After a draining year at Imperial, and quite possibly an internship-packed summer, most of us crave a vacation, preferably outside London. While coming back home is often enjoyable, going somewhere completely new can be even more appealing. One of the most popular travel destinations is the United States, which has so much to offer for tourists, from majestic busy cities to fascinating natural wonders. If you’ve never visited the US, you might have heard it’s very large, but make no mistake – it’s actually even bigger than you think!
I spent 2 weeks in California, with a short detour to Las Vegas, and it still wasn’t enough. To fully explore the magnificence of even a small part of the country requires a lot of time and – you’ve guessed it – money! The good news is that nowadays it’s more than possible to travel on a budget, so here are some tips based on my first-hand experience.
While it’s possible to find an affordable Airbnb or hostel, it’s even better to crash on someone’s couch for free, which leaves you more money for actual travelling. If you don’t know anyone you could stay with, don’t stress – you can always opt for Couchsurfing, a website offering free accommodation for travellers all around the world. Yes, it does sound dodgy at first, but it’s completely legit and has helped many young travellers, including myself. Surprisingly, the place I stayed at in Los Angeles happened to be very fancy, comfortable, and arguably better than any hostel. Our host even gave us a lift to and from the closest underground station every day as well as sharing his food with us.
That being said, this doesn’t happen all the time – we were just extremely lucky. However, although most homes don’t resemble hotels, Couchsurfing is still a good way to not only save money but also meet the locals. For instance, the place we stayed at in Vegas wasn’t nearly as fancy or tidy as our LA accommodation, but we were still given comfortable sofas with clean bedding and towels, and our host also shared his food with us and picked us up from the bus station. Plus, getting to know him and other couchsurfers who stayed there was an interesting and important part of our travelling experience.
“Couchsurfing is completely legit, and has helped many young travellers, including myself”
Nonetheless, if you opt for Couchsurfing, there are several important things to remember: check the references from previous guests to make sure your potential host is trustworthy and their home is suitable for you; always be careful, especially if travelling alone; as trivial as it sounds, be polite and respectful – some travellers feel that they can do whatever they please, like come back drunk at 3am, leave a complete mess after their visit, or not even bother interacting with their host; though the hosts don’t expect any money for your stay, a good thank you gift could be cooking them a meal, sending a postcard from your home country, or even just spending some time chatting and getting to know them; start sending requests early – you’ll likely get rejected a lot since the best places are also the most popular ones, so don’t leave it to the last minute; and finally ask your friends to leave references for you about their experience staying at your place – this will complete your profile and hosts will be more likely to trust you.
TRANSPORT WITHIN CITIES
You may have heard already that the best way of getting around the US is by car. Unfortunately, we didn’t have one and ended up getting around by public transport and Uber. To our surprise, we didn’t experience many problems with the infamous LA traffic: going places did take quite a bit of time but no more than you’d expect from such a large city. The underground system in LA isn’t as popular as in London: the trains run every 20 minutes only and don’t serve the whole city. But it also has some perks – it’s not as crowded as the Tube and costs just under $2 one way.
In contrast, Vegas doesn’t have an underground system as it’s a much smaller city in the middle of a desert. But you can get around by buses ($8 for 24h) or Uber (around $23 for 25min ride). If you’re travelling on a budget, you’ll most definitely live far away from the Strip – the main street with expensive hotels – where all the activities take place. So Ubering to and from the Strip every day is the most convenient option but it’ll cost you a fortune. The good news is – one day is enough to look around Vegas, so a couple of taxi rides should be affordable. Otherwise, if you opt for a rental car, there are a few hotels that offer free parking even for non-guests.
“If you want to make the most out of the West Coast in a single trip, opt for a rental car”
Finally, our last stop, San Francisco, was one hell of an expensive city, the second priciest area in the States after Manhattan, according to the locals. We happened to stay in Albany, a city separated from SF by Berkeley and Oakland, and spent at least an hour on the (very fast!) train every day to reach the SF centre. One-way tickets range from $5 to $10, which naturally drained our bank accounts quite a bit, though I’d say it’s still cheaper than renting an Airbnb in SF (unless you’re lucky enough to find something on Couchsurfing). However, travelling outside the bay area for the scenic views of Yosemite National Park or Big Sur is next to impossible without a car: you’d spend the whole day on public transport, which is expensive and requires at least 3 transfers!
So if you want to make the most of the West Coast in a single trip, opt for a rental car. It’s usually cheaper as well, especially if you travel in a group and share the expenses. If you can’t drive, public transport is a good-enough option to explore the cities, though it won’t allow you to sightsee much outside of them.
TRANSPORT OUTSIDE CITIES
To reiterate, renting a car is probably the best option, which will allow you to explore the wonderful West Coast in your own time. For example, you could drive from LA to SF along the scenic State Route 1, making stops at mesmerizing beaches to enjoy sunshine and the ocean, and reach a golden state of mind. You can pick up and return the car in different cities, which makes things even easier. You can also travel by Megabus – if you book your tickets well in advance, you can get a bargain for $1 one way. Alternatively, you can choose a domestic flight, which usually are (relatively) affordable and quick.
Moreover, a trip to California would not be complete without visiting the national parks, such as Death Valley, Yosemite, or Grand Canyon. Of course, as you may have guessed, they are quite far away from the main cities (2-4h drive). So if you decide to travel such a distance, it’s best to spend at least two days there so you can hike and explore the places at your own pace. Plus, park entrance fees ($20-30 for 7 days) are charged per vehicle so splitting the cost between a group of travellers offers a very affordable trip. Alternatively, you can book 1-day bus tours but they are quite pricey (e.g. around $200 per person for Death Valley) and don’t give you enough time to explore the area. Having said that, travelling with a guide is probably safer since they take you to tourist-friendly places and you don’t have to worry about things like cars breaking down or getting lost. So if you opt to drive by yourself, find out the safest way to travel around and be prepared, e.g. take plenty of water and wear appropriate clothes.
Finally, the most expensive part of long-distance trips is usually flight tickets but luckily there are a few budget airlines offering transfer between the US and Europe for as little as $400 both ways. They don’t provide meals and allow limited baggage, but are still a good way to save money. For instance, Norwegian Airlines offer direct flights, 2 hand luggage pieces, and an on-board entertainment system with films and TV shows. Another affordable option is WOW Airlines, though they don’t offer direct flights or in-flight entertainment, so be sure to bring a book on board!
If you’re travelling on a budget, you’ll probably go for food from grocery stores rather than restaurants. However, the cheapest food might be full of sugar and preservatives, so if you want something healthier, you can shop at Trader Joe’s, which sells organic products and is a cheaper version of Whole Foods. The famous Target also offers reasonable prices but anything from 7-eleven will cost you an arm and a leg. If you get hungry while sightseeing, there’s a McDonalds or Subway literally on every corner.
“In-N-Out Burger is based in California, so as well as being affordable, it’s an integral part of your West Coast experience”
A bit more expensive but still affordable option is In-N-Out Burger, a chain based in California only and thus an integral part of your West Coast experience. Their food is delicious, and you can order something from their secret online menu if you want to dine like a local!