How much does a US road trip cost? If you’re dreaming of a road trip in America, you’ll probably be wondering just that.
We recently completed a five week (36 day) road trip around the US. Our journey took in the US East Coast and some of the popular spots in the South East of the US. It was actually our fifth American road trip after trips to California, the Grand Canyon, and Washington.
Some of my Instagram followers have asked for a breakdown of our itinerary and our budget, so here goes! If you ever wondered how much does a US road trip cost, you might find our experience useful.
US Road Trip Itinerary:
For this trip, we travelled down the East Coast of America, starting at New York in the North. The reason for this was partly to visit friends in the city, but also because it’s usually cheaper to fly to New York than other Eastern or Southern cities.
Our plan was to travel down the coast as far as Savannah, then turn inland and head towards Nashville, then head back North through Tennessee, Virginia and to Washington DC. Here’s our itinerary for a 36 day trip:
- Day 1-3 : New York City (staying with friends)
- Day 4-18 : Wrightsville Beach, NC (staying in a home exchange)
- Day 19-21 : Savannah, GA (staying in a home exchange)
- Day 22-28 : Nashville, TN (staying in a home exchange)
- Day 29-30 : Pigeon Forge, TN (staying at Dollywood Dream More)
- Day 31-32: Boones Mill, VA (staying at a home exchange)
- Day 34-36: New York City (staying with friends)
Planning Tips for a US Road Trip
Having a good plan makes it easier to budget for a US road trip. We knew ahead of time which major sights and cities we wanted to visit, how many nights’ accommodation we needed, and also the mileage of our route. This was important because we used mileage to understand the probable petrol costs for our hire car, before we booked.
- I used Google Maps to plan our route ensuring that the distances were doable, and we’d hit the key spots I definitely wanted to visit. Then it told me how many miles I was likely to drive (2,500!)
- Once I had an itinerary that I was happy with, I booked and paid for flights, car hire, airport parking and accommodation in advance. It helps to spread the cost. Booking accommodation and car hire through Avios meant I could earn points for future travels.
- I used a Google spreadsheet to map our itinerary to accommodation for each day of the trip. Alongside this, I listed 1 or 2 must-see activities for each place we visited, and I’d book/pay for these in advance if I could.
How much does an East Coast Road Trip cost?
We didn’t have a budget in mind for our entire trip, but I did want to make the trip as affordable as I could because times are TOUGH and who wants to spend more than they need?
The budget could be split into three main categories: travel, accommodation, food and entertainment.
I knew I wanted to get flights for as little as possible, and we relied on home exchanges to cut the cost of accommodation. When it came to food/entertainment, I allowed around £100 a day for our budget.
When working out how much to spend on a road trip, you’d expect flights and accommodation to be the lion’s share of the budget. Actually, we did really well here. I spent a solid 8 months saving Avios points and we used home exchanges to get free accommodation.
Check out this post to find out how to use home exchanges
Our flights from Manchester to New York cost £150 plus 66,000 Avios, and we spent £620 on 2 nights’ accommodation at Dollywood. Finally, the airport parking for 36 nights using Manchester Airports’ official parking was £200.
Total cost for flights and accommodation: £970
When you start to add up the cost of a US road trip, car hire is going to be the BIG budget item. In the last year or two, car hire costs have doubled in America, so whereas we used to hire an SUV in California for £33 a day in 2020, that same car cost more than £100 a day today in New York.
That’s why this trip we hired a compact car! It didn’t have a huge boot, but would have handled a family of four without too many problems. We paid £51 a day or around £1,600 for the entire trip. If you are budgeting on a US road trip my top tip is DON’T collect your hire car at the airport where you get all sorts of surcharges. Instead we took a cab to a mall in Jersey where we collected our car and saved around £600 on the overall cost.
I also paid for an insurance policy with Reduce my Excess for £50, which covers the excess if you damage a hire car, and also covers things the car hire cover won’t – like lost keys and damage to the windscreen. Want to know the cost of petrol for a road trip? Well, the good news is petrol in the US is far cheaper than the UK, so I spent around 6 cents per mile for travel – lucky when you’re doing more than 3,000 miles!
- 31 days car hire at £51 a day – £1610
- Petrol – £300
- Excess insurance – £50
- Total cost for car expenses: £1,950
It’s easy to overlook the cost of food when you’re working out how much your US road trip will cost. But it could be a costly mistake.
In fact, the cost of food in the US has increased by around 25% in the last four years and we definitely noticed that prices are often 50% or more higher than we are used to in the UK. With this in mind we did take some supplies with us from home (we packed toiletries, a first aid kit and a squashy cool bag to help us keep food fresh on the road).
At the start of our road trip we used Costco to stock up on bulk packs of essentials at the start of our trip, especially things like:
- Frozen berries and granola, and cereal so we could eat breakfast at home most days
- Enormous packs of bread rolls and packs of ham and cheese that we split and froze to use in sandwiches
- Giant boxes of snacks, mostly crisps and popcorn, that we took from place to place with us
- A massive bag of fresh apples (they lasted our entire trip, kept in the fridge)
- Bulk boxes of diet coke, beer and fruit juice
Fun fact – your Costco card is valid worldwide! This meant that although we spent $250 on groceries upfront, as we travelled we didn’t need to buy as much from regular supermarkets – we just stocked up on fresh fruit and salad. At supermarkets in the US it pays to shop around – we found Aldi much cheaper than other supermarkets.
Flea does tend to drink a couple of beers each evening on holiday – the food bill would have been lower if it was just me! So your US road trip budget needs to factor in alcohol!
Total cost of groceries: £523
A more obvious expense when you’re planning a US road trip is eating out.
Most days on our trip, we had one meal out, either lunch or dinner. The cost of eating out in the US is not cheap, but we mixed it up a little. On days we spent less we might go for a Taco Bell, buy fresh sandwiches from the supermarket, or get a couple of slices of pizza – which means we could both eat for under $20.
Other nights we’d eat out!
I’d say in this part of America, it’s typical to spend $15-20 on a main course, so expect to pay $30 a head if you’re going to get drinks and a side. We had a couple of nights at ‘nicer’ restaurants where we paid $50-60 a head, but generally it’s not hard to find mid-price places. We didn’t eat out for desserts. Instead it was a perfect chance to stop at an ice cream stand on the way home, or buy ice cream sandwiches from the grocery store!
Don’t forget in the US it’s standard to tip 20% on top of the bill, and you’ll pay sales tax of around 6% on most bills.
We also included take-out food in this category, which we used once or twice a week. I confess to also ordering breakfast on Uber Eats a few times when I couldn’t quite face another bowl of granola.
Total cost of eating out: £945
Lastly, when it comes to working out the cost of a road trip, you’ll need to consider entertainment.
Obviously this is really personal and your budget depends on where you are and what you like to do. Want to do lots of shopping or theme parks? It’s going to cost you!
A really big part of our trip was live music but we didn’t spend fortunes. Some events – like the Carolina Beach Boardwalk weekly concert – are completely free, while tickets to places like the Bluebird Cafe and Listening Room in Nashville were under $20 (although both places ask you to spend $30 on food and drink). Going to the Grand Ole Opry was a big spend – tickets range from £80 to more than £300 although I managed to get ours for around £120 a head.
Alongside concerts, we attended two Broadway shows. I’m lucky that my friend is a reporter in New York and was able to access a special site that gives her discount show tickets, so we spent around £175 for us both to see two shows.
Our other big entertainment expense was water sports – hiring kayaks and paddleboards is relatively inexpensive, costing around $30 for 2 hours, but jet ski rental is around $150, and you’ll also need to put down a hefty security deposit.
Luckily lots of things on a road trip were free – we didn’t spend a penny on beach days, fireworks and walks in state parks! We also were offered free tickets at Dollywood as members of the media.
- Cinema tickets – £100
- Music events – £290
- State park admissions – £40
- Broadway shows (2) – £174
- Theme park tickets – £0
- Grand Ole Opry – £190
- Watersports – £170
Total cost of entertainment: £964
How much to spend on a US Road Trip:
So that’s our spending! If you want to know the typical cost of an American road trip, hopefully this post has been helpful. Overall, our budget looked like this:
- Our total budget for the 36 day trip was £5,350 for two adults
- This came out as £2,000 plus a daily budget of £100/day on the road
Not all of this was spent in one go.
We paid around £2,000 on flights, car hire etc in advance, which meant this cost was spread out over eight months before our trip. Once we arrived in America, we spent another £3,000 in 36 days, on food, entertainment and travel.
We didn’t monitor the daily budget THAT closely, but I tended to try and balance things out. If we had a big expensive day at a theme park, we’d spend the next day on the beach with a picnic. If we spent a lot at dinner, the next day we might have a Netflix day.
Our US road trip budget does not include extra shopping for things like souvenirs, gifts and so on.
Being honest, I was travelling with a 17 year old who was extremely keen on getting a new wardrobe, so we did spend extra money from her allowance and my wages on clothes, accessories, books, gifts and the entire contents of Bath and Body Works.
Budgeting Tips for Road Trips
I’d say £100 a day for the two of us felt like a generous budget. We definitely didn’t feel deprived or that there was anything we wanted to do that we didn’t.
We could have cut the eating out bill considerably by cooking at home. We were spending around £50 a day on food, and I think we could have cut that in half by having more home-made meals. But there’s something lovely about sitting down to barbecue on the beach, or enjoying a fresh salad on a hot day, so I’m not sad we spent that money.
Buying tickets to the Opry and Broadway shows was a REAL indulgence. It added almost £400 to our spend. On top of that, two rounds of jet ski hire at $100 a time was a big spend, but something Flea absolutely loved. So if you wanted to make this road trip more affordable, I think you could do the same trip for £3,500-£4,000 by cooking more, and not having some of those big ticket days out.
I was really pleased to bring in our US road trip budget for not much more than our one week all-inclusive holiday in Greece in 2019 and our 2 week trip to Mexico. This trip was infinitely more fun and exciting than two weeks in a single beach resort! It’s good to know that a US road trip can cost less than a shorter, conventional holiday!
How much should you spend on an American road trip?
The answer – of course – is what feels right to you.
Our trip would certainly have been way more expensive if we had paid full price for flights and accommodation. On previous road trips in California we’ve spent £3,000 on accommodation alone over a four week trip.
Using Home Exchange to access free accommodation allowed us to make this road trip longer, and splash out on more expensive accommodation in the middle of the road trip.
I can’t think of any other trip where I’d feel justified spending over £300 a night on a hotel room! All we spent on accommodation aside from this hotel stay was our annual $150 membership fee for HomeExchange.com
Second, by using Avios, we were able to get free flights and pay £150 for some extra Avios that allowed us to upgrade our flights back to the UK.
I should stress that we didn’t do ANYTHING complicated to save on flights and accommodation. If you’re new to these things then check out my guide to earning Avios and my guide to home exchanging for tips on how to cut the cost of your next holiday.