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June 7, 2010


Budget Lodging Options In The USA


I set off on my motorcycle travels 41 days ago from Texas to Alaska and south to San Diego.  Aside from getting a motorcycle and setting it up I need a place to sleep each night, right?  Trust me, I need my sleep.  In order for me to keep my trip going for as long as possible I need to do this as cheaply as possible along the way.  I’ve broken the options down for places to stay into 7 categories.

  • National and State Park Campgrounds
  • Primitive Camps Within Parks
  • Business Campgrounds
  • Public Lands
  • Hotels/Motels
  • Hostels
  • Friends/Couchsurfing

You’d think that the more you pay, the more you get.  This is not always the case.  I’ve found that if you include your view and noise level then sometimes the less you pay, the more you get.  I’m going to rate each of these categories in 7 different areas.  The lists are from 5 stars to 0.  All of these are rated for tent camping.  RV’s will often be charged more, desire more services, and have less availability.  The categories are:

  • Location – how close is it to where you want to be
  • Price – Free – 5 stars, <$10 – 4 stars, <$20 – 3 stars, $40 – 2 stars, $60 – 1 star, >$60 I’ll pass
  • Availability – Whenever You Get There, Check In By Evening, Morning of,  Reservations req’d
  • Amenities – Chemical Toilets, Flush Toilets, Drinking Water, Showers, Electricity, wifi (One star per)
  • Friendliness – Dinner, beer, and a fire (it’s happened), Share A Bit, Say Hi, Be Ignored, Made Fun Of
  • View – From Gorgeous to Construction Zone (that’s happened too)
  • Noise Level – Can happen early or late

National and State Park Campgrounds – $10-$20/night, average $15

The biggest positives for these is their location and you that know where to find them.  Both price and amenities vary quite a bit and the two aren’t as connected as you’d expect.  The overriding factor for the price is popularity.  The availability and amenities are often a function of the remoteness and size of the park.

The most I’ve paid so far in this category is $18, but will be $20 it the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone.  So far I have spent 15 nights in this category.  However 4 of these nights have been free and 5 were split with Joe saving almost $100.  The four free nights were two at Chaco were the campground was full and the park ranger asked the campground host if I could stay on part of his site and the other two were in Echo Canyon at Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado where the rangers said they were charging, but hadn’t put out fee slips or the deposit box.

  • Location – 5 stars – that’s why you’re there
  • Price – 3 stars – $15 is a good average
  • Availability – 3-4 stars ranges from whenever you get there to be early at major sites
  • Amenities – 2-4 stars – toilets and drinking water are usually present, showers much less so, electricity is 50/50
  • Friendliness – 3-5 stars – people are happy to be there and I was treated like a king at one earlier this week
  • View – 2 stars – they usually don’t put the campgrounds in the prettiest place
  • Noise Level – 3 stars – good generator rules/enforcement and fewer RVs in general due to lack of dump stations

Primitive Camps Within Parks –  less than $10/night, average $5

These are often a little bit out of the way and always will have fewer services than the main park sites.  I’ve stayed in 4 of these ranging in price from $10 for a permit up to 14 days to $2 for a night.

  • Location – 4 stars – good, but not always perfect
  • Price – 4 stars – $5/night is typical
  • Availability – 5 stars – readily available in all but the biggest parks
  • Amenities – 1 star – maybe a chemical toilet, usually dig your own and bring water
  • Friendliness – n/a – you better like who you’re with
  • View – 3-5 stars – varies greatly
  • Noise Level – 5 stars – you’ve got elbow room
Makes You Feel Small


Makes You Feel Small


Business Campgrounds – $10-25/night, average $20

Places such as KOA and other non-chain business campgrounds are found outside of parks and in a huge number of cities.  The biggest pluses are their amenities and access to local businesses.  I have stayed in these 5 nights, 3 of which were my first three, and averaged $15 due to one only be $10/night for two nights.  The night I rode till 10:30 I was thrilled to find the one I did and didn’t even mind the construction 10 feet from my head the next morning.

  • Location – 2 stars – usually a transfer point to get you to the next night
  • Price – 2-3 stars – Around $20 is the norm
  • Availability – 4 stars – can be much lower for RVs. Tent areas are limited, but not usually full
  • Amenities – 4-5 stars – usually have it all, may charge additional for a shower
  • Friendliness – 2 stars – easy to bond with other tent campers the rest is chance
  • View – 1 stars – not why you’re there
  • Noise Level – 1-2 stars – frequently crowded and busy

Public Lands – Free, may require a permit

These are quickly becoming my favorite.  You give up a little, in the case of a chemical toilet very little, and gain a lot – no cost, incredible views, little to no noise, and always available.  I’m at 10 nights here including half of the last two weeks.

The places to look for National Forests, BLM land, or Recreation Areas which are mainly found in the western part of the US.  These sites will sometimes also have semi-developed sites for $5-$20/night.  For instance last night I went 1/2 mile past the campground and had a site overlooking it for free since I don’t need a pad to put my tent on.

  • Location – 2-3 stars – often a way to break up a long drive or stay outside of an expensive park
  • Price – 5 stars – tough to beat free
  • Availability – 5 stars – go to Visitor/Welcome centers to ask about where this is possible
  • Amenities – 0 stars – bring it all with you
  • Friendliness – n/a – once again like who you’re with
  • View – 4-5 stars – Get a recommendation from the visitor center, they know the best spots
  • Noise Level – 4-5 stars – you, the stars, and your thoughts, ok and anyone else you bring

Hotels/Motels – average $45/night for me

You’ve been to them before so I’m not telling you anything new.  I’ve stayed in hotels twice, both times for two nights each time mainly working on blog updates.  The biggest upside is if you need to get out of the elements and want all of the amenities.  I’m trying to eliminate these and use libraries for wifi.

  • Location – 2 stars – amenities are the draw
  • Price – 1 star – I’m trying to keep it under $50/night
  • Availability – 4 stars – would have said 5 until Tuba City
  • Amenities – 5 stars – even a dive has more than a campground
  • Friendliness – 1 star – maybe you’ll chat if they have a free breakfast
  • View – 1 stars – not why you’re there
  • Noise Level – 2 stars – frequently crowded and busy

Hostels $20/night for dorm, $35/night for a private room

I’ve stayed in one on this trip for $15 in Sandia NM, down from $20 since they were in the middle of moving around and I was on a cot.   I also saw a sign for one in Moab, but didn’t go.  Finding them is only possible in a few places.

  • Location – 2 stars – hard to find
  • Price – 2-3 stars – the more they have the more you’ll pay
  • Availability – 3-5 stars – when you find one, it will probably have space
  • Amenities – 4-5 stars – should have everything but wifi at a minimum
  • Friendliness – 3-5 stars – if it’s empty like mine at least the owners are friendly, busy ones are great places to make friends
  • View – 1-2 stars – not why you’re there
  • Noise Level – 1-2 stars – not their highpoint

Friends/Couchsurfing – Free, but bring booze or a gift

I still haven’t couched surfed and don’t know if it will happen on the US part of my trip.  So far there have been two nights with friends with a few more probably coming near Missoula.  Once I’m on the west coast heading south this may pick up.

  • Location – 2-3 stars – out of your way more often than not, though it can be a destination in itself
  • Price – 5 stars – be a good guest and help out where you can, you’ll still come out ahead
  • Availability – 4 stars – a friend will usually make room, or you need a new friend
  • Amenities – 5 stars – everything you don’t have on the road
  • Friendliness – 5 stars – at least I hope so
  • View – 1-2 stars – not why you’re there, though you can get good local advice
  • Noise Level – 1-2 stars – you can go back to sleep after they go to work 😉

I admit I haven’t kept exact records of what each place has cost, however I was able to tick through all 41 without missing a night in my head when I went to write this post.  My estimation is that I’ve spent $410 on lodging for those 41 nights, or $10/night.  Not bad at all especially with 4 nights in a hotel.  Without my saving at the Parks from not getting charged and splitting sites with Joe it would be $12.40/night, still below the $15/night I hoped to be able to meet.

I know that my next few nights are going to $20 each in the Grand Tetons.  I think I can make up little blips like that to stay around $10/night.  Right now I really don’t have a desire to get back into a hotel, hopefully it stays that way.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Marsh
    Jun 8 2010

    Sounds like you got a hold of Sadie? Give her a big hug for me!

  2. Jun 17 2010

    The public lands option seems so poetic and isolating. I bet you really get a sense for a place when you are the only one around and you can’t hear a soul.

  3. Aug 8 2010

    Great pictures from great adventures. Hope to see more 🙂


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