Travelling Across America on the Cheap

Travelling Across America on the Cheap

Get your kicks on Route 66 went a line first sung by Nat King Cole. The lyrics of the song cover a journey from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, taking in the towns along the route: St Louis, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Flagstaff, San Bernardino.

Written in 1946 by Bobby Troup the song is a celebration of the freedom and romance ingrained in the American psyche of travelling long distances… in a car.

The same freedom has been expressed countless times before and after in American literature, songs and cinema. Despite its roots in ancient Greek literature, the American continent has inspired road movies in a way that, Wim Wenders aside, Europe has not.

For every Wrong Move or Kings of the Road there is a Stagecoach, The Sure Thing, Bolt, Thelma and Louise, The Blues Brothers, Rain Man, Sideways, Easy Rider, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Bonnie and Clyde.

Route 66 has since all but disappeared as America’s main street but there are plenty of other routes to take to make our own song or road movie and, best of all, there are ways it can be done cheaply.

Travel Across America on the Cheap


Though the market for casual drivers is shrinking – cars are increasingly delivered on large transporters by professional truck drivers – it is still possible to be taken on as a casual driver to take a car from one part of America to another.

After paying a refundable fee of around $350 a route, mileage and delivery date are agreed on. Drivers are then given free use of a vehicle, with a tank of petrol, to take from one part of the States to another.

Drivers should be over 23, with a clean, valid driving license and references, and are expected to pay for fuel once the first tank is used up. Restrictions are also placed on the number of driving hours – no more than eight hours a day is allowed.

With more than 40 offices across the USA and Canada the main driveaway company to approach is Autodriveaway.


If hitchhiking in the USA were an animal it would be on the endangered list. The baby boomers that hitched around the USA in the 60s and 70s got a haircut, got a job, got scared or selfish and, when they got their own cars, refused to pick up the next generation.

Hitch hiking Across the USA

Thumb powered motion seems to be frowned upon with long waits to be expected before anyone will be brave enough to pick us up. The police are regarded as a nuisance and the misleading perception is that hitching is illegal. Though as Digihitch says, ‘How can the government say it is illegal to stand on public property and request a ride from a private party?’

Despite the overall opinion that hitchhiking sucks in America there are those that persist hitchhiking is a viable way of getting around the States. The advice seems to be to stand out as a foreign backpacker or ask truck drivers for lifts to between truck stops.


Work Your Way Around AmericaThat’s not to say that hitchhiking in America has gone away. It just got organised. Though Americans are not planning on giving up their cars anytime soon, drivers in the US are getting greener and are now willing to share. Also called carpooling, it is assumed passengers will chip in for petrol or buy lunch.

The following resources may be helpful: – lists carpools by state.

AlterNetRides – encourages all forms of alternative transportation including carpooling. – aims to provide the most affordable and effective intercity travel option in America by leveraging the power of community.

Rideshare Directory – lists regional carpool and rideshare sites.

Carpoolworld – a free global online trip matching service.

Zipcar – car rental is so last century.

Share Your Ride – carpools in half a dozen countries and the USA. – rideshares listed on the front page.

Another good place to look for rideshares is Craigslist

A Place to Stay

As I write there are over 170,000 Americans willing to put up a stranger for the night via the Couch Surfing network. On this criteria alone America is the most hospitable country in the world by some distance. For those who aren’t quite brave enough to camp on a complete strangers couch, there are many cheap USA hostels* where you can meet travellers from across the globe.

But Couch Surfing is by no means the only way to get a free bed for a night. Other networks include the Hospitality Club, and Place2Stay.

Car travellers may appreciate some advice on sleeping in cars, finding free places to sleep in your car and this state by state suggestion list of free overnight camping spots, many of which seem to be Indian Casinos.

More drastic options include sleeping in airports, train and bus stations. The wonderful Donna McSherry has spent the past 14 years collecting nearly 6000 reviews of sleeping in such places around the world for her website Sleeping in Airports. The bad news is three American airports make the 2010 list for worst airports in the world.

Free Food

While the sights and sounds of the American road will feed our souls or imagination we still need to put something into our bellies. Susan Griffith’s Work Your Way Around the World* recommends the free or subsidised vegetarian meals offered at Hare Krishna Temples. A list of Krishna temples in USA and Canada can be found here.

Other suggestions include free samples at supermarkets, wine tastings in California and factory tours. Rather less pleasant is competing for dumpster diving spoils with the native freegans.

Volunteer Work

Sidestep the expensive gap year styled options and volunteer work can be a cheap way to stop for a while in America. Volunteers can expect to pay for accommodation and food and sometimes a one off participation or membership fee. Costs are usually lower the longer the stay.

Check out the following organisations:

Passport in Time – an archaeology programme of the US Forest Service.

American Bear Association – volunteers at the Minnesota black bear sanctuary should be physically fit and available for a week or longer between May and September.

Colorado Trail Foundation – a 500 mile trail through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango.

Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad – various programmes are available to keep this iron trail in good order.

Koke’e Resource Conservation Program – volunteers work four days each week and have three days off in exchange for seven nights of bunk house accommodation in Hawaii.

Farm Sanctuary Internships – interns must commit for three months and are required to be vegan while on the sanctuary premises in New York or California.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy – crews spend a week or more in the backwoods helping to maintain this famous Georgia to Maine trail.

National Park Service – get involved in one of the 400 national parks run by the Department of the Interior.

Work for Food

Travel Across America on the CheapBoth volunteer work and working for food have the advantage of circumventing America’s strict employment regulations. For $30 WWOOF USA can put travellers in touch with over 1000 sustainable farms across the country where labour can be swapped for meals and accommodation. Another 250 or so hosts can be found through Help Exchange.

Hostels and festivals are a further two options available to travellers looking for a work exchange. USA Hostels list available positions in their California and Nevada based hostels on their website while, as well as being fed, free tickets are available to helpers at some of the many summer music festivals held across the US.

Even better than free food is free beer. The Seattle and Portland Beer Festivals need helpers in July. The longer you work, the more beer you earn. Apply early as not surprisingly places go quickly.

Temporary Paid Jobs

J-1, Q-1, H-2A and H-2B are four work visa schemes that open the door to legal short term work in American summer camps, summer and winter resorts, orchards and theme parks.

We will no doubt cover this topic in greater depth on this site another day but for now we again recommend Susan Griffith’s superb Work Your Way Around the World*

Sell Your Body

If there is one country you don’t want to get ill without a travel insurance policy this is it. Seeing the inside of a US hospital is among the quickest routes to poverty there is on this planet.

Walk into one as a healthy volunteer and the story can be very different. Around $10 billion is invested in up to 80,000 clinical trials each year.

Miscellaneous Resources

RoadTrip America – the forum has lots of tips for crossing America on the cheap

A Year in a Car for no Apparent Reason – save money by using transportation as accommodation.

JiWire – WiFi hotspots in the US.

The Wi-Fi FreeSpot Directory – WiFi hotspots in the US.

* Affiliate or sponsored link

Photos courtesy of Keith011764, Dave Conner, Wonderlane, Curtis Palmer & Steve Evans


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jenny

    Great article. I’ll be departing on my roadtrip in January 2011 so I’ve definitely picked up some tips to do it on the cheap!

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