With a bit of planning, visiting the USA can be fun and done on a tight budget.
Abundant with mountains, canyons, rivers and beaches, the great outdoors is one of America’s finest treasures, and much of our natural splendor is free. Camping costs are minimal, too. Small towns are typically quite affordable, with mom-and-pop motels and restaurants keeping their prices low.
Popular metropolitan areas like New York City, Washington, DC, and San Francisco, however, are famously pricey, and hotels, restaurants and museums work hard to lighten your bank account. But even in big cities, there are deals to be found.
For the best ba, start planning your trip early and make as many reservations as you can before you arrive. Daily travel costs vary significantly across the US. Accommodations will typically be a significant chunk of your budget don’t forget that you’ll probably have to pay lodging taxes at your hotel and motel, which aren’t part of the advertised price.
Renting a car will also have a large impact on your budget, plus you may have to pay for daily and overnight parking. To save money, compare all transport options and use a combination that is kind to your wallet. We’ve got the top tips and daily cost breakdown you need to get the most bang for your buck when traveling in the USA.
Seek out cheap domestic flights and onward travel options
If you are booking any domestic flights, consider flying in and out of smaller regional airports near a major city, like Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, New York, or Hollywood Burbank near Los Angeles. The smaller carriers frequenting these airports often have very affordable fares. Flying may be your best bet if you’re traveling vast distances since routes run by Amtrak (the US rail network) are not comprehensive and are frequently inconvenient.
In larger cities, an increasing number of light-rail trains are carrying passengers from the airport to transportation hubs or downtown areas. Light-rail fares are typically much lower than a taxi or rideshare. Also, do some comparison shopping before booking a rental car – thanks to airport fees, the price is often higher at the airport than at an off-site agency.
If you’re confident of your itinerary, pre-paying for your rental may also save you money. Finally, let Autoslash do a quick comparison for you – they can often unearth discounts you didn’t know about.
Save money on hotels and motels
Budget hotel chains like Travelodge and Super 8 provide clean rooms at a low price but don’t expect brand-new furniture or loads of amenities. Many larger chains are opening trendy budget brands – think small rooms, spare digs and splashy colors. For a few more bucks, consider Drury Hotels, which often have hearty complimentary breakfasts and happy-hour spreads (sometimes with beer and wine), and Best Western. Most cities, towns and resort areas will have a few good independently owned motels.
Third-party booking sites can offer great rates but check the actual hotel website too. By booking directly, you can build points in hotel loyalty programs, which can apply toward future stays. You may also have more say in room choice, and canceling may be easier. If the hotel isn’t busy, you can typically get a discount by mentioning any road and travel plans you have, or simply by asking for a lower rate.
It’s also worth flipping through the coupon booklets – often with green covers – stacked at welcome centers and rest areas beside interstate highways. These can list rates for mid-range hotels that beat anything you’ll find on the internet.
Airbnb and VRBO rentals may be an economical option, but cleaning fees and hidden costs will often increase the rate well above what was initially advertised. Also, check rates for guesthouses and B&Bs, where you will likely get good insights on local attractions from the proprietors. Hostels are another budget-friendly option, but they are not as abundant in the US as in other countries. You will find at least one or two hostels in most larger cities, however, and near larger national parks.
Consider visiting in May or September
High season across most of the US is summer (June through August) when schools are not in session, and families hit the road on vacation. Lodging prices are typically at their peak. Consider visiting national parks and resort destinations in May, right before summer vacation begins, or in September, right after the kids go back to school. Prices tend to be lower, the weather is still pleasant, and you’ll miss the crowds.
Waterfalls are often at their fullest in May thanks to spring showers and melting snowpack, and wildflowers are abundant. Don’t arrive too early in spring (March/April) in upper New England, though. Many inns and attractions are closed during “mud season,” when frozen roads and landscapes begin their messy thaw. September sees warm weather, and it is typically too early in the season for foliage hunters, who converge on forested areas as leaves begin to turn color and keep lodging prices high.
Don’t say no to camping – sometimes it’s barely camping!
Pitching a tent remains a popular budget option…except for those who hate sleeping in a tent! But don’t rule it out just yet – you might be surprised by the many “camping” options available. At large commercial campgrounds like KOA, you’ll often find sturdy canvas tents, yurts and wooden cabins. These come with cots or bunk beds, and sinks, showers and toilets are in shared facilities. Prices are typically under $150 per night unless you rent a larger cabin with more amenities.
You can also find intriguing budget options on private property through Hipcamp and Tentrr. Amenities vary, but sites as low as $25 are common, although the cheaper ones may not have showers or potable water. At glamping resorts, you’ll sleep in canvas tents and yurts furnished with cots, comfy linens, wood stoves and basic furniture – but don’t expect budget prices for these!
Developed campgrounds are commonplace in national and state parks, and campsites often cost under $40 per night. RV campgrounds in the larger parks will run closer to $80-90. Also check for inexpensive primitive campgrounds in national forests.
You can sleep for free in many national forests and on vast swaths of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), most of it in the West. Just check the rules on regional BLM websites about dispersed camping – which means no hookups or amenities. There are typically restrictions on the length of your stay and the location, which should be a certain distance from water sources and the road. If you’re traveling in an RV, you may be able to park for free – called boondocking – in a Walmart parking lot, though you won’t have any electrical hookups. Check with management at individual stores to confirm you can stay.
Take advantage of free admission to national, state and city parks
Most of the well-known national parks charge an entrance fee ($30-35), which covers a vehicle and all of its occupants for seven days. You can save about $15 if you hike or bike into the park.
The National Park Service also offers five “fee-free” days annually – check park websites for the dates. There are a handful of free national parks, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which charges $5 per day for parking), Great Basin National Park in Nevada, New River Gorge National Park & Preserve in West Virginia and Congaree National Park in South Carolina.
State parks often rival national parks for the quality of their views, and entrance fees are typically under $10. All state parks in West Virginia have free admission. City parks are free, and larger ones offer a slew of opportunities for outdoor recreation as well as camping. Multi-use greenways and rail trails are a healthy and scenic way to explore cities and surrounding forests and mountains.
Make the most of sightseeing passes
If you’re planning to visit more than one national park, consider buying an America the Beautiful (Interagency) Pass. The pass costs $80 and covers admission at all sites managed by the National Park Service and other federal agencies for one year.
In many cities, you can purchase sightseeing passes that include admission to numerous attractions at a reduced overall rate. If you plan to visit several museums and tourist attractions, the pass will likely save you money. Look for them at visitor centers or on city tourism websites.
Admire art and artifacts on a budget
You don’t have to pay admission at the 19 Smithsonian Museums (including the zoo) in Washington, DC. Also free? The Getty Center in Los Angeles (though parking is $20), the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, the Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Museum in Baltimore, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Some museums offer monthly free days, often sponsored by local businesses. In NYC, there are free or “pay what you wish” days at the Whitney Museum of American Art (7pm-10pm Fri) and the National September 11th Memorial & Museum (Mondays, tickets available online from 7am – first come, first served). The Denver Art Museum has free days throughout the year.
Bank of America cardholders enjoy free admission at more than 225 museums during the first full weekend of the month pursuant to their “Museums on Us” program. Veterans, active military, seniors and students typically get a discounted museum ticket admission. On occasion, you can save a dollar or two at a private museum or popular attraction by buying your ticket online ahead of your visit.
Art galleries are typically free, and it can be fun to explore a bunch of them during a public art walk. Participating galleries offer light snacks, wine and conversation traditionally at no cost. These walks are typically held on a set Friday or Saturday once per month and begin around 5pm.
Public art, street art and murals are always free, and city visitor centers often provide maps for art walks and mural trails. Cities with great murals include Austin, Tucson, Phoenix, Memphis and Asheville. You’ll find engaging public art trails in Scottsdale, AZ and Columbia, SC, too. And who knows what you’ll see while walking the High Line in NYC!
Take yourself on a walking tour
Most cities and larger small towns have a historic downtown core. Stop by the local visitor center or chamber of commerce to pick up a free, self-guided walking tour map of historic sites, usually just a short walk away. You can often download these maps, and some include an audio component.
Many towns will have one or more themed tours, like the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail in Alabama, art and architecture trails in Asheville and Route 66 and haunted sites tours in Flagstaff, AZ.
Get a free education
College campuses can be great places to soak up culture for free, especially during the school year (September to May). State universities and many private colleges often have free art and cultural museums, and it’s worth checking a college’s online calendars for talks, panels and movie screenings that are open to the public at no charge.
Eat well for less at diners and food trucks
Eating in restaurants has become increasingly pricey thanks to ongoing inflation. One place you’re still likely to find a good deal is a diner. Marked by a long counter with stools, a stretch of booths and maybe a few freestanding tables, diners are an American classic, known for their breakfasts and simple but filling lunches and dinners. You can still find a good meal under $12 per person, especially if you drink water, not soda. Most are independently owned and open early. Coffee refills are usually free.
Some restaurants, especially those serving pizza and lots of takeout meals, will have a midweek special. Look for buy-one, get-one-half-off deals as well as specials on combo meals. Slices of pizza are usually pretty big, with the price of a slice hovering around $3.
Food trucks can be a tasty source of cheap eats – hot dogs and tacos are reliably inexpensive. Note, however, that gourmet food trucks, which sell everything from lobster rolls to pork belly sandwiches, aren’t usually a great deal. Many US grocery stores sell premade sandwiches and salads in their deli area, and these usually cost less than $10. You may see slightly lower food prices at Aldi, Lidl and Trader Joe’s.
Average Daily Costs in the USA
- Hostel dorm room: $32–75
- Basic motel room: $75–150
- Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from $100
- Camping: free to $50
- Public transport: $2-5 (occasionally free)
- Rental car: $45-80 per day
- Coffee: $3
- Sandwich to-go: $9
- Mid-range dinner for two: $30-50
- Beer at a bar: $5-8
Total average daily cost per person: $150-300