As ever so often during university, I had big dreams but only little money. One of them was wanting to see the lakes, cities and mountains of North America, and take as much time for it as I needed (a month, it turned out, wasn’t enough). Alas, my bank was constantly pestering me with reminder emails of overdraft charges – oh the joys. With months of overtime hours, and saving pennies wherever possible (usually not one of my strengths), I booked an unusually cheap return flight from London to New York (always book on Tuesdays!) in August and cancelled my room contract.

Now in all honesty, much of the roadtripping part was actually Greyhounding or Megabussing. It’s ridiculous how you can get from San Fran to Las Vegas for $10, do it overnight and you can invest that $30 that you would have spent for a hostel bed, in a juicy In’n’Out burger instead. If you’ve got friends (of friends) living locally, that’s even better. Ask them if you can crash on their couch and offer to do a photo shoot with them or clean their flat (a favourite) in return. North America on a budget is totally doable!

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Some basics

If you sublet your room or flat during the month (or two) you’re on the road, and have someone to split the car and hostel/hotel costs with, your trip won’t actually be that expensive. Calculate $50 a day plus about $600 for in-country flights and bus journeys and you’ve spent $2000 for an unforgettable four weeks in two countries and ten cities. The key is to plan that little bit ahead to avoid ‘emergency costs’, to not get stressed by a small bank account (today I realise that we’ve probably spent very little but for some reason we knew the tastes, the sights and the encounters would be so much more valuable than a high-end luxury hotel bed anyway.)

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And now I’m throwing an itinerary, a bunch of cool locations and random/scary/hilarious anecdotes at you…

Five days in New York

I vividly remember sitting on my huge backpack somewhere in Lower Manhattan at 2am and just staring at the madness that was the sirens, the cars, the drunk kids and the street lights in absolute exhaustion. We were lost, jetlagged, hadn’t slept for much of over 24 hours – but I’ve heard this city tends not to do much sleeping anyway.

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If you need a couple of places for your list, grab a bite at Rosamunde Sausage Grill, a pint at Brooklyn Brewery and delicious organic food at Five Leaves in Williamsburg. Check out Miracle Gardens, pizza at Gruppo and cocktails at Evelyn in Alphabet City. The city’s various branches of Five Guys, Brgr and Shake Shack will satisfy all your burger needs. Other stops in the West Village include The High Line, New York Public Library and Chelsea Market. We spent the time in a dodgy hostel (2 nights) and in a lovely AirBnB apartment in Crown Heights. If you have one good, hearty brunch and then just a slice of pizza for dinner you should be fine. There’s quite a few free things to do in NYC if you’re budget isn’t huge.

Four days in Toronto

We took the Megabus up to Toronto overnight, managed to get a little bit of sleep, and were picked up from the coach station by some friends who drove us straight to a nearby beach. Nap time! I loved Toronto because I didn’t have a lot of expectations, I was more interested in discovered Ontario, so the city really had an easy job convincing me of its urban culture – and there is plenty! Check out Kensington Market, the Poetry Jazz Cafe (good luck not getting drunk with guitarists!), St. Lawrence Market. La Merceria is a great Argentinian Cafe and of course you have to get a Poutine at Poutini’s – otherwise you’ve never really been to Canada.

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But let’s get back to Ontario. We skipped Niagara Falls for a weekend getaway to one of the five lakes because my friend knew a family who had a huge villa built onto a rock, as you do. These three days of jumping off cliffs, barbecuing and playing the guitar while the sun was setting (and while we were all getting bit by evil insects) was easily some of the best of my entire life.

Four days in Vancouver

As much love as I (and Kathi) have for Vancouver, the first two days in the city were actually a nightmare. We took a flight from Toronto to Vancouver, normally they are almost as expensive as flying over to Europe (so make sure you consider this in your budget) but we were, again, lucky. Once there, we had ended up in a hostel that was really more like a pre-prison institution. Police were constantly going through the rooms hoping to catch one of the ‘inmates’ deal with drugs. The roof was covered in weed plants, lockers were broken and I was sleeping on my laptop and camera because I had the very justified fear that the guys sleeping above and below me were… um, gangsters. It was only $10 though. Bargain!

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Two days in Seattle

I sobbed during the entire Greyhound journey down to Seattle. Oh Vancouver, leaving you and your weed odor is breaking my heart! Well, a girl has to move on. Hello Seattle! Seattle is the world’s coffee capital. Have a good sip of caffeine and love at Zeitgeist Coffee, Bauhaus Coffee, Bedlam Coffee, and maybe also at the very first Starbucks branch just off Pike Place Market.

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One day in Portland

Greyhounding your way down the West Coast is almost as fun as roadtripping down the Pacific Northwest. Jokes, but it certainly is a lot cheaper (about $12 for Seattle to Portland). Head to Salt & Straw for incredibly experimental ice cream (Tomato Water and Ojai Olive Oil Sherbet anyone!?), Stumptown Coffee Roasters is obvious just like Voodoo Doughnuts (although maybe you’ll have starved by the time you reach the counter), Frances May and Table of Contents for your boutiquey needs, Clyde Common for dinner, the Saturday Market next to Willamette river and Burnside Bridge for sunsets. I also recommend Willamette Week for local tips (and because my flatmate used to work for them).

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Three days in San Francisco

If you go to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. ♥ I loved this city and cannot think of anyone who wouldn’t. My heart beats for the Beat Museum (featuring Jack Kerouac and friends), the fortune cookie factory in China Town, the view from Coit Tower and the beach next to Golden Gate Bridge where there’s no tourists. I recommend renting a bike and waking up the next day with a giant muscle ache thanks to its ten million hills. Would you save me, San Francisco?

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On the way down to LA, please rent an actual car and be sure to check out the highlights along Highway 1 like these:

– Big Sur
– Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
– Morro Bay
– Montana de Oro State Park
– Santa Barbara
– Malibu and Santa Monica

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In retrospect, I would take a lot more time to check out these six locations. It really is worth taking about a week to drive down the West Coast. California State Route I is the most beautiful road I have ever seen – and having to speed excessively because you’re due to drop off the rental car in LA while the ocean is sparkling next to you is not a good idea.

Two days in LA

LA you adorable weirdo! I did the 500 Days of Summer walk around Downtown, got lost in time for sunset and found a beautiful cafe with lots of indie mags. Other ways you spend your time in the city of angels is at Annenberg Space for Photography, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at Café Luxxe or the Sweet Rose Cremery if you’re down in Santa Monica. We accidentally stayed at a hostel opposite the Walk of Fame (which I hated) and so I spent my 20th birthday next to Cate Blanchett and Marlene Dietrich. Could have been worse.

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Four days at Grand Canyon

Let the car rental action resume after a good night’s sleep in LA… We drove all the way to the legendary Grand Canyon which was easily one of the best pit stops of our lives, got straight into a post-hike rainshower and then sneaked into the showers of people who were camping there. And also into the launderettes of people who were camping there (fresh clothes! Heaven!). We slept in the car for two nights – hiked during the day and fell asleep straight after. It was an awesome sleep thanks to the panorama outside the front shield.

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One day in Vegas (or, err, maybe not)

Oh Vegas! You didn’t impress me much after all that stunning Colorado roadtrip scenery. I’m almost certain that I’ll never go back there, but if you’re in the area, you might as well spend a day there just to be able to say that you’ve at least tried gambling your life away. Flights from Las Vegas airport are pretty cheap, so we flew back to Baltimore/the East Coast after three hours of a casino and 40°C induced hell.

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Three days in D.C.

The whole trip was rounded off with three days in Washington D.C. During previous visits I had only ever seen the official side of it, so I was all the more surprised when I spotted rose gardens and little streams in Georgetown… Check out Baked & Wired for awesome coffee, Georgetown Cupcake and the Newseum – which is a moving and inspiring tribute to world-changing journalism.

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So. This was it. You can probably exchange many of the destinations on this list (personally, I’d choose fewer next time and spend more time in the middle of nowhere on the West Coast and in British Columbia, Canada), but it’s possible and a lot of fun to see America and the rest of the world on a rather tight budget – even when you’re coming from Europe.

Have you guys been to the US and Canada? What have been your favourite stops?

All photographs taken by Caroline Schmitt