Solo female travel in the USA: Top experiences
- Getting outdoors in the National Parks, wilderness areas and beyond
- Road tripping across the country (or across one state)
- Sampling regional food and music traditions
- Exploring local culture in some of the world’s most fascinating cities, from New York to San Francisco
- Embracing the quirkiness of small cities like Richmond, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland
Jump to the list of posts from the USA, or read on for my comprehensive USA travel guide for solo women on a budget.
USA itinerary ideas
The United States of America is an enormous, diverse country. There is no realistic way to see the entire nation on a single trip. And since distances are large, you can easily pour thousands of dollars into flights (or even gas!).
With just one week in the USA, stick to a single region. Explore New York, Boston and New England, or drive from LA to San Francisco. You could road trip around the Southeast, or check off a few of the National Parks in the Northern Rockies or in the southwest desert. Or, spend your entire time in a single state — like Alaska or Hawaii.
A two-week USA itinerary would give you a bit more flexibility to see multiple regions. You could fly between the U.S.’s top cultural destinations like New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Alternatively, you could drive all the way across the country in a campervan. Two weeks is the ideal amount of time to explore Utah, Arizona and Nevada combined, including a weekend in Las Vegas. These are just a few of the possibilities.
With a month or more of backpacking in the U.S., you could get much deeper into a single region or see a greater variety of the country. You won’t run out of things to do, even if you have a year or more to travel!
USA weather and when to visit the USA
The United States’ geographic diversity means you can find just about any climate in the world here. We have tropical beaches (Florida and Hawaii), Arctic tundra (Alaska), temperate rainforests forests (the Pacific Northwest), desert (the southwest), and solid four seasons (New England and the Midwest).
But if you have to pick one time to travel the entire country, autumn is the way to go. September and October bring dramatic fall foliage to much of the country. The weather ranges from “still pretty warm” in the south to “a little chilly” in the north. It’s hurricane season on the East Coast, but when it’s not storming it tends to be dry.
Spring is similar to autumn but wetter in many places. Summer is brutally hot in the south, while winter brings feet after feet of snow to the northern states.
Language in the USA
If you’re doing solo female travel in the USA, you’ll mostly communicate in English. But you may hear dozens of other languages spoken in big cities.
Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and French round out the most common languages spoken in the States. In areas with large immigrant communities, you’ll often see second or third languages on street signs and in shops.
American English encompasses dozens of local dialects and accents. The English you hear spoken in West Virginia barely resembles what you hear in Minnesota, which sounds completely different from what you hear in Texas.
Budget for solo female travel in the USA
There is no way around it — traveling in the USA is expensive. Sticking to a travel budget for the US is hard, especially as a solo traveler. We simply don’t have the backpacking infrastructure that places like Europe or Australia have (let alone Southeast Asia or South America).
But the budget travel scene is growing all the time, and it’s not impossible to have an affordable trip. At the low end you could survive on as little as $50 a day if you don’t move around too much. A healthy “cheap” travel budget would be closer to $100 a day.
There is enormous regional variation in travel costs. You can pay less for an entire meal in rural Tennessee than for a cup of coffee in San Francisco. Rural areas, the south, and the Midwest are cheapest, while big coastal cities are more expensive for day-to-day items. However, you have to balance that out with accommodation costs (unless you’re camping, you have few options in rural areas) and car rental vs. public transport.
Hawaii deserves its own category for being agonizingly, astronomically expensive. Car rentals are through the roof. Budget accommodation is limited. Food is pricey and activities are worse. Save more than you think you’ll need for a vacation there.
Dorm bed in a hostel: $25/night
Lunch at a restaurant, including tip: $15
Cup of coffee at a high-end cafe: $4-8
Museum or historical site admission: Free-$25
Car rental for one week: $300
Taxi from New Orleans airport to the city center: $30
Annual pass for all National Parks: $80
USA visa requirements
It’s no secret that the US has absurd border policies, many of which are rooted in racism. Unfortunately unless you’re from Canada, Australia/New Zealand or a Western European country with very good documentation of your travel plans, you’ll face some hurdles taking a vacation to the U.S.
Citizens of the nations mentioned above do not need a visa to enter the States. However, you must apply in advance through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.
For everyone else, the process to get a visa is too byzantine to represent here. Read the State Department’s explanation for the full details. Citizens of most countries have to fill out paperwork and attend an in-person interview.
If you’re flying into the United States, you’ll go through customs where you first land, regardless of your final destination. Avoid tight layovers to your final destination — the process can take a long time!
Accommodation in the USA for solo female travelers
If you’re craving the backpacker vibes of funky hostels, I’ve got good news and bad news. The USA has some fabulous hostels. But they’re few and far between.
Major cities like New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, LA, Denver and Washington DC all have fabulous hostels. Smaller cities often have one or two options — in the Southeast, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and Asheville all have at least one. But standards tend to be lower due to lack of competition.
Outside cities, your best bet for cheap accommodation is camping. Private campgrounds run $25+ a night for a site, while national and state park campgrounds tend to be cheaper (but much more competitive). If you plan to camp a lot in parks, sign up for an account on Recreation.gov. That way when permits open up you can apply within minutes — often necessary in popular parks.
You can often find affordable hotels outside the major cities in the U.S. By “affordable” I mean around $100 a night. These are often charmless chains outside the downtown areas of cities, or at random spots along the highway. But they’re typically clean and safe and you don’t have to reserve in advance.
For solo female travel in the USA on a mid-range budget, you have lots more options. Charming guesthouses and B&B’s abound across the south. National Park lodges are fabulous — plus you wake up with the park right there, no long drives. Both will typically run $150+ a night and cater more to couples/families than solo travelers.
Food in the USA
The question isn’t “what can you eat on a budget in the US.” It’s “what can’t you eat on a budget in the US?”
America is home to many of the world’s greatest food traditions. If you can imagine it, and it didn’t originate here, it probably was brought over by immigrants.
Every region has its own distinctive cuisine. Among the most famous are Creole in New Orleans, pizza in New York or Chicago, barbecue across the South (which is actually like 8 different cuisines that bear little resemblance to each other), lobster rolls in New England, hot chicken in Nashville, poké in Hawaii, and hatch green chilis from New Mexico. It’s not just hot dogs and burgers!
Plus, you can’t visit Los Angeles without indulging in the local Mexican food, or skip eating Ethiopian in the DC area, or Cuban in Miami.
If you’re looking to keep costs down, try to find places with counter service. The food quality is often as good or better than table-service restaurants, but it’s about 30% cheaper. Eating out for breakfast and lunch is cheaper than eating out for dinner.
Tips of at least 20% are expected everywhere except fast food chains. Not tipping is truly offensive, even if the service wasn’t great.
Drinks in the USA
Much like with the food scene, you can get any drink you could dream of in the US.
Coffee and tea are popular morning options. America has fantastic 3rd-wave coffee shops, hole-in-the-wall bodegas, and chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Some are charming, others have no personality. Prices range from $2 to sky-high for a simple black coffee.
Americans love our alcohol in any and all forms, and we produce tons of it. Sip wine in Napa, California or central Virginia. Try the craft beers in Fort Collins, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah. Head to the Tennessee and Carolina mountains for authentic moonshine, or Kentucky for bourbon.
We have dive bars, breweries, speakeasies, fancy cocktail spots, rooftop bars, Irish pubs, lawns-with-a-drink-truck, and everything in between. Dive bars and breweries are often the cheapest options. Prices for a good beer range from $4 to $10+, depending on where you are.
Non-drinkers may have a tough time navigating the alcohol-obsessed culture. Bars will serve you a juice or soda, but you’ll pay through the nose for it.
Activities you can do while traveling the USA on a budget
The U.S. has everything. The biggest challenge is narrowing down what you want to do.
Different parts of the country provide very different experiences. New England is great for small towns. The Rockies offer dramatic scenery. The desert in the Southwest is heart-achingly beautiful. California’s laid-back beachy vibe draws you in. And then there’s New York, Boston, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
If you’re on a budget, it may be difficult to access major national parks. You can take a bus to Yosemite from San Francisco, and you can day-hike in Shenandoah on a bus from DC. There are shuttles to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. In Denver, you can get out into the Rockies without too much trouble. But generally, you’ll be really limited if you don’t have your own car.
If you do have your own car, and are planning to visit multiple parks, it’s worth the $80 annual pass.
Cities have ample free activities, from museums — DC has literally hundreds of free museums — to outdoor concerts and street festivals. Unless there are specific ticketed things you want to see, you don’t have to spend a dime.
How to get around the United States
Take it from an American who’s been car-free for ten years — traveling in this country is a headache without your own vehicle. It’s not cheap. It requires patience and advance planning. But it can be done.
If you’re only hopping between major cities, trains and buses will do the trick. Trains are much more comfortable, but they are expensive — DC to Bridgeport, Connecticut costs $66+. The same trip by bus/commuter train combo costs more like $30, but takes twice as long.
You should take a Greyhound bus at least once while backpacking USA. Greyhound will get you to harder-to-reach towns across the U.S. But it’s pricier than the budget bus companies like Megabus and BoltBus.
If you’re on limited time, it may save you money to take a cheap flight here and there. Spirit Airlines serves major cities for bargain-basement prices — just watch out for bag fees.
Even getting around some cities without your own car can be a pain. Washington, DC, New York, Boston, Philly, and New Orleans are all bikeable (as are many small cities). Bikes are available for rent, usually for less than the cost of a day-pass on public transit.
If you have two or more people, it’s worth considering renting a car. If you time it right, you can get deals as low as $25 a day — just be sure to get the maximum insurance (unless you already have U.S. car insurance).
Safety when traveling in the USA
Backpacking USA is generally safe. Even in cities with high crime rates, crime is mostly between parties who know each other. If you’re staying in a big city, ask around about the neighborhood at night before venturing out to the bars.
USA travel tips for women alone
While American women enjoy reasonably equal status in the U.S., it’s still pretty rare for us to travel alone. (Really, it’s pretty rare for anyone to travel alone, regardless of gender.) People will ask you a lot of questions.
You’re unlikely to experience problems beyond minor street harassment. American women don’t often go to bars alone, so you may raise eyebrows if you do.
It may be hard to meet other travelers while backpacking USA, especially in places without good hostels. Meetup.com can help you connect with locals.