Budget Traveler: The Ultimate American Road Trip

This summer, my sister and I got to cross off another important item off our bucket list – the Great American Road Trip. Camp fires, national parks, Route 66, the whole shebang. We even traded in our old 2-door yellow Hyundai for a newer Ford just for the cruise control — gotta be prepared for the dreary long drive through the entire state of Kansas! (The Ford ended up breaking down after braving the Death Valley, but that’s a story for another time…)

My sister works for a charity organization, and I’m still living out my funemployment, so of course we counted our dollars and budgeted like mad. Here’s some advice on how to get a great road trip experience, without having to cry about it afterwards.

Partner it up

The silly sisters at the Mesa Verde National Park.

First and most important thing you need to prepare – the right person. Go with someone who is just as high(or low) maintenance as you, with the right amount of spontaneity, and most importantly, is willing to share.

My sister and I shared everything. Doing this allowed us to try more variety of foods while only paying for one meal between the two of us. It also allowed us to pack less, and we traded clothes accordingly. And of course we shared our inflatable mattress.

Go (Smart) Camping

Camping at Pagosa Riverside Campground in Pagosa Springs, en route to Mesa Verde.


Whether it’s through Airbnb, motels, or hotels, a place for some overnight shuteye is ultimately the biggest financial burden. In most cases, you won’t be able to find a place less than $50 a night, especially not at last minute. Camping is relatively cheap and safe in America and can often be a great experience in and of itself. However, not all campgrounds are so peachy. Here are some tips I learned from this summer:

Google it! Equip your phone with good internet, so you can research campgrounds. Costs, facilities, and overall experience can differ dramatically between campgrounds that are right next to each other. Utilize our modern technology, read those reviews, and choose the best one. It will make all the difference.

Price does not correspond to niceness. We experienced the worst of the worst campgrounds to ones that felt like paradise on earth, all within a few dollars of difference. It all comes down to how much the campground managers actually care.

Call ahead, and ask about prices and availability, on top of getting a general vibe from the receptionist. If that person sounds like they want nothing to do with you, don’t stay there.

A few of our favorites included Echo Valley Park* (Crazy Horse/Mount Rushmore), Pagosa Riverside Campground (Rio Grande/Mesa Verde), Camp High Sierra (Yosemite), and Baker’s Hole (Yellowstone).

Note: If you are traveling during the summer, camping within national parks is basically impossible as they are booked months in advance, seemingly by RV enthusiasts who hog the spot for weeks at a time. But there will never be a shortage of tent spots in America, as there are always a ton of campgrounds surrounding national parks ready for you. So, don’t worry about traveling spontaneously.

Get a National Park Pass

“Surfing” through the majestic Grand Canyon. Pictures can’t do the place justice!

Before you hesitate about splurging $80 on a “America the Beautiful ” national park pass, be aware that an entry to Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Grand Canyon is $30 per car, and most lesser-known ones like Mesa Verde still cost about $15. The Pass allows annual free entry to all the best parks in the country that are worth your time. Furthermore, a pass will let you take the express lane. In the touristy summer months, the cash-only lanes can be backed up for hours. You’ll feel like a total VIP rolling past those losers ;P

Evaluate your Tourist Priorities

Eating a sandwich at George Washington’s Profile View, because we’re too stubborn to wait in the long line and pay the $10 Mount Rushmore parking fee.

The places with the most amount of tourists usually result in costliness, trash, noise, and parking difficulties. Not to mention an abundance of annoying, loud children. Of course there are the must-go famous places that many want to cross off their list, but I find that it can be just as rewarding to go to lesser known areas of the national park. For example, you’ll get a much better experience avoiding Yosemite Valley and sticking to lesser known places like Tenaya Lake. (Unless you do those extensive 8 hour hikes, then you definitely won’t be passing by any tourists)

The biggest tourist traps: If you want to spend your road trip waiting in line and squeezing through crowds, visit the Ol’ Faithful, Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall, any paid guided group tours, and Mount Rushmore (there’s always a line, and the $10 parking fee isn’t included in the Pass. Better fun with George Washington’s Profile)

If it’s free, do it

Checking out the view of Colorado from Buffalo Bill's Grave Site. (I am holding carbonated pear juice)
Checking out the view of Colorado from Buffalo Bill’s Grave Site. (I am holding carbonated pear juice)

The highlights of our trip included jumping into Firehole Falls in Yellowstone, chillin’ with Prairie Dogs at the Badlands, swimming in Tenaya Lake, taking a walk through Garden of the Gods, getting a educational walking tour in Denver, checking out entire murals made of corn, getting silly with sculptures in St. Louis, roughing the real dessert experience in Death Valley, and picnicking at Buffalo Bill’s grave site overlooking Colorado mountains — none of which cost a dime. You can even find free stuff, like great coffee from a random stop at Wall Drug, a strangely extravagant tourist attraction right off the highway in South Dakota.

Also, stay creative with exploring tourist attractions. We may or may not have found a way to explore the gigantic meteor crater by going in the back way, avoiding the $18 entry fee.

If you want to see a giant meteor crater, don’t let the fact the “viewing platform” that costs $18 and was already closed stop you. There may or may not be another way to see it. Just be equipped with a four-wheel drive… (We were not)


Indianapolis > St. Louis > Kansas City > Denver > Colorado Springs > Pagosa Springs > Mesa Verde > Flagstaff > Grand Canyon > Las Vegas > Death Valley > Yosemite > San Francisco > Lake Tahoe > Reno > Salt Lake City > Yellowstone Park > Mount Rushmore > Badlands > Sioux Falls > La Crosse > Madison > Chicago > Back to Indianapolis!



This was the first time either my sister or I had been to most of these places, and although we squeezed it all into a short 21 days, we learned more about our nation’s natural and cultural history than I ever expected. It made us more prepared and more enthusiastic than ever to plan our next big road trip, and really get the bang out of our buck with those park passes.


*You can click these links to find my very honestly written Google reviews.


5 thoughts on “Budget Traveler: The Ultimate American Road Trip

  1. I am still in awe that you were able to see so much of the country in just 21 days. Your advice is spot on for saving money and seeing as much as you can for free.

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