Travel USA on a budget – plan a cheaper & better vacation

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Travel USA on a budget covers everything you should know in order to make your vacation the absolute best, without spending your life savings. After 15 international vacations to the USA I have worked out a real “can do” attitude when it comes to travelling the USA cheaply.

The USA sure is a mighty big place. It consists of some of the world’s most bucket list cities like New York and Las Vegas, but it also has a long list of National Parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite that are stars in their own right. So deciding where your travels will ultimately take you and for how long will depend on your USA travel budget.

Related posts to help you budget and save:

What this Travel USA on a budget includes:

  1. How to find budget flights
  2. The best budget accommodation
  3. Average daily costs
  4. Top tips for saving money while travelling the USA
  5. Planning a USA road trip on a budget

Further reading: 2 week National Parks Road Trip USA

Is USA Expensive?

travel USA on a budget - mardi gras float in New orleans
Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Travel in the USA does not have to be expensive. In fact, you can have a really cheap holiday if you want. But that might mean staying in hostels, seeing the cheap and free things within a city, and eating fast food or preparing your own.

But if you really want to experience everything about the USA, I suggest deciding what you are happy to budget with. I don’t particularly like staying in a hostel unless I can get a private room. So instead I look for cheap accommodation and try to eat in less expensive restaurants to get my costs down.

But that is just the start of it. There are plenty of other ways to reduce your overall costs when you know how. It also comes down to what you are willing to sacrifice in order to meet your travel goals.

This is my travel motto –

travel USA on a budget

Having a budget in mind before you set off

Having a cheap vacation in the USA means knowing up front what your budget looks like. Imagine planning a truly incredible vacation only to discover that it’s going to cost so much more than you first imagined. That would be so disappointing right!.

So starting with at least an idea of how much you want to spend is a good way to understand what it is gong to take to make it happen. After some initial research you might discover the USA is more expensive than you expected. Or even cheaper than you thought. Wouldn’t that be awesome!

Having a budget in mind also helps you become much more savvy in how to get your costs down. You know from the get go that you can’t be staying in lux accommodation or booking business class flights.

One of my favourite vacations to the USA involved a 6 week road trip starting in Alaska and ending in Las Vegas. We wanted to see all the big National Parks like Yellowstone, Denali, Glacier National Park and the Grand Tetons. It also included another 7 days of cruising the Alaskan inside passage from Anchorage to Vancouver.

This was a big trip that would ultimately cost $10,000 without applying any budgeting skills. I ended up getting it down to $6000 without skipping any destination or leaving any amazing experiences out.

It included return flights from Australia, all accommodation, a 7 night cruise, all meals, transport and activities.

So once you absolutely know what your itinerary looks like, you can start applying your own skills to see if you can get your costs down, and if you can’t, you have to make a decision:

  1. Can I save more money to afford the trip of my dreams
  2. Do I need a revised itinerary – less attractions, less destinations, less days away.
  3. Can I reduce my main trip costs even more – flights, accommodation, transport, food.

Itineraries for the USA you might like

USA Trip Costs – estimated daily costs

Your budget trip to USA comes down to the travel style you like.

Now, let’s face it, everyone’s budget is going to be different.

Are you a couple, family or flying solo?

Are you looking a dirt cheap holiday or just cheaper alternatives to everything?

Firstly, I always suggest having some backup funds in case…well just in case.

Type of travel – back packing

  • dorm room in hostel
  • Free attractions
  • public transport
  • eating on the run / supermarket supplies

Expect to pay USD $60 – $80 / EURO $55 – $75 / AUD $80 – $105 per person per day

Add a mix of paid attractions – an additional US $40 – $60 / EURO $35 – $55 / AUD $50 – $80 per day

Type of travel – Budget Couple – based on 2 people

  • cheap hotels in cheap locations – twin share
  • a mix of free and paid attractions
  • public transport or rental car
  • a mix of cheap take out, supermarket supplies & affordable restaurants

Expect to pay USD $150 – $180 / EURO $140 – $165 / AUD $200 – $250 per person per day

Type of Travel – Budget travel- family of 4

  • cheap hotels – sharing the same space
  • a mix of free and paid attractions
  • rental car + public transport
  • a mix of supermarket supplies & cheap restaurants (chain restaurants)

Expect to pay USD $370 / EURO $340 / AUD $500 per family per day

Be sure to read my Cheats Guide to Saving Money while Traveling

Choosing the best USA itinerary?

The USA is one of the biggest countries in the world, similar to the size of Australia and Canada.

With 50 states , it’s simply too big to navigate in one trip, So choosing your perfect itinerary might mean traversing east to west and north to south as you take in your dream destinations.

Major locations & attractions

East Coast : New York City / Boston / Washington D.C / Florida

West Coast : Los Angeles / Seattle/ San Francisco

Northern USA: Chicago / Niagara Falls / Montana / Mount Rushmore

Southern USA: New Orleans / Texas / Las Vegas

Interior USA: Memphis / Yellowstone NP / Grand Canyon / Salt Lake City / Colorado / Nashville

Other USA destinations: Alaska / Hawaii

Fast Facts about USA

  • Population – 332 million
  • Currency – US Dollar (conversion AUD to USD dollars aprox 0.75 / EUD to USD dollars approx 1.09 )
  • Official Languages – English
  • Yearly Visitors – 79.3 million (2019) pre pandemic
  • Top visiting countries: Canada / Mexico / UK/ Japan / China
  • Top tourist destinations to visit : New York / Las Vegas / New Orleans / San Francisco / Seattle
  • Climate – The USA has a range of climates which means it is always sunny somewhere. It also experiences snow and arctic temperatures in various regions throughout the year.
  • Average Stays in USA- the average tourists spends 18 days in the USA. .

Budget Travel USA – How to Save Money

We now look at all the ways you can save for your budget travel USA.

These include hacks, how to save and where to find the best travel deals .

Further reading: Planning a trip overseas you can actually afford

travel USA on a budget - standing on the sky walk in Grand Canyon looking out to the canyon walls and Colorado river below
West Rim Skywalk – Grand Canyon

How to get cheap flights to USA

  • Use your frequent flyer points
  • sign up for travel alerts via secret flying
  • fly into the closest city from your destination
  • fly into main airport hubs where cheaper flights are offered
  • start your flight search well in advance and look out for sales
  • book via budget airlines
  • be flexible with your flight days and/or months of travel
  • sign up to newsletters and notifications from the airlines direct
  • Use a multiple search across all airlines such as CheapOair or Skyscanner.

International flights will generally arrive via a main USA city before connecting to other smaller cities.

Use your frequent flyer points

IF you have frequent flyer / frequent mileage points you could ultimately get your flights for free from your home destination. Also, many of the big US air carriers such as United & American Airlines have alliances with other airlines that could also fly you internally throughout the USA.

I flew to Alaska on a 7 day road trip from Melbourne, Australia using my Qantas points on an American Airlines flight. The trip via Los Angeles cost me only $100. (this is the taxes required)

Look for direct flights from your destination

The main point of entry to the United States from Australia is somewhere along the west coast such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. So starting your vacation here is going to be cheaper than flying to New York.

For tourists coming from Europe, the east coast cities of Miami, Washington D.C and New York for example will draw cheaper flights.

Start your search for cheap flights early

As soon as you you know you’re ready to lock in your vacation then start looking out for flight deals.

All carriers tend to offer flight sales at some stage which you can take advantage of. If you are keen to find out when these sales happen try doing a google search from the previous year to see if any major sales show up. This might include birthday sales, black Friday and end of year. It might give you an indication of when the next one will come out.

Fly budget airlines

If you are planning to fly internally throughout the USA it is worth looking into the many budget airlines that operate within the region. Jet Blue, South West, Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant and Sun Country are all budget airlines that fly in and out of various cities across the country.

Be flexible with your dates

Being flexible is your best way of obtaining the flights you want at the right price. Be sure to check other days and sometimes even the week or month before of after. While many suggest the best prices appear around 50 days out of flying I would hate to wait till the last minute to book, especially if you have everything else booked. It’s not a guarantee and you could end up with a sold out flight or one that is more expensive. So if you are happy with the price you have found, grab it while you can.

Related article: Travel Rocks but long haul flights suck – how to beat jet lag

travel USA on a budget

Budget Accommodation USA

  • look for hotels with free breakfast
  • book private rooms with shared facilities for cheaper rates
  • stay further out when handy public transport is available
  • book a hostel with private room
  • avoid weekends in come cities eg. Las Vegas
  • for families, book one room with multiple beds

Just how much you might expect to pay for a budget hotel in the USA is dependent on a few factors.

What city you are in.

Larger cities will most likely attract a higher price, especially in popular precincts. Sometimes staying just a bit further out can help reduce these costs considerably.

What time of year it is.

Some locations are prime tourists spots at certain times of year. During the rest of the year they can lay almost dormant, awaiting a new tourist season to start. Also summer hot spots, holiday season and events such as spring break can effect the rise in prices in certain locations. It is worth knowing if you are paying a higher price for something that you can potentially avoid.

How remote your location is

For those heading on a road trip around the USA, you may find yourself in locations a little off the beaten path. This may mean hotels are scarce and you will need to pay whatever the going rate is. This is particularly true for National Parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite where accommodation sometimes outweighs the amount of tourists wanting to visit.

Finding the best budget accommodation in USA main cities

The following accommodation prices reflect what you might expected. to pay if you were on a budget and looking for cheaper deals. Most properties are around a 3 star rating at most.

Note: prices may fluctuate at different times of year, and you may also find cheaper prices if on sale.


travel USA on a budget = statue of liberty with NYC skyline

Hostel – Single in dorm

Chelsea International – prime location – 2 or 4 bed dorms from $48 per person / per night

Jazz on Columbus Circle – near Central Park – 6 bed dorm from $63 per person per night

Budget Hotel – twin share

The Jane Hotel – Greenwich village – from $129 per room

Four Points by Sheraton – Downtown – from $178 per room

Carlton Arms Hotel – mid town – from $131 per room TOP PICK


travel USA on a budget - Santa Monica pier with huge Ferris wheel on the pier

Hostel – Single in dorm

HI Los Angeles – Santa Monica- dorms from $38 per person / per night

The Venice Beach Hostel – Venice Beach – dorms from $45 per person per night

Samesun Hollywood – Near walk of fame – dorms from $40 per person

Budget Hotel – twin share

Best Western plus Commerce Hotel– Central Location- breakfast included – from $146 per room

Ocean Park Inn – near Santa Monica Pier – from $173 per room

Dunes Inn Sunset– Sunset Boulevard – from $136 per room TOP PICK


travel USA on a budget - Miami beach with life gurad tower painted yellow and blue

Hostel – Single in dorm

Generator Miami – Miami Beach- dorms from $27 per person / per night

Viajero Miami – South Beach- dorms from $53 per person per night

Budget Hotel – twin share

Collins Beach – Miami Beach – from $107 per room

Greenview Hotel – Miami Beach – from $142 per room

Costa Norte Boutique Hotel- North Miami Beach – from $112 per room TOP PICK


travel USA on a budget = Las Vegas sign with Paris hotel in the background

Hostel – Single in dorm

Sin City Hostel – Las Vegas Blvd- dorms from $36 per person / per night

Hostel Cat – Las Vegas Blvd- dorms from $48 per person per night

Budget Hotel – twin share

Excalibur – Las Vegas Blvd – from $120 per room

Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino – close to Fremont Street – from $96 per room

Jockey Resort Suites– Las Vegas Blvd – from $96 per room TOP PICK

Note: choose weekdays for the best rates


travel USA on a budget - Golden gate bridge on a sunny day

Hostel – Single in dorm

Music City Hotel – Bay Area- dorms from $40 per person / per night

Pacific Tradewinds Hostel – Bay Area- dorms from $40 per person per night

Budget Hotel – twin share

Grant Hotel – Union Square – from $108 per room

Samesun San Francisco – Marina District – from $136 per room

Greenwich Inn– Marina Beach- from $136 per room TOP PICK


travel USA on a budget = Seattle skyline at sunset shows a golden hue surrounding the city

Hostel – Single in dorm

Green Tortoise Hostel – near Pike Market Place- dorms from $38 per person / per night

HI Seattle at the American Inn – International District- dorms from $38 per person per night

Budget Hotel – twin share

Graduate Seattle – University District – from $197 per room

Silver Cloud Inn- central location- breakfast included from $209 per room

Travelodge by Wyndham- near Space needle- from $159 per room TOP PICK


Hostel – Single in dorm

HI New Orleans – excellent central location- dorms from $43 per person / per night

Auberge NOLA Hostel – Close to French Quarter- dorms from $43 per person per night

Budget Hotel – twin share

Wyndham New Orleans – French Quarter- from $108 per room

Maison Dupuy Hotel – French Quarter- from $129 per room

The Mercantile Hotel- arts district- executive suite – from $124 per room TOP PICK

Transport Options

  • stay in central locations
  • walk as much as possible
  • use public transport where possible and ditch the car
  • Use a hop on hop off bus when short on stays and time
travel USA on a budget = New Orleans tram in the street with cars driving along side

Getting around the USA is going to be dependent on exactly where you are going.

Most larger cities have decent public transport and this is going to be the most convenient option. For those with a car, you’ll need to consider the parking costs for inner city stays because it’s never cheap.

Destinations such as Los Angeles are known for having poor public transport. Hence why there so many cars on the road and traffic congestion is torturous. We did on one occasion have a car when in Los Angeles and it was a nightmare to get out of the city when it came time to leave.

Popular cities public transport

Los Angeles: Metro operates across the city for approx $1.75 for a one way ticket (good for 2 hours). Alternately grab a day pass for $3.50

Alternative: Los Angeles Hop on Hop off bus

New York City: Metrocard is good for subway and buses. Single ticket is $2.50 or a 7 day pass is $29.

Alternative: New York City Hop on Hop off bus

Chicago: Chicago Transport Authority utilizes trains and buses. Single tickets start from $2.25 or a day pass from $5

Alternative: Chicago Hop on Hop off bus

Miami: Miamidade operates train and bus passes. A single trip is $2.25 otherwise download the app and top up for single day and multiple day passes.

Alternative: Miami Hop on Hop off bus

San Francisco: BART – The rapid transit no longer issues paper tickets so commuters must purchase a clipper card and add their funds to it. Single fares start from $2.50. Add a Visitors Passport to you clipper card and ride the iconic San Francisco trolley (cable car)

Alternative : San Francisco Hop on Hop off bus

Las Vegas: while you can choose to walk the Strip, other options include the Deuce, a double-decker bus or monorail. The Deuce costs $6 for 2 hours, $8 for 24 hours or $20 for 3 days. The monorail costs $5 per ticket or $13 for 24 hours. To get to the Las Vegas South premium outlets, you’ll need to the Deuce,

Alternative: Las Vegas Hop on Hop off bus

Seattle: Orca Cards offer a variety of public transport options. From light rail, bus, streetcar& more. Orca cards cost $5 and can be topped up as you need. Alternately you can pay for single use transport starting from $2.25

Alternative: Seattle Hop on Hop off bus

San Diego: the best way to get around the area is by train or bus. The Coaster, Sprinter (train) and Breeze (bus) connect the San Deigo area as well as neighboring cities. Tickets start from $2.50. You can also take the Pacific Surfliner to Los Angeles.

Alternative: San Diego Hop on Hop off bus

New Orleans: The city is compact enough to get around most of it by foot. Otherwise you can ride the famous streetcars here where fares start from $1.25

Alternative: New Orleans Hop on Hop off bus

Dallas: Use the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) with day passes starting from $6.

Alternative: New Orleans Hop on Hop off bus

Denver: RTD offers rides on public buses and trains, starting from $3 for a 3 hour pass or $6 for a 24 hour pass.

Road tripping around the USA on a budget

Taking a road trip around the USA to some of the countries most popular sights is a must for those on a budget.

It’s a great way to explore some the countries less visited places or those that are a little more remote.

You can read my 2 week USA road trip here starting in Montana and ending in Las Vegas.

National Parks are one of those places that require little money apart from a rental car. You only need to pack the car with food and snacks from the supermarket and pay your park entry. Whether you choose to camp or stay in budget hotels is up to you.

You can read more about National Parks and other road trips below.

There is a tonne of great things to do during your stay in the USA. Some free, some budget friendly and some on the more expensive side. Seeing we are talking about USA on a budget, let’s jump into affordable options.

Budget & Free Attractions in USA

When it comes to working out what attractions and activities you want to do in the USA, start with the free things you can do in each city and location and attractions that are not too expensive.

Consider what cities offer lots of fabulous free things where you could get away with not spending very much money. Places like New York City, Washington D.C and Miami are actually perfect for roaming around and just checking out the architecture, museums. beaches and parks.

Las Vegas on the other hand can be more expensive as you might want to see a show, maybe gamble a little, dine in popular hotels and restaurants and go shopping.

Here’s 2 ways you can approach each location based on your budget.

  1. Allocate a set budget amount for each location, such as $50 or $100 per person. This way you’ll be inclined to forgo the things that don’t really interest you and start looking for free things to enjoy.
  2. Allocate a set budget in total for your entire trip. This way you can plan exactly what you want to see and do regardless of price. and focus on free attractions in other locations.

A great example was when I went to Alaska and decided I wanted to do a scenic flight over Denali National Park. It was over $400 per person which was a big chunk out of my activity budget. To make up for this I decided that during our cruise along the Inside passage of Alaska we would not be participating in any other activities, and would just use our land based stops to walk around and enjoy the scenery. It helped get our budget back on track and I realized that a handful of smaller experiences couldn’t replace this one epic experience I really wanted to do.

Free and cheap attractions itinerary – approx $100 per person

The following is an itinerary of free and budget attractions you could see and do in different cities in the United States.

It is based on a cost of around $100 per person and is a great way to stick to your budget.


view of central park over the lake with city buildings in the background
Enjoying one of New York’s best free attractions – Central Park

Total cost for the above itinerary $109 per person


sitting on an open air bus in L.A with camera up and ready -travel USA on a budget
Hop on Hop off Bus proved to be a great way to cover all of Los Angeles

Total cost for this itinerary $102 per person


sitting on open air bus in Miami with tour guide pointing to historic buildings
Our full day open air bus and boat tour of Miami

Total cost for this itinerary $104


standing beside a giant red and yellow glass sculpture at Chihuli Garden and Glass Seattle
Visiting the famous Chihlui Garden & Glass- Seattle

Total cost for this itinerary $66


San Francisco trolley at top of hill with the bay in the background
Ride the trolley in San Francisco

Total cost for this itinerary $98 (or $125)


Jackson Square New Orleans with horse carriages out front and pedestrians walking in the foreground
A personal favourite – the amazing New Orleans

Total Cost for this itinerary is $92 per person

Estimated Food Costs

Food costs are going to vary for many reasons including:

  • where you are
  • type of travel (Eg, back packing versus road trip)

You may also decide to heavily budget one day and then be eating steak at a prime restaurant the next. Hey, you’re holiday right so you probably want to be able to live a little too.

I recommend if you can get a free breakfast in your hotel cost then that’s one meal taken care of. Also, you can usually grab a piece of fruit or two as you leave to have as light healthy snacks.

Here are some estimates you an work on based on your type of travel

Grocery store food / making your own meals : budget approx $10 – $15 per person per day

Mixture of making your own meals and take away meals only $15 – $25

Eating at chain restaurants and cheaper take away meals: $20 -$30 per person per day

PRO TIP: avoid seated service where you will be expected to tip for your meal. Buying food from the supermarkets and only purchasing food to go will help you avoid this.

Getting free WiFi in USA

Getting free WiFi in the United States is getting easier every year. This is particularly true for larger and tourist hop spots such as NYC, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

For example, you will find free internet in New York City at many subway stations, museums and hot spots in parks such as Central Park.

Other places you will most likely find free WiFi is :

  • Your hotel
  • McDonalds
  • Starbucks coffee shops
  • Museums
  • Restaurants
  • Airports
  • Apple store
  • Many tourist attractions

You may not necessary know if a place offers free internet so always be sure to simply ask.

WARNING: never use internet banking or enter passwords on public WIFi. This is a sure way to get hacked.

Conclusion to USA on a Budget

A trip to the USA is one of exciting adventure. The itineraries are endless when it comes to what you could possibly do. It’s just unfortunate that the wallet, and so budgeting down is a must.

A reminder to decide on what you really have your heart set on. Then budget the rest.

Interested in Hawaii or Alaska? Read my other posts below.

Hawaii on a Budget

5 day Big Island itinerary

7 day Alaska itinerary

Also consider if crossing from one side of the continent to the other is your best idea. Maybe this is another trip down the line. I have been tot he United States 15 times because I just couldn’t do everything in one go, and I didn’t want to rush it either. Also, for me to do everything, I would need $20,000 so it was best I broke my trips ups. That way I was travelling to the USA every 18 months or so on another epic holiday. That I could afford without getting out the credit card.

Consider looking at you big costs first and then working out how to make it even cheaper if needed.

1.Accommodation is a major cost that will most likely make up much of your budget, so it makes sense to work out a nightly or weekly budget you are happy with.

Also, the earlier you start looking, the more likely you will have more options. Look for hotels with free cancellation so you can secure the hotel now yet pay for it later or change the dates if needed.

Go to for the biggest range of affordable hotels

Go to Hostel World for a range of cheap city dorms and private rooms

2. Book some of your activities at discounted rates before you go. That way you can keep saving before you go and have more money in your pocket once there.

Go to Viator for a range of all location activities.

3. Start looking for flights early and waiting on sales in particular to come up. Be flexible with your choice of airline and what day you travel if possible.

Have a great rip!

All Booking resources for a budget travel

CheapOair – these guys service over 400 airline carriers with huge discounted prices. – the biggest range of hotels / apartments / entire homes – why look at one car rental company when you can look at them all.

Viator for day tours from a range of tour suppliers

Klookfor all your entry tickets plus skip the line