Traveling in the United States can be very expensive and you might end up changing your plan when you run out of your budget. Well, I can tell you it’s not gonna be cheap for sure but if you’re smart enough and you don’t mind putting yourself out of your comfort zone, you can do it for a very reasonable cost.
We’ve done our US road trip recently. Before/during the trip we wanted to find out the best saving tips and share all the ideas with other fellow travelers out there!
So you wonder, how much would it cost to travel across America? Here is our cost:
CAR RENTAL – $950 (we did not reach the monthly discount)
GAS – $750
CAMPING – $350
FOOD – $550 (we cooked a lot)
FEES (parking & entrances) – $200
OTHER (camping gear, car gear, etc.) – $250
TOTAL: $3050 (2 people)
TOTAL per PERSON: $1525
DAILY TOTAL: $60/person
**NOTE: these prices apply to our costs in 2015, so the prices now can differ.
Renting a car in the United States
IMPORTANT NOTE:Before we start, I have to point this out!!! Make sure you bring your credit/debit card with a sufficient amount of funds! You might be able to pay cash for your rental but for security (deposit) reasons they always require valid credit/debit card!
Some of the rental companies don’t accept debit cards, so I strongly suggest checking it out before you make a reservation!
Getting a car trough rental company is usually very expensive, especially when you’re buying full insurance, returning back in a different location or under age of 25. That’s why you should definitely look for some websites with discount offers.
a. Car Rental – Discount Websites
NOTE: This is not a 100% option according to online ratings / but worth to risk!
You can easily find rental websites that compare the prices for you and when you book your car through them, you can get pretty cool discounts and save up to 200 – 500 USD. Usually, you’ll get booking only with basic insurance and the total cost can be much higher (but you can ensure the car with cheaper insurance companies).
b. USAA.com – discount (Social Security N. Required)
HOT Tip – Register on USAA, a website for military members and their families where you can get discounts without ever being somehow involved, not even being US citizen.
Example: You can rent an intermediate car/month/ approx. 600 USD
While registering you’ll need basic info, social security number and for the question about military members be honest you answer “none”. This will allow you to avoid paying fees for additional driver, under 25 years and it gives you also a discount of the total rental price. After you’re done with registration go for “car rental discounts” and from there you can choose from 4 different rental companies (for example Hertz). When you get there have this document https://images.hertz.com/pdfs/USAA_FAQ.pdf ready, in case they will try to charge some extra fees.
NOTE: Obtaining a social security number might be a problem for noncitizens! You need to have a work permit (work visa) in USA. Find more information here.
Car Insurance – if possible avoid the rental company
Rental companies charge very high prices for full insurance which you can avoid by ensuring your car by an external company, for example, insuremyrentalcar.com.
For example, You pay only 30USD for a period of a maximum of 1 month!
Make sure you check out policies of your rental car provider! You might not be able to rent by an external company.
Rental Summary / Other Rental Fees
So let’s see what fees you should keep in mind if you would like to estimate your price for rental:
Car Rental Price – final price of the vehicle.
Damage Waiver – Insurance of rented vehicle / this is obligatory!
Liability Protection – Insurance of other vehicles and people injured in an accident caused by you. Make sure that bodily injury liability is also included. Check out your travel insurance, it might be included (cheaper).
Personal Accident Insurance – Insurance of you and people in the car. Should be part of your travel insurance.
Side Road Assistance – You can choose to add this to your insurance. It covers all expenses of assistance, such as, flat tire, lookout, towing, fuel delivery, winching service, etc.
Young Drive Fee (21-24) – If you have a chance, rent car on somebody who is at least 25 years old. Fee can vary from 10 – 25 USD per day.
Additional Driver Fee – an additional driver can cost you 10 – 25 USD per day. Insurance doesn’t cover for the driver who’s not added on the contract.
Airport Rental Fee – some companies charge if you rent straight from the airport. Try to avoid that!
Different Location Return Fee – almost every company charges you returning fee. They are some exceptions between some locations, such as LA – Las Vegas.
GET 25USD discount on your first rental with our link
This popular concept of Airbnb is now available for cars as well! On websites like getaround.com and turo.com, you can rent car for your road trip from people (owners). It’s definitely more affordable and more attractive when it comes to the choice. Imagine, road trippin’ in Mini Cooper, BMW, or Tesla car? Yes! Option are pretty creative and unique.
Buying a car
Buying a car is can be a very economical option when you’re good in the industry and you can recognize what’s a good deal or not. Buying a used car involves risks, such as repairs, scams but on the other side, you might make money out of it. If you buy cheaper than you sell, you’re the winner! One of the best websites for this purpose is craigslist.com.
Getting a car involves some necessary paperwork that can take quite some time! Read more details about this topic on tripadvisor.
Travel in group/rideshare
This is pretty straight forward! Best way is to split most of the expenses when you travel in a group of (2-4). If you can’t find anybody, don’t worry there are websites where you can find other fellow solo travelers who you can share ride with. Check out couchsurfing.com, ridester.com or carpoolworld.com.
Gas – Look for cheaper stations
When road tripping in the US, you will do thousands of kilometers and you might end up spending 600 USD just on the gas! We did 8000 kms, for example. We noticed quite big differences between the prices in states. There might be a 1$ / per gallon just within the state and $2 differences between different states.
We recommend planning your trip according to gas price map which is very detailed and helpful. You can also get an app for your smartphone!
TIP: some of the gas stations give a better price for gas when you pay by CASH, it’s very individual and again, depends on the state! But I definitely saw it in California. Watch out for the signs on price stands in front.
Parking – Look for FREE parking
Parking in national parks is usually included in the entrance fee or in some small cities is for FREE but in bigger cities, it can be more complicated and much more expensive.
Here are a few tips:
Wallmart is in most cases free + WIFI. Note that not every single Wallmart parking lot allows you to park, so it might be illegal! Check out parking locator where you can find the exact information about this topic.
Residential areas are for FREE (sometimes depending on hours)
Overnight RV / camping parking (affordable)
WATCH OUT FOR NO PARKING SIGN!
Navigation – Use your smartphone
Don’t pay for GPS! Get free apps into your smartphone or buy a map for 6 bucks (like we did).
You can also get GPS in the shop with a good returning policy! For example in Wallmart, where you can buy your navigation, use it for few weeks and then return it! See point 6. of this article for more information.
Have your “paper map backup” ready as well! Some of the remote places in USA won’t have any signal coverage and you might end up lost in the middle of nowhere!
Toll roads – Check the list
Some of the toll roads can surprise in unexpected locations and prices might also very high. Make sure you always carry some cash in your car to avoid any fines! Check out this full list of toll roads in the USA.
AAA is another interesting website that can be very useful in North America! It’s American Automobile Association which has over 50 million members. It’s a non-profit organization offering road services to their members in all over the United States and Canada.
If you visit their office they can provide you with FREE maps, guidebooks or routing maps. You can also take advantage of great discounts for accommodation, food and road assistance.
Get some inexpensive car gear
Build caravan by yourself!
If you’re from the US or you’re planning to stay longer, there are options for building your own caravan from the van! You can get cheap/good/spacious vans in the USA quite easily.
Vandogtraveller sells an amazing ebook (276 pages) on his website for only 10 bucks which guides you through the whole process of conversion. His story is really cool, check out his website vandogtraveller.com.
GET Some Useful Travel Gadgets
You would be surprised how helpful could be simple travel gadgets for backpacking when it comes to road-tripping.
Here is the full list of our best travel gadgets but let me point out some of my favorite which you will definitely appreciate on your road trip:
Campsites in the United States are usually in great condition and come with BBQ grill, fire pits, showers, restrooms, wifi access, etc. Price is depending on location, season and facilities.
FREE camping sites you can find on freecampsites.net or you can camp basically anywhere in “National Forest”. BLM sites are also sometimes for FREE.
Paid camping sites have usually more facilities and they are much more affordable than motels. (Costs is between 10 USD – 40 USD). Most of the campsites are in google maps and you can find reviews or the official website.
Camp in mygarden is another cool site where you can find camp spots in people’s backyard for only a couple of bucks. Check out here. These options can be actually pretty fancy and friendly experience since some of the people have really nice gardens.
Stay in cheap motels
Motels are almost on every corner in the US. They are not a very economical option but it’s definitely not expensive when you travel in a group of 4 people.
Tip: If you travel in a group of 2.. you can go and say that room is for one person only, then you end up paying less, and of course more people can stay.
Tip: if there is options to collect hotel points, definitely go for it. It can save you money as well, just apply for a hotel credit card. You can get straight away 70,000 points when you sign-up and those can cover a couple of nights for you.
USE CODE “VVINCEJ” to get your 25USD discount (minimum spent 150USD)
Hotel Tonight is a pretty neat app that helps you save loads of money on accommodation in big cities like Miami, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.
The way it works is by offering vacant rooms of different hotels that didn’t manage to get their rooms fully booked in time so they offer them on the app for a steep discount just to fill them up. Because of the nature of the app, you can’t book the rooms too far in advance (The maximum is 1 week) so you cannot really rely on it but if you are flexible with your accommodation options then this might be the perfect option for you.
Use our discount code VVINCEJ and you will get 25USD off on your first purchase.
In bigger cities, you can find hostels and take advantage of shared (dorm) rooms which can some costs $15 / night.
In case you’re a picky person and you wanna make sure your place meets your requirements/need, make sure you visit tripadvisor.com to read reviews! You can find every single hotel/hostel there with a lot of customer reviews.
Airbnb is an amazing website where you easily find cheaper accommodation in somebody’s house, flat or kind of private hotels or hostels. There are plenty of options and you can find accommodation as low as $20-40 per night for single room or bed in a dorm room.
It’s becoming a very popular option these days, not just in USA. They have an amazing interactive search/filtering system which helps a lot to find exactly what you’re looking for.
FREE Hosting – Couchsurfing
Yes, you can also sleep for FREE! One of the most popular websites offering hosting is couchsurfing.com where you can create your profile and send requests to random people all around the world. It’s all based on references from other so-called couch surfers!
Food – Cook at your campsite
You know what they say, travel often & eat well! The food you can find on every corner and basically everything that you wish! But sometimes it might kick-off your budget if you don’t eat smart.
Get good food from restaurants and do not try to save up on food but we recommend some of the tips:
FAST foods are everywhere (not the most economical option)
get some snacks and breakfast stuff from cheap stores like dollar tree.
get your cooking tools (for one-time use) from dollar tree or Wallmart.
be creative! 😉
When you camp during your whole trip and you eat in camp you can squeeze your budget to ($10 / day).
Grocery discount cards
Most of the big supermarket chains have free loyalty cards that give you massive discounts every time you purchase at their store. The reason they do this is that by you having a loyalty card they can collect data on your purchases which helps them run their business more efficiently. In exchange for giving them some data on consumer behavior, you are rewarded with pretty neat discounts.
When you are traveling on a budget this is the perfect opportunity to save loads of money on your basic necessities. As you know most of your basic expenses fall into 3 categories: logistics, accommodation, and food. And if you minimize the expenses in the food column then you are on a good path to make your trip budget-friendly. You should definitely make use of this hack!
National Parks Fees – GET ANNUAL PASS
If you’re planning to visit more than 4 national parks you should definitely get annual pass which cost only $80 per vehicle and it allows you to visit 90% of the parks in US.
City Tourism Fees – GET CITY PASS
City Pass cards can be really handy while road tripping in USA, especially if you’re planning a lot of sightseeing. They usually contain various city attractions and public transport and helps you to save up to $100 sometimes.
You can also get plenty of information at your hotel’s reception desk and they sometimes give away various discounts (especially in Las Vegas).
Recommended books (Plan your routes)
Keep track of your spendings with APPs
This is key! What gets measured gets managed. The best way to spend no money is to set a really low daily budget and then track every little expense you have so you know how much room do you have left to maneuver. When you really force yourself to stay within a certain budget, you will get creative in ways to save money that are totally unimaginable to you right now.
As you get older you won’t be willing to be as creative, but if you are young, be willing to take risks and just live on noodles for a week if traveling really means so much to you. There are 1000s of budget tracking apps out there, and you will definitely be able to find at least one that suits your style and helps you track your expenses. Make use of them!
I hope you’ve found great tips in this article and you learned how to save money on the USA road trip! Make sure you double-check tips you find here (before you make booking or payment) just because you never know when it can change.
We simply can’t say everything will work 100%. We’re continuously trying to update this article to keep it fresh and information up to date but we don’t receive any updates from companies, orgs or websites mentioned above!
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