How to plan an American road trip

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
July, 2018

Learn how to make the most of your limited finances and enjoy an exciting adventure travelling across the USA, one of the most popular gap year destinations

Deciding on a gap year in America

The USA is home to sprawling cities, tropical beaches, dusty hot deserts and beautiful national parks. With such diverse geography, climate and culture, it is no surprise that the country has been named the world’s third most popular place to embark on a gap year by members of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

However, getting to and navigating the 50 states that make up this vast nation would make a huge dent in anyone's finances. Students and graduates in particular have no choice but to plan and budget carefully for this trip of a lifetime.

To help you we’ve asked the travel experts to offer some frugal words of advice to any would-be US road trippers.

Weighing up your flight options

Your first challenge will be to fund the biggest initial outlay - the flight to America. Tiffany Harrison, communications manager at STA Travel, suggests that those with flexible travel plans are in the best position to take advantage of flight deals. ‘For students especially, open-jaw tickets can be ideal as the one-way fares can help to cut costs,’ she adds.

But whether you have a specific starting point in mind or are just searching for the cheapest ticket, Tiffany notes that it is important to have some knowledge of the region you’re planning on travelling to.

‘There are geographical variations to keep in mind. For instance, at our STA Travel headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, we are seeing temperatures upwards of 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27C) in mid-February, whereas in New York you’re more likely to experience temperatures in the low 30s and 40s (1-4.5C).’

With multiple flight options to consider, doing your research means you can then make an informed decision that weighs up these factors along with the basic cost of the flight.

Getting travel insurance

While the cheapest travel insurance policies may seem like the natural choice for a cash-conscious student, the ABTA website explains how you’ll need to ensure that it covers all of the activities you are hoping to take part in.

Think about the duration of your trip and whether you’ll be engaging in any extreme sports or high risk pursuits, for example, skiing in the mountains of Colorado.

Exploring the great outdoors

Those with dreams of visiting all the iconic landmarks they’ve seen in movies and on TV, in books and elsewhere in popular culture will soon realise how spread out the country is. It’s only when you start to journey across the landscape that you come to appreciate the distances involved.

Unfortunately, the US is not really geared towards independent travel on a budget, especially the more remote areas. This is due to the lack of an efficient transport infrastructure.

Rachel Mills, editor of The Rough Guide to Southwest USA - a region that encompasses the American Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, as well as the Colorado Plateau and a portion of the Great Basin Desert - highlights the need to prepare when it comes to going off the beaten track.

‘Rural buses can be scarce,’ says Rachel. ‘So if you're on a low budget and want to get into the great outdoors, then consider renting a car online in advance, but always check that you have an unlimited mileage deal.’

The only downside to this for younger students travelling alone is that rental agencies will expect you to have held a licence for more than a year and to have a credit card. This is why it is a more economical solution for those travelling in a group.

If you can get your transport sorted, Rachel reveals that camping in federal and state campgrounds ranges from being free, usually during seasons when there’s no water available, to around $30 per night.

The quickest way to cross the country or move between regions is to book a domestic flight online with a US operator. If you are travelling light and don’t mind an overnight flight, you can benefit from some attractive prices.

However, Tiffany points out that you’ll see much more of the country if you choose to view it from an open highway rather than opting for the skies. The cheapest means of doing this is via bus travel, road tripping in a car with friends (sharing the cost of petrol) or by renting a campervan - the ultimate home on wheels, containing everything you will need for your trip.

Ensuring you travel safe

While it’s great to save money where you can, The Rough Guide to the USA does offer a strong note of caution when it comes to thumbing for a lift and walking along busy roads, at all times of the day and night.

‘Hitchhiking in the United States is a bad idea, making you a potential victim both inside (you never know who you're travelling with) and outside the car, as the odd fatality may occur from hitchers getting too close to the highway lanes,’ it says.

The popular travel guide also warns that a steep police fine and even the possibility of an overnight stay in the local jail is the minimum hitchhikers can expect when travelling through states where the practice is illegal.

For more advice, see the highs and lows of solo travel.

Travelling America on a budget

Being such a large country, it’s nice to know there are many different ways to save money when it comes to food and accommodation.

‘The time of year will of course play a factor,’ admits Tiffany, ‘but thanks to things like Airbnb, Couchsurfing and the availability of cheap hotels and hostels, there is something to suit every budget.’

Major cities such as New York and Boston can prove to be more expensive places to live, but Rachel directs travellers to online resources for guidance. For example, Rough Guide has published an article providing tips on things to do in Chicago for free.

To really cut down on food costs, Tiffany advocates the various alternatives to expensive restaurants and meals. ‘There is a plethora of affordable options, from the numerous food carts in Portland, Oregon, to massive slices of pizza in New York City,’ she says.

(Healthier) home cooking is also made easier if you’re staying somewhere booked via one of the lodging listing sites mentioned above.