Everyone who has either taken a holiday to America or lived here for an extended period is aware of how expensive travel CAN be in the United States. And the question of “How to save money on a USA Holiday?” often enters many people’s minds.
And as someone who has seen most of the country (everywhere but the Pacific Northwest and Alaska), the differences in prices on identical goods continue to amaze me.
For example, I know the cheapest place to buy gasoline is in the south and Midwest, unprepared groceries are not taxed in the Northeast and *almost everything costs more in California. (And if you think California is expensive, then you should visit Hawaii…)
Throughout my travels, I have had to learn a lot, fast. But one of the biggest things I had to learn was how to save as much money as possible in the U.S. So, here are some tips to save money while traveling throughout the states!
If visiting big cities
Don’t avoid the big cities… but find the cheaper ones!
Alright, no holiday to the United States would be complete without visiting New York City, San Francisco, or Chicago.
And I completely understand the predicament, as who doesn’t want to visit the Bean in Chicago? How about the Golden Gate Bridge? Or the Statue of Liberty in NYC?!!!
But…. cities in the United States are extremely expensive to visit. New York and San Francisco are consistently ranked as two of the most expensive cities in the world, joining other stalwarts like London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.
In fact, I would advise solo travelers to budget at least $200 per day if you plan on visiting either NYC or San Fran. Yes, it’s that expensive!!
A cheaper city I HIGHLY recommend visiting is the city of New Orleans!
I actually traveled to New Orleans for a spring break trip during college, and I found it to be the perfect place for a broke college student.
The lodging options are quite reasonable, and there is a pretty good public transit system! The most expensive part of any trip to New Orleans will be food, but it was worth every penny!
If you are in the larger cities, use public transit!
I am not a health expert and do not claim to be one.
I learned a lot about public health crises by living through the COVID-19 pandemic, and I recognize some people will continue to be hesitant to use public transit. If that’s you, I completely understand.
However, public transit will save you money. A 7-day, unlimited subway pass in NYC is around $33. That is the cost of 2 very short Uber rides!
(Now, if we could make sure our public transit options are powered by green energy that would be great!)
Everyone has thought about road tripping around the United States, whether it be Route 66 or Highway 1. Road tripping is iconic, it’s freeing, and it’s firmly ingrained in American culture.
(That may sound weird, but it’s true. I HATE DRIVING. I think it is an absolute waste of time, and I feel like I should be doing something productive as I drive…. Like working on this blog!)
But I still want to undergo an extremely long road trip visiting the national parks in the American Southwest and the West Coast!
What makes road-tripping invaluable for budget-friendly travel in the United States?
It all comes down to transportation costs. Air travel is quicker! But it often severely restricts your options. There are luggage requirements, liquid requirements, and general expenses like overpriced food! And when you arrive at your location, you might have to rent a car, use public transit, or rely solely on Uber.
However, road-tripping lets you see what you want, when you want it, and the only luggage fee is whatever you can fit in your vehicle!
Pro-Tip: The more people on the road trip, the cheaper it becomes! As each person will reduce the cost of your USA Holiday if split equally!
One other note about road trips: Car insurance is required for all drivers in the United States. You can buy it from the same place you rent your car.
Other forms of Transportation
Although I wrote extensively about road tripping above and here, there are two other forms of transportation I recommend.
To be honest, the United States rail system is far less elaborate than other countries, but we do have some options!
If you decide on rail, you will quickly read about Amtrak, which is a quasi-U.S. Government organization. I’ve ridden on it a few times (alone), and I don’t have any major complaints other than the odd pick-up times. (Like at 2AM)
As for bus travel, it is limited too. But you won’t need vehicle insurance or have to drive! It is a great alternative for solo travelers if they have a few days and don’t want to drive between major cities.
(My longest trip on a bus in the United States was 24 hours.)
One cool thing about train and bus travel is there will be the occasional stop for transfers. So, you will have the chance to explore a new city that you normally wouldn’t!
About Flying in the United States
I suppose I should tell you about flying in the United States.
U.S. domestic airfare quickly becomes expensive, as your luggage is restricted by weight and size.
The weight limit for checked-baggage is 50 pounds (22 kg), and weight-overage fees are always above $100 per bag. Also, most domestic flights have an additional fee if you pack a checked bag!
Carry-on luggage is restricted via size too! The sizes vary via company, but most times the limits are 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 centimeters x 35 centimeters x 56 centimeters). Plus, some budget-travel options don’t allow you to bring more than a personal item. i.e. purse or backpack! (Frontier Airlines comes to mind.)
The United States’ TSA has strict rules about liquids. You can pack any item above 3-ounces in your checked luggage, but you cannot in your carry-on item. Also, any liquids must be in a clear, plastic bag. #thanksTSA
One way to save money while traveling: Despite the TSA’s liquids rule, you are allowed to bring an empty water bottle. Then, you can fill it up at a water fountain after you pass through TSA security.
In conclusion, I understand that there is occasionally the need or desire to travel via airline. However, just be cautious about those extra variables.
Hotel rooms in the U.S. can significantly raise the cost of your holiday, as they are extremely expensive! (Usually $100 per night!!)
And then you must pay state taxes, city ordinance taxes, and lodging taxes!!! So, what are the advantages of staying in a hotel?
- Privacy and security
- Breakfast (Usually a small, continental breakfast.)
- Swimming pool
It depends on the person, but for budget travelers, the cons far outweigh the pros. (And there is always a lake/pond/ocean nearby that you can swim in!!!!)
However, if you insist on staying in a hotel, I recommend signing up for rewards programs ASAP! You are spending the money, so you might as well be rewarded!
Hostels are limited in the United States, but we do have Airbnb!
From rural to urban areas, there is always one!
So, what is the average cost of an Airbnb? I have never spent more than $50 per night, but I try to book a few weeks out.
Camping (for truly budget travel) is another great option (especially if you love nature.)
The United States is filled with a lot of free campgrounds, so take advantage of them! However, it’s extremely important to plan as most free campgrounds lack amenities i.e. toilet, potable water.
A great website to check out is https://freecampsites.net/. And another reliable source is the U.S. National Forest website! In fact, camping at specific locations in U.S. National Forests and Grasslands is often free!
If you can, avoid eating at restaurants as much as possible!
Part of a travel experience is eating awesome food, but this is not always doable while trying to follow a budget in the United States.
Restaurants are expensive, and the cost of a meal can be cut in half (or more!) if you decide to cook your own food! And do you remember my push for Airbnbs? Well, most Airbnbs give you access to a kitchen! Just another reason to stay in an Airbnb and avoid expensive hotels!
Of course, you occasionally can eat at restaurants. And I highly encourage you to support local businesses as you try our various food scenes!
Ultimately, this is one area of your budget that should have flexibility for your holiday in the U.S.A. At the end of the day, you have to what is best for you.
A note on fast food: (Some) Americans love it. Others (me) absolutely hate it. The U.S. is filled with fast food options, but they are quickly losing their value with their ever-increasing prices and reduced portions.
I just suggest avoiding all fast food restaurants, as the quality isn’t worth the price. However, some great fast-casual restaurants have a lower price than fast-food chains!
So, where do I recommend you go grocery shopping?
I love small businesses, and I recognize the vital contributions they provide to the communities in which they are located.
However, because of when and how I grew up, shopping at a small business was limited (even more so after the COVID-19 pandemic) And for budget travel, the best option for grocery shopping will be Walmart.
Walmart *usually has the cheapest prices in the grocery departments, and they have a wide enough selection to please everyone. This is also a place where you can purchase toiletries, cell phone chargers, and actual cell phone plans
A note about coffee shops in the United States
Coffee shops are great places to work (especially for a travel blogger!) as they often have free Wi-Fi, good company, and coffee. However, there is a difference between working at a coffee shop and then getting coffee for the road. With the average price around $5, the daily costs can quickly add up!
General America Travel Advice
You should avoid buying souvenirs in the touristy areas.
Everyone “claims” to know they shouldn’t buy souvenirs at the tourist hotspots, but why do these places still exist????
It may be that T-shirt stand across from Jackson Square in New Orleans or the gift shop in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, but items are usually cheaper if you avoid these places
For example: Did you know that Walmart in Orlando, Florida (Disney World) also sells souvenir t-shirts? Neither did I!
The same thing I said about souvenirs can be repeated for food. If you can’t bring your own food to your destination, then travel a few blocks from the main tourist area!
The restaurant may be locally owned and taste better!
Do the free things….
Okay, this one may seem obvious.
The United States sorely lacks great budget travel activities, but we do occasionally have free stuff (usually involving nature!!!)
City parks are typically free to visit, and it will just take a little bit of time to research.
I would check the local government’s Facebook page to see what they are offering! Who knows, you may find out there is going to be a free movie in the park!!!
The National Park Pass aka The America the Beautiful Pass
This isn’t free, but it could end up saving you a lot of money!
I am a huge proponent of purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass, and it’s a worthwhile investment if you plan on visiting at least 5 U.S. National Parks within a year. (The average entrance fee of a U.S. National Park is $20. The America the Beautiful Pass is less than $100.)
Plus, this allows you to enter other national landmarks and wildlife refuges for free! You can purchase your America the Beautiful Pass when you arrive at your first national park!
Avoid convenience stores
QuikTrip, 7-11, Wawa, Chevron, Caseys. Everyone has their favorite convenience store in the United States, and we are quite opinionated about it.
(For me, it’s QuikTrip. I’ve been to their headquarters in Tulsa and have talked to various employees in the company.)
But… food and drink items are way more expensive in a convenience store than anywhere else. Why? Convenience stores provide “convenience,” and in doing so they can raise their margins from 20-50% per item!
Instead, I recommend stopping at a grocery store if you want a few snack items (maybe when you are purchasing your groceries??) Plus, many grocery stores have begun to place gas pumps in their parking lot!
Always asking about discounts is another way to save money.
You will be surprised by the large number of stores that offer discounts in the United States. Students, teachers, first responders, and senior citizens are the usual recipients, but it never hurts to ask. Right?
We have an app for that: If you are spending a long time in the United States, it might be worthwhile to download various phone apps. Some common ones include Groupon and RetailMeNot.
Another website or social media page you should check out are the local businesses you are staying near!
Social media and the internet have changed the way companies operate.
And most have begun placing various coupons and discounts on their website or social media! It doesn’t take anything more than a quick Google search, and almost everyone has a phone that can access the internet.
My final piece of advice is to travel in groups!
The best (and cheapest) way to holiday in the U.S.A. is with your friends! Why? You split the cost for each additional person!
Let’s say you and four friends decide to rent a vehicle. If gasoline is $4 per gallon, your vehicle is averaging 25 miles per gallon, and you decide to drive 1,000 miles, then gasoline will be $160. But! You have 4 friends to split that cost with, so the total per person is only $40!
This is cheaper than a bus pass and you have the flexibility of your own vehicle!
Please Note: These estimates are extremely conservative. At the time of writing this, the average cost of gas was $3 per gallon, and most vehicles get around 30 miles per gallon!
Well, those are just some of my tips to help save money while taking a holiday in the United States?
What tips do you recommend to save money while traveling through the United States? Let me know down in the comments below to help out other fellow travelers!