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How To Take A Cross-Country Road Trip For Under $500

by Staff

Summary

  • Save money on accommodations during a cross-country road trip by using public lands, like those managed by the BLM, for dispersed camping.
  • Find cheap campsites at government-controlled grounds: State parks, national parks, and national forests usually have campsites with fees below $50 per night.
  • Strategically plan where to fill up on gas during a road trip. Filling up in states with lower gas taxes, such as Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Colorado, can help save money at the pump and keep the overall budget in check.



Cross-country road trips are one of the quintessential US vacation experiences. With a country as large as America, road trips are a popular way to see as many of the sights as possible in one go. Whether hopping on one of the best cross-country road trip routes or enjoying one of the many bucket list-worthy national park road trips that just happen to take travelers across the country, there is no shortage of scenic ways to get from one side of the US to the other.


When planned carefully, a cross-country road trip can also be one of the most cost-effective ways to see the US. Even with inflation eating away at budgets at breakneck pace, it is still possible to complete a cross-country road trip for less than $500 spent on accommodations. Here are some tricks to keeping overnight accommodations as cheap as possible, as well as some other ways to keep costs down on a $500 road trip across the US.


Free Places To Stay On A Cross Country Road Trip

Public-Use lands controlled by the BLM are often free to use and camp on

Photo by Pawan Thapa on Unsplash

People sitting by a fire while camping in Alabama Hills CA


One of the best ways to keep a cross-country road trip under $500? Pack the sleeping bag and enjoy some time under the stars. Campsites are significantly cheaper than even the most run-down hotel rooms, making them an ideal option for a budget-focused road trip. In fact, with some careful planning, cross-country travelers can enjoy a few free nights along these routes.


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages public land all across the country, and this public land is accessible for “dispersed camping” unless otherwise marked.


Staying on BLM land also provides access to a variety of free outdoor activities. For instance, some of the best free things to do in Moab, Utah (the gateway city to two national parks) are scenic hikes on nearby BLM land.


Cheap Places To Stay On A Cross-Country Road Trip

Government-controlled grounds in parks and public-use areas generally have fees below $50 per night

Tent camping in Yosemite Valley
Photo by Andrew Scofield on Unsplash

Tent camping in Yosemite Valley


Even for those looking for access to a proper bathroom during their road trip nights can save money by camping. State parks, national parks, and national forests almost always have campsites on their grounds, most of which are cheaper than stand-alone campsites.


The key to finding inexpensive campsites on a cross-country road trip is to research public lands and government-owned regions and avoid privately owned campgrounds like KOA campsites.


Lands managed by BLM, the National Park Service, or the region’s state are more likely to have campsites under $50 a night. These campsites may also have amenities like flushing toilets, showers, locked trash bins, and campfire rings for a more comfortable stay.


Even splurging on more maintained campgrounds, travelers on a cross-country road trip can keep their nightly accommodation expenses at or below $500 (for two weeks) by sticking to camping along the way.

Saving Money On Gas On A Cross-Country Road Trip

Filling up in states with lower gas taxes is a great way to save at the pump on a road trip

Cars on a freeway in California at sunset
Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

Cars on a freeway in California at sunset


Aside from where to stay, one of the other biggest budget-killers for a cross-country road trip is the gas tank. While the $500 budget only applies to the accommodations, cost-conscious travelers don’t want to blow their budget on gas and other necessities.


While it’s impossible to make hard promises about gas prices, there are certain trends that travelers can follow to relax sticker shock at the pump. For instance, those enjoying the many stops on a cross-country road trip on I-80 would do well to fill up in Sparks or Reno, Nevada instead of waiting until California to top off.


Since Nevada has lower gas taxes than its neighbor, simple, strategic planning about where to fill up can make a world of difference in the gas budget for a cross-country road trip.


Saving Money On National Parks On A Cross Country Road Trip

Free admission days and an America the Beautiful pass can greatly reduce money spent on entrance fees

National Park Service Fee Use Sign
Ian Dewar Photography / Shutterstock

National Park Service Fee Use Sign. The America the Beautiful Pass is one of the best ways to save money when visiting NPS sites and other government-managed lands, as the pass covers day-use fees and entrance fees to areas around the country. 


If the cross-country road trip includes visits to national parks, travelers have a couple of ways to save money on entrance fees. There are several free admission days to US national parks, many of which are centered on government vacations, making them a convenient time to plan a road trip.

Free Admission Days to All National Parks

  • April 20 (Beginning of National Park Week)
  • June 19 (Juneteenth)
  • August 4 (Great National Outdoors Day)
  • September 28 (National Public Lands Day)
  • November 11 (Veterans Day)


Those who can’t make one of these free admission days may consider investing in an America the Beautiful Pass before heading out. Instead of spending $10-$35 per vehicle to enter each park, America the Beautiful pass holders can spend $80 for unlimited access to any of the National Parks that charge entrance fees.


As a bonus, the pass covers not only the pass holder but their entire vehicle (up to six people) at parks that charge per vehicle. The pass also covers up to four guests at parks that charge per person. For road trip travelers on a budget, this pass is a quick way to save big bucks on some of America’s most iconic natural attractions.

America The Beautiful Pass

  • Annual Pass Cost: $80/pass
  • Which Lands Are Covered: National Park Service Lands, US Fish & Wildlife Service Lands, US Forest Service Lands, Bureau of Land Management Lands, Bureau of Reclamation Lands, US Army Corps of Engineers Lands

Seniors and those with a medically determined permanent disability can get additional discounts on their America the Beautiful Pass. Those with permanent disabilities can also get a
FREE Access Pass
, which gives a 50% discount on campsites and other add-on amenities like boat launches.


While taking a cross-country road trip for $500 or less will take plenty of planning, even with today’s inflation, it is possible. By taking advantage of free-to-use public lands, cheap public campsites, and other cost-saving strategies, a $500 cross-country road trip may be the perfect budget-friendly way to enjoy the wonders of the US.

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