How We Car Camped Our Way to Florida

Allison Burney

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One of the first trips my boyfriend and I took together was about a year into our relationship. We’d decided the destination would be Key West, with stops at Disney World and Universal Studios along the way. We'd be driving from our home just north of Toronto, Ontario. We had a long drive ahead, and we'd need a place to stay for several nights during our two-week trip.

But instead of booking hotels along our journey, we did something a little bit more out-of-the-box. We “camped” in our SUV at rest stops along the interstate most nights (with the exception of our time in Key West, where we rented a sailboat through Airbnb for our accommodation!) Obviously, sleeping in the back of our Dodge Journey was not the most practical option, but at that time, we were more interested in saving money than being comfortable.

In a whirlwind turn of events, we’d gotten the keys to our new property just a few hours before we were planning to hit the road! So, having just taken possession, we spent the night in the third-floor apartment that would soon be our new home. Our blow-up mattress was the only “furniture” in the whole place that night.

While it was exciting to become both homeowners and landlords overnight, it was also terrifying. As little as we knew about homeownership at that point, we at least suspected that an inevitable endless string of expenses lay ahead, so this road trip couldn’t break the bank. We needed to find a creative way to make this work on a budget.

What About Car Camping?

That’s when the idea of sleeping in the car at night came up. When my boyfriend first suggested it, I was hesitant. I worried about safety and whether it was even allowed, and also about how we’d make it work. Would we have enough space? What about bathrooms?But the more we talked about it and the more research we did, the more it seemed like a viable plan. We certainly weren’t the only ones wondering about this option, either. Many other travelers from car-campers to RVers to truckers have used rest stops to recharge before carrying on with their journeys all across the United States. As Frugal RV Travel says on their website:

Rest stops are meant to be safe places where travelers restore their energy and driving alertness. Most have good lighting and security features as well as the comfort of a continual flow of people.

This sounded much better than what I was imagining. In the end, though, there was only one way to find out for sure: by trying it.

A Pleasant Surprise

I’m happy to say that our experience overnighting at rest stops throughout the eastern states was actually much better than I was expecting!

No, sleeping on a blow-up mattress in an SUV was not super comfortable, nor was it something we’d want to do often—especially as we get older. But for a few nights, it worked just fine and saved us hundreds of dollars on hotel stays!

Even though it felt a bit awkward at first, we got into a little routine while on the road that worked quite well. We’d use the washroom, get changed, and brush our teeth in the rest stop’s facilities before setting off for the day.

While deflating the bed and re-organizing the car each morning, we even brewed our own coffee for the road! We’d bought a little four-cup coffeemaker before leaving home, and I often plugged it in and set it to brew while getting ready in the morning. Then we'd pour it into our travel mugs and have our first sip as we pulled onto the highway on route to our next destination. Toasting each other with our to-go cups was a fun way to start each day, and pretty soon I'd forgotten about any aches or stiffness from the night before. With my coffee in hand and somewhere new on the horizon, I was happy.

Guidelines And More Info

Not only did we feel safe throughout this adventure, but we were also generally impressed with the facilities and how clean and well-lit most of them were. We never once got stopped by authorities and asked to move or leave, even at rest areas that did not specifically allow overnight parking.

In their article, “Overnight Parking At Rest Stops,” Frugal RV Travel says they have been making use of rest stops overnight for the past twenty years and have never been woken up by officials (even in states that don’t officially allow overnight camping). While parking someplace that doesn’t officially permit overnight usage is always a risk, our experience was that you’ll generally be left alone if you’re not causing trouble or doing anything to draw attention to yourself.

However, there are a few general guidelines that are best to follow when parking overnight. Writer Sara Sheehy details some best practices in her article, “Can You Sleep at Rest Stops? All About Overnighting in Rest Areas.” It’s also a good idea to check the Department of Transportation for the state you’ll be visiting, as many websites have detailed information on rest stop locations, facilities, and rules.

I will be honest and say that I didn’t have the best night’s sleep every night in the car, but our overall experience was good and it certainly saved us a ton of money that we were able to put towards attractions we really wanted to see while in Florida.

So, if you’re looking for a way to save on accommodations on your next road trip and don’t mind thinking out-of-the-box, you may want to consider car camping!

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Writer & proofreader. I love travel, reading, coffee, and exploring nature. On a mission to keep learning, growing, and enjoying this adventure we call life.

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