As the second largest state in America, Texas is one beast of a trip. With points of interest dotted all the way through the state, this is not a place you can check off on a flying visit; instead, take your time.
Direct flights buzz into Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, and from there, you’ll probably want to visit the state capital, Austin, and uncover the historic wonders of San Antonio. Outdoors enthusiasts target the southern border from Big Bend National Park all the way down to the Gulf, while wine-lovers focus on the Hill Country and party people hit the beaches of Galveston. Then there are all those little off-the-beaten-path towns full of ranches and wild west charm, where you can sport your cowboy hat.
To explore the state’s myriad attractions, you’re 100% going to need a car. Public transport is neither reliable nor affordable in Texas, and it certainly doesn’t cover the length and breadth of the state. Factor in gas, accommodation, entry tickets, and dining on top of daily vehicle rental costs, and the price of a trip could prove overwhelming for those on tight budgets.
But fear not! If you’re smart, exploring the state of Texas is perfectly possible on a budget. Check out our money-saving tips and tricks and see for yourself.
Big Texas experiences don’t have to cost big bucks © Westend61 / Getty Images
- Hostel room: $35–50 (dorm bed)
- Basic hotel room for two: $100–180
- Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from $120
- Cup of coffee: $4–4.50
- A cafe sandwich: $8–10
- A lunch taco: $2.50-5
- Restaurant dinner for two: $60–80
- Beer/pint at the bar: $6–8
- Average daily cost: $200-300
Start in Dallas or Houston
The two busiest airports in Texas – Dalls/Fort Worth (DFW) and Houston (IAH) offer the best range of direct flights, and competition keeps fares lower. You’ll also have more car rental companies to choose from when comparing prices. Of course, you’ll want to book well in advance for flight and rental deals; aim for the shoulder seasons to balance moderate prices with good weather for activities.
Avoid festival season (unless you’re going to a festival)
Aside from the usual peak holiday times such as Christmas, July 4th and Spring Break, prices in Texas soar during the state’s big festivals. Events to avoid (or budget for) include SXSW (March) in Austin, Fiesta (April) in San Antonio, and the Texas State Fair (late September to October) in Dallas.
Football season can be a busy, expensive time to visit Texas © Ronald Martinez / Getty Images
And watch out for game day, too!
Likewise, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a good deal on a hotel room in any sporting hub on game day, especially if your accommodation is close to a stadium. Home games for the Texas Rangers (Dallas-Fort-Worth), Dallas Cowboys, and Houston Astros will ramp up traffic citywide. Unless you have tickets, hit these cities outside of game days.
Go see college football instead
If you’re not too fussed about seeing the big teams, but simply want to get a dose of the American football experience, you’ll save money by snagging tickets to college football games instead of NFL games. In fact, the atmosphere is pretty comparable – Texans are huge sports fans, and they follow college football just as avidly as the national league.
Load up on tacos for breakfast
You can enjoy Texas’ famous Tex-Mex cuisine on the cheap if you opt for the breakfast variety. Tex-Mex breakfasts are filled with goodies such as eggs, beans, cheese, potatoes, avocado, and sausage, and are generally cheaper than sitting down to a full lunch or dinner spread. Some locals insist that Tex-Mex breakfasts are the best in the state. Branches of the Tacodeli chain in Austin, Dallas, Plano and Houston have a brilliant selection of breakfast items.
A Texas BBQ chef prepares a delicious serving of smoked brisket © Joel Villanueva / Getty Images
Ignore the barbecue hype
People stand in line for hours for famous BBQ restaurants in Texas, but you can get just as juicy a brisket from smaller vendors that aren’t so heavily marketed. Look out for food trucks such as Austin’s Leroy and Lewis and barbecue shacks such as Driftwood’s Salt Lick and you’ll soon find your own smokey superstars.
Avoid famous hotel chains
Texans love family gatherings, and because the state is so spread out, this often involves hotel stays, so locals are loyal points collectors. It’s all about building membership status to unlock perks, so there’s lots of competition for rooms at chains such as Marriott and Hilton. If you’re a savvy traveler looking for a more boutique experience, book an independent hotel, hostel, or rental apartment, where you don’t have to be a “platinum member” to enjoy free parking.
But take advantage of their pools
If you’re staying in a cheap hostel and fancy a touch of glam, there’s still a way to enjoy those big hotel amenities. ResortPass gives you access to chain hotel pools for around $20 a day, so you can cool off and get those sexy holiday snaps without the steep overnight price tag. Note that prices can vary greatly depending on the day, the length of the pass, and the hotel class.
A national park pass can bring big savings on outdoor adventures © pchoui / Getty Images
Flex your national park pass
If you’re heading to big Texas national parks such as Big Bend or the Guadalupe Mountains and intend on visiting other US national parks within one calendar year, you’ll save a pretty penny with an annual pass. One visit to Big Bend costs $30 per vehicle, but the America the Beautiful pass costs $80 for the whole year. You can make up the cost of the pass with just two or three visits to America’s wildernesses.
Make picnics your hike reward
With so much open space to enjoy, and so many hiking trails to explore, you’ll save a ton by stocking up on picnic items from grocery chains such as H-E-B and Kroger instead of eating out for every meal. Just don’t forget to bring a cooler to keep food fresh in the Texas heat.
Sightsee on the road
With the dry landscape, road trips in Texas are not always that scenic, but at certain times of the year, you can enjoy postcard-perfect views on the road. In spring, the Texas Hill Country region is covered with wildflowers, including gorgeous bluebonnets, the state flower. Indeed, this is just one of the free Texas moments you can enjoy on the highway; for something different, take in such classic bits of roadside Americana as the roadside Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo.
Paddleboarding is a pocket-friendly way to cool off in Texas © RyanJLane / Getty Images
Switch the boat for a canoe
Renting a boat in Texas is expensive, so if you’re willing to put in some elbow grease, you’ll save big by renting a canoe or stand-up paddleboard instead. You’ll still be able to take in the sights of Possum Kingdom Lake and Lake Travis, but at a fraction of the cost of hiring a boat and captain (paddling yourself is better for the environment too).
Make the most of free live music in Austin
Austin’s music reputation is built on a bit of exaggeration – the “live music capital of the world” slogan you’ll see plastered across town has never been proven, but new and emerging bands still flock to the city to make their mark. You’ll see them (for free) at bars, restaurants, record stores, stand-alone gigs, and even entire festivals, such as the fun-filled Blues on the Green every summer.
Skip the zoos and aquariums
Take it from us: the state’s big-name animal attractions are costly and rarely as exciting as claimed. There are many ways to enjoy wildlife – the free-roaming sort – without an entrance fee, such as seeing brown pelicans cruising around the bay at Galveston. If you don’t mind paying an entry fee, great-value nature experiences await in the state’s national parks and reserves.
You can see longhorns for free at the daily cattle drive in Forth Worth © typhoonski / Getty Images
You don’t need rodeo tickets to see longhorns
Texas’ famous cows are everywhere, so you don’t really need to buy expensive tickets to go see them (and rodeos are not great for animal welfare either). Fort Worth – aka “Cowtown” – holds twice daily cattle drives where longhorns parade through the city’s Stockyards district, and you can watch the spectacle for absolutely nada. You’ll also see plenty of grazing cattle, and perhaps the odd cowboy, on pretty much any road trip through the state.
Fuel up at the gas station, in more ways than one
If you’ve never been to a Buc’ee’s, prepare to have your life changed. These Texan gas stations are not only a pit stop for your gas tank, but also for your stomach. Their brisket sandwiches and kolaches (breakfast pastries) are worth the stop all by themselves. You’ll never think of a gas station the same way again.
Finally, consider going electric
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, there are over 2,000 electric charging stations in the state, and the number is growing by the day. By renting an electric vehicle, you’ll not only find yourself in a snazzy electric automobile, you’ll save a trunk-load of cash as most charging stations are free to use. And you’ll help the environment in the process; it’s a win-win.