America might be the land of the free, but it sure ain’t cheap.
Without the backpacker infrastructure of Europe or the favourable exchange rate of South-East Asia, basics like getting around or finding a decent place to sleep in the United States can get real expensive real fast.
But with the right intel, it doesn’t have to break the bank – here are some tried and tested tips for staying frugal on the road.
Take it away
Between tipping and sales tax, any meal you eat at restaurant or diner in the United States is going to end up costing a good 20 percent more than what it says on the menu. Not tipping is seriously uncool – don’t even think about it, not ever – but there is a way around it. Yep, we’re talking takeaway.
Grab your food to go and you’ll save money without shortchanging the waitstaff (though it is nice to chuck a few coins or a $1 bill in the tip jar, if there’s one). Luckily, some of America’s best eats come from takeaway joints – think LA’s taco stands, Austin’s food trucks, New York’s bagel joints and cult chains like In-N-Out Burger – so eating out doesn’t have to mean missing out. Most diners will bag up your food to go, too.
And if you really must eat in? Try splitting your meal with a friend – this is the land of supersized portion sizes, after all.
Embrace the Greyhound
The sheer size of America can make getting around on the cheap difficult. The price of hiring a car skyrockets if you want to drive it over state lines. Flying comes with pesky added costs like the fee for checking baggage (which is almost never included in the cost of your ticket) and the expense of getting to and from the airport (you’re looking at an easy AU$100 to get from New York’s airports to lower Manhattan or Brooklyn).
The solution? Get the bus. The Greyhound is a cheap and effective way of getting around the US, with tickets for many popular routes hovering around the US$25 mark including baggage. There’s free wifi on board (important) and it’s a great way to see more of the country.
Accommodation is probably going to take the biggest chunk out of your budget in the United States, so it pays to be organised. Unlike the stops on Europe’s well-serviced backpacker trail, major cities in America often only have a couple of hostels to rub together – the entire city of Memphis has just one. So if you’re on a dorm-bed budget, you’ll want to book ahead of time to ensure you don’t miss out.
If you’re after a private room, the same advice applies. America’s best mid-range deals are usually found on Airbnb and the good ones go months in advance. Rock up to New York in the middle of summer with nowhere to stay and you’ll probably end up paying a few hundred for a bed at the Hilton.
New York, I love you but you’re bringing my bank balance down. Sadly, some parts of the USA – we’re talking LA, San Francisco and Hawaii too – cost a whole lot more to sleep in than others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! But it does make sense to balance your nights in the Big Apple with time spent somewhere a little cheaper.
Generally speaking, the South will set you back less than elsewhere in the States (a special shout-out here goes to the budget paradise of New Orleans). An entire week spent camping in one of America’s incredible national parks won’t cost you much more than a single night in a NYC hostel bed, which is a great excuse to get out of the city and up close with nature.
The institution of happy hour is close to America’s heart. So close, in fact, that bars here regularly stretch it to several hours long, seven days a week. Happy hour is without a doubt the best value way to drink in the United States – arrive at the right time and you’re looking at three hours of US$2 (AU$2.75) beers. Bottoms up.
(Lead image: Unsplash)
Katie Cunningham is the former Features Editor at Junkee. She's currently travelling around the US and Central America.