Traveling the USA on a Budget Has Never Been Easier
Make Your Money Go Further So You Can See Everything on Your List
Since the value of the US Dollar is so high, most people assume that it must be very expensive to travel in the USA. That might be true if you expect to stay in four or five star hotels in a major city, but the majority of America is covered in small cities and little towns that are actually dirt-cheap for visitors and residents alike.
While it’s not as backpacker friendly here as it is in Europe or Asia, traveling the USA on a budget is still possible with adequate preparation and a little bit of creativity. So, if you’re about to embark on an American road trip and are looking for some tips on how to keep your costs down, read on to find out how to travel cheap in the USA.
Transportation on a Budget
Choosing transportation should always be relative to the distance you’re traveling, how long you want it to take, and whether or not you’ll be visiting multiple locations within a single destination. The cheapest modes of transportation within the US are generally those categorized as ground transportation.
If you’re only going to be traveling within a single state or to a destination that shares a border with the state you begin in, Megabus is hands down the cheapest way to travel. Unfortunately, their bus stations and routes are limited, but if they happen to travel where you need to go, book your ticket!
Megabus offers fares for as little as $1 USD one-way.
Your next best option would be to take your own car and drive. Obviously this only applies if you’re from the US or are visiting someone there who has access to a car.
Most average sized four-door sedans can travel about 300 miles on a full tank of gas. That will get you from Atlanta to Nashville or Los Angeles to Las Vegas on a budget.
Currently, gas prices average around $2.50 USD per gallon, but vary depending on what part of the country you’re in. To save on gas, use an app like GasBuddy, which will help you find the cheapest prices wherever you are.
If you’re not from the US and don’t have access to a car, renting can be relatively inexpensive if you do your homework. Economy and compact cars can be as little as $18 USD per day, especially if you keep the car for an entire week or more.
However, you’ll still be responsible for purchasing gas and any taxes and fees that are added on by the rental company.
For shorter distances within a single city, public transportation is always going to be the cheapest way to go about traveling the USA on a budget. Utilize the bus system, subways and any other local commuter services that are available.
While most American cities are a lot bigger and spread out than cities in other countries, it is also possible to walk in metropolitan areas like New York City, San Francisco and Chicago with kids.
If your destination of choice is located across the country, learning how to find the cheapest flights is always a valuable tool for saving precious dollars on those hefty plane tickets!
Aside from transportation, finding affordable accommodations are a common concern when traveling. While you can often use points racked up using travel rewards credit cards on accommodations, you might only be able to save enough for a few nights. Thankfully, there are a number of cheap and even free options in the US.
One of the first examples of the sharing economy, Couchsurfing.com allows people around the world to offer up their couch or other sleeping area to weary travelers passing through their city. Best for those looking to meet new people while also saving money, Couchsurfing is completely free (although cooking a meal or bringing your host a small gift is encouraged).
While campsites in the US are generally under $30 USD per night to use, in some areas they’re completely free. Most are contained in mountainous areas, forests and national parks and they often have a limit on the number of days you can stay.
Free sites also generally don’t offer facilities so you have to bring all of your own supplies and be prepared to rough it.
If you don’t mind donating some of your time in exchange for free accommodations (and free meals), volunteering on an organic farms, or WWOOFing, provides a unique opportunity while traveling the USA on a budget. You can grow vegetables, work with farm animals or even learn how to make cheese and wine.
While you will have a work schedule, there’s plenty of off time for sightseeing and the like.
Keeping with the sociable element, youth hostels are another great alternative that’s especially affordable if you’re traveling in a large group. Most hostels have dorm style rooms that are either co-ed or separated by sex and if you book early enough, you can reserve an entire room for your group.
Hostel rates vary, but dorm beds usually range from about $15 USD to $30 per person. They also come with the added benefit of a shared kitchen space, communal meals and recreational activities — including free guided tours and the use of sports equipment.
Of all the ways to figure how to travel cheap in the USA, food often becomes the one that most people slack on. However it’s easy to eat cheaply (and relatively healthy) while on the road.
Obviously, eating out every day, three times a day will add up quickly. Instead, stop at a grocery store or market before you hit the road and again when you start running out of staples.
Bring a cooler full of ice along if you’re taking a road trip and stock up on things like sandwiches, fruit, string cheese, beef jerky, nuts and plenty of water. Avoid buying things at convenience stores where they’ll charge you extra for the convenience of grabbing something on the go.
If you’re planning on camping or will have access to a kitchen along the way, buy a few things that can be cooked quickly and last for a few meals such as pasta, rice and beans, or chili.
Also, if you’re staying at a hostel, many shared kitchens have a free bin where past lodgers have left things for others to use. To avoid the temptation of eating out while you’re sightseeing, pack a lunch and some snacks before you head out for the day so you won’t be shelling out money every few hours.
If you have to buy a meal out, go somewhere you can get the most value for your money. Get big portions and save half for the next day to make your dollars stretch a bit.
Of course, there’s always fast food, but most of it’s not healthy and won’t keep you full for very long. Try to avoid eating lots of burgers and fries, even if they are on the dollar menu at McDonalds. Look for farmers’ markets on the weekends and roadside kiosks where they’re selling fresh produce.
Often you can get a lot of food for very little there and for cheaper than what you’d pay at a supermarket.
Other Ways to Keep Costs Down
Avoid tourist traps as they’re basically just money pits — especially if you have kids. Instead, do some research when you’re planning your route, or before arriving in a new city, and find out what kinds of free activities are available. For example, there are plenty of free points of interest in Chicago, despite the fact that it can otherwise be an expensive place to vacation.
If sightseeing is a must, opt for a CityPass or related discount card that’s sold for a flat rate.
Usually these cards include the most popular attractions and sometimes even come with a travel pass as well. If you’re planning on hitting up multiple national or state parks, you’ll also save a ton of money by buying an annual pass for $80 USD.
Having a pass will also save you on ATM fees when you realize you’re out of cash to pay the entrance fees. No matter what your budget, it is possible to have a fun memorable trip by traveling cheaply in the USA.