Now that our three month road trip in USA is finished, we thought it might be useful to mention a few tips we learnt along the way, and wouldn’t have minded knowing before we started.
For most long term travellers money is always an issue, and while America isn’t an expensive destination for those on holidays, it can be tricky to stay on a shoestring budget if you’re spending more than just a few weeks in the country.
So here are some of our ways to see a lot, have fun and not spend a fortune. By no means it’s a great guide; all I’m saying is that it worked for us.
Let’s start with one of the biggest expenses there usually is. And guess what – you can eliminate this cost almost entirely if you put your preconceived notions aside and use Couchsurfing. It really is a great idea and if you want more than just a free place to stay, you won’t be disappointed. During our three months in America we spent 47 nights with our Couchsurfing hosts. And really only two of them were bit weird, not unpleasant or anything, just a tad awkward. Other times the people we met were friendly and hospitable beyond comprehension. And for those experiences we both strongly recommend trying it. Just be honest in your profile and DO READ THROUGHLY other users profiles before sending a request and agreeing to stay with them – there are some people out there with whom you might not feel entirely comfortable (nudists, for example), and it’s best to avoid them if you can. Even the cheapest motels generally cost from $50 (at the very very least) up to $100 depending on location. We assumed a conservative average of $60 per night. So, if we were to spend those 47 couchsurfing nights in dirty, rundown motels in bad parts of town, we reckon we saved at least $2,750 over the course of our trip.
Then there are campsites. We only stayed at the ones located in national parks (15 nights altogether) and were quite impressed with them. The facilities were basic (mostly pit toilets but very clean, no showers, some sites didn’t have running water but it was mentioned beforehand ), but the sites were quite big, usually had a picnic table and bbq pit and were pretty cheap ($10-20 per site, per night, there are some free ones out there too). We didn’t even have any camping equipment with us. All our camping gear that we had so carefully researched, got left behind with our bikes, in Greece. So we ended up in Walmart buying the cheapest tent there was: junior dome for $25 (good job we are little people) and a couple of blankets for another $20-30. No mats, no camping stove, nothing. And we did survive quite a few nights like this, in below freezing temperatures…
But if Couchsurfing and camping isn’t for you, there are countless motels and hotels wherever you go. Depending on location and season, the average price, as mentioned before, would be somewhere between 50 and 100 bucks a night. In many locations (restaurants, rest stops, tourist info) you can pick up free copies of hotel coupons, which have discounted rates for listed motels. These coupons are generally for one to two people from Monday to Thursday. It would save you a few dollars here and there, or you can try hotwire.com, which also lists discounted rooms, but you don’t find out what the hotel is or its exact location, until after you have booked it.
For those who travel in a vehicle and don’t mind spending the night in it, you can stop at any Walmart carpark and stay there for free. I don’t know why it’s so, but a few people mentioned it to us and indeed we have seen some campervans parked at the far side of the parking lot. So there you go, another free option, if you’re up for it.
FOOD AND DRINK
America might not be known for its gourmet cuisine, but it surely has the most fast food restaurants in the world. If you don’t mind putting a lot of rubbish in your tummy then you’ll be just fine. Mind you, they aren’t all that cheap, unless you just go for something straight from the $1 menu. For us good old Subway worked the best – share a footlong stuffed with all the veg there is (no raw onions and olives on Monika’s half) and you have a healthy-ish cheap-ish meal.
When we got here we thought that Walmart will be our supermarket for all food items. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only it has the tiniest food selection compared to its size, but you’ll be lucky to find there anything that hasn’t been processed to death or covered in some sugary coating. Even bread and milk (apparently fresh) would last weeks, not refrigerated. To make things worse, their customer service is unbelievably bad: no matter how many people there are in the shops, you always have to wait forever in a queue and staff just in general isn’t friendly at all. Probably the only place in whole of America where you won’t be greeted with a smile… But then you can’t blame them when you know what type of people are the majority that shop there. I hope I’m not offending anyone, but have a look for yourself here. Later on we have discovered Safeway – a much better supermarket, not as cheap but with very good offers for those who have their club card. So when we finally got a card (all you have to do is just go and ask for one and you get it straight away!) we didn’t shop anywhere else, unless we couldn’t find any Safeway nearby. They also had those massive sandwiches in their deli sections. Two of these sandwiches below would feed both of us for three days!
And then there are All You Can Eat Buffets, pretty much in any town, mainly Chinese or pizza based, usually for about $10 a person. So you can always have a very big lunch that would last you for the rest of the day…Buffets in Las Vegas are a completely different story: way more expensive, but have more variety and better food in general.
All drinks are cheap. You can find water fountains pretty much everywhere and get your water for free. All soft drinks are cheap wherever you go; it is a birthplace of Coca Cola and Co after all. While we were there, McDonalds was selling any size brewed coffee, sweet tea (very big in the south) or soda for $1. Petrol (or should I say Gas) Stations usually have some cheap deals on ice cold or piping hot drinks too. So there’s always something to quench your thirst. And you must have an idea about the portion sizes in this country…simply massive! And on top of that, if you sit in most fast food restaurants, you are entitled to free refills. That’s a lot of sugar you can consume just from the cup!
If it gets too hot outside getting a cooler to keep all your drinks cold is a great idea. And it doesn’t have to cost as much as you can imagine! All you need is a Styrofoam box ($3 from Walmart) filled with ice (bags available for a few dollars in all supermarkets and petrol stations, or free from the motels’ ice machines if you’re up for it!). Depending on the heat, the ice will last a day or two. The cool box will serve you much longer.
ON THE ROAD
We found, that for a three month trip, renting a car was easier and possibly not more expensive. Buying a car in USA requires a lot of hassle and paperwork and if you just want to get out there and not worry about selling the car afterwards too, renting a car is a way to go. We rented two different cars, one in Orlando and one in LA, as a fee for dropping a car at a different location nearly doubled the rental quote. So it was cheaper to do two loops and fly across the country to get a different car.
It definitely is a good idea to get a Sat Nav. They aren’t that expensive (I’m talking about buying one at Best Buy for around $100 not renting one with your car) and they will become your best friend, especially when you have to navigate 8 lane highways to get off at the right exit. Geoff, who did all the driving, swears that as soon as we started approaching cities, he felt like he was on a race track! Pretty stressful, so Sat Nav is always a good solution.
Gas (or petrol as we know it) is pretty cheap compared to what anyone outside of America is used to, but varies a lot from state to state and quite often from one station to the other. If you add gasbuddy.com to your favourites, you’ll always find the best price wherever you are. We found that data was always up to date and very accurate too.
But nothing saves the money as good as slow driving. We must have been the slowest vehicle on American roads, but we did 18,770 km on 1,075 litres (and paid just over $1,000 for fuel in total). So it really is up to you.
On main roads, Interstates, there are quite regular rest stops that always have decent toilets and quite often some picnic sites too. Whenever you cross the state line, there are always visitor centres that have free maps of a state and plenty information and booklets and sometimes even coffee, also free! So you don’t even need a travel guide and you’ll still be surprised how much there really is to see in every single state.
INTERNET is available almost anywhere. For our free access we always went to (not necessarily into) McDonalds. And since it’s USA, you will always find one when you need it! I think that Starbucks and few other places have free WiFi spots too, so you can have your own pick.
NATIONAL PARKS are really amazing and you probably have at least a few on your itinerary. Check the entry fees to them and work out if it won’t be better to get an annual pass. It costs $80 and allows a free entry of one vehicle, whether there’s one person in it or five. We definitely saved money with ours and we were there only 3 months. And when you’re done with it, you can always give it to some else.
CITY PASS. If you love cities and all the museums, zoos and aquariums, most cities have city passes, that include access to the most popular attractions for a discounted price.
TAXES. All states have their own rules and that applies to sale taxes too. Remember that the price you see in a shop isn’t usually the price you’ll have to pay at the till. And they will vary from state to state. California has some of the highest taxes, so if you’re planning to do some shopping and will be going to other states too, save your bucks and get more for their value. You can check online, tax rates in all states and plan ahead.
RECYCLING. I thought I just mention it briefly. Some states charge for plastics bags in supermarkets, some don’t. Some states charge a deposit fee for glass and plastic bottles when you purchase them, but if you can be bothered you can return them to recycling centres and get your money back.
Travelling in USA is really easy and can be cheap. And it definitely is SO MUCH FUN!