Saturday, 14 March 2009

How to…travel on the cheap in the United States of America

Travelling without spending in the States requires a mixture of kindness and knowledge. Kindness on the part of generous people in America and knowledge based on conversations and experiences along the way. Here are our tips for travelling on the cheap in the U.S. of A:

Couch surfing rocks. This international network of nice people allows you to search for free beds in people’s homes across the U.S. (and the world). You get to meet and live with the locals in exchange for good conversation and the odd beer. We have stayed with some incredible people from musicians and comedians to hipsters and surgeons. Accommodation varies from a pile of blankets on the sitting room floor to a B&B style private room.

Being friendly and meeting people. It‘s amazing how far a smile and a British accent goes in the States. We‘ve met people on beaches and in cars (fellow ridesharers) who have kindly invited us to their homes. Americans are so much more willing than the British to go out of their way for a stranger, giving us lifts across hundreds of miles and buying us meals. We’ve been bowled over.

Craig’s List rideshare gets you where you want to go, as long as you can be flexible with the dates. Simply google Craig’s List in the area you’re staying about a week before you want to leave and post an advert in the rideshare section. We were very successful in the southwest, but not so successful in the south. Since petrol is so cheap in the States, splitting fuel costs nearly always works out cheaper than taking public transport, although it‘s not as good for your carbon footprint. You also get to meet some great people who sometimes are prepared to take the slow route to show you the sites and the best places to eat.

Greyhound special deals. The Greyhound is miserable - not dangerous, just depressing. Avoid if you can, but if you must then check their ‘Hotdeals’ for cheap tickets. Booking more than three days in advance allows the person travelling with you to get a half price ‘companion’ ticket.

Megabus has reached the States and is cheaper than Greyhound. Service is limited mainly to the northeast, but it’s expanding all the time. Chinabus takes you from one city’s China town to another and is again cheaper than the Greyhound, although service is more limited (mainly northeast).

Amtrak is more expensive than the bus, but you can get some great deals. The rail pass could work out if you are planning to travel extensively during a two or three week period. The website also offers ‘hot deals’ which can be cheaper than the Greyhound on certain routes. The trains are very comfortable so sleeping on them overnight is possible, thus saving money on accommodation.

Food and drink:
Tap water is potable, so refill your bottle. Restaurants are usually more than happy to oblige.

Happy hour. Most bars offer deals during ’happy hour(s)’ on drinks and food. It’s always worth asking before placing your order.

All-you-can eat buffets. Some restaurants, especially those serving southern cookin’ and pizza, have lunchtime and/or dinner buffets where you eat as much as you can for a reasonable price. Like Mama Hamils lunchtime feast for just $8. You’ll be full for the day.

Giveaways. Look out for free events serving free food in the local entertainment news (like the street gig and hotdogs we found in Nashville). Products are sometimes being promoted on the streets so keep walking by in different disguises to stock up on free samples.

Supermarket tasters. Some supermarkets leave out delicious and plentiful tasters, which can mount up to a sizeable meal. Costco gives away loads of food, although you will need to go in with a member. Treasure Island in Chicago is also generous.

Free breakfasts at Holiday Inn. Apparently it’s easy enough to walk in with a confident stride and help yourself, although we haven’t tried this ourselves.

Dumpster diving is a popular food shopping experience in some parts of the country. Again, we haven’t done it ourselves, but are led to believe that there are rich pickings to be had for free in the skips out the back of supermarkets. Post-midnight is prime diving time. Here you will find trays of pasta sauce where maybe one jar broke and soiled (but didn’t spoil) the rest; out of date bread, crisps and other dry goods that will last forever; dented tins of food etc. If you’re prepared to wash your find you can stock up for weeks.

Free music. Check out local entertainment listings (usually in a free mag) for free gigs and events.

Museums often have a free or discounted entry day each week. Have a look on their websites and plan accordingly.

Other stuff:
Clothes. Travelling through the U.S.A.’s many climatic zones requires many changes of clothes. So if you get caught short in a snowstorm, as we were, head to the local thrift (second hand) store for bargains galore.

Internet. Libraries offer free use of computers and Internet for up to two hours. Most cities also offer free wifi hotspots in cafes, bars and public places. Useful if you’re travelling with a laptop. Google ‘free wifi hotspots’ to find the nearest places.

This is how we have survived a month in the States on our last few pounds and the tumbling exchange rate. It takes a little more time and effort but has greatly enhanced our experience and understanding of this enormous country. However, don’t take it too far or you could end up being mistaken for a hobo.

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Alecu said...

Nice article, thank you.

... so keep walking by in different disguises to stock up on free samples.


I was made aware of this blog by one of my friends who crossed your path in Chicago. I am glad you go to experience our city (even if it was -7 C). It sounds like you guys have come up with a very unique and exiting way to explore any new place. Good luck to you.

Travel-world said...

Thanks for the tips you shared..all in your list are very useful every time we travel. being wise and having fun is the secret of nice trip.:)