I know, I know. Budget travel and the United States are seldom in the same sentence. But I’m a frugal one so I always look to make my money stretch to as many days and places as possible. Here are the tips I picked up during my journey #BussingUSA last fall. I traversed the entire country in two months and this is my ultimate guide to the cheapest accommodation, transport, food and more. I want to help you get the most experience for the least expense. Let’s budget travel in the United States together.
In the beginning I was unsure about couchsurfing as a solo female traveller. But I had read fellow bloggers’ posts about how much they enjoyed couchsurfing, so I thought I would give it a go. It is the best budget accommodation option in the United States, and everywhere else in the world for that matter. I surfed on four couches/mattresses during my trip and I met some fantastic people during each occasion.
Through my host in Boston I met fellow travellers, my host in Charleston showed me the sights and my host in Montgomery took me out for the night. I am a nervous traveller, so this was a big step for me. But in the end it was a great experience and I was glad, as always, that I stopped listening to my self-doubt and stepped out of my comfort zone. Couchsurfing helped cut my costs and it allowed me to see more sides to each place that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see if I was staying in a hostel.
My main tip for females couchsurfing is to check out people’s references and read their profiles carefully. A lot of people will mention if they are not close to transit, which may affect your stay. I also stayed with other female hosts only. This was a personal decision but I felt more comfortable this way.
Aside from Couchsurfing, which is free, I found hostels to obviously be the next cheapest option for budget travel in the United States. I am pretty sure I stayed in about twenty different hostels during my trip. I feel like I am the hostel expert now or something. Anyway, again I only stayed in female dorms as I just personally find them more comfortable (and quiet). In the majority of hostels you will find they have bigger 8 to 10 bed rooms for budget dollars. I stayed in everything from a 10 bed to a 4 bed, some with ensuite bathrooms and others with very minimal facilities. My biggest score: a double bunk-bed in a 4 person dorm in Portland. It was heavenly.
The best advantages of a hostel are that you usually get free breakfast and they are normally located in convenient locations close to the action. There is also sometimes social activities to participate in to meet fellow travellers too.
I stayed in three Airbnb rentals but two were when I was travelling with friends. If you are with a bigger group or travelling as a pair, check out this site as you will no doubt find a good deal. The time I chose Airbnb solo was in Atlanta because Southern United States is lacking in hostels. Seriously. But my room was really nice and I had my own TV and kitchen area so it was a nice respite from hostel life.
If you happen to be traversing the States in a car, in decent weather, why not save some money and go camping? Once you have the gear you can frequently find campsites countrywide for between $10 and $30. Obviously this wouldn’t suit everyone but it is a very good option for people travelling together and road tripping. Just remember to make s’mores for me. YUM.
Have you heard of this amazing airline called Allegiant? Yes, their planes are small and boring and they are strict with your carry-on luggage, but I got a flight from Austin to Las Vegas for $100 including checking my suitcase. What a steal as I only booked it a few weeks in advance. I also checked out Southwest and Jetblue as they seem to be the best budget airlines in the United States. Flying will always be the most expensive transport option, but America is a big place so depending on how much time you have in the States, it may be the best for you and your travel needs.
The hashtag you see popping up everywhere? Yeah, I bussed across America because it really is the cheapest way to see the United States when you are travelling solo. The bus terminals are also usually in close proximity to city centres and public transport, which is a big win. I used a combination of Greyhound and Megabus, but I found the latter has cheaper fares if you buy your tickets very close to your ideal departure date. I always tried to buy ahead of time so this didn’t work to my advantage, but it might just work for you. Greyhound on the other hand visits a lot more places compared to Megabus. So check them both when looking for budget transport in the United States.
I only used Amtrak once for a long stint between San Francisco and Portland. I just didn’t think taking the train was worthwhile or cost-effective for me as I was stopping at a lot of places. But it was cheaper than flying for the above route and it was comfortable so not a bad option if you have long distances to travel.
Um, how had I not heard of the amazing concept that is Uber prior to my trip? My couchsurfing host in Raleigh mentioned it to me as I was getting a bus too early in the morning, and I got my first ride free, which was a big bonus. Budget travellers love free stuff. I used the service sporadically when I was arriving late or departing cities early as it was cheaper than taxis and super convenient.
I believe if you’re already in the United States and have your own vehicle or are travelling with someone and sharing the cost, then this might be a feasible option for you. I get heart palpitations just thinking about driving on the other side and was also travelling solo, so this wasn’t going to be a viable or budget option for me.
In each city, I always turned to public transport if I couldn’t walk from place to place. The most I spent on a one-way ticket was $2.25 and the cheapest was $1 in Austin. I loved that the Austin day pass was also a staggering $2. Google Maps was my best friend on this trip as it is so easy and simple to put in your location and destination and find the best/quickest/cheapest/fastest route.
Totally take advantage of the free breakfasts at hostels. Every place I stayed had the meal included in the price, and there was always some kind of interesting combination including fruit, juice, toast, cereal, muffins, bagels, waffles and pancakes. I actually enjoyed venturing into the kitchen each morning to see what was on offer. I always filled up before leaving for a day of sightseeing so I would eat less later and hence save money.
One ‘must have’ meal
You know that meal: fried chicken in the South, dinner in a certain restaurant or barbecue in Texas? I didn’t want to miss out on eating these must haves, so I did eat them. Just once. Sampling the local delicacies doesn’t have to break the bank if you control yourself. I know, it’s hard sometimes.
Every hostel should have a kitchen for you to use for cooking and storing your food and drinks. When you are couchsurfing or staying at an Airbnb, just ask as I am sure your host would be happy to let you use their facilities. I have to admit, I know people joke about backpackers living on noodles, but I ate a few packets during my trip. They were just easy, cheap and what I felt like after my usual lunch out. I also picked up frozen meals or ready-made sandwiches from the local grocery store. But make use of the amenities to save money and get some greens.
If all else fails, follow my lead and eat a Subway or fifteen. A ham six-inch was my go-to sub, BTW.
I feel like I should be an advocate for Free Tours By Foot I walked so many of them during my trip. But what a fantastic initiative. You register online and you just tip at the end how much you felt the tour was worth. I did these tours everywhere: Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington DC and Charleston. I also googled free tours + city to see if other companies did similar walking excursions, and I discovered a company in Savannah and another in Seattle.
It’s a great way to see part of a certain city and learn about its history from a local’s perspective.
When people say there is an app for everything these days, they are quite right. It is amazing the information and guides on offer. Just search the city you are in and see what pops up. I got a great free Boston: Freedom Trail app which I followed as I walked along the red bricks. It told me the significance of each place so it felt like I had my own personal guide.
Grab a map
Every hostel should have a city map for you to pick up at reception. I have heard travellers say they don’t like to use maps because they look like tourists, but I love them. I researched free things to do in each city and marked the museums, best restaurants, parks and markets on the map to make the most of my minimal time.
If you are feeling diligent, keep track of your expenses using a simple Excel spreadsheet or planner. This will ensure you know where your money is going and help you change your habits during your trip so you can save further.
Budget travel in the United States IS achievable
I hope this post helps you understand that budget travel in the United States is totally and easily achievable. Depending on the type of trip you are embarking on, these tips will help you save money in a lot of ways — what’s not to love?