There are two ways to make a trip stateside possible on a tight budget. The first and cheapest option of all is of course camping, but if weeks spent underl canvas is not for you, then there is another way.
We have just spent a couple of months in the US for under $50 per person per day and we didn’t camp once!
Now we’re not saying it’s all going to be glamorous but it’s one of the best trips we’ve ever done and we certainly weren’t roughing it.
Here’s how to do it.
How to travel America on less than $50 a day
1. Seasons matter
The most important factor is time of year. You need to travel in the off season.
Off season travel can have it’s disadvantages if you hit bad weather but overall we found the pros far outweighed the cons.
Our chosen states were Arizona and Utah with a tiny bit of California thrown in due to our flights being in and out of Los Angeles.
2. Motels are king
We stayed in the odd airbnb when they were cheaper than motels, but in general we found the motels to be the cheapest option. In off season we were paying anywhere between $35 and $60 a night, but the majority were $50. That’s on average $25 a night per person.
We thought that was pretty good going, especially as we often stayed in popular towns such as Moab and Joshua Tree. If you find a town which is way out of this price category, use google maps to slowly edge your way further from your desired location checking each village along the way.
For example you might not be able to afford to stay in Sedona itself, but you could stay around 45 minutes away in Flagstaff for less than $40 a night. Generally speaking, booking far in advance or very last minute gave us the best prices.
Very last minute is obviously a gamble as sometimes we got hotels which dropped from $150 a night to $50, but sometimes there was nothing left and we had to leave that area. It all depends on how wedded you are to your itinerary.
Read next: Where to stay in the Grand Canyon South Rim
3. Microwave meals are your friend
Ok, so this is rather gross and perhaps somewhat embarrassing to admit, but when in motels we lived almost entirely on microwave meals. Please leave a comment if you need recommendations for the good ones because we probably tried them all 🤣
Every single motel we booked had a microwave and it allowed us to eat dinner for between $1 and $5 per person depending on how fancy we went! The $1 meals are pretty much as grim as you might imagine and we came to appreciate the $5 ones as gourmet!
Now we’re not saying this is healthy but hey, it kept us in America far longer than if we’d eaten out each day.
For breakfast we had Nature Valley bars and made coffee using the free coffee machines in all motel rooms. My tea addiction had to take a backseat because america just doesn’t do tea!
For lunches we made our own sandwiches or went to somewhere like subway. Sometimes - when we wanted a treat - chipotle 😲🙈!!
That meant on average we spent less than $10 a day per person on food.
If you can get somewhere with a kitchen it’s much better but we rarely found that they were within our budget.
4. Weekends are your enemy
We therefore timed our visits to be Monday to Friday before leaving for a less popular town nearby (Flagstaff for Sedona and Green river for Moab) and then returned to where we actually wanted to be on the Monday if we needed more time.
5. Be flexible
We got up at 4am to take a 12 hour flight from London to LA and - on checking prices in LA - we knew we couldn’t stay in the city or anywhere nearby. Therefore we had to drive three hours straight to Joshua Tree instead. It was a hell of a day!
Whilst we could go almost everywhere we wanted, the odd place was still out of budget (such as LA). If budget is your number 1 priority, you might need to forgo one or two places or be flexible on distance you’re willing to travel each day.
6. Choose your car rental wisely
We rented a car for our entire trip and the cost was $20 a day - that’s $10 each. This tends to work best if you are renting for a longish period, such as two months like we did. For shorter term rentals (such as a week) you will almost always pay more. Where you rent from also makes a difference.
Major hubs such as LA or Las Vagas tend to have far lower prices than smaller airports. Sometimes it is cheaper to rent from the city than the airport, so do your homework.
We chose the cheapest possible car which was classed as a “compact budget” car. We were expecting a tiny shoe box, but to a European it wasn’t even a small car!
We almost always use rentalcars.com for a price comparison and booked through them for this price. We have car rental insurance through our credit card provider and therefore didn’t need to add this on.
Remember if it’s low season your car rental will be cheaper too, I’m sure in April we might not have got this price!
Avoid paying for the extra sat nav charges by caching your maps on Google for each journey you want to make. This will allow you to access Google Maps without using any data.
Obviously you could use public transport, but we’re all about freedom and we wanted a big American road trip so we never even considered this as an option.
Read next: Instagrammable places in the Southwest
7. Buy a national parks pass
The “America the Beautiful Pass” is gold. It’s the best $80 we ever spent.
Many premium parks charge $35 to get in and the $80 pass gets you in to all national parks for an entire year.
8. Gas is cheap but travel slowly
It’s always cheaper to travel slowly than to cram 10 different places into 10 days. If you stay longer in one accommodation, you usually get a discounted rate and you also use less gas getting around, so your gas bill per day will be lower.
Gas was around $2.50 per gallon during our visit, meaning we could do quite a bit of driving for not much expenditure (especially compared to Europe!).
9. Take tours sparingly
As you can see, we had very little left over for activities after we spent on the car, accommodation and food. For us this wasn’t a problem as we predominantly spent our time in national parks and at free sites such a Horseshoe Bend.
It didn’t mean we were going to miss out on bucket list experiences such as Antelope Canyon though ($60). When we had a week where we spent a lot on the slot canyon tours it was balanced out by many weeks where everything we did was free.
If you’re an outdoor lover you aren’t going to get bored in America and it isn’t going to cost you much at all.
Hiking, wild swimming, viewpoints, wildlife watching and epic sunrises and sunsets are all free and America is blessed with some of the best in the world!
Overall this was one of the best trips of our lives and we’re so glad we tried travelling in off season. We hope you try it too!
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Are you planning a trip to the US? What are your budget saving tips? Let us know in the comments below!