The 90’s guide to traveling cheap…

A non comprehensive guide to getting by while on the road…

Times have changed so some of these innovations will be irrelevant, some of them are petty crimes, nonetheless the easiest way to get by, traveling with limited means is to fill your car with like minded wanderers so you can all split the cost of gas, food, and sometimes a seedy motel.
The first obvious thing to do to save money is buy food at a market rather than off of a value menu at a fast food joint, 4 dollars of potatoes, beans and tortillas can feed 4 people at about a dollar each, and you can spice it up with Taco Bell packets of hot sauce or BBQ flavor from Arby’s. Granted convenience and bad planning go hand and hand when you are young and in the wild so here are a few tips….

-The great soda machine heist was often a good resource for coins, high fructose corn syrup, and caffeine for teenage hoods on the go. By leaning the top of a soda machine towards you, careful not to lean too far and drop on yourself, letting it fall back, would typically yield 7 or 8 sodas, the entire front rack, one of each flavor. This worked best on older rectangle coke machines, and only once per fill up…
Another option, never quite consistent, was taking an empty 2 liter bottle, filling it with salt water, stabbing a hole in it’s cap, and using it to spray the conductive water into the dollar bill slot, while your buddy pushes all the buttons, if it worked, money and cans of soda would fall out, I can’t be sure the salt water worked or if it was just the blatant vandalism and dumb luck.

– the Groover, this was the slang term for a dollar bill, with clear packaging tape taped to the end of it, making a handle essentially, so you could insert it into a vending machine, and gently pull it back out after it gives you credit, while you keep the dollar bill. If you are in a hotel lobby, in one of the vending machine coves, with a pillow case you just stole, you could sometimes leave with 20 bucks worth of twix bars and cheese-its, while also getting the .45 cent change from the dollar bill registered by its tiny computer.
Times were so lean in the old days it was often a great internal debate to keep the groover for future raids or spend it.Often your last dollar.

– Gas and Go, this is flat out robbery. I never really felt good about stealing, but if 4 of you are milling about at a gas station getting Little Debbie snacks for a quarter, it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone to tell the driver, “Ya I paid the cashier…” and then we would just drive away. The crime would only be uncovered later when the 12 bucks total ante’d up prior was reimbursed to each passenger.

– the Dialer, this was a semi obscure dialing mechanism that was sold at radio shack so you could check your home answering machine while on the go. Somewhere along the line, some nefarious genius discovered that by manipulating the device you could use it on payphone to make it think you are depositing quarters, making it so you could make long distance phone calls for free. This was crucial, as you might need to line up a place to sleep in Iowa, a spot to ride in Massachusetts or speak to your parents during holidays. Holding it up to the receiver pushing #9 would emit a digital code giving you access to free communication.
Another trick was calling a 1-800 number and getting the operator to hang up on you, wait a few seconds, and a dial tone would return to the line, and you could make calls on there dime…

– DriveThru hustles are key, even if you didn’t buy anything at Wendy’s or Rally’s you could grab a receipt out of the trash, boldly wait in line like you are totally fed up with the terrible customer service, and tell the kid at the counter that your drive through order was wrong… Simple, effective fast food larceny, it would be a victimless crime, but really that food could kill you.

– Campsite boogie, this one is a little bit of a bummer, because hustling the parks system sucks, but so does being broke and having no place to stay. In these scenarios, if you show up to state park campsite, after the ranger or attendant is off duty, at the pay station/check in, they typically have envelopes, where on the honor system, you leave the 18 or 26 bucks, write down your site number and leave it in a drop box. If you are clever, and have a spare 20 dollar bill, you keep that in the envelope on your dash, with no intention of paying, but if a ranger shows up, you can simply tell them you need change and hand them the paperwork. 99 times out of 100 you can just drive out unnoticed in the morning…. Although pulling a fast one, we always made sure to never leave a mess or litter.

– the Big Gulp shopping spree, this little known trick can be useful, if you take a large big gulp, walk around a 7-11 or whatever gas station convenience store, you can fill the cup with random road trip survival necessities, the easy method is getting a king size snickers, tossing it in the cup, before you fill it with soda and ice, and bingo, a two for 1 bargain, the cashier rarely suspects as you pony up the .99 cents for a cold soda. Other options include dropping a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream into the bottom before filling up (It actually fits), or dropping batteries, film, small canned food items, anything packaged as to not get destroyed by the carbonated camouflage. Not sure if this is a shopping spree or a petty crime spree, but it’s almost justifiable if you are actually buying the drink.

Trying to cut down the cost of travel and stretch your last dollar always seemed pretty innocent 25 years ago, so a little road trip ingenuity often kept it moving for us…

Steve Crandall

Coffee sipping pilot of a red FBM frame and a Nikon camera.