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Our top tips and money-saving hacks for a West Coast road trip 🇺🇸

Planning a US road trip to the West Coast but don't know where to start? We've put together our top tips and money-saving hacks to help you out -- oh and some life lessons we learnt on our own trips, so you don't have to make the same mistakes.

Published by
Caitlin Moore·11/01/2024
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A road trip can seem like a daunting experience. Driving in another country. Booking accommodation in multiple places. Itineraries. Mind-boggling.

I planned and went on my first US West Coast(ish) road trip at 25 and loved it so much that I did a slightly different route two years later. There were plenty of lessons I learnt along the way, so I've put together my top tips and money-saving hacks.

For reference, in 2019, I paid just under £1000 for two weeks including return flights, car hire and accommodation. Prices are a bit higher post-covid, but these tips should still help you keep the costs down.

Planning your route

How much time do you need?

For me, with long flights and a lot of driving, it's a must to have at least two weeks for this trip, although plenty of people do a shortened version in less time.

Pick your spots

The most important thing for a road trip is knowing which spots you want to hit and the best way to hit them all. Make a list of the cities and stops that are most important to you and work on your route and timings from there.

🏴‍☠️: A West Coast road trip is not complete with driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the iconic Highway 1. Don't make the mistake we made and travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, as you'll be driving on the wrong side of the road for the best views.

If you fly into Los Angeles, I would recommend driving up to Vegas (you could detour to San Diego first, if that's also on your list), then head towards San Francisco via Yosemite. You're then set to make your way back to Los Angeles via Highway 1.

Make sure to know your routes before you set off. Google Maps will direct you to the quickest route, which is not always the scenic way.

The second time I did this trip, we added in some more national parks by detouring to Arizona and Utah. They were well worth it if nature is more your scene over bustling cities.

Sample route

Tips for flights

💰 You can usually find return flights from various UK airports to Los Angeles, San Francisco or Las Vegas for £360-600 return.

Fly in and out of the same place

The first big splurge of any USA trip is going to be your flights. As a Northerner, I was taking my flights from Manchester and found that return flights to and from LA were a lot cheaper than booking two one-way flights to start and finish at different locations.

This can add a lot of driving time on, but if you plan it into your route, it actually means you won't miss any of the best spots.

Be flexible with your route

You may have started planning your route before even looking into costs, but it's worth checking flight prices first, as the costs can really vary. For example, return flights to Los Angeles tend to be quite a bit cheaper than Las Vegas.

Tips for accommodation

Higher budgets for cities

Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles are pretty expensive when it comes to hotels. We had an overall hotel budget, then worked out our average budget per night. Then we were able to find options in the cheaper locations for less than this, and allocate more budget to the expensive cities.

Try Airbnb

This leads me on to the next tip. Airbnb can often save you money in the major cities, especially if you're open to having 'a room' within someone else's space. The plus to an Airbnb is that you'll often have kitchen facilities, so you can save some cash on dining out too.

Book hotels outside the cities

If you wanted to spend 3 days in Los Angeles, instead of booking 3 nights at an expensive central hotel, book 2 nights. You can still spend a full day exploring after check out, but book a cheaper hotel/motel an hour or so out of the city - on the way to your next destination.

Free cancellation

This may cost you more up front, but where possible, book with free cancellation in case any of your plans change, and you want more flexibility. This also means you can check back closer to the time and see if there has been any price reductions. Then you can cancel free of charge and rebook.

Tips for car hire

Be over 25

Ok, we know you can’t magically change your age, but it’s worth noting that in the US, drivers under 25 will be charged a young driver's premium which can cost between $14.99–$35.00 on top of the rental price. This can rack up quite quickly on a long road trip.

Pick up and drop off at the same location

If you follow our tip of flying in and out of the same location for your trip, then this one will be fairly easy.

Rental companies charge a one-way fee when you drop the car off at a different location. We checked a 2-week rental from LAX–LAX vs LAX–SFO, and for the same car, it was just shy of $100 more expensive.

Durations

Car hire prices typically come in daily or weekly prices. So booking for a straight week or 2-week hire will be better value than 6 days or 15 days, for example.

Save on fuel

You'll need to account for fuel costs in your spending money. Apps like 'GasBuddy' allow you to find the cheapest gas stations near you, which is super helpful when you're on the road a lot.

There are certain places where prices will typically be higher, like in the city centres or right out on the long open roads when there is less competition and people need it most.

Bring your Costco card

If you have one, bring it along. I'm not entirely sure how this tip worked, but we happened to have a Costco card on us, and it knocked off 50% at the counter.

Tips for activities

Get a National Park pass

If you plan to visit a few National Parks on your trip, it's worth looking at the National Park pass, which lasts for a year for $80 (per vehicle). If you only plan to do one or two, then it might be cheaper to pay per park.

Look at attraction passes like Go City and CityPASS

You can save some serious cash if you want to see a few attractions in one city. The Los Angeles Go City All-Inclusive pass includes one-day access to Universal Studios plus loads of other attractions like the hop-on hop-off bus, Warner Bros. Studio Tour, walking tours, museums and more.

Research free things to do and see

The great thing about a US road trip is that there are always loads of free (or mega cheap) things to do and see at each stop. I could sit and list every free place I went to, but this article would turn into a 400-page book. Do plenty of research on your personal interests and you'll find loads of activities. TikTok is a great place to find inspiration.

Check list for a smooth trip ✅

  • Get your ESTA before booking your trip. It costs $21 per person and is valid for 2 years. All the info you need is on the official site.

  • Make sure to have a credit card (it can’t be a debit card) in the name of the named driver for car hire. You will be asked for this, and it almost caught us out… both times. You'll also need it to check in to most hotels for a deposit.

  • Don't forget your driver's licence.

  • Familiarise yourself with driving rules before going.

  • Make sure to book hotels with parking, otherwise you may run into some hefty parking charges.

  • Check whether you're covered for roaming in the USA or if you can add it on. We're so used to roaming in Europe that it's easy to forget you're not always covered when further afield. It's handy to have on a road trip for using Google Maps to get around.

  • Hack: put the route in Google Maps while you have WiFi, and press start. The maps will still direct you once you go offline.

  • Download the Citymapper app. It's one of the simplest to use for live public transport information and giving you the best route.

  • Get yourself a Revolut card. The exchange rate is great, they're accepted pretty much everywhere, and you can keep track of what you're spending via the app. Plus, it's really easy to send more money from your regular account if you need it.

  • Keep in mind that the US can be quite expensive for food and drinks, especially in the major cities. Make sure to budget accordingly for this if you plan to eat out a lot.

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