Trip of a lifetime: Get FREE food, gas and lodging the Joe Nelson way

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Joe Nelson birthday trek
Image Credit: Joe Nelson
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In the world according to Joe Nelson, a birthday should be about a gift you give to the world — and not the other way around.

Since 2011, Joe has perfected the art of racking up hundreds and hundreds of free meals and free clothing on his birthday.

He’s the kind of guy who has been known to gather nearly $600 worth of freebies on and around his birthday…and then giving much of it away.

Each time Joe gets a free dinner or dessert or some gratis threads, he pays it forward by giving it to homeless people. This is a man who has literally helped scores of those who need it most!

Joe has freely shared his freebie-getting strategy with Clark.com readers in the past and left his mark on others in the process.

Notably, he inspired one man to spend his own birthday collecting 13,000 hygiene products, 35,000 disposable utensils, 576 rolls of toilet paper and 270 pounds of food.

In the true spirit of Joe Nelson, that particular freebie haul went to local food banks and homeless shelters, too.

RELATED: Joe Nelson’s 3 steps to maximizing free birthday food

Joe Nelson ups the ante this year

So, we’ve already established that we’re dealing with a guy who basically gets paid to celebrate his birthday!

But for his 42nd birthday this year, Joe wanted to up the ante.

This year, the goal of his Birthday Trek 2017 was to make a cross-country length trip from Atlanta to Minnesota, then from Minnesota down to Texas and back to Atlanta again — and to do it all without paying a dime.

That’s 3,600 miles of travel for free, with free food coming courtesy of birthday coupons along the way, of course!

The only prerequisite for this kind of trip is that you must have your own transportation. In Joe’s case, his ride is an old Toyota Corolla.

Get the money by donating what you already have

So what’s the real key to funding a trip that’s this epic, you may ask?

Two words: Plasma donations!

In the past, we’ve told you how thousands of Americans in desperate need of extra money to pay their bills line up every day across the country to donate plasma for cash.

For the past few months, Joe has been doing this and was able to collect almost $600 by donating twice a week. With that money in hand, he was off.

“It costs about $100 in gas in a Toyota Corolla to drive from Atlanta to Minneapolis. That’s going through Indiana and Chicago,” Joe says. “It’s not the most direct route, but I stopped by to see friends along the way, too.”

Joe used his GasBuddy app to find the lowest gas prices along the way.

On the first night driving, he didn’t even make it to Nashville. Joe ended sleeping in the cheapest hotel he could find when he got tired of driving. He paid for the hotel with the plasma donation money.

“The beds were great. I put down towels and wore socks the entire time because the carpets were nasty, though. I didn’t see any bed bugs, so I consider that a win!”

Joe initially planned to further subsidize his trip by being a Lyft driver. He picked up one $9 fare out of Atlanta with Lyft, but didn’t get any more riders in Nashville, Louisville or Indianapolis. By the time he got to Chicago, he’d given up on the idea of Lyfting altogether.

Birthday time! Bust out the freebie coupons

“I also timed this [trip] to land around my birthday, and you know what that means — lots of free food along the way, too!” Joe enthuses.

Joe Nelson free food

“Gas is covered. Food is completely free. And I [stayed at] a friend’s house and a hotel. I’m also staying with my parents and a friend in Minnesota, so that is free for me.”

In the past, when Joe redeemed his free birthday meal coupons, it was simple to track of everything because he was going from restaurant to restaurant in a tight geographic area.

But traveling so far afield this year presented a challenge. So Joe had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

The spreadsheet he used (see below) listed restaurant names, expiration dates on the free birthday coupons and when he expected to be near that particular eatery to redeem the offer.

By doing this, no free meal coupons went to waste!

The real payoff…

Joe’s story is about one man doing something a little kooky and fun on a lark to save money. But he says the real payoff would be if a family approached travel planning the way he did.

“Imagine a family of four planning a trip for two months in advance. If they donate plasma two times a week at $70 a person — that’s $20 for the first time each week and $50 for the second donation of the week —  a family of four will make $280.”

“At $280 a week for eight weeks, that’s $2,240 to use towards gas, lodging, tips and souvenirs.”

There is one caveat Joe offers for families who may to try his approach: Everyone must weigh 110 pounds or more in order to donate plasma.

“Little kids can’t get you your vacation money,” he jokes.

True to his generous nature, Joe also spontaneously decided during his cross-country trip to raise money for a 9-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with two germinoma brain tumors in 2015.

She’s cancer-free now, but her family is struggling mightily with medical bills.

If you’re interested in this little girl’s story and helping Joe reach his goal of collecting $1,900 more to help her family, just see Joe’s Birthday Trek 2017 blog.

RELATED: Best birthday ever — raising $1,350 for charity by crowdfunding

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Theo Thimou About the author:
Theo is director of content for clark.com. He has co-written 2 books with Clark Howard, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Clark Howard's Living Large in Lean Times.
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