How to travel the national parks in the U.S.A. on a budget

Dreaming about hiking the steep paths of the Grand Canyon, visiting the enormous Salt Water Basin in the Death Valley, and measuring the huge trees in Sequoia Tree Park?

Afraid it’s out of your reach since traveling to and in the United States can get pretty expensive?

No more reasons to keep dreaming, start realizing your trip!

We enjoyed a 4 week holiday traveling through the South-West states of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah and spent $3780 (€3300) for 2 persons including the flight ticket from and to Amsterdam.
$3600, that means less than $1900 per person for a month full of natural beauty and adventure including everything you dreamed of. Let me tell you how you can do this too!

TRAVELING FROM EUROPE TO THE UNITED STATES
If you are from Europe, like I am, you might know that flights to the West coast of the United States can get pretty expensive. However, the good part about the United States is that they have so many airports to fly to! We decided we wanted to make a round trip through the parks in and around California, in the South-West. Starting in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Las Vegas? Didn’t matter to us: it is a round trip after all. That’s why we spent a couple hours on Skyscanner and Momondo and decided our starting point based on the price of the ticket. The cheapest option for us was to fly from Amsterdam to Los Angeles via Moscow, with Aeroflot. So Los Angeles it was. There are also a lot of great opportunities for direct flights from London. It is worth checking flights from one of their airports.
In total a round way trip to San Francisco or Los Angeles should cost you about €400-€500 ($450-$570).

– Budget spent on tickets: $900 (for 2 persons)

TRAVELING IN THE UNITED STATES: CAMPERVAN VERSUS RENTAL CAR
Of course you have seen pictures of these cool colored campervans or bigger campers at the most beautiful locations. Yes, that is where I dreamed of. However, after some research it turned out that these vehicles were pretty expensive to rent. Luckily for us, we traveled just before high season, but still the rental would cost us about $2500 (without extra insurance, GPS et cetera). Besides, these vans use a lot of fuel. They drive 19 miles per gallon (or 13 liter per 100 kilometers). In comparison, the rental car we had our eye on drove 42 miles per gallon (double the distance!).

We made a calculation based on our travel route 3800 mile in March/April.
We used the Dutch website of Tioga Tours to create our itinerary and estimate the distance.

Car rental including insurance* $700
Fuel costs** $220
Total costs for transportation 4 weeks $920

* Compact car: Nissan Versa sedan edition for 27 days
** We used $2,40 as average price per gallon.

Campervan rental including insurance* $2500
Fuel costs** $700
Total costs for transportation 4 weeks $3200

* One of the budget vans, Ford Maverick for 27 days
** We used 13 mpg as an estimation based on the website of Bakpak Dave

We tended to choose for the car, however, driving is one thing, but where to sleep and how to cook?


CAMPING IN THE UNITED STATES: CAMPERVAN VERSUS RENTAL CAR + CAMPING EQUIPMENT
In order to make a good decision, we had to take into account that the campervan would offer us all we needed to camp in the United States. That is why we made a calculation of all camping necessities as well. Assuming we would not take any camping gear with us on the plane. We used the website of Walmart as an estimation (in the States we visited the Big 5 Sporting goods as well, very nice store!).

Including tent, stove, sleepingbags, plates, solar shower and many more we ended up at an estimation of $450 for our equipment.

We expected the camping costs to be the same, since it is possible to go wild camping with both a tent or a campervan.

Estimation camping with campervan versus car and bought camping equipment:

Camping with rental car and camping gear from Walmart/Big 5 Sporting Goods $1370
Camping with campervan Ford Maverick $3200
Difference $1830

This convinced us to go for the option to camp with a tent and a rental car.

– Budget spent on transportation + equipment: $1370

NATIONAL PARKS OF THE UNITED STATES: WHERE TO SLEEP?
One thing I love about the National Parks in the United States, is that they (kind of) cooperate. There is a National Park Services pass that gives you access to over 2000 federal sites and all the trails in those parks. The pass costs $80. The good part is: it is valid for a year and allows 2 owners! After you finish your trip, just pass it along.

Go buy that National Park Service pass at the entrance of the first park you visit.

With the pass you can enter the parks of your choice. Once you enter the parks, you will always get a park newspaper of one of the rangers. Since we traveled without internet, we used these papers (and offline Google Maps) as our guide: they contain hiking routes, information about the formation of the park and a lot of camp sites.

You can camp in a lot of the National Parks, but there are also campsites just outside the park. The benefit of camping inside the parks, is that you can easily visit the highlight attractions without having to drive for hours before you only reach the entrance of the park (some of them are pretty remote). The benefit of the campsites outside the park, is that they are sometimes free. For example because the land is used as an overflow area during the wet season. Both types of campsites can be found in the information paper. However, you can look it up on the internet as well of course. I can recommend Freecampsites.net and NPS.gov. Since we traveled during low season, we didn’t make any reservations. We just made sure we were at the campsite around 9:00 A.M for the “first come first serve” spots. Most campsites are full around noon. On average a paid tent campsite will cost you $15-$20.

– Budget spent on camping: $950 (including hostels/AirBnB’s in the large cities)

HOW TO EAT HEALTHY BUT LOW BUDGET DURING YOUR HOLIDAY IN THE UNITED STATES
We thought we would spend a lot of money on healthy food, however, we surprised ourselves. Eventually we spent about $20 a day on food for the 2 of us.
This includes a couple times of dinner outside, however, most of the times we cooked ourselves since we 1. like cooking, 2. really need a lot of vegetables and 3. there is not always a proper restaurant nearby when you camp in a desert.
Every now and then we got off the highway to visit a Walmart for some free internet, icecubes and a lot of groceries. The cooler we bought kept everything fresh for 3 days, even when we camped in the desert.

I can strongly recommend you on spending some extra dollars on a good frying and cooking pan, so you can also enjoy the cooking on the stove 🙂

– Budget spent on food: $560

TO SUM IT UP

Tickets $900
Car rental $700
Fuel $220
Camping gear $450
Camping (including NPS pass and hotels) $950
Food and beverages $560
Total budget for 2 persons $3780

All in all we had an amazing 4 week road trip that costs us $3780 in total including everything we wished for. Believe me, keeping an eye on your budget doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on anything. Hiking canyons, swimming in beautiful lakes, gazing at yet another stunning sunrise, enjoying drinks in Las Vegas, spotting turtles or road runners in the desert: you can have it all.

The question is not if, but when you will book your flight.

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