Cheap holidays in America: how to cut costs

By Donna Dailey

Though the pound is reasonably strong against the dollar, America isn’t always the bargain it used to be. How can you cut your travel costs on the other side of the pond? With a little online research before you go, these tips can put more serious savings in your pocket. See my full guide to holidays in America.


Airport Transfers: Only a few US cities have good public transport links directly from the airport. To avoid expensive taxi fares, use a local airport shuttle service. These are typically mini-vans that carry 10-12 passengers, plus luggage. The shared cost for a single traveller or couple is usually cheaper than a taxi, with no fare surprises. For example, SuperShuttle is a nationwide chain that operates at many major airports. The fare from JFK Airport to downtown Manhattan can be as little as $20, and they pick up and drop off directly at your hotel or a residential address. Information on local shuttle services can be found on your destination airport’s website.

Car Hire: If you’re planning to hire a car during your trip, it’s best to book it from the UK. Unlike with most UK car hire packages, American car rental firms do not include full Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) coverage in their rates, and sell it as a separate add-on. This normally costs as much or more per day than the car itself. So while the initial US quote may seem inexpensive, the cost of the insurance can double the final rate you end up paying.

Petrol: While petrol is comparatively cheaper in the USA, the cost has soared in recent years. Petrol prices can vary widely from state to state, and within the same city or region. A half-mile detour off the motorway can often make a big difference. Our favourite petrol-saving tip is, which also offers a free app for your mobile devices. Key in your location, and it gives you a run-down of current gas prices at local petrol stations, enabling you to find the cheapest one near you.

Eating out

Breakfast: The morning fry-up we’ve come to expect in the UK isn’t standard at US hotels. Although many budget and mid-range chains offer a complimentary breakfast, it’s often a basic coffee-and-packaged-pastries affair. In upmarket hotels, breakfast is seldom included in the rate and can be pricey. Instead, look for local cafes where the diner-style breakfasts can’t be beat. Inexpensive restaurant chains with great breakfast menus include Denny’s, Waffle House and IHOP (International House of Pancakes).

Lunch: If your stomach’s desire is a meal at a top restaurant but your budget won’t quite stretch, consider dining at lunchtime instead. Many chefs offer a prix fixe menu that lets you sample their dishes at a fraction of the evening price.

Dinner: Portions are often huge in the US, and you can save money by skipping or sharing a starter. Most restaurants will let you share a plate, though some will add a surcharge for sharing a main course. Americans tend to eat early, and some restaurants offer discount menus for dining between 4.30 and 6.30pm. These range from early-bird specials at casual eateries to serious restaurants looking to fill tables during slow hours with cut-price dishes. Restaurant Weeks have proved so popular in New York, Denver, Los Angeles and other cities that they’re offered more than once a year. Time your visit for one of these events, and you can enjoy set-price menus at a range of top restaurants. Check out city tourism website for details.

Discounts and freebies

Attractions: Sightseeing costs can quickly add up, so plan ahead to take advantage of discounts and special offers. Many city museums offer free admission during certain hours on one day of the week/month. Most have reduced admission for kids and students, but there are also discounts for seniors. In America, these can start as young as age 50 or 55, so have your ID handy. (Some chain restaurants offer senior discounts too.) Military personnel also enjoy discounts at many venues.

Passes: Many major cities offer sightseeing passes such as CityPASS. These bundle a number of top attractions and offer a significant reduction over separate admission fees. You often get priority access and queue-cutting privileges too. Check the city’s visitor website to see which passes might suit your interests and time frame. Theme parks, zoos and the like usually offer family tickets. Some passes offer further reductions for booking in advance online. If you’re planning to visit several US National Parks, consider buying an annual pass. It covers all passengers in your vehicle, and with park entrance fees ranging from $10 – $25, it soon adds up.

Entertainment: There’s a wealth of free entertainment across America, ranging from book fairs to arts, crafts and cultural events. From spring through autumn, you can find free music festivals almost everywhere. These laid-back events are a great way to experience the local scene. Many bars and restaurants also feature live music with no cover charge. Again, search for these on tourist board websites.

Shopping: Sprawling outlet malls and year-round department store sales offer fantastic bargains on clothes, accessories, electronics and more. A surprising exception is books, with literary bestsellers in particular being cheaper in the UK. Necessities such as sun cream, toiletries and over-the-counter medicines are generally cheaper at Walmart and other chains. Be sure to bring all prescription medicines with you, however, as these are horrendously expensive in the US and may be hard to obtain. And remember that across the US, sales tax of between 6 and 10 percent is added to most items (including restaurant meals) at check-out.

Before you book

Travel guidelines and advice are changing constantly amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Check the latest travel restrictions for UK residents.