America on a Shoestring

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There is the perception that the United States is an expensive destination for travelers, and many people leave it off their list of countries when going on a RTW trip. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Travelers can cut costs when traveling in the US, and here are some tips to do it.

Ways to cut transportation costs

Transportation in the United States is definitely one of the biggest expenses traveling around the country. It is such a large country, and there is a severe lack of cheap public transport options and no real budget airline that services the country. The first time I traveled around the country, I spent more than two thirds of my money getting from one place to the next.

The Greyhound is the most popular way for most travelers to get around, but it’s not cheap and can at times be fairly sketchy. However, the idea of ridesharing has really taken off in the US in the recent years, and it means you can get from nearly any location to another for basically nothing. Rideshare is a fantastic idea and is one of the easiest ways to get around. People post on Craigslist where they are going and how much they would like for the trip (usually just enough to help cover fuel). You then contact the person and organize the specifics with them.

There are some obvious risks involved – it is definitely wise to talk to the person first, and if possible catch up with them before you go. If that is not possible, checking out a Facebook profile is another good way to verify their identity. I have had both fantastic and sketchy rideshare experiences, but that is all part of the fun. Overall, it is a great way to meet new people, and there is usually lively discussion in the car. The added benefit of ridesharing is you can make a friend who already has a house in the location you are heading to. The last person I took a rideshare with ended up showing me all around Portland, including places I never would have known about or seen otherwise.

Read about Overland Travel in the Americas

Ways to cut accommodations costs

Once you arrive to a location, a website like Couchsurfing offers a fantastic alternative to staying in hostels and hotels. Outside the major cities in the United States there are very few hostels, so before Couchsurfing, the only option would have been to spend a night in a hotel room. Not only is staying in a hotel expensive, but it is also a very lonely and sterile experience, and the chances of meeting new people are really limited to the grizzly old man with one tooth who is a regular at the local pub down the road. Fortunately Couchsurfing allows you to find people you have common interests with and stay with them – for free.

The idea behind Couchsurfing is you both share something with each other. The host is giving you their couch for a few days and showing you around their home city, and you share something with them, be it a skill, your home culture, or even just share stories and laughter. I remember couch surfing in Austin, TX. At the time I was a vegetarian, and my hosts were so excited that they could take me to their favorite vegetarian restaurant. They ordered more food than any of us could ever have eaten and then wouldn’t even hear of it when I offered to pay. I never would have discovered that restaurant on my own. The excitement of your hosts as they show you around their city is one of the nicest aspects of being a Couchsurfer. Rather than being the tourist with the map, you are instead inducted into life as an inhabitant. You go to the trendy bars, eat at the cheap restaurants, and know all the cool neighborhoods that many tourists would otherwise miss. It is as though you are offered a genuine snapshot into what life is really like living in the city you are visiting.

Another positive is that Couchsurfing is really easy to do. All you have to do is fill out your profile, then search for couches in the city, town, or region you are thinking of going to. You then just ask people you would like to stay with if they have a couch for a few nights. It is always best to give at least three or four days notice if you can, and make sure you apply to a few different hosts to ensure you get a couch. It really is an enriching experience, and you’ll leave town with your faith in humanity restored.

Read Couchsurfing: Tips for a Smooth Experience and 10 Ways to Use Couchsurfing: A Multi-Tool for the Indie Traveler 

WWOOFing in the US?

Another amazing way to travel on a budget while also learning new skills, making new friends, and getting your hands dirty is WWOOFing. WWOOFing stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and the premise behind it is that you volunteer on an organic farm for a few hours every day in exchange for room and board.

The United States have a fantastic range of Organic Farms you can work on. You can do anything from from tending to llamas on a ranch in Alaska to picking and processing Chinese Herbs in North Carolina. Different farms have different setups, but all will provide basic necessities such as food and somewhere to sleep. Because a lot of farms are located away from major cities, it can sometimes be hard to get there, but if you talk to the people who run the farm, most will come and pick you up from the closest location you can get to.

Personally, I would rank my times spent WWOOFing as some of the best travel experiences I have had. I worked on an asparagus farm in Ohio one summer for a month. I camped in a beautiful glade in the middle of a forest of lush green trees and vines, and I would quite often wake in the middle of the night to wild thunderstorms buffeting my tent. The day would start at 6am, and after breakfast a whole team of young workers would head out into the fields where we would harvest asparagus, plant new garden beds, tend to the beehives, and do any number of jobs. It was hard work at times but always fun as we laughed and chatted throughout the day. At night the forest would light up with fireflies, and on the weekends we would have bonfires while having some beers and looking up at the stars.

Apart from spending basically no money for an entire month, I also managed to learn incredible skills and make fantastic friends who I still keep in contact with today. WWOOFing is definitely a fantastic option to save a little money while traveling through the states, and is so accessible due to the sheer number of farms located in every part of the country.

Read about How to WWOOF Around the World

Another transport alternative

I recently ran into a friend who had ridden from San Francisco to Portland while stopping to work on three different organic farms along the way. He said riding along with his bike was possibly one of the best ways he could have envisioned seeing the country. The US is dotted with countless bike trails and routes. If you are an avid cyclist, or keen for a different way to experience the US, then cycling could be a good, cheap, and alternative way to do so. The United States is such a vast country of strikingly different landscapes and cultures that one of the best ways to truly experience it is by a slow tour across the country. I bought my bike off a Dutch backpacker who had ridden from Florida to San Francisco. He recounted tales of passing through lush forests in the south, being tested by the arid desert of Texas and New Mexico before eventually coming up over the harsh, yet beautiful mountains of California.

If you are looking to cross the country on a bike, there are three main routes, either along the south of the country (Southern Tier), through the middle (Transamerica) or along the top near the Canadian border (Northern Tier). Riding is a great way to really soak in the landscape while meeting lots of new people – local people get so excited to see you cycle through and delight in asking where you have come from. Websites like Adventure Cycling have good maps, blogs, and information pertaining to cycling in the US and are well worth checking out before you set off on an adventure.

Once you are out on the road, the website Warm Showers, which is similar to Couchsurfing but specifically for cyclists, is your savior. It lists people who are willing to host you and offer much needed showers as well as a nice meal and accommodation. The best thing about Warm Showers is that it is all free (good for the budget), and the people you stay with are usually cyclists themselves. Apart from living vicariously through you, most people you stay with will have some good knowledge to impart.

Whether it be a short trip just out of a city or a longer ride across the country, there is no feeling like the freedom of having the wind in your face and all your belongings attached to your bicycle as you set out to explore the US. It is important that for longer trips you have the correct gear before you set out. If you are unsure what you need for a bike trip, just visit a bicycle store and ask them for advice (they will be more than happy to give it) or check out some of the blogs on websites such as Adventure Cycling.

The rise of social media sites such as Couchsurfing, WWOOFing, and even Rideshare has changed the way people travel. The world is a much more connected place, and it means we can disregard the more traditional methods of transport and accommodation when traveling in favor of cheaper options, which also give you a chance to really get to the people. It not only makes a trip more affordable, but also increases understanding of different cultures through more intimate forms of interaction than previously available. The United States is such a vast mix of people, cultures, and landscape that to truly appreciate the country you really have to experience it at the ground level, through the eyes of its own people. Not only is it dirt cheap, but it could be one of the most rewarding traveling experiences you will have.

Read Budget Travel by Bike: Why It’s Best (and How You Can Do It for $14 Per Day)

Add the US to your RTW trip

If you’re planning a RTW trip and want to add the US into your itinerary, check out the following route. It has an awesome US road trip in the middle, and you can utilize the tips from this article to help you make the most of your journey. If you want to customize this trip to make it your own, sign up for a free account on Indie to get instant prices on all multi-stop trips.

Have you ever traveled on a tight budget in a notoriously expensive region of the world? Share your stories and tips below in the comments.

To read more about budget travel and traveling in the United States, check out the following articles and resources:

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Photo credits:  @boetter, jessicareeder, Nic McPhee, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission 

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  • Hendrik de Kock said at 2013-07-19T07:18:30+0000: Amtrak can also be a pretty good budget alternative to getting around. It's relatively limited in where it goes, but it does cover most destinations of interest, and many other places in between (including many traditional small towns). And unlike Greyhound, it can be downright cheap at times, and the rest of the time it's usually well-priced, and it's decidedly non-sketchy (except some of the stations). Plus the view is amazing on some routes. Sure it's not very fast, but their OTP is good. Shame it was left out of the article.
  • Doug Walsh said at 2013-07-19T04:20:25+0000: Libraries! Nearly every small town you come across has a library that will welcome you inside out of the cold and rain, give you computer access, and even have free wifi. Another option for inexpensive travel in the USA is craigslist. There are always people offering rides, sometimes across country, and you need only chip in for gas. And if you think it's not safe, go and watch the movie "Craigslist Joe" -- it will really open your eyes on what is possible with Craigslist.
  • Troy Wong said at 2013-07-19T02:12:15+0000: If you sign up for Couchsurfing, it is a good idea to host people before you start traveling and surfing. It really is about sharing more than about finding an inexpensive place to stay. Freeloading is shunned.
  • Cathleen Crawford Pa-c said at 2012-04-25T22:42:10+0000: If you are traveling in the warm part of the year, nearly every little town in the US has a public pool, where you can stop for a nice shower and a swim for very little money. Works well if you traveling on the cheap, sleeping in your car.
  • Sean E Keener said at 2012-04-25T16:40:55+0000: Another alternative to couchsurfing and hostels is AirBnB. Many times less expensive than a hotel, and your renting a locals room or place.
  • Melissa Lake said at 2012-04-25T12:15:38+0000: Camping is also a great, inexpensive accommodation choice outside of major US cities.
  • Stephanie Underhill said at 2012-04-26T18:51:19+0000: This is wonderful! :D