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I’m a huge fan of traveling on a budget. My home country of the United States isn’t necessarily a cheap place to travel. As someone who spent her formative years in the United States as a broke student, I have some solid tips on how to do budget travel in America.
Your experience traveling around the USA on a budget without a car might be very different than the dreamy American road trips you read elsewhere, but I hope that you’ll be able to have a great cheap trip to the United States. I cover how to travel in the United with a car and without a car here as well as tips for finding cheap food and accommodation in the United States.
What’s in this article about budget travel in America
- How to travel around the US on a budget with a car
- How to travel around the US on a budget without a car
- Where to stay on a budget in the United States
- Where to eat in the US on a budget
How to travel around the US on a budget with a car
It’s so much easier traveling around the United States on a budget with a car. I’ll admit that renting or buying a car in the US isn’t always cheap, however you’ll save a lot once you have one as you’ll get access to cheaper restaurants and hotels that are driving distance away from your destination.
I strongly recommend having good insurance as one broken down car can cost you a lot. If you have a car, it’s much easier to get around the United States although it tends to be cheaper if you’re traveling with at least one other person. It can be cheaper to buy a car in the US, but I’ve heard the process is very hard for foreigners who are only visiting.
Stay outside of the city center and avoid paying for parking
If you stay in the city center, you might need to pay for parking. Generally, if you stay in the suburbs of a city, you’ll find free parking as well as lower rates for hotels.
America’s cities tend to have a lot of urban sprawl, so even a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city still might have a lot to offer without the expensive restaurants and parking problems of the city centers. (More about this at the bottom!)
More generally, I recommend staying in smaller towns or rural areas rather than big cities. The prices of hotels and accommodation tend to be a lot lower in rural areas (up to 50% lower!), which will help you stay on budget in America.
Avoid toll roads
It depends on the state, but some states, including Pennsylvania and New York, charge you to drive on certain roads. The other way is often more scenic and cheaper as you won’t end up with a nasty surprise at the end. In some situations, you must pay as it’s impossible to leave New York City by car without paying a toll.
I really love country roads as you pass by so many adorable shops, American kitsch, and beautiful places to stop off. I’m a huge fan of Roadside America, a guide to weird things in America along driving routes. We found this giant two-story coffee pot in Bedford, Pennsylvania thanks to Roadside America!
You need have good car insurance covering your car as car repairs can add up quickly and stuff happens. Generally your car insurance covers you in the case that something occurs (e.g. an accident), but if you have a flat in the middle of nowhere, you’ll need to call a tow truck to get it to the nearest shop where it can be fixed using your insurance (who hopefully covers the damage). You’ll probably end up paying out of pocket for the towing service.
This is why I recommend AAA. One single tow will make your money back. An AAA membership costs only $129 per year (2018) for a premium membership. (If you’re taking a shorter trip or going to less rural areas, a basic membership is only $52.) A single tow can cost you in the hundreds if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Depending on your car and how rural the area is, you might need to be towed quite a distance.
A single tow can cost you in the hundreds if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Depending on your car and how rural the area is, you might need to be towed quite a distance.
Similarly, AAA will send someone if you have a flat tire, lock yourself out of your car, you run out of gas, or your battery dies depending on your membership level. With the premium membership, you get four 100 mile tows as well as one 200 mile tow.
Jacob and I swear by this service after many trips where we had to call triple AAA after the car broke down. Once, none of the car shops near our breakdown had parts to match our car, so we had to drive over 150 miles in the tow truck to the nearest shop that did. Luckily, the tow truck brought us closer to our destination, so we saved a little money on gas.
Saving money on gas
There are a number of apps to help you save money on gas. My favorite money saving app for traveling on a budget by car is GasBuddy (Google Play / Apple Store). Gasbuddy checks the gas prices in the area, so you can find the cheapest prices for gas as gas prices can differ considerably from gas station to gas station. I can’t count the hours that I’ve saved by having this app.
How to travel around the US on a budget without a car
Although people assume that renting or buying a car in the United States is inherently cheaper, it is certainly easier. That said, most car rentals in the United States have a lot of hidden costs, so you might find that it’s cheaper to travel around the United States on a budget without a car if you’re only visiting major cities.
Cheap flights in the United States
The United States is a huge country. You can’t quickly get in between places. If you’re on a budget, the flights as well as the baggage fees can add up quickly. That said, if you’re visiting the United States for the first time and plan to hop around the major cities, flights are your best bet. Just check the reputation of your airlines head. My favorite airlines are Southwestern and Jetblue.
Be mindful that many American airports don’t always have the best connections with the city center, so you must also account for the cost of getting to the airport. Expect to double that cost if you need to be there for an early flight without a car. If you do not have an early flight, be careful about getting flights before 9am as you will need to get to the airport and public transit can make that difficult.
I generally recommend minimizing flying between close cities as you tend to lose a lot of time on travel days. Amtrak as well as buses often will be faster once you take into account getting to the airport 2-3 hours early and getting to/from the airport.
Amtrak is one of the best ways to see the US on a budget if you’re traveling along the East Coast. If you book Amtrak in advance, you can find cheaper tickets for traveling around the US on a budget. The thing about Amtrak is that it’s generally much nicer than long distance buses, so you’re really paying for the comfort. I strongly recommend considering the Amtrak between New York and DC as the traffic can be terrible.
It’s good to note that Amtrak stations tend to be in the city centers of different cities, which will save you money on transportation to/from the airport. If you’re doing mostly city sightseeing on the East Coast, I really think Amtrak is a great way to see America on a budget!
One note of caution is that American downtown city centers are not universally great areas and often, the nicest parts of American cities are outside of the downtown area. Avoid taking late night trains if you’re not sure about the city that you’ll be visiting or you have a sizable walk to the train station late at night. (I personally learned this lesson in Buffalo.)
One of the cheapest ways to get around the United States on a budget is with the buses. I can’t say that bus travel in the United States is glamorous, however it will get you 70% of the way between point A and point B.
The rest of the way? You might need to take a cab or Uber if there’s not good public transit. If you’re traveling last minute, bus travel is not always the cheapest way to travel around the US, so definitely see if you can get a car.
I’ve traveled around the US a lot by bus taking Greyhounds and Megabuses. They’re often helpful if you’re staying in the city center and the city has good public transit. It’s a doable way to travel around the US although you often miss out on things that aren’t in the city center as it’s often harder to get around. Click for tips on taking buses in the United States.
Public transportation in the United States
Not all cities in the United States are created equal. I grew up in New York City, which has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, the New York City subway, however I’ve traveled in a lot of American cities with terrible public transit (cough Houston). It’s possible to get around, but you need to be careful about finding the bus schedule ahead and being on time.
Bad public transportation can really limit you, so check public transportation in the cities you’re visiting ahead to figure out where you should stay to minimize inconveniences related to not having a car in the US. You might pay slightly more for a motel or Airbnb in the city center, but it will be easier to have a cheaper trip in the United States by cutting out a car. Click for tips for traveling in the United States without a car.
Where to stay on a budget in the United States
The United States is a bit different than other places as motels are often your cheapest option although Airbnb or VRBO can be good options as well. Hostels are still relatively new and they’re popping up, but still not that common.
Increasingly, I’ve found that Airbnb and VRBO are the most affordable accommodation options in the United States as you often can rent just a room if you’re on a tight budget or an entire apartment/house with a kitchen.
I was recently outside of Houston where friends of mine rented a spacious vacation house. It was perfect as all the couples had their own bedroom, we could all hang out in the living room, and we had a refrigerator. (We also had a kitchen, but didn’t cook!) Being able to cook will save you a lot of money, especially for families.
If you’re open to something different, Couchsurfing has a robust network across the United States and finding a host in a non-major city shouldn’t be too difficult if you have references.
Generally as a student, I stayed at motels that I’d split with friends. In Europe, we call them 1* hotels, but I don’t think that there’s really anything that’s equivalent to American motel culture. In trying to save money, I’ve stayed at some dodgy motels although they ended up being fine. (No bed bugs!) Booking in advance is the best way to save money on American hotels.
If you’re on a budget and open to something different while road tripping across the US, it’s often legal to camp for free in National Forests (check ahead) as well as state parks. You’ll need to do your research ahead, however a free camping site can save you a lot of money.
It’s also legal to park at many Walmarts across America overnight although you need to check the rules for each Walmart. With a bit of research, you’ll also find farms and other private property sites that allow you to camp.
Where to eat in the US on a budget
This varies a lot from place to place, but generally cooking will save you the most money as American grocery stores generally aren’t so expensive. Even if you can’t cook, be sure to stock up on snacks, which will help you save money when you’re feeling a bit hungry.
Remember that you typically get unlimited refills on your drinks if you’re at a restaurant or fast food restaurant, which helps a lot with budget travel in the US. (Woohoo!) Also…happy hour and dive bars are your friends if you’re planning to drink.
It’s often good to research what’s the popular food near you. For instance, in Kentucky, you’ll want to eat bar-b-que. In New York City, you’ll want to eat bagels and pizza. In Texas and California, it’s Tex-Mex. Simply, figure out what food is cheap where you’re going. Remember that American portions tend to be bigger, so you can order first–and decide later if you need more. 😉
My go-to source for cheap food in America is Yelp. I filter by $ and I often need to take out cash as the best places are often hole-in-the-wall places that don’t always take credit cards. Don’t judge the place by its exterior as some of the best food I’ve had has been in an ugly strip mall at a little shop that seemed sketchy.
If you’re on a tight budget, the chain restaurants often have a lot to offer. After all, this is America. I can’t fully endorse some chains, but I often go for a $5 footlong Subway sandwich when my budget is tight. (They rotate the sandwich specials daily.)
Similarly, Dairy Queen has great lunch $5 specials that are sure to fill you up. (There are some chains that I just can’t stomach eating, such as Taco Bell, Arby’s, and Jack in the Box.) In the south, I can recommend Chick-fil-a for their delicious chicken sandwiches and fries. I also love In-N-out burger (no shame!) and What-a-burger in Texas.