleep? As it turns out, there are a handful of possibilities, once you start reading up on it. Basically, your options are:

  • At rest areas;
  • At Wal Marts;
  • At truck stops;
  • Along roadsides somewhere.

Each of the above comes with pros and cons. So, let’s look at those:

Rest Areas

At first, this is exactly what we did. But, I have to warn you up-front: It’s not legal in many states. So, you have to first Google “is it legal to sleep in my car in [pick a state].” Usually, you’ll find out that you can sleep in your car at rest areas for up to X hours. Some states it’s 8, some 12, some 24; it varies. At some, it’s illegal — and, if you read accounts online, you may well get a ticket if some officer or ranger wants to be a hard-ass about it. (Usually, though, I would assume that you’ll just get a “you can’t sleep here” warning.)

In states where it is legal, though, we found the experience to vary in pleasantness. Some were smelly (thinking back on Southern Idaho farm country), some were noisy, some crowded, some downright dirty. But others were decent, clean, etc.

Rest areas are a little weird, though, and can have a kind of skeevy or unsafe feeling to them. Many have posters hanging about sex trafficking, for example, which I guess makes sense because anyone being trafficked might well visit a rest area. Many are also not especially well lit at night, making them somewhat creepy if it’s, say, 3:00 a.m. and you have to pee.

On the other hand, having facilities is a plus, and many have picnic tables, which gives you a handy place to make breakfast. And, of course, they’re right on the highway, so you can get right to your travels as soon as you’re up.

Sooner or later, though, you wind up in a state where it’s illegal. So, you have to come up with some alternative. That’s what lead us to …

Walmart Stores

It’s fairly well known that many (but NOT all) Walmart locations actually allow RVers and other travelers to sleep in their parking lots. There’s a site called AllStays that is very helpful in determining which ones allow it and which ones do not. I recommend checking with that, as it could be a huge waste of time to visit a Walmart with the intention of staying overnight and then be told to leave.

We tried it one night in Louisiana somewhere. The AllStays site said it was okay, but we decided to ask, anyway. They verified this, but offered some advice about where to park. Commonly, you’ll see other RVs, school buses, and others parked in such lots. So, you’ll usually just pull over by them.

Parking in a lot is kind of like using a urinal in a men’s room, as there are best practices about distancing from others. Everyone’s trying to sleep, so you kind of want to give other people their space, you know?

Anyway… we didn’t love this option. With no facilities (as the Walmart we were at closed at some point), you’re kind of stuck until morning if you have to use the bathroom. And, being in well-lit parking areas, there isn’t much you can do. We didn’t have that issue, thankfully. But, the location we chose was kind of inner-city-ish and had a lot of various people walking around, which can range from mildly annoying to somewhat creepy, all things considered. But what do you want for free, right?

We didn’t love it, so we figured there must be some better way to sleep in one’s car. Which lead us to…

Truck Stops

I think this was probably the gold standard of in-car sleeping. I can’t say for sure if it’s absolutely legal or permissible everywhere. But, at 100% of the larger truck stops where we pulled in and asked, they said sure. Usually, there would be some far side of the parking lot they’d point you to. (We didn’t always ask. I think we just assumed it was okay a few times.)

The trick at these places is to simply be discrete, and to be a decent person. If you select someplace that’s not right out front, not blocking any trucks, aren’t loud, and don’t make a mess or anything … then I just can’t imagine anyone’s going to care. But you have to select the larger ones like Love’s or Pilot Flying J, etc. — definitely not just anything that is labeled a “truck stop.”

These big-ass plazas are fairly busy 24/7, as they’re mostly used by truckers. They’re generally well lit, have bathrooms (and usually showers), food / snacks, and are right on major highways. If I had to do the whole trip again, I’d probably just plan it around these locations.

You do have one other option, of course, which is…

Boondocking

Sometimes you just can’t fit into any of the above locations. I think there are web sites that can help you with finding alternative locations. But, the USA is filled with little nooks and crannies. A few times, we just got so tired that we pulled off somewhere for a nap. One time way up in remote Nevada somewhere, we just pulled into a vacant roadside lot at random and crashed out. It was the middle of the night and I doubt two cars passed us the whole time. Good fresh air out in the country, of course. And crazy-bright stars in the sky — something we never get to see in the city.

Cash Savings, But…

All in all, the cash savings was of course tremendous. And, for us, I suppose we usually felt safe enough. But, looking back, I do wonder if maybe we could have been safer. Highways are strange places — beautiful sometimes, but traveled by who knows what kinds of people. Two or three times, we continued our trip the next day and saw signs saying “Prison Nearby; Do Not Pickup Hitchhikers.” Well, damn! I’m glad we didn’t see those before parking for the night!

So, I think with 3 - 4 people (or more) and not just one or two, you’d feel a hell of a lot safer with any of the above — maybe that or to carry some sort of protection from weirdos, wild animals, and werewolves. That or, you know, just stick to the truck stops.

✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains three blogs — Hawthorne Crow, Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine, and Wonderful Words, Defined — and contributes to various Medium pubs. Connect at JPDbooks.com, Amazon, FB, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest screwball literary novel, CHROO, is a guaranteed good time.

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Jim Dee

Written by

Jim Dee

Web guy at ArrayWebDevelopment.com; author of books & blogs. See: JPDbooks.com.

Hawthorne Crow

Tales, rants, observations — blog of Jim Dee, long-haired smart ass, self-employed web developer, hyper-creative writer, musician, renaissance man, defiant, prone to philosophization, as-always a pyro, ever-frustrated cat owner, free agent, bandanna wearer.

Jim Dee

Written by

Jim Dee

Web guy at ArrayWebDevelopment.com; author of books & blogs. See: JPDbooks.com.

Hawthorne Crow

Tales, rants, observations — blog of Jim Dee, long-haired smart ass, self-employed web developer, hyper-creative writer, musician, renaissance man, defiant, prone to philosophization, as-always a pyro, ever-frustrated cat owner, free agent, bandanna wearer.

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