Travel hacking the AT: Part One- Intro
One reason (admittedly not the strongest) I never thought I’d hike the AT was that it cost a lot of money. As I looked into it, REALLY a lot of money. For a person who has made under $20k a year her entire life (excepting one year of madness where I taught at 8 schools, played probably 15 genres of music, and calculated I worked 80 hrs a week on average and made closer to $30k…sigh, the life of musicians), the amount I’ve been reading to the tune of $5-6k is really a lot. Granted, that’s all you’d be paying for 4-6 months of LIVING- it’s your “rent”, your food, your transport, etc. If you are not tied down or willing to give up your place that’s really quite cheap.
However, I’m a budget cheapo who is already travelling for a whole year on between $6-7k. I doubt I’ll have much to work with even if I bust through a month or two of teaching English or waitressing somewhere before heading back to the US. When researching the AT I never read much about something that I come across all the time in doing budget travel- travel hacking! I think that not having the money when all other factors are go is a pretty lousy reason not to do the hike. So here is a list of some ideas I’ve come up and plan to implement on my thru.
I found a blog that listed a price of $3,930 in 2013 for a 6 month hike (not including gear, or things like rent, insurance, etc). This person ate in a similar manner to what I’m hoping to do (as much organic, Keto/paleo/low GI stuff as I can). Since it’s so close to $4,000, I’m going to adjust the numbers for this.
Here’s what a hypothetical thru-budget would look like:
Transport: $500 (included a one-way flight, two round-trips on trains, and a rental car + gas
Groceries: $1100 (they had some sponsors)
Restaurants etc: $600
Mail Drops (24): $300
Accommodation: $1300 (89 nights)
This budget is definitely on the low side, but it’s easily possible to get it lower. I’ll be going into all of these in more detail on future posts.
Before you even take your first step on the trail, you can reduce your transport expenses to next to nothing and easily save a few hundred Benjies. Most people aren’t within driving distance to the two main trailheads, and are going to have to take a flight to get to and from the trail. Lucky for you, the most-written-about subject in the field of travel hacking is how to get flights really cheap. The main way this is done is through credit card sign-up bonuses. Taxes on flights are sometimes extra, but we’re only looking at $5-30 or so per ticket. It’s also possible to use the card bonuses to pay for rail tickets depending on your credit card program.
Note: Yes, I know that a lot of all y’all are not into credit cards. Use them responsibly, don’t get into debt. I didn’t use them at all for years since I had a “screw the banks” mentality. This shot me in the foot in my 30s with not bad credit history, just NO credit history. Since I had to play the game, I might as well play it well and try to take as much advantage as I can. My goal here is to pay the least possible for my thru, and I’m ok with using a CC – paid in full each month – to do so.
Once you get to the airport, take advantage of trail angels, friends in town, or even taxi services like Uber that it’s easy to get a sign-up credit for as a new member. And of course, hitchhiking is a skill that will become near and dear to you as an AT hiker, and is free.
SAVINGS: $450+ est.
I was actually surprised this was only the second most expensive thing (accommodations was more), but the blogger in question received a fair amount of samples and sponsorships. I’ve already started this process and have received some- it’s really easy! There’s a couple good articles out there including this one. However, the boxes are being sent to my folk’s house as of now (thanks, mom) and I won’t get there until just before the hike so I’m not entirely sure how much they will actually feed me. But it will help, that’s for sure! And if you like to eat more healthy but cheap, you are going to have to try something like this, as options on or near trail are often quite limited.
Speaking of that, if you have dietary issues, or are a gourmet, you may very well want to have some stuff prepared ahead of time. Trail-appropriate gluten free or paleo/primal/whatever foods are simply not going to be available in a lot of places. But you probably aren’t going to want to eat expensive pre-packaged meals for your whole trail, especially if you’re on a budget. What to do? Get your inner gourmet out and cook up some meals, using the cheapest stuff available. I actually ran a business for a short while cooking $5 lunches, made of largely organic and/or grass-fed/free range food, and I purchased everything from the dollar store (granted, in CA), a local health food shop, and a normal supermarket. It can be done! Then invest in a dehydrator and shrink that stuff down. Even better, don’t buy a dehydrator, find a friend who likely used theirs twice, and borrow it for free.
There are ways to get all this stuff cheap, but you’re not satisfied with that, you want cheaper than cheap. Well, at least I do. Again, this uses credit cards. Some cards like the Chase Freedom or Discover cards (multiple) have category bonuses for 5% cashback on groceries a couple months a year. There’s an additional double bonus on the Discover cards if you registered this summer (offer dead now), so that’s up to 10% back without any real effort! This already brings our budget here under $1000. There are more advanced ways to get even more cashback, but let’s skip those for now. Let’s say you manage with thrifty shopping methods to save another $100 (it might be much more, but I’m being conservative for now).
SAVINGS: $200 est.
My plan is to put in a week or so of cooking some tasty meals before I set off and have them shipped along the way.
This brings me to my next subject,
Easiest way to save money on mail drops on the AT? Don’t use them. They’re not strictly necessary, though there are a handful of places you could really benefit from one.
However, if you have dietary issues, mail drops become necessary as outlined above. I still need to do more research here but a few ideas I have:
- Use free shipping on items through Amazon or Walmart. If you play your CC signups right, you can have credit waiting to spend (I got $100 on Amazon on just one signup, that was in addition to $50 card bonus). PS- that’s more free groceries! Buy some goods that meet the required price, maybe splitting with a friend, and then your shipping is free.
- Stamps.com. Maybe they offer a discount? When I worked for a small business doing packaging and shipping, they got a discount for using stamps.com. I will see if this is relevant here.
- Have your sponsors or friends sending care packages send to you on the trail. At least one sponsor I have sends a sample to review before the hike, then a few packs along the trail.
Let’s say you can reduce your mail drops by half using sponsor and store ships and only dropping when most necessary.
I think one of the easiest ways to save here is to stash a little something, preferably fat, to eat before heading to town for a chow-down. Eating fat before a meal helps satiate the appetite and prevent over-eating (though I’m not entirely sure if there IS such a thing for thru-hikers, heh heh).
This is another area I need to do more research on, but there are definitely cashback opportunities to be had for “restaurants”, with 5% available a few months a year between different cards. There also are ways to get a discount such as buying certificates or gift cards at a discount, or using coupons or codes.
If you use a cashback card to buy gift cards, and pay with a cashback card at the restaurant, as well as eating a little something before the restaurant, I think it would be easy to save 10%. Maybe a lot more.
I was really surprised when I read this was the blogger’s highest expense. All her stays were shared with others, too- there weren’t rooms just for one person. But then I read that she spent almost 90 nights inside. NINETY. Yeah, that’s a lot. Easiest way to cut this expense- don’t stay inside! Haha. However, it’s quite likely that you will need a break sometimes and I’ve read that one night a week, whether zero or not, is pretty common. So 6 months = 26 weeks = 26 nights in hotels. We can round that up to 30 in case of a couple zeros. I actually plan to do my hike in closer to 5 months, and avoid zeros, doing near-o’s instead. But I will use 30 here.
You have a couple options and they will save you a lot of money. First off- hotel points. From what I read most hikers stay at hostels, and that’s largely because they are the cheapest (though the atmosphere is usually better imo). But there are ways to get hotel points (credit card signup bonuses, and promotions) that can make it really cheap. As in, right now, if I’m smart about it, I can stay in Holiday Inns for about $9/night for what I paid to acquire the points. Double-dip: get a room with extra beds or sleeper sofa, charge 3 friends a few bucks. Your hotel night becomes close to free and they save money too. Extra bonus: pick a hotel that offers free breakfast.
You can save on hostels potentially as well using cashback methods. I do this all the time using click-through cashback sites that either offer a % of your purchase back, or better, a flat $ amount. I’ve been staying in hostels across Europe and Asia for the last few months doing this, and in some cases I actually MADE money if the hostel cost less than the cashback amount. The only caveat is that cashback sites can take a few weeks or even months to payout, but you will get your money eventually.
SAVINGS: Easily to the tune of $1000 or more.
Laundry, Entertainment, Misc
While I’m sure there are ways to save here I’m going to leave these alone for now.
It should be easy to save a good $1800 using the methods I’ve touched on above. That’s almost half of a pretty average budget of a $4000 thru-hike, and not making any huge sacrifices! I will go more in detail into some of these methods on future posts.
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Thank you for this. Perfect timing.
A note on the hotels… Most trail towns are small, most don’t have chain hotels(or they are not conveniently located for a person on foot). Great thought, but there might not be as much savings here as you think.
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Hey there Heather,
I actually researched this in detail and over 90% of the 25 estimated drops I have planned have either an IHG hotel (see my article on 3 hotel nights for $50) or a free or donation hostel. So, definitely doable if you are ok with staying in a chain hotel. I know that’s not everyone, but it actually can save money here if you have the points.