I’ve lived in Anchorage on and off for the past ten years, and during that time I’ve done the drive to and from Alaska three times. Most recently, I drove from Vermont to Anchorage, with a stop in Illinois to pick up my dad for a father-daughter driving and camping adventure.
Months before embarking on the latest trip, I tried to anticipate the cost of everything: The u-haul ($659); the trailer hitch to pull the u-haul ($350); a cat carrier ($50); a AAA membership ($76); lodging ($477, including campgrounds and hotels); food ($250); and gas (calculated using this very scientific formula: $50 (cost of tank) x 15 (number of tanks, assuming 5000 mile trip and 17 gallon tank)= $750). All in, I figured I’d spend $2,612.
At the end of the trip, I pulled into a friend’s driveway with two traumatized cats, a sore ass, and a handful of receipts that would suggest I had met expectations—mostly.
Day 1, Vermont to Ohio: I’m off to a great start. I scored a free cat carrier from a friend, and I sweet-talked the man at the u-haul place into giving me a discount, since the trailer I’m renting will be sitting about a week in my parents’ yard once I get to Illinois (trailer: $431.41, trailer hitch: $349.87). I’ve paid my AAA membership ($76). One thing I didn’t account for: To drive through Canada, I need to renew my passport ($110).
On the actual day of departure, according to my credit card statement, I get gas in Warners, NY ($53.13) and somewhere in Pennsylvania ($46.25); I stop at Starbucks ($4.37); I pay one toll ($1.25, another thing I’ve forgotten in my estimate); and I pay for my hotel room ($97.60, as anticipated). That evening, desperate to eat something green and not fried, I venture down the block from my hotel and find only a Red Lobster, where I pay $18.20 for the privilege of eating shrimp linguini with a side of broccoli and a beer.
Running total: $1188.08
Day 2, Ohio to Illinois: It takes three trips from the skeezy Super 8 motel room to my car the next morning to repack my cats, their litter box, and my overnight bag, the effort of which makes me hungry, which makes me stop at a McDonald’s in Seville, OH ($4.90), where I also get gas ($30.61). Lunch is at a Subway somewhere in the Midwest ($6.53). Additional gas stops in Indiana ($48.26) and Illinois ($54.10) and another stop at Starbucks ($6.52) have me feeling pretty okay about my total expenses two days into the trip. That night, I coast into my parents’ driveway and eat a (free) home-cooked meal.
Running total: $1339.00
Day 3, Illinois to Minnesota: Dad’s along for the rest. Dad changes my oil ($49.94) and we hit the road at 5 a.m. I climb into the driver’s seat for the first leg, Dad’s navigating from the passenger side, and both cats are eerily silent as we head north. We stop in Edwardsville, IL, for gas ($37.72), where Dad springs for early morning coffees. Equipped with a cooler full of sandwiches and snacks, we don’t bother buying lunch. We gas up twice in Iowa ($34.50, $39.00) and once in Minnesota ($22.66), where we buy Vitamin Water and snacks ($4.41). A long day of driving and a traffic jam outside of Minneapolis land us somewhere near St. Cloud that evening, and we drive back and forth down a side road, searching for an extremely well-hidden camp ground we saw a sign for from the highway. Momentarily giving up the search, we stop at a family restaurant (Dad pays), then, like a father-daughter Sherlock and Watson, cleverly track down the campground…by asking directions. We fork over $30 to pitch our tent and take showers.
Running total: $1557.23
Day 4, Minnesota to North Dakota: We gas up again in the morning (Dad very kindly pays). Today’s expenses include breakfast (which I spring for as a thank-you for the gas, $18.50), gas in North Dakota ($45.60, $50), and re-stocking our cooler full of lunch meat and bottled water $13.82). That night, we wind up at another campground ($25), pitch the tent, shower, and I put my cats on leashes and walk them around the campsite for exercise. Dinner is at another family-style restaurant, where Dad pays.
Running total: $1710.15
Day 5, North Dakota to Saskatchewan: O, Canada! I stop at the border to gas up one last time ($48.42) before I have to start paying Canadian prices. Inside the station, I discover root beer and cream soda in old-timey bottles ($2.76). Crossing the border isn’t a problem, although the official there asks at least four times if I’m transporting any firearms. He’s also very curious about drugs. I have neither.
Immediately upon crossing into Canada, we find ourselves on a road that’s being repaved; the semi in front of us sends gravel pinging off my windshield. I wind up with several dings. Fortunately, Alaska is the kind of place where, if you don’t have a pockmarked windshield, you’re considered a tourist—so I won’t have to fork over any money to have my windshield fixed or replaced ($0).
Stops for gas ($60.90, $57.88) make me realize that I’ve also forgotten to account for the cost difference in Canada; it’s not astronomically different, but a few cents here and there add up. On long road trips, the wise traveler plans her stops ahead of time and makes reservations so she’s not stranded at the end of a tiring day, her search for a hotel in the middle of nowhere futile. I, however, am not the wise traveler. Which means when Dad and I decide we’re ready to stop for the day, we end up driving an hour more, desperately scanning the horizon for campground signs or hotel billboards. Nada. When we finally “luck” upon a motel, it practically has “you will be murdered in your sleep” written right under the vacancy sign. However, my trusting father decides we should check it out. There’s someone barbecuing an unidentifiable meat outside the entrance. Before we can go inside, he informs us that there actually aren’t any rooms, but there’s a halfway decent campground up the road a ways. We find the place ($23) and fall into our sleeping bags, exhausted.
Running total: $1903.11
Day 6, Saskatchewan to Alberta: My dad has won the lottery. That, or he’s been sneaking peaks at my receipts and feels some sort of fatherly duty to keep me from going too far into debt because today he not only springs for breakfast, but for dinner—and he buys a tank of gas. Or maybe he just has a good barometer and wakes knowing that this evening I’ll be paying for our first (and only) night in a hotel. I buy the other tank of gas ($56.70); for lunch, we finish what’s in the cooler. When we reach Grand Prairie, Alberta, we haven’t driven as far as I figured we would today, but we’re tired, it looks like rain, and there’s a cluster of restaurants and hotels off an exit ramp. After dinner (where all I can think about is the sweet, sweet sleep the maddeningly slow waitress is keeping me from), we check into the Prairie Haven Motel, where I’m informed there’s a hundred-dollar cleaning deposit that I’ll get back the next day, provided Dad and I haven’t trashed the place like rock musicians on tour. (So $185.54 minus my $100 refund = $85.54.)
Running total: $2045.35
Day 7, Alberta to British Columbia: We’ve been making good time, with Dad and I switching driving duties every two or three hours. But we’re about to fly through two provinces like gangbusters. We gas up in Grand Prairie ($19.78) and grab coffee ($5.27) then head into BC. The car begins its climb into the Rockies, the road narrows and winds through the mountains, and we see our first bison on the road.
The rural road system means the gas stops are fewer and far between, which is why that afternoon we find ourselves slowing to a stop on the shoulder of a dusty road, my gas gauge on E. Luckily, Dad and I have done road trips together before, and have a history of coasting into gas stations on fumes, so this time around, Dad filled a gas canister and strapped it to the u-haul. When we do finally find a gas station, we fill the tank and the canister ($77.61). Another stop for gas ($49.14) is also a stop for buffalo burgers and fries (Dad pays), followed by another push down the road—Alaska is so close, we’re thinking of making Day 8 an extra long one. That night, we camp again ($36.97) and pay one Canadian “loonie” each ($1) to shower.
Running total: $2235.12
Day 8, British Columbia to Tok, Alaska: This is the big push: We will drive nearly sixteen hours today, through BC up to the Yukon, where we will slow for herds of bison and construction. We will edge Kluane Lake, dazzled by the sun glinting off the water, and we’ll feel our stomachs plummet every time I take a dip in the ALCAN Highway too fast. A passing bus will send a rock the size of an infant careening into my windshield, and for a wince-inducing second I will be sure the stone is coming through the windshield to bean me right in the head.
We pour the gas from the canister into my tank that morning, then fill it and the tank up at the next stop ($84.36). We’re not stopping much today—once, to empty the canister again, twice for pee breaks, and one more time for lunch, during which we finish our snacks and bottles of water. The border crossing gives us no troubles. An hour later, we’re in Tok, where, we splurge on a feast of fish and vegetables and beer at a busy lodge ($37.50), then pitch the tent once last time ($20).
Running total: $2376.98
Day 9, Tok to Anchorage: Only about six hours of driving to go! At the gas station in Tok, I fill the tank ($44.51) while Dad chats with a man who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus. Long, white beard, red shirt, red coat. Santa’s been hunting—there’s a dead caribou, tongue lolling, in the back of his truck—and he and Dad chat about the hunting season and Santa’s luck this year. Santa thinks it’s real sweet that this father-daughter duo has just road-tripped nearly 4,000 miles together. “Safe travels, you two,” he says as he climbs into his truck.
Dad spots his first Alaskan moose just before we reach Glenallen, where we gas up ($46) and eat (Dad pays again). Down Highway 1, we’re stalled by construction, so we stop the car, get out, and stretch our legs. It’s August, but already the air is crisp and chill. From behind us, we hear, “Hello again!” Santa has caught up with us. He puts a foot on a guardrail and makes small talk with us until a construction worker signals that we can head out again. Dad shakes Santa’s hand. “Good talking to you,” Dad says. “What was your name?”
“Nick,” says Santa.
Back in the car, back on the road. I’m behind the wheel again, and as we descend into the Matanuska Valley, the land opens up, mountains on either side of us. There’s Pioneer Peak on the left, the very first mountain I ever hiked; there’s Wasilla, which inflicted Sarah Palin upon the country.
We glide into Anchorage (gas stop: $52.25, oil change: $57.99) then maneuver through traffic to get to my friend’s house. At the u-haul return, I get a surprise: Staying longer than expected in Illinois has made me late with my return, so I have to fork over a fee of $140. Days later, my credit card statement offers one more last cahrge: all the foreign transaction fees my credit card processed while I was in Canada ($17.03).
To drive nearly 5,000 miles in nine days cost me $2,734.76. That’s $122.76 over budget, which I find incredible—I had no idea my estimating skills were so sharp. Dad helped keep me fairly close to budget by paying for some gas and meals, but he was justly rewarded: Once I got myself settled in Anchorage, I took him on a fishing trip in Kodiak, where he caught his first halibut.
Jamey Bradbury is a freelance writer who still lives in Anchorage. She prefers riding her bike to driving.