How to Travel the US & Canada on the Cheap

 

Here's a guest post by Shing from Hostelbookers in the UK, a leading budget accommodation specialist on how to travel on the cheap when you're doing a road trip in the USA or Canada. I have always wanted to do a big road trip across North America. So many places to see and explore, so little time :).

Make your USA road trip cheaper

If you’re thinking of road tripping across the USA there are a few basics to think about before you put the key in the ignition. And, if you want to make like Jack Kerouac or Thelma and Louise but without the scandal and on the cheap, you should get planning now.

The route

 

Ah where to go? It’s your road trip, so go where you want! For example you could travel up the east coast from Miami to New York City – 1283 miles through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.

Make the most of the city and book a hostel in New York beforehand, and if you want to bookend your trip with another pre-booked hostel Miami has plenty at good rates. When you’re on the road you might want to spend a few nights camping to save money but it will be comforting to know you have a bed waiting for you at the end.

Or, you could go on one of the tried and tested popular routes:

  • Pacific Coast – Washington, Oregon and California
  • Border to Border – Canadian Rockies, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona
  • The Road to Nowhere – North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
  • Route 66 – California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois

The car

Get the best car you can afford, whether you’re renting or taking your own. You’ll be spending a lot of time in it! If you’re renting don’t skimp on the insurance, it won’t be worth it in the long run.

As with any long journey, ask a mechanic to check your car before you leave. And check your spare tyre, jack, flares, start cables, first aid kit and other roadside emergency items are all in excellent condition. America’s highways are long and can be sparse – it could be a long push to the service station.

Top tips for the Budget Conscious

1. Don’t speed – a ticket will ruin your day and your budget. The general speed limit on freeways is 65mph/105kph and in residential and commercial zones 25mph/40kph. If you’re not familiar with the American Highway Code, read up!

2. Fill the car with friends to quadruple the fun and quarter the bills.

3. Have a rough idea of a route – it will save on wasting money by driving around aimlessly.

4. Have a look beforehand at good budget hostels you could use on the way.

5. In your planning mark on the map where you can fill up on cheaper petrol – prices can vary greatly. Make the most of frequent buyer points and any apps you could have on your phone to find the nearest, cheapest petrol.

6. Open the windows and feel the fresh air rather than using the petrol-guzzling air con.

7. Get off the main road for the cheapest eats. Buy from supermarkets and don’t go for drive thru fast food.

8. Take a cool box and load it up with bulk-buy soda and water rather than buying at petrol stations.

9. Depending on who you’re traveling with bring some games and ideas of things to do en route to entertain. With your mates you might like a few good cds or playlists on your iPod – you don’t want to have to go buying CDs in service station. Make sure you bring a charger and remember the unwritten rule – whoever drives chooses the tunes.

10. Drive Smarter. Use your cruise control and break and accelerate more softly. Keeping to the speed limit also helps save petrol and if you’re stuck in a jam turn off the engine.

Checklist

  • Sat nav <— Y&T's note- GPS
  • Map – your sat nav could break at any time!
  • A rough plan of a route
  • Car insurance
  • Personal insurance
  • Extra money – for repairs or any other unexpected expenditure
  • Cool box <– Y&T's note- I think this means cooler 😉
  • Mates  <—Y&T's note- friends
  • Music

Youngandthrifty's take: I definitely agree with the no speeding rule!  One time boyfriend and I went down to the Oregon Coast (gorgeous highway 101) and were slapped with a huge ticket for speeding (we were keeping up with traffic, not tailgating) that cost us $200 on an otherwise budget camping trip down the coast.  Also, I would have to disagree with the air-conditioning and window opening– depending on how fast one drives, as ‘myth busted' in the post on AC vs windows down and which one is better for fuel economy.  Lastly, definitely agree on the GPS.  When we went to Hawaii (okay not a road trip, but we rented a car), we had a GPS and she was fantastic (we named her Mariah).

We did a road trip out East a few years back (started in Halifax, made our way to New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and then into Ontario, then flew out of Toronto).  It was a fantastic trip, reminiscent of the Canadiana movie One Week starring Joshua Jackson.  I had a McLobster and loved how people honked and waved at you in PEI (just to be friendly, vs giving you the bird here in Vancouver 😉 ).

We also have driven down the Oregon Coast twice (love it, and love the tax free shopping in Portland especially) with one of the trips going to San Francisco.

The Canadian Rockies was a good trip too- the mountains are majestic and the air is so clear.  Hopefully we'll be able to squeeze camping in Jasper sometime this summer.

Readers:  Where have you been on a road trip in the US and Canada?  Any favourite road trip destinations and “tried and true” tips on how to road-trip it on the cheap in US and Canada you would like to add?

30 Comments

  1. SavingMentor on April 11, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Geez, didn’t know you had been in the Atlantic Provinces. Too bad we weren’t acquainted at that time otherwise we could have met up! Glad you liked the friendly people over here, especially in PEI 🙂

    I found the people to be generally nice in Vancouver too! At least I didn’t notice anyone flipping me the bird.



  2. Two Degrees on April 11, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Have you heard of Couchsurfing? I’ve surfed in Singapore and all over the U.S. It’s another great way to save on hotel fees, although often it’s expected that you do something for the host in return – take her out for a drink ($), buy him dinner ($) or help with the cleaning (free).

    The Couchsurfing community also has a Wiki of their own, since we’re often budget travelers, and the Wiki usually lists free events and activities for specific cities.

    wiki.couchsurfing.org/en/Main_Page

    As well, if I’m planning on visiting a gallery or a museum, I try to see if there are days that are free or if there are discounts. When I went to Ottawa in February, I used my CAA card to get 50% off to admission for an art gallery.

    Doing your research first is definitely worthwhile!



  3. eemusings on April 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Seeing as I want to do this in the next few years, I’m pretty interested. Especially #5. How do you find these petrol stations with cheaper gas?



  4. Financial Uproar on April 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Ooh, I liked this post, since I want to take a massive road trip to watch baseball.

    If I do take my trip, I wouldn’t even drive. You can buy a two month unlimited bus pass for $559. This is a super deal if you’re going to be on the road for long periods of time. Plus, you can just sit back and relax while some other guy drives you around.

    Don’t forget about medical insurance if you’re travelling down south. It costs less than $2 a day, which is a small price to pay knowing that you’ll avoid huge medical bills if something happens.

    Agreed that doing research before you go is vital. Expensive surprises aren’t good.



  5. Paula @ AffordAnything.org on April 11, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I use Couchsurfing a lot, as well, to stay with people in different cities. It’s a great way of meeting locals and saving money at the same time.

    Tip #6, opening the windows rather than running the air conditioning, can actually cost you more gasoline because of the wind drag on the car. Plus, all that noise harms the health of your ears.



  6. Helly on April 11, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    LOL– “cool box”. I thought it meant a box where you keep your the stuff that makes you look suave and debonair 😉

    Anyhoo… we once went to Vancouver for a conference hubby was attending. We flew into Seattle, rented a car, and drove across the border. Then we drove all the way along the West Coast back home to Santa Barbara, stopping by major cities and visiting friends along the way: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco.

    Would you laugh at me if I told you I drew up a spreadsheet for our trip? Not only did I use it to calculate our budget (making sure we got the best hotel and car rental deals), but I used it to map out our timeline– what days (even down to the hours) we’d be traveling when. It kept us on track and yet left us with flexibility to do different things at each destination.

    It worked so well, I’ve always mapped out trips with spreadsheets ahead of time 🙂 I don’t plan out every minute, but I do plan out general timeframes, so it provides the perfect blend of structure and spontaneity.



  7. Helly on April 11, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Aaannnddd… I realized I didn’t address the main point of this post. One great money-saving tip I follow is to buy food from the grocery store to bring into the hotel. At the very least, stuff like water and snacks and cereal so that you can at least have breakfast and snacks, and save on eating out. For extended stays in a location, hotels with a fridge/microwave, or better yet, a kitchenette (like the Extended Stay chain) provide even greater flexibility in keeping some of your meals on the cheap!



  8. young on April 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    @SavingMentor- Yeah, it was about 4-5 years ago, I loved Atlantic Canada 🙂 even tried a McLobster 😉 I remember when we went to PEI, people in PEI were saying “uh why did you bother taking the ferry to come here?”. It was funny, self-deprecation goes all the way across Canada!

    Meh.. vancouver’s a hit and miss, sometimes people can be a bit cliquey here, it’s definitely hard to meet people if one is single. Maybe there are just too many bad drivers here….



  9. young on April 11, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    @Two Degrees- Cool! No, I haven’t heard about Couchsurfing. I’ve heard of house swaps, but this seems even better. I’ll be sure to look into that next time I’m doing a road trip.



  10. young on April 12, 2011 at 12:03 am

    @eemusings- I was thinking of you when I was scheduling this post 😉 Hmm for #5 I would use a blackberry/iphone app like “Cheap Gas” or “Gas Buddy”. A lot of the gas stations in the states are cheap, but as you head into canada, the gas is taxed so it’s going to be more $$.



  11. young on April 12, 2011 at 12:07 am

    @financial uproar- Man, love blogging! I’m learning so much from you guys- couch surfing and unlimited bus passes. Is this with Greyhound? That is a pretty stellar deal- you could really go across the US/Canada unlimited for 2 months and not have to worry about the soaring gas prices. The only thing with being on a long distance bus is that you might not be able to get off when you want, and the other thing is, you might not know if you’re sitting beside a psychopath… (er.. sorry to bring that one up, but when I think Greyhound, I think of that incident now *shudder* 🙁 ) Be safe, okay!!?

    Yeah, us Canadians have the spoiled luxury of not having to pay outright for medical care, but I know a lady who went down to the states for some gambling fun, fell and broke her hip, THOUGHT she had insurance but she actually didn’t, and 1 night in the hospital cost her $15,000 USD. Sometimes work covers this travel medical insurance too, if you have the extended benefits.



  12. young on April 12, 2011 at 12:08 am

    @Helly- lol… I totally did that too! When I went to Hawaii last year, I brought some cereal and oatmeal with me (yes, I put it in my checked luggage lol). Eating out for breakfast is so expensive and uneccesary, IMO.



  13. young on April 12, 2011 at 12:11 am

    @Helly- haha, that would be a good definition of ‘cool box’. Us North Americans and our silly language.

    That sounds like a great trip, I love the West Coast (hope I don’t get any East Coasters hatin’ on me for saying that after this!).

    No, spreadsheet sounds fantastic and very organized. 🙂 When we did our Eastern Canada trip, my BF actually made a spreadsheet too, and he calculated the distance between the destinations and how long the drive would be between the destination cities (he used to work in logistics, and freight forwarding so I think he did that all day long). I think it’s a great way to gauge if you could leave a day early or a few hours early and still keep on track with time.



  14. young on April 12, 2011 at 12:32 am

    @Paula- Yup- there’s a specific speed in which air conditioning would be more economical than having the windows down due to the effect of drag. 🙂



  15. J.D. on April 12, 2011 at 8:54 am

    My wife, our preschooler, and our baby are currently in the middle of an extended (months long) road trip. We have a very limited budget for this trip and so far it has shaped up to be even cheaper than expected – cheaper than staying home actually. We have been travelling down the west coast and are currently in San Diego.

    We are travelling in a $4000 mid-eighties Chev camper van. It allows us to cook our own meals most of the time (saved $) and sleep in it (saved $). We do what large-RVers call “boondocking” – which is parking for free with no services. Most RVs are limited to the “boondocks” for this and otherwise spend a significant amount of money each night to park in a crowded RV park. Because our van can fit in a regular parking spot, however, we are able to boondock (or “dry camp”) in the city – and not only at Walmart. Like in a posh Santa Monica neighborhood, for example, or a block off the sand in a quaint beach town. Anyone interested in our tactics and methods for doing this (which is technically illegal in many places) can contact me through our blog www.nighthawkflight.com.

    Gas is the major expense – and it is a big one. The best way to save on this is to compact your route. Instead of aiming for many destinations far apart, try to see more of the places in between and on the way. If you can get as much time, fun, adventure, and experience out of 1000 kilometers as you can out of 2000 kilometers, then you’ve halved your gas bill.

    Most importantly, I need to give a HUGE rave review for couchsurfing.org. It has totally changed our conception of travel. Instead of just visiting the sights of a place – we also visit the people. They have been hugely welcoming and have provided local insight, showers, laundry, wifi, meals, kitchens, playmates for our preschooler, and best of all – friends. It is awesome in that it simultaneously cuts our costs AND enriches our road trip.



  16. DIY Investor on April 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Hey, been cross country U.S. a few times and up in Alaska etc. In the West U.S. and Alaska there are plenty of free camping spots. If you don’t mind being a bit funky you can shower every three days on the cheap at truck stops. My son and I did part of the Lewis & Clark route, went to Carlsbad in New Mexico, down to New Orleans etc. Country is awesome…so much to see.
    Out West you don’t have to worry much about speed limits. So…all you need is some pop tarts, a good sleeping bag and tent and you’re ready to go.



  17. My University Money on April 12, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    J.D. it sounds like you pretty much have the frugal trip down pretty well!

    As a general tip I would recommend searching for free activities. Get some recommended sites off the net before you leave and then give yourself a tour. This will save you money in so many ways, plus you’ll probably get to see more and have a more ‘authentic/less touristy’ experience.



  18. Sandy @ yesiamcheap on April 12, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    A McLobster? Is that a Canadian thing? I’d be soooo willing to to do a road trip up north just to try. 🙂

    That said I did some road trips in my 20’s here in the U.S. I would love to do it again, but the dog hates the car. Sigh. There is nothing like an open road and a full tank and then just getting “lost” on the highway. I’ve been lost tons of times and always made it home…but that was before GPS became affordable.



  19. Money Reasons on April 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    I use to absolutely hate to drive! Even for a few hours…

    But now I love to drive, and here the secret to my new found love for driving… (drumroll please…) audiobooks!

    Audiobooks now enable me to want to keep driving even after we get to our destination! How’s that for a twist?

    So that’s my tip… but the audiobook has to be something that you can get into (for me a great story, like the Da Vinci Code, Stephen King, etc)! Just any old audiobooks won’t do…



  20. young on April 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    @Money Reasons- Cool- didn’t know that about you. I was under the assumption that all men like to drive (how’s that for a sexist stereotype? 😉 ) I haven’t ever listened to an audiobook but it seems pretty cool, how long does a chapter in lets say, Da Vinci Code go for? Are the voices soothing?



  21. young on April 12, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    @Sandy @yesIamcheap- You got it girl, it’s a Canadian Mcdonald’s specialty. It’s pieces of lobster in a bun with some sort of cream sauce. It was surprisingly pretty good! You’re so close too, it will just be a few hours drive over to come up to Canada.

    My dog hates the car too! He starts whining, whining, whining, until we get to the destination, and then realizes it’s NOT the vet, and on the return trip home, he’s relaxed. Sandy, have you tried the “thunder jacket”? It’s this compression bandage/jacket that wraps the dog up, they feel calm and reassured, and aren’t anxious (it was designed for dogs afraid of thunder).



  22. young on April 12, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    @My University Money- Great and easy to implement tip, teacher man 🙂 There are tons of free activities here in Vancouver too. Maybe I should do a post on them so people don’t end up wasting $24 to go walk on the Capilano Suspension bridge.



  23. young on April 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    @DIY Investor- Wow… that sounds like an amazing trip, especially one to take with your son. Definitely memorable and life changing- did your son enjoy the experience? Hopefully you did this before the rise in gas prices- those were the good ol’ days, when gas was only $0.50 a Litre. When we went down to San Fran, we camped at KOA (man, that’s what I call luxury camping) to save money on a motel in Eureka, Ca. It wasn’t free though 🙂



  24. young on April 12, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    @J.D. – Checked out your site, it’s awesome! Your babies are so cute. That’s a great way of thinking about it- experience in terms of # of km’s traveled/ spent. Keeps the km’s accountable, you know what I mean.

    Okay, I seriously have been living under a ROCK. I checked out Couch Surfing’s website and I have been seriously missing out on the experience and cost savings. Thanks so much you guys for introducing it to me!! I think that a huge part of the places we all visit when we travel ARE about the people. The people make the places unique. Where did you go using Couch Surfing (throughout the US?).



  25. Little House on April 14, 2011 at 6:43 am

    When I was a kid, road trips were our means of vacation. We’d travel mostly in through the mid-west; Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri. I slept a lot, so I probably missed out on a lot of the scenery. 😉 Now that I’m married, my husband hates driving more than 4 hours, so our road trips have to be short (and honestly, they aren’t very enjoyable since he complains the whole time. 😉 ). However, my dad still loves them and will drive from New York to Florida or Kansas no problem. I would also add bring a small cooler with some snacks to save on food costs.



  26. Edwin @ Cash The Checks on April 16, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Good tips in here. I like the carpooling idea to save on gas costs idea. Also going at the speed limit will save you gas too. So will having a fuel efficient vehicle.



  27. sandy @ yesiamcheap on April 16, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Compression jacket? Never heard of it but I might have to invest in one. My dog has anxiety. I don’t know why but she’s always scared of things and I hate for her to live her young little life that way. Poor thing is curled up in the bed with me right now in my lap because it’s raining outside. Sigh.



  28. reginald smith on July 27, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Do You have any membership savings or discounts on gas pricings, food, motel or hotel for a trip from Truro to Winston-salem North Carolina for a party of 4-7 people???? Please advise.Membership # is 620 277 0587184 012 Thank You



  29. All About Ottawa on February 22, 2012 at 4:48 am

    I have just come across you website while surfing. Your post is superb and helpful for visitors. I read your other articles too. So , I just bookmarked your website and add it to my favorites.
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    Amelie Wakelin



  30. Louise on April 12, 2017 at 4:39 am

    Wow. This is very informative and helpful! I’ll definitely be checking out couch surfing!
    We are considering a road trip from Ontario to BC and looking to do it on the cheap.



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