We have more ideas for blog posts than time we want to spend writing. We’ve wanted to start a series of posts about real life on the road for quite some time, and we’re finally jumping in! Our hope is that this series provides a more realistic glimpse into our everyday lives, however mundane, boring, or frustrating, especially for folks out there who are considering a trip like this sometime in the future. So, send us your burning questions or topics you’d like to hear more about. We’ll be more than happy to share!
A few months ago, during a great catch-up phone call with one of my best friends who always asks the most thoughtful questions, she inquired, “What do errands look like when you’re on a trip like that?”
It’s an interesting question because I initially thought the answer would be pretty simple and boring. With a few exceptions, it feels like our errands look a lot like they did in our pre-travel/pre-mobile life. After the first month or two on the road, this trip truly doesn’t feel like a vacation anymore; it feels like real life because, well, it IS real life for us right now, boring errands and all. However, as I began writing this post and reflecting more deeply on her question, I realized that most of our errands do look different, if only because there’s an added layer of complexity involved.
I’ll jump right in and give you our boring, yet sort of interesting, answer:
Gas Station: We need gas for the truck. Often. Usually this is a quick errand, but sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to locate a gas station, especially in super rural areas. When we’re towing the trailer, it can also be hard to find gas stations that are big enough to provide the turning radius we need or that are easy-in/easy-out. Lastly, we don’t have the benefit of knowing where the cheapest gas is in town. For most of these problems, the GasBuddy app is helpful, and sometimes the larger, RV-friendly gas stations are marked on the AllStays app.
Grocery Store: We need groceries, and we often need to stock-up fairly significantly when we’re in larger towns or cities because small-town or rural grocery stores will, unfortunately, kill our budget. In the southeast, rural produce stands and farmer’s markets weren’t hard to come by, but they’ve been nonexistent in the west. We occasionally hit up traditional grocery stores, but again, we never have the benefit of knowing which regional chains are the most affordable without trial-and-error or asking around; you’d be amazed by how infrequently local folks can answer the question, “Which grocery store in town has the best prices?”. Thus, we limit most of our shopping and all of our big re-stocking trips to Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s or Aldi when we’re lucky enough to be in a place with one of the latter two, which isn’t often (much to our chagrin, we haven’t been in a state with Aldi locations for many months now). Usually, when a TJ’s or Aldi is available, we’ll go to one of these places and to Wal-Mart, just like we do at home; Jason has an amazing mental log of which items are cheaper at which place so we can be as budget-friendly as possible.
Bank/ATM or Cashback Location: We need cash for laundromats, national park gift shops (most have a $5 purchase minimum to use a credit or debit card, and we usually buy about $1 worth of postcards), and camping fees, as we prefer to pay these fees with cash and some places accept nothing else. Bank of America ATMs and branch locations have also been nonexistent for many states now, so we usually get cashback at Wal-Mart. This actually works out well because it’s possible to get small bills there, which obviously isn’t an option at ATMs. Small bills are necessary for the change machines at laundromats, which usually accept only $1 and $5 bills, and for camping fees, as exact change is always required unless you want to overpay, and you know we aren’t about to do that!
Laundry Facility/Laundromat: We need clean clothes regularly so that our laundry basket doesn’t emit foul odors. Yes, an outdoor/active lifestyle means we sweat a lot. Early in our trip, state parks (namely, those in Florida and Louisiana) had inexpensive laundry facilities for registered campers. A few national parks have as well. Mostly, though, we’ve had to rely on laundromats, which are, thankfully, fairly easy to find in most any town. Usually, we choose a laundromat (when there’s more than one in a town) based on proximity and online reviews when available. Often, our first stop is sufficient, but sometimes we have to try two or three places before we find one that’s suitable. We have pretty minimal standards, but we’ve seen some sketchy places! I could probably write an entire post or two about our laundromat experiences; they’re great places for people-watching, and some of the owners are quite eccentric to say the least. The best laundromats are those that are clean, cool, reasonably priced, fully functional/well-maintained, and equipped with lots of plugs so we can charge our electronics and with public Wi-Fi so we can upload pictures or a quick blog post. Overall, beyond drive time and time spent looking for a good place, the laundromat errand isn’t too time-consuming. There’s something to be said for being able to do multiple loads at once and being forced (more or less) to fold straight out of the dryer.
Shopping: Just like at home, we occasionally need prescriptions, new clothes, bike maintenance items or other “specialty” things that can’t be found at Wal-Mart. This was especially true the first couple months of our trip when we realized we both needed more outdoor/hiking gear and clothing, new camp chairs after our old ones literally fell apart, and a few RV-specific items like a new chock after we ran over one (whoops!). Normally, we would purchase many of these items online, but shipping is complicated because we often can’t predict where we’ll be in 3-14 business days, or whatever ridiculous window of time most places provide for shipping speed. Also, the only way we can receive mail is via general delivery to a post office, and UPS and Fed-Ex won’t deliver to a post office, so unless something ships USPS, we don’t have an option anyway.
Post Office: We try to mail postcards to family and friends, especially to our nieces and nephews, pretty regularly. We also have to restock on stamps every once in a while. Occasionally, we need to send or receive packages and other mail. Sending is easy. Receiving is much more complicated. We have to predict in advance where we’ll be around the time the mail/package will arrive and select a post office nearby. We then have to call said post office to double check that they accept General Delivery mail (most do and will hold items for 15 days). Lastly, we have to give the sender the correct location/address and cross our fingers that it arrives in the time frame predicted.
Truck Service: Having our truck in good working order is pretty vital to the success of this trip. Jason keeps great track of our service needs, which, knock on wood, have been minimal to date – oil changes and tire rotations. We can usually find a GMC or Chevy dealer fairly easily online and then call for a next- or same-day appointment. However, when we were in Big Bend National Park (the most remote place we’ve been), we realized we needed an oil change pretty darn soon, especially since we’d have to drive about 300 miles to get to any substantial town/city. With no cell reception, we used our OnStar service in the truck to find a dealer and to book an appointment, which allowed us to plan our route out of the park based on the location of our appointment. As an aside, I’m pretty sure the OnStar operator who helped us was shocked to learn that the closest dealer to Big Bend was roughly 300 miles away; to quote her, “You’re going to hate me, but the closest dealer is about 300 miles from you.”
RV Service: We’ve had to have the RV serviced three times, plus one very time-consuming and frustrating failed attempt due to an RV service place that was making our simple issue way too complex and seemingly attempting to take advantage of our warranty. Again, knock on wood, all of our issues have been simple fixes and nothing major – a couple of awning adjustments and fixing a random valve that was installed upside down. When you use anything as often and heavily as we have so far this year, and when that thing happens to be your home, I think you’re bound to have a few things crop up. Since we have a year warranty, we want to make sure we get any issues addressed right away. Finding good RV service places, especially ones that can fit us in on short notice, has been challenging and frustrating to say the least but overall we’ve had pretty positive experiences once an appointment is made. Appointment times have ranged from about 30 minutes to six hours, during which time we can take the truck on other errands. And we have no shame about coming back to the RV mid-appointment to put away groceries or laundry or to have lunch.
Wi-Fi or 3G (we have old phones, so 3G is as good as it gets for us): Sometimes finding a place with good/fast wireless, or even a town with 3G for paying bills online (3G is much more secure than an open wireless network), can be our most frustrating errand. Yes, we know we could get a personal hotspot, but that costs money, and our data plan isn’t large enough for that to make much sense anyway. We are very rarely in towns/cities with Starbucks or other reliable wireless service, and we don’t really want to feel obligated to buy super expensive coffee anyway (or french fries at McDonalds). We’ve discovered that the very best place to find reliable wireless for blogging, posting pictures, etc. is a public library. As a bonus, one of us can work on the laptop while the other works on a desktop computer so we can get more done, or I’ll stay at the library while Jason does other errands.
Propane/LP: Our water heater, stove, refrigerator, oven, and heater all run on propane unless we’re hooked up to shore power, at which time the water heater and fridge run on electricity; however, we’re rarely (maybe 5% of the time these days) hooked up to power. We use our water heater, stove, and fridge daily, so while we try to conserve and limit our propane use, it is something we rely on pretty heavily. We have two 20-pound propane bottles on the front of the trailer. We like to have one of them completely full at all times while the other is in use; otherwise, we risk running out of propane in the middle of nowhere, which would mean lots of spoiled food (we keep our fridge and freezer pretty well-stocked) and no way to boil water for coffee. I’m not sure which of those things would be worse.
We end up with an empty propane bottle requiring a fill about every 20 days. Lots of gas stations exchange propane bottles, but it’s often harder to find a place that will simply fill a bottle. Our AllStays app is, once again, helpful in that it shows LP locations that fill bottles; however, I’d estimate that it shows only about a third of the places that actually have LP (many locations simply aren’t on the app), and sometimes the app doesn’t provide a location for many hundreds of miles. Sometimes a simple Google search is helpful in finding a location, and sometimes asking around at various local spots is helpful, but regardless of how we identify a LP location, they are almost always hard to physically find. Some places have weird hours, some no longer do fills, sometimes directions are given by confusing landmarks, and almost all places have poor signage and/or provide many other services at the business location, making it hard to ascertain whether they do, in fact, sell LP (seeing a sign like the one pictured below basically makes us do a happy dance). Bottom line, finding LP sometimes feels like a wild goose chase and can be a pretty time-consuming errand. Also, prices and quality of fills vary significantly, but at this point, we usually take whatever we can get. Most recently, we found a place that has a “Frugal Friday” discount on LP; we liked that place a lot.
RV Dump and Potable Water: As a quick refresher, we have three holding tanks in our RV: fresh water, grey water (soapy water that goes down drains), and black water (waste water that goes down the toilet). Since we boondock/dry camp most of the time, we’re hooked up to a city water connection very rarely; even campgrounds with shore power/electricity hook-ups often don’t have water hook-ups. Thus, it’s essential that we have fresh water on board for cooking, drinking, flushing the toilet, and washing ourselves and our dishes. With normal conservative use (not ultra conservative use), we can usually last about 3-4 days without taking on some amount of fresh water, and we can usually make it up to 5 days without dumping the grey tank and up to 1.5 weeks without dumping the black tank, even without using other bathroom facilities.
Some of the campgrounds and other random places we stay have RV dump stations for emptying the grey and black tanks. Some have potable water (i.e. clean drinking water that we can put in the fresh water tank). Some have both, some have neither, and some have one or the other. When the place where we’re staying has neither or just one of these “amenities”, it becomes an errand to find a dump station and/or a place with potable water. The same “rule” applies as above: some places have just one and some places have both, so sometimes this is a one-stop shop kind of errand and other times it requires two stops. Most everything I wrote above in the “propane” section above is true of finding dumps and potable water. We have multiple apps that help with locating these resources, but it can still easily turn into a time-consuming wild-goose chase. Occasionally, we just happen to encounter a free dump station (again, sometimes with potable water and sometimes without) at a rest area or gas station that we decide to use even if it’s not imperative. It’s kind of like using the bathroom, whether you need to go or not, when the opportunity presents itself while traveling; you never want to be in the position of desperately searching for a bathroom, though sometimes it’s inevitable.
I think that’s a pretty exhaustive list. Of course, we don’t have to do every single one of these things every time we do errands, but certainly many of them, and we often give ourselves a day or two in a town or city to get everything done. Errands can be exhausting and time-consuming under “normal” circumstances, and I think more so when you’re navigating a new place each time. There is no automatic pilot or knowledge of the area to rely on. We have learned that it’s much easier to get everything accomplished in a smaller town/city or in a fairly compact suburban area where things aren’t so spread out and we’re not fighting traffic. We’ve also learned to map out retail locations in advance so that we choose a town/city to land in for a day or two that can meet all of our needs. It’s an added bonus if we can find cheap camping nearby so that we don’t have to drag the trailer around with us, but this is definitely hit or miss. So, there you have it – everything you ever (or never) wanted to know about our errands.
What else are you itching to know about regarding “real life” on the road? Leave a comment below or shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions!