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 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. Stealth camping in the USA is far, far easier than in Europe.
In the wide open spaces of the Western United States is particularly easy, but you can find free camping spots all over the country.
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:
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.
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 one. 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.
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 general store or gas station shop in small town America.
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.
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 and instead use 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’, it just 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, 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. As soon as we settle down, we will welcome all cyclists and travelers to our home. We are very keen to ‘give back’ after receiving so much kindness on the road.
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. And sometimes, we just enjoy the situation.
You, Too, Can Bike 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.