We spent a bit more than a year in the United States, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. It was a scholarship opportunity which meant both some freedom for travel and a strict budget.
We really got the best out of this year in terms of travel, too! 13 states, 17 national parks, 30+ state parks, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Seattle, Miami, San Diego, Washington D.C. and who knows what else… 😀
Though the US is not a cheap country, but it’s not so expensive either as one would imagine. You have a lot of options, let’s put it that way. And you can find great options as a budget traveller, too.
We’d like to share with you how we managed to do all these travels on a budget.
Get a car and hit the road!
It’s definitely a country to be explored by car. It has the distances, the road system and we felt that everything is planned with the fact in mind that you will have a car anyway – so if you have, life is very easy and comfortable. Otherwise… rent a car. 😀
I’m not saying that this situation is good, but this is how it is. There’s one good aspect for sure: it’s the perfect country for road trips.
Travelling by car is cheap and easy
Any means of public transport is very limited and it barely exists outside of the biggest cities (and even there it’s very far from ideal especially if we compare it with European cities). But fear not, because exploring by car is not so expensive as you would imagine.
Gas is cheap – yeah, I know, we heard Americans complaining about gas prices, but after moving there from Europe we always had that ‘Oh, are you kidding?!’-feeling about this… can’t help it. Moreover most roads are toll free, usually only bridges are charged (and usually only in one direction).
Buy or rent?
Cars are cheap, too. I mean used cars, of course, but there’s a huge variety and it’s not so hard to find used cars which are in good condition. Just be sure to check it with a mechanic if you are not an expert yourself. 🙂
We would say if you plan to spend at least 5-6 months in the US, it’s worth buying a (used) car. We bought a 13 years old Saturn for 1 year and it became our faithful fellow in most of our adventures.
35000 miles, no problems, only some maintenance and all of the beautiful memories from California and the nearby states made it our perfect travel partner so it almost broke our heart to sell this beloved old thing before we left. 😀
For short-term renting a car is also not expensive if you are not too picky and book it in advance. Then ask for a free upgrade if you like or ask for discount after showing them a slightly better offer from another agency.
Get the National Parks Annual Pass
You can’t visit the US without visiting some of its world-famous (or not so world-famous, but still incredibly beautiful) national parks!
There’s entrance fee to all the national and state parks and other kind of managed recreation sites, but purchasing the ‘America the Beautiful Annual Pass’ could significantly reduce your costs if you visit more of them.
Entrance fee to a national park usually costs around 15-30 USD and you can get the annual pass for 80 USD. And this will give you and all of your passengers (of course, you have a car :D) free entrance to all the national parks for a whole year!
A slight clarification: free entrance is not only to national parks, but for any recreation areas managed by the participating 5 Federal agencies. Parking, park shuttle bus (if available) and a basic map is also included. But you can check all the most up to date details here!
The easiest and most comfortable way to purchase it is doing so at the entrance of the first national park you visit. It’s absolutely worth it if you visit 4-5 US national parks in the duration of one year – which you should absolutely do, because they are so wonderful!
We’ve been to 17 national parks with our annual pass and we are so looking forward to have another year like that in the future!
It’s good to keep in mind though that this annual pass doesn’t cover entrance fee for state parks. But the good news is that state park fees are cheaper than national park fees, they are usually around 3-10 USD.
We travelled on a budget, so we wanted to find budget accommodation. It could not have been easier!
Budget hotel chains
There’s several budget hotel chains in the US – some of what we tried are: Red Roof Inn, Super 8, Day’s Inn, Econolodge, America’s Best Value Inn, Travelodge, Comfort Inn, Rodeway Inn. Usually you can find rooms from 50 USD/night, but our best deal was 25 USD! We used Booking.com or Priceline to search for cheap rooms.
Though we have some favorite stays, honestly we haven’t noticed an overall difference between these hotel chains. They are all, well, budget: a clean room with a bed and a bathroom, usually free parking and wi-fi, sometimes free breakfast, too – but that was all we wanted.
Stay outside of the national parks
Another tip if you visit national parks: there are limited accommodation inside the national parks and they are usually very expensive and overbooked (even campsites in certain popular parks).
So most of the time we booked our accommodation outside of national parks which also meant driving there and back each day. Usually that 1 hour drive was still well worth it, but we had exceptions. Like Grand Canyon: start hiking at 6 am when the closest ‘outside of the park’ accommodation is in 2 hours drive was a good enough reason to book a lodge right by the trailhead.
Book in advance
Okay, this is true all over the world, not just in the US, but booking things in advance will really help you saving money. So book your airplane ticket, accommodation and car well in advance.
Budget inns have an advantage in these terms, too: in a lot of cases it’s free to cancel your booking until 1 or 2 days before your planned stay, so you don’t need to worry about booking in advance when not 100% sure about your plans yet.
Use cool free travel apps
MAPS.ME is a totally free offline worldwide map. It becomes very handy especially if you are out of urban areas and have no cell coverage to use Google Maps (Google Maps is on the list, of course, I don’t think I need to even mention that :D).
TripIt and TripCase can help you keeping your itinerary in one place: hotel, flight, car rental and all other booking details. It’s just convenient. We loved TripIt especially at the airport: it tells you which gate will be your boarding gate or that your flight time has changed.
Of course, there’s Uber, Waze and all the mobile apps for Kayak, TripAdvisor, Airbnb etc., but the above mentioned ones were what we thought are not so obvious and still we found them very useful.
It’s also a good idea to check out useful travel apps about the place you are about to visit (like New York Subway app or Yellowstone National Park Guide app).
Sooo… why not start planning like now? 😀
Would you add any budget tips to our list?
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