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Low Budget Travel in The United States

Updated on March 6, 2013

The United States is expensive?

Traveling in the US, even in the current economy, is often considered to be expensive. Are there really any options for students and others on a tight budget?

The answer is...yes, but it is not always as easy as in less developed parts of the world. Here is how to save on key aspects of your trip.

Getting There

Buying cheap air tickets is always a case of stalking the airline's web sites and pouncing when the going is good. I personally would not stint too much on a transatlantic flight. It takes between 6 and 7 hours to get from London to New York and you don't want to be too uncomfortable.

Iceland Air has great rates...and they also offer a free stopover in Iceland. If you aren't interested in that, Aer Lingus flies cheap if you can get yourself to Dublin. I've also heard that Air India can offer good rates on some routes. It's really a matter of doing specific research on the route you need or want. In general, flights into JFK are the cheapest. Zoom airlines offers really great rates between London Gatwick and JFK...but they're so cheap I'm suspicious of them.

Discount airlines may offer more limited scheduling and stingier baggage allowance in return for lower prices.

Although not really for the true discount traveler, one other alternative is to book passage on a freighter...which costs about $138-153 a day, with transatlantic trips generally taking two weeks.

Getting Around

This all depends on where in the US you want to go. Many major cities do have good (often subsidized) public transportation networks. In New York and Washington, DC, it is possible to see almost all of the major sights by public transit, and there are often shuttle buses to ones further out.

When going between major cities the cheapest option, by far, is Greyhound or another long distance bus operator. Trains tend to be pricey and, outside the east coast corridor and parts of California, unreliable compared with what you will find in Europe. Most of the rail track is owned by freight companies and even main lines only have two tracks. When the track owners insist on prioritizing their own trains...twenty minutes late becomes the new 'on time'. Also, the distances are considerable and train travel can take days. Of course, if you're the kind of person who enjoys the journey...

If you want to go off the beaten track, you may have no choice but to rent a car. Like airlines, it is always worth shopping around for car rentals. Try to make sure you have some kind of insurance that covers rental cars - buying insurance through the rental company can double the cost of your rental. In the United Kingdom you are only legally required to have third party coverage, but in the United States fully comprehensive coverage is required. Also, many companies will not rent to drivers under 25.

You may be able to get a discount by combining your flight with your car rental. This can also be true with internal flights - bear in mind that distances here are considerable and it may be that flying is the best and easiest way to get where you want to go.


Discount accommodation in the United States generally means motels. Motels are cheap, no frills and vary highly in quality. If possible, check out a motel on an online review site before booking it...make sure the rooms are clean and there are no recent reports of bed bugs. 'Roach motel' is a term often used in the United States for dingy, poorly maintained accommodations. Some of these motels rent rooms by the hour and strongly emphasize pay per view. (Need I actually explain?)

If staying in a big city, then bear in mind that hotels in downtown and by the airport generally cost more. In rural areas, and even most towns and smaller cities, you might consider whether a bed and breakfast, while costing more, will save you a little - a good one will give you enough food that you can skip lunch.

Youth hostels, the staple of student travel, are rarer in the United States. Motels tend to substitute for them. You will find them, however, in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles. There is no association governing their standards and they are independently run. Backpackers' hostels are also rare.

Camping is possible when traveling in rural areas. Also, if one of you is a good driver and you plan on being on the road, you can look into renting an RV (camper van). (Caravans are rare in the United States and you are likely not to see one at all during your trip). However, most RV rental companies charge mileage on the vehicles and this can mount up very quickly. Car rental companies generally do not charge mileage, so unless you are traveling in a large group this is unlikely to be the cheapest option.

Couch surfing is one final option. If you are very frugal, you can potentially stay at a stranger's house for free...and really get to know the culture. If you choose this option, DO go through a couch surfing agency who vets both travelers and hosts. (And consider, if you have the room, paying forward by agreeing to be a host yourself).



America is the land of cheap food...there are fast food restaurants everywhere that will sell you a full meal for $5-10 a head. However, fast food is as bad is everywhere.

If possible, buy food for lunch at supermarkets and then get a reasonably decent dinner. Eating at McDonald's or Taco Bell for your entire trip is cheap, but you (and your waistline) might end up regretting it. If you are staying in a national park, make sure you have enough food for the entire trip as any food available inside the park will be over-priced. Guaranteed.

Food in attractions is always more expensive, and be warned that many sporting events do not allow outside food. They may not even allow you to take water - I've been to events where they've banned outside water and then charged $5 a bottle for it inside, on a 90 degree day. If you want to take in a baseball game or similar, budget extra for food. Cinemas also do not allow outside food or drink.

Other Tips

Consider smaller, off-beat attractions over larger and more popular ones. They tend to be cheaper.

Avoid taxis. Taxis are always expensive and gypsy cabs patrol airports in major cities like Miami and New York. Take the bus or the subway instead.

Take advantage of multiple passes that get you in to more than one attraction. Park hopper passes are the cheapest way to see DIsneyland. Some cities have museum passes. In Baltimore, you can spend an entire day in the Inner Harbor with just one pass to see all the various museum ships. Some museums have free visiting hours. In Washington, all of the Smithsonian museums...and the zoo...have completely free admission. Buying tickets in advance can also sometimes save you money.

Consider eating the lunch special and then cooking your own can get the same exact meal for less than half the price.

Do not use your credit card to withdraw cash when overseas - use your debit card. It is likely it will work in the ATMs you find and while you will have to pay an international transaction fee, this is the way to get the best rates. Remember that chip and pin cards are not yet common in the United States and if you do use your credit card for purchases, you will have to sign for them.

Make sure to pack supplies such as sunscreen and bug spray. You do not want to be buying sunscreen at a beach resort. If you do need to buy anything like that, find a Wal-Mart or a Target - they almost always have the lowest prices.

Don't over schedule. Plan days when you don't intend to do anything other than relax.


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    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Jennifer, one alternative to a steady diet of cheap but unhealthy fast food are places like Subway where you can pick the ingredients for your sandwich (and even the bread), as well as watch it being assembled. If you don't have a large appetite, but are closest enough to your lodgings, it more economical to order the foot-long, then have both halves wrapped separately, and save the second half for dinner. Or if traveling with a companion, split a foot-long. Some Subways will allow you to order different ingredients on each half.

      If you're renting a car and traveling in rural areas outside major cities, then small-town "Mom 'n Pop" cafes are your best option, especially at dinner time. Such places serve full meals for a fraction of what a chain or "fancy" restaurant charges. Also, if you want to find out what Americans are *really* like, these are the best places to do it. Owners and employees of small-town cafes are generally MUCH more friendly than those in large cities, and are usually happy to answer any question you have about the area. Sometimes with more information than you ever wanted to know!

      Voted up and awesome!