11 ways to save money on a U.S. road trip

At the moment, the Canadian-U.S. dollar exchange rate is, to put it mildly, atrocious. You’ll need to shell out about $1.25 Canadian to get one greenback. However, if you have your heart set on an American road trip, you should be able to head south of the border this year without breaking the bank—with a bit of savvy planning. Here are 11 ways to keep your budget in check.

Don’t go far

Snow-capped mountains behind the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods NH, about five hours from Ottawa. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

Snow-capped mountains behind the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods NH, about five hours from Ottawa. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

You don’t have to drive all the way to Florida to get a serious change of scene. Within a half-day’s drive, you can be…

  • hiking though mountains in New Hampshire
  • touring vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes
  • sampling ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont

Within a day’s drive, you can be…

  • enjoying a Broadway show in New York City
  • building sandcastles on the beach in Maine
  • following the Freedom Trail in Boston
  • enjoying summer classical music concerts in the Berkshires

Volunteer

Volunteers planting trees near St. Louis, Missouri. Flickr/Creative Commons photo by  USFWSmidwest.

Volunteers planting trees near St. Louis, Missouri. Flickr/Creative Commons photo by USFWSmidwest.

“Voluntourism” isn’t just for long-distance trips. Organizations all over North America are eagerly looking for folks to maintain hiking trails, clean up shorelines, band birds, help at festivals…the list is endless. Here are just two examples.

  • Sierra Club: This year, you could spend a week on Martha’s Vineyard, including meals and hostel accommodation, for US$715, in exchange for working on a farm. Or here’s an even better deal: a week in Manhattan for $595, during which you’ll help restore Riverside Park.
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF): In exchange for farm work, you’ll receive free room and board in some pretty scenic locations. Many farms also welcome kids and pets. There are 271 WWOOF members in New England, New York and Pennsylvania alone, including three just across the St. Lawrence River from Prescott. (As the name implies, this is an international group; here’s the global site.)

Tip: The organizations above are well respected, but some other “voluntourism” projects have run into criticism, particularly in developing countries. GoVoluntouring provides some useful guidance on the questions you should ask and the due diligence you should do before signing up for a volunteer trip.

Work those points

Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

You know all those affinity card points you’ve been accumulating? Whether they are with your credit card company, a hotel chain, AirMiles or some other plan, you may be able to use them to book hotel rooms, meals and other travel goodies.

Use coupons

As soon as you cross the border, you’ll likely see a tourist information office. Don’t drive by. Stop and peruse the racks of brochures. You’ll almost always find coupon booklets or other discount deals.

The Toronto Star published this useful roundup of travel coupon sites a few years ago; they all still work.

CityPass sells coupon books for a number of major cities. Yeah, you have to pay for them, but you may save more than you paid, if you’re staying a few days.

Travel in shoulder seasons


I just got back from New Hampshire, where it is currently shoulder season. (“Shoulder season” is travel industry-speak for seasons less popular than “high season” but not as dead as “low season.”) Skiing is just about over, summer attractions haven’t opened yet and fall colours are months away. However, there’s still lots to do: I explored a sugar bush, shopped and dined in North Conway, and visited two great museums in Manchester. Nothing was crowded, but here’s the best part: accommodation prices were great. At the Kearsage Inn in North Conway, I stayed in Room 8 (see video above), which featured a four-poster bed, a fainting couch, a TV and enough floor space to hold a small dance recital, and which is available in shoulder season for as little as US$79 a night.

Consider filling up in the U.S.

Even with the exchange rate, gas can be significantly cheaper in the States. On that New Hampshire trip, I filled up for US$2.21 a gallon at one station. To convert U.S. prices per litre to Canadian prices per gallon, multiply the price by the exchange rate (1.25 when I was in the U.S.), then divide it by 3.79 to get litres. For example:

US$2.21 × 1.25 = C$2.76

C$2.76 ÷ 3.79 = C$0.73 a litre

But fuel isn’t such a deal everywhere in the U.S. Check a site like Gas Buddy before heading out, then make a plan.

Raise funds


If you like active vacations, consider signing up for a fundraising marathon or bike ride. In exchange for the money you raise, you’ll get lots of support for your run or ride, which may include meals and a place to sleep (depending on the length of the event). Plus, you’ll enjoy the feeling of contributing to a good cause.

I did a fundraising ride across Prince Edward Island years ago (sadly, it is no longer run), and I spent four days cycling the island’s bike-only trail as part of a group raising money for a local hospital. Along the way, we were billetted in volunteers’ homes, and enjoyed home-cooked meals and ceilidhs in community halls. It was one of my favourite trips ever.

Calendars of charity walks, runs and rides abound online; try the USA Charity Marathon Calendar, The Walking Site or Map My Ride as starting points. Charity Bicycle Ride focuses solely on events in New England.

Watch for discounts

Most tourism bureaus publish links to discounts on their websites. Just to give you an idea of what is available, check out the links from the tourism offices of New York City, New York state, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Take advantage of group buying

Group-buying sites like WagJag and Groupon often offer deals on travel. Just be sure to read the fine print to make sure the deal applies to the dates you plan to travel.

Spend the Canadian dollar at par

Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Rick.

Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Rick.

U.S. businesses close to the Canadian border rely on Canuck business, as a recent Vermont article explains. As a result, many of them will probably be offering “Canadian dollar at par” deals or other discounts this year, particularly in the spring, fall and on weekdays.

Since they’re often offered by small, independent businesses, these deals can be hard to find. Try Googling “Canadian dollar at par” along with the name of your destination and see what pops up. Or contact local tourism bureaus; they may keep a current list of discounts.

Split your trip across the border

Flickr/Creative Commons photo of the Thousand Islands Bridge by LongitudeLatitude.

Flickr/Creative Commons photo of the Thousand Islands Bridge by LongitudeLatitude.

This would be a great year to plan two trips in one. Instead of spending a whole week in Maine, for instance, you could spend half the week in Maine, and the other half in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. Other ideas: Kingston dovetails nicely with a trip to upstate New York, and the Eastern Townships and Vermont are a great combination.

Disclosure: On my recent trip to New Hampshire, I travelled with partial support from the New Hampshire Office of Travel and Tourism Development, which neither reviewed nor approved this post.

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One Response to 11 ways to save money on a U.S. road trip

  1. J April 14, 2015 at 10:59 am #

    and just 1 and half hours away—cross at Prescott —

    http://www.potsdam.ny.us/

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