We’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair bit in the United States, and one of the questions that we’re always asked is – how much does it cost to travel in the USA? Particularly on the kind of trips we do, which tend to be self-drive road trips.
Well, today I’m going to see if I can help you figure that out, so you can budget for your own trip accordingly.
A few things to keep in mind. In reality, this kind of question is much like asking “how long is a piece of string”, because, the answer really is – it depends. If you want to rock luxury hotels and fine dining, your budget is naturally going to be a little different to someone looking for budget eats and motel stays. In addition, prices vary depending on location, with major cities like San Francisco and New York always going to be more expensive options.
Thankfully, the USA has a wide range of options to suit most tastes, and is still a country that can be travelled enjoyably on a relatively low budget. In this post, I’ll be sharing some budget ranges to give you an idea of what to spend, plus some quick and easy ways to save money as you go.
This budgeting guide is going to focus more on a self-drive road trip as I believe that’s the best way to experience the country. It gives you the flexibility to plan your own itinerary, stop when and where you want, and experience as much (or as litle!) as you want each day. If you’ve not driven in the USA before, don’t worry, I’ve put together some tips for driving in the USA.
Let’s look at each of the key areas where you’re likely to spend money on your trip in the USA, and see how the costs work out.
Accommodation Costs for Travel in the USA
Definitely one of the main costs associated with your trip, and not one you can easily avoid unless you buy a tent or rent a campervan – and even then you’ll likely have to pay campsite fees.
The good news is that the US has a range of accommodation options to meet pretty much every niche, from cosy B&B’s to budget motels to hostels to campsites to high end palaces of modern luxury.
Price Ranges for Accommodation in the USA
Budget: You’re generally looking in the region of $40 – $80 per night for two people for a private room
Mid-range: You can get very reasonable accommodation for $100 – $200 per night for two people for a private room
High-end: The sky’s the limit, but $300+ is your starting point I’d suggest
Money Saving Tips for Accommodation
Use budget chains. Many budget travellers turn to hostels when looking for cheap accommodation. This is definitely an option in the US, especially if you are travelling on your own, but in our experience travelling as a couple, the best value was found with low-cost hotels & motels – chains like Red Roof Inn or Motel 6. You’ll find these clustered around Interstate Exits, as well as on the outskirts of most towns and cities. It’s not going to be a glamorous experience, but in our experiences, you’ll usually get a bed, some form of breakfast, your own bathroom, and free parking.
Book online. For the majority of our hotel and motel stays, we found the best prices online, using price comparison sites like HotelsCombined. In many cases, we have arrived at a property, asked for their rates, compared against those online, and then asked if they were willing to price match. In nearly every case, the desk clerk would just tell us to book via the online site. Savings could be substantial, so for the five minute inconvenience this was definitely worth it.
Look at casinos. Another option to think about are casinos. Many of these offer relatively good value mid-range rooms in the hopes that you’ll spend big on the casino floor – if you can avoid that temptation then you might end up saving. They also usually have cheap dining & drinking options, again, in the hopes that you’ll spend your money gambiling.
Use alternative sites. Finally, don’t forget to think outside the box. There’s a huge range of accommodation options available beyond the normal – check out websites like AirBnB to widen your scope of options and (potentially) reduce your costs. Don’t forget though, AirBnB isn’t the only game in town – check out my guide to AirBnB alternatives to flesh out your digital toolkit for booking the best value accommodation!
Transport Costs for Travel in the USA
A self-drive road trip is going to require a car. There are of course other ways to get around the US, including trains, buses and planes, but that’s for a different post. In this post I’m going to focus specifically on travelling by car. Again, for more tips on driving in the US, including car rental requirements and driving advice, check out my tips for driving in the USA post.
Also, bear in mind that car rental costs are significantly higher if you’re under 25, as the insurance premiums that rental companies charge are much higher under this age group.
Price Ranges for Car Rental in the USA
Budget: $200 per week for a budget car that will comfortably fit two people and luggage
Mid-range: $250 – $300 for a mid-range car that will easily fit four people and luggage
High-end: $350 – $500 for a high end car such as a convertible, large SUV or luxury vehicle
Money Saving Tips for Car Rental
Don’t book for city use. If you’re hiring a car, only hire it for the time period you need. If you’re flying in and out of a city, in most cases you’re unlikely to need the car until you leave the city, so don’t spend money you don’t need to on rental or overpriced city parking fees. Instead, save money by renting for the day you leave the city, and return on the day you get back to the city.
Take advantage of weekly rates. Be aware that rates vary depending on if you are hiring by the day or by the week. You can score significant savings on longer term rentals when the weekly rates kick in, plus many car-hire companies appreciate longer term rentals and may give you a free upgrade to a roomier car. In our experience, we always book the smallest car and end up driving something which by European standards anyway would be a mid-range vehicle – plenty of room for the two of us and luggage!
Avoid airport surcharges. This can be harder to do, but you should be aware that the convenience of picking a car up at an airport location often carries a hefty surcharge. Take a bit of time to compare rental fees for city locations and the airport locations, and if it’s easy enough to get from the airport to a city centre pick up, it may be worth the savings.
Avoid peak times. This tip pretty much applies to every section in this guide. If you visit a location during a key event when demand is high, such as New Orleans during Mardi Gras, or Albuquerque during the International Balloon Fiesta, you will find that prices can be significantly higher across the board for everything from accommodation to car hire. Obviously, if you need to visit during these times, then go for it, but be aware that costs will be higher, and you will need to plan that into your budget accordingly. If you don’t want to attend these events, try to avoid visiting when they’re happening.
Avoid additional fees. One way that car rental companies make a great income is by trying to get you to sign up to various additional services, including additional insurance and damage waiver fees. These are usually very expensive – sometimes even more so than the car rental itself! We definitely don’t suggest you skip out on necessary insurance, however, there are most cost effective ways of obtaining peace of mind. Many credit cards, for example, include this cover if you pay for the car rental using their service. There are also cost-effective third party insurance options. For more information, check out my driving in the USA tips post.
Avoid one-way trips. If you’re doing a road trip, it is usually tempting to start in one location and finish in another. Unfortunately, car rental firms often levy a fee for one-way rentals, which can make this a costly idea. Obviously, in many cases you won’t be able to avoid this, but it’s worth bearing in mind, and also worth noting that many online price comparison sites fail to take this into account when providing quotes. We’ve found Enterprise to be among the best value when it came to low one-way fees.
Buy and sell back. This certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you are travelling in the USA for a prolonged period of time (more than three months I’d suggest), then buying a car might be more cost effective than a long term rental, depending on factors like insurance. It’s definitely more hassle, and you will need both a US address for the registration documents and to purchase car insurance. When I travelled in New Zealand and in Australia, I bought and sold a car for both of those trips, which was a very worthwhile investment.
Shop for the cheapest gas. That car you rent needs fuel to get it moving – the good news being fuel in the US is relatively cheap. Prices can vary a lot from gas station to gas station, so shop around for the cheapest deals. Generally, gas stations at Interstate exits are more expensive. Also, be aware that prices can vary wildly between states, so if you’re doing something like Route 66, where you cross a lot of states, check prices using a site or app like GasBuddy to see where you can save.
Use a comparison engine. We nearly always book our car hire after using one of the online pricing engines, with Priceline being our favourite for car rental in the USA. When the cheapest offer comes up, we’ll also check that with the rental company in question just in case they have an offer, or there are fees that Priceline doesn’t show. However, in most cases, Priceline’s comparison service gives us the best deal. Check prices here now.
Sight-seeing Costs when Travelling in the USA
On to the fun stuff! Obviously, the kind of sight-seeing you choose to do will vary depending on your interest, but I’d guess you might be interested in attractions, museums, national parks and that sort of thing.
Costs for Sight-Seeing in the USA
Obviously this is up to you, but we’d suggest you budget in the region of $10 – $30 per person per day for sight-seeing costs. Here are some ways to save.
Money Saving Tips for Sight-Seeing
Get a City Pass. If you’re planning on doing a lot of sight-seeing in one city, then see if you can find a city pass for that city. For example, the CityPass company covers a range of destinations, plus there's the Las Vegas and New Orleans passes. These are usually very cost-effective ways of seeing a lot of attractions, and sometimes include public transport and skip the line access as well.
Buy a Parks Pass. One of the best things about the USA are its incredible National Parks. These usually have an entry fee, however if you’re going to be visiting a number of parks, you can save by investing in Annual Pass. These represent excellent value for money, with one $80 fee covering you and up to three other people in your vehicle for entry into over 2,000 parks across the US for a year.
Find free days. There are a lot of free museums and other attractions throughout the USA. What you might not know is that even the paid attractions often have “free entry” days, where you can visit for free. These can fall on a particular day of the month, or may line up with a national “free museum” day. Just use the internet to search for the city and attraction type you’re interested in to see if you can score free entry.
Book in advance. This doesn’t always save you money, but it can save you time, and time is also important! Many popular attractions allow you to book in advance, skipping the long lines and letting you get straight in. You’re paying for your trip, so you might as well make the most out of the time you have!
Use concessions. If you fit into a specific category such as age group, disability, military service or membership of an organisation, you may qualify for either a discount or even free entry at many locations. Just research in advance so you know what you’re entitled to.
Food Costs in the USA
Food! There’s so much choice in the USA, so basically whatever you’re into, and even if you’ve got allergies or intolerances, you’re probably going to be able to eat well wherever you go, and at a reasonable price.
Price Ranges for Food in the USA
Budget: $5 – $10 per person per meal at a fast food restaurant, food truck or diner
Mid-range: $15 – $25 per person per meal at a reasonable restaurant, gastropub
High-end: $50+ per person per meal at a nice restaurant
Money Saving Tips for Food in the USA
Split portions. Food potions in the USA tend to be very generous. So generous in fact, that when Jess and I eat out, we normally split a main (known as an entrée) between us, and it’s still more than enough food. Many restaurants will happily split a meal for you, or at least give you an extra plate. Sometimes there will be a “split charge”, but this should be clearly marked on the menu.
Get a box. If you order too much food and can’t eat it all, don’t waste it! Nearly every restaurant will be happy for you to take your food with you – just ask for a box, and they’ll be happy to provide. In the UK, this is not a common practice, so can feel a bit weird, but I assure you, it’s very normal in the USA!
Cook your own food. Definitely a great way to save on food costs is to cook your own food. Many AirBnB’s come with the basic cooking essentials like oil and spices, and since they’ll usually come with an equipped kitchen, you can definitely save by making your own meals from time to time!
Find the deals. Even if you’re going to splurge, you can still save money by keeping an eye out for deals. Some restaurants do two-for-one deals, have happy hour prices at off-peak times, or offer daily specials. Take advantage of these to save money.
Don’t forget the fast-food options. Sure, these might not be the healthiest of options, but if you’re in a pinch for a budget meal, or just can’t find anywhere else that’s open, fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s or Subway can be a cost-effective way to get a filling meal.
Skip the drinks. One of the nicest things about eating in the USA is that you nearly always will be presented with glasses of water when you sit down. If you can, just stick to water, as it’s free! If you do want to drink, be aware that soft drinks and coffee often come with unlimited refills, so take advantage of that. If you’re happy with water though – stick to it, you can definitely save money by skimping on the drinks – particularly the fancy chain coffee options!
Don’t forget tax and tips. Not a money saving tip – but something to definitely be aware of. If you’ve not travelled in the US before, you might get caught out by the fact that taxes aren’t generally included on the prices of items – instead they’re added when the bill is totalled. If you’re used to sales tax being included (such as in Europe), this might present a bit of bill shock! In addition, tipping is very normal in the USA for service, with tip amounts generally ranging from from 10 – 20%.
In Summary: The Costs of Travel in the USA
I have to say, the USA is definitely one of our favourite countries to travel, and particularly, to road trip in. There’s so much to see and do, really something for everyone, plus it’s relatively safe and easy to travel in.
The other good news is that it’s not that expensive either, at least, if you don’t want it to be. For two people travelling in the US, I’d estimate a cost per person as follows.
Budget: $50 – $80
Mid-range: $100 – $150
High-end: $200 – $300 (and up!)
Don’t forget to add on the cost of getting to the USA as well, plus any visa fees you might have to pay (depending on your nationality).
Final Money Saving Tip for Travelling in the USA!
One of the easiest ways to save money on a road trip in the USA, and anywhere really, is to travel as a group. Many of the costs are fixed, such as car hire, fuel and accommodation, and by having more of you, you can split the costs and reduce the per person price significantly.
A group of 2-4 people travelling together in one vehicle and sharing AirBnB accommodation is definitely more cost effective for a road trip than one person going it alone!
We’ve put together a lot of content on our travels in the USA, plus we have some favourite go-to resources when we’re planning our adventures. Here’s the best of those resources to help you plan your own trip:
- Our guide to planning a Route 66 Trip
- A planning guide for a Pacific Coast Highway Trip
- Tips for Driving in the USA
- A Two Week California Road Trip Itinerary
- Nomadic Matt’s How to Travel the World on $50 a Day – a must read for any budget minded traveller!
- Lonely Planet’s guide to the Best Road Trips in the USA – lots of inspiration here
And that sums up our post on the cost of travel in the USA! Hopefully you found it useful - as always, let us know your thoughts, tips and suggestions in the comments below!