Travelling America on a Student Budget

Travelling America might seem like a pipe dream, but I'm here to say you can journey the US on a student budget. In part one I'll take you through the prep.

A person holding a hot dog on the streets of New York, USA
(Image credit: getty)

Plan, Prepare and Pack for an Unforgettable Journey

If you’re considering travelling to America, I’ve two words for you – do it. 

Several years ago, a couple of friends and I embarked on a journey across the States having just finished university. We had no idea what we needed, where to go or how we’d afford it, but the lure of travelling somewhere so interesting, diverse and impossibly vast was something we couldn’t ignore. As it turns out, it was one of the best things we’ve ever done.

For a two-month adventure, we’d set individual budgets of around £2,500 each. To give you an idea, this equated to roughly £106.00 per day. We used this money for everything from travel and accommodation to food, drink and experiences. 

Budgeting is important, but it’s amazing how far you can make your money stretch when travelling in America. From happy-hour lunches to free museum tours and low-cost public transport options, a host of cash-saving opportunities make the country fairly easy to navigate on a tight budget.

Here, I’m going to take you through how best to prepare for travelling to a country like America. As a heads up, it’s a little more complicated than booking a week by the pool in Benidorm.

Decide on Dates, Book Some Flights

Return flights are the name of the game here. Why? Because the American authorities are unlikely to let you in without proof of return or onward travel. 

As a result, that makes this one of the most important parts of the planning process; you’ll secure passage across the North Atlantic and give yourself a timeframe to work within. From here, you can begin to build the bones of your trip.

Flights don’t come cheap to America. Although you can pick up deals with holiday providers that include hotels and transfers, this might not fit your schedule. As this is the case, I’d certainly recommend purchasing basic return flights and worrying about the accommodation later. 

Checking directly with airlines is a smart place to start when looking for the best prices; British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are all good options. By booking direct, you’ll also have peace of mind that your flights are protected should anything go wrong. Alternatively, and if you don’t mind adding extra stops to your journey, you could find cheaper deals with sites such as Skyscanner.

Travelling to America Requires an ESTA

“A what?” I hear you ask. I thought the same when we realised we needed one to gain lawful entry into the USA. An Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) is a Visa Waiver Programme that travellers are required to apply for to gain approved travel to America. 

To get the ball rolling on your application, you’ll need to head to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. From here, you’ll be able to click through and start the process. You’ll need a valid passport, an email address, your home address, phone number and also emergency contact information to hand when filling out the form.

There is a cost to this, too, which will set you back around $21.00. Your application will then take around 72 hours to be processed, with it eventually being approved or declined. To put your mind at ease, ESTAs are only usually denied in very specific cases. Such as, if an individual has a serious criminal conviction, applied with an invalid passport or the authorities suspect they have no intention of leaving the country again. If you can rule out the above, you should be absolutely fine.

Once your ESTA has been approved, you can start thinking about where you’ll want to visit, and how you’re going to organise all of your things!

ESTA Approved – Let’s Look at Accommodation

This is the part where it’s very much up to you on how much you wish to plan in advance. As a trio, we felt not having anything booked beyond our first week gave us greater freedom. We could decide where we wanted to go next and how we would get there on a whim. Booking on the go was our tactic throughout and, thankfully, it worked perfectly.

When it came to booking the accommodation we found there were several handy providers that we stuck by – namely Hotels.comExpedia and booking.com. All three of these providers have excellent reward schemes; meaning the more you book, the more you save. With Hotels.com, we ended up accumulating enough points to qualify for an extra free night!

It would also be worth checking out Orbitz, as they specialise in bookings for accommodation, flights and rewards too. It’s free to register, and you’ll start earning money off your next stay with every booking you make. What’s more, they have an excellent app that offers even better savings than their website. You’ll unlock added perks along the way, making this a very handy tool when you’re booking on the move.

Are Hostels the Way to Go When Travelling America?

Now, it is worth mentioning that we opted to stay in hostels for the majority of our trip (a few places excluded, such as Las Vegas). This helped us keep costs down. I accept they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and certainly advise checking reviews before booking one as there will be some that are much better than others. 

Finding a decent hostel is fairly easy with a little bit of research, and you’ll discover they’re often on par with many budget hotels. If you like meeting new people, you can almost guarantee you’ll bump into some interesting characters from all over the globe.

Flights booked, entry to the country confirmed and now you’ve got a place to stay. Next, it’s a good idea to think about what you’re going to bring and how you’re going to bring it.

Accommodation Booked – Now it’s Time to Pack!

Packing for journeys such as this can be quite tricky, especially if you’re planning on moving around from place to place over a few months.

Firstly, it’s advisable to pack only the essentials. Clothes, shoes and basic hygiene goods are all important, but it’s also worth packing things like a dry towel, a plug adaptor, a travel pillow and even a sleeping bag! The latter is worthwhile if you plan on slumming it in the hostels. Trust me.

Be sure not to overpack – don’t forget, the USA is a lot like the UK; you’ll find plenty of supermarkets and stores out there from which you can buy things like shampoo, deodorants and paracetamol. Similarly, laundry facilities can be easily found (if they’re not already available where you’re staying), meaning your clothes can be washed and reused.

Getting all of this to fit into an easily transportable bag is the tricky part here, but thanks to retailers like MilletsBlacks and Go Outdoors you can find a traveller’s backpack that’ll do the job perfectly.

These packs are excellent at holding lots of items and distributing weight evenly. Many will also have a handy ‘mini bag’, that can be unzipped from the main pack for use on day trips and small outings. There aren’t rules against bringing a suitcase, but for this kind of trip (especially), they can become difficult to transport around.

Anything Else to Think About Before Travelling to America?

I think we’ve pretty much covered the main points. However, one further (and important) issue to think about is how you’ll be handling your money.

In today’s electronic age, payments by card are expected if not required by most shops, eateries and accommodation providers. As this is the case, it’d certainly be worth looking into debit cards for travel that you can use whilst you’re out there.

In my opinion, the best choice would be Monzo. The account is free to set up and money can be transferred over from any other bank account. The best bit about it is that you get an intuitive app that will convert spending into real-time currencies (by using the current exchange rate) so that you know exactly how much you’ve spent and how much you’ve got left. You can even split bills with friends, and request money back. Winner.

Of course, there are other travel debit cards available, with Starling, Chase and Virgin Money all offering decent alternatives. Most only run a ‘soft’ search when you create an account, too, meaning there’s no permanent mark on your credit score.

Cards aside, it is probably worth carrying some extra cash with you as you never know when you might need it. Cash is particularly important for tipping at restaurants and bars, and this is an area you certainly don’t want to get caught out in (gratuity is expected in the States, and holds greater importance than it does here in the UK).

The last thing I’ll say is: enjoy it. Life is all about experiences, after all, and it’ll be a journey that you’ll never, ever forget. 

Jack Cunningham
Travel Editor

As a former sports journalist and content creator, I swapped the press box for a permanent desk several years ago. Since giving match reports the red card, I have enjoyed developing my writing and research skills in a few other areas, and now I spend my time doing something I really enjoy - sharing the best ways to save on travel with our wonderful readers.


I love nothing more than exploring different parts of the world and learning about new cultures (and taking in the occasional sporting fixture, if at all possible). I’m just as happy on a quick city break in Lisbon as I am navigating my way across the width of America, and firmly believe everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy travelling regardless of their budget.