The Cheapest Way to Drive Across The Country [13 Budgeting Tips]

by Diego Navarro | LAST UPDATED October 13, 2021

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A drive across the country is a great way to see a lot of the beauty that America has to offer. Regardless of whether the trip is a grand adventure that takes you from Seattle all the way to Chicago or if it’s just a short hop from Vegas to Los Angeles, you’ll still get to experience the beauty of a good old-fashioned road trip either way.

However, a grand adventure-style road trip is a bit trickier to plan since you’ll need to do a lot of travel budget calculations to figure out exactly how far you can get with the money you have at hand.

While we can’t help you with figuring out exactly how much money everything will cost or even what you should bring on your trip, we can give you a few tips on how to find the cheapest way to drive across the country.

Before we get started, we should also mention that we’ll cover several different transportation methods in our article, and we’ll give you a bit of advice on each. Still, we’re not implying that you should ditch your car halfway through the trip and start using a campervan or public transportation.

1. Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is a must-have for a big trip like this. There are plenty of companies that offer many different options, so finding a suitable deal for you won’t require much effort. A good rule of thumb is to look for a plan that is somewhere in the middle of the cheapest and most expensive options.

The cheapest option usually only covers very minimal health care needs, whereas the expensive plans will cost an arm and a leg, and they’re usually overkill unless you need a kidney replacement on the fly.

We’d recommend going for a standard sort of insurance plan which covers injuries, common diseases, as well as luggage and hotel insurance so that you can make sure you’ll be compensated if something gets stolen or if your hotel abruptly cancels your room.

2. Double-Check Your Car

If you’re traveling by car, there are a few last-minute checks that you need to make before you set out into the wide blue yonder.

Firstly, you’ll need to make sure that your air filter is working properly and that everything is as it should be with your radiator. The filter isn’t expensive to replace, but the radiator could set you back a couple hundred dollars. 

Keep in mind that these are likely the components that will be under the most strain on your journey, so it’s better to pay up before you set out rather than repairing while on the road.

Next, make sure you’ve had an oil change in the last few months, your brakes are in good condition, and there isn’t an issue with electronics like the lights or the satnav.

Finally, a few days before you set off, make sure that your tire pressure is good and that there’s no tearing on the walls of the tires. Replacement tires aren’t hard to get on the road, but it might be cheaper to get them from a local shop that you trust. If you are traveling during winter or are planning to drive through rugged terrain you might opt for winter tires. 

3. Rental Companies

Just to clarify, we’re not talking about car rentals but rather campervan rentals. These vehicles are bigger than cars, drink a lot more fuel, and take up much more space, so they don’t exactly scream “cheapest way to drive across the country.”

However, these vehicles provide you with access to camping spots all across the country. There is also a lot of benefit to carrying a portable house on a cross country road trip. That way, you’ll be able to do a bit of suburban camping or stealth camp, depending on your route. 

Prices vary when it comes to van rentals, and a standard-sized campervan will probably set you back around $2,000 to $3,000 a month, and that’s not including gas. While this seems a bit steep, you’ll probably spend around that much if you stay in a decent Airbnb or hotel.

4. Public Transport

If we’re honest, using public transport to get from point A to point B is an excellent form of transportation, but we can’t imagine traveling across the country like that. However, if you’re interested in the backpacking portion of the journey rather than the driving portion, then you’ll want to download the Amtrak app.

This will give you information on all of the bus or train routes, all the stops, all of the departure/arrival times, as well as ticket prices. Additionally, companies like Greyhound also have their own app, so if you prefer to use one bus over the other, then you can simply choose to get the routing app for your public transportation company of choice.

Most of these apps also come with a built-in route map that doesn’t require any Wi-Fi connection. This means that you can look up the exact amount of time that you have before the next bus arrives, regardless of where you are or if you have an available hotspot.

5. GasBuddy

people gathered around a car staring into the distance

The GasBuddy app is a must-have for anyone that plans on finding the cheapest way to drive across the country. As you might have assumed by the name, the GasBuddy app can help you find the location of the nearest gas stations on your phone and sort the gas prices.

Knowing how far away a station is from your current location takes away a lot of the suspense if you’re getting close to the end of your tank. This way, you can even make a detour from your original path and turn toward a gas station that might be a tad closer. Knowing gas prices can also save money and plan the best route.

You’ll probably take your fuel gauge into the red several times during a cross-country trip, but this app makes it almost impossible to completely run out and get stranded on the side of the road somewhere.

6. AAA

Driving from coast to coast is going to take a toll on your vehicle. Not only do you have to worry about the typical, mechanical problems that could go wrong, but you also need to worry about the conditions in different states as well.

We won’t go over too many examples, but we should probably warn you that certain parts of Texas will clog your filters with dust, and California heat in the summer has been known to kill a lot of radiators.

We’d suggest making sure that your AAA membership is current before starting your trip. Otherwise, you might end up on the side of the road somewhere and have to hope that either someone stops to help you or that a nearby city has a tow truck.

7. Travel Credit Card

Carrying a lot of cash around with you when you’re traveling isn’t a good idea. While we’re not saying that this automatically leads to you getting robbed, there’s still the possibility that things go awry. Since you likely have a backpack or suitcase on you, this will probably get you noticed.

A travel credit card is the best choice for situations like these since it’s portable, incredibly easy to get, and safer to use on the road than a standard credit card; plus, it usually has point perks for traveling on things like food, gas and hotels. 

And god forbid your credit card gets lost or stolen; you can call your bank and freeze it. It is always a good idea to have a backup credit card or debit card when traveling too, just in case something happens. 

8. Food Costs

Figuring out how much money you’ll spend in grocery stores and restaurants is a bit tricky. Most people don’t really calculate the average amount that they spend on groceries, and even if they did, no two grocery store trips are the same. 

Similarly, you’ll want to keep to a certain budget on your road trip to make sure that your money won’t run out before you get home, but at the same time, you also might just want to treat yourself to a good meal in a restaurant every once in a while.

In our opinion, $1500 a month for food and drink costs seems like a well-balanced budget. You definitely won’t starve on that type of allowance, and you might even have enough for a high-end meal if you don’t feel like cooking.

9. Avoid Tourist Traps

Major cities like Miami and Las Vegas will have a lot more popular tourist destinations than pretty much any city in a state like Utah or Wyoming. Unfortunately, visiting popular tourist destinations in big cities can put a strain on your budget. 

If there is a must-see tourist attraction you are trying to see, like the Statue of Liberty or Venice Beach, we recommend booking lodging an hour or so out of town. It will be cheaper and when you are on a road trip an extra hour goes by quickly! You might opt to visit popular tourist destinations during the off-season, where there are fewer people and could potentially be cheaper. 

10. Your Travel Dates

May through September are usually the busiest time of the year for locations that thrive on tourism. This time frame coincides with spring break and summer vacation.

Planning your trip a bit earlier or later in the year can help you avoid crowds and price spikes. The only issue is that you might have to bring along some warmer clothing and maybe an umbrella or two if it’s the rainy season.

Just to be clear, we’re not saying that you should go on vacation only in seasons when the weather is cold and moody. You can travel the south in the winter and the north in the summer and still soak in everything they have to offer. 

11. Sightseeing

a landscape picture of a canyon

Namely, there are plenty of beautiful sights to see in the USA, and not all of them are located in major cities like New York City or San Francisco. The national parks around the country have some of the most staggering sights that you’ll ever see, and all it takes to get in is a park pass.

Not only will this pass allow you to visit multiple parks around America, but visiting the BLM website will also tell you which of these national parks can be used as free campsites as well. This means that you can spend a few days or weeks in nature surrounded by greenery and fresh air.

While sadly there are no campgrounds near the Grand Canyon itself, you can still stay at the nearest national park and simply drive over to see one of the wonders of the world.

12. Airbnb

In our opinion, booking an Airbnb is a better option than a hotel. The most obvious reason is that the prices are usually much more affordable. This is obviously subjective, and a 2-star hotel will certainly be much cheaper than an apartment in the middle of New York City. 

However, if you take an Airbnb and a hotel room of a similar size and quality that are both located in the same part of town, then the result will be that an Airbnb apartment will be more affordable in the long run.

Airbnb is also about as common as hotels, if not even more prevalent, and the app is very easy to use and easily allows you to look up both available rooms in a certain area, as well as all of the details and prices that you might need.

13. Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing is an app that provides you with contact information for people that are willing to provide you with a place where you can stay for free for a certain period. All you need to do is log into the app and look through the portfolios of the members that are in the location that you plan to be visiting.

While this sounds like it’s too good to be true, the app is actually an easy way for a community of travelers to help support each other and help alleviate some of the financial difficulties that come from large trips like this.

The people that you’ll be staying with have almost certainly been bitten by the wanderlust bug themselves, and they know exactly how expensive this addiction is. This way, not only will you get a room for a few days, but you’ll be able to talk to people that are in the same world as you or that want to share stories of their travels as well, so you might even make some friends at the end of the day.

Conclusion

a woman with her feet on the dashboard

While we might’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to travel advice, we hope that, in some way, we’ve helped you find the cheapest way to drive across the country. 

If you are thinking about planning a road trip, you can always start small and explore your home state, see what works for you and then expand to a longer trip across the country. Either way, once you catch the wanderlust bug, it will be hard to stop your travels.

Diego Navarro
Diego became interested in a nomadic lifestyle during a semester abroad during college. He spends most of his time in central Europe and the American southwest (where his family is from). He loves exotic food and playing video games on his Nintendo Switch.

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