From the beauty of the hundreds of national parks, to the world famous landmarks dotted across the country, America is truly a traveler’s paradise. It’s possible to have virtually any kind of experience you’re after in the U.S., but many people believe it to be more costly than heading abroad on a vacation.
Sure, it’s possible to spend a fortune on a five-star hotel and business class flights, but there are also plenty of affordable ways to explore this breathtaking country. (See also: 5 European Cities You Can Visit for $50 a Day)
Opt for low-cost accommodations
If you’re not careful, accommodations can unnecessarily eat up a huge chunk of your travel budget. It will likely end up being your largest expense (unless you choose free options), so it’s vital to tackle this first to bring costs down.
Airbnb is particularly great as an alternative to hotels in major cities — which tend to be far more expensive. The cheapest way to use Airbnb is to use the private room feature. This allows you to book a room in someone’s house rather than having to shell out for an entire place of your own. You’ll have the added benefit of being able to use the kitchen facilities, which can save you tons on food costs. (See also: A First-Timer’s Guide to Using Airbnb)
This is by far the cheapest option when it comes to finding budget accommodations, because it’s absolutely free. It’s best to try and plan couchsurfing far in advance, as it’s unsurprisingly a popular service, and can get booked months ahead. Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s mainly available in big cities, so you’ll need to plan accordingly if you’re heading to a more rural area.
Campsites can cost as little as $5, but if you want to save even more, there are plenty of options for dispersed camping (aka wild camping) that are absolutely free. Wild camping is widely available on Bureau of Land Management land and in National Forests. It could also open up a cheap way to visit National Parks, as much of this land lies directly beside National Park sites. (See also: How to Find Free Campsites in the U.S.)
Nosh on a budget
Food is reasonably cheap in the U.S., so keeping yourself fed and watered shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. However, there are ways to keep your food costs down.
Cook your own meals
Dining in fancy restaurants three times a day is clearly going to bust your budget, so it pays to pick and choose when you eat out. Buying your own groceries and cooking for yourself is by far the most effective way of saving money on food while traveling. This is another reason why hotels are a less cost-effective option than Airbnb, couchsurfing, or camping, as they generally do not provide a kitchen.
Find cheap restaurants
With a little bit of Googling, you can find fantastic cheap restaurants in virtually any part of the U.S. These can be fast food restaurants, diners, or chain restaurants that offer good value for their menu prices. You can also find special offers like weekly deals, kids-eat-free discounts, or offers on the restaurant’s app to cut down the total even more. (See also: 20 Fast Food Apps That Help You Score Free Food)
Find free or affordable activities
There’s so much to see and do across the 50 states that it would be a real shame to miss out because of a lack of funds. However, there are fun, free attractions throughout the country if you know where to look.
Google, Google, Google
Search for the location you’re headed to with the key term, “free things to do in” and the results will most likely turn up numerous offers. Not everything will be your bag, but you’ll certainly come across a few gems no matter where you are. From free museums and art galleries, to one-off events and festivals, you’ll probably be surprised at what you can do without spending a dollar. (See also: 47 Free Things to Do Across the U.S.)
Buy a National Parks pass
If you’re a nature lover, your travels across the U.S. will likely include visiting a National Park or two. If the ones you plan to visit charge entrance fees totaling more than $80, then purchasing a National Parks pass is going to save you money. Plus, it will give you entrance to every single park and, national forest, and Bureau of Land Management site for an entire year. (See also: How to Save on National Park Visits in 2018)
Consider a city pass
Many of the larger cities within the U.S. offer a city pass that gives you access to discounts across the most popular attractions and sometimes even entitles you to free use of the public transportation systems. These can be a great way to save money on an action-packed couple of days and are well worth checking out before arriving at your destination. (See also: 8 Free Things You Can Do on Any Vacation)
Keep transportation costs to a minimum
When you’re traveling across America on the cheap, it’s important to figure out the best method of transportation to take you to your desired locations.
There are numerous ways to get around, and much of it depends on your route, but generally driving works out to be the cheapest, especially compared to flights or trains. Before you leave, however, make sure you get the car inspected to ensure it won’t break down in the middle of nowhere.
You’ll have to budget for gas, and these costs can add up quickly, especially in an area where gas prices are high. To cash in on this common budget buster, use a credit card that offers cash-back or bonus points for gas. That way, even if you do end up spending a lot on gas, you’ll make some of it back via rewards. (See also: How to Take a 7-Day Cross Country Road Trip for $350 or Less)
Rent a car
Another option is to rent a car for your cross-country vacation. By renting, you can guarantee that the car is going to run well, and you can also choose a fuel-efficient model, reducing your gas costs. This option works well for shorter trips, and depending on the rental deal, it can be better than using your own car.