After journeying around the entire continental U.S during the very busy summer months this year we got pretty adept at learning how to maximise on freebies and making our pennies stretch as far as possible. We didn’t reinvent the wheel but a few key pointers helped keep the budget down and we thought they might be useful for anyone considering a similar trip.
Take/buy a tent
Firstly camping is really good fun. I have my limits, usually around 3 nights max before I need a break but sleeping under the stars and huddling around the campfire is a brilliant experience. If you live in the U.S chucking a tent in the back of your car is as easy a pie, if you’re travelling from overseas and can’t fit one in your luggage it’s a little more of an effort but still worth it. Work out how much your gear will cost and a rough guide of $15-20 for a pitch per night and compare it to hotel costs. For our trip, we were in North America for 4.5 months and we bought the following:
- $25 – basic tent
- $40 – sleeping bags x2
- $18 – air mattress, not essential but it made it a whole lot more comfortable
The gear paid for itself within no time.
This was a life-saver during the very expensive summer months. Hotels/motels hike their prices by up to 50% but Air bnb rates stay fairly consistent. We spent pretty much the whole month of August either in our tent or in Air bnb properties. Most importantly, the hosts we have stayed with have been the highlight of our trip, we’ve met some fantastic people that we really hope to stay in touch with.
As soon as September started we began to get some fantastic last minute deals, we were paying between $40-$60 per night which is incredible. My favourite sites to use are:
Hotwire.com – Search on your chosen area and dates and they give you a list of secret hotels to choose from. You’re also given the star rating, percentage of Hotwire customers that recommend the property and the Tripadvisor rating. I still get slightly nervous every time I click ‘buy’ but we haven’t been disappointed yet.
Priceline – Huge variety here. A list of named hotels, express deals which hide the name of the hotel again and also the option to place your own bid for a particular area to potentially make an even bigger saving. Priceline always have a great number of options and will also look outside your chosen area to provide you with a price comparison.
Take a GPS
This one is all about saving your sanity! I’ve always been a traditionalist on road trips, relying on maps and directions in the past. However, we knew that 3 months driving in the U.S and 6 weeks in Canada would cause major strife between us if we were relying on maps. I was really worried about paying over the odds for a GPS in Canada as electrical items are way more expensive than in the States but we struck gold.
We wandered into Walmart, explained that we wanted the cheapest system possible and the nice sales clerk magically produced an ex-demonstrator from behind the counter. He told us we could bring it back to any store within 14 days for a full refund if something broke or didn’t work and sold it to us for $40! The best part was that every new purchase received a free download of the latest maps.
‘Mandy’ has saved many, many arguments and did not make a single mistake the entire trip. We have driven in Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C – all of which would have been horrendous without her. Unless you’re going for a short holiday and can plan exact details of where you’re going, take a GPS!
Ah the traveler food of legend, the $5 sub. Paul always quips that I create a taste sensation with my orders but the trick is to order any $5 sub and ask for every single vegetable to be added. It feeds two of you and ensures you are eating plenty of veggies.
Maximise on free breakfasts
If you’re doing a U.S road trip, chances are you will be staying in a few hotels and motels. Most offer a free (usually continental) breakfast and we’ve certainly made the most of them. Typically we’d have a bowl of cereal and then either a waffle, toast or English muffin making sure to load up on fruit juice too. However, we’d always swipe at least a couple of pieces of fruit and a pastry/muffin for later in the day. This would usually keep us going until dinner so we didn’t have to buy lunch.
Eat local but also keep an eye on chain offers
The cheapest and arguably the best food is likely to be found in independent places. We have eaten in some spectacular places that have been within our budget and I’m a huge fan of the independent American diner. However, also look out for chain restaurant offers. An awful lot of them offer ‘2 for $20’ or special offers on particular dishes. Yeah your food will have been made by ‘the man’ but you do have to watch those pennies.
Keep a pantry in the car
We always buy a cooler on road trips overseas, our latest one was $15. Instead of having to constantly buy ice, just keep empty drinks bottles, fill them up with water and freeze them when you stay in a motel. We always keep a store of Gatorade, cookies, 4lt water canister, granola bars, fruit, emergency chocolate rations for hiking, crisps, beer and road sweets.
Buy visitor attraction passes
The top one here and the steal of the century is the National Parks (America the Beautiful) Annual Pass. This is incredible value at $80 per vehicle so if you have a big family it’s a great cost saver. If you plan on visiting 4 or more parks in one trip it will pay for itself. During this particular trip we’ve visited 13 National Parks and National Monuments which would have cost us nearly $200 in total, still not a bad price but why pay it when you can save.
Certain major cities offer Cities Passes which provide you with hefty discounts if you’re planning on visiting a number of attractions. We bought one in Chicago and it saved us about $160. They offer similar passes in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, LA, Houston, Philadelphia and Toronto.
Random tips that will save a few quid
We’re British, a nation of fairly reserved, mostly polite people who don’t like to make a fuss, have awkward conversations or take advantage of anything. Yeah, not so much anymore, learn to love the coupons!
- Take every hotel shampoo, conditioner, body lotion you come across. Seriously, we’ve not bought toiletries on this trip yet. Plus, they want you to take them, hence why they plaster their branding all over. Just draw the line at bathrobes and blankets!
- Coin operated laundry is always cheaper in hotels and motels, if you’re planning a trip longer than a week try to coincide laundry with these places.
- Avoid stopping at the first gas station you come across in a new town, they are usually the most expensive and when prices vary as much as they do in the U.S it could save you quite a bit.
- Never buy a large soft drink. There are some exceptions but most places offer free refills so save your pennies and refill. We took this to the extreme in a well known fast food joint in Vegas, we asked for a small soda just so we could go in and use the free wifi but had 4 refills whilst we were in there.