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40 Tips for Traveling in the US on the Cheap

USA on the Cheap

1. Search for a car rental on sites that include the insurance in the rate (usually UK based).

This is generally much cheaper than paying separately for the rental plus the insurances, and most non-US travelers won’t be covered for liability or damage to the rental vehicle through their travel insurance or credit card.

I’ve saved hundred of dollars using this tip over the years.

2. Sign up for a free trial of Amazon Prime.

This gets you free two day shipping. This will save you both time and money vs. shopping in stores for any items you need during your travels. I usually order things like sneakers at a much lower price than at home.

3. Shop at Trader Joes if there is one near you.

I’m a devotee of Wholefoods since they have far more locations and offer more selection, but Trader Joes has some great items at much lower prices than Wholefoods e.g., vegan coconut milk ice-cream and bags of delicious frozen mango slices. Plus – visiting unfamiliar supermarkets is one of the most fun travel activities.

They also have cheap wine.

4. Get food to go to minimize tipping.

I don’t enjoy eating in restaurants anyway so I tend to get my food to go and this has the added benefit of minimizing tipping.

5. Get a pass for the public transportation.

Most locations offer passes for the public transportation e.g., a one week passes that work outs much cheaper than paying per ride if you’re using the public transportation a lot.

Run your numbers and make sure the pass is worth it e.g., Oahu offers a 4 day bus pass but if you’re only doing two trips a day you can probably just use your transfer for the return trip and only pay for one trip per day. In this case the pass isn’t worth it.

6. Use the “Taxi Fare Finder” website to estimate cab fare.

Cab fares are much cheaper in the US than in most other Western countries. Sometimes taking a cab is just as cheap at two tickets on an airport shuttle if you’re traveling with at least one other person.

7. Consider alternative airports.

Cities like NYC, San Francisco, and Washington DC each have 3 airports.

San Francisco has Oakland, SFO, and San Jose which are all pretty convenient and accessible via public transport.

All of NYC airports (EWR, JFK, LGA) are equally inconvenient, but Washington DC’s BWI is the least convenient of it’s three airports.

8. Buy travel supplies once you’re in the US.

Things like sunblock are cheaper in the US than purchasing at home. Instead of buying them at home, wait till you get here.

You could even order from Amazon and have a parcel waiting at your hotel for your arrival.

9. Consider traveling with carry on only – You get a whooping 18kg carry on allowance in the US!

In New Zealand and Australia, carry on allowance is 7-10kg, but in the US it’s 18kg. Avoid checked luggage charges on your domestic flights and do what Americans do and travel with carry on only.

10. Use Priceline to stay in 4 and 5 star hotels for cheap.

Whenever I want to stay at a 4 or 5 star hotel, I use Priceline. Priceline lets you bid on hotel rooms. You choose your minimum star level but don’t get to know the specific hotel until the transaction is completed (and you can’t back out!)

For example, here’s my San Francisco hotel from last summer.

Getting the best deals on Priceline is sort of an advanced skill. You need to check forums such as biddingfortravel.yuku.com to see successful bids other people have made and see a crowd sourced hotel list for each Priceline neighborhood. By checking the hotel list you can get a sense if you want to try to avoid any particular hotel. Although this isn’t guaranteed, it can help you avoid hotels that are 4* but get terrible reviews.

I made a video tutorial of how to use Priceline. The video covers how to use the famous free rebid hack – an ESSENTIAL skill for Pricelining.

11. Discount codes.

Search Google for discount codes when making bookings or purchases.

I use this for shopping (clothes and shoes, you might need to join the store’s email list to receive coupons), Broadway show tickets, hotels, and more. For example, when I’m transiting through LA, I always just stay at the Motel 6 by the airport. I can always find a 10-20% coupon code for this. Retail Me Not is a good site for coupon codes.

Another example – I usually pick up a few things from H&M while I’m here (we don’t have H&M in New Zealand) so I’m on their email list for their coupons.

Try the Broadway Box website for Broadway show discount codes (take the coupon to the box office to avoid online booking fees).

12. Familiarize yourself with US budget airlines.

SouthWest is one US budget airline that often doesn’t show up in search engines and offers great deals on the routes they fly. Jet Blue is great because one free checked bag is included and most US airlines charge for checked bags. International airfares to the US from Australia and New Zealand vary greatly depending on whether there is a good special out, so to find cheap flights for your international sectors it pays to start monitoring the fares as soon as possible. Check if it’s cheaper to buy one fare with a stopover or to buy your international and US domestic tickets separately.

13. Internet on your phone and phone service.

Having internet on your phone will save you a ton of money overall. For example, you can use Yelp to find good cheap restaurants near your location, and you’ll save gas vs. getting lost if you use Google Maps for directions.

See how I arrange a US SIM Card and data for $45 for a month’s service including unlimited calls, data, and txts.

You might not think you need phone service but I’ve used the phone for calls four times in the last 24 hours and it’s so much easier than mucking about with bad Skype connections.

14. Ask for a mini fridge for your room.

Some hotels have sensors in the mini bar which means you can’t move the items. If you ask, they will bring you a separate mini fridge you can use for your items. This means you can buy snacks and drinks at a lower cost and keep them in your fridge.

15. Visit museums on their free nights and look our for museums that are “suggested admission”.

Many US museums have a free night once per week (usually 4-8pm on a Thurs or Fri).

Some museumes, like NYC’s Met Museum, are “suggested admission” all the time, meaning you can pay whatever you wish. Often the suggested admission aspect is not made very clear to encourage people to think they need to pay the full suggested amount.

16. Avoid paying for airport luggage carts.

At home, airport luggage carts are free. In most US airports you’ll need to pay, so don’t take more luggage than you can wheel or carry without a cart.

17. Stay at Hosteling International Hostels.

Some independent hostels in the US are of a poor standard but I’ve had uniformly great experiences with HI Hostels. Many have private rooms and kitchen access. For example, we paid $58/night for a private room at HI Waikiki.

18. Cut down on entertainment expenses by getting a Netflix free trial.

I’ve done month long free trials of Netflix twice while I’ve been in the US.

19. Email food brands to request coupons.

If you know you want to try a particular brand (e.g., vegan brands), then just email the company and ask them to send you some coupons. These will usually be for 50c or 75c off but can be used in any store.

20. Take advantage of price matching.

For example, Wal-mart will match other companies prices. Instead of paying more or shopping in multiple places, practice asking for price matches.

21. Do free activities.

Other than Broadway shows, I very rarely spend money on anything other than lodging, food, and transportation while traveling. Almost everything I like to do is free.

Find websites that provide daily listings of free events taking place in city you’re visiting e.g., author talks at bookstores, free concerts in the park, sporting events (we watched the Honolulu Triathlon this morning.)

22. Do NOT go to Ross Dress for Less, or you’ll need to buy another suitcase for your return home.

There are designeer discount stores in the US, the best of which is probably Ross Dress for Less (which is a chain) or Century 21 (in NYC).

NZers, Aussies, and Brits have been known to go crazy buying up large in this store! Don’t get started, you might not be able to stop!

23. Use Mega Bus for traveling between cities.

I’m getting too old for cheap bus companies. I’d rather pay more to rent a car.

However, I’ve used Mega Bus to get around the East Coast of the US at very cheap prices e.g., when I needed to get up to Providence, Rhode Island for a work conference, or from Boston-NYC, or from NYC-Washington DC.

Trains usually cost double what the bus costs and are very prone to delays.

24. Use Gas Buddy to find the cheapest gas prices near you.

You can use the website or the iphone app. Hawaii gas prices are a whole $1/gallon more than some places in the US, but still half of what they are in NZ!

25. Use the microwave at Wholefoods supermarkets.

Most Wholefoods supermarkets have a very nice seating area with a microwave. Their salad bar is expensive but if you’re looking to save cash, try buying something frozen (e.g., pad thai or a burrito) and use their microwave to heat it. This can be quite convenient if you want a quick lunch or dinner on the way to/from an event and want to sit down to eat.

26. National Parks pass.

If you’re going to be visiting a lot of national parks on your trip, you can buy an annual pass online for $80. This covers entrance fees and basic campsite fees.

27. Long distance hiking.

If you’re up for a big challenge, you could try any of the US’s famous Triple Crown long distance hikes: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, or the Continental Divide.

A “thru hike” is when you hike the whole trail – which takes months. You can also do a “section hike.”

28. Expand your food universe.

Food trucks and ethnic cuisine (e.g., Caribbean food) are great options for cheap eats. If you’re prepared to get away from sterile sit down restaurants you can try some different foods at much cheaper prices.

There are even some vegan food trucks like Cinnamon Snails in NYC that does vegan Cinnamon rolls (OMG!) or the Capital City Bakery cart in Austin, Texas.

If you’re subletting an apartment, ask the person you’re subletting from where is good for delivery in your area. Nothing feels as American as getting food delivered to your apartment and having a cozy night in with Netflix and personally delivered food!

The yelp app or website are excellent for finding cheap food options near your current location.

29. A car camping trip.

Car camping – staying at National Parks or even in Wal-mart parking lots, is a big thing in the US. Our friend, Kate from CanuckiwiKate is currently doing a car camping trip across Canada but I’ve also known people who have done this in the US.

I packed our tent this trip! Let’s see if we use it!

30. Attend some TV show tapings in NYC or LA.

Tickets to tapings of TV shows are free e.g., The View, Colbert, Letterman. I’ve been to all of these.

31. Pick a zipcode and a phone number to use for store discount cards.

We saved $8 at Safeway today by signing up for their discount card the other day. If you forget the card, you just put your phone number into the keypad as you’re checking out. If you don’t have a phone number, just make one up and use the same one throughout your trip.

Sometimes you need to use your zipcode in when making purchases e.g., when buying a subway pass in NYC.

Pick one and stick with it in case you need to remember it later.

32. Make your own breakfast.

Toasted bagels with cream cheese, or cornflakes with milk and bananas, or even oatmeal all make good hostel breakfasts.

33. Keep hydrated without buying drinks.

I use sachets of iced tea that I mix with water and take out for the day in my day pack. I make it the night before and freeze it in a bottle so that it stays cool longer.

You can often find water fountains to refill a water bottle in the US.

34. Make large purchases in states with no or low sales tax.

I just bought a new computer and the sales tax here in Hawaii is half the rate it is in NYC. Sometimes you can avoid sales tax completely by ordering from out of state or by having your item delivered to another state e.g., purchase something in a NYC store and have it shipped to a friend in NJ.

Oregon has no state sales tax, which I appreciated when I bought my bike from an Oregon based company last year.

35. Shop Wal-mart and Target for items you forgot to bring.

Wal-mart and Target are good one stop shops for anything you forgot to bring with you.

36. Consider buying a bike rather than renting one or bringing one.

You can buy a bike for as little as $100 at Wal-mart. Depending on which airline you’re flying, this might be cheaper than taking your bike on both your international flights.

If you have a bit more time, on a previous trip (before I had my folding bike), I bought a used bike from an environmental organization (where I also took some classes) and then just donated it back at the end of my stay.

Bring your lock, bell, lights and helmet from home.

37. Sublet apartments via Craigslist rather than vacation rental sites.

Here’s my very detailed article about subletting an apartment in NYC.
Most of the info is applicable to other locations too.
If you are traveling with a baby/toddler you might want to bring your own traveling crib to keep him/her safe and contained at night.

38. Plan your route wisely to avoid backtracking.

For example, fly from AU/NZ into San Francisco, then into NYC, take the bus or train from NYC down to Washington DC, fly from DC to Los Angeles, and then leave for home from Los Angeles.

39. Compare car hire at the airport vs. in town.

Sometimes there is a big difference but whether it’s the airport or the city that’s cheaper varies!

40. Take advantage of generous cancellation policies.

In the US it’s often fairly easy to cancel hotel and hostel reservations if you book directly with the hotel/hostel. Of course, check the fine print. Since good hostels and budget hotels do book up, try booking ahead and then canceling if your plans change. This will prevent you getting stuck with a more expensive option because you can’t get a reservation at your preferred choice.

37 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Great tips! I love the fact that you can microwave your food in the supermarket. Only in America! 🙂


    1. // Reply

      You can do that too in Japan. But I agree, what a great list! I loved all the tips!


  2. // Reply

    These are some really well thought out tips Kate. We’ve travelled in the USA a lot and consequently have our own money saving tactics. Our list is very similar but I’ve picked up some new ones today! In 2008 we did a car camping trip up the west coast. We bought a national parks pass and hired a car from Vegas fyi check online for employee discount codes, it’s a bit cheeky but we booked using one and had no trouble at all! We spent 3 months touring the west and following similar advice to yours spent much less than we had anticipated!


  3. // Reply

    Some fab advice in this piece. We’ve travelled a lot in the states and have a similar list of our own but you’ve given me some new savvy savings to add to my collection! Thanks!


  4. // Reply

    i’ve gotten so lazy and about looking for deals. it’s awful. i need an assistant just for this and i bet it would be SO worth it!!


  5. // Reply

    great idea for a post


  6. // Reply

    So many great ideas here, and many that I take for granted since I live here. I do agree about Trader Joe’s–it’s the cheapest and best place to buy food as long as you don’t go crazy buying all their yummy snacks (which really add up).






  7. // Reply

    I actually live in the US but loved reading your observations about my country! Another tip — ask locals about deals, specials, and discounts. They’ll know which restaurants or bars have specials and which days/times to go to save the most money. It’s a tip I use worldwide and it holds true in the USA as well (not to mention you may make a new friend).



  8. // Reply

    Many motels offer free breakfast, ranging from just coffee, tea and pastries up to a fairly complete breakfast of eggs, bacon and other hot foods. Nearly all of them are ‘all you can eat’ and the savings are significant ($40-$50 USD/day) for a family. Check/ask before you book.


  9. // Reply

    Also, avoid traveling during most major US holidays when rates on rooms and transportation are increased. They are usually reduced a day or two after the holiday ‘vacation period’ has ended.


  10. // Reply

    As far as #4 is concerned, you’re actually expected to tip on take-out in most restaurants.
    I live in the US and have spent many years working in the restaurant industry. Usually a few dollars will suffice, no need for the usual 20% tip.


  11. // Reply

    Go Trader Joes!! I freakin love that store. It was an adventure for Kalyra and I every Saturday. How can you go past $2 bottle of wine and the nicest workers ever. Miss the veggie products from here.


  12. // Reply

    These are awesome tips! I’m an aussie blogger looking at going to the states later this year and its great to know all of the above, Cheers! 🙂 -Kat


  13. // Reply

    I’m American and some of these tips are helpful even for me. After traveling in Aus/NZ recently I fully appreciate how much cheaper things are at home now! Also I LOOOOVE Ross stores! Another good option is TJ Maxx or Marshall’s (two different stores but they are owned by the same company so they usually have similar stuff, most cities will have one or the other but not both). I bought my travel hair straightener at TJ Maxx for only $10 and it’s awesome! Another tip I would say is that if you do eat out at a sit-down restaurant, know that you will probably get a gigantic plate of food that no reasonable person could possibly eat in one sitting. Take it home for leftovers! I have been places where I paid $15 (incl tip) for a huge plate of pasta that I made three different meals out of. This is where your tip of staying somewhere with a mini-fridge comes in handy!


  14. // Reply

    Thanks so much for the tips. Im off to the states in May, my first trip overseas! wish me luck.


  15. // Reply

    Great list! On the car hire theme, if you’re travelling with little ones, we bought a trunki backpack / car seat combo for less than the cost of renting a car seat from the car hire company for one trip. We’ve used it multiple times now so the savings keep racking up. The hard shell on the rucksack (which is the seat) makes it great for tranporting electricals and gives some protection for them. As you carry it round you can also use in restaurants, theatres or wherever you need a booster seat. Possibly our best buy ever!


  16. // Reply

    Great tips!! I agree with another comment – trying to find a hotel with a free breakfast saves us a ton, plus it’s convenient. Though some foreigners might not enjoy our typical American breakfasts.


  17. // Reply

    Many cities have a City pass. Great discount for seeing the most popular things in a particular city. Also, look into an Entertainment book for the city you will be visiting. Lots of 2 for 1 deals and restaurant discounts etc


  18. // Reply

    As an American looking for traveling tips… I like this list a lot! I never realized getting delivery isn’t prevalent in other places. That seems so natural to me, dialing out for pizza! New York you can even find delivery for breakfast! Pancakes delivered to your door on Saturday morning is the best!

    I live in Delaware.. Home of tax free shopping. It’s 30-40 mins outside Philadelphia, PA. 2 hours south of NYC, 2 hours above Baltimore, MD. There are tour busses that stop at the Christiana mall in DE. That Apple Store is huge and always packed. Worth the trip if you need a new laptop or iPhone.

    As far as discount cards, most places (rite aid, Walgreens, grocery stores) you can use that ’80s song 867-5309 as the number to get your discount. I’ve done it, works! Just use the area code of the city you’re in. For example… Mine is area code 302…. So just type in 302-867-5309. Most places have a store card, they’ll let you put it on theirs too.

    Hope this helps! Great post!


    1. // Reply

      As a Floridian, I’ve only driven through Delaware, and had no idea it’s tax free shopping.

      I love the fake phone number from the song idea. That’s marvelous. When it gets forgotten, just sing!

      BTW, Pancakes for breakfast delivered? WoW, nice. Who does that? Next time I have a chance, I’ll be staying in Delaware.


  19. // Reply

    These are remarkable tips. As an American, I got insights about traveling abroad, as well as a couple of ideas for myself here.


  20. // Reply

    Great tips. Thank you!

    Just curious though, I’m from Australia and we’re planning a roadtrip next year for 2 months. I am trying to track down car rental places that offer insurance as well. Do you have any names of companies that would be able to assist me?

    Thanks in advance.


    1. // Reply

      Hi Kristy,

      We’ve found Firefly to be good. They offer insurance but we never had to use it as we were covered by another policy. We’ve also been happy with Enterprise whom I’m pretty sure offers insurance too. In fact I think they all probably do.
      happy travelling 🙂

      Cheers,
      Kathryn


  21. // Reply

    A tip for flying into Baltimore-Washington Airport …. Because it has some really cheap fares use BWI and then take the Washington Flyer hotel service if you need to get into DC or Northern Virginia. You can go to a hotel on their drop-off service that’s near Metro and hop on to the nearest cheap hotel or have your friends pick you up in a more convenient location for them. Most of the time you can save lots of $$$.


    1. // Reply

      Thanks for the helpful tip Barabara 🙂


  22. // Reply

    There are so many cheaper better buses than megabus if you are on the coasts!

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