Road tripping through the USA is a dream for many, the idea of cruising along the coast in a convertible with the sun shining. This can be found along the West Coast, but how much will it cost?
We have put together this guide to help any budget travellers out there who might be thinking a road trip in the USA is out of their reach. Before you continue this assumes that any drivers are 25 or older, if not you will be charged a large young drivers fee on top of these costs.
Skyscanner is the best website in our opinion for comparing the costs of flights. However unless you are lucky enough to catch a seat sale with the likes of Virgin and British Airways the cheapest airline with direct non-stop flights to the USA is Thomas Cook.
Thomas Cook are regularly adding new routes to the US it seems and in the last few years have added direct flights from Manchester, England, to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas – ideal locations for any West Coast road trip.
You can pick up return flights on any of these routes from £360 return including hand luggage and 23kg hold luggage and in flight meals. This is flying economy and we found the experience to be pretty good when we flew into Los Angeles and out of Las Vegas and can you really argue with that price for a flight lasting over 10 hours?
It will always be cheaper hiring a car and returning it to the same location and on a budget focused trip we strongly recommend this is what you plan to do. Depending how long you can spend on this trip will determine how big a circular route you can cover.
Skyscanner also has a car hire comparison which is pretty good to get you started. We have found that any company can offer the cheapest rental prices depending on your dates and location so check them all. We would start with Budget, Hertz and Alamo as we have found these three tend to offer the best prices most often.
A bonus with Alamo that could be worth a slightly higher price is their online check-in option. You can complete all your details online before you arrive allowing you to skip the check-in desks where you give your licence details etc. and just head straight to the parking garage to collect your car! This could save you at least half an hour waiting around.
For our 2 weeks car hire of a Mustang convertible from Alamo on our West Coast Road Trip it cost approximately £570 excluding the one way fee. This price did include 1 additional driver, all insurances, taxes and unlimited mileage. A Mustang is classed as a premium car, you could get a much cheaper deal on an economy car, expect to pay around £300 – £330 for a 2 week economy car rental.
We’re British and if you are as well, or European, then fuel prices in the US will be a nice surprise – they are low! Even when the American’s are saying their fuel is getting expensive you can guarantee it’s no where near the price of ours at home.
On the other hand their fuel economy of their vehicles is poor at best but not so poor that it totally wipes out the saving you will see on the low fuel prices.
We drove 2663 miles on our West Coast Road Trip in the Mustang and didn’t spend more than $180 on fuel. This was in Autumn 2016 so even allowing for prices rising a bit you will be looking at an approximate cost of 10c per mile (around 7p) for your budget and an economy car will get better milage than the Mustang so could be even less than that.
Hotels are the biggest risk to your budget as there are some expensive cities on the West Coast, particularly Seattle during the Alaska cruise season and San Francisco pretty much at any time but especially if there is a conference going on during your dates.
To avoid the hike in prices and still get the dates you want you need to book in advance, most hotels will start taking bookings between 9 and 12 months in advance. We find booking.com to be a great site for pricing up hotels and their filtering system is really useful for narrowing down properties that meet your requirements.
There is a ton of information on TripAdvisor and pretty much any hotel in any country will have loads of reviews. Scan the reviews and get an overview of opinion. If there is one or two bad reviews but all the others are great, just ignore those two bad reviews it is likely their experience was unusual.
For a mixture of 3/4* properties budget for around £120 per night for accommodation costs, allow a bit more for the more expensive cities, £200 per night, for such as Seattle and San Francisco.
For motel style and 2* properties with advanced booking you could find that as low as half of the above budget could be sufficient, especially if you don’t mind the odd night of camping.
We camped for 4 nights on our West Coast road trip. We bought a tent, sleeping bags, air mattress and a lantern from Walmart before reaching our first campsite and the total price came in at under $100.
Campsites can be found for as little as $20 per night for tent camping and if you are out of season, before July or after mid-September, first come first served style campsites should have plenty of space. If you like to have your bookings in advance check out private campsites and chains such as KOA. These will charge a bit more than national forest campsites but still these can be booked for $30 – $40 per night.
We found the facilities at all the campsites we stayed at to be well kept and clean. With the warm temperatures camping isn’t a bad option at all if you’re travelling on a budget.
Covering a similar milage to ours over 2 weeks you could cover a loop like this –
Or if a more Northern Route suits your style better you could go for this –
Two weeks of driving time would be ideal but don’t pick up your car until you are leaving your arrival city and return the car when you get back to the city even if that’s a couple of days before your departure. Parking in the big cities is very expensive and you won’t need the car it will be parked for the duration of your stay there. Parking in Seattle, San Francisco and parts of Los Angeles can set you back around $40 per day so it will soon add up!
So what does the total price look like, lets assume there is two people;
Car Hire: £300
3/4* Hotels: £1900 / 2* Hotels/Motels: £1200 / Camping with a couple of hotels: £600
Total: £1550/£1190/£890 per person.
Finally some guidance about spending money for your west coast road trip. You can find food to suit all budgets, the most expensive meal we had came in at around $160 for 2 courses and a bottle of prosecco in San Francisco. We had a similarly priced meal in Seattle but with 3 courses but both these meals were amazing so if you have the money to splurge a bit (even if you got it by cutting back on other days) a nicer meal along the way can be a real treat!
Typical daily food costs could be as little as;
Breakfast from a coffee shop, pastry/roll and a coffee/tea, no more than £5 per person.
Lunch at a chain diner or sandwich shop, with soft drinks, no more than £15 per person.
Dinner will vary the most, if you choose to have alcohol it will increase the price a lot, also if you’re doing multiple courses. If you budget for around £25 per person you shouldn’t be too far off, some nights you will underspend you some nights you will definitely want to go over.
So budgeting £45 a day for food will give you around $60 – $65 at current exchange rates. You can double check if this figure works for you buy checking restaurant menus before you go. Don’t forget that on American menus you need to add tax and tip to the listed price, assume this will add around 30% to your bill.
If you are camping pick up some of your meals from supermarkets or farmers markets, don’t miss the opportunity to BBQ (British style, not American style) while you’re in the USA, most campsites will come with a fire/bbq pit and will have wood for sale.
Attractions and Souvenirs
You will find that most attractions advertise their prices online so you can budget for these in advance. It is also useful to book in advance as soon as you have nailed down your itinerary, major attractions fully book out further in advance than you would think. A particular attraction that catches people out on the West Coast is Alcatraz, you must book tickets to Alcatraz at least a few weeks before you plan to visit or prepare to be disappointed, you have pretty much zero chance of buying tickets once you arrive in the city.
The sky is the limit when setting a budget for this so we won’t even try! You will know what you’re prepared to spend and what your interests are. Just beware that a lot of people head to the West Coast to see the major well known sights and if you have any of these on your must do list, get them booked in advance.
Total Budget: Could be as low as £1300!
We love planning a road trip! If you have any questions let us know by commenting below.