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Tips for a southwest USA road trip on a budget

Vintage US numberplates on a road trip stop

The American southwest is one of the classic road trip destinations. You’ve got National Parks, Wild West landscapes, Native American history and Route 66 roadside kitsch – all along the roads that criss-cross the states of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. And on our two-week road trip we tried to soak up as much of it as we possibly could, covering about 2500 miles worth of the southwest’s tarmac while trying not to blow the budget on the way. This area’s got plenty of natural attractions that don’t cost much to see, but we also picked up a few tips on how to save money on the road, as well as some general tips which will hopefully help you get the most out of a southwest USA road trip.

Welcome to Utah sign on a US roadtrip

On the road at the Utah-Arizona border

Don’t try and do too much

The great thing about doing a road trip is that you can see so much, but it’s easy to overdo it and end up spending your whole time in the car. The US’s huge size means you’d need years to see it all. We tried to limit the number of long driving days so we were generally doing 200 rather than 500 miles in a day. There were a couple of seven-hour driving days, but they were followed by at least two nights in one place afterwards. Mostly we tried to stay multiple nights in each place so we weren’t constantly packing up every day and actually got to see a bit of the places we stopped at.

Don’t always follow the GPS

Not being known for our sense of direction (and after the Jordan incident) we used a GPS, downloading maps onto our UK Garmin which was cheaper than hiring one from the car rental place. It was incredibly useful in big cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. But outside that it’s worth doing your own route planning as the GPS will usually take you the quickest, not the most interesting, route. Guidebooks and blogs are great for suggesting scenic routes or interesting stops along the way.

Allow extra time

If the GPS said three hours, we allowed four. Although most of the time our journeys went to plan, we did hit a couple of snags like roadworks, thunderstorms and on one occasion the traffic being stopped to let a huge paddle-steamer being carried on a truck go past. We didn’t want to be arriving into a new town in the dark so aimed to arrive around 3pm when check-in opened. One thing to beware of is the time differences in the southwest. All states except Nevada use Mountain Standard Time (GMT -7) but Arizona doesn’t use daylight savings in summer so was an hour behind the others.

Oversized load on a southwest US road trip

Yep that is a paddle-steamer on a truck in the middle of the desert

Mix it up a bit

The southwest is known for it’s amazing natural beauty, but after days of nothing but National Parks and scenic drives you can get a bit blasé about yet more gorgeous scenery. So we tried to mix up the itinerary a bit with a few different experiences, like volunteering at an animal sanctuary, going wine tasting and visiting quirky attractions like a museum of old Western film sets.

Book in advance

Some places it’s easy enough to just arrive in town and find a room for the night. But the southwest can get really busy, especially at weekends, so you take the chance of either not finding somewhere or having to pay up for a really expensive room. We booked in advance but still struggled to find good places to stay in Moab and Sedona within our budget, even a month ahead. So even if you don’t want to book ahead it’s worth checking out prices and availability before you go to get an idea.

Look for accommodation with extras

With so many hotels competing for business you can often get extras thrown in for free. Outside of Las Vegas, everywhere we stayed had free wifi, but you can also get a lot more. One hotel offered free international phone calls, another had a $1 guest laundry, one gave us a glass of wine on arrival and a couple had free breakfasts or afternoon cookies.

Vintage US numberplates on a road trip stop

Vintage US car number plates

Buy a cooler

You can pick up a small cooler for $15 from CVS or Walmart, or we got a foil-lined bag with our shopping from Whole Foods for a couple of dollars. If you have freezer blocks then most hotels have fridges with freezer compartments where you can refreeze them. Otherwise there are usually ice machines or ice bags available – I read a clever tip about putting a sponge in your bag of ice so that when it melts the sponge soaks up the water and stops it leaking out.

Stock up at the supermarket

Having a cooler means you can buy drinks, snacks and make your own picnic lunches to save eating out twice a day. I also bought some porridge sachets and teabags I could make my own breakfast where it wasn’t provided. Everywhere we stayed had a microwave (though nowhere had a kettle so I usually ended up microwaving water to make tea!). There were Albertsons and City Market supermarkets in most big towns and petrol stations selling drinks, milk etc everywhere else.

Cook your own food

Hotels/motels aren’t the only accommodation option. We also stayed in a couple of rental places – an Airbnb studio in Taos and a cabin near Durango. Both had full kitchens with hobs and ovens, so we could cook our own meals (much needed after a week of American-style portion sizes!). Even if you don’t have a kitchen then you can always get a takeaway for a break from eating out, we found some good salad bars in health food stores and every town seems to have at least one pizza place.

Hole N The Rock outside Moab on a US roadtrip

Quirky attractions on the road – a house carved into a rock face outside Moab

Bulk buy water

The most environmentally friendly way to stay hydrated would be to buy a refillable water bottle and top it up, but otherwise you can pick up a slab of 36 small water bottles for about $5 at supermarkets. We kept them in the shade in the boot of the car and put a few at a time into the cooler. Even in April the air was so dry you need to keep drinking constantly to stop you getting dehydrated.

Invest in a National Parks Pass

If you’re planning on visiting a few National Parks then it’s worth buying an America the Beautiful Pass. The pass covers the whole car, however many people are in it, and costs $80. Each park charges $10–$25 so it can be a decent saving. You can put two names on the pass too so you can always share it if you know someone else who is visiting the US in the same year.

Views on the road on a southwest US road trip

Some of the stunning scenery on our southwest road trip route

So those are my top southwest USA road trip tips – do you have any other suggestions for trip planning and saving money on the road?

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Tips for a southest USA road trip on a budget

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41 Comments

  • Reply
    Suze
    May 15, 2013 at 10:43 am

    A great post. A trip along the Route 66 is my dream! We usually stay a couple days in a city before moving on to the next! Great pictures. Especially the vintage license plates. I collect them myself 😉

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 15, 2013 at 11:39 am

      Thanks, I was so glad to be taking it at a relatively slow pace, we got to explore each place a bit more and felt like we’d had a holiday at the end rather than needing a rest! This stretch of Route 66 was a bit of a disappointment as most of it is along the Interstate now but there are a few patches where you get the feel of what it must have been like.

  • Reply
    KaZ
    May 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Great tips and awesome pictures! The puffy clouds look wonderful.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      That was a really gorgeous afternoon, you wouldn’t believe that there had been a huge rainstorm an hour before!

  • Reply
    Melanie
    May 15, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Reblogged this on travelertobe and commented:
    looking forward to have my own road trip one day !

  • Reply
    Laura
    May 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Great post! I’m from the US and while I’ve traveled a bunch abroad, there are huge chunks of my own country that I haven’t visited, like the southwest. Seeing all your posts is reminding me that I need to make it a priority to explore my own country more!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 15, 2013 at 2:40 pm

      I’m the same with the UK, visitors coming here always seem to see way more of it than I ever have, and I don’t even have the excuse of it being a huge country! I guess it’s easy to think that you can travel around your own country at any time, but hope you do get to see the southwest soon.

  • Reply
    Stephen
    May 15, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I always enjoy riding my motorcycle through all the deserts down there, great article!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      I saw quite a few people on motorbikes, must be a great way to get around as you’re not so shut off as you are in a car.

  • Reply
    f-stop mama
    May 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks for the tips! I will need these next year when we go on our trek across the western US after my son graduates high school.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 16, 2013 at 6:58 pm

      Sounds like you’re going to have an amazing trip, I could’ve easily just kept on going for a few more months!

  • Reply
    reemasathe
    May 16, 2013 at 4:24 am

    great post! the pictures are really inviting, inspires to go on a road trip right away 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 16, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks, I was constantly wowed by the views we got just looking out of the car windows in this area!

      • Reply
        reemasathe
        May 17, 2013 at 3:50 am

        Yup, it looks like the pictures I drool over in lonely planet 😀

  • Reply
    dearj1diary
    May 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Reblogged this on The J1 Diary and commented:
    Could be useful guys!

  • Reply
    wildtrekker
    May 21, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Love your blog and following the places you go. I live in LA mostly but have a small shack in Taos I go back and forth to so I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in the southwest. More often than not it’s just a straight shot on I 40 so I love your photos and remembering how much great landscape is out there. One tip for those looking for budget accommodations in the southwest is Motel 6, they have them in almost every town along the route and they are very cheap (really cheap in some towns). You can book the next one down the road usually on the morning you left the last one. And they have a book of all their properties in the US that you can carry with you. Free wi-fi, morning coffee, etc.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 22, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Thanks, there are some great driving routes around Taos, we didn’t have long there but such a beautiful landscape. Good tip re the Motel 6 chain too, I saw lots of them around and sounds like they’re good value.

  • Reply
    The Travelbunny
    May 23, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Great tips Lucy – hopefully I’ll be able to put them to good use one day 🙂

  • Reply
    Rachael
    May 30, 2013 at 10:54 am

    All excellent tips and entirely consistent with our own experience. I find it really helps to be always thinking that I can come back one day, so that I don’t end up rushing to see everything and in fact seeing nothing! Of course, as one ages, it becomes harder to convince oneself that there will be another trip. But I do it anyway 😉

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 31, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      I definitely agree, it’s tempting to think you must cram everything into the one trip but it can get exhausting and turn sightseeing into a bit of a chore. There’s lots of places I’d like to go back to but it’s hard to balance with wanting to see new places too!

  • Reply
    Rachael
    May 30, 2013 at 10:54 am

    PS. Love those number plate shots especially.

  • Reply
    Freya
    June 5, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Great tips and awesome photos. I always intend to cook myself but most of the time it turns out differently, so I still need to work on that one.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      Yes that does tend to happen more in theory than in practice! It’s a lot easier if you’re staying in one place for a couple of nights but after a long driving day cooking is usually the last thing you want to do.

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  • Reply
    Vilhelmas
    August 26, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Hi Lucy,
    Great post! Thank you for sharing.
    My better half and I are heading that way towards the end of this year for a few weeks and I was wondering if you could give me rough idea of the budget needed for let say two weeks same travel style? Like car rental, petrol cost, possibly average daily budget for food etc. would be great.
    Thank you and keep up the good work..:)

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 29, 2013 at 11:23 am

      Hi, I have had a few people ask about costs so will be putting together a post about what I spent on my trip – hopefully should have it up in the next week or so.

  • Reply
    Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
    December 31, 2013 at 9:10 am

    WOW! I wish I could have met you while you were here! I’m from New Mexico and live on the Navajo Reservation. There’s so much more to see and I hope you get to travel back again.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      January 1, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      That would’ve been fantastic! We only dipped into New Mexico briefly on this trip but I’d definitely like to go back and see more of the state sometime.

  • Reply
    Neil Mitchell
    January 1, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Hi Lucy. Such an interesting blog with some handy tips. We are going in Aug 15 for 3 weeks, and have already noted some of your ideas. I’m a great fan of the open road in the States, but the SW Is new to me, but some of your itinerary is on my wish list too. August not really the ideal time to visit, but my wife is a teacher, so I’ve no option. Never though to get a cooler, but makes a lot of sense. Hope to see for myself some of those scenes which you so beautifully photographed. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      January 2, 2015 at 1:25 pm

      Thanks Neil, hope you have a fantastic trip – it was one of my favourites from recent years and I really loved the southwest, such stunning landscapes and so much to see. Hope it’s not too hot for you!

  • Reply
    Josh Looman
    February 11, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    Do you mind me asking the dates you guys went? I’m planning on heading out there in the middle of April and was wondering about the weather you encountered.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 13, 2015 at 12:47 pm

      Not at all – we were there in mid-April too (13th-28th). The weather was generally sunny the whole time, though the temperatures varied a lot – some of the parks are at high altitude so were very cold at night and we even passed some snow up in the mountains in New Mexico. I’d advise packing lots of layers, it gets warm in the sun and cold in the shade. Good time of year if you are hiking though as it’s not too hot. Have a great trip.

  • Reply
    Sarah George
    September 2, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Just discovered this blog accidentally while looking up the Malmaison in Oxford, but LOVE all your posts on Arizona. I just came back from that part of the world, where I spent 6 months working on cattle ranches. Was such an amazing experience but I didn’t see much beyond the ranches themselves. Would love to go on a road trip and discover more of Arizona. LOVE that photo of a paddle boat on a truck, how amazing is that! And hole in the rock is awesome. Gonna stalk this blog now 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 2, 2016 at 8:36 pm

      Thanks so much, I just loved that trip around Arizona and the southwest, those landscapes were just amazing (and the odd crazy boats on trucks!). Must’ve been a great experience working on a ranch too!

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