How to travel the west of the USA under 500 USD ?

30/01/2020

This year, it is precisely 12 years ago when I returned from my one-year US stay, where I lived in an American family. I took care of their children, went to school to learn English, but also had the opportunity to travel to the west of the United States to meet one of my life's dreams.

Disclaimer: If you like to go straight to the point, skip the following four paragraphs.

Raised on films such as Alcatraz Escape, Thelma and Luisa, Once Upon a Time in the West, Pretty Woman, and serials like 90210 or Dallas, I saw myself how I'm going through the American wildlife in the cabriolet. I also dreamed of hiking with a backpack through the canyons where only the Indians live, cruising to the Golden Gate Bridge, or as I march with shopping bags on Rodeo Drive, where I meet world-famous celebrities. 

Well, tell me, who from us, the children of the post-communist generation would not have such dreams? I have gone after such experiences! And perhaps because my parents were from the working class, they always reminded me of my dreaming and separation from reality. They tried to raise me into an honest laborer who stood firmly on the ground and did not have too many goals. But that never happened, because even though you are a confused child as to what you want to be, I knew where I wanted to go. To the world!

My desire to leave my hometown got out of their control, and they realized it would be better for them to support me. At the age of 15, I went to the art high school in Prague, which, unfortunately, I had to end due to the lack of finance. So I went back to the dodgy end (my although beautiful, but quite hometown), where I graduated from the public administration office, which for me was a long and tedious torture. After graduation, I went back to Prague to become quickly RICH & FAMOUS. It didn't happen yet, but the main goal for me has always been the JOURNEY. After another three years, I finally managed to meet the Au Pair program, and I got to the US. (Here's an alert message - never give up!)

After a year of Au Pair work in American families, I could finally make my biggest trip I had planned for nearly two years. And I managed to cut the expenses as much as possible. 

How did I manage to travel the US West for $ 500, and is it still possible today? Yes, even after so many years it's still possible, prices have not changed so much, but it takes a lot of time to prepare. I have summed up my road trip for you to several points. 


1. Find your friends

This is a crucial point. You have to travel in a group which is big enough to save money while sharing accommodation and a car, but the group can't be too big to fit into the car or a hotel room. We were five, but the ideal number is about four people, or if you want to rent a van and apartments, it could be even 8. I've been looking for fellow travelers in various forums on the Internet; today, it's much more comfortable at Facebook and other social networks. Eventually, however, I started with my friends from the Au Pair program - with the Czechs, and one of them took a boyfriend and mom.

 

2. Share

I'm not talking about Instagram pictures now, but about all aspects of everyday life on the road. Share car rental, gasoline, food, hotel and hostel rooms, tent, camping site, and park tickets.

3. Book and plan a year ahead

Nothing will save you more money than perfect preparation. As the Americans say - Do your homework, meaning to plan your trip well ahead. I planned my first trip to the West two years before the actual journey with the second year only working on details. I had a fancy itinerary with accurate data, including AAA printed out road itinerary. To save money you have to book the cheapest camps and hostels. But here comes the problem because those most inexpensive camps tend to be in national and state parks, and they are most likely sold out months or a year ahead. If you manage to plan everything well ahead of schedule, you can travel the West of the US for the $ 500. At the moment, I'm going on my second trip to the US, where I've underestimated the preparation, and all the cheaper camps have been full three months before our planned departure. Do not make the same mistake!


4. Try to save money by choosing bed and breakfast, eat in fast foods

Most hostels have a free breakfast. It is effortless, but you can save at least for coffee, and the time you would spend shopping for your breakfast at the supermarket. If you choose hotels, look for those that include breakfast as well. Instead of stuffing yourself, you can take an apple or a banana with you as a snack. Very often, hotels with breakfast are at the same price as those without it. However, if the hotel with breakfast is $10 more expensive, it is up to you whether you prefer breakfast in a hotel or to go for breakfast to dinner or fast food.

5. Cook or grill

If you are in a bigger group, there is nothing better than buying fresh groceries in the store, and grill the meat, saute the "sausages" or cook something on fire or camp stove. In the campsites, there is always a seating area with a fireplace or grill at each setpoint. In the US, meat and food are usually sold in bulk, and if you are more than two in a group, it will cost you cheaper than buffet meals. In national parks, prices in local shops are also more pricey, so it is better to buy them in advance in a typical supermarket and carry a cooling bag with you if you travel, for example to Utah or hot destinations. You can also buy ice in the supermarket that keeps your food fresh for some time.

6. Check your credit cards, documents, and car rental terms

Find out in advance the car rental conditions and the minimum age of the driver. Do they require a credit card? Attention for everyone who only owns a debit card, because not all rentals or hotels accept them. You will also need a valid passport in the USA and, when driving, an authentic American or international driver's license along with the one from your country.

It sounds simple, but check all the data on all these legitimations and payment cards. If, for example, the credit card, which you registered when booking your accommodation, expires during your stay, it is possible that the reservation will be canceled and you will not have furnished accommodation. It is often stated that you will pay on the spot, but very often, the hotel will block the payment in case of cancellation, and when it becomes aware that the card is invalid or there is not enough money on the account, the reservation will cancel.

7. Have a spare $ 100 bill

Even if you have only a $ 500 travel budget, always have a financial margin in case something doesn´t go as planned. For example, we did not get an agreed car rental because we had a problem with accepting a credit card. We had to wait until the next day and get the car from another car-rental where it could be paid in cash, but the final budget was much bigger than expected. One night in Yosemite instead of camping we had to find a hotel. It took us an entire day to drive from Death Valey to the top of the Yosemite Valey, we were tired and cold and didn´t feel like driving curvy roads for another hour or two in the dark and setting a tent in such cold weather. That cost us another extra cash, but it was worth the many & time. So keep in mind to have some spare money with you if anything goes into your way.

8. Travel off-season, holidays and school breaks

Not only will you get cheaper accommodation at this time, but you will also have a choice of multiple rooms, camping sites, and you will be able to relax more without queues and groups of field trips.


9. Try to register for reward cards, collect coupons

KOA campgrounds, national and state park permits, Walmart, Gas stations, you name it. Almost every chain has a reward program which helps you to save some money. You can also collect discount coupons from supermarkets and fast food to save some money during your next visit.

10. Paint the town red for once and forget that you are on a tight budget. Otherwise, you will not enjoy it!

And what route did we travel?

  • Two weeks
  • 2800 mil
  • Three states
  • Four national parks

Route:

Los Angeles - San Diego - Joshua Tree - Grand Canyon - Las Vegas - Death Valley - Yosemite - San Francisco - Los Angeles

The calculation for one person for a total of 5 people:

  • Approx. car cost: 120 USD, gasoline 80 USD
  • Approx. Accommodation cost: 250 USD / person- camps, private rooms in hostels and three nights in hotel *
  • Entrance to parks, parking, and other expenses approx. 50 USD

Total of 500 USD

* Hostel and camp prices have increased, so I recommend more double rooms in cheaper motels like Motel 8 or Econo Lodge, where they have two double beds, so two can share one bed, and the fifth can sleep on the ground on a camping mat. That is how we have done it in a couple of hotels. We took turns in sleeping on the floor. 

P.S. Read as much as reviews as you can!

In a couple of days, I and my husband we're going to take a similar route, but we'll also add Colorado, Utah, Yellowstone, Florida, Chicago, and New York into our itinerary! Wish us luck!

Pictures in the article were made by an awesome fellow traveler Radka Jirásková.