How To Make Your Dream USA Road Trip Happen On A Budget
Last year I spent three weeks driving from Tucson to New Orleans, through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever had the chance to visit. I saw the Grand Canyon, hiked through Arches and swam in the Rio Grande at Big Bend. Driving along Historic Route 66 with the windows down, this trip was straight out of my teenage daydreams. But it can also be eye-wateringly expensive to go on your dream USA road trip.
The only way to deal was to budget the heck out of every dollar. Breaking down my spending into broad categories of flights, transport, accommodation and activities, I was able to (mostly) stick to my budget of $50 per day (plus flights). Here’s what I learned.
#1 Plan way in advance
This is obvious but necessary advice for most of us who intend to be organised… And then suddenly it’s too late. Everything from flights to hostels and even museum tickets is likely to be cheaper the earlier you book.
Use Google Sheets or similar to share plans with your trip buddies and lock in who has bought what when, and do your research on the cheapest times to fly to your destination and book at least six weeks out. For accomodation and attractions, choose reservations that can be changed if something unexpected comes up.
Paying for these types of things upfront also staggers out your spending, meaning you’re less likely to find yourself blowing your budget on day five of your USA road trip. Planning the trip is half the fun anyway, right?
#2 Pick up a sweet rental deal (and your mates)
Did you know you can rent a camper van for $1 per day? Well, if you’re organised and lucky, you can, and the company may even throw in a petrol allowance. The catch is you have to drive it where the company needs the car, and within the allotted number of days.
Unsurprisingly, these relocation deals are in high demand, so aim to start your journey in a city that regularly offers a bunch of deals and be flexible and prepared to hit the road the next day. Apollo Campers is a good starting point, but there are heaps of other companies that you can ring and ask. It also goes without saying that the costs involved with a trip like this will be smaller if shared. Split petrol, snacks and camping fees with your best friends (or kind strangers) for best results.
#3 Pack a tent
The USA is famed for its extensive national park system, but for the budget traveller the parks can provide so much more than a pretty view. Consider purchasing an “America The Beautiful” Annual Pass (yes, it’s really called that), for $108 rather than racking up individual park fees which can be up to $40 per vehicle. Don’t be afraid to stop off in a beautiful spot on your USA road trip, pitch a tent and enjoy the views.
Many campgrounds are first come first served and charge between $15 and $25 per tent site. As well as saving on accomodation, you’ll be less tempted to splurge on food in the middle of nowhere, so make sure you pack snacks to keep you going.
#4 Live like a local
A hot summer tip: public pools. You can hang out with the locals and cool off after a big day of touristing all for a couple of bucks. This concept applies to all aspects of the trip, from cooking your own meals to going shopping at thrift stores and making your own fun.
The whole point of travel is to have an authentic experience of a new place, and that is actually made easier, not harder, by sticking to a budget. You might even discover the best Vietnamese takeaway in Texas or Colorado’s most beautiful public library.
#5 Visit underrated places
I hate to be the one to tell you, but stellar attractions like New York and Los Angeles are not your friend on a budget USA road trip. My best advice is to get out of Dodge, ASAP, and spend your time in up-and-coming destinations that will likely have a lower cost of living.
From tiny towns straight off a movie set to fast-growing cities like Memphis, Columbus and San Antonio, the USA is full of places to explore. Cheaper beer, cheaper entry to tourist attractions and friendly people await off the beaten track.
Read more about road trips here.
(Lead image: Dino Reichmuth / Unsplash)