The United States isn’t a popular destination for backpackers and budget travelers. Most people just come here for a short vacation and to visit one or two cities. After all, it’s a large country without a real tourist infrastructure or good cross-country transportation. Hostels really aren’t big in the United States, trains don’t go a lot of places, and we don’t offer working holiday visas. Moreover, most round-the-world tickets only stop in LA or NYC. That being said, the United States is a country that demands more time. There are lots of national parks, a diverse geography, culture, music, and great regional food. Rent a car and drive around. Take some cross-country tours. While the coastal cities are mind-blowing, the U.S. really reveals itself in the middle. I’ve done two massive road trips across the United States and I can tell you that this country amazing, diverse, friendly, and inexpensive. Don’t limit yourself on your visit here!
Accommodation – The US doesn’t have many hostels. Outside major cities, you’ll just find cheap hotels and motels. Hostels dorm beds cost between $25-40 per night. Cheap motels and hotels like Motel 6 or Super 8 cost begin at $35 per night and can be along any highway. Hotels in cities start at $70 per night (in major cities like NYC, they start closer to $100). The US is very vast and prices fluctuate a lot depending on what region you’re in so check out the specific city guides for more detailed information on accommodation. (Note: Did you know I own a hostel? I do! It’s in Austin! Check it out here.)
Food – Food in America is very cheap. Between fast food and cheap sandwich shops, you can eat really well on a budget. Sandwich shops are around $5, fast food will cost you $6 per meal (unless you go after the dollar menu), mid-range sit-down restaurants will cost between $10-15 for a meal and drink. Prices go up from there and the sky is the limit. Expect higher prices in the major cities and coastal cities! If you cook your own food, expect to pay $50-70 per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods.
Transportation – The US is a big country, and its size can make it difficult to travel around. The American road trip is a long-held tradition and gives you the flexibility to see all the off the beaten path places out there. On the coasts, there is an extensive train and bus network (MegaBus, BoltBus, and Greyhound) that is cheap and can get you anywhere, with bus fares as low as $1 USD. Flying is your quickest option but can be very expensive. For cheap flights, consider JetBlue and Southwest. Amtrak runs trains cross-country trains, and while scenic and relaxing, isn’t very cheap compared to the bus. In the interior, you’ll be hard pressed to find a lot of public transportation. As an alternative, Uber is available in many different US cities.
Activities – Given the size and diversity of the country, prices vary too widely to give an accurate description. See each specific city guide for specific prices on local activities.
Suggested daily budget – $40-60 (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, doing lots of free activities, keeping your drinking to a minimum, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
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Money Saving Tips
- Take the regional buses — The best way to get around the regions of the US is by bus. Bus fares cost as little as $1. Typically, flying and trains are the most expensive way to get around. If you can, rent a car and share the gas costs with friends. The best companies are Megabus and Bolt Bus.
- Redeem hotel points — Be sure to sign up for hotel credit cards before you go and use those points when you travel. This is especially helpful in big cities. Be aware that most hotels charge parking fees if you have a car, and adjust your budget accordingly.
- Get a national park pass — Getting a national parks pass will let you into all the parks for free so you don’t have to keep paying an entrance fee. The one-time fee is $80 and will pay for itself after four parks.
- Cook — The United States has some of the cheapest food in the developed world. Grocery shopping can cost less than $60 per week and is way cheaper and healthier than eating out every day. Cook and save!
- Couchsurf — Couchsurfing started in the United States, and free accommodation offered can make up for the lack of hostels. You’ll find plenty of hosts throughout the country who will show you around their town and let you stay for free. I’ve used it plenty of times and have really enjoyed it as a way to meet people.
- Camp — Around all the national parks are inexpensive campsites, so if you have a camper or gear, my recommendation is to camp when visiting the parks. Most campsites start around $15 per night for a tent. More if you are parking an RV or a car on the site. Additionally, you can find a TON of RV parks and campgrounds around the country via the company KOA for $20–30 per night. Moreover, check out the sharing economy website, Camp in My Garden, where you can camp in people’s backyards for a small fee.
- City tourism cards — City tourism cards allow you to see a large number of attractions (and often include free public transportation) for one low price, usually $30–40. They provide free access to museums, reduced access to attractions, and restaurant discounts.
- Rideshare — Taking on riders can be a way to lower your costs. On my first trip across the US, I offered rides to people I met in hostels. On this trip, I had friends and readers join me along the way. You can post ads on Craigslist and Gumtree and at hostels to find riders. This not only makes the trip more enjoyable but lowers your gas costs. Or if you are a rider, you can use the same services to find rides to get you places.
- Use roadside hotels — There are a plethora of cheap roadside hotels such as Motel 6 and Super 8 to the rescue. Rooms start around $40 a night, but including tax, they work out to be $60 on average. They’re great when you’re traveling with someone and can split the cost.
- Free museums and events — Inquire at tourism centers, use Google, or ask hotel or hostel staff for information about free events and museums. Many museums offer occasional free or discounted admission throughout the week.
- Get free water or free refills – If you order a drink, most restaurants allow free refills while you eat your meal or refills at a low cost. If you ask, water is usually provided for free.
Top Things to See and Do in the United States
- New York City – The city that never sleeps is one of the most amazing cities in the world. There’s nothing you can’t do or see here. From amazing museums and art galleries to theater to restaurants to Central Park, everything about New York is amazing. It’s big, crowded, and fast-paced but also full of little neighborhood shops and character.
- Memphis – Gritty, industrial, and a bit run down, Memphis appears like its best days are behind it, but don’t let the rough exterior fool you — the city is still home to some killer food and a vibrant blues music scene. Additionally, there’s Graceland (Elvis’s home) for fans of the King, a big waterfront for walking, and the phenomenal, detailed, and moving Museum of Civil Rights (it’s huge, so don’t rush it!). I enjoyed the city more than I expected and was disappointed when I had to leave. To use a cliché, it’s a hidden gem!
- Austin – My new home (surprise! I moved to Austin!), and every visit here makes me love it more and more. The warm weather, the lively honky-tonks and live music, funky house bars on Rainey Street, amazing hiking and biking trails, and tons of outdoor activities…Austin has it all. Thanks to everything from the growing food truck population to the flagship Whole Foods store with the incredible salad bar (grilled pineapple!), I eat — and eat well — nonstop. The Austin campus of the University of Texas provides a youthful vigor to the city, and its liberal attitude attracts a diverse and eclectic population. In short, you can’t skip Austin, because if you do, I’ll find you and drag you there.
- Asheville – Asheville is Portland in the North Carolina mountains: full of tasty craft beer, food, and hipsters. I liked the area a lot, including its proximity to some wonderful and scenic mountain hikes such as the Carolina Mountain Trail. Moreover, the town has a lot of parks for those wanting something closer — and be sure to check out the Ashville Botanical Gardens near the university campus. The beautiful Smoky Mountains are a short drive away, and the gigantic Biltmore estate, the largest privately owned home in the US and once home to George Vanderbilt, is on the outskirts of the city. If you’ve ever seen Downton Abbey, that’s what the house is like! (And, if you haven’t, you should! The show is addicting!)
- Dive the Pacific Coastal Drive – The drive up the Pacific Coast is considered one of the most scenic in the world. I have to agree. I didn’t travel the whole coast, but the portion I drove (San Francisco to Portland) was incredible: sheer cliffs, forests descending to the shoreline, miles of beaches, and giant redwoods. It’s jaw-dropping all the way. Be prepared to make slow progress, as you’ll be pulling over frequently to stop, hike, and admire the view. I especially liked Bandon and Coos Bay, Oregon and Mendocino, California.
- Explore Redwood National Park – Along the Pacific Coast is Redwood National Park, a large expanse of giant redwood trees filled with picnic areas, places to camp, and miles upon miles of hiking trails. Trails range from easy to strenuous, and there are many loops that head out to nearby beaches. It’s utterly beautiful, awe-inspiring, and humbling in every way.
- Visit Glacier National Park – Even though I visited when most of the park was still closed (it was too early in the year and there was still snow around), I was still stunned by the area: gorgeous snow-topped mountains rising high into the sky; a beautiful, still lake in which to admire those mountains and large glaciers; and hiking trails galore. It was the most mind-blowing place I saw on my trip, and I can understand why everyone raves about it. I can’t recommend a visit there enough.
- Denver – The mile-high city (not least because marijuana is legal there), Denver has a mix of outdoor ruggedness and big-city living. It has a huge craft beer scene, excellent restaurants (including, Sushi Sasa, one of my favorite sushi restaurants in the world), a large international airport with lots of connections, and proximity to the mountains (and the Republic of Boulder). It’s clean, and the locals are incredibly friendly. There are few cities in the US I want to live in, but I love Denver enough to say that it’s one of them.
- Get off-the-beaten-path in Natchez – I was most surprised by this Mississippi city. I didn’t know anything about it, but Natchez was recommended as a place to see historic 19th-century homes, built by isolated plantation owners wanting to get away in the summer and interact and socialize with each other. As cotton became king, the houses became ever larger and more elaborate. Now, they are historic monuments, and you can tour them while enjoying a view of the Mississippi River. It’s far off the beaten path — and my favorite discovery from my last road trip.
- Visit surreal Savannah – Sitting on Georgia’s coast, Savannah escaped the wrath of the Civil War, allegedly because Sherman thought it was too pretty to be destroyed. With streets lined with Spanish moss–covered trees, large and inviting parks, and a bustling waterfront, Savannah is a wonderful place to experience the slow pace of the Old South. I had visited this city many, many years ago, but its beauty, Southern comfort food, and tranquility stuck with me over the years.
- Immerse yourself in Nashville’s music scene – A little bit country, a little bit tech, Nashville is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US and rightly so. It’s got a wonderful music scene (duh), a growing cocktail bar scene, and some down-home Southern restaurants. There’s not a lot of “touristy stuff” to do here, but what make this city one of my favorites are the music, the food, the wildly friendly and happy people, and the positive energy the city seems to exude. When you’re here, plan to spend a few hours at the Tennessee State Museum. It goes into great (though sometimes very one-sided) detail about the state’s history, but it’s more exciting than you might think.
- Sunny San Diego – Forever warm and sunny, San Diego’s weather creates a permanently happy population that’s friendly and outgoing and that loves the outdoors – from hiking, days at the beach, or running…and they are always happy to show people their city. The downtown Gaslamp area — as well as the famous Pacific Beach — is full of trendy seafood restaurants, bustling bars, and some seriously life-changing taco stalls. I love San Diego.
- California Wine Country – California is home to some of the best wine in the world, and a visit to the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions will reward you with some fine dining in addition to the wine. Take the short trip from San Francisco and learn to appreciate wine! Tip: Sonoma is cheaper than Napa.
- Hike around Lake Tahoe – Though the water level of the lake, as well as the flora and fauna around it, is sadly depleted due to the California drought, Lake Tahoe is still nonetheless impressive and beautiful. Ringed by tiny mountain communities, this is a terrific place for hiking and boating in the summer and skiing in the winter.
- Anywhere in Montana – A lot has been written about how stunning Montana is, but it’s all wrong. It’s even better than words can describe. It’s the most crazy-beautiful state I’ve ever been to, filled with wondrous mountains and hills as far as the eye can see. The people are super cool, welcoming, and outdoorsy, too. If I had to pick a favorite state, it would be Montana. I just love Montana.
- Relax in Cape Cod – I spent a lot of summers on the Cape since it’s where New Englanders escape for the summer. You’ll find plenty of small beach towns along the coast (Provincetown and Hyannis being the most famous but I also love Chatham, Falmouth, Wellfleet, and Brewster). If you’re looking for seafood, beaches, boardwalks, and hat perfect family vacation, visit the Cape!
- Stay weird in Portland – Portland is incredible. I would move there if it had a bigger airport with better connections. Here you’ll find an impressive food truck scene, cool bespoke bars and cocktail lounges, a craft beer scene that’s religion to residents, relaxing parks (including a peaceful Japanese garden), a vibrant art scene, and hiking in the nearby mountains. Portland is just an awesome city, especially in the summer when the weather is perfect and there are festivals and events galore, like the World Domination Summit and the Portland International Beerfest.
- Explore Deadwood – Tucked away in western South Dakota, this town was famous during the Old West days, noteworthy enough to be the focus of an HBO series. Sort of kitschy and re-created, it’s nonetheless a very cool place where you can experience a taste of the old frontier days. It’s also conveniently located near the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.
- Be surprised by Kansas City – I really loved this city, which features some of the world’s best BBQ, a lively downtown, and cutting-edge technology like Google Fiber. There’s also a detailed and enlightening jazz museum here, as well as the eye-opening Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (that was the actual name; I’m not being racist). I wish I could have spent more time, but that’s just more reason to come back.
- Visit the Grand Canyon – Words can’t accurately describe how great the Grand Canyon is. It’s breathtaking in all ways. Make sure you hike down the bottom. Most people just look out at the canyon but it’s vast size and beauty is best appreciated with a hike down to the Colorado river.
- Hike our national parks – America has thousands of national parks. These parks highlight the best of the American wilderness. Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, the Smokey Mountains, Rocky Mountain Park, the Badlands – the list goes on and on and on. Make sure you visit as many national parks as you can to get a sense of the grand and diverse landscape that is the United States.
- Chicago – One of my favorite cities in the world, Chicago is full of amazing architecture, great parks, good food, and great nightlife. It’s a tamer version of New York and even more pretty. (The Chicago-style of architecture is world famous!)
- Mardi Gras and jazz in New Orleans – Finally recovering from Hurricane Katrina, this French-influenced city has great food and even better music. A must for any jazz or blues fan. If you plan on celebrating Mardi Gras here, book early. Hotels fill up.
- Hang out in Hawaii – Closer to Asia than the United States, Hawaii is America’s piece of South Pacific paradise – white sands beaches, clear blue water, tropical jungle, and great surf. You can often get fairly cheap packages out of California.
- Boston – The birthplace of the revolution, no one leaves Boston disappointed. It’s a big city, but its lack of high-rises, as well as its cobblestone streets and brick building, give the city a more neighborhood feel than most others. It’s often considered America’s most European city. It has history, culture, food, and beauty. The Freedom Trail is especially great. (I was born in Boston so it holds a special place in my heart.)
- Visit the nation’s capital: Washington DC – America’s capital is where you’ll find all the museums and institutions you’d ever want to see in order to get a glimpse into the history and politics of America. It’s a very international city too given the large number of international embassy workers in the area.
- Admire Mt. Rushmore – Visit this historic monument in South Dakota. It’s a lot smaller than you think it would be, but it makes a good stop off while driving and the surrounding mountains and parks make for good hiking opportunities.
- Be a kid at Disney World – Sure, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s built for kids. True, it’s not authentic. But despite all that, Disney World is still a fun time and they have a lot of rides for adults too. I recently went back as an adult and there’s a lot to do there: they have some good restaurants, and Paradise Island has a good nightlife. If you are in Florida, take a stop for a few days. Indulge your inner child.
- Hike the Appalachian Mountains – Stretching the east coast of America, these mountains offer great hiking, camping, and trekking. If you think you can handle it, hike the Appalachian trail which covers the entire mountain range.
- Visit the Great Lakes – The Great Lakes are like miniature oceans. They have great sailing, boating, fishing, and beach opportunities. Perfect for those traveling during the summer.
- Put-In-Bay – One of the coolest, not so hidden places in the US is this group of islands in Lake Erie. Widely known to midwesterners (but unknown to most everyone else), South Bass Island is home to Put-in-Bay, where midwest hospitality meets Caribbean vibes (you ride around in golf carts and bars have sand as floors). My favorite spot is Mojito Bay, an outdoor tiki bar with sand floors and swings for bar seats that offers up more than 25 different mojitos. These places get very wild on the weekends too. It’s like Miami in Ohio.
- Take a road trip – America is a vast and beautiful country. The only good way to see this, the landscape and the small towns that populate most of the country is with a road trip. I highly suggest renting a car and driving across the US. It’s an amazing experience. I recently took a road trip all over the US that ended up only costing me about $50 a day!