How to Road Trip Through America on a Tight Budget

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My wife and I just recently completed an epic road-trip across the continent and back. It was a journey that took 12 months to plan, 22 days to complete, but felt like it went by in 7 days. It was an unforgettable experience.

Being in Canada, the weakness of the dollar seemed to be a strong deterrent for many towards traveling through the States. But because we were so bent on doing this trip, we found ways to travel cheaply with our slim budget. And you can too!

Ditch the hotels and camp

To put it bluntly, hotels are a rip-off.

You pay a minimum of $100 USD for the cheapest, dumpiest places you can find, just to have a place to sleep. Camping, on the other hand, is amazingly affordable. We paid $24 USD, in prime tourist season, for a beautiful campsite in Yellowstone. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK.

Now, since we were spending a decent amount of time in Grizzly bear country, my wife wasn’t keen on sleeping in a tent. So we camped in the car.

Enter: the Honda Hilton

You may notice our Honda Fit looks roughly the size of a toaster. But I assure you, it’s cavernous inside (I will refrain from ranting about just how much I love this car).

We threw the front seats back, and cozied up with our blankets and pillows. We used mosquito netting with magnet strips on our doors, so we could roll down the windows at night and get some fresh air. (My genius, doting mother made ours herself. But feel free to look up some YouTube tutorials to make your own.)

I can assure you we did not camp for 21 nights straight. There’s only so much I could put my wife through. We instead alternated a couple nights of camping with a few nights of hotels.

If you’re worried about your hygiene, the campgrounds usually have showers, and your stay includes two free shower tickets. They are surprisingly well maintained, and you’ll feel like a million bucks after washing off all that sweet, sweet camp stank.

Buy the America the Beautiful parks pass

If you are planning a USA trip, it goes without saying that you need to visit one (or more) of the National Parks. Our trip took us through 5 national parks, and other Federally-operated recreational areas. The entrance fee for all these places would’ve totaled up to over $100 US. Instead, we purchased the America the Beautiful pass ahead of time.

That right there is your do-what-you-want-and-get-away-with-it badge. Not really, but it’ll get you into over 50 national parks in the United States, plus over 2,000 other places run by the National Parks Service. It costs $80, so we saved over $20 by purchasing it. The best part is, it lasts for 12 months from your date of purchase, which means we can do more trips and still get into all the parks for free.

Sign up for and use AirMiles

I remember months ago driving with my brother, and in trying to find a gas station, I requested that it only be Shell. Why? Because AirMiles that’s why.

My brother kinda made fun of me for it and gave me this “Seriously?” sorta face. Both because he thought it was a silly, “married person” thing to do, and also because he’s kind of a know it all.

In just one year I was able to collect thousands of AirMiles just from buying things I was going to anyway, like groceries and gas. I also took advantage of some free credit card offers to get the free Miles signup bonus, and then cancelled the credit cards.

In the end, I was able to save up enough for $150 in gas, and 6 nights of hotels. All you pay is the tax, which means a stay at the Hilton Executive Tower in downtown Portland cost us $25. We saved hundreds of dollars over the course of our trip.

Plan, plan, plan

When we were showing pictures to friends and family, I realized I was hearing a couple questions over and over:

“Did you know you were going to see that?”
“Did you know you were gonna be driving that amazing road?”

I was happy to be able to say “Yeah, I did.”

That’s because I had planned it out like crazy. It was my passion project for over a year. We were driving to the other side of the continent, so I didn’t want to drive thousands of miles just to find out that I had missed something amazing. So yeah, I knew we’d be on this mountain road, that we would see that waterfall, that we would find this awesome Thai place.

I ordered a free travel brochure from every state we went through, I searched Instagram, and I read as many travel blogs as I could find. But, honestly, one of the best places for finding travel spots is on Pinterest.

Try searching on Pinterest for a city or state you’re visiting, and watch the results pour in. You’ll be amazed the hidden gems you find.

Of course, with all that planning, be sure to leave room for spontaneity. Oftentimes the unplanned moments yield the most pleasant surprises.

Traveling cheaply isn’t impossible. It just requires a little creativity and persistence.

Picture of James Antinozzi

James Antinozzi

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