Backpacker Guide to Cheap Travel across the USA

With a country so vast, you’d think that travelling across the states would be costly. Luckily there are several options for transportation in America, too many in fact. So which one is the cheapest? To save you time and money, we did a price comparison. Here’s our backpacker guide to cheap travel across America…


What budget options are there for travelling across America?


For bus travel, BoltBus operates in the Long Island, Northeast and Pacific Northwest regions, whilst Megabus operates on routes all across America, and Canada. There are also buses that operate on specific routes, such as the NY2DC bus, and so called ‘China Town’ buses which operate on a variety of routes and can be found on bus route comparison websites (see below).


In terms of flights, Delta, United Airlines, American Airlines and JetBlue all offer low cost travel to most major cities, and Virgin Atlantic covers a wide range of East Coast cities, although less West Coast destinations.


For train travel, a variety of services operate, and the best option is using the Amtrak website which shows the different operators for each route. Avis, Alamo and Budget offer cheap car hire at drop off and pick up locations all across the USA, all with a large variety of vehicle options.

What is the cheapest way to travel around America?

To help you out we have compared the four main transport types – bus, train, plane and rental car- in terms of cheapness and journey time, on two popular journeys – New York to Washington DC, and San Francisco to Los Angeles. The date used is Thursday 4th April. Prices listed are the cheapest option shown on 07/03/13

Cheapest way to travel from New York to Washington

By bus, the cheapest and most reliable options here seem to be:

Megabus –From $5 (£3.30) for early afternoon start, or $3 (£1.99) for an 11pm start, with a 50 cent reservation fee. Journey takes about 4h 30 (all bus journey times are dependent on traffic). Buses have free WiFi and are wheelchair accessible. A luggage allowance applies.

BoltBus– From $17 (£11.28), though there is also a $1 transaction fee. The journey takes about 4 hours. Buses are wheelchair accessible with free WiFi, and feature more leg room than a Megabus, and are generally agreed to be comfier.

Other companies to try are Tripper Bus and DC2NY.

By car the journey can be made in a day (NY to DC takes about 4 hours) but I’m aware that one advantage of car travel is being able to stop off along the route, so I have included all prices for both one and two day rental. Another advantage of car travel is of course that the cost can be split between passengers. All the companies listed provide several options for both pick up and drop off points, including airports, stations and town centre locations.

BudgetCar – 4 door compact $122.93 (£81.90) for 1 day, $186.08 (£124) for 2 days.

Minivan from $147.02 (£97.59) for 1 day, $234.41 (£155.60) for 2 days.

Satnav rental $15.88 (£10.54) per day

Avis – 4 door compact from $186.78 (£123.98) for 1 or 2 days

Minivan from $223.56 (£148.40) for 1 or 2 days

Satnav $14.93 (£9.91) for 1 or 2 days

Alamo – 4 door compact from $257.99 (£171.25) for 1 day or $336.88 (£223.62) for 2

Minivan from $281.01 (£186.58), $383.01 (£252.24) for 2

Satnav $11.99 (£7.96) per day

Northeastern Regional trains start from $49 (£32.81)for services at off-peak times (e.g. very early, late morning, or very late). The journey takes about 3h40 and the trains have free WiFi.

The Amtrak website offers a discount service called smartfares-book a ticket on specific routes to travel the next week and receive 25% off.

The cheapest options for plane travel on this route here are:

Delta – JFK to DCA from $65.74( £43.64) lasting 1h 30

JetBlue – JFK to IAD from $65.86 (£43.72) lasting 1h 10

United Airlines – JFK to IAD from $98.59 (£65.44) lasting 1h15

WINNER: The cheapest option for travelling between New York and Washington is definitely the bus, with Megabus coming out as best value. And with a journey time of only 4h30 and free WiFi it seems like a good all round option too.

Cheapest Way to Travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles

There is a lot less choice of bus services on the San Francisco to Los Angeles route, and few buses seem to go directly. However there are a few options.

Megabus – Prices start at $15 (£9.96) for a 6:00 am or 7:15 pm start, and the journey takes about 7h 30.

A bus service called CAShuttleBus also usually operates between San Francisco and LA but is not taking reservations till 17th April. Prices from $25 (£16.59)

Go To Bus also offers bus tickets and deals, however many of the bus companies featured don’t appear to have their own websites so it is hard to assess their level of comfort, reliability e.t.c. Prices start from $40 (£26.78).

The car journey time from San Francisco to Los Angeles is about 5h30- once again I’ve given prices for both one and two days.

BudgetCar – 4 door compact from $159.29 (£105.74) for 1 day, $318.58 (£211.47) for 2

Minivan from $179.99 (£119.48), $359.98 (£238.95) for 2

Satnav rental $15.88 (£10.54) per day

Avis – 4 door compact from $80.75 (£53.60) for 1 or 2 days

Minivan from $124.14 (£82.40) for 1 or 2 days

Satnav rental $14.93 (£9.91) for 1 or 2 days

Alamo – 4 door compact from $43.02 (£29.09) for 1 day or $87.63 (£58.17) for 2

Minivan from $63.26 (£41.99) for 1 day or $126.52 (£83.98) for 2

Satnav $11.99 (£7.96) per day

Also worth noting that Alamo are currently offering a free additional driver for rentals within California. This normally incurs an extra payment so if more than one of you plans to drive it’s worth considering.

No train goes directly between San Francisco to Los Angeles. The best, and most scenic option, is to take the Coast Starlight from Emeryville to Los Angeles (a free bus operates between San Francisco and Emeryville). The service takes about 12 hours and is often delayed, but offers spectacular views of the coast line, and the luxury train has amenities such as free WiFi, a Dining Car and sleeping carriages. Prices start from $61(£40.49)

United Airlines, Delta, Virgin America and American Airlines all fly from SFO to LAX for $87.38 (£58). The flights all take about 1h30

WINNER: Here, the cheapest option for travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles is either Megabus, or by rental car. If you’re travelling in a group, rental car is definitely the best option. Alamo offers the best deal here. If you don’t have a licence, though, or you’re travelling alone, then Megabus is the cheapest way to travel directly between the two cities.

Summary: The Cheapest way to Travel in the USA

Although we’ve covered a range of options here, there are lots more companies offering travel on these routes, and of course prices will vary depending on what date you plan to travel. It’s important to compare a few websites before you book anything, and maybe check the company online to see what other people’s experiences of them have been like.

Have you had experience travelling across the USA? What travel options would you recommend?

This post was written by GYE writer Jessica Lee.

  • Cherry Shaw
    Posted at 21:21h, 09 April

    Really great article if you are considering this and even if you aren’t !
    Very informative

  • Gap Year Escape
    Posted at 20:21h, 10 April

    Thanks Cherry!

  • Nigel Clifford
    Posted at 08:58h, 03 May

    I used greyhound buses when I was making my way around the USA because they were so cheap, but they also lead to some pretty interesting encounters with “crazies”. Made for some cool stories to tell afterwards though

  • Luke Hartung
    Posted at 08:36h, 10 May

    Thanks for the advice guys!

  • roslina abdul
    Posted at 22:01h, 01 October

    Thanks for this article, sure help me a lot in planning my next travel!

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