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Today I am thrilled to have my friend David give his tips on budget travel in North America. He has circled the globe and has great ideas for how to make a trip throughout North America fit within your budget!
- 1 Introducing David – World Traveler
- 2 Scheduling Your Trip in North America
- 3 Air Travel for North America
- 4 Travel Insurance
- 5 Transportation Between Cities and Nations
- 6 Currency Exchange
- 7 Budget Accommodations
- 8 Historic Sites and Activities
- 9 Food and Drinks
- 10 Travel Budgets for North America
- 11 Closing Thoughts
Introducing David – World Traveler
Hello everyone, my name is David. I’m an engineer, programmer and budget traveler that was born and raised in Central Texas.
How would you like to travel around the United States on a budget? Would you like to visit Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean as well? I live in the United States and this guide is for budget travel around North America. Full disclosure, this guide was written with an American perspective.
The guide can be used by any willing and able traveler interested in North America.
Travel within the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean can be very expensive when compared to Mexico and Central America. This guide will provide tips and information on how to save money on accommodation, transportation, food, etc in all the regions of North America.
I recommend that you take this budget information and cross-reference it with internet search engines. Always do your research and plan ahead.
Verify prices before booking, read customer reviews of the links in the guide, search for travel guidebooks online, purchase guidebooks from travel companies, etc.
It is far better to over-plan than to be caught unprepared.
Scheduling Your Trip in North America
Before you reserve accommodation and spend any money for your trip, create a day-to-day outline.
First, decide how many days you want to travel. Next, determine which countries you will visit and the regions within each nation. Then, determine activities and sites of interest.
I recommend that you leave the last full day as a free/relaxed day. On that day, don’t plan any major activities, arrange airport transportation for the next/last day (if needed), exchange most of the local currency (unless you are in US) you have left-over (make sure to leave yourself some cash for food or use a credit card) and pack all your items.
I recommend travel guidebooks. I purchase my travel books from Lonely Planet.
The United States and Canada are huge and offer so much for travelers. I recommend you allocate an entire trip to either United States or Canada. If you want to visit both nations together, visit a region that is located on the border of both. For example, visit Washington State, United States and then cross over into British Columbia, Canada.
Likewise, you can visit Mexico by itself. The Caribbean island nations are small and I recommend that you visit multiple islands in one trip. This same strategy applies to Central America. For example, start a trip in Belize and then take a tour across the border into neighboring Guatemala.
Always do research on visa or entry requirements for each nation that you will visit; do this as part of your outline.
Recently, I took two separate flights and I will include the budget cost breakdowns for each trip. In addition, I took a quick road-trip to several state parks in Texas.
Air Travel for North America
Air travel around North America can be expensive and can be a sizable portion of your total cost. Also, air travel might be essential in United States, Canada, and Mexico because these three nations are huge with regards to surface area.
There are several steps you can take to save money on airfare.
- Purchase the airline tickets at least five months in advance of departure.
- Search for airline tickets from different companies and compare prices.
- Keep in mind how long the flight layover is, which day you will arrive into your final destination, and the arrival time. Some flights are cheap because you will have a long layover.
- Once you select an airline, always book the tickets directly with them.
- Avoid a third-party company/website for flights. It is better to speak directly with the airline over a third-party company.
- Use the airline multi-city flight option instead of round-trip flights if you will visit multiple nations or multiple regions within the same nation.
During the high season of travel (mid-May to mid-August & Thanksgiving & Christmas to New Years), I recommend travel insurance for the airfare and accommodations.
If you decide to take a short trip during low season, you may not need purchase travel insurance.
These insurance companies offer affordable quotes:
Transportation Between Cities and Nations
There are a variety of options for transportation between cities and nations. These include airlines, buses, trains, by car, and even ferries.
Travel by Air
Discount airlines are plentiful in North America. These airlines offer frequent flights to several major cities. I recommend these airlines if you have limited total vacation time.
Research the additional fees of these airlines and do your best to avoid the fees. Common fees include carry-on luggage fees, select your seat fees, etc.
Good budget airlines are:
- Air Canada Rouge: https://www.flyrouge.com/ca/en/index.html
- JetBlue Airways: https://www.jetblue.com/
- Southwest Airlines: https://www.southwest.com/
- WestJet: https://www.westjet.com/en-us/index
Travel by Long Distance Train
Long distance train travel is limited in North America. There are options though out there for those seeking to travel by train.
The northeast region of the United States has most frequent and affordable train options. I recommend reserving the tickets four weeks in advance.
Amtrak does offer transportation to Montreal & Vancouver. You can also travel through VIA Rail Canada. They also offer train passes as well. I would also recommend reserving the tickets for this company four weeks in advance.
Travel by Private Bus
Alternative to trains are private bus companies. Here are a variety of budget bus companies. Always make sure to compare prices and times of departure.
- Greyhound: https://www.greyhound.com/
- Megabus: https://us.megabus.com/
- BoltBus: https://www.boltbus.com/
- Autobus Maheux: https://autobusmaheux.qc.ca/?lang=en
- Coach Canada: https://www.coachcanada.com/
- DRL Coachlines: http://www.drl-lr.com/
- ADO: https://www.ado.com.mx/
- Grupo Senda: https://ticket.gruposenda.com/es/
- Omnibus de Mexico: https://www.odm.com.mx/
- King Quality Bus: http://platinumcentroamerica.com/en/king-quality
- Tica Bus: https://www.ticabus.com/
- Transnica: https://www.transnica.com/
For Caribbean nations, ferries are the most common budget option.
The Caribbean consists of 34 total nations or territories. There are many ferry choices, but below I have listed some popular choices. Before booking ferries, do online research and compare prices from different companies.
Here are popular options:
- L’Express Des Iles: https://www.express-des-iles.fr/
- Bahamas Ferries: https://www.bahamasferries.com/
- QE IV Ferry: https://www.qe4ferry.com/
Transportation Within Cities
Public city transportation such as subway trains, buses, and train systems are not as frequent or common in the majority of North America.
In the United States, however, the Northeastern region contains great city subway/bus systems. Examples of this are in major cities such as New York City, Boston, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh.
In Canada, there are city subway and bus options in major cities like Vancouver, and Toronto.
In Mexico, Mexico city has a complex subway system. Do your research and if possible, speak to local accommodation staff before using public transportation.
These transportation systems usually consist of zones and sell tickets for one-way trips.Several one-way trip tickets quickly add up in costs. I recommend that you purchase all-day transportation passes.
You will save money with frequent usage of transportation passes. Before buying the passes, make sure it applies to your desired city zones. The passes can be purchased at train stations, airports, and some tourist offices.
The most common form of transportation in North America is automobiles. This is especially true in Canada and United States.
There are a variety of car rental companies in all the major cities: Hertz, Enterprise, etc. The most convenient option for visitors from out of the continent or locals that don’t own a car.
Ask about the gas mileage of the rental car. Confirm that the travel insurance company covers the car rental. It is more affordable than buying car rental insurance from the rental company. If you have insurance on your personal car, ask if it covers rental cars.
If you have a personal car that you plan to use, research laws about driving it in other countries.
Additional Forms of Transportation
Bicycle and scooter rental is a great affordable option for major cities or city centers. Research if the city is bike friendly, i.e. available bike lanes. New York City and Toronto can be explored on bicycles. Local bike tours a fun way to explore a city.
Taxi are available in major cities, but frequent usage will be expensive. I recommend taxi only when public transportation is not available. Ride share apps such as Uber and Lyft are available everywhere in North America. These are a more affordable option to a taxi.
The US dollar is the most common currency in North America.
With regards to currency exchange, there are two options: convert in your host nation or convert at the destination.
If your host currency is valued higher than the destination, convert at a destination local bank.
Credit cards are a great option on long trips in North America. Use credit cards that don’t charge you international transaction fees.
Hotels are expensive in North America. Affordable options include hostels, Airbnb, and Bed-&-Breakfast’s. To save money, book accommodation at least four months in advance.
Contact the accommodation in advance to confirm that the rooms have a kitchen, microwave, and refrigerator. Eating out only once a day is a great way to save some cash.
When booking use a third-party booking website like Expedia. Create an account with the website to earn points for savings on future trips.
After booking, contact the hotel directly to confirm and contact again one week before your first night.
You can book accommodation outside of the major city center to save money. However, the city centers contain the best activities/sites. Research and compare prices, you may save more money staying in the city center.
You can book accommodation outside of the major city center to save money. The city centers contain the best activities/sites and you will travel into the center often.
Hostels are an alternative to expensive hotels. They consist of shared rooms that contain several beds. Keep in mind, hostels are social accommodation and you will meet new people.
I would recommend hostels for hard sleepers as the communal environment could wake a light sleeper.
These are the hostels I recommend in the North America Region:
- New York City, US: Freehand New York City
- San Diego, US: California Dreams Hostel
- San Francisco, US: Green Tortoise Hostel
- New Orleans, US: The Quisby
- Washington DC, US: Highroad Hostel DC
- Chicago, US: Freehand Chicago
- Miami, US: Rock Hostel
- Vancouver, Canada: Samesun Hostel
- Toronto, Canada: Planet Traveler
- Mexico City, Mexico: Casa Pepe
- Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: Mayan Monkey Hostel
- Cancun, Mexico: Señor Frogs Hostel
- Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: Punto Mita Suites & Hostel
- Panama City, Panama: El Machico
- San Jose, Costa Rica: Capital Hostel de Ciudad
Hostels offer affordable options to group tours. Contact the hostel in advance to check their rates.
Airbnb and Bed-&-Breakfasts are other affordable options. Airbnb are short term rentals of people’s homes or rooms. Bed-&-Breakfast accommodations can be found on travel websites like Expedia.
Staying at a National or State Park
There are thousands of national and state parks across North America. These national parks are very unique (Yellowstone is my favorite). I highly recommend that you visit at least one park in North America.
Many parks include rental of camping sites or other accommodation options. Most national and state parks offer rental of camping sites.
Camping sites are an extremely affordable option, as it only costs a few dollars per night. Of course you have to take a tent, sleeping bags, food, water, and personal items, but if you already own these items it is a budget way to explore the outdoors.
Before staying in the great outdoors remember to research weather and pack according.
For national parks, I recommend that you online reserve the camping site at least three months in advance as spots fill up fast. For the most popular parks in United States, I recommend at least six months in advance of the online reservation. These parks include Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Bryce, and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Some state parks allow online reservations. I visit Texas state parks often. You can reserve your next Texas state park accommodation here.
RV Parks and Rentals
There are a variety RV rental companies in the United States and Canada. Research several companies and compare prices. Companies include Outdoorsy, RVshare, and Cruise America.
Ask about miles per gallon and factor in the distance you will drive. RV rentals are a great option of a large group of adult friends and families. The total costs will be divided among the friends.
Almost all national parks in the United States and Canada have RV parking lots. Reserve a slot online at least three months in advance (at least six for the most popular parks listed above).
Cabins and Hotels at National Parks
National parks offer cabins for rental for those who do not want to camp outdoors. Check and book with third-party sites like Expedia.
Staying in a hotel at a National Park can be expensive. A way to make this more budget friendly is to stay during the off-season as this is when prices do go down. The off-season is January to April & September to November excluding the national holidays and public-school breaks (i.e. March spring break).
Historic Sites and Activities
The nations of North America are relativity young compared to European & Asian nations. There are a variety of wonderful museums, historic palaces, gardens, cathedrals, and other great sites.
I recommend free walking tours. There are available free tours in most of the major cities. These tours cover the major historic sites. If you are a college/university student, take your school ID to the historic sites and museums. Some sites offer student discounts.
After the tour, ask the tour guide for information on affordable restaurants and shopping sites.
Most of the sites are not free and visiting several of them can cost a lot of money. Purchase the tickets online to save a few dollars.
Some major cities offer city tourism cards. Research if the card offers unlimited transportation (not all do). If so, purchase this card instead of the all-day transportation cards. The tourism cards offer discounts or free access to several museums, and historic sites.
Use the tourism card often and the savings quickly add up. The tourism cards can be purchased online or in person in the city. Airport information desks and train stations sometimes sell them.
Popular tourism cards:
- New York City, US: https://www.newyorkpass.com/
- Chicago, US: https://www.citypass.com/chicago
- Washington DC, US: https://washington.org/dc-information/washington-dc-attraction-passes
- Houston, US: https://www.citypass.com/houston
- San Francisco, US: https://www.citypass.com/san-francisco
- Miami, US: https://gocity.com/miami/en-us
- Seattle, US: https://www.citypass.com/seattle
- Los Angeles, US: https://gocity.com/los-angeles/en-us
- Toronto, Canada: https://www.citypass.com/toronto
- Montreal, Canada: https://www.viator.com/tours/Montreal/Montreal-Attraction-Pass/d625-37455P1
- Ottawa, Canada: https://ottawatourism.ca/en/myottawa-pass
- Mexico City, Mexico: https://www.civitatis.com/en/mexico-city/flexi-attractions-pass/
Food and Drinks
Restaurants are expensive and the costs of eating at restaurants three times a day quickly adds up. Some hostels and hotels offer free breakfast (or affordable breakfast). Take advantage of those savings.
Before departing to your destination, do research and find nearby food markets or grocery stores. On your arrival day, purchase food/drinks such as fresh fruit, cold cut meats, bread, and bottled water. Every day, prepare yourself sandwiches or other snacks for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
I recommend that you visit some restaurants during your stay. You should visit during the restaurant lunch hour to save money. Do research about the operation hours of the restaurant. Some restaurants close for a few hours after the lunch rush ends.
Use websites like Yelp to search for nearby and affordable restaurants. Most of the city tourism cards/passes I mentioned above offer restaurant discounts. Use those discounts often to add up the savings.
Many hostels offer discounts and information for nightlife clubs, bars, and drinks.
Some tourism cards offer discounts as well.
Travel Budgets for North America
Budget Cost Breakdown – Bermuda
I traveled to the island of Bermuda during Thanksgiving in 2019. Technically, Bermuda is not part of the Caribbean and it is British territory. However, the culture and cost of travel are very similar to Caribbean nations.
Included here is a budget cost breakdown of my trip to Bermuda.
Bermuda consists of four islands that are connected by bridges. The island territory contains affordable bus transportation that covers every corner of the islands. I used a four-day bus pass.
In addition, I stayed in a budget bed-&-breakfast named Aunt Nea’s Inn. It is located away from the beach to save money.
The hotels on the beach are expensive, the cost starts at around $250 and up per night. The bed-&-breakfast contains a shared refrigerator and I stored purchase market food to save money.
Budget Cost Breakdown – Vancouver Canada
I traveled to Vancouver located in Western Canada during December of 2018.
The main reason I went was because Vancouver contains three nature reserves: Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, VanDusen Botanical Garden, and Bloedel Conservatory.
To save money, I used a public transportation pass that covered buses and subway. I stayed in an affordable hostel and purchased tickets to the three attractions online to save money.
Budget Cost Breakdown – Texas State Parks, United States
During the summer months of 2020, I took a quick road-trip to some Texas State Parks: Dinosaur Valley & Palo Duro Canyon.
To save money, I stayed at the campgrounds located within each park. I purchased hiking food/drinks at grocery stores and quick lunches at affordable restaurants.
A great and cost-effective form of travel around the United States is visiting state/national parks. And on the plus side, you get to see some of the most beautiful environments in the world.
I live in North America (the United States) and this continent is isolated from the rest of world.
This isolation makes visiting and traveling around North America expensive.
It is expensive to travel here even as a local. However, it is possible to budget travel by using public transportation (as available), eating food from local grocery/market, using tourist passes, and traveling during the off-season, etc.
Use these budget travel tips to plan your next great adventure in North America! Want budget travel tips for Europe? You can find them here!
Need a budget to get your finances back on track? You can start your budget journey here!