Can you afford a long-distance bicycle tour?
I’m convinced a lot more people would go bicycle touring in the USA if they realized just how cheap it can be. $7 per day. That’s how much we’ve spent on average per person over the past 9 months cycling in America. Cheap, right?
You were probably expecting something more along the lines of $40 or $50 per day for a ‘budget’ bicycle tour in the USA.
So how’d we do it? Here’s the short answer:
- We never stayed in a hotel, motel, AirBnB, or hostel. Never.
- We paid for camping only in extreme situations (less than 10 times) when no free option was available.
- We never ate meals in restaurants or cafes. Never.
- We purcahsed food at large supermarkets with good value for money. We bought food in pricey small town supermarkets or convenience stores only in extreme situations (less than 5 times) when no cheaper option was available.
That’s it in a nutshell. We reduced our accommodation costs to almost zero. We spent around 25% of what a typical cyclist might fork over for food.
Still not convinced? Here’s the longer version of how to bike the USA on a shoestring budget.
How to Camp for Free in the USA
Check out this website
In America, it’s actually fairly easy to find a free place to pitch your tent.
In the wide open spaces of the Western United States wild camping is particularly easy. But you can find free camping spots all over the country. Even in heavily populated areas of the country like the east coast.
The best place to start your search for a free place to camp is on freecampsites.net. I just did a search and here’s what the website came back with for camping spots near where we are in Missouri:
Lots of choices for free camping
No bad. The site has come up with free dispersed camping spots on national forest land, some rest areas where camping is officially prohibited but actually permitted and some nice spots down dirt roads. In our experience, the recommendations and reviews on freecampsites.net are highly reliable.
More resources to help you find free camping spots
Dispersed Camping – Dispersed camping is camping outside of a campground area on public lands. Often, there will be existing fire rings, picnic tables and/or lantern posts in a pull off from the road. However, in most areas, as long as you are not blocking a road, gate or trailhead dispersed camping is fine as long as dispersed camping is allowed in that district.
BLM – Bureau of Land Management. The BLM administers public lands that encompass roughly 1/8 of the total land mass of the U.S. Most of these lands are in the western states. Often mineral rights or grazing land are leased from the BLM by private companies or individuals.
Dispersed camping is allowed on most BLM land for up to 14 days. Even if land is leased or has mining claims, you may camp there unless posted otherwise by BLM management. You may cross private land (as long as there is a public road) to reach BLM areas. You should not come across a locked gate, but if you cross a gate, please leave it in the state you found it – open or closed.
USFS – US Forestry Service. THE USFS administers the 175 national forests and grasslands in the United States. They are responsible for regulating logging, grazing and mineral rights on these lands as well as maintaining roads, trails, campgrounds and law enforcement in the area. The forestry service offers many developed campgrounds as well as a large number of ‘official’ dispersed camping sites. Regulations vary based on the ranger district, but for the most part, dispersed camping is permitted for up to 14 days.
Camping help from friendly farmers
Cyclists have a lot more choices for free camping than do people in cars. If you arrive with your RV and ask a farmer if you can park for the night, you’ll probably be sent on your way.
Cyclists, on the other hand, are generally welcomed with open arms.
Isn’t it weird to just knock on somebody’s door and ask to pitch your tent? Not really. After you try it once or twice and see how well it works and your inhibitions will go away.
What about all those nasty No Trespassing signs? Well, watch out for those. Most rural residents are packing heat so don’t wander onto property where you’re not wanted.
America has approximately 300,000 churches. Suffice to say you’re never far from a place of worship. Rural churches make great camping spots. Many churches post their phone number on the sign outside. If possible, call the pastor and get permission before pitching your tent. The pastor may even come down to the church and open it up so you can be more comfortable. Then you’ll have access to restroom facilities and possibly a kitchen at your disposal and maybe even a shower and wifi, too.
City Parks + Rodeo Grounds + Fire Stations + Museums
If you’ve biking one of Adventure Cycling’s routes, you’ll probably come across city parks, fire stations and other public places that allow cyclists to camp for free. If you’re in a small town and want to camp, just ask at the local library, gas station or shop and someone can probably head you in the right direction. Americans generally like to help, so don’t be shy.
Use Hospitality Networks
We’ve stayed with 47 Warm Showers hosts over the past 9 months. If you’re not actively using this network, you’re missing out on meeting some incredible people. And, yes, you’ll save money, too. Warm Showers is a free hospitality network for cyclists. If you're not a memeber yet, stop reading this article and join now.
Eating on the Cheap
Bicycle touring means you eat a lot. There’s no way to get around that. One of the main complaints I hear from foreign cyclists biking the USA is how limited the food choices are. This is very true if you’re shopping in small town convenience stores. These stores typically sell ‘junk food’ at high prices. Don’t count on stocking up on fresh fruit and veggies or finding organic tofu and vegan cheese at the Dollar General or gas station shop in small town America.
Stock up at supermarkets
If you want more food choice and better prices you must make a trip to a big supermarket. And that might mean a detour off your intended route. Sure, it’s inconvenient and unpleasant to ride out to the giant supermarket on the edge of town. But if you want to eat well and stick to a budget, there’s really no choice.
For those who really want to max their savings and are only interested in filling their stomach, head on over to one of America’s many Dollar Stores. The best of the bunch is Dollar Tree, where every item really is just a dollar. We always buy our staples such as cookies, pasta sauce, ramen noodles, tortillas, and refried beans at the dollar store. Sure it's not the healthiest option, but you can get a lot of colors for a buck.
The Little Things that Add Up
Your parents probably told you this and it’s true: little things you spend money on add up to to a lot of money in the long run.
Here are a few examples of the little ways we cut costs on our USA bike tour.
We shopped around for flights to the USA. We were flexible about departure location (we were in Dubai when we booked the flights and cycled all the way to Istanbul for the flight). We were also flexible about the arrival point in the USA.
In most cases, New York offers the cheapest flights, but good deals are also available to San Francisco and Los Angles. Flying into smaller American cities is generally more expensive. Our Istanbul-JFK flight cost us $250 one way per person. We flew with Ukrainian Airlines (UIA) and had a 46-kilo baggage allowance each. We'd have paid far more on a better-known airline. Savings per person: around $400
On arrival at JFK airport in New York, we lugged around our bikes and boxes instead of paying for airport carts. Savings: $10.
We biked from the airport into Brooklyn instead of taking a cab or Uber. Savings: around $50.
When my bike broke in a remote town in New Mexico we hitched a ride to the nearest city 230 miles away instead of taking a bus or renting a car. Savings: around $150
We opted not to buy a sim card and purchase a cellular plan in the USA. Instead we used free WiFi and Skype at the library and other free hotspots. Savings: around $20-$60 per month.
We do all bike repairs ourselves (OK... Eric does them himself) and purchase parts online or get them free in the giveaway boxes at local bike workshops. Savings: around $400
We get clothes and other items such as sunglasses at Goodwill second-hand shops, find them on the side of the road, or get them in giveaway boxes at Warms Showers places. Savings: around $150
USA Budget Biking FAQs
Isn’t it a pain to live like this, counting every nickel and dime?
No, not really. Once you get used to paying attention to how you spend money and setting yourself certain guidelines or ‘rules,' cost cutting comes naturally without thinking.
Is there anything you splurge on?
Oh, yes, absolutely. I will not go without decent coffee and spend about $5 per week on a package of Seattle’s Best Extra Dark Roast for my Aeropress. I would probably enjoy popping into a coffee shop now and then but I hold back from doing that. We also regularly buy ‘treats’ at the supermarket. We look for ice cream that is on sale or baked goods that are 50% off. We ‘waste’ about $15 per week on non-essential food items. I don’t drink alcohol, so cutting out beer was never an issue.
Don’t you feel like a mooch staying at people’s homes for free with Warm Showers and Couchsurfing?
No, not really. People join these networks because they are interested in meeting fellow cyclists and travelers and benefitting from free hospitality themselves. These are reciprocal networks meaning you stay for free and in return people can stay for free with you. Now that we have a base in Portugal, we regularly welcome cyclists and travelers to our home. We are very keen to ‘give back’ after receiving so much kindness on the road.
When stayig with other people, we do our best to be good guests. Sometimes we prepare meals for our hosts, other times we help with chores or give travel advice.
Get started saving for your bike tour across America
If you've been dreaming of a bicycle tour across America, don't let a perceived lack of funds stand in your way. With thoughtful planning, $1,000 could take you coast to coast across the country. Start saving for your tour now. Many people find that using a money saving app can help them find the discipline to put funds aside for a bicycle tour.
Money saving apps can make the process of saving money easier over time. You can fill your piggy bank automatically so that savings goals can be met without stress.