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The Great American (Collaborative) Road Trip

This past September, I attempted to drive across the United States in my 1982 VW Vanagon Westfalia, using collaborative consumption services to share rides and lodging along the way. Here's the story of what happened.

I love to travel. I’ve traveled throughout Europe, visited Central America, and even spent some time in Uganda. There is so much to see, and so much culture! Travel is one of the great privileges of the modern world. It fascinates the mind and tugs at the soul. It inspires and teaches. Traveling has made me a more open, grateful, and compassionate person.

The bad news is, it can be pretty wasteful. It wasn’t until late in my college career that I began to truly understand how much my lifestyle consumes. Traveling devours resources and contributes to the destruction of the places we fly to see. Unfortunately, it’s a great good that comes with high costs.

Last year, as I was getting ready to graduate, I wanted to celebrate my forthcoming freedom with a trip to Thailand. But I couldn’t quite justify flying around the world to hang out on a beach for a week. Then it dawned on me. I’ve seen many corners of the world, but I’ve barely seen any of my own country. People travel around the world to come here, so why am I trying so badly to leave? I could road trip around America! That would use far less fuel than flying to Thailand.

But it would use some fuel. And I would need lodging, too. Suddenly, my road trip idea felt very consumptive, and expensive as well. Was there any way to travel with less impact?

Enter: Sharing

From a young age, I learned to share. I am the middle child in a family of seven kids. I’m used to hand-me-downs. I love thrift stores. Sharing underutilized goods just makes sense to me.

In the past few years, the Internet has fueled what has become known as the “sharing economy” (also called collaborative consumption). A whole marketplace is emerging for selling, trading, and swapping ideas, goods, and services. Now I don’t just have to share with my siblings, I can share with pretty much anyone. 

For me, it started with Craigslist. It was like the garage sale of the Internet, and I fell in love. We have so much extra stuff in America, why not sell our junk to someone who needs it? The sharing economy is a creative solution to American materialism, and I have become a huge fan.

In college, I began using other collaborative consumption services. I started sharing rides to save fuel, and couchsurfing instead of renting hotels when I traveled. I’ve had very positive experiences with these services. They’ve allowed me to meet great people, save money, and be less consumptive. These are services where everyone is self-motivated to participate, and everybody wins by using them.

So I thought, “Maybe I could share my way around the country!” I wondered if the sharing economy was a practical replacement for the normal economy. Could I see the United States in a cheaper, more sustainable way? Could I reduce my fuel consumption and eliminate my need for hotels through sharing? The Great American (Collaborative) Road Trip was born.  

Fits and Starts

My plan was to drive around the country in a way that took advantage of sharing unused or underused resources (see my list of services at the end of this post).

I decided to drive my Westfalia in case I had trouble finding lodging—it has a foldout bed, making it great for camping. The downside is that it also gets poor gas mileage (about 15 mpg), which meant that I would need to fill it with ridesharers to make it cost and resource effective. I planned to drive from Washington State across the northern U.S. to Maine. From there, I would cruise down the East Coast to Florida, then take the southern route back to California.

Ah, such youthful zeal! Unfortunately, my trip was doomed from the start—for several practical reasons that I am embarrassed to admit. I had bought my bus in the summer, but by the time it was “road ready,” it was mid-October, a less pleasant time to tinker with an aging vehicle. It had even started snowing in certain parts of the northern U.S.

With the weather getting colder, I needed to leave Seattle, which is where I was doing my pre-trip tune-up. I looked online for ridesharers, and found a guy named Andy who wanted to go all the way to Chicago. He was a great travel companion and very easy going. I found another guy who needed a ride about two hours outside of town. A former mechanic, he was able to give me some tips on my van. I figured two ridesharers was a good enough start, and we would find more along the way.

Well, I was wrong. The population gets sparse inland, and so do the options for ridesharing. Students make up a big portion of the ridesharing community, and since school had just started, they weren’t out traveling. We made it all the way to Montana without another rider. Although I was able to split gas with Andy, I had three open seats in the back that were going unused. This was not part of the plan.

Time Is of the Essence

Another reality I learned is that sharing takes time—and life on the road was hectic. Because I was trying to beat the weather, I was rushing things. Between figuring out directions, where to eat, fill up, etc., I had little time to get online to look for places to stay. And again, sparse populations meant fewer options. I was rarely sure of where I would be sleeping that night. Every day was quite an adventure!

I did stay with an amazing group of people who lived in a small, collaborative community of three families. Each family had their own place to sleep, but they shared one kitchen and living room. They made a point to call their community a village, not a commune, and they made a big impression on me. Basically, they were choosing to share life together, and it made things easier. The mothers took turns cooking dinners, so each had to cook only twice a week. And while they admitted to struggles, they loved their simple, collaborative lifestyle. After all, sharing life with others is what living is all about.

Although I loved my van, the poor gas mileage with only one rider was expensive and wasteful. Despite some good experiences, I was struggling to justify the trip. Taking part in sharing was proving to be difficult on the road, and I didn’t feel like I could to live up to the ideals I had established at the outset of my journey.

Then, finally, my van broke down in Bozeman, Montana. Within three days, I was able to get it running again, but the blistering cold was too much for me. My heater never did work, and without it my bus was a refrigerator on wheels. I decided it was best to head home.

As for Andy, he had friends in Bozeman who were headed to New Orleans, and he had already decided that he would like to go with them instead of Chicago. It worked out nicely.

Looking Back

My trip was short, but I learned a lot. For one, it’s important to understand that this trip was designed to take the sharing economy to its limits. It’s okay that I didn’t make it, and I’ll be the first to admit that it was mainly a fault of my own planning and execution, not the sharing economy itself.

Even so, is the sharing economy capable of handling the uncertainties of long-term life on the road? In my experience, no. Is it useful for well-planned short trips? Absolutely.

Sharing does take a little effort, and it’s important to be flexible. For most collaborative consumption websites, you have to create a profile and spend some time making it good. If you are ridesharing, you need to post information about your ride in advance so you can coordinate with others ahead of time. If you are renting out a room, it’s good to create a detailed description of it.

And you almost always have to email back and forth with whomever it is that you’re sharing with. Then there’s always the possibility that this person will back out, which is why it’s important to use websites that have good rating and review systems. It’s best to connect with others who have a thorough profile, positive reputation, and a proven sharing record.

The bottom line is that the sharing economy is still growing, so I would not suggest relying on it alone. The sharing economy consists of people from all walks of life, and this is part of what makes it fun. It requires both time and trust. But if you plan ahead, invest some time, and remain flexible, it will save you money, reduce resource use, and connect you with like-minded individuals. From a travel perspective, it’s an ideal approach for planning a weekend away about 1–2 weeks in advance.

Although my trip didn’t pan out as planned, I made great new friends while sharing the costs of living and traveling. My gas costs were halved by sharing the ride with Andy, and my lodging requirements were limited to extra bedrooms and campsites—no hotels needed. Not bad for a failed experiment.

As the sharing economy grows, sharing will only get better. I hope you consider being part of the journey.

Ryan Dwyer graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a minor in Philosophy. He is currently an intern with the Center for a New American Dream.


Collaborative Consumption Services That I Used:

There are thousands of companies in the sharing economy (see here and here for two extensive lists). The overabundant choice can be overwhelming, so my suggestion is to find a couple that work for you, and start with those first. Sharing is important, but so is keeping life simple.

Craigslist.org – The classifieds of the Internet age. Most people are familiar with craigslist, so I won’t go into great detail, but you can buy and sell used goods, rent out properties, advertise job postings, look for rideshares, and even find missed connections. It is a great way to share just about anything.

Zimride.com – Founded in 2007 by two college buddies, Zimride seeks to provide a social, sustainable, and cost-effective method of travel by connecting passengers and drivers who are traveling along the same route. In short, I think it is the best U.S. ridesharing network. Zimride started out in college networks and has expanded to the broader community. The website has a clean and simple design, making it easy to use. Sign in with your Facebook account for quick access and to prove that you are trustworthy/have friends/are not a psycho. The website suggests the price for trips and will even send you text messages when you have an offer to share a ride. The best part is that Zimride has lots of users (over 2,000 rides departing today), making it the most useful of the ridesharing sites I’ve used.

Airbnb.com – A community marketplace for unique spaces. Essentially, Airbnb allows you to rent or rent out an extra bedroom. Started in 2008, it has grown rapidly and is now in over 33,000 cities and 192 countries. The listings tend toward the unique and luxurious, but cheap and simple lodging can be found as well. The website is sleek and simple, which makes browsing for rentals easy and enjoyable. With over 300,000 listings worldwide, Airbnb has plenty of users to make it worthwhile. 

Couchsurfing.com – A community marketplace for couch crashing. People with an open couch host travelers looking for a free place to crash. The emphasis is on the cultural exchange, not the free couch. Couchsurfing is about meeting and interacting with interesting people. With over 5 million users in 97,000 cities and in every country, it is a truly global community. Although the website is clunky, slow, and hard to navigate, I have met many friends using this site.  Ultimately, you choose who you stay with or who stays with you, and there are many safety and review features to help you make an informed decision. I love the exchange philosophy of the website, and I think it is sharing at its finest.

Getaround.com – A community marketplace for carsharing. This website allows you to rent a car from someone else, or rent out your own car to make some money. They also have a program called “getaway” that allows you to leave your car with them for six months while you go on vacation. They manage the whole process of renting out your car, and you still make money. All rentals have complete insurance coverage, and they even install a gps tracking car kit. Although I wasn’t able to use the getaway feature during my trip, it seems to have a lot of potential. Relayrides.com is a very similar website offering the same services. They both have nice website designs, and they are growing in size every day.

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