When Stephan and I were planning our almost 3 months of traveling the United States, we didn’t really know how big our budget needs to be, how much we should plan for a day, should we save extra money for a local sim card, activities and basically just everything we wanted to do besides hotels, rental cars and food. What did we want to do besides that? We found it hard to figure these things out upfront, so now I’m sharing our experiences with you, so you might have it a little easier when planning a road trip through the USA.
The first thing you should do is check flights. If you’re flexible I guess you should watch out for any special offers, that you might find on pages like Urlaubsguru or Urlaubspiraten. You can also subscribe to the newsletters of the airlines, as from time to time they are sending through pretty cool things, like e.g. Air Berlin does on Sundays. You then also have to check the route you want to travel and if you might need to book some inland flights as well.
Besides that costs, we felt comfortable with 100€ a day for both of us. (around 112$, thats pretty much the same) So it’s 50$ a day per person. We decided that this was all we had and didn’t save any extra budget. So with this 100 Dollars a day we covered accommodation, food, rental cars, any activities and additional things we wanted or needed to buy.
This means we covered everything from Disney Land tickets to surf lessons, admission fees, local sim cards and the equipment we had to buy as we were camping. We often managed to spend even less then 100$ a day, so in the end we were able to go shopping, spend a night at the nicest bed and breakfast on Big Island Hawaii, could afford to sleep directly in Venice, LA and in Manhatten, NYC.
This is just our experience, but with this kind of budget you don’t have to count every penny but won’t sleep in luxury hotels every night neither.
2. BUDGET MANAGEMENT APP
To get a clear overview of the budget we had and the money we spent we installed the app m8 and we highly recommend it to you. You can set your budget and then you just put in every amount of money you spent. You can sort it in different categories like Food&Drinks, travel with car/flights, accommodation, activities/sports and therefore can see how much you spend for what. It also tells how much of you’re budget you already spent and what you spent on the day, so you’re always up to date.
The only downside may be that you always have to keep the recipes so you don’t forget how much you spent for that coffee or ice cream. It’s important that you put in every little thing you spent money on.
This will be quite a huge part of your budget but there are ways to keep these costs as low as possible.
Camping is an option that we really really enjoyed. We camped at the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, at the Grand Canyon, all over the West Coast near Highway 1, Malibu, San Francisco and at the Yosemite Park. If you have light camping gear then it’s actually no problem to fly with it and I can only begin to tell you how cool most of the camp grounds are and how nice the people are that you will easily get to know when camping. Most campsites in national parks or state parks are between 10-30$ per night and there are private campsites like the ones from KOA which will be a bit more expensive, up to 50$ per night, but also more comfortable and sometimes even have wifi and a pool.
The more people you are, the cheaper it gets as you only pay for the site not the amount of people. So if you’re a couple you can easily stay for 5$ each and if you’re traveling in a group of four you might only pay 2,5$ each/ per night.
You can find my ten favorite camp grounds and how to book them here.Airbnb is platform where you can book private rooms, shared spaces or even a whole apartment from other people. So you can basically stay in someone’s home. This often is way cheaper then hotels, you have access to a fully equipped kitchen and you can benefit of your local host’s knowledge.
If you’re open minded and easy going, then Couchsurfing might be something you should try. Through sites like this you can find someone who lets you crush their couch for free, so you save up on money and get to know cool peeps from the area. Please be respectful, this isn’t something you should be doing if you only want a place to sleep. It’s for meeting new people and making friends and it is a pretty cool way of traveling.
You will find lots of Motels or cheap roadside hotels that will fit in your budget as the prices are between 40-60% per night. Booking.com is a great site to find the cheapest one or special offers. It sure wasn’t the right thing for us. The rooms often look so worn out and at some point we had to leave the room because I just couldn’t stand the smell. Luckily we were able to cancel without any fees. To be honest I rather sleep in a tent in my own sleeping bag then in motels like this.
Hotels can still be part of your vacation you just have to look out for special offers or the right timing. For example if you want to go to Las Vegas then it’s worth thinking about going during the week instead of the weekends. The hotels only cost half the price! So I’m sure you’re able to afford a nice one.
If you’re ok with shared rooms, then you should sleep in hostels as much as you can. There aren’t that many in the United States, but you sure find some in big cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, Miami or San Francisco. A bed in a dorm room is around 30$ and the social benefits are amazing as you easily meet like-minded people.
4. RENTAL CAR
Those rental cars made me cry and our budget explode, but our age is to be blamed. When you’re under 25 years old you have to pay a young driver fee which adds up each day. I think it’s silly, but there’s nothing you can do about it. If you have someone who is at least 25 years – let em be the driver and you will save a lot of money.
However if this isn’t an option, you might have an advantage if you’re a student. You should get yourself the international student card called ISIC (this is a German students card, but wherever you’re from, I’m sure there’s something likewise). With the card you get lots of discounts in different fields and one of them are rental cars. They have a deal with Alamo where you can rent a car and even get full comprehensive cover and all in all it is about 20% cheaper booking it with the ISIC card.
We used it all the time and it always worked for us. You should also check if you can give back the rental for like two days, or even just a night – for example when you’re in a big city and can get around with public transportation – and then just rent a new one. It’s a bit annoying to give back a car in the evening and come back to pick up a new one in the morning, but it saved us money as well.
And again, if you’re traveling in a group of four and you all share the bills, it will be even cheaper.
Don’t eat out all the time! That’s the most important thing when you’re on a budget and it might be even more fun to cook your own meals, as you can explore the supermarkets with all the foreign products. But don’t worry within the budget we still managed to get Starbucks or Subway plenty of times and we always tried the best pizza places. If you use the app m8 you will know exactly what you spent, so you can consider eating out or cooking yourself each day.
You might want to avoid stores like Whole Foods, but if you’re into greens and organic products this place will be heaven for you. But most of the supermarkets have member cards or a market rewards program. Just ask at the info desk or a someone in sales to sign up for it and e.g. use the address of your rental car service (nobody will check). If you do, you get at least get all the discounts the locals get.
The photos below are proof that fixing your own meals during the USA road trip is awesome as well!
6. NATIONAL PARKS PASS
If you plan on exploring National Parks, State Parks or Recreation Areas this pass is perfect. The annual America the Beautiful pass costs 80$ and two people can be the card holders. So it’s 40$ each or even cheaper if you’re traveling in a group of four. If you’re all in the same car, then the entrance to every park is covered for all of you. Just buy it at the first park you’re going to.
My favorite ones are Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellow Stone, Zion or Redwood and also small ones like the Lake Mead recreation area or Pinnacles can be stunning.