30 Ways to Save Money on Your US Vacation

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Travelling to the USA has never been particularly cheap. But a holiday in the land of unlimited possibilities is now more expensive than it has been for a long time. This is due to the unfavorable dollar exchange rate, high inflation, high rental car prices and much more.

All points that you have little to no power over. That’s why we’d like to give you a few tips in this article on how you might be able to save a few dollars on your next trip to North America.

Flights

The best tip for cheap flights: Visit Travel-Dealz daily or subscribe to our newsletter. 😉 Even better if you combine that with the following suggestions:

Compare Destination Airports

In many metro areas in the USA, there isn’t only one big airport but several to choose from. If you want to go e.g. to San Francisco, you can choose between San Francisco and Oakland, and in the Los Angeles region, there isn’t only LAX, but also BUR, SNA, ONT, and LGB to choose from.

Flight search engines such as Google Flights sometimes already suggest these alternatives if they are cheaper. In addition, there is another point to consider: the cost of the transfer. E.g. in New York:

  • La Guardia LGA: US$2.75 (~€2.65) with public transport, roughly US$45 (~€43) with taxi
  • New York JFK: US$10.75 (~€10.38) with public transport, roughly US$60 (~€58), roughly US$80 (~€77) with taxi

From JFK and Newark, there are cheaper options if you first take the bus instead of the AirTrain. However, this is rather difficult with luggage and involves a longer journey time.

Consider Open Jaw Flights

Of course, this tip is only worthwhile if you want to explore several destinations at once on your trip. Example: Not only do you want to see New York, but also San Francisco and Miami:

At first glance, the most obvious option would be to book four separate tickets:

  • Ticket 1: Europe – New York – Europe
  • Ticket 2: New York – San Francisco
  • Ticket 3: San Francisco – Miami
  • Ticket 4: Miami – New York

However, you can often save time and money by booking an open jaw flight Europe – New York | San Francisco – Europe on one ticket. That usually costs little more than a ticket to New York. But you save yourself an additional domestic flight, i.e. time and money at the same time.

Arrive in the Morning, Return in the Evening

An old trick, of course, but that doesn’t make it any worse. If you are planning a stay in an expensive city like New York, you should try to maximize your time there if possible. So this would be perfect: Arrive early in the morning, leave your suitcase at the hotel, and you still have almost the whole day ahead of you.

Of course, there are several ways to optimize this:

  • If you arrive late in, e.g. Newark, first spend a night near the airport. The hotels there are often much cheaper, and you can simply drive into town the next morning.
  • If the prices are too extreme, do a layover in e.g. Washington-Dulles and continue to New York the next morning. Not recommended for fans of direct flights (more on mini-stopovers)
  • Stay one night in Los Angeles or San Francisco on the way to Hawaii, and fly to Hawaii the following day. This saves you an expensive hotel night, and at the same time, you arrive at your destination rested.

Fly Domestic with Southwest

The American low-cost airline Southwest is the third-largest airline in the world in terms of passenger numbers. And yet we Europeans often don’t even have them on our radar. This is also due to the fact that flights with Southwest often do not appear at all or only appear well-hidden on metasearch engines such as Google Flights.

For flights within the USA (and also e.g. to the Caribbean), it is therefore always a good idea to check the prices on southwest.com. The most important advantage: In addition to hand luggage + personal item, 2x 23 kg of checked luggage are always included. Other US airlines will often charge you €50 per direction.

From Oakland (San Francisco) to Ontario (Los Angeles) for US$29 (~€28) – with 2 x 23 kg of checked baggage.

Book Cheap Flights at the Counter

Although Southwest is officially a “low-cost airline”, it actually offers more than most airlines. The situation is different with the ultra-low-cost carriers Frontier, Spirit, etc. They are more comparable to Ryanair, but a little bolder when it comes to fees. For example, Frontier will fly you from Las Vegas to Denver for US$39 (~€38). But then only one personal item is included, and just for a large piece of hand luggage, you’d have to pay another US$54 (~€52).

But that’s less of a concern here. Instead, there’s a “trick” on how you can save up to US$23 (~€22) in each direction. When you break down the price, you will see that a large part of the ticket price is caused by the carrier interface charge. In short, a fee for booking online:

Frontier lists this as an optional fee, so you don’t have to pay taxes on it. And indeed, there is a way to avoid the US$23 (~€22): Book the flights the old-fashioned way at the airport counter. In this case, you would only pay US$16 (~€15) for this flight instead of US$39 (~€38).

Of course, it’s not worth the trip to the airport just for the one ticket – but if you book several flights/seats at once, it can start to make sense. In practice, however, this is almost only an option for short-term bookings. Because such ticket counters are only available at airports that Frontier flies to. More on this at Flyertalk.

Public Transportation

You can save the most money if you don’t rent a car and only use public transport. It’s the best choice in New York anyway, and it works well in San Francisco too – at the same time, you don’t have to worry about car break-ins.

Public transport in the USA is usually so cheap that you don’t need many money-saving tips. Anyway, three ideas:

10-ride ticket for the AirTrain JFK

Arriving at and flying back from John F Kennedy Airport? Then you shouldn’t just blindly pay the fee for the AirTrain four times. It now costs US$8 (~€8) for the short distance to the nearest subway station. The better alternative: A 10-ride card for US$26 (~€25) incl. a 1 dollar issuing fee.

The card is then valid for 30 days for a total of 10 journeys on the AirTrain. The best thing about it is that you can share such a 10-ride card with up to 4 people. So if there are four of you arriving at JFK airport – and flying back from there, you save a whopping US$38 (~€37) with the 10-ride card! And there are still two rides left for whoever.

Pay with Your Cell Phone

In many cities, it is still common to pay for bus tickets in cash when boarding the bus. This has two disadvantages:

  • You must always have enough one-dollar bills and coins on hand. There is usually no change
  • Tickets paid for in cash are often more expensive than digital solutions
Houston Bus Fare
Public transportation in Houston is dirt cheap. In this case, the prices even apply to cash payments – as long as you have a quarter ready.

The better alternative: Use your cell phone as a bus ticket. Many transport companies offer their own smartphone app with which you can easily buy single tickets, day tickets, etc. online. Examples include Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Atlanta, New Orleans and many more.

The situation in New York City and comparable subway systems is somewhat different. There, too, you only need a MetroCard in a few cases. More and more cities allow contactless payment by credit card or Apple Pay / Google Pay.

Take Advantage of Free Transfers

A day ticket for public transport is often only worthwhile for three or four journeys a day or more. And some cities, like New York City, don’t have day passes anyway.

The rules for using a single ticket are often quite generous, though. Depending on the city, you can travel back and forth for two hours with a single ticket, no matter in which direction.

It’s different in New York: With a MetroCard or OMNY payment (credit card via NFC) you initially pay US$3 (~€3) per trip. However, you can change between the subway and the bus once for free within a period of 2 hours. It is completely irrelevant in which direction you drive. Want to get from SoHo to the Flatiron Building and then on to Times Square? Costs 2x US$3 (~€3) by subway. If, on the other hand, you travel one of the two routes on the bus, you only have to pay US$3 (~€3) once.

Rental Car

While public transport in some major cities is better than its reputation suggests, the same is not true everywhere. Even in Los Angeles, a car makes many things easier. And if you don’t have your own car, you can forget about a road trip through the national parks of the West Coast anyway.

Compare Fuel Prices

Fuel prices can vary greatly within a few miles. When you search for gas station, Google Maps now not only lists the gas stations but almost always also the corresponding prices. A difference of 10% or more is not uncommon:

(© 2022 Google)

(A Few Days) Without a Car

As mentioned, it does not always make sense to not rent a car. But sometimes it is enough to not have a car for a few days to save several hundred euros. For instance, if you start a road trip in San Francisco, spend the first two or three days without a car.

You can then simply rent the rental car in the city as soon as you wish to start your road trip. Then you save the cost of a rental car for at least two or three days and also the horrendous parking fees. In big cities, there is always at least one rental car station in the middle of the city. And sometimes it is even cheaper than at the airport.

Park on the Street

Speaking of parking fees: While hotels often charge US$20 (~€19) to US$40 (~€39) (per day!) for parking in their underground garage, there are often cheaper options. Street parking is usually completely free overnight and on weekends, while during the day you’ll usually pay between US$1 (~€1) and US$3 (~€3) per hour.

Street Parking USA
Typical street parking, usually with a parking meter

However, if you park the car on a side street, you should be particularly careful not to leave anything in plain sight. Because a window is smashed faster than you can say “911”. Especially since the downtown of many big cities seems to magically attract people with drug and money problems.

You should also pay close attention to the signs for the parking spaces. Street cleaning is done one or two days a week. And if you then block the parking spaces, it will be expensive.

Compare Different Locations

Of course, it is convenient to pick up the rental car directly at the airport, load all your luggage into the car and then get started straight away. But often the car rental companies at the airport are by far the most expensive. Especially with Budget and Avis, I see again and again that the car is between 30% and 50% cheaper at branches outside the airport.

Unfortunately, the websites are often not very intuitive when it comes to the presentation of the rental car stations. For instance, the address is often only displayed in small form when the booking is completed. On Priceline.com, on the other hand, there is a handy overview map:

A rental car from Avis at the airport in this example (one week in summer) costs twice as much

As soon as you have found a location, you can often book directly at Avis and others instead of via Priceline. The rental car company usually charges the same price, sometimes even a few dollars less.

Hotels & Accommodation

If you don’t want to sleep in the car (which is forbidden anyway), you’ll need accommodation. Here are a few (not so secret) money-saving tips:

Book the Hotel First, then the Flights

This is a classic rookie mistake that I also make far too often: the flights are booked and only when looking for a hotel do you realize that the hotel prices are completely exorbitant. Therefore: It is always best to first check what the hotels cost for the desired period and only then book the flights. For instance, New York City is mostly affordable from January to March and you can get a good hotel for as little as €100 a night. On the other hand, the price sometimes triples in summer and autumn.

Pay Attention to the Days of the Week

Depending on where your trip is going, hotel prices are subject to strong fluctuations, even within a few days.

The price differences in the casino city of Las Vegas are particularly extreme. Many Americans only take a weekend trip there. Therefore, the hotels are well filled at the weekend and correspondingly expensive, while you can make good bargains during the week:

Cheap during the week, much more expensive at the weekend: price calendar of Harrah’s Las Vegas (plus tax & resort fee)

In hotels that are primarily visited by business customers, the situation is sometimes exactly the other way around. For example, the Hilton San Francisco tends to be cheaper on weekends than during the week:

Rates of the Hilton San Francisco Financial District

Of course, this all varies by hotel and season, so check the prices yourself.

Book Hotels with Points

Especially in the peak season, it is worth spending your hotel points. Even the somewhat dusty Travelodge at the Space Needle Seattle usually has prices of up to US$300 (~€290) per night in summer:

US$244 (~€236) + tax, in this case, results in a US$284 (~€274) total price for the non-flexible rate

Alternatively, you could also redeem 15,000 Rewards points – and this rate can even be cancelled:

If you haven’t reached the limit of 60,000 points per year, these Wyndham points can be purchased at any time for US$195 (~€188), resulting in you saving 30%. But it gets even better because you can regularly buy the points at a discount.

There are similar examples from other hotel chains such as IHG, Hilton or (underdog) Choice Hotels.

AAA Rate

There is usually a 10% discount on hotel accommodation for members of the American Automobile Association, AAA. These discounts can also be used as a European if you are a member of a car club. To be on the safe side, you should also print out the AAA discount card and take it with you.

In practice, the 10% discount is unfortunately often not real. At Hilton, for instance, the discount is often no greater than simply registering with Hilton Honors. In the example below, however, you can still get a US$113 (~€109) refundable rate with an AAA card, while it normally costs US$123 (~€119). The prepaid rate without a discount would still be cheaper:

This is how it often looks with the AAA rate: more expensive than non-flex, but usually worthwhile if the rate should be refundable.

In contrast to other corporate rates, with the AAA rate, you usually collect normal status and reward points with the respective hotel program.

Stay Out of Town

Sure, everyone would like to stay in the middle of the city centre. And it is also an unbeatable advantage to be able to go to the hotel room at any time – be it for a short nap or to leave the shopping bags. This type of holiday is correspondingly expensive.

A real bargain – at least in direct comparison – are the numerous motels and hotels by the city limits. Taking Seattle as an example, you only pay a good €100 there instead of at least €250 per night. You can drive from the motel to the city centre in just 10 minutes. In this case, the bus takes 30 minutes (costing US$3 (~€3)):

Of course, if you drive into the city by car, you still have to take the parking fees into account. At the parking meter, you pay between 0.50 and 3 dollars per hour.

Blind Booking

Blind booking portals such as Hotwire and Priceline are very common in the USA. The idea behind it: It is not shown which hotel you get in the end, but the hotel is often 20% to 40% cheaper than with all other providers. In practice, this is becoming softer and softer, because it is often possible (e.g. using a photo) to determine exactly which hotel you are actually getting.

You can find more about this – and many other tips for hotel bookings in the following article:

Compare to Airbnb

Airbnb in the US is a double-edged sword. Some cities, such as New York, have banned private subletting of flats entirely. Elsewhere, a basic private room via Airbnb is more expensive than a comparable hotel room — despite the lack of amenities like 24/7 reception.

Nevertheless, it can be worth taking a quick look at the offers. In some cities, like Philadelphia, I’ve had good experiences with Airbnb myself. And if you like having an entire flat to yourself, there aren’t many alternatives anyway.

Shopping

It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying groceries or jeans in an outlet store: there is also significant savings potential when shopping. A few tips:

Get a Loyalty Card

Just like many European supermarkets distribute weekly flyers, there are also various discount offers in American supermarkets. You can usually recognize them by the yellow price tags. But watch out: These offers are usually only valid with a card. This does not mean a credit card, but the customer card of the respective supermarket chain.

Walgreens Angebot with Card
Two packs for the price of one – but only with a customer card

Except for Walmart, you can find such offers in almost all supermarket and drugstore chains. Some examples:

  • Supermarkets: Target, Safeway, City Market, Foodland (Hawaii) and many more.
  • Drugstores: Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy
  • Convenience stores: e.g. 7-Eleven

You are on the safe side if you get the app of the respective chain and create a customer account there. You will then receive a customer card as a barcode, which only needs to be scanned at check-out.

However, one of the following options often works:

  1. Ask the cashier if they have a loyalty card to scan. Then you may lose any bonus points, but you can still enjoy the discounts.
  2. Simply type a phone number into the card terminal. Of course, your own number would be best, but international numbers are usually not accepted. In this case, the number of the hotel may do the trick. Registration is not necessary for some markets, so all you have to do is type in the number.
  3. Ask for a customer card at the checkout, which will then be given to you in the form of a plastic card. But you have to carry them with you every time

Not just to Walmart

Walmart isn’t the most famous supermarket chain in the USA without reason: You can get almost everything here and at very reasonable prices.

However, that doesn’t mean that Walmart always offers the best prices for every product. For instance, the selection of fruit and vegetables is often rather small and not even particularly cheap. I found Target to be better and comparatively inexpensive, especially with a customer card (see above).

A visit to the Grocery Outlet is particularly worthwhile on the West Coast. There is only a small selection of groceries there. But the offer rotates regularly – and the items there are often 50% cheaper than at Walmart and other stores. Dollar Tree and others also often have some groceries (the prices have been increased to $1.25).

Grocery Outlet USA
Many items are significantly cheaper at “Grocery Outlet” than elsewhere

Lower Taxes

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a supermarket, fast food stand or restaurant: prices in the USA are (with a few exceptions) always signposted without tax. Then they add the sales tax, which is made up of state and district taxes. You often pay 10% more than the price tag suggests.

Fortunately, groceries in the supermarket are often completely tax-free. For larger purchases such as electronics, clothing, … it is worth taking a closer look. For example, purchases in Oregon are completely tax-free, while in Louisiana you pay up to 13% in surcharges.

Whether the iPad costs the equivalent of €300 or €339 can make a difference. A map of local taxes can be found below:

USA Sales Tax Karte
Sum of State Sales Tax and Local Sales Tax in the USA (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Dining

As with the hotels, the demands for food vary greatly. While I mostly stick to street and fast food, I can understand anyone who sits down in a restaurant for €50 a day. Therefore, it is difficult to list universal saving tips. But we’ll try:

Eat Lunch instead of Dinner

Many restaurants have lunch specials that are significantly cheaper than the typical dinner in the evening. Depending on the restaurant and location, you’ll have to pay between US$8 (~€8) and US$20 (~€19) (plus tip and tax), but you’ll usually leave the restaurant fully satisfied. Depending on the restaurant, lunch is often served until 15:00, 16:00 or even 17:00.

Take-Out

Surprise: take-out food is cheaper than eating it in a classy restaurant. But here, too, there are clear quality and, above all, price differences. In New York City, for example, you can get a large and amazingly delicious slice of pizza for just US$1 (~€1) – while the place next door charges four times as much but is hardly better.

Dollar Pizza Slice
A Dollar Pizza Slice in New York City. Or in this case two pieces for the medium-sized hunger

Fast Food? Compare Prices

Is it crazy to fly business class to the US only to end up eating fast food at your destination? Maybe. Anyway, that doesn’t stop me from hitting up Taco Bell whenever I’m in the States.

In case you feel the same, a little tip: In Manhattan, many stores are operated by franchisees, while some stores are owned by the company. The latter cost no more than in a Texas village, while the former is happy to charge twice as much. You can simply check the prices through the website to make the right decision.

These strong price differences also exist in other cities, but they are felt to be the greatest in New York. Incidentally, it is also worth ordering at Taco Bell via the website or app. Because the US$5 (~€5) My Cravings Box is only available there.

Restaurant Chains with National Prices

However, there are not only fast food chains but also many restaurant chains, such as the Cheesecake Factory, with waiters and real dishes (e.g. Grilled salmon with mashed potatoes and vegetables for US$18 (~€17)). These often have a menu for the entire US, with uniform prices. Especially in more expensive cities like Boston, this national price can sometimes be significantly below the usual price level in the city.

Too Good to Go

The Too Good to Go app is probably also known to some in Europe. Significantly reduced dishes are available here shortly before the shop closes. Also in the USA, you can often take a cheap lunch, a few doughnuts, dumplings, or whatever with you.

Fortunately, the app offers a (rather rudimentary) rating function. So at least you can tell quite well whether someone is just trying to sell you dried leftovers or whether there is actually a tasty meal.

Others

Finally, three tips that didn’t fit anywhere above.

Compare credit Card Exchange Rates

In recent weeks, the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro has fluctuated by up to 2% a day. If the rate has just fallen or risen sharply, it can be worth taking a close look at credit card exchange rates. Amex, for example, often lags behind with the exchange rate, while Revolut converts the payments on a daily basis.

A credit card without a foreign currency fee is mandatory for the USA anyway. As a backup, the fee-free conversion via PayPal and Google Pay may also do the trick.

Book Activities through Groupon

While it feels like hardly anyone in Europe is talking about Groupon anymore, it’s worth taking a look at the offers in the USA. The deals may not be as good as they were five years ago, but you can often save a few dollars on some attractions such as observation decks and amusement parks. A few quick examples: the ferris wheel in Atlanta, a gift card from Krispy Kreme or Shave Ice in Hawaii.

But you should pay close attention to the list of potential additional fees and then compare them. Some of the tickets are also available directly from the provider for the same price, although Groupon advertises an alleged saving.

Birthday in the USA

Would you like to spend your birthday at home with your loved ones? Then this tip might not be for you. But if you spend your birthday with your favourite activity – the holiday – it may very well be.

Some attractions in the US offer free admission on your birthday. With regular admission prices up to $60, not a bad deal. We were able to verify the following examples online:

The list is certainly not complete and not all providers write anything about the option online. So it doesn’t hurt to ask questions and/or browse through the Google ratings when in doubt.

Free lift pass in Minnesota on your birthday

Conclusion

The USA has become more expensive and nothing will change that even with the best savings tips. We know that no one will follow all the tips on the list. But maybe you could still use a few suggestions on the next trip.

And if you have a tip yourself, we would be happy to receive a comment.

Cover Picture: Gilles DETOT auf Unsplash

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Comment (1)

  1. SharonG says:

    Another tip for anyone who is age 60 or above (and, in some cases, 55 +): In the U.S. you are considered a “senior citizen” (irregardless of your nationality), and are eligible for many more discounts. For example: free or very inexpensive (50c instead of $1.79) beverages at many fast food chains (outside of NYC also generally including free refills), reduced fares for public transportation in many cities (for ex. from Seattle Airport to Downtown $1 each way, $2 round-trip, instead of $3/$6), discounts and/or senior menu in many restaurant chains. etc. etc. Never hurts to ask! (But don’t forget to tip on the full regular price of your meal.) Many dept.and/or discount stores (T.J. Maxx, Ross, Marshall’s) also have one day a week offering a senior discount of 10% or more – often on Monday or Tuesday.

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