My mental blocks to proper #vanlife or #nomadlife are twofold, my husband often reminds me when I bring up the idea of hitting the road for a couple months. First, he points out, I need steady internet to work. Second, I really, really enjoy showering regularly. A day without either? Sure. Three days? Things are going to get grumpy in a hurry. But our work, and our wanderlust, do keep us on the road at least half of the year, so we’ve had to figure out a few ways around my sticking points without paying a ton for campsites, coffeeshops and truck stop showers. (Though in a pinch, that $7 truck stop shower can be amazing!)
In order to keep costs low, most of the places we stop aren’t traditional coffeeshops or restaurants anymore. We try to multitask: fitnessing with showering, eating cheap with internet-ing, and having fun with all of the above. A few of our favorite stops for easier cross-country drives:
It might not occur to you that a grocery store can be a cheap alternative to a restaurant, but consider this: Often, they’re ideal for cheap salads, and include indoor seating and free internet. You may not realize it, but a lot of grocery stores have indoor seating tucked away somewhere, or at least have a few picnic tables outside — plus they always have restrooms. And I’ve really been shocked at how many have internet available. Strange, but true! (Also, I wrote a whole article about how to make an awesome easy salad super-cheap from a grocery store right here.)
A lot of public campgrounds will be open for either no fee in the off-season or a low cost for a day pass during the season, especially if you just want day access and won’t take up a camping spot. And more and more often, the amenities at places like this are surprising. We’ve been at campsites where, for $7 for parking, we spent the day swimming and hiking, then used the campground’s wifi to logon and work from a picnic table (and recharged all of our devices!) before hopping in the showers in the restrooms.
Parks with Waterfalls or Hot Springs
In a pinch, we’ve actually used a freezing cold waterfall to shower on a long drive, and it’s both invigorating and great for photos. It’s hard to find a clean, easy access freshwater waterfall or a nice hot spring, admittedly, but when you do, take advantage!
YMCAs and Community Pools
So classic, so under-utilized! The Y in our town, as an example, is $10 for a day pass, which gets you full access to the gym and pool, but also the showers, sauna and steamroom, plus a seating area with free wifi. And most don’t mind if you bring in snacks and coffee and work for a few hours, as long as you’re quiet and polite. Community pools are often a little cheaper — our local one is $4 — and doesn’t have extra amenities, but it’s great for a swim plus a shower.
If you’re on the road a lot, another consideration could be a gym membership at a chain like 24-Hour Fitness, but since we’re between Canada and the US, it’s hard to find one chain that we could use — but those are GREAT for when you want a workout and a shower, and some have wifi. They’re also great for recharging devices, and most have spots you can sit and work for a while. (If you don’t have a membership, we’ve found you can usually pull in and explain your situation and you can get a day pass, even though most chains won’t technically advertise that they offer one.)
Sometimes, you get really lucky and find a library attached to a community center with locker rooms and a shower, but those are pretty few and far between. But public libraries have almost all of the other amenities: a free, quiet place to sit and work (and recharge phones and laptops), free wifi, clean restrooms, and — of course — books!
There’s a limit to how often this one will work, but if you’re in a pinch and facing a work deadline, a lot of hotels have free wifi and no password, and the lobbies are largely un-patrolled. I’ve found that as long as you aren’t covered in grime, you can walk in, grab a seat, and work away on your laptop (and use the lobby restroom) without anyone taking notice. It’s not the most ideal situation, but when you need to get online for that work call, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Visitor Welcome Centers
Again, when you’re on a highway and really need to get online for a few minutes, most rest areas and welcome centers now have wifi plus places to plug in your laptop to charge. (They’re also great for getting an undisturbed night of sleep in your van if you’re OK with road noise.)
Let me know in the comments: Where’s the most weird-but-useful place you’ve stopped on a long trip?