Here are all my best tips to save money on a USA road trip. Follow this advice and you’ll bring the road trip costs down, guaranteed!
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, as well as driving from Miami to Key West, and road tripping from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, among other USA road trips.
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.
How to Save Money on a USA Road Trip
These are my best tips for a cheap road trip. You’re welcome!
1. Share the car with friends
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.
Having more people in the car is without a doubt the best way to save money on a road trip.
2. Take the car back to the start
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.
One of the best ways to enjoy a cheap road trip in the USA, is not to go too far!
3. Sleep in your car, or camp
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. It’s easy to road trip on a budget with a tent.
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.
You could also try couch surfing.
If you can find a way to avoid paying for accommodation, you’ll find it’s one of the best ways to save money on a USA road trip.
4. Eat picnics rather than out
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 it’ll help you to road trip on a budget, but you won’t feel very good for it after.
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. Supermarket food will definitely help you to have a cheap road trip.
Don’t just shop at Walmart though, going on a USA road trip is about the food as much as the adventure. If you were driving from Chicago to Atlanta for example, there are plenty of places to stop on the way to pick up snacks.
6. Eat local
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.
I’ve just updated this itinerary for an ultimate Florida road trip, and there are some great ideas for where to eat in there. It’s important!
7. Plan your trip out
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 in petrol. Knowledge saves money when it comes to cutting costs on a USA road trip.
If you’re doing a really long road trip, like this road trip from New York to Miami, then you’ll save a lot of money if you prep for it properly. You could travel somewhere a little different, like a road trip along the Emerald Coast, or you could do a tried and tested road trip route, like San Francisco to LA.
If you need some inspiration, here are the best road trip routes in the USA (IMHO).
8. Book ahead
If you do need to stay in hotels, you can save quite a bit of money on a road trip 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.
Use a price comparison website well in advance for your car hire too. The sooner you book, the better the deal.
9. Pack well
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. One of the best ways to have a cheap road trip is not to forget anything!
If you do forget something, see point 5 above.
Check out my winter packing list if you’re going at the end of the year, or my Caribbean checklist for the summer.
Read all of my USA Travel Blog Posts to be as prepared as possible!
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
Feel that wind in your hair!
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.
If you want to be more eco friendly on your travels, especially on a road trip, then just using fresh air over air con is one of the best ways to start. For more responsible travel tips, click here.
12. Know the 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 just for parking in the wrong place!
If you were driving from Chicago to New Orleans for example, you’ll travel through many different states, all with their own laws. It’s up to you to look up the laws of your destination – ignorance is no defence!
13. Research free parking
You can save a lot of money on your road trip if you do some research before you go into where to park for free. You do not want to be spending money on unnecessary parking and valet fees – they can add up!
Keep your road trip cheap by cutting down on the costs of parking.
How to save money on a USA road trip
Some of my best adventures have been road trips around the USA, I’d definitely say road tripping is my travel style. I’ve been able to do so many of them because I’ve followed my own advice on how to save money road tripping, and used the cash saved for my next one.
I hope these money saving tips help you in your road trip dreams, and to help you plan your road trip on a budget. If they do, let me know in the comments below!
PIN THESE TIPS FOR SAVING MONEY ON A USA ROAD TRIP FOR LATER
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!
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!