The pound is finally back to 2019 levels against the US dollar after a couple of years in the doldrums. But if you think that means bargain holidays, think again. Attraction admission prices, expensive hotels and a higher cost of living still combine to make a trip to the States a pricey proposition.
As the third most expensive city to live in the world according to Forbes (after joint winners Singapore and Zurich), New York makes for a particularly eye-watering break. But visits to attractions such as Disney can soon add up too.
Multi-day tickets to the park increased in price during 2023, despite the fact that a 2022 study by TikTok user Pie Chart Pirate found that admission costs had already risen 3,871 per cent since it first opened in 1971. Museums are putting up already costly ticket prices too. In 2023, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art increased its entry fee from $25 (£19.60) to $30 (£23.50), bringing it in line with New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
“I’m in the States about four months a year myself,” says Alan Wilson of America and Canada specialists Bon Voyage. “There’s no getting around the fact that, just like here, compared with three or four years ago, everything’s gone up.”
It’s noticeable in the supermarkets too. According to currency exchange specialists Moneycorp, consumer prices are 29.2 per cent higher in the UK than the USA (though that figure includes rent). US salaries are generally significantly higher with groceries priced accordingly. It means food bills might come as a shock to self-catering Brits – the average price of a loaf of fresh white bread in New York is the equivalent of £3.60, and a regular cappuccino around £4.50, according to data from Numbeo’s cost of living database.
And while eating out in America used to be reliably cheap, that’s not the case anymore. Restaurant prices increased 5.3 per cent between November 2022 and November 2023 according to the USDA (Department of Agriculture). To counteract spiralling costs, some restaurants have also started adding surcharges to bills – that’s on top of the large tips expected by often poorly-paid waiting staff.
Meanwhile, the country is renowned for its resort fees (an extra hotel charge for using the pool, internet and other facilities that can add up to more than $100 per night), especially in tourist towns such as Las Vegas. Because these fees go straight to the hotels, they’re sometimes not readily apparent on booking or tour operator sites and can lead to a nasty shock at the end of your stay. The website resortfeechecker.com has a search facility enabling visitors to see any hidden extras before booking.
Even before these added extras, US hotels are expensive. According to Skyscanner, the average price of a five-star hotel in New York City is currently £567 per night, compared with £386 in London.
Outside the most famous cities, however, there are still bargains to be found. “Big ticket places – San Francisco, New York, Miami and the like – seem to have exponentially gone up in price. But one of our biggest selling areas is the Deep South [and] Mississippi is the second cheapest state in America to live in and that translates into lower accommodation costs and lower eating-out prices,” says Wilson.
There’s one thing that’s cheaper in the US: petrol. But car-hire costs – as is the case in Europe – spiralled after the pandemic, up 48 per cent between 2019 and 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The car rental companies basically sold off all their fleet when Covid hit and, when they went to repurchase their fleets 18 months later, there was a shortage of parts… while production levels weren’t what they had been previously,” says Wilson. “That’s put car hire [prices] up quite a lot. And hotels are increasingly charging ridiculous amounts to park your car – we’ve heard of as much as $65 (£51) per night.”
Though they’ve dropped slightly over the last year, costs remain high and you’ll need extra for pricey parking too – even at Walt Disney World. “People don’t really factor that in,” says Helen Wright of the America travel blog Passport Stamps. “It starts at about $22 (£17.25) plus tax per day.”
Is there anything British holidaymakers can do to keep costs down? Book early for a start. “The earlier you book, the cheaper the holiday because airlines and hotels want to get business early for the following year,” suggests Wright. “There still seems to be this outdated idea that you’re going to get a last-minute bargain but it probably hasn’t been true for about 20 years.”
Alternatively, do as many of Bon Voyage customers are doing and try Canada instead. “It’s growing for us and I think that’s quite a lot to do with price,” says Alan Wilson. “The exchange rate for the Canadian dollar is still about 1.7 to the pound whereas we haven’t had a lot of relief from the US dollar. Canada has become a much bigger part of our overall business in the last couple of years and it’s a fantastic product. Everybody loves Canada and loves Canadians.”
Eight ways to save on an American break
Swap your city
A visit to New York or San Francisco might blow the budget, but America’s lesser-known cities are significantly cheaper. Helen Wright recommends Pittsburgh as an alternative to the Big Apple. “It has amazing art [and] a really good food scene,” she says.
Cut down on car hire
If your fly-drive starts in a city, hire a car later in the trip. “Get around by Uber and pick the car up from a downtown location as you’re leaving,” says Alan Wilson. “We’ve cut down the average length of car hire from about 15/16 days to about 10 and that saves quite a lot of money.”
Beware the city pass
The USA has a bevy of schemes offering discounted rates on multiple attractions, but you need to cover plenty of ground to get your money’s worth. Do the maths before buying passes: it might work out cheaper to book direct.
Skip the theme park meals
You’ll make significant savings by avoiding sit-down Disney dining. “Don’t go to a different restaurant every night because that will just clear you out,” says Wright. “Just grab a hot dog.”
Avoid weekends in well-known resorts
“In Vegas, hotel rooms cost double at weekends because of visitors from LA and around,” says Wilson. Save by checking in between Sunday and Thursday. A double room at the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs costs £343 on a Monday night in April and £574 on a Friday night in the same week via booking.com, for example.
Try the train
“Amtrak can be terrific value for money, particularly in the Northeast: Boston, New York, Philadelphia,” says Wilson. “It has a bit of a dodgy reputation in this country, but it’s improved enormously in the last five years or so”.
Bring your own bottle
A mediocre bottle of wine in a New York restaurant can set you back $100 (£78.50), according to Wilson, while Wright was shocked to pay $35 (£27.50) for a glass of Prosecco at the theatre. Look for BYOB restaurants – but watch out too for ludicrous corkage fees.
Consider a tour
“Our data shows that, on average, people save up to 26 per cent by booking with an escorted tour provider versus doing a DIY trip,” says Kelly Jackson of Costsaver Tours.
This story was first published in October 2023 and has been revised and updated.