Backpacking in the USA
Looking for important travel information while backpacking in the USA? Here you will find information on working in the USA, entry visas, USA hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Facts About the USA
- Top things to do
- How to Travel Around
- Hostels & Budget Accommodation
- Know before you go: American Entry Visa Requirements
- Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs
Facts About the United States of America
Tourism in the USA is a massive industry and millions of backpackers and tourists visit every year. Most tourists already have an idea of what to expect due to the proliferation of American culture abroad. The US is a truly huge place with plenty of things to do in every state.
In general, the US is very welcoming of tourists although if you can’t speak English or Spanish you won’t find many Americans who can speak your language. However, with even the most basic tourist English, you will be able to enjoy your trip.
- Currency: $ US dollar, 100 cents to the dollar
- Time Zone: Spans 6 time zones ranging from GMT -5 to GMT -10
- Language: English
- Telephone Services: Country code +1, International Dialling Code 011
- Emergency Numbers: 911
Climate in the USA and the best time to go
When deciding the best time to visit the US, the weather plays an important role. The climate varies considerably from region to region, in general, you can expect it to get warmer further south and colder further north.
Top Things to do in the USA
There are countless possibilities of things to do while backpacking in the USA. Normal tourist site of particular fame is the statue of liberty, the great lakes and the Rockies. However, there are many, many things to do in all regions. A good way to get an idea of top things to do in the USA is to scan the activities offered by Get Your Guide or Viator. They work directly with local tour operators, so you won’t have to scour the internet or roam around town trying to find the best deal.
If you know your schedule ahead of time, a great insider tip is to buy tickets for major tourist attractions ahead of time. Tiqets has entrance tickets and skip the line passes for major attractions in the USA so that you can avoid the lines and save that precious time for more exploring.
How to Travel Around the USA
Travel in the USA is easy with buses, trains and internal flights all readily available and budget deals are normally easy to find. Of particular value are the Greyhound bus and Amtrak rail services. Car Rental is also widely available at all major airports and many other locations.
If you’re flying to the US or plan to take short flights within the country, we recommend using a few different flight comparison search engines. Kiwi is a new favourite among travellers. On average, we have found the cheapest flights to the US with them compared to the other websites out there.
Of course, it is always worth checking Skyscanner to guarantee you’re getting the best deal. Both websites offer great flexible search options, allowing you to search the whole country of the USA to find the cheapest airport to fly into, and also see prices for a full month if you’re flexible on travel dates.
Another popular choice is to travel by RV in the USA. Especially if you’re travelling with other people, this could be an even more economical choice since you’ll be combining the costs for accommodation and transport. This would also give you unlimited flexibility with your itinerary not to mention the ability to sleep in some of the world’s most awe-inspiring national parks. Read more about how to travel the US by RV.
Backpacking Tours in the USA
Though part of the fun of backpacking in the USA is exploring on your own, there are situations, especially when venturing off the tourist trail, when it does make sense to go with a guide or a small group. For these times, a popular option among backpackers is G Adventures. They hand-select local guides to ensure authenticity and quality.
G Adventures is especially a good option for those travelling in the USA alone who would like to meet up with like-minded travellers. Their most popular trips in the USA are their 8-day Western Express tour in California, Nevada, and Arizona, or their 14-day Highlights of the Eastern US and Canada tour.
Hostels & Budget Accommodation in the USA
Budget accommodation is readily available in the USA, even the cheapest motels will provide quite a good standard of living with almost all rooms having their own en-suite bathroom and most boasting a TV.
We have had good experiences finding hostels while backpacking the USA on HostelWorld. They have the largest inventory of hostels worldwide, and with over 10 million reviews and ratings from other travellers, you know exactly what to expect.
Another good way to find accommodation in the USA is by checking hotels.com and booking.com. With both sites, you’ll not only find hotels, but also homestays, hostels, and other unique accommodation. We have discovered some great finds and have appreciated the ability to book ahead. You can use their advanced filtering to narrow your results by budget, location score, overall review score, and amenities. Many of the places on booking.com also offer free cancellation, which takes the pressure off the planning phase of your trip.
Entry Visa Requirements for the United States of America
Valid passports are required for entry by everyone except nationals of Canada. If you hold an EU passport or are a British Foreign national you will not require a Visa for a stay up to 90 days long. If you are going to be staying in the USA for longer than 90 days or are intending to work in the USA you will need to obtain a Visa from a local US Embassy.
A list of all US Embassies is located on usembassy.org.uk, which also carries information relating to what kind of Visas are available and who is eligible. In general nationals of EU countries should have no problem obtaining the necessary documents.
Health and Safety in the USA
The US has an excellent private healthcare system, while you will need to make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance the standard of medical care is amongst the highest in the world. There are no shots or injections required when visiting the US from abroad.
Foreigner Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs in the USA
Most who go backpacking in the USA will either have saved up enough to fund their time abroad, or hope to do so whilst away. Plans to work in restaurants, bars, ski resorts etc. in the USA may sound flexible and readily available, but such casual work is, in fact, illegal without an h3-B Temporary Worker Visa, a B-1 Voluntary Work Visa, or a Q Visa, which can involve a long application process.
Despite these restrictions, many people still choose to work illegally in the USA, which can lead to deportation and possible refusal of return to the country. A safer option is to find a job through an agency or organisation.
BUNAC (British Universities North America Club) and Camp America are probably the most publicised job organisations for gap year students. BUNAC offers opportunities working with children on a summer camp in the USA, for example as a counsellor.
Camp America is similar in offering placements during summer months for teaching, cooking, and cleaning etc. in a children’s summer resort. Both organisations provide flights, food, accommodation, and spending money. The total cost of registration, insurance, and visa fees with BUNAC amounts to just over $200, but working for up to nine weeks with them can earn you a minimum of $670 (approx. $$425).
You should be aware however that BUNAC has considerable demand for places in Summer Camps, there is particularly a lot of competition for the counsellor places which are slightly higher paid and lead to a position of greater responsibility. In addition, the application procedure is lengthy and involves several stages of training and interviews.
It is worth noting that whilst BUNAC provides assistance for arranging visas they are not always able to obtain them on their own, for instance, to take part in an American camp you will be required to collect your visa from the embassy in London in person.
It is also worth noting that whilst BUNAC is a great way to see America cheaply you will be working too. However, if you act responsibly and take the work seriously you will be able to have fun and most BUNAC participants spend a couple of weeks at the end of their work doing their own thing and enjoying the tourist life in America.
Au Pair in the USA
Becoming an au pair to an American family is another way to work legally, as it is organised through an agency. The Au Pair in America (APIA) organisation is widely recognised, but most agencies offer similar opportunities. US law regulates that au pairs in the USA earn $139.05 (approx. $88) for a week’s work, usually about 45 hours.
Accommodation and food are both provided by the host family. Au pairs are required to enrol in an educational course for a few hours a week whilst working, this funded by the host family. The main requirements for au pairing are that you are aged between 18 and 26, hold a full clean driving licence, and have had experience of caring for children. A J1 visa is needed for this type of work, which allows you to stay in the country for a year. The US Embassy can be contacted for all details about this type of visa as well as those already mentioned.
As an au pair, your chief duty will, of course, be the care of children but your duties may also extend to light housework such as washing clothes or cooking for the children. You should be willing to help the family out in tight spots with any other housework that needs doing but don’t let yourself become a domestic servant as well as an au pair without your consent!
As a bonus however a lot of the time the children will be attending nursery or school so you could well have a reasonable amount of spare time to yourself. To get the most out of the experience you should be creative and fun with the children and also make the most of your free time in ways that don’t jeopardise the standard of care you provide. Nevertheless, you will have ample time to do whatever you want on your days off and the workload is never too high, with accommodation and food also provided this is a very attractive option for work travel in the USA.
Internships in the USA
Internships are useful for gaining experience in a specific workplace environment whilst traveling. They usually last a year, but can be difficult to obtain because of US employment laws and restrictions concerning work permits.
Nevertheless, organisations such as CCUSA and Alliances Abroad work to place students in internships, ranging from positions in national parks and resorts to social and clerical work, amongst others. As with au pair schemes, CCUSA requires you to hold a J1 visa, but the work placements are usually for only about five months so this would not suffice for a whole year of work-based traveling. Furthermore, although such organisations arrange flights, insurance and visas, it may be more difficult to find accommodation, particularly on a long-term basis.
Another excellent source of internships is through private sponsorship with a company, many international companies are happy to invest in potential employees by sending you to work in another location for a year. Sometimes you will have to make a commitment to the company, for example promising to work for them for a year or two after graduation but if you manage to land one of these lucrative internships it could well be a good investment.
Other large companies organise competitive internship schemes, these usually involve sitting numerous exams and aptitude tests as well as a lengthy interview process. These kind of internships are generally at highly desirable companies such as those in the Fortune 500. Those applying should expect heavy competition but with large potential rewards both in terms of generous pay but also for the CV boosting potential employment at these sort of companies offers.
Volunteer Work in the USA
For those who want something a bit different in their year abroad, volunteering could be the answer. It is perhaps more of a feel-good experience, but financial backing for accommodation, food etc. is vital before undertaking such work, although some volunteer organisations provide a small amount of pocket money each month.
Camphill Village USA Inc works with adults with mental disabilities and asks that volunteers stay for at least six months. For those more interested in conservation and cultural work, Concordia organises shorter-term projects, and also provides accommodation. The range of volunteer work is vast and all depends on what your personal interests are.
Many volunteer organisations help with financial worries by offering accommodation, often with a host family. If not, it is essential to find accommodation that is not only cheap but somewhere that won’t make your year abroad wish you were back home!
Many GAP and year abroad programs are based around voluntary work and these organised programs will sometimes subsidise some of your costs. These kinds of programs allow the development of a wide skill base that most people might otherwise not achieve, this makes voluntary work particularly attractive to employers so you could find your CV enriched from the process.
This obviously shouldn’t be your prime motivation especially as many programs can be a lot of hard work, most travelers who come back after completing these programs recommend it as an incredibly enriching experience simply for its own sake.
Useful links for finding work and volunteer positions in the USA
- APIA is by far the most well known and respected au pair organisation in the USA.
- GoAuPair is a Federally recognised au pair organisation that also allows you a say in choosing your host family.
- BUNAC has been established for over 40 years and is one of the most popular ways for students and young people to earn their way whilst visiting America.
- Camp America is a similar organisation to BUNAC that runs over 12,000 camps throughout America
- Alliances Abroad offers teach, working and voluntary programs in the USA and at more exotic destinations
- Alliances Abroad Organise various internship schemes as well as camp based work and voluntary programs.
- CCUSA are an organisation which specialises in finding internships in the USA for foreign students.
- Camphill Village offers programs working with mentally disabled adults, the programs generally last about 6 months.
Useful Links for Backpacking in the USA
- Amtrak is the USA’s national rail service and a great way to travel around.
- Greyhound is an excellent point-to-point coach service in the USA. They offer flexible travel passes and you can book online.
- Kiwi and Skyscanner– Flight comparison search engines to find the cheapest flights to the USA and within the country
- GetYourGuide and Viator – a collection of local tours and things to do in the USA. Also offers Skip the Line tickets for crowded attractions
- Tiqets – Website selling entrance tickets and skip the line tickets for major attractions in the USA
- G Adventures – guided group backpacking tours in the USA, great for solo travellers or for those interested in a more adventurous trip which would require a guide
- HostelWorld – #1 hostel search website to find budget accommodation while backpacking the USA. Thousands of hostels and millions of reviews from fellow travellers
- Booking.com – commonly used accommodation booking site in the USA. Hostels, hotels, and other unique accommodation with advanced filtering and millions of reviews
- Travel Insurance – read our comprehensive overview of Travel Insurance and some recommended providers for your backpacking trip to the USA
There you have it, the ultimate USA backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around the USA.
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