How to Plan a Budget USA Road Trip: The Complete Guide

There’s nothing quite like traveling the open road. This is especially true in the United States, where national parks (state parks, too) are plentiful and magnificent. The best part about the US is how easy and budget-friendly it is to road trip.

Road in Arizona

Of course, planning a road trip depends heavily on your route. Regardless of whether you’re hitting the big cities along the way or seeking out the peace and quiet of nature, we believe driving is the best way to experience the splendor of the United States. In this post, we share our tips on how to plan a US road trip on a budget without missing out on the fun!

But there’s more to a road trip than just planning and budgeting. Check out some road trip essentials to bring with you on your adventure!

How to Save Money on Transportation

Transportation adds up to be a pretty big chunk of any road trip budget. You can thank gas for that one, but the US is actually one of the cheapest countries when talking about gas. Although gas prices aren’t too high right now, one of the easiest ways to save money on your US road trip is to have a fuel-efficient car.

If you own one, great! If not, it’s a good idea to research the cost of renting one. We think 35-40 mpg (miles per gallon) is a good minimum to aim for when road-tripping on a budget.

Granted, if you don’t already own a fuel-efficient car, you’ll have to do a little math here. The cost of the rental plus an estimate of gas costs vs. no rental cost and gas.

Helpful Apps for Gas

Gas is one of the key elements of a road trip. Without it, you’re going nowhere. Luckily there are apps out there that help you find the cheapest gas prices near you so you’re always getting the best bang for your buck.

GasBuddy is a handy-dandy app for finding gas prices near you. You can use the app to search for the specific gas your car needs as well as the prices. If you really want to plan ahead, you can search along your route to see all available stations and prices.

Gas prices seen on the GasBuddy App

Waze is a navigation app that gives you the option to search for gas stations along your route and it’ll show you the most recently recorded prices.

Screenshot of Waze gas station finder

Both of these apps use crowdsourcing for their information so prices shown on the apps are uploaded by fellow users;  they could be outdated or inaccurate. Both apps tell you when the price for that station was last updated.

Renting a Car

If renting a car is the route you choose then there are some things to keep in mind. Roundtrip rentals tend to be much cheaper than having a different drop-off destination than your pick-up.

Screenshot of rental car prices for a round trip rental

For example, the above screenshot shows a 13 day rental with Houston being the pick-up and drop-off point.

The screenshot below shows only 6 days with a pick-up in Houston and a drop-off in Los Angeles. But it’s at least $250 more expensive! Plus you have to pay for transport home.

Screenshot of rental cars from kayak.com

If you plan on dropping off the rental car in a different location than where you picked it up, verify that your reservation price includes the one-way fee. Depending on where you’re going, the fee can differ greatly and cause some financial headache.

Make sure your reservation includes unlimited mileage. There’s nothing worse than planning a 2000 mile trip only to find out you’re rental has a 300 mile limit and you have to pay for each additional mile over.

What about rideshares?

While an Uber or Lyft would get pricey for passengers at long distances, what about advertising your journey to people you meet in a hostel or hotel? This is definitely a great option for those who love to meet fellow travelers! Offering others a ride and splitting gas/general costs would help cut down on transportation!

Budget Accommodation

From free (yes, free!) to really cheap, let’s talk about where to lay your head at night when going on a budget road trip.

A fun, free option is to Couchsurf. This service allows you to contact hosts (all over the world) and stay with them for free. In exchange for free housing, they may want to get to know you and hang out a little bit. It’s widely used in the US so if meeting locals and free housing sounds fun to you then be sure and give it a try! It’s a good way to step outside of that introvert box!

For those on a very tight budget: if comfort isn’t important then sleeping in your car is a great budget option. We think a good night’s rest in a bed would be best but there’s nothing wrong with catching some zzz’s in the car.

Make sure you’re parked in an area where you’re allowed to be overnight (24 hour rest stops, for example), crack the windows so you have airflow and make sure you take the keys out of the ignition. In some areas, you can get a ticket for leaving keys in the ignition.

If the free options aren’t your thing then you can find cheap options for your accommodation elsewhere.

Our go-to accommodation is Airbnb, especially in cities. We’ve found that most Airbnb’s are significantly cheaper and more flexible (in some ways) than hotels. Since you’ll have a car (it’s a road trip, duh) be sure to filter the Airbnb results by choosing free parking (and a kitchen!).

Screenshot showing Airbnb Filters

Be mindful of what your Airbnb check-in process is like. If you plan on a late arrival then you need to communicate with your host beforehand. If you’re new to Airbnb or a little leery then read up on the pros and cons of using Airbnb while traveling.

Campsites are very cheap places to sleep if you have the right supplies and the weather is nice. Don’t just think about camping at national parks. The US is full of RV parks and campsites (check KOA).

Tent and cooler at a campground

If this sounds fun but you don’t have camping gear, it’s easy to get the basic supplies you need for cheap. A decent 2 person tent can be as low as $20 and if you don’t already have sleeping bags, then blankets from home (always bring extra) will suffice. For added comfort, bring a thick yoga mat or blow up mattress to lie on.

If none of the above have solved your budget trip woes there’s always Motel 6 or Super 8! These are budget-friendly hotels and you’ll find them everywhere while road tripping across the US. Motel 6 and Super 8 are well-known hotel chains in the States, but always be on the lookout for the unknown cheap accommodation.

For example, on a road trip through New Mexico and Colorado, we found a last-minute hotel on Booking.com in Raton, New Mexico. While we didn’t do much other than sleep in Raton, the accommodation was perfect for our budget and a great place to begin driving the next day.

National Parks

One of the biggest perks of a road trip in the US?

National parks!

We are spoiled in the US, especially the western half, with a lot of natural beauty. There are more than 60 national parks in the United States! From hiking, camping, outdoor sports, stargazing, you can find a ton of things to keep you entertained in nature.

If your road trip is just a few days or a few weeks, we hope you can stop by at least one national park. In addition to being very budget-friendly, you’ll find it’s one of the most memorable stops on your trip!

For those road-tripping the southwest, you might want to look into Big Bend National Park. We feel it doesn’t get as much talk as it should, which is probably why we found it to be so peaceful compared to other parks. It’s an accredited dark sky park (great for stargazing) and offers nature lovers some hot desert, cooler mountains, and the Rio Grande.

Night sky at Big Bend National Park

Don’t forget about state parks too. There are many of these as well and some are just as beautiful (and less crowded) than national parks!

Limit Time in Major Cities and Use Attraction Passes

Major cities mean more money.

But let’s be real. A road trip across the Midwest isn’t complete without a stop in Chicago.

Even though bigger cities come with a bigger price tag (food, housing, things to do), some of America’s best attractions can be found there. Whether it’s Chicago or New York, a good place to start your budget and itinerary is with Go City cards. These will save you a lot of money on popular attractions and they’ll give you a good idea of how long you need to spend in town.

As we mentioned earlier when talking about accommodation, you’ll find some great deals on Airbnb when staying in large cities; the ones that come with parking are the best option!

However, in places like New York City where Airbnb is a grey area of legal/illegal (when staying under 30 days) you may want to look at other means of accommodation through booking.com or Couchsurfing. Then again, you may want to stay outside of New York City (and train in) to avoid the traffic!

How to Save on Food

Eating is one of the highlights of a road trip in the USA. From mom and pop diners on Historic Route 66 to fast food, there are so many temptations while on the road. While indulging occasionally is mandatory, eating out too often can ruin your budget.

In-N-Out Burgers

That’s where road trip snacks come in!

Our biggest word of advice? Stock up a cooler with snacks, sandwiches and drinks before setting off. Filling up at your local grocery store will be cheaper than grabbing snacks at gas stations on the road.

If you don’t have a cooler, odds are you know someone who does (borrow it!) or you can purchase a cheap styrofoam cooler (but this is not the environmentally-friendly option).

Cook as many meals as possible. This can be difficult at times, especially if you’re staying in a hotel or don’t have access to a kitchen. But you can buy sandwich fixings, cereal and other dry goods that will serve as a good meal replacement.

If you’re craving a hot meal, then a cheap camping stove might be in order; or you can reserve campsites with grills (which you should totally do). You can find single-burner camping stoves for under $30 and double burner camping stoves for under $50.

Cheeseburger dinner while camping in Big Bend National Park

Again, we really like Airbnbs because cooking is much easier. When searching for accommodations on Airbnb be sure to check the filter option for kitchens so you can book a place with a kitchen and basic cooking supplies. Even some shared apartments (cheap cheap!) allow guests to use the kitchen so that’s an awesome budget idea.

Summary of How to Plan a US Road Trip on a Budget

There are lots of ways to save while traveling the US on the open road. It’s a mix and match of what suits your wants and needs and how it all adds up into the road trip budget. We wish you an awesome time on the road!

Happy travels!

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Where Food Takes Us

We’re Darah and Garrett. Our life has been an adventure ever since we eloped in a pink Cadillac in Las Vegas. Now we’re running around the world, working online, and eating everything we can.

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