Backpacking United States Travel Guide: Activities, Costs, & Ways to Save

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sunset over the Grand Canyon, United States

The United States isn’t a popular destination for backpackers and budget travelers.

Most people just come here for a short vacation and to visit one or two cities.

After all, it’s a large country without a real tourist infrastructure or good cross-country transportation. Hostels really aren’t big in the United States, trains don’t go a lot of places, and we don’t offer working holiday visas.

However, the United States is a country that demands more time.

There are lots of national parks, a diverse geography, culture, music, and great regional food.

Rent a car and drive around. Take some cross-country tours. While the coastal cities are mind-blowing, the U.S. really reveals itself in the middle.

I’ve done multiplemassive road trips across the United States and I can tell you that this country amazing, diverse, friendly, and inexpensive.

This travel guide can help you navigate the country, learn how to backpack the USA, save money, get off the beaten path, and experience the best the states has to offer!

Click Here for City Guides


United States of America

Top 5 Things to See and Do in the United States

1. New York City

The city that never sleeps is one of the most amazing cities in the world. There’s nothing you can’t do or see here. From amazing museums and art galleries to theater to restaurants to Central Park, everything about New York is amazing. It’s big, crowded, and fast-paced but also full of little neighborhood shops and character.

2. Visit the Grand Canyon

Words can’t accurately describe how great the Grand Canyon is. It’s breathtaking in all ways. Make sure you hike down the bottom. Most people just look out at the canyon but it’s vast size and beauty is best appreciated with a hike down to the Colorado river.

3. Austin

The warm weather, the lively honky-tonks and live music, funky house bars on Rainey Street, amazing hiking and biking trails, and tons of outdoor activities – Austin has it all. It’s one of the best cities in the US with a combination of nature, city, and great food. I’m proud to call the city home!

4. Visit Glacier National Park

Gorgeous snow-topped mountains rising high into the sky; a beautiful, still lake in which to admire those mountains and large glaciers; and hiking trails galore. It was the most mind-blowing place I saw on my trip, and I can understand why everyone raves about it. I can’t recommend a visit there enough.

5. Dive the Pacific Coastal Drive

The drive up the Pacific Coast is considered one of the most scenic in the world. I have to agree. It’s incredible: sheer cliffs, forests descending to the shoreline, miles of beaches, and giant redwoods. Be prepared to make slow progress as you’ll be pulling over frequently to stop, hike, and admire the view. I especially liked Bandon and Coos Bay, Oregon and Mendocino, California.

Other Things to See and Do in the United States

1. Memphis

Gritty, industrial, and a bit run down, Memphis appears like its best days are behind it, but don’t let the rough exterior fool you — the city is still home to some killer food and a vibrant blues music scene. Additionally, there’s Graceland (Elvis’s home) for fans of the King, a big waterfront for walking, and the phenomenal, detailed, and moving Museum of Civil Rights (it’s huge, so don’t rush it!). I enjoyed the city more than I expected and was disappointed when I had to leave. To use a cliché, it’s a hidden gem!

2. Asheville

Asheville is Portland in the North Carolina mountains: full of tasty craft beer, food, and hipsters. I liked the area a lot, including its proximity to some wonderful and scenic mountain hikes such as the Carolina Mountain Trail. Moreover, the town has a lot of parks for those wanting something closer — and be sure to check out the Ashville Botanical Gardens near the university campus. The beautiful Smoky Mountains are a short drive away, and the gigantic Biltmore estate, the largest privately owned home in the US and once home to George Vanderbilt, is on the outskirts of the city. If you’ve ever seen Downton Abbey, that’s what the house is like! (And, if you haven’t, you should! The show is addicting!)

3. Explore Redwood National Park

Along the Pacific Coast is Redwood National Park, a large expanse of giant redwood trees filled with picnic areas, places to camp, and miles upon miles of hiking trails. Trails range from easy to strenuous, and there are many loops that head out to nearby beaches. It’s utterly beautiful, awe-inspiring, and humbling in every way.

4. Denver

The mile-high city (not least because marijuana is legal there), Denver has a mix of outdoor ruggedness and big-city living. It has a huge craft beer scene, excellent restaurants (including, Sushi Sasa, one of my favorite sushi restaurants in the world), a large international airport with lots of connections, and proximity to the mountains (and the Republic of Boulder). It’s clean, and the locals are incredibly friendly. There are few cities in the US I want to live in, but I love Denver enough to say that it’s one of them.

5. Get off-the-beaten-path in Natchez

I was most surprised by this Mississippi city. I didn’t know anything about it, but Natchez was recommended as a place to see historic 19th-century homes, built by isolated plantation owners wanting to get away in the summer and interact and socialize with each other. As cotton became king, the houses became ever larger and more elaborate. Now, they are historic monuments, and you can tour them while enjoying a view of the Mississippi River. It’s far off the beaten path — and my favorite discovery from my last road trip.

6. Visit surreal Savannah

Sitting on Georgia’s coast, Savannah escaped the wrath of the Civil War, allegedly because Sherman thought it was too pretty to be destroyed. With streets lined with Spanish moss–covered trees, large and inviting parks, and a bustling waterfront, Savannah is a wonderful place to experience the slow pace of the Old South. I had visited this city many, many years ago, but its beauty, Southern comfort food, and tranquility stuck with me over the years.

7. Dive into Nashville’s music scene

A little bit country, a little bit tech, Nashville is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US and rightly so. It’s got a wonderful music scene (duh), a growing cocktail bar scene, and some down-home Southern restaurants. There’s not a lot of “touristy stuff” to do here, but what make this city one of my favorites are the music, the food, the wildly friendly and happy people, and the positive energy the city seems to exude. When you’re here, plan to spend a few hours at the Tennessee State Museum. It goes into great (though sometimes very one-sided) detail about the state’s history, but it’s more exciting than you might think.

8. Sunny San Diego

Forever warm and sunny, San Diego’s weather creates a permanently happy population that’s friendly and outgoing and that loves the outdoors – from hiking, days at the beach, or running…and they are always happy to show people their city. The downtown Gaslamp area — as well as the famous Pacific Beach — is full of trendy seafood restaurants, bustling bars, and some seriously life-changing taco stalls. I love San Diego.

9. California Wine Country

California is home to some of the best wine in the world, and a visit to the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions will reward you with some fine dining in addition to the wine. Take the short trip from San Francisco and learn to appreciate wine! Tip: Sonoma is cheaper than Napa.

10. Hike around Lake Tahoe

Though the water level of the lake, as well as the flora and fauna around it, is sadly depleted due to the California drought, Lake Tahoe is still nonetheless impressive and beautiful. Ringed by tiny mountain communities, this is a terrific place for hiking and boating in the summer and skiing in the winter.

11. Anywhere in Montana

A lot has been written about how stunning Montana is, but it’s all wrong. It’s even better than words can describe. It’s the most crazy-beautiful state I’ve ever been to, filled with wondrous mountains and hills as far as the eye can see. The people are super cool, welcoming, and outdoorsy, too. If I had to pick a favorite state, it would be Montana. I just love Montana.

12. Relax in Cape Cod

I spent a lot of summers on the Cape since it’s where New Englanders escape for the summer. You’ll find plenty of small beach towns along the coast (Provincetown and Hyannis being the most famous but I also love Chatham, Falmouth, Wellfleet, and Brewster). If you’re looking for seafood, beaches, boardwalks, and hat perfect family vacation, visit the Cape!

13. Explore Deadwood

Tucked away in western South Dakota, this town was famous during the Old West days, noteworthy enough to be the focus of an HBO series. Sort of kitschy and re-created, it’s nonetheless a very cool place where you can experience a taste of the old frontier days. It’s also conveniently located near the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.

14. Be surprised by Kansas City

I really loved this city, which features some of the world’s best BBQ, a lively downtown, and cutting-edge technology like Google Fiber. There’s also a detailed and enlightening jazz museum here, as well as the eye-opening Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (that’s the actual name; I’m not being racist). I wish I could have spent more time, but that’s just more reason to come back.

15. Stay weird in Portland

Portland is incredible. I would move there if it had a bigger airport with better connections. Here you’ll find an impressive food truck scene, cool bespoke bars and cocktail lounges, a craft beer scene that’s religion to residents, relaxing parks (including a peaceful Japanese garden), a vibrant art scene, and hiking in the nearby mountains. Portland is just an awesome city, especially in the summer when the weather is perfect and there are festivals and events galore, like the World Domination Summit and the Portland International Beerfest.

16. Hike our national parks

America has thousands of national parks. These parks highlight the best of the American wilderness. Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, the Smokey Mountains, Rocky Mountain Park, the Badlands – the list goes on and on and on. Make sure you visit as many national parks as you can to get a sense of the grand and diverse landscape that is the United States.

17. Chicago

One of my favorite cities in the world, Chicago is full of amazing architecture, great parks, good food, and great nightlife. It’s a tamer version of New York and even more pretty. (The Chicago-style of architecture is world famous!)

18. Mardi Gras and jazz in New Orleans

Finally recovering from Hurricane Katrina, this French-influenced city has great food and even better music. A must for any jazz or blues fan. If you plan on celebrating Mardi Gras here, book early. Hotels fill up.

19. Hang out in Hawaii

Closer to Asia than the United States, Hawaii is America’s piece of South Pacific paradise – white sands beaches, clear blue water, tropical jungle, and great surf. You can often get fairly cheap packages out of California.

20. Boston

The birthplace of the revolution, no one leaves Boston disappointed. It’s a big city, but its lack of high-rises, as well as its cobblestone streets and brick building, give the city a more neighborhood feel than most others. It’s often considered America’s most European city. It has history, culture, food, and beauty. The Freedom Trail is especially great. (I was born in Boston so it holds a special place in my heart.)

21. Visit the nation’s capital: Washington DC

America’s capital is where you’ll find all the museums and institutions you’d ever want to see in order to get a glimpse into the history and politics of America. It’s a very international city too given the large number of international embassy workers in the area.

22. Admire Mt. Rushmore

Visit this historic monument in South Dakota. It’s a lot smaller than you think it would be, but it makes a good stop off while driving and the surrounding mountains and parks make for good hiking opportunities.

23. Be a kid at Disney World

Sure, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s built for kids. True, it’s not authentic. But despite all that, Disney World is still a fun time and they have a lot of rides for adults too. I recently went back as an adult and there’s a lot to do there: they have some good restaurants, and Disney Springs has a good nightlife. If you are in Florida, take a stop for a few days. Indulge your inner child.

24. Hike the Appalachian Mountains

Stretching the east coast of America, these mountains offer great hiking, camping, and trekking. If you think you can handle it, hike the Appalachian trail which covers the entire mountain range.

25. Visit the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are like miniature oceans. They have great sailing, boating, fishing, and beach opportunities. Perfect for those traveling during the summer.

26. Put-In-Bay

One of the coolest, not so hidden places in the US is this group of islands in Lake Erie. Widely known to midwesterners (but unknown to most everyone else), South Bass Island is home to Put-in-Bay, where midwest hospitality meets Caribbean vibes (you ride around in Golf carts and bars have sand as floors). My favorite spot is Mojito Bay, an outdoor tiki bar with sand floors and swings for bar seats that offers up more than 25 different mojitos. These places get very wild on the weekends too. It’s like Miami in Ohio.

27. Take a road trip

America is a vast and beautiful country. The only good way to see this, the landscape and the small towns that populate most of the country is with a road trip. I highly suggest renting a car and driving across the US. It’s an amazing experience. I recently took a road trip all over the US that ended up only costing me about 50 USD a day!

For more information on specific cities, check out these guides!

United States Travel Costs

Accommodation – The US doesn’t have many hostels. Outside major cities, you’ll just find cheap hotels and motels. Hostels dorm beds in the U.S. cost between $25-40 per night (in the bigger cities they will cost on the upper end). Cheap motels and hotels like Motel 6 or Super 8 cost begin at $35 per night and can be along any highway.

Hotels in cities start at $70 per night (in major cities like NYC, they start closer to $100+). The US is very vast and prices fluctuate a lot depending on what region you’re in so check out the specific city guides listed above for more detailed information on accommodation. The United States is too diverse to pin down a specific number.

Food – Food in America is very cheap. Between fast food, cheap sandwich shops, noodle shops, and to go places, you can eat really well on a budget when traveling the United States. Sandwich shops are around 5 USD, fast food will cost around $6 per meal (unless you go after the dollar menu), mid-range sit-down restaurants will cost between $10-15 for a meal and drink. Prices go up from there and the sky is the limit and you should expect higher prices in the major cities.

If you cook your own food, expect to pay $50-70 per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods. Avoid expensive chain like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s if you’re on a budget.

However, eating on a budget is easy to do!

Activities – Given the size and diversity of the country, prices vary too widely to give an accurate description. See each specific city guide for specific prices on local activities.

Backpacking the United States Suggested Budgets

How much does it cost to visit the United States? Well, it’s complicated. How much you spend largely depends on where in the United States you’re going to visit. For example, New York City is much more expensive than Boston, San Francisco is going to hit your budget hard, the South will be cheaper than the North, the middle states, cheaper than the coasts, Portland cheaper than Seattle or Denver. The combination is endless.

On a backpacking budget, you can travel around the United States for $40-60 per day, assuming you’re staying in a hostel, cooking most of your meals, doing lots of free activities, keeping your drinking to a minimum, and using local transportation or driving in your own car.

If you want to live a little and spend more, a mid-range budget of $60-100 per day would include beds in nicer hostels(or private rooms), cheap hotels, quick meals combined with cooking your own meals, the occasional nice meal, and more activities (like admissions to museums), and private ridesharing.

On a luxury budget of $150+, you can stay in chain hotels, eat out all the time, take as many tours as you want, travel how you want, and drink what you want.

Keep in mind that on the bigger mega cities, you’ll need more than in the smaller cities and towns!

Accommodation
Food
Transportation
Attractions
Average Daily Cost
Backpacker
$25-40
$10
$6
$10-15
$40-60
Mid-Range
$35
$15-20
$20
$30-40
$60-100
Luxury
$70
$50
$30
$50-70
$120-200

United States Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips

Given the size of the United states, there are plenty of ways to save money when you travel America but it varies a lot by region (as I’ve been repeating a lot). The general tips below can help you but for more specific tips, visit our city guides!

  1. Take the regional buses – The best way to get around the regions of the US is by bus. Bus fares cost as little as $1. Typically, flying and trains are the most expensive way to get around. If you can, rent a car and share the gas costs with friends. The best companies are Megabus and Bolt Bus.
  2. Redeem hotel points – Be sure to sign up for hotel credit cards before you go and use those points when you travel. This is especially helpful in big cities. Be aware that most hotels charge parking fees if you have a car, and adjust your budget accordingly.
  3. Get a national park pass – Getting a national parks pass will let you into all the parks for free so you don’t have to keep paying an entrance fee. The one-time fee is $80 and will pay for itself after four parks.
  4. Cook – The United States has some of the cheapest food in the developed world. Grocery shopping can cost less than 60 USD per week and is way cheaper and healthier than eating out every day. Cook and save!
  5. Couchsurf – Couchsurfing started in the United States, and free accommodation offered can make up for the lack of hostels. You’ll find plenty of hosts throughout the country who will show you around their town and let you stay for free. I’ve used it plenty of times and have really enjoyed it as a way to meet people.
  6. Camp – Around all the national parks are inexpensive campsites, so if you have a camper or gear, my recommendation is to camp when visiting the parks. Most campsites start around $15 per night for a tent. More if you are parking an RV or a car on the site. Additionally, you can find a TON of RV parks and campgrounds around the country via the company KOA for $20–30 per night. Moreover, check out the sharing economy website, Camp in My Garden, where you can camp in people’s backyards for a small fee.
  7. City tourism cards – City tourism cards allow you to see a large number of attractions (and often include free public transportation) for one low price, usually $30–40. They provide free access to museums, reduced access to attractions, and restaurant discounts.
  8. Rideshare – Taking on riders can be a way to lower your costs. On my first trip across the US, I offered rides to people I met in hostels. On this trip, I had friends and readers join me along the way. You can post ads on Craigslist and Gumtree and at hostels to find riders. This not only makes the trip more enjoyable but lowers your gas costs. Or if you are a rider, you can use the same services to find rides to get you places.
  9. Use roadside hotels – There are a plethora of cheap roadside hotels such as Motel 6 and Super 8 to the rescue. Rooms start around $40 a night, but including tax, they work out to be $60 on average. They’re great when you’re traveling with someone and can split the cost.
  10. Free museums and events – Inquire at tourism centers, use Google, or ask hotel or hostel staff for information about free events and museums. Many museums offer occasional free or discounted admission throughout the week.
  11. Get free water or free refills – If you order a drink, most restaurants allow free refills while you eat your meal or refills at a low cost. If you ask, water is usually provided for free.
  12. Couchsurf – Nothing’s cheaper than sleeping for free and Couchsurfing connects you with locals who will give you not only a free place to stay as well as be your local guide. There’s a very small Couchsurfing community here in the big cities. You won’t find a lot of hosts but if you look far enough in advance, you might find someone.

Where To Stay in the United States

Hostels are surprisingly not all that plentiful across the United States, but generally they’re high quality and clean. Here are my recommended places to stay:

  • HK Austin (Austin)
  • HI Hostel (Boston)
  • Backpackers Hostel & Pub (Boston)
  • HI Hostel (Chicago)
  • Freehand (Chicago)
  • Banana Bungalow (Los Angeles)
  • USA Hostels Hollywood (Los Angeles)
  • Freehand (Miami)
  • South Beach Hostel (Miami)
  • Jazz Hostels (New York City)
  • International Students Center (New York City)
  • The Green Tortoise (San Francisco)
  • USA Hostels (San Francisco)
  • The Green Tortoise (Seattle)
  • City Hostel (Seattle)
  • HI Hostel (Washington D.C.)
  • City House Hostel (Washington D.C.)

How to Get Around the United States

The United States is one of the best connected countries in the world, but it’s large. You definitely do not want to cram in too many destinations in a short amount of time. Here are some options for getting around.

Public Transportation – Most U.S. cities have convenient public transportation options, including metro systems and buses. Fares are about 2 USD for a single journey, but there are usually packaged options for visitors. For example, you can get a 7-day unlimited MetroCard in New York City for just 29 USD, which covers both buses and the subway system. San Francisco’s MuniMobile pass gives you unlimited rides for 5 USD per day.

Taxis are metered with charges starting around 3 USD plus 2-3 USD per mile. This is one of the most expensive ways to get around, however.

Ride-Sharing – Uber and Lyft (my preferred company) are way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to take a bus or pay for a taxi. The shared/pool option (where you share a ride with other people) offers even better savings. You can save money off your first rides with the following codes: Lyft (MATTHEW999 to save $10) and Uber (jlx6v to save 15 USD).

Bus – Taking the bus is definitely one of the cheapest options for getting around, with fares as low as 1 USD. Popular bus companies include:

  • MegaBus
  • BoltBus
  • Greyhound

A bus ride from New York to Washington D.C. starts at about 15 USD, while Chicago to Detroit starts at about 25 USD. Austin to New Orleans is around 60 USD. A longer journey, like Boston to San Francisco (72 hours!) will cost you about 200 USD. In this case, you’re better off finding a cheap flight.

Flying – Flying is your quickest option but can be very expensive. You can sometimes find really good seat
sales for as little as 100 USD, however. It’s worth it to check several websites ahead of time to see what deals are on. Sample one-way fares include San Francisco to Maui for 169 USD, Seattle to Tucson for 99 USD, or New York to Chicago for 60 USD. The more budget-friendly airlines in the United States are:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • JetBlue Airways
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Spirit Airline

Train – Amtrak is the rail provider for the United States, but it’s not the quickest or most affordable way to travel. It’s certainly comfortable and you’ll get some really scenic views, however. Students can get discounts and there is a rail pass that will let you travel in segments (for example, 15 days of travel for 459 USD). However, a “segment” isn’t necessarily a one-way trip – if you have to transfer lines, that’s two segments used. A 20-hour train ride from Chicago to New Orleans might cost around 135 USD, or a multi-day trip from New York to Los Angeles is around 230 USD.

Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking in the United States is common and very safe, and it’s legal (despite common opinion). You’ll get around the country for free, and have some entertaining experiences in the process! Dress respectably, smile while making eye contact with drivers, and use a cardboard sign to tell people where you’re headed.

Be prepared for long bouts of no pick-ups, especially if you’re traveling through more rural areas. Pack plenty of water and a light meal or two, like sandwiches and fruit.

For more tips, read about 14 ways to safely hitchhike across the United States.

When to Go to the United States

Since the United States is such a large country, climate and temperature change drastically from coast to coast. The Northern US has defined seasons, but winter can bring heavy snowfall and more severe temperature. Spring can start as late as May, but the summers are gorgeous and temperatures can climb into the 80s°F (30s°C). Coastal areas always tend to be cooler.

The Southern US has less defined seasons, but summers can get incredibly hot and humid. Winters tend to be dry and warm, while autumn and spring make for a pleasant travel weather. In the desert areas, like Las Vegas, temperatures can soar as high as 104°F (30°C) on some days.

Ultimately, the best time to travel the United States depends on where you’re headed and what kind of activities you’d like to do. Spring, summer, and fall are overall the best times to travel.

How to Stay Safe in the United States

The United States is a safe place to backpack and travel – even if you’re traveling solo, and even as a solo female traveler. Violent attacks tend to be confined to certain areas (especially where drug and gang violence are a problem). You may encounter petty crime, like theft, especially around popular tourist landmarks. Keep an eye on your belongings at all times, especially while taking public transportation.

Gun violence and mass shootings tend to dominate headlines when they happen; however, the chances of it happening to you are slim to none. Do not let this discourage you from exploring the United States. The United States is very big and very, very diverse. And due to this size, there is a lot of cultural (and political) variation. Despite what you hear, crime in America is near a 20-year low. It’s been declining for many years. For more information, read Is it Safe to Visit the United States?

Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. You have every right to remove yourself from the situation. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.

If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in the United States. Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.

Worried about travel scams? Read about these 14 major travel scams to avoid. There aren’t many here in the states though.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:

United States Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources

Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel around the United States. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are always my starting point when I need to book a flight, hotel, tour, train, or meeting people!

  • Momondo – This is my favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here first.
  • Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
  • Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings! (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
  • Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
  • Hotwire – This is probably the hotel site I use most. I really enjoy its blind booking process. They essentially say “we have a super rate on a 3-star hotel in New York’s Times Square,” and you book it without knowing the hotel name. While that sounds scary, I’ve never ended up in a bad hotel and have saved a ton of money in the process. Highly recommended.
  • Priceline – I like this website because it allows you to bid on hotels and save a lot more money than by booking directly. When used in conjunction with the bidding site Better Bidding, you can substantially lower the cost of your hotels — by as much as 60%.
  • Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around the United States, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
  • STA Travel – A good company for those under 30 or for students, STA Travel offers discounted airfare as well as travel passes that help you save on attractions.
  • World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!

United States Gear and Packing Guide

In this section, I’ll give you my suggestion for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack.

The Best Backpack for the United States

REI Flash 45 Pack
What’s the best backpack for traveling around the United States? I recommend the REI Flash 45 Pack. It’s light and comfy, front loading, and fits perfectly in an airplane’s overhead bin.
Size: 45-47L
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt

If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for more tips and tricks as well as suggested travel backpacks.

What to Pack for United States

Clothes

  • 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 6 T-shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
  • 1 pair of flip-flops
  • 1 pair of sneakers
  • 8 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
  • 7 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 tube of toothpaste
  • 1 razor
  • 1 package of dental floss
  • 1 small bottle of shampoo
  • 1 small bottle of shower gel
  • 1 towel
  • Deodorant

Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)

  • Band-Aids
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Eyedrops
  • Earplugs
  • Doctor-prescribed antibiotics
  • Tylenol
  • Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)

Miscellaneous

  • A key or combination lock (safety first)
  • Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
  • Plastic bags (great for laundry)
  • Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
  • LifeStraw (a water bottle with a purifier)

Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:

Clothing

  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 sarong
  • 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
  • 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
  • 2-3 long-sleeve tops
  • 2-3 T-shirts
  • 3-4 spaghetti tops
  • 1 light cardigan

Toiletries

  • 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease free in between washes)
  • 1 hairbrush
  • Makeup you use
  • Hair bands & hair clips
  • Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)

For more on packing, check out these posts:

  • What I Pack For My Travels
  • The Ultimate List For Female Travelers
  • How to Choose and Buy the Right Backpack

United States Travel Guide: Suggested Reading

On the Road, by Jack KerouacOn the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Written in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic is a classic travel novel. Kerouac’s character’s (who he modeled after himself) frustration, desire to see the world, and adventures resonate with all of us who need a little relief from modern life. The story follows his character, Sal, as he leaves New York City and heads west, riding the rails, making friends, and partying the night away. He finds thrills, adventure, love, sex, drugs, poverty, and excitement while moving from a weak character into someone whose life experience brings confidence. It’s a true American classic.
 
 
Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams
Tip of the Iceberg, by Mark Adams
1899, Edward H. Harriman (a rich railroad magnate) converted a steamship into a
luxury cruise for some of America’s best scientists and writers and embarked on a summer voyage around Alaska. Now, author Mark Adams retraces that expedition, traveling over 3,000 miles along the coast of the state. Mark is one of my favorite writers, and this book is very reminiscent of Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Mark brings insight into the people, history, and culture of the state in a way he did with his other book.
 
 
Wild by Cheryl StrayedWild, by Cheryl Strayed
Forgetting the hype of the book (and the subsequent movie), I really did like this book. Cheryl Strayed’s book is about her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail when she was 26. She sets off in hopes of finding herself and coming to grips with the death of her mother, break-up of her marriage, and drug use. She’s looking for a fresh start. Along the way, she encounters kindness, happy fellow hikers, and a deep sense of belong. Filled with wonderful prose, I found this book deeply moving. It’s easy to see why the book became such a hit.
 
 
 
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, by Richard Grant
As a big fan of the state of Mississippi
, I was really keen to read this book. The state is an often-overlooked tourist destination with eccentric but wonderful people; beautiful parks, rivers, and swamps; stunning architecture; and a complex and rich history for history buffs like myself. In this book, English writer Richard Grant and his girlfriend move to rural Pluto, Mississippi, to live a better life, escape the big city, lower their cost of living, and try something new. They learn to hunt, garden, fend off wild animals, handle snakes, and befriend interesting characters along the way.
 
 
 
The Not-Quite States of America, by Doug MackThe Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA
The United States of America is more than just 50 states. There’s also the non-states of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. In this funny, detailed, fact-rich book, Doug Mack explores these territories largely forgotten by the rest of the country, which play a more important role in our country than we realize. I had the pleasure of listening to Doug talk about his book in NYC, and he’s a wealth of knowledge — just like his book! This one of those travel books that expands your mind about the place you don’t really know.
 
 
Blue Highways: A Journey into America, by William Least Heat-MoonBlue Highways
This is a deep dive into America’s unknown tiny towns scattered across the country map, like New Hope (Tennessee), Remote (Oregon), Why (Arizona), and Whynot (Mississippi). Yes, those are real town names! Heat-Moon’s book is considered a masterpiece in American travel writing, and you’ll love his adventures and the incredible people he encounters as he reveals the “real” American experience.

My Must Have Guides for Traveling to the United States

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How to Get Free Flights

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Conquering Mountains: The Guide to Solo Female Travel

Kristin Addis writes our solo female travel column and her detailed guide gives specific advice and tips for women travelers.

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Get the In-Depth Budget Guide to New York City

Get the definitive guide to New York City! Learn more about what to do, what to see, where to go, stay, eat, and how to save money.

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How to Travel the World on $50 a Day

My best-selling book will teach how to master the art of travel so that you’ll save money and have a more local, richer travel experience.

United States Travel Guide: Related Articles

Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on United States travel and continue planning your trip:

  • The 15 Best Walking Tours in Boston

    The 15 Best Walking Tours in Boston

  • How to Spend Five Days in Boston

    How to Spend Five Days in Boston

  • Why You Shouldn’t Overlook the American South

    Why You Shouldn’t Overlook the American South

  • 27 Free Things to do in Boston in 2019

    27 Free Things to do in Boston in 2019

  • The Best Neighborhoods in Boston: Where to Stay on Your Visit

    The Best Neighborhoods in Boston: Where to Stay on Your Visit

  • Changing My Tune: How I Learned to Love L.A.

    Changing My Tune: How I Learned to Love L.A.

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