The Real Costs of a USA Road Trip

The short version – travelling the USA for 4 weeks in a hire car cost us around $800 for the car – plus US$240/day for all costs for 2 adults.  To see where we went see my  Road Trip Plan post.

Note these costs do NOT include the far more expensive cities of Philadelphia, New York (which we visited without a car) or Washington DC (which we skipped).


Our compact car on the ferry in North Carolina (while it was still quite clean)

Our compact car on the ferry in North Carolina (while it was still quite clean)

Hiring a Car for Non-Americans

It’s expensive – no way around it. The actual car hire not so much – but the fact – that even I who often skip insurance at home – could see that it was a must-have in the land of  litigation and sky-high medical costs.  Your best bet is counter-intuitive – you should book via an external consolidator – we used – they are also called traveljigsaw –  a division of priceline. We  had to pay about 6 weeks before the start of the trip.

The price for a Chevrolet Sonic (same class as a Toyota Yaris) was  NZ$39/day – about US$34. That included a “free” tank of “gas” – so that we could have 2 drivers without doubling the cost of the rental (yes you have to pay extra in some states for having a second driver). We hired from Philadelphia because tha’s where our relatives live – the rate to hire from the airport was no different from downtown and was more convenient for us.

If you were starting this trip from New York – I’d still consider hiring from Philly or Washington – New York is marvelous but you don’t want a car there!

So having hired the car what other costs did we have :

  • GPS – we bought a GPS – at  $100 (all $ are US) – it was cheaper than hiring it for $10/day – it was a cheap price to pay to save our relationship, and get us to our destination.
  • A small “cooler” – can be had for under $10 in any store – we borrowed one – very handy for keeping beer cold (would work for “soda” too).
  • We found a A AA shop in the suburbs of Philly and got a pile of maps and guides – all free thanks to your NZ AA membership. We supplemented these with maps and most Welcome Centres on state borders.

Daily costs – as has been my experience over many countries split into 3 roughly equal:accommodation / food / everything else

Motel in Ohacoke, Outer Banks

Motel in Ocracoke, Outer Banks

Accommodation Costs  for an East Coast Road Trip

Total cost: $2071

Average daily cost: $86 (excludes staying with relatives)

Ranged from $40 (Tupelo, MS) to $112 (Charleston, SC) and $140 (Annapolis, MY on a holiday weekend). Usually we paid between $60 and $80 – I usually booked the  morning of arrival via (the anonymous hotel seemed to work well for us) or

We stayed in what Americans call hotels but I’d really consider a motel – a bland one or 2 story building – with lots of parking.  The more expensive places where multi-story and were less convenient because you had to haul your gear up the elevator – but it seems like the Americans prefer this to just parking at your front door – not sure why. Everyplace we stayed included breakfast  which ranged from very basic bread, “grits”, cereal. To quite nice including bacon, sausage, cereal, yogurt, waffles, pastries.  We never came across a decent serve of fruit salad – rarely an apple or orange.

Lunch in Alabama

Lunch in Alabama

Food Costs for a USA Road Trip

Total cost: $1932

Average cost: $80/day

We like to eat but we’re not foodies as such.  The food on the road was OK – but as we chose to stay off  the Interstates we did end up eating some odd stuff for lunch – because we couldn’t find anything much. A “simple sandwich” (not a burger – just bread and fillings) was very hard to find particularly in the south. Fried chicken and burgers were what  the locals ate. Dinner was usually better – we’d have a beer or wine before heading out – and the eat out with a drink or two. Note we also carried beer with us and had a drink or two before heading out for dinner quite often.

We didn’t self cater except for the odd picnic.

Market in New Orleans

Market in New Orleans

Other Costs

Total costs: $1843 (excluding shopping)

Average cost/day: $76

The last third of our spending was “everything else”  . This is roughly how it always works out when we travel in the first world – if you are budgeting – work out your accommodation budget and then triple it to get your overall trip budget.

Shopping Total cost: $340

Totally optional – but we could not get over the cheapness of everything in the US and indulged in some buying of books and clothes and technology. (In fact I bought a whole new laptop which is not included in this figure)

Entry/Tours $430 total.

We are not big into tours – and with a car we didn’t take any bus tours at all. However we did do a few historic houses, plus a number of museums. The best value was probably Vicksburg National Park at $8. The biggest rip-off was undoubtedly the $80+ for Williamsburg, VA

An Oil Refinery in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Louisiana - the reason for the price of "gas"

An Oil Refinery in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Louisiana – the reason for the price of “gas”

Petrol (Gas) Total cost $411

No that’s not a typo – insanely cheap – it cost $30 to fill the car! Now we deliberately chose a “compact” car (it wasn’t it was 5 door) to keep not just rental costs down but also fuel costs. Larger cars, particularly the mid-sized SUV vehicles  are incredibly fuel inefficient – so be wary of that if you somehow think you need a big car. The “compact” we had was comfortable for a our long legs, had plenty of boot room, and an easily accessed back seat for the important stuff like raincoat, sun hats, and coolers of beer!

Entertainment Total Cost: $243

What can we say – we aren’t big into shows – and frankly most of the time there was little to choose from. Plus we were sick and driving long days. Okay, we’re boring – you will, hopefully, spend more.

Miscellaneous Total Cost $183

We were both sick for quite a lot of the trip – with a bad cold.  One of us ended up at a Dr and we spent a lot on over-the-counter medicines – in fact we should have got a loyalty card for CVS at the start of the trip (they also sell beer, chocolate and wine – excellent pharmacy!) . Laundry was usually about $3/wash and the same for a dry.

Public transport in New Orleans - we didn't find it often but when you do it's  very cheap.

Public transport in New Orleans – we didn’t find it often but when you do it’s very cheap.

Transport Total Cost: $146

Excluding the car and petrol – including everything else. We took a number of ferries (crazy cheap in North Carolina – $15 for a 2 hour ferry trip from Ocracoke Island to the main land). Tolls were usually very low. We rarely paid for parking – except in Annapolis where it was “expensive” at about $3/hour.

Want to know more about travelling on a budget? Check out my Non-Boring Travel Guides on Amazon – click here


  1. Betsy Wuebker on June 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Hi Lis, looks like you covered a lot of ground! We loved road tripping when we lived on the mainland. You’re right, National Parks are a great value. We’d usually buy an annual pass for even bigger savings. Sorry you both were sick, but hope you had a good time. 🙂

    • Elisabeth Sowerbutts on June 27, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      We had a great time – I did look into the Annual Pass – but it wasn’t worth it for the east (it would have been if we’d been in the Western part of the country) – indeed many of the parks were free.

  2. Michelle on June 27, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    It sounds like you had a great time and saw quite a bit. This post will be extremely helpful to anyone thinking of traveling for several weeks around the country. It sounds like you traveled comfortably and ate well without breaking the bank. Thank you for such an informative post!

  3. Carole Terwilliger Meyers on June 28, 2014 at 2:34 am

    It is absolutely fascinating to see your comments about your trip through the eyes of a foreigner! A fun read!

  4. Suzanne Fluhr on June 28, 2014 at 2:37 am

    I think the US is cheaper than traveling in Europe. I haven’t been to Australia or NZ for awhile. When we were last in Oz, the US dollar was weak against the Aussie dollar and Australia seemed quite costly to us.

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