For most, the typical weekday morning starts off with a blaring alarm clock, a rushed cup of coffee, and a noisy, stress-inducing commute to the office. But one couple found a way to trade the rat race for peaceful mornings spent hiking among active volcanoes in the Pacific one week and waking up beside still lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains the next. No, they're not trust fund kids. Yes, they did it on a budget.
Lauren and Steven Keys, both 29, spent the past seven months traveling to all 61 U.S. national parks and chronicled the adventure of their blog, Trip of a Lifestyle. The journey took them from Denali National Park and Preserve in northern Alaska to Everglades National Park in southern Florida, clocking in at roughly 30,000 miles.
"Yosemite, Death Valley, Hawaii Volcanoes — as the landscape changes, your breath is literally taken away and that's what makes the national parks special for us," Lauren tells CNBC Make It.
The idea of visiting all of the U.S. national parks started as a "whim," early in 2018, Lauren says, but quickly evolved into a 2019 goal for the couple. The Keys spent six months living and working in Hawaii as their extended honeymoon in 2015, so they felt confident they could take that model and build on it. Instead of simply visiting each park as a weekend getaway or on a longer vacation, Lauren and Steven packed up their lives and hit the road, primarily traveling and living out of a converted Nissan NV200 cargo van for seven months.
The two spent roughly $45,000 on the experience, but Steven plans to sell the van now that they're home again and re-coup about $8,000 — bringing the total cost of the adventure down to about $37,000. By working remotely, renting out their condo and living simply, they were able to complete the trip without going into debt and without backtracking on any of their financial goals. In fact, Steven was able to keep his job at a Gainesville, Florida-based tutoring company and Lauren took on freelance marketing projects.
"We're not influencers, and we didn't have any fancy sponsorships. We just tried to figure out how to keep costs low while finding ways to make money along the way," Lauren says.
The foundation of their journey was the Nissan cargo van, which they purchased slightly used in April 2018 for about $12,300. "It's the most expensive vehicle we've ever purchased," Steven says, but it had to meet a lot of needs. It had to be reliable, get good gas mileage and handle well. In that regard, the van was a huge success. They didn't encounter any mechanical problems and the van got a little better than 24 miles per gallon, which meant they kept their gas budget under $4,500 for the entire trip.
The van also had to accommodate a slightly more unusual demand: housing a bed. "We picked the smallest van you can possibly get and still fit a full-sized mattress in the back," Steven says. Before they embarked on their trip in January, Steven's stepfather helped the couple customize the van a bit, building a platform for the bed and some storage.
"This trip really wouldn't have been possible in the same way financially if we hadn't been sleeping in a van almost every night," Steven says, adding he calculates that the van saved the couple $15,000 in lodging costs.
After a long day at the park or on the road, the Keys snuggled down under the stars...or the parking lot lights of the local Walmart. That's because, as the couple learned, parking at the retailer is free, while the typical park campground charged $30 a night.
The cost of living in a van goes beyond just the vehicle and gas — there's parking, showering, laundry and Wi-Fi to consider. Walmart became their go-to overnight destination, but they also hit up travel centers, like TravelCenters of America and Love's, too. "At first, sleeping in the van was weird because you heard sounds you're not used to hearing — diesel engines running if you're at a travel center or something," Lauren says, adding that soon enough it became routine.
It was tight quarters, but the Keys basically just used the van to drive and sleep, preferring to spend as much time as they could in the parks, or working out of a coffee shop with Wi-Fi.
"That's a big misconception about #vanlife: You don't have to make a home out of your van, you just really need a place to sleep for free and that will drive you around efficiently. You're going to live out in the world, whether it's in a national park or Starbucks," Steven says.
Yet sleeping in the van, while cost-effective, wasn't always an option — especially when temperatures dipped below freezing or rose to scorching. In the end, the couple did have to book some hotel stays, which added up to about five weeks of their total trip. They trimmed costs here by using some credit card points they'd saved up.
When they did sleep in the van for weeks on end, they didn't always have access to running water or plumbing. The solution? Gyms and laundromats. They bought a $20 monthly membership to Planet Fitness, which offers locations all over the country. When they traveled to more remote areas, they learned that many laundromats also have coin-operated showers.
And they had to hit up laundromats anyway because they were only able to store about two weeks' worth of clothes in the van (although Steven swears Lauren packed a bit more than that). The other issue with the lack of storage was food. With no cooler and limited space, Lauren and Steven were limited to dining out.
"We did eat out the majority of our meals because it was too difficult to cook most of the time," Steven says. They are both vegans, which made it hard to find "random food on the road," Lauren says. They primarily stuck to fast food joints: the Beyond burger from Carl's Jr., veggie pizza slices from Blaze Pizza, and burrito bowls from Chipotle.
Even then, Steven says they tried to limit costs. They often ordered off the dollar menu instead of a combo meal and figured out restaurants where they could easily split a meal. "We definitely weren't doing the Supersize Me diet, but I think we're both happy to be back home and be able to cook," Steven says.
It wasn't all smooth sailing either. Steven and Lauren started their journey in the midst of the longest government shutdown. The 35-day shutdown furloughed National Park Service personnel and many parks were essentially left largely unsupervised. When the couple drove to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, they couldn't get in since the visitor's center functions as the entrance to the caves. In order to check that park off their list, they had to make a 20-hour detour later in their trip.
Since Lauren and Steven are not millionaires who can simply jet off for seven months, they needed to earn a living while they traveled the country. When planning for the trip, both approached their employers about the possibility of working remotely. Steven's manager was game, Lauren's was not.
"I started the trip with not a whole lot of plans," Lauren says, but she wasn't worried because the couple had a fairly robust savings cushion. Instead, she became the couple's chief travel planner and researcher until she snagged freelance marketing work halfway into the adventure. Steven was able to bank about 10-12 hours a week. The two also run a photography business and were able to book a few gigs and sell some of their prints while exploring each park.
To keep the cash flowing in, the Keys also rented out their condo in Gainesville while they were away and worked some side hustles on the road, including entering a few Magic: The Gathering tournaments that netted Steven a profit of about $350 and a winning streak at Nevada casinos that banked them another $350.
Because they needed to juggle work and visiting the parks, their day-to-day schedule varied. "Every day we kind of set out to do what we wanted to do," Lauren says. If it was a work day, they posted up in a Starbucks for a couple of hours, if it was a driving day they downloaded some podcasts to listen to and burned rubber, and if it was in the park day they talked to the rangers and found some good hiking.
Looking back, one of the biggest expenses of the trip were the charter planes, boats and rental cars Lauren and Steven had to hire to get to some of the more remote parks in Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For these, the Keys had to leave the van behind, flying to these destinations. When visiting Glacier Bay, for example, the couple used Delta points to fly from Seattle to Juneau leaving the van in Seattle for a few days. Even though seven months sounds like a long trip, it really only left an average of 3.5 days for each park once travel time was calculated in.
To get to Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic in Alaska, they drove over 2,000 miles from Seattle to Fairbanks, chartered a plane out of a tiny air strip off the Dalton highway, flew 40 minutes to a small village and then took a second charter flight in order to hit both parks in a single day trip. Unfortunately, it was a rough ride. "It was non-stop vomiting," Lauren says with a laugh.
Traveling to those far-flung parks set them back about $11,300, something that Lauren and Steven say the average traveler may want to skip. But for them, all of the hustling, planning and budgeting was worth it. If you treat travel as a lifestyle, rather than a week-long vacation, you're going to get more value for your dollar, Steven says.
On Aug. 6 on the ferry ride back from the Dry Tortugas National Park located just west of Key West in Florida, the crew announced to all the passengers that Lauren and Steven had completed their final park. They, justifiably, received a standing ovation.
This definitely not the last trip the couple will be taking. Even though they've only been home for less than a month, they're already talking about the lessons they've learned and what they can apply toward their next adventure. "What draws us to doing these longer form types of travel has always been that feeling of being completely free," Lauren says.
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