TRAVEL

21 Ways To See America For Cheap

07/28/2014 07:23 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2014

The night is warm, the sun is setting, the PBR is flowing, and suddenly you find yourself with a burning and insatiable urge to explore the great United States before summer runs out.

Trust us: The classic cross-country trip of your dreams -- whether you've got a week in the car or a couple days by plane -- isn't out of reach. If you're on a budget this summer (and who isn't?!), consider this your ultimate guide to seeing America for cheap.

HOW TO TRAVEL FOR CHEAP

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Consider renting a car instead of driving your own.
In most cases, renting will cost either the same as or less than driving your own car. And if you don't own a car, of course, then renting is your only choice for a classic American road trip. The up-front costs might seem daunting -- but if you choose a rental car that's more fuel-efficient than the one you own, you'll end up saving over the course of a long trip and you're not on the hook for the maintenance that follows a long-haul journey. Use the GasBuddy app to find the cheapest gas near you on the road.

...but if rental cars spook you, do a driveaway.
People need to ship their cars across the country and some agencies will let average folks like you do the driving. They'll give you a car and a designated route -- usually between two major cities -- and you'll drive the car from Point A to Point B. A preliminary search on Auto Driveaway, for example, shows a need for drivers from Miami to Pittsburgh and Phoenix to Chicago. Sounds like a pretty solid road trip to us.

Or invest in a train pass.
Amtrak offers USA Rail Passes for 15-day, 30-day or 45-day trips. Prices start at $449 -- if you're savvy about using public transport in each stop on your tour, they're an affordable way to see the country (while having a majorly throwback-ish experience).

Embrace bus travel.
It ain't a limousine, but Greyhound (aka "The Dirty Dog") is a cheap way to traverse America -- especially if you can score a 20 percent student discount or a friends and family price break (up to 50 percent off after you've bought one full-price ticket). At select stops, Greyhound will even store your luggage for 24 hours while you explore.

If you're going to fly, use obscure search methods.
We all know about Kayak.com, but seriously: don't rule out lesser-known tools like Google Flights or Airfarewatchdog. Even foreign sites, like eDreams, have turned up cheaper flight results than the big booking names.

Sign up for Spirit discounts.
America is not known as a land of budget airlines, so take advantage of the few that we have. Either sign up for Spirit Airlines' coupon emails, or, if you're going to make multiple flights during your trip, join the company's $9 Fare Club, where members often save big on tickets.

...or a travel credit card, for that matter.
A signup bonus often comes in the form of airline miles, which is just enough to fund your cross-country expedition.

HOW TO EAT & DRINK FOR CHEAP

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Dine downstairs.
If eating out is your way of seeing a city, then find ways to hack all those top-notch restaurants you've been reading about. Personal finance pro David Bakke, for example, told Travel + Leisure that when he craves his favorite upscale restaurant in Savannah, he heads down to the basement section where entrees come cheaper. If a fancy eatery is on your must-see list, then go there for lunch instead of dinner or sip a cheap drink at the bar.

Get food to go.
If you choose a restaurant for its food and not its ambiance, then order as takeout to minimize tipping. Then picnic in a pretty park or waterfront -- you'll see double the sights!

BYO groceries, even to a hotel.
Just because you didn't rent a condo doesn't mean you can't make your own meals. Pick a hotel with a mini fridge, make a trip to the grocery store or Costco and do room service without the room service. You can literally make soup in the hotel room coffee maker or paninis with an iron -- bring a rice cooker, though, and you've won the trip.

Honor the great American gas station.
They're really not the crusty establishments we've made them out to be. From make-your-own milkshake machines to lobster taquitos and Kansas City barbecue, gas stations have evolved into cultural centerpieces of the destinations they serve. Gas Station Gourmet dishes up clever on-the-road recipe ideas, all cooked up from gas station finds.

HOW TO EXPLORE FOR CHEAP

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Get a Federal Recreation Pass.
For a mere $80, you and three friends will get a year of free entry to an entire nation of national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and more -- it's pretty much the best deal in the country. Most of these spots, like Yellowstone, are bucket-list vacation destinations in themselves, and you can camp there once you're inside.

Go volunteering.
Numerous programs let nature buffs volunteer in the outdoors in exchange for free lodging. Do short-term species control work in Hawaiian forests and score a room in a rustic bunkhouse. Or join one of the Forest Service's many Passport In Time projects -- like restoring an old water mill in the Ozarks -- in trade for tent space and three square meals a day.

Road trip through "free attractions" cities, such as D.C. and New Orleans.
When you think about it, the equation for perfect sightseeing in many cities is equal to attractions plus ambiance. Pick a city that's especially rich in both -- like Washington, D.C., where the monuments, memorials, shopping districts, National Zoo and Natural History Museum are all open to explore, free of charge. Other top "free attractions" cities include New Orleans (with the Arts District, French Quarter and live music around every corner) and San Antonio (Alamo, anyone?).

Make it a bike tour.
Biking is a win-win: you save on transportation and have an endless source of daytime entertainment. Minneapolis, Portland and Boulder are especially conducive to exploring on wheels.

Let an app plan for you.
Download one of many stellar "local events" apps and plan a day based on the free happenings and deals that flood your inbox. The Eventbrite app, for example, lets you buy tickets to concerts and check in right from your phone, no printer needed. And Field Trip culls Time Out, Thrillist and Songkick to bring you a slate of killer deals and ideas in the city of your choice.

HOW TO SLEEP FOR CHEAP

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Join the Couchsurfing movement.
It sounds shady at first, but Couchsurfing has become the ultimate American hipster movement. Make a profile, then scan couches, air mattresses and beds available -- often for free! -- in your desired destination. The site also works as a fun way to find local pals that'll give you free tours of their hometown -- get comfortable with the system before you travel by attending a Couchsurfing meet-up in your city.

Become a master of Priceline and Hotwire.
It's not uncommon for real people to save $600 on a two-week trip using Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" system. And in fact, the wheeling and dealing is quite fun. You give the site your dates, location, preferred hotel star rating and price you're willing to pay. If your bid is "accepted," they'll send you info on your assigned hotel room. Hotwire, similarly, gives you the price, star rating and amenities of your hotel -- you won't know the place's name before you book, but rates are insanely discounted.

Stay in the actual YMCA.
Hostel culture isn't as well-established in the U.S. as it is abroad, so avoid those seedy side-alley spots by hosteling at the good ol' YMCA (it's an especially smart option in New York).

Camp out with KOA.
KOA runs almost 500 privately-owned campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada -- that little yellow logo means you can sleep easy knowing your campground is part of a well-established network. The KOA app lets you find and book a campground from your car, and a Value Kard will save you 10 percent on campsites (but it's not like they're pricey in the first place).

Rent a room in a real house.
The data-crawling pros at Priceonomics ran an extensive study into the benefits of booking with room-renting sites like Airbnb and VRBO -- and they found that renting a room in someone's apartment or home can save budget travelers up to 49 percent compared with renting a room in a hotel. Not only will you save on the base price for a room, you'll also typically score access to a kitchen, washing machine and tricked-out bathroom. Plus, there's no better way to see America then through the eyes of people who live there.

Also on HuffPost:

  • Boston: Faneuil Hall
    Flickr: Tony Fischer
    What it’s known for: You’ll get your fill of history -- after all, it's a stop on the Freedom Trail and a meeting hall since the 18th century -- , but you’ll also get your fill of chain clothing stores, middling food, and faux-authentic Boston restaurants, like the one from “Cheers.”

    Hidden gem: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is frequently overlooked in favor of the Museum of Fine Arts and Children’s Museum -- which, don't get us wrong, are also great. The museum's namesake and founder was a world traveler, philanthropist and enthusiastic art collector with extremely exacting standards. (Case in point: Even decades after her death, paintings remain exactly where she left them.) The jaw-dropping atrium alone is worth the price of admission, and it's pretty kid-friendly. Last but not least, It’s the same neighborhood as Fenway Park, so you can hit both in one day.
  • New York: Times Square
    Flickr: Greg Knapp
    What it’s known for: Bright flashing lights, cartoon mascots, teeming hordes of people

    Hidden gem: Take a trip to the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and go to Prospect Park. It’s basically the Central Park of Brooklyn (even designed by the same landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux), but without the tourist crowd and surrounding skyscrapers. Even when it's full of activity, it's an oasis of peace for people-watching with your family. If you're in the mood for some more stimulating activities, there is a new ice-skating / rollerskating rink and a summer concert series, Celebrate Brooklyn, a great alternative to the hectic Summerstage series in Central Park.
  • Houston: The Galleria
    Flickr: Michael Coghlan
    What it’s known for: Being a huge mall that spans 2.4 million square feet and houses 400 stores and restaurants, two high-rise hotels and three office towers.

    Hidden gem: The downtown underground tunnel system is a more novel experience. You'll find an interconnected series of restaurants and shops located 20 feet below the street level. It's more than 6 miles long (connecting 95 blocks), and it actually started out as a tunnel between two movie theaters. Just make sure you know where to enter (through a Wells Fargo or parking lot on Main is recommended).
  • Washington, D.C.: Museums That Charge For Admission
    Flickr: Matt Chan
    What it’s known for: Its monuments and museums, of course. But paying for a museum, like the International Spy Museum, can mean a cool $20 for adult admission -- along with the crowds that go with most tourist spots in the District. Why not check out one of the 19 free, amazing Smithsonian museums instead?

    Hidden gem: Visit the FDR Memorial, an ode to the iconic president. While not the most imposing monument (we think that the honor belongs to Abraham Lincoln), it's filled with art, inspirational quotations, and natural elements like waterfalls that make this a veritable oasis.
  • Chicago: Navy Pier
    Flickr: Michael Lehet
    What it’s known for: It's the biggest tourist attraction in the Midwest and it’s basically a glorified mall. You'll trek far from other Chicago attractions only to find carnival games, chain restaurants and fellow tourists.

    Hidden gem: Go to the “beach” on Lake Michigan. On sunny days, it's bustling with runners, bikers and frolicking families. Try North Avenue Beach, where you can rent bikes and kayaks.
  • Atlanta: Coca Cola Museum
    Flickr: Chris Palmer
    What it's known for: Before there was Jimmy Carter, the 1996 Olympics and Hartsfield International Airport, Atlanta was known for one thing and one thing only: Coca-Cola. While the company is fascinating, and you DO get all the free cola you want at the end of your museum trip, this tourist trap does nothing to reflect the culture and verve of the Southern city.

    Hidden gem: If you are crazy enough to visit "Hotlanta" during the months of May through October, make sure to pack a picnic and spend an evening at Stone Mountain. The free event consists of a dazzling laser display, set to a series of Southern-themed, patriotic rock songs boasting about Atlanta's points of pride. Sure, you can get fancier pyrotechnics somewhere else, but there is something magical about the Confederate soldier mural chiseled into the side of the mountain.
  • San Francisco: Fisherman’s Wharf
    Flickr: Nicolas Vollmer
    What it’s known for: Fisherman's Wharf is historical, yes, but mostly just a nice place to walk around. You can stroll through Ghirardelli Square (of Ghirardelli chocolate fame), ogle at the sunning seals and eat seafood.

    Hidden gem: Grab a bite at PPQ Dungeness Island, a hole-in-the-wall joint tucked away in a distant neighborhood by the beach. We’ve heard the garlic noodle dish is out of this world -- along with the fresh dungeness crabs, of course.
  • Philadelphia: The Liberty Bell
    Courtesy of Flickr/Mararie
    What it's known for: According to guide books and/or history buffs, the Liberty Bell is clearly The Attraction if you are going to hit up the City of Brotherly Love. But with the long lines and little else to see in the center, this may be an attraction you are better off checking out from afar.

    Hidden gem: For incredible Philly grub and goods, check out Reading Terminal Market, only a hop, skip and a jump away from all the museums and historical sites. Vendors set up shop with some of the most delicious ice creams, po boys, candles and more. Expert tip: Find the bread pudding with whiskey cream sauce. Your life will never be the same!
  • Seattle: Space Needle
    Flickr: Natalie Greco
    What it's known for: The 605-foot tower gives you a great bird's-eye view of the city; that is, if it's not raining and you're okay with waiting in line.

    Hidden gem: Pike Place Market dates back to 1907 and boasts a year-round farmers market, bakeries, fish markets, butcher shops, produce stands and specialty food stores across 9 acres.
  • Los Angeles: The Hollywood Sign
    Gettystock
    What it’s known for: It’s a hike, and not necessarily our favorite one. Sometimes a sign is just a sign.

    Hidden gem: Drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. You’ll enjoy various terrains: mountains, desolate flatlands, adorable and quaint towns with unique cliff sides. It's a winding road, but worth the photo ops you'll get -- you won't even feel like you're in the States anymore. Some tips: If you're driving from Los Angeles, try a 2-hour trip from Palos Verdes up to Malibu. Stop at Dana Point (for the view), Manhattan Beach, Playa Del Rey (for food), Venice (for the famous Venice sign), Santa Monica (to check out the pier) and Malibu (for a refreshment) along the way.
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