How to afford a U.S road trip

Published: August 13th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

New OrleansNew OrleansNew Orleans

Walking around the French Quarter
How you can afford a U.S Roadtrip

You think you can’t, but with a little guidance, you probably can. If you follow these suggestions your vacation is not going to be necessarily luxurious or relaxing or even comfortable. But just keep in mind that all of your “hardships” will be endured for the greater cause of exploring the country and seeing all it has to offer!


I am going to be upfront here and say that I spent about $2,400 dollars on this trip. Whether you think this is steep or not, just keep in mind that this number covered all expenses including gas and car trouble for a 5 week period driving coast to coast and viewing 10 different states. I personally think that this amount is much more than I should have spent on the trip. If I would have known from the start or simply obeyed many of the tips that I am providing you, it’s likely that I would have spent a good deal less.


I started saving for my June
Road side attractionsRoad side attractionsRoad side attractions

World's largest pistachio in New Mexico
trip in December with my goal at $2,500. Putting away $80 a week is where I began my savings and my bank account quickly began to build. And if you think $80 a week is a lot, just think about how much money a week you spend at the bar, going out to eat, or even shopping? Cutting back enough to save the money instead is not that scary if you consider the once in a lifetime experiences you will have with it on your trip. I had this trip planned for a year but did not start saving until 6 months before because I knew I would be getting money for college graduation. Even though I was given much of my trip money as a gift, I would have had plenty to afford the trip if I had started saving months earlier regardless. The hardest part of preparing was paying all of my bills for my main travel month of June in the month of May, on top of my May bills! Again, I cut out most if not all of extra spending for a month, picked up tons of extra shifts at work, and knocked out my bills

The Grand Canyon!
one by one. And I DO have bills! Rent, car payment/insurance, health insurance, utilities…all of that good stuff. Don’t think you can’t do it just because you have bills to pay! You just have to know that the trip is worth it and put in a little time and dedication. It is not going to be fun or easy but it will all be worth it when you are off from work for 5 weeks getting drunk in New Orleans or hugging a gigantic Redwood tree.


This doesn’t necessarily have to be a component of your personal road trip, but it was a huge part of mine and many other U.S trips I researched. Personally, I felt that exploring these different parks helped me understand the various natural landscapes of this country on a much deeper level than driving past them. Plus all the hiking and walking helped me from keeping on all my road trip fast food weight! So if you do opt to make the national park system a key component of your trip….you should do so in the most affordable way possible. Almost all of these parks cost
Las VegasLas VegasLas Vegas

Exploring the strip
money to get in! I saw park entrance fees ranging from $0-$30 per car. If you are planning on hitting only 2-4 parks on your trip….it could be helpful to include as many people as possible in your car because you can split the cost to be more affordable. However, if you plan on visiting 4-50 parks on your trip….invest in the annual pass! This pass costs $80 dollars one time and is good to get you into all of the parks in the country for an entire year. The pass can also get you discounts at many National Monument sites, some camping sites, National historic sites, and some National Forests. After just a couple of park visits, the pass basically pays for itself. After gaining more experience with the parks…we also found…rather by accident…that they never completely close of the entrances and exits to the parks. If you get there rather early (6-7 am) before the park is open for the day….you can drive right in without having to pay. It obviously wouldn’t serve you to come late at night because you wouldn’t be able to see anything, but if you can wake up early….it might be worth a try. We ended up at Glacier National park at 6 in the morning one day…just because we couldn’t sleep, and ended up entering the park without showing anyone our pass…and stayed there for a few hours. No one questioned us and we were able to leave without talking with any rangers either. Most parks do not ask to see your pass or your payment stub upon leaving, but we did experience this 1 time, so you may be taking a small risk! Camping overnight in the National Parks is fun, convenient, and pretty standard if you plan on visiting for more than one day. Unfortunately the National Parks Pass does not cover camping fees so you end up paying about $12-$14 a night on a camp site. A little too late, we began to realize that there are plenty of camp grounds in extremely close proximity outside all of the national parks. We learned by accident that if you arrive to these sites, especially later in the evening (9 or 10) there is no one around monitoring the sites and you can pretty much camp for the night without having to pay (just try to leave as early as possible
Redwoods National ParkRedwoods National ParkRedwoods National Park

Beautiful giants
in the morning). It may not be completely ethical sure, but hey you are a 20’ something trying to see the country on a budget! Mostly everything inside the parks are free….but just try not to spend money on their food or gas because they raise the prices through the roof! So….get a parks pass….get gas before you enter….try to camp outside the parks……and bring your own snacks and cooking tools!


Everybody has to eat….obviously….and food on a long trip like this can sometimes become a financial hassle. The most significant way to keep food costs down is to shop in grocery stores as much as possible! Before we left on our trip…we stocked up on snacks (granola bars….nuts…seeds….fruit…chips….crackers…ect.) to eat in the car during long drives…and to carry around with us on hikes and tourist destinations. Keeping snacks stocked up and available is important because it helps resist the urge to spend money at gas stations and convenience stores, as well as pricey tourist gift shops when you are hungry on the go. Since our trip included a ton of camping….we used a propane grill and cooked as many meals as we could. We stocked up on canned foods (veggies…potatoes…pasta….ramen…) as well as oatmeal, tea, and pancake mix to resist the urge of going to restaurants and still get a hot meal. We made sure to stock up on all of these items before we left, using non-trip budget money and just restocking from grocery stores along the way as we needed to. If you are staying in hostels or on people’s couches….there is usually a kitchen available, so you can try to cook hot meals there as well. Sometimes you get sick of eating granola bars and ramen and really need a break from the campfire cookouts. There are still cheap ways to eat at restaurants and try some of the local cuisine at your destinations. Using the internet and talking to locals is a great way to find out about happy hour deals in the cities and towns that you are visiting. Since we were visiting friends in Austin, Texas they already knew of a place to go for dinner with a great happy hour. We went out for $2 Tuesdays at a local place and had $2 beer, appetizers, and tacos! Four of us were able to get 2 rounds of beer, 6 tacos, and 3 appetizers for $38! In New Orleans you can get absolutely hammered for extremely little money! They have buy 1 get 2 free drinks advertised all over Bourbon street. The street is filled with bars selling the signature frozen drinks for usually about $8. These things are huge, STRONG, and tasty and you get to keep the cool cup as a free souvenir. My boyfriend and I each had one of these things…and were stumbling around New Orleans for the next couple hours. Since there is so much competition between restaurants, most of them offer great deals. We got a platter with 2 pounds of crawfish, corn, potatoes, and sausage for only $10. At Café Du Mont you can sit down, relax and get an order of traditional Beingnets (basically fancy little funnel cakes) for $2.50. One order comes with 3 and they are big so you can share. And a little warning….get drunk on cheap drinks before you start going to the Bourbon street clubs and strip clubs! We failed to do this and ended up spending $20 a round of beer….at multiple clubs!! It was a big financial mistake. In Vegas….we found it extremely surprising that you could get very drunk for very little. On the strip, Casino Royale sells $1 margaritas and Mich Ultra bottles all of the time! We also found a bar way at the end of Freemont Street that sells $1 Coors Lite bottles all of the time as well. And I am sure with a little googling you can find many more of these deals. In Portland Oregon the streets are full of unique food carts which offer delicious hot meals on the cheap….and you don’t have to worry about tipping anyone. Days of straight driving does not allow you to cook on your stove, and eating granola bars starts to get intolerable. We sadly did make a decent amount of fast foods stops. Obviously this a cheap way to get a hot meal on the road…and with the dollar and value menus of many of these places…you don’t have to feel bad about the cost….but you might feel some guilt about the essential trash that you are frequently consuming! We also ate at some popular restaurant chains who offer good deals. When I couldn’t take the granola or the fast food anymore…we would
Glacier National ParkGlacier National ParkGlacier National Park

All the way up in Montana! Could it get any more beautiful?
often stop in to an Applebees and split the 2 for $20 meals! We got an appetizer and two full meals all for $10 bucks a piece once we split it. It is possible to spend little money on your daily eating expenses. However we could have done a little better in this department. Josh and I both love to go out to eat and try new restaurants so we spent a little more money than we should have in this area.

ACCOMODATIONS is always a great place to start if you are planning a trip in which you wish to save on accommodations! Even though we decided not to couch surf on this trip, it is always a good and completely free way to sleep with a roof over your head. Staying with friends is another great way to make a trip more affordable. We only had two places in which we had friends to stay with, but it financially is ideal and always promises a good time to meet up with friends and relatives. We stayed with friends in Austin, Texas in their spare bedroom…and we also stayed with my cousin in Denver, Colorado in their spare bedroom! Another great option is hostels! We LOVE staying in hostels. Not only are they pretty cheap ($20 to $40 dollars a night) but they provide so many important and useful resources for exploring a new city. They are full of suggestion boards for what to do, eat and see. They offer free tours and many other tours at discounted prices. Many offer pub crawls, activity nights and coupons for things in the area. Many hostels offer a free breakfast in the morning as well as a kitchen so you can cook if you don’t want to spend money out. We stayed in the India House Hostel in New Orleans which was located in a beautiful Victorian Style house. We paid $40 for one night in a private room which was located in a little bungalow in the back of the main hostel. It was uniquely decorated…had a big bed…and had air conditioning. It gave us much more privacy than staying in a dorm style room even though the dorms are slightly cheaper. We also stayed in two different hostels in San Francisco….as well as Portland. In Vegas we decided that we would splurge and get a hotel room for 2 nights. Josh checked on Groupon which is a great site for all sorts of deals and coupons on various things and services. He got us a deal was $109 for two nights in a really decent hotel located right by the strip. The coupon also included $25 worth of food at the hotel restaurant (which also had buy 1 get 1 bar drinks at their bar daily). The hotel also offered a free shuttle service to and from the strip. Including taxes and split between my boyfriend and I, we each only paid $32 a night to stay in Vegas and got a free meal and delicious free bloody marys out of it as well. Other than that, we camped for the remainder of the time. Camping is certainly a very cheap accommodation and a fun one too! We stayed at campsites that ranged from $13 to $30 a night but most of them are on the lower side of that scale. If you are doing the National Parks, camping is the cheapest option. If you really want to be thrifty you can drive around the campsites and try to scout out other travelers or young people that may be on a budget too and ask if you can share their site with them if you split the cost. This way, everyone saves some money and you might even make some new friends. We did this once in the Redwoods because all the campsites were full and we had nowhere else to camp. It worked out perfectly and the roadtrippers we camped with thought it was a great idea to save money. We probably would have done this more often if we figured it out sooner. If you don’t want to stay in the National Parks there are plenty of campgrounds lining the main highways. Just pop into any of these and it is likely that you will get a cheap/free campground for the night. And of course you could always sleep in your car or RV. Walmart actually legally allows RVs and cars to stay overnight in their parking lots. You can stay there for free without having to worry about cops knocking on your windows. Sleeping in a car is not always the safest option and since we were not traveling in an RV with window shades, I didn’t feel up to crashing in the Walmart parking lot. But with an RV, it’s not a bad idea.


Apart from seeing all of these amazing places there is plenty of things to be done! You can hike the parks for free and walk around the cities for free too but there are also activities and tourist attractions you can see for free or cheap as well. In New Orleans and Vegas….just walking down the Bourbon Street or the Strip is great and free entertainment. People watching could keep you occupied all day. In New Orleans there is plenty of free music to be heard on the street or inside. In the random restaurant we stumbled into…they had a great band playing for no extra cost. There are also a ton of street musicians and acts to be seen for free as well. We found tons of strip clubs on Bourbon street that had no entry fee or purchase requirement. In Vegas there is a ton of free street entertainment and musicians to be seen as well. Many of the casinos put on outside shows that run every half hour, free to the public. The Bellagio has its famous fountain show….and other casinos offer a volcanic eruption show as well as a pirate ship burlesque show. It is also free to walk into all of the casinos and check out their amazing architecture, decorations, and themes. We spent an entire day just walking in and out of different casinos such as Circus Circus, New York New York, and Paris. The Freemont Street experience in downtown Vegas offers a ridiculous LED light show that goes on for hours. In addition to the light show itself, the street is full of free music acts as well. Since Vegas offers a huge variety of different shows, we hunted for something that we could afford. We found Tickets4Tonight, which is a company that has stands all over the strip…offering discounted tickets to shows that day or the next day. We got balcony tickets for $70 a person to see Cirque de Soleil show Zumanity. Even though the seats were balcony, the theater was small and we still had a great view…and got the experience of seeing a show in Vegas. In Portland Oregon we got to visit the Rose Test Garden which was absolutely beautiful and free as well. Also in Portland, we got to take a free brewery tour of Widmer Brewery. Not only was the tour free but they allow each guest to taste 4 small beers each and at the end you get to keep the Widmer logo glass as a free souvenir. There is also the Mckminnen Brother’s theater in Portland which plays brand new movies for only $3 a ticket. The place is a restaurant and bar so you could potentially rack up a bill but if you go for just the movie you only pay the $3 price! In Boulder Colorado we toured the Celestial Tea factory for free and the tour also included a free tasting of 3-6 different teas. We also had a fun day tubing in Boulder in the creek for almost no cost. It’s fun, refreshing, has rapids, and everyone seems to be there partying and having a good time. You can buy a tube for $13 at the nearby gas station and get to keep it….and then tube as long as you want! In Denver we toured the Coors Brewery for free and at the end you get 3 ½ medium sized beers to drink. We also toured the Hammond’s candy factory for free. It is a little boring but interesting if you don’t have much to do that day and you get a free jumbo and delicious candy cane at the end! So in a new city or town…walk around all the best neighborhoods…people watch…window shop….check out the free city parks…and find free tours to take. Only spend money on the tourist destinations and museums that are really worth it to you.


In my opinion….I wanted to take a car for my road trip. After all….it is a ROAD trip and I wanted that experience and feeling of freely driving around the country wherever and whenever I wanted to go. I guess you could always hitch hike around for a more daring....dangerous and cheaper option, but that wasn’t what I personally wanted out of this trip. Try to get your car tuned up and get necessary things replaced well before your road trip. You don’t want to have to make expensive repairs that will run your trip fund dry. I only had to buy a new car battery and buy one new tire the whole entire 5 weeks! Obviously….drive carefully. Getting into an accident could cause you injury to yourself, your car, and could ruin or end your trip. Also, be mindful of the speed limits because tickets could really rack up a bill that may reduce your trip fund. I did not find there to be many tolls at all on most of the U.S highways….we spent well under $50 on tolls for the entire 5 weeks. Gas will be the biggest expense. It is annoying but necessary to get you where you want to go. It is best to take a car that is smaller and good on gas (like my little Honda civic) and also to have two or three people join your trip that can help split the cost of gas! Together, Josh and I spent about $1,268 on gas. That is $634 each to drive from PA down to MI over to CA up to MO and back down and over to PA for 5 weeks. It honestly is not that bad…and think about how much cheaper that would have been if we would have had a third or even a fourth person with us on the trip? We didn’t really need to use much of any sort of other public transit during the trip. However…New Orleans offers a trolley that runs back and forth to Bourbon street for only a couple bucks, Vegas offers the Deuce, a 24 hour bus system running up and down the strip for 24 hours at a cost of only $7 for the day, and Portland offers completely free transit to most of its major neighborhoods.

There are so many creative ways that you can save money and be able to afford a trip like this. All it takes is a little research and planning and a good bit of hard work and dedication. Have a little self control while you are out on the road and be able to realize that watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean or hiking through the Rockies is way better than sleeping in an expensive hotel every night and eating expensive meals in fancy restaurants.

Have Fun!


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