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12 Best Ways to Save Money on a USA Road Trip

Road tripping across the USA can be an expensive business, once you’ve added the cost of your flight, your hotel, car and supplies up. I’ve done the Pacific Coast Highway route from San Francisco to LA twice now, so with my eye on the budget and a penchant for getting things as cheap as possible, here are my top tips for saving money on your USA road trip.

1. Share the car

If there are four of you, you can divide the cost of the car and petrol by four, obviously. It makes sense financially to organise a group trip for your friends, rather than to try to do it by yourself.

2. Take the car back

Picking the car up and then dropping it off again in a different location will incur a one way fee – this could be up to $300 in some places. Petrol is so cheap in the US – over 500 miles in the Chevrolet cost around $60 – if you have the time you could turn back around and drop the car back where you got it from to avoid the cost.

You don’t have to go miles for a road trip in the US, take a look at these easy road trips from Chicago for example.

3. Sleep in your car, or camp

Road Trip Pacific Coast Highway

Save cash by sleeping anywhere but a hotel. Bring a tent along in the boot (better get used to calling it a trunk) and you can camp anywhere. The USA has some incredible National Parks you could stay in, but check out the rules of overnight camping first. Alternatively, get a bigger car and you could sleep in the back.

4. Eat a picnic

You can eat pretty well in the US on the cheap, and you can eat really, really badly too. Fast food is so cheap and easy to come by. The cheapest and healthiest way to eat would be to go to the supermarkets and get a range of food to picnic on throughout the day. There are so many places to pull over along routes like the Pacific Coast Highway, that you could eat your dinner with a view.

5. Buy snacks at Walmart

Buying your car snacks at the local shops may be more fun, but if you want to save money on your road trip buying from Walmart will be much cheaper. You could also buy some large waters to stop you spending at the over priced mini bars in hotels too. Stock up on anything you’ve forgotten here while you’re at Walmart for the best prices.

6. Eat local

USA road trip

If you do want to eat out, try local diners instead of the big chain restaurants or fast food outlets. You’ll have more of a unique experience, and they tend to be cheaper too. Remember this is America so your portions will be huge – if you can’t eat it all, ask for a doggy bag and it’ll do for your next meal too.

7. Plan your trip

Plan your trip well so you know exactly where you’re going and can choose the cheapest route. According to the US Department of Transportation 4,630 miles of highway in 25 states have toll charges so plan your trip to avoid them, and mark in the cheap gas stations too. Don’t go too out of the way to find them though, it could end up costing you even more.

8. Book ahead

You can save quite a bit of money by booking your hotels ahead of time. Plan your sleepovers and you can look around for the best deals and prices. It will also save on petrol if you know exactly where you’re going and don’t have to drive around looking for empty rooms and the best deals.

9. Pack well

Tips for a pacific coast highway trip

Remembering to bring all the essentials like sun cream, towels and toothpaste can save quite a bit on just picking these things up from the nearest shops along the way. Remember to bring all the batteries, chargers and cameras that you’ll need as these are the most often forgotten and most expensive items. If you do forget something, see point 5 above.


10. Tell your bank

My credit card company charges £5 per withdrawal. When Natwest cancels my card, which they decide to do every so often, I have to use my credit card. Over the last year I’ve spent more than £150 on cash withdrawals on my card, absolutely extortionate. Make sure to tell your bank before you go away, and if you’re with Natwest, you might have to remind them, repeatedly.

Take enough cash with you too, you don’t want to be stuck somewhere random and find that your credit card doesn’t work so you can’t buy your road trip snacks.

11. Open the windows

Road trip tips and advice

Not only is opening the windows the coolest way to keep cool, it also saves on energy consumption if you’re used to having the AC on. Don’t sit in a cool box if you’re driving somewhere as beautiful as the Pacific Coast Highway for example, feel the wind in your hair and feel free.

12. Know local laws

One of the quickest ways to bump up the cost of your USA road trip is to get a speeding or parking ticket. Know the local laws and speeds, and double check before you commit to a parking space. In San Francisco you could be charged up to $1000 for parking in the wrong place!


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Got any money tips for potential road trippers?

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J.R. Duren

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

Great tip about Wal-Mart! You can buy snacks at little specialty shops in town or on the side of the highway, but the specialty shops can be expensive and the gas stations cost more than Wal-Mart and usually have the same products.

One suggestion: Visitors have to buy Slurpees for 7-11 on their road trip! It's a classic road-trip treat.


Tuesday 28th of July 2015

Ooo yeah definitely. That was actually a goal for me – to arrive at my car with a slurpee under one arm and a 'bag of chips' in the other. So American!

Emily-Ann (grownupgapyear)

Monday 29th of June 2015

Totally agree with getting doggy bags from restaurants. I usually eat quite small portions back at home, so always ended up taking some of my food from restaurants when we did our Route 66 road trip. There was usually enough left over for lunch for both me and my boyfriend the next day! I'd also recommend staying in local motels if you don't want to camp. They're loads cheaper than the chains and have much more personality too!


Tuesday 30th of June 2015

Yeah you can save loads of money with doggy bags, and they won't think anything of it either as Americans always do it. I stayed in a motel the first year I did it and it was awesome. Just like off the movies!


Monday 29th of June 2015

Great tips as always, Vicki! Another thing you gotta watch out for is school crossings. Also speed limits tend to change when you cross county or state lines. And this is where traffic cops like to lurk. So watch the speed when you see those 'welcome' or 'leaving' signs.


Tuesday 30th of June 2015

Ah yeah, good tips! There were quite a few points where you had to slow down between school hours but the rest of the time you could stick to the stated speed. Good to keep an eye out for them, and to keep an eye on the time so you know what speed you should be going. Cheers for the tips!