USA Budget Travel Tips

This week’s Indie Travel Challenge prompt asks about budget travel tips for the US. Since I was born and raised in Virginia, USA, I hope I can give you a few tips.

I think one thing that makes a US trip so expensive is that people try to do everything. But you need to remember something.

The US is really big.

For example, I used to drive an hour and a half to the nearest movie theater (yeah, I lived in a rural area) and that was no big deal. Washington DC is a 4-hour drive from my hometown yet when I lived there I often said home was “close” and people agreed.

What does this mean for your US trip? Simple. You can’t see it all. Well, I guess you can if you rush or you have plenty of time. But doing that will be very expensive.

Focus on one area.

Honestly, getting from one place to another will be your biggest expense. I know it’s tempting since you’re there to go to many different places, but if you want to keep a budget, the best way is to simply focus on one area. Now this doesn’t have to be a super small one – simply limiting yourself to one region or even one coast should save you money.

For instance, seeing DC, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston in one trip is very doable. There are cheap buses between these cities – like BoltBus, Chinatown Bus, and MegaBus.

Don’t take the train.

Maybe train travel is cheap and easy in your country. But in America, the train system is kind of pathetic. It’s extremely expensive (flying is usually cheaper!) and seems to be rarely on time. There are a few routes that you could make an exception for – such as these routes as written about on Frommer’s.

Another place you may spend a lot of money is food.

Remember, the price on the menu is not the final price.

This goes for shopping purchases too! Retailers and restaurants never put the full price on the tag or the menu. I would say they aren’t trying to trick you, but that’s not entirely true. When you’re at a restaurant, you need to add about 20% to the price to figure out the final price, because you will have to pay tax (often around 5% but it varies by state – in New York City it’s 8.75%) and then a tip (15% is customary – leave more if you liked the service, wait staff live off of tips).

This is why takeout or fast food is often cheaper. Like many places, going out for lunch is cheaper than going out for dinner. Buying food at a grocery store and cooking it yourself is always cheaper than going out. Restaurants in small towns are cheaper than restaurants in big cities, typically.

Use Yelp to find places to eat.

Yelp is awesome. You can find exactly the sort of thing you want to eat – you can filter by neighborhood, distance from you (on the mobile app), price range, type of cuisine, and whether it’s open now. I can’t recommend Yelp enough!

How about accommodations? The US doesn’t exactly have a huge amount of cheap hostels.

Try CouchSurfing.

CouchSurfing is a network in which you can find free places to stay. Many cities in the US have vibrant CouchSurfing communities, and even if you don’t want to sleep on people’s couches, I recommend joining just to get travel tips and find people to show you around places. Another cheap option is camping, especially if you plan to visit some of our national parks.

Finally, activities can add expense to your trip.

Find free activities in the places you’re going.

National Geographic’s Free to See page is a great place to start. You can also just search “free stuff to do in [city name here]” and you will find plenty of good results. Washington DC is home to the Smithsonian Institution, a research and educational organization with 19 museums in DC plus the national zoo – all completely free! Even the big, paid admission museums in places like New York City often have free days – for instance, MoMA is free from 4-8 PM on Fridays. Just check the websites of the places you want to go to find this information.

Another way to cut down the price of activities is to check daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial. I would suggest only using these sites for activities you wanted to do anyway. It can be really tempting to go on there, see an amazing deal for something you didn’t consider doing, and buy it – but this can actually lead you to spend more money! In addition, if you’ve chosen to buy a coupon on the site, be extra sure to read the fine print. As long as you use them carefully, these sites are great. I have used both for great DC area deals on restaurants, and in one case a polo class.

Hopefully these tips will help you save a bit of money on your trip to the US. It may not be the cheapest place to travel, but I think it’s absolutely worth visiting!

Do you have any USA budget travel tips?

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