If you’ve opted to forego the pricey European summer vacation in favor of a more budget-friendly road trip in the States, you’re already ahead of the game in terms of saving. But while low-cost accommodations and meals will undoubtedly cut costs, diving head-first into a spontaneous cross-country excursion could still result in a nasty surprise in the form of a scary credit card bill. Carefully plotting out your journey from beginning to end will spare you any unpleasant financial surprises, and will take the guesswork out of where to eat, sleep, and sightsee. Here are some of the very best American road trips that can be done on a strict budget:
8 Road Trips That Can Be Done On The Cheap
- Big Bear Lake, California.
- Antelope Canyon, Arizona.
You’ve seen the seemingly endless stream of Instagram pics—now it’s time to get your own stunning selfie. Antelope Canyon is easily accessible from a number of starting points, including Phoenix, AZ, Nevada, or Utah. The epic attraction is also close to the Grand Canyon, so if you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck, this route will pack plenty of action. The canyon is located on Native American Navajo territory and requires a $6 entry fee. You can try your luck with local tour groups at the canyon entrance, or make a reservation ahead of time for under $40 per person.
- Florida Keys, Florida.
A short and sweet trip south of Miami is the two-hour drive from Key West to Key Largo. The quick escape is packed with historic sites like Victorian mansions and museums (the Hemingway Home was built in 1851 and it’s where the iconic writer lived from 1931 to 1940—admission is jut $14). And if you’re looking for a nature-based adventure, for just $12, you can see hundreds of butterflies, birds, and tropical plants at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.
- Big Sur, California.
This central coast California destination is a must for outdoorsy types. It takes less than three hours to drive the 145 miles from San Francisco, and accommodations can be pretty cost-effective since campsites are plentiful (some cost as little as $15 a night, but you’ll have to make advanced reservations). If roughing it isn’t really your thing, you can indulge in some self-care without totally splurging—take a late-night dip in the healing waters at Esalen hot springs for just $35.
- Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana.
If a 12-mile hike sounds like your idea of the perfect way to cap off a road trip, then consider driving Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. The high-altitude, 50-mile winding route connects the East and West passes of Glacier National Park, and includes access to the Highline Trail, a wildflower-dotted hiking path that’s not for the faint of heart—but totally free to try.
- Canyon Country, Utah.
National park connoisseurs will definitely want to make an adventure out of a Southern Utah excursion. Within just 650 miles of desert, you’ll find five national parks that some people consider among the best in the country. Drive from Moab to Grand Junction in just 90 minutes, and you’ll have a chance to see Arches National Park and Canyonlands (both cost just $30 for seven days’ worth of admission per private vehicle).
- Great Lakes Seaway Trail, New York and Pennsylvania.
Get a serious history lesson on the Great Lakes Seaway Trail, one of the first American roads to be designated as a National Scenic Byway. The 518-mile route follows along the shores of Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River and includes an astounding 40 state parks. Presque Isle State Park is one worthy stop in particular. The (free!) natural attraction is a 3,200-acre peninsula that features miles of beach.
- The Loneliest Road, Nevada.
Okay, yes, the name is a drag, but you’re bound to have a pretty great time traversing this largely-isolated section of U.S. Highway 50. Because the route follows the Pony Express path, there are actually quite a few must-see attractions on the drive from Carson City to Baker, including hot springs and old mining towns.
The trip from San Francisco to Big Bear is just shy of eight hours—the perfect amount of time to blast your favorite Spotify playlists and still have time for some juicy podcasts. And if you’re in Los Angeles, Big Bear is the ideal quick and easy escape from the big city (it’s about 100 miles northeast of L.A. proper). The mountain resort is a perfect budget-friendly destination, thanks to its comprehensive website full of online coupons for everything from dining and shopping to lodging and recreation. There’s no cost to visit the destination itself, so with a little research, you can tailor-make a stay that’s totally affordable.
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Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist/writer/editor and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets like Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, Seventeen, and a whole lot more. She’s also a contributing editor at Fitbit and the social media director at California Home + Design Magazine. She is an avid admirer of shiny objects, manatees, and preteen entertainment.