Travelling to the US on the Cheap

The Statue of Liberty as seen from wifey's perspective.
Wifey and I recently took a trip to the US. This year, wifey became a citizen of our humble country. As such, we felt a trip to the US was in order. Once she got her passport*, we booked a trip with a tour group.

So why a tour group?

I'm glad you asked. We looked at many options. There were many things to consider.

Would we need to book a flight? When were the cheapest flights available? How would we get from the airport to Manhattan? Where should we go once we get to Manhattan? Should we stay the night in New York? How much are the hotels there? If we drive, where do we park? How long is the drive? How much is gas?

All good questions. All with complicated answers that depended on each variable we didn't have answers to.

In short, the tour group would solve most of the questions above! All we needed to do was show up on time and the bus driver and tour guide would take care of the rest.

We selected this particular tour company because we used them before for two previous trips within Canada.

After looking through all their US trips, we selected the 4-day Boston-New York-Washington DC trip for 2 reasons.

  1. It went through New York City**
  2. We didn't stop at any outlet shopping malls***

To book the trip we paid $229 each plus 10% tax for a total of $503.80. Not 100% sure why we only paid 10% tax considering the HST rate in Ontario is 13%. I think it was because we were paying the average tax rates of the US states we were visiting.

So why book with a tour group?

We didn't have to worry about the logistics of the trip. It didn't matter what the price of gas was, it was covered. We didn't have to worry about where we were staying, it was covered. I didn't have to worry about driving 8+ hours, it was covered. We didn't have to worry about parking the car, it was covered. We didn't have to worry about where to go or how to get there, it was covered.

So what wasn't covered?

Well, meals were on our own responsibility. Some of the attractions we needed to pay for on our own, but we didn't need to wait in line to purchase the tickets and saved valuable time that way****. Additionally, tips to the tour guide and driver weren't covered. For this tour, it was $9 USD per person per day. For two people on a four day tour, that's $72 USD. They provided good service. Based on the price we paid for the tour, that's almost 15%. I usually tip more than 15% at restaurants. I feel 15% is a fair amount to tip for good service.

Well, aren't meals expensive especially in the tourist attractions and rest stops?

Yes. This is easily avoided if you bring your own food! Wifey and I brought two grocery bags of food in addition to our backpacks of clothing and supplies. The grocery bags were heavy at first, but as you consume the food, the load lightens. Eventually, when the tour finishes, you're left with just the backpacks. In addition to food, wifey and I brought 4 bottles of water. Doesn't sound like a lot, but here's another fact people forget. Water can be free! Each of the rest stops we visited had a working water fountain. Any empty bottles we had, we filled them up. This was useful as rest stops were charging up to $3 for a bottle of water. Near the Korean War Memorial by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, there is a water fountain in the little park. We filled up 3 bottles there.

What about free time? You can't explore the city on your own if you're in a group!

You'd be surprised with the amount of free time you have. How long do you need to look at the Capitol anyway? Twenty minutes is enough time I think. We were given thirty minutes. Additionally, some attractions were optional. For example, the group drove by Times Square in New York to stop at the Ripley's Believe It Or Not attraction. That attraction was optional, so wifey and I walked the few blocks to Times Square to take some pictures. We also had time to browse the stores in the area (Forever 21, H&M, Lego Store, etc.) and buy ourselves an iced tea from Starbucks. We even saw the Tim Horton's near Times Square. We spent at least ninety minutes in Times Square before we walked back to the bus. Even then, we were one of the first few to arrive. Everyone else was still inside Believe It Or Not. In fact, we walked so much, we found ourselves grateful we booked the tour as we would have been too tired to drive or walk back to our hotel. The bus driver took care of that for us!

In Washington DC, the tour group visited the Natural History Museum. Despite being free, wifey and I decided to explore the city instead. We were supposed to grab lunch in the cafeteria at the museum. However, cafeteria food didn't sound appealing and likely would have been expensive being in a tourist spot. We ended up walking around and found the Chinatown in Washington DC (just a small street) and wifey and I had the best pho (her words) ever.

What about the exchange rate? The Canadian dollar isn't as strong as the US dollar!

What if I told you that I didn't care about the exchange rate? From time to time, I receive a US cheque in the mail courtesy of Amazon. I deposit this money in a US dollar savings account. I considered converting the money to Canadian, but wifey liked the idea of holding US dollars in case we needed it. At the time, the Canadian dollar was stronger than the US dollar. Now, the US dollar is stronger. However, since I'm holding the money in US dollars, I don't care about exchange rates. Sure, the interest rate is terrible (0.5%). However, I'd save money by not exchanging the money. In Canada, banks and credit card companies charge as much as 2 cents per dollar exchanged. Even more in some cases depending on daily currency fluctuations. This charge is embedded in the exchange rate. If I changed back to Canadian dollars after the trip, that's 4 cents per dollar exchanged for every US dollar I didn't spend! On our trip, I brought $1000 US to the US and brought $625 US back to Canada. That would have cost us at least $32 in unfavourable currency exchange rates! Finally, I'm a US coin hoarder. Anytime I see a US coin in my change, I keep it. I don't spend cash as much, so I rarely see coins. However, for this trip, we managed to collect at least $2 in US coins. In Canada, we use US coins on an equal basis to Canadian coins. As such, there is no exchange rate for US coins (banks won't take US coins though). When we came back to Canada, we only had 6 cents remaining. Not a lot in savings, but when I worked in retail during my high school years, I collected at least $70 worth of US coins. At the time, the Canadian dollar was hovering around 70 cents. Terrible exchange rate at the time. However, with the US coins, I exchanged currency 1 to 1 instead of 1.4 to 1. That $70 US would have cost me $98 Canadian at the time... an extra $28 to convert to US dollars. Yikes!

Well you stayed in motels and not the big name hotel chains!

We stayed in two Holiday Inns and a Hyatt. All were clean, had running water, electricity and HGTV. Each also had free WiFi (Hyatt was actually free after the tour guide bargained for it). Assuming each hotel was on average $100 US, that's $300 of the $500 we spent up front. How would we go to New York, Boston and Washington with $200? Flying to one of these cities is at least $500 round trip for two people. Maybe we can grab a Greyhound for $125 each or something. Megabus has the $1 trip, but they have a fee for something and you have to reserve ahead of time. Considering we went on Canada Day long weekend, spots likely would not be available. Driving might be doable. Assuming $1/L cost of gas, it was around $4/gallon in the US, and assuming I drive the approximate 2,500km, with 8.2L/100km fuel consumption, that's $205... that's also assuming I also wanted to do the approximate 25 hours of driving. However, for $5 less, I could let someone else do the driving while I watched movies, listened to music, or take naps. Seems like a no brainer.

In total, this 4 day trip to the US cost us $503.80 Canadian + $375 US. Ignoring currency rates, that is a total of $878.80. Including the small coins, let's assume we spent $880. For 4 days, that's $220 a day or $110 per person per day. That's not bad for a trip with no worries.

Of course, there are cheaper options. We could park the car at a rest stop and spend the night there. We could take pictures from the pier instead of taking a boat tour around the New York harbour. However, wifey would not have been happy with a trip like that. She was happy with our guided tour, so that makes the money we spent worth every penny.

*Sadly, her passport is more advanced than mine, has some sort of electronics embedded in one of the covers, and is valid for 10 years.

**It was wifey's dream (for as long as she could remember) to visit New York City.

***Hard to do a trip on the cheap if you visit THREE outlet malls! This was one such package available.

****Looks like the tour group has runners purchase the tickets well ahead of time. When we arrive at the destination, the guide and runner meet up and the runner gives the tickets to the guide. This was especially useful for the New York harbour boat tour and the Top of the Rock attractions. The tours probably get a group discount for these attractions while we paid the listed prices. However, the extra few bucks the tour company "makes" probably pays for the runners. In this case, I am more than happy to pay the money to bypass the lines. We'd pay the same and wait longer if we went on our own.


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