Backpacking the US in a Week on Budget- Find it How?

Chandan Travel Planning, USA 0 Comments

After two boring weeks in Houston attending a technical conference, it was evident that my US tour was going nowhere close to what I wanted. I did not want my 48hours of air time wasted in a single technology conference. Thus one fine morning while sipping at my cup of tea I made the flash decision to backpack USA and salvage my US tour. This was followed by few days of intense planning, some convincing to prepare my backpacker buddy and off we went for the most ambitious plan ever – backpacking the US in a week.

Backpacking the US in just a few days is a humongous and ambitious plan. And considering I got only a week approved after my official tour made it even more challenging. My buddy was like – “have you even looked at the map”? I knew the key to this would be planning and I had a week to figure it out. Thus the saga of “late night intensive googling” started after each boring day in the class.

Backpacking the US itinerary

I wanted to circle the states and with the time window I had, I could only visit 3 destinations with 2 days each. I had Vegas as my top priority for obvious reasons, followed by Washington DC -East Coast, New York – North East, San Francisco -West Coast and Miami -South. It was a real tough decision but I had to strike off San Francisco and Miami (for now). Pushing too many eggs in the same basket might crack ‘em all (my quote 😉 ). I chose Washington DC because I wanted to meet the President.
Just kidding 😉 . Washington was on my list because it’s a window to the past. Think of all the Smithsonian institutions giving you a really good opportunity to take a peek at the US history (somehow I liked museums back then but priorities do change in life). I chose New York because my buddies in US recommended it. New York presents a completely different vibe compared to the rest of the states with its signature skyline, packed with skyscrapers, streets painted in yellow cabs, the ever running crowd and neon-lit skies. I won’t give you a reason for Vegas because “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” 😉
After few days of scouting through Expedia, Sky Scanner, Kayak and, I was finally ready with my most challenging backpacking itinerary; Houston – Vegas – Washington DC- New York – Houston. Not to mention the fact that it was freezing all across the US at that time. We had a day of snowfall in Houston itself and news flew in that Washington and New York were 6ft buried in snow. Anyway, there was no stopping now as I was done with the most lethal part of planning an itinerary – swiping the credit cards for the final booking.

Snowfall in Houston during backpacking the US
Snowfall in Houston. I was lucky to witness this

Day 1 – Houston to Vegas & Explore Vegas

We booked an early morning flight as it was cheapest. It’s funny how backpacking and cheap goes hand in hand. We ended our final round of beer pong in Houston by 1 am before I took a quick 1-hour nap. Our flight was at 4.30 am and we reached just on time. Right after getting in, I slipped into a deep slumber (thanks to the late night party in Houston). A glorious sunrise against the arid Nevada landscape could only partially wake me up. I had to really fight myself to keep awake and enjoy the view. Finally, it took a bird’s eye view of Hoover dam from the sky to jolt me out of my dreams. I switched on my camera, took some quick snaps and enjoyed the landscape until landing.

Hoover Dam from the sky
The mighty Hoover Dam looks so tiny from up above
We chose a weekday to visit Vegas.

Pirates Tip 1: Hotels in Vegas are a lot cheaper during weekdays compared to weekends. Most of the local crowd flocks Vegas during weekends. Our weekday room price was almost half the weekend price. Backpacking the US is cheap if you plan weekdays for the major part of the itinerary.

Pirates Tip 2: They don’t care how many of you stuff in the room. So you can actually flock inside and save a lot by sharing. When I backpack I don’t mind even a floor with a cushion to sleep. Our room was literally used as a locker room for our luggage and just a few hours of sleep. 90% of the time we were on the Strip.

11 am: Check in

The hotels in Vegas are not hotels by general definition. I would like to call them mini cities because of their sheer size. To be honest I don’t like that stuffed feeling surrounded by hundreds of rooms. But we used the rooms so sparingly that it didn’t matter in the end.
We were lucky to get an early check in at our hotel. But if you are arriving early and don’t want to take a chance, the hotels generally have an option to book an early check in at a small cost. We checked in and dashed out in less than half an hour as there was no time to spare and our legs were bursting with energy.

In front of Hotel NewYork NewYork Las Vegas during our backpacking the US
In front of Hotel NewYork NewYork Las Vegas aka our hotel

12 pm: Walk the Strip

The Las Vegas Strip in the simplest terms is a boulevard about 7 kilometers long lined up on both sides with some of the world’s largest hotels, bars, and casinos. Take it from Wiki –“Fourteen of the world’s 25 largest hotels by room count are on the Strip, with a total of over 62,000 rooms”. Now that’s something big. The strip is so bustling and full of life that you can walk here for hours at a stretch and not visit half of it. A mini world in itself with life-size replicas of famous monuments and hotels themed after famous cities, the Strip is a treat to watch.

The Eiffel Tower in Vegas during our backpacking the US
The Eiffel Tower in Vegas
It’s a playground for people from all walks of life. The sidewalks are dotted with cheerful street performers and not to mention the card slappers (google it yourself). No doubt the Strip is the heart of Sin city.
Street Performers in Vegas
Street performers in Vegas competing for attention

We started from New York New York Hotel & Casino (our hotel). Right opposite is the MGM Grand hotel and Hard Rock Café Vegas. We visited most of the famous hotels along the Strip, the Bellagio (remember George Clooney in Oceans Eleven), Caesars Palace, the Mirage, the Venetian and Treasure Island.
Caesars Palace from a vantage point
Caesars Palace from a vantage point

Pirate Tip 3: if you not into walking, then you can buy a bus pass to move around the Strip. The passes are cheap and there’re stops everywhere. The most popular passes are the 2-hour pass and the 24-hour pass. I would recommend the 24-hour pass as you get 22 hours of additional travel time for just 2 extra dollars.

8 pm: Mission cocktails

By this time our legs were almost dead. And what could be a better medicine than few glass of cocktails to revive them. We started from a roadside stall with a colorful cocktail served in a long twisted funnel-like container, and ended at Hard Rock Café with my favorite Mojito, right next to our hotel. We were really tired from the early morning flight to all the walking around so a good drink with some excellent music was really soothing.

Day2 – Grand Canyons tour

I hardly slept for 3 hours when the alarm started screaming. Half and hour of zombie-ing around and I was reborn like a butterfly out of the cocoon. The excitement of visiting the canyons was so high that every hurdle took its own corner. Yes! Today we are visiting the Grand Canyons.
We booked the Grand Canyon West Rim tour that included a helicopter ride in the canyon and a boat ride on the Colorado river. It’s a full day tour.

7 am: Boarding the bus

The bus picked us up at 7.30am and dropped us back in Vegas at around 6 pm. The tour is amazing. There is a photo stop at Hoover dam during the onward journey.

Hoover Dam during my backpacking the US
A shot of Hoover Dam during the photo stop
The Helicopter ride is epic and a must do.
Bird Waiting at Grand Canyon
About to board our bird to fly the Canyon walls
Birds Eye view of Grand Canyon from the chopper
A birds eye view of Grand Canyon from the chopper
The boat ride in the yellow waters of Colorado adds another perspective to how you view the Grand Canyons.
Sailing the pontoon on Colorado river
Sailing the pontoon on Colorado river
We had a sumptuous barbecue lunch at the Hualapai Indian lands after all the rides followed by a lazy walk to Guano and Eagle point. Around 4 pm we stepped back on our bus to return to the Sin city.

8 pm: Bellagio Fountain

After a quick shower and a sandwich, it was time for the night crawler to emerge. We were really tired from journeying the whole day so we bought a bus pass. The first stop was the musical fountains at Bellagio. The Bellagio fountain is a marvelous choreography of hundreds of fountains dancing to light and music. And the good news is that it’s absolutely free.

Musical fountain at Bellagio during backpacking the US
Musical fountain at Bellagio

Pirate tip 4: Visit the Bellagio fountain at night after 8 pm for a spectacular view. The show happens every half an hour until 8 pm and every 15 minutes after 8 pm. The crowd max out during each show but immediately disperses after a show is over. Take your position by the rails after a show is over and wait for the next one to get an uninterrupted view.

9 pm: Adrenaline time

Our next stop was Stratosphere Tower. True to its name, standing at 1149ft, the observation deck at top indeed gives you a view of Vegas from the stratosphere. But more than the view, we were interested in the rides on top of Stratosphere – the Big Shot, Insanity, and X-Scream. All three are among the top 5 tallest rides in the world and sure to drive you insane. You are lucky if you survive all three 🙂 .

Insanity Vegas during Backpacking the US
Insanity ride on top of Stratosphere tower

11 pm: Fremont Street, Old Vegas

With adrenaline bursting out of the top of my head and goose bumps all over me after the rides, we arrived at Fremont street. Fremont street is the 2nd most famous street after the Strip and was the first paved street in Las Vegas dating back to 1905. Lined with casinos on either side and glowing in neon, it’s a nice place to walk around. The top of this glittering promenade is the home to world’s largest video screen. Watch the sky as bikers roll by in their Harleys in the largest video screen.

World's biggest screen at Fremont Street
World’s biggest screen at Fremont Street

12 am: Cocktails yeay!

We took a bus to Hard rock café for the final drinks in Vegas before retiring back to few hours of sleep. The HRC guys gave me a nice souvenir Martini glass.

Day 3 – Vegas to DC (full day spent on flight)

I had an early morning flight from Vegas to Washington DC. It took about 8 hours to reach Dulles International airport, Washington DC with a 3 hours’ layover at Atlanta. As I flew closer to DC, the landscape drastically changed from vibrant green to dull black & white. Washington was covered deep in snow.

Washington DC covered in snow during backpacking the US
A black & white Washington DC covered in snow
.One look at the scenery outside and I knew my backpacking the US tour was going to be more challenging than ever and I got a first-hand experience pretty soon.  It was almost dark by the time I landed and I literally froze as soon as I came out of the warm arrival lounge. The temperature was sub-zero outside and I was in Vegas standard clothing with just a thin jacket to keep me warm. I took a shuttle bus from airport to West Falls Church metro station where I had to wait for about half an hour until my friend showed up. I will never forget those 30 minutes of my life. It was a struggle for survival. Contrary to my expectation, the metro station was over-ground and exposed to the elements. I had to crumble myself between my two bags with the wall as the third barrier to escape the wind. If he was late by 10 more minutes, trust me he would have called an ambulance instead of a taxi 🙂 . My Washington stay was with family and for the next two days, we trod on knee deep snow to visit the famous monuments. I could not see a single green garden in Washington during my entire stay.

Day 4 – Explore Washington

The morning had a nice sunshine and I stuffed on 2 woolen sweaters with a jacket on top to make sure I return alive. Bacpacking the US was going to be heavy today 🙂 . The top attractions in Washington DC are pretty much walkable with a good pair of sports shoes. Walkable doesn’t mean they are near to each other but you don’t need to be a tough hiker either to be able to finish this on foot.

9 am – White House

We took a metro to Washington monument and did a full circle starting from Washington monument, the White House, World War II memorial, Constitutional Gardens, Lincoln Memorial, crossed the Potomac, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool (completely frozen) and finally Capitol Hill.

At the Washington monument during backpacking the US
At the Washington monument, covered in few feet of snow
Lincoln Memorial during backpacking the US
At Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool
Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool without a reflection 🙂
the White House during backpacking the US
finally the White House
The sun was almost on the horizon by the time we reached Capitol Hill. The monument was glowing fiery red in the fading light and I made sure to capture the moment with my DSLR.
Capitol Hill during backpacking the US
A glowing red Capitol Hill

6.00pm – China Town

We took a metro to the city and roamed around the boulevards of Washington DC. We passed by China town before gulping down few quick pints at Hooters.

Chinatown Washington DC
at Chinatown Washington DC
Day 5 – Smithsonian day

Today was our chance to take a peek into the American history. We visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and Smithsonian National Museum of American History, located close to each other. Each of this museum is so huge that by the time we were done with the third it was dusk already.

Smithsonian museum
The Smithsonian institution
inside Smithsonian museum
A glimpse of the inside
Our final stop in Washington DC was Hard Rock Café. I don’t miss a Hard Rock Café in any city I visit.
Hard Rock Cafe Washington DC
My favorite joint – Hard Rock Cafe
Day 6: Washington DC to NYC in a Greyhound

We decided to take our backpacking the US adventure a notch higher this time and booked a Greyhound bus from Washington DC to New York. The journey took us about 5 hours and this time we were welcomed by a blizzard in NYC. What a timing for my US backpacking trip. NYC was very windy with a really bad icy drizzle on a never-ending mode. We booked our stay at Jazz on the Park youth hostel. The idea was to stay cheap near Central Park with easy access to subway for our downtown rides. Well, we got what we paid for. With no elevators, Wi-Fi and hot water it was a miserable time here. I especially missed the hot water because it was sub-zero outside and the tap water was supplied directly from the Antarctic. A shower was practically impossible and only an insane mind would have attempted it. Anyway, my next shower was in Mumbai. Nice and warm 😉 .

Double bunk at Jazz on the Park
Drying our clothes on the double bunk at Jazz on the Park
We wanted to taste the NYC nightlife on our first night and the guys at Jazz on the Park suggested us to visit Pasha. We reached early and had to queue in the icy drizzle for about 45 minutes before the gates opened. Pasha didn’t disappoint us. It’s a huge multi-level nightclub packed with an insane crowd. We danced to the beats with a lot of cocktails until the wee hours. The bad news is that this place is permanently closed now.

Day 7: Explore NYC

We hardly slept for few hours and it was time to rise and shine again. Today we were going to explore downtown NYC on a hop on hop off tour bus clubbed with Ellis Island.

Pirate Tip 5: If you are short on time than the best way to explore NYC is the hop on hop off bus. Do this at least for a day to cover the top destinations without getting lost and the rest you can explore on your own.

9 am

It was raining hard. New York was hell bent on making a mess out of my plans. We got on our hop on hop off bus and moved to the covered section ahead to escape the rain.

Hop on hop off in NYC during backpacking the US
Hop on Hop off at NYC
The bus took us through Theater District, Times Square, Empire State Building, Chinatown, Ground zero (former World Trade Center), Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station et cetera.
Downtown NYC
Downtown NYC

2 pm

We skipped the New York Water taxi for the next day and took the ferry to Ellis Island from Battery Park.

Battery Park NYC
Battery Park NYC
Ellis Island was barely visible from the sea and we could just see the silhouette of Status of Liberty hidden in the fog. The visibility improved a little after we reached the island.
Statue of Liberty braving the blizzard
Statue of Liberty braving the blizzard
But the wind and rain were too strong. We found trash bins stuffed with broken umbrellas (a first time for me). We stuffed ours too after few minutes of use. The wind was just too strong for the cheap umbrellas to handle. I almost killed my DSLR here. As I was clicking pictures against the wind and rain probably few drops leaked in and the camera stopped working. I had to stand for an hour beside a blow dryer back in our hostel to revive it.

6 pm

Back to Times Square. This place is so famous and so hyped that it made us visit twice. But you should visit Times Square at least once during the night as this is only time it comes alive with all its props. The gigantic electronic screens and colorful neon lights make it a treat to watch. During the day it is just another boring square.

Crowd at Times Square
Crowd at Times Square

9 pm

Ending the day in a signature Pirate style with rum shots.

Day 7: Conquer Empire States Building

Today’s target was the Empire State building. The weather in the morning was damp and cold with the same boring drizzle, but as we approached the building the sky started to open up with rays of hope peeking through.

10 am

We didn’t expect such a huge queue at the Empire States Building. The queue stretched for maybe half a kilometer. We had both our breakfast and lunch while standing in the queue.

Queue at the Empire States Building
The never ending queue at the Empire States Building
It was almost 12 pm by the time we reached the lifts. Then a flash journey vertically. I loved watching the floor indicators inside the lift. Instead of the usual 1 and 2, they show in multiples, 10,20, 30 until we arrived at the 86th floor.
Inside the lift at Empire State Building
The indicator inside the lift
And there we were at the highest open air observatory in NYC. The observatory wraps around the building and gives a sweeping view of New York, Brooklyn, the Hudson meandering in between, the Chrysler building et cetera. The view is breathtaking from the top and was worth all the efforts we put in to get there. We were so lucky to get a sunny sky which made the view even more incredible. Ahhh…the final scene from Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks finally meets Meg Ryan at this same spot floated right before my eyes.
View from top of Empire State Building during backing the US
Incredible view from top of Empire State building

Pirate Tip 6: Dash to the edge as soon as you are out of the elevator for an uninterrupted view. There is a 2nd observatory at the 102nd floor that you can access for an additional fee. As per countless reviews on the internet, it’s a rip-off and we skipped it. The view is just the same and it’s not open air.

4 pm

Empire state building was done, and we have our New York water cruise in half an hour. To make it on time we hired a cab. The traffic is so bad in Manhattan that by the time we reached the pier, entry was closed. They didn’t allow us in after repeated requests although the boat was still at the pier. Sadly, we missed the cruise. I would highly recommend to reach Empire State early and give ample time in between so that you don’t end up missing the cruise like us.

6 pm

Back to Times Square but this time our target was Hard Rock Café NY Broadway. If you are a HRC fan like me then you have to visit this café. It’s definitely among the best ones. There’s a whole wall made out of guitars, which was my favorite thing inside apart from a broken guitar from Linkin Park. It was raining heavily outside as we sipped on our final drinks in NYC.

Hard Rock Cafe NYC
The wall of rock at Hard Rock Cafe NYC
Day 8 – Flight back to Mumbai

Early morning flight from JFK to Houston, connecting via Washington and Atlanta. I arrived at Houston by 4 pm and boarded my flight to Mumbai at around 6 pm. Right after checking into the aircraft, everything blacked out until the air hostess woke me up in Dubai. I was near senseless for about 20 hours and didn’t even had any dinner or breakfast.
Same story repeated from Dubai to Mumbai and continued to my comfy bed at my Mumbai apartment. It took me few days to fully recover from this hell of a backpacking the US journey but I cherish every moment of it and would do it all over again without a 2nd thought 🙂 .

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Signing off for now………

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