Distances in the USA are so great that it’s essential to plan in advance how you’ll get from place to place. Amtrak provides a skeletal but often scenic rail service, and there are usually good bus links between the major cities. Even in rural areas, with advance planning, you can usually reach the main points of interest without too much trouble by using local buses and charter services.
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That said, travel between cities is almost always easier if you have a car. Many worthwhile and memorable US destinations are far from the cities: even if a bus or train can take you to the general vicinity of one of the great national parks, for example, it would be of little use when it comes to enjoying the great outdoors.
Travelling on the national Amtrak network (800 872 7245, amtrak.com) is rarely the fastest way to get around, though if you have the time it can be a pleasant and relaxing experience. As you will note from our map, the Amtrak system isn’t comprehensive – East Coast states from Virginia northward are well covered with rail routes but some Western states are left out altogether. What’s more, the cross-country routes tend to be served by one or at most two trains per day, so in large areas of the nation the only train of the day passes through at three or four in the morning. A number of small local train services connect stops on the Amtrak lines with towns and cities not on the main grid. Amtrak also runs the coordinated, but still limited, Thruway bus service that connects some cities that their trains don’t reach.
For any one specific journey, the train is usually more expensive than taking a Greyhound bus, or even a plane – the standard rail fare from New York to Los Angeles, for example, starts at around $220 one way with advance online booking – though special deals, especially in the off-peak seasons (Sept–May, excluding Christmas), can bring the cost of a coast-to-coast return trip down to around $220–300. Money-saving passes are also available.
Even with a pass, you should always reserve as far in advance as possible; all passengers must have seats, and some trains, especially between major East Coast cities, are booked solid. Sleeping compartments start at around $400 per night, including three full meals, in addition to your seat fare, for one or two people. However, even standard Amtrak quarters are surprisingly spacious compared to aeroplane seats, and there are additional dining cars and lounge cars (with full bars and sometimes glass-domed 360° viewing compartments). Finally, if you want to make your journey in the Northeast in a hurry, hop aboard the speedy Acela service, which can shave anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour off your trip, though tends to cost from $25–100 more than a fare on a standard Amtrak train.
If you’re travelling on your own and plan on making a lot of stops, buses are by far the cheapest way to get around. The main long-distance operator, Greyhound (800 231 2222, greyhound.com, international customers without toll-free access can also call t 214 849 8100 from 5am–1am CST), links all major cities and many towns. Out in the country, buses are fairly scarce, sometimes appearing only once a day, if at all. However, along the main highways, buses run around the clock to a full timetable, stopping only for meal breaks (almost always fast-food chains) and driver changeovers.
To avoid possible hassle, travellers should take care to sit as near to the driver as possible, and to arrive during daylight hours – many bus stations are in dodgy areas. In many smaller places, the post office or a petrol station doubles as the bus stop and ticket office. Reservations can be made in person at the station, online or on the toll-free number. Oddly they do not guarantee a seat, so it’s wise to join the queue early – if a bus is full, you may have to wait for the next one, although Greyhound claims it will lay on an extra bus if more than ten people are left behind. Fares on shorter journeys average out at about 25¢ per mile, but for longer hauls there are plenty of savings available – check the website’s discounts page.
Other operators include Trailways (800 776 7581, trailways.com), whose regional divisions cover some parts of the country more comprehensively, Megabus (877 462 6342, us.megabus.com), whose low-cost service covers the Northeast and Midwest, Northeast operator Peter Pan (800 343 9999, peterpanbus.com) and the alternative Green Tortoise.
Despite the presence of good-value discount airlines – most notably Southwest and JetBlue – air travel is a much less appealing way of getting around the country than it used to be. With air fuel costs escalating even faster than petrol costs, and airlines cutting routes, demanding customers pay for routine services and jacking up prices across the board, the days of using jet travel as a spur to vacation adventuring are long gone. To get any kind of break on price, you’ll have to reserve well ahead of time (at least three weeks), preferably not embark in the high season, and be firm enough in your plans to buy a “non-refundable” fare – which if changed can incur costs of $100 or more. Nonetheless, flying can still cost less than the train – though still more than the bus.
For many, the concept of cruising down the highway, preferably in a convertible with the radio blasting, is one of the main reasons to set out on a tour of the USA. The romantic images of countless road movies are not far from the truth, though you don’t have to embark on a wild spree of drinking, drugs and sex to enjoy driving across America. Apart from anything else, a car makes it possible to choose your own itinerary and to explore the astonishing wide-open landscapes that may well provide your most enduring memories of the country.
Driving in the cities, on the other hand, is not exactly fun, and can be hair-raising. Yet in larger places a car is by far the most convenient way to make your way around, especially as public transport tends to be spotty outside the major cities. Many urban areas, especially in the West, have grown up since cars were invented. As such, they sprawl for so many miles in all directions – Los Angeles and Houston are classic examples – that your hotel may be fifteen or twenty miles from the sights you came to see, or perhaps simply on the other side of a freeway that can’t be crossed on foot.
Renting a car
To rent a car, you must have held your licence for at least one year. Drivers under 25 may encounter problems and have to pay higher than normal insurance premiums. Rental companies expect customers to have a credit card; if you don’t, they may let you leave a cash deposit (at least $500), but don’t count on it. All the major rental companies have outlets at the main airports but it can often be cheaper to rent from a city branch. Reservations are handled centrally, so the best way to shop around is either online, or by calling their national toll-free numbers. Potential variations are endless; certain cities and states are consistently cheaper than others, while individual travellers may be eligible for corporate, frequent-flier or AAA discounts. In low season you may find a tiny car (a “subcompact”) for as little as $150 per week, but a typical budget rate would be more like $35–40 per day or around $220 per week including taxes. You can get some good deals from strictly local operators, though it can be risky as well. Make reading up on such inexpensive vendors part of your pre-trip planning.
Even between the major operators – who tend to charge $50–100 per week more than the local competition – there can be a big difference in the quality of cars. Industry leaders like Alamo, Hertz and Avis tend to have newer, lower-mileage cars and more reliable breakdown services. Always be sure to get unlimited mileage and remember that leaving the car in a different city to the one where you rented it can incur a drop-off charge of $200 or more.
Small print and insurance
When you rent a car, read the small print carefully for details on Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), sometimes called Liability Damage Waiver (LDW). This form of insurance specifically covers the car that you are driving yourself – you are in any case insured for damage to other vehicles. At $12–20 a day, it can add substantially to the total cost, but without it you’re liable for every scratch to the car – even those that aren’t your fault. Increasing numbers of states are requiring that this insurance be included in the weekly rental rate and are regulating the amounts charged to cut down on rental-car company profiteering. Some credit card companies offer automatic CDW coverage to customers using their card; contact your issuing company for details. Alternatively, European residents can cover themselves against such costs with a reasonably priced annual policy from Insurance4CarHire.
The American Automobile Association, or AAA (t 800 222 4357, aaa.com), provides free maps and assistance to its members and to members of affiliated associations overseas, such as the British AA and RAC. If you break down in a rented car, call one of these services if you have towing coverage, or the emergency number pinned to the dashboard.
Alamo USA 800 462 5266, alamo.com
Avis USA 800 230 4898, avis.com
Budget USA 800 527 0700, budget.com
Dollar USA 800 800 3665, dollar.com
Enterprise USA 800 261 7331, enterprise.com
Hertz USA 800 654 3131, hertz.com
Holiday Autos USA 866 392 9288, holidayautos.com
National USA 800 227 7368, nationalcar.com
Thrifty USA & Canada 800 847 4389, thrifty.com
Cycling is another realistic mode of transport. An increasing number of big cities have cycle lanes and local buses equipped to carry bikes (strapped to the outside), while in country areas, roads have wide shoulders and fewer passing motorists. Unless you plan to cycle a lot and take your own bike, however, it’s not especially cheap. Bikes can be rented for $15–50 per day, or at discounted weekly rates, from outlets that are usually found close to beaches, university campuses and good cycling areas. Local visitor centres have details.
The national nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, Montana (406 721 1776 or 800 755 2453, adventurecycling.org), publishes maps of several lengthy routes, detailing campgrounds, motels, restaurants, bike shops and places of interest. Many individual states issue their own cycling guides; contact the state tourist offices. Before setting out on a long-distance cycling trip, you’ll need a good-quality, multispeed bike, panniers, tools and spares, maps, padded shorts and a helmet (legally required in many states and localities). Plan a route that avoids interstate highways (on which cycling is unpleasant and usually illegal) and sticks to well-maintained, paved rural roads. Of problems you’ll encounter, the main one is traffic: RVs, huge eighteen-wheelers and logging trucks can create intense backdraughts capable of pulling you out into the middle of the road.
Backroads Bicycle Tours (800 462 2848, backroads.com), and the HI-AYH hostelling group arrange multiday cycle tours, with camping or stays in country inns; where appropriate we’ve also mentioned local firms that offer this.
Greyhound, Amtrak and major airlines will carry passengers’ bikes – dismantled and packed into a box – for a small fee.
One alternative to long-distance bus torture is the fun, countercultural Green Tortoise, whose buses, complete with foam cushions, bunks, fridges and rock music, mostly ply the West and the Northwest of the country, but can go as far as New Orleans, Washington DC and New York. Highlights include the California Cruiser (11 days; $505), the coast-to-coast USA Explorer (34 days; $2816), and the gung-ho Alaska Expedition (27 days; $2500); food and park admissions cost extra. There are more than thirty seductive options, each allowing plenty of stops for hiking, river-rafting, bathing in hot springs and the like.
Green Tortoise’s main office is in San Francisco (415 956 7500 or 800 867 8647, greentortoise.com).
While Amtrak has a monopoly on long-distance rail travel, a number of historic or scenic railways, some steam-powered or running along narrow-gauge mining tracks, bring back the glory days of train travel. Many are purely tourist attractions, doing a full circuit through beautiful countryside in two or three hours, though some can drop you off in otherwise hard-to-reach wilderness areas. Fares vary widely according to the length of your trip.
Hitchhiking in the United States is a bad idea, making you a potential victim both inside (you never know whom you’re travelling with) and outside the car, as the odd fatality may occur from hitchers getting a little too close to the highway lanes. At a minimum, in the many states where the practice is illegal, you can expect a steep fine from the police and, on occasion, an overnight stay in the local jail.
Packages and tours
Although independent travel is usually cheaper, countless flight and accommodation packages allow you to bypass all the organizational hassles. A typical package from the UK might be a return flight plus mid-range Midtown hotel accommodation for three nights in New York City, starting at around £700 per person in low season and more like £950 at peak periods.
Fly-drive deals, which give cut-rate car rental when a traveller buys a transatlantic ticket from an airline or tour operator, are always cheaper than renting on the spot, and give great value if you intend to do a lot of driving. They’re readily available through general online booking agents such as Expedia and Travelocity, as well as through specific airlines. Several operators also book accommodation for self-drive tours.
A simple and exciting way to see a chunk of America’s great outdoors is to take a specialist touring and adventure package, which includes transport, accommodation, food and a guide. Companies such as TrekAmerica carry small groups around on minibuses and use a combination of budget hotels and camping. Most concentrate on the West – ranging from Arizona to Alaska, and lasting from seven days to five weeks; cross-country treks and adventures that take in New York or Florida are also available. Typical rates for a week – excluding transatlantic flights – range from £620 in low season up to £930 in midsummer. Trips to Alaska cost a good bit more.
Pre-trip planning for overseas travellers
The USA Rail Pass (15-day/8 segments/$489; 30-day/12 segments/$669; 45-day/18 segments/$859) covers the entire Amtrak network for the designated period, though you are restricted to a set number of individual journeys. The California Rail Pass buys you seven days’ travel in a 21-day period within that state for $159. Passes can be bought from the Amtrak website (amtrak.com).
The main American airlines offer air passes for visitors who plan to fly a lot within the USA. These must be bought in advance and are often sold with the proviso that you cross the Atlantic with the same airline or group of airlines (such as Star Alliance). Each deal will involve the purchase of a certain number of flights, air miles or coupons. Other plans entitle foreign travellers to discounts on regular US domestic fares, again with the proviso that you buy the ticket before you leave home. Check with the individual airlines to see what they offer and the overall range of prices. However you do it, flying within the USA is only a wise choice for travel in regions where fares are low anyway; flights within Florida, for example, are very expensive.