Due to the size of the United States and the distance between major cities, air travel is the dominant mode of travel for short-term travellers. If you have time, travelling by car, bus or train can be interesting.
In some provinces, you can get information about traffic and public transport by dialling 511 on your phone.
Air travel is the fastest and often the most convenient means of long-distance travel in the United States. A coast-to-coast trip takes about six hours east to west and five hours west to east (depending on winds), compared to several days for ground transportation. Most major US cities are served by one or two airports; many smaller cities also have passenger air service, although you may have to diversions through a major central airport to get there. Depending on your point of departure, it may be more economical to drive and fly to a nearby major city or, alternatively, fly to a major city near your destination and rent a car.
Unlike many other countries, the United States has never had a state-owned national airline. The structure of US airlines has changed dramatically over the past decade due to bankruptcies and mergers. The largest airlines are the three remaining major legacy airlines (American Airlines, Delta and United) and two of the country’s low-cost carriers, Southwest and JetBlue. Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are traditional regional carriers, while smaller carriers such as Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, Virgin America, Dynamic International Airways and Sun Country are trying to make a name for themselves. There are also a number of smaller regional airlines that are subsidiaries of the larger airlines and can be booked through their parent companies.
The major airlines compete with each other on the main routes, and travellers willing to book two weeks or more in advance can get good deals. However, most smaller destinations are only served by one or two regional airlines, and prices can be high. However, the line between low-cost carriers and mainline carriers is getting thinner in terms of prices and service. It is often possible to travel on national or regional airlines at a similar or even lower price than on the no-service carriers, as long as you don’t buy more than one seat, hand luggage and soft drinks. But ironically, budget airlines can sometimes offer more amenities than the major carriers, such as in-flight entertainment, even on a short-haul flight, or free checked baggage in their ticket prices! On Southwest Airlines, for example, passengers can check up to two pieces of luggage in the basic fare.
The major airlines also offer first class, which provides a larger seat, free food and drink and better service. Round-trip fares can exceed a thousand dollars even for short flights, so the extra cost is not worth it for the vast majority of travellers. (Most First Class travellers get their seats through a free frequent flyer upgrade or similar benefit.) ) You may also be offered an upgrade at a much lower price at check-in or at the airport if seats are available. Depending on the cost of a last-minute upgrade, the savings on checked baggage fees alone can be a worthwhile option (you’ll also get priority boarding, a bigger seat, more legroom, free food and drinks).
On certain transcontinental flights operated by American (“Flagship Service“), Delta (“BusinessElite Transcontinental“), JetBlue (“Mint”) and United (“BusinessFirst p.s. “), where international-style business class (with lie-flat seats and upgraded meals) is available, American’s Flagship Service also offers the equivalent of international first class in a very private 1-1 configuration. Transcontinental upgrade service is generally only available between New York-JFK and Los Angeles/San Francisco, although Delta offers it on some flights to Seattle. Flights between the East Coast and Hawaii, as well as all flights between the mainland and the US Pacific Territories (Guam, CNMI, etc…), generally feature International Business Class.
Security at US airports is expensive, especially during holiday periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Adults must present an approved photo ID.
There are restrictions on liquids (including gels, aerosols, creams and pastes) in hand baggage. Liquids must be in individual containers no larger than 100 ml (3.4 oz.). All containers must be placed in a single plastic zippered bag with a capacity of 946 ml (1 quart) or less. Only one such bag is permitted per passenger, regardless of the amount of liquid. Liquids exceeding these limits will be confiscated. Medication (including saline solution for contact lenses) and infant and children’s food (formula, breast milk and infant juice) are exempt but subject to additional controls; inform TSA officials if you are carrying these items, store them separately from your other liquids and, if possible, label them clearly in advance.
When arriving from an international destination, ALL passengers must go through security to continue their flight after clearing Immigration and Customs. This means that all liquids and prohibited items (as per TSA regulations) purchased at a duty-free shop or taken as carry-on baggage from a foreign airport must be placed back in checked baggage after leaving the customs area and before being checked again. At most airports, there is a check-in counter or conveyor belt outside the customs area for transit passengers to recheck their baggage. Items cannot be repacked or rearranged in the baggage claim area prior to customs inspection.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet starts at around US$4,000 per flight hour, with costs significantly higher for longer-range aircraft and lower for smaller propeller-driven aircraft. Although private flights are far from cheap, a family of four or more can often fly together at a similar or even cheaper cost than a first-class commercial flight, especially to smaller airports where scheduled commercial flights are the most expensive and private flights the cheapest. It may be cheaper to fly internationally first class as a family of four, but this is rarely the case except when travelling from Western Europe.
Air Charter is the rental of a private aircraft for a single trip. Jet Cards are prepaid cards that entitle you to a certain number of flight hours in a specific aircraft. Since all expenses are paid in advance on the card, you don’t have to worry about downtime, return flights, landing fees, etc.
Many small-town airports on America’s borders welcome small private planes; places like Ogdensburg, Watertown and Massena, which have only a couple of scheduled domestic Essential Air Service flights a day, fill the rest of their time with general aviation. Give them an hour or two head start to get the border officials to welcome the small private plane from exotic, foreign Brockville, and you’ve provided the excuse they needed to add “International Airport” to their name.
Due to the popularity of the aeroplane and the private car, the passenger train system in the United States is a shadow of what it was in the 1920s, and although the United States still has the longest rail system in the world, it is now mainly used for freight. With the exception of some densely populated corridors (especially in the Northeast, where there are high-speed trains), passenger trains in the United States are surprisingly rare, slow and relatively expensive. The national rail system, Amtrak (+1-800-USA-RAIL), serves many cities and offers exceptional sightseeing opportunities, but is not particularly efficient for intercity travel and is often as expensive as flying. In urban areas, Amtrak can be very efficient and convenient, but delays are common in rural areas. Plan ahead to ensure train travel between your destinations is available and/or convenient. There are discounts of 15% for students and seniors and a 30-day U.S. Rail Pass for international travellers only. If you plan to buy a regular ticket within a week of your trip, it is worth checking the website for “weekly offers”, which are sometimes substantial. Travellers from Europe and East Asia should note that there is no dedicated high-speed rail network in the U.S. and driving is often faster than taking the train for long distances.
Amtrak offers many amenities and services that other modes of transportation lack. Amtrak’s routes traverse some of America’s most beautiful regions. Travellers with limited time may not find the train convenient simply because the country is large, and this “size” is particularly evident in many scenic areas. However, for those with enough time, travelling by train offers an unparalleled view of the United States without the hassles and long-term inconveniences of a rental car or the hassles of flying. Some of the more scenic routes include the California Zephyr, which runs from Emeryville in California’s Bay Area to Chicago, and the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle or Portland. Both offer a special lounge car with floor-to-ceiling windows and double-decker coaches.
During the usual US holiday periods, some long-distance trains (outside the Northeast) can sell out weeks or even months in advance. So it pays to book early if you plan to use long-distance trains. Booking early also means that you will generally get lower fares on all trains, as these tend to go up when trains are full. On the other hand, same-day bookings are usually easy, and depending on the terms of the fare you purchase, you may be able to change your travel plans on the same day at no cost.
Independent of Amtrak, many major cities offer very reliable commuter trains that carry passengers to and from the suburbs or other relatively nearby areas. Since most Americans use a car to get around the suburbs, some commuter rail stations have park-and-ride lots where you can leave your car for the day to use commuter rail to get to a city’s downtown, where traffic and parking problems can make it more difficult to use a car. Rates for parking at commuter rail stations vary (some facilities are operated by third parties). Some commuter rail systems and services do not operate on weekends and holidays, so it is best to check the system’s website to plan ahead. Buy your tickets before you board the train as you can either pay a much higher fare or receive a hefty fine.
With the boat
America has the largest network of inland waterways of any country in the world. It is entirely possible to travel within the United States by boat. Your choice of watercraft ranges from self-propelled canoes and kayaks to elaborate houseboats and river cruises.
Rivers and canals have played a key role in the country’s development, and a boat trip across them offers a unique perspective on the nation and unique landscapes. Here are some examples of waterways open for boating and/or scheduled cruises:
- The New York State Canal System operates four canals with a total of 524 miles of waterways open for recreational and commercial use. The most famous of these canals is the Erie Canal, which begins near Albany and runs west to Buffalo. The Hudson River can be used to travel from New York to the Great Lakes and beyond. Side trips can be made to the Finger Lakes in Western New York or to Lake Champlain and Vermont. Small boats, including canoes and kayaks, are welcome on these canals.
- The St Lawrence Seaway is now the main port of entry for large vessels in North America. Recreational boaters are welcome, but the Seaway is designed for very large vessels and a minimum length of 6 metres applies. The Seaway begins in eastern Canada and extends to the Great Lakes.
- The Mississippi River There are two navigation routes between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The Mississippi provides north-south access through the interior of the United States to the Gulf of Mexico and connects to all major inland waterways, including the Missouri and Ohio Rivers.
Every year, many newcomers and beginners successfully navigate these waterways. Remember that any kind of boating requires some preparation and planning. In general, the Coast Guard and the canal and maritime authorities are eager to help boaters. They may also give instructions that you must follow immediately. For example, small boats on canals may have to give way to larger boats, and weather conditions may require you to stop or change your route.
In the northwest, you can take the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries from Bellingham, Washington, all the way along Alaska’s southern coast to Dutch Harbor-Unalaska. As an added bonus, you can enjoy the beautiful mountain and archipelago scenery. Plus, much of Alaska is accessible off the beaten path by boat.
America’s love of the automobile is legendary, and most Americans use a car to get around their city and travel to nearby cities in their state or region. Travelling in the United States without a car can be difficult, but not impossible.
In general, American cities were built for the automobile. Renting or bringing your own car is therefore generally a very good idea. This is true even in very large cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami, where public transport is very limited and a car is the most convenient way to get around. (The exceptions are New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., where owning a car is not only unnecessary but also inadvisable). In most medium-sized American cities, everything is scattered and public transport is scarce. Taxis are often available, but if you’re not at the airport, you may have to call one and wait half an hour or so for a pickup, and make similar arrangements for the return trip. While most Americans will be happy to give you directions, don’t be surprised if many are unfamiliar with public transport.
Car rentals usually cost between $20 and $100 per day for a basic limousine, depending on the type of car and location, with some discounts for week-long rentals. Most car rental companies have offices in the city centres of major cities, as well as offices at major airports. Not all companies allow you to pick up a car in one city and drop it off in another (those that do almost always charge extra for the privilege); check with the rental company when you make your reservation. Most Americans who rent a car are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either through their credit card or through their own private car insurance. If you do not have proper damage insurance, you may have to pay the full cost of the car if it is destroyed in an accident. Taking out third party and comprehensive insurance can increase the rental price by up to $30 per day, in some cases doubling it.
Petrol stations usually sell regional and national maps. Online maps with directions are available on several websites, including MapQuest and Google Maps. Drivers can get directions by calling 1-800-Free411 (1-800-3733411) and receiving them via text message. GPS navigation devices can be purchased for about $100, and car rental agencies often rent GPS devices for a small fee. Many smartphones are now equipped with GPS navigation software that provides detailed directions. Even states that prohibit the use of mobile phones by drivers often allow the use of GPS features as long as the driver does not collect data while driving (check local laws in the places where you are travelling).
Unlike most of the world, the United States still uses the imperial system of measurement, which means that road signs are in miles and miles per hour and fuel is sold in gallons. Most American cars usually display both the imperial and metric systems, as they are also manufactured for the Canadian and Mexican markets. However, if your car’s speedometer doesn’t show both, make sure you know the appropriate conversion (1 mile is about 1.6 km) and read the owner’s manual to find out how to convert the units. The road signs are also not up to international standards, but if you understand English they should be self-explanatory.
The national highway system consists of interstates, i.e. controlled divided highways without grade crossings, the older US highway systems, which may be limited to one lane in each direction, and state highways. All of these roads are generally well maintained by their respective states. While the former usually only connect the larger cities in each state, US highways and state roads allow you to reach many interesting places off the beaten track if you are not afraid to stop at traffic lights and meet pedestrians. Most sections of the highways are free, but there are some that require a fee.
Great American Journey
The idea of long-distance travel by car has a romantic appeal; many Americans will tell you that you can only see the “real” America by car. With little public transport in most American cities, the time lost travelling between two cities by car rather than flying can be offset by the convenience of driving within cities once you arrive. In addition, many of the country’s great natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, are almost impossible to reach without a car. If you have the time, a classic American road trip is very easy to do with a rental car (see below). Just remember that this type of trip can mean long days behind the wheel due to the distances involved, so make sure you are comfortable in the car you use. A coast-to-coast trip with multiple drivers and minimal stops takes at least five days (four and a half if you have a good bladder).
Driving laws are primarily a matter of state legislation and are enforced by state and local police. Fortunately, the widespread adoption of the Uniform Vehicle Code and federal regulation of traffic signs under the Highway Safety Act means that most driving laws do not vary much from state to state. All states publish an official driver’s manual that summarises the state’s driving laws in plain English. These manuals are usually available on the Internet and at many government offices. The AAA publishes a “AAA/CAA Digest of Motor Laws”, now available free online, which covers, among other things, some of the differences in the traffic laws of all US states and Canadian provinces.
International visitors who are 18 years and older are usually allowed to drive with their foreign driving licence for up to one year, depending on national law. Non-English driver’s licences must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a certified translation. People staying in the US for more than one year must obtain a driver’s licence from the state in which they are staying, although exceptions sometimes apply depending on the state (for example, some states waive this requirement for people on student visas). Written and practical driving tests are usually required, although some Canadian and European licence holders may be exempt.
Americans drive in left-hand drive vehicles on the right and overtake on the left, as in Canada and Mexico. White lines separate traffic going in the same direction and yellow lines separate oncoming traffic. Red lights and stop signs are always obeyed in almost all jurisdictions in the USA. At all intersections, vehicles must stop behind the thick white line painted across the road and must not block pedestrian crossings. Turning right at a red light (after you have come to a stop and yielded the right of way to cross traffic) is legal in all states, although there are exceptions (e.g. in New York and where signs or signals specifically prohibit it). You must stop your vehicle immediately when you hear the siren of a police car, ambulance or fire engine to allow them to pass.
Speed limits vary depending on the area you are driving in. Most American drivers tend to drive calmly and safely in the sprawling suburban residential areas where the majority of Americans live. However, highways around central areas of major cities are often clogged with a significant percentage of “tailgated” drivers who exceed speed limits, make unsafe lane changes, or follow other cars too close (known as “tailgating”). Compliance with the posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable and varies significantly from state to state. If you keep up with other drivers, you will usually avoid an annoying ticket. Watch out for small towns along high-speed rural roads (and medium-speed suburban roads); the lower speed limits you find when driving through these towns are strictly enforced.
Intercity buses are widespread in the United States, and although they are not available everywhere, there are at least three daily routes in every state. Connections between nearby major cities are extremely frequent (for example, in July 2012, on a weekday off-peak, there were 82 buses a day, operated by seven operators, in both directions between Boston and New York, an average of almost one every 10 minutes). Many passengers use the bus when other modes of transport are not readily available, as buses often connect many small towns with regional cities. Disadvantaged and elderly people may use these bus routes as travelling by car is difficult or unaffordable for some. Buses are generally considered an “underclass” means of transport, but they are generally reliable, safe and affordable.
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1-800-229-9424) and several affiliated brands such as BoltBus, Lucky Streak, NeOn, Cruceros USA and Valley Transit (in southeast Texas) have the majority of bus service in the United States. Discounts are available for travellers who buy their tickets 7 to 14 days before the date of travel. Greyhound buses generally run in 5-7 hour segments. At this time, all passengers must leave the bus for it to be serviced, even if it is the middle of the night. Continuing passengers will board before the passengers who have just boarded. There are no reservations on Greyhound buses. All seats are on a first-come, first-served basis, except in some cities where you can pay $5 for a priority seat.
Coach USA operates a variety of commuter routes, airport shuttles, casino shuttles and university connection services under several names, including Megabus, its intercity brand that competes with Greyhound. Megabus operates mainly in the Midwest and eastern half of the country between the hubs of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, New York, Washington DC and several other cities around and between the hubs, as well as connections to Montreal and Toronto in Canada. There are also some connections between Los Angeles and San Francisco and Las Vegas, as well as another connection between San Francisco and Reno in the West, which do not connect with other connections in the Midwest and East Coast.
The so-called Chinatown buses are small independent companies that offer roadside departures for a standard cash fare that is often much lower than other operators. These routes operate mainly in the Northeast between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Baltimore. Some continue from the Northeast to destinations in the Midwest and South. Others run between California, Nevada and Arizona on the West Coast. For more information, see the respective city guides and GoToBus.com.
Hispanic bus companies tend to have the largest buses in the country. Many are subsidiaries or branches of Mexican bus companies that provide cross-border service beyond the border areas, as far north as Chicago, east to Atlanta and south to Mexico City. Services between hubs in Texas and the Midwest, including Chicago, the Southeast and Mexico are provided by Tornado Bus, El Expreso, Omnibus Mexicanos and Groupo Senda. Flights to and from Florida are offered by Chile’s JetSet, Argentina’s RedCoach and Cuban-American La Cubana. In California and the Southwest, operators include FuturaNet, Tufesa, InterCalifornias and El Paso-Los Angeles Limousines, which offer tickets from $1.
The second largest association is Trailways, which consists of 70 different independent franchisees who jointly operate the “Trailways” brand as a franchise. Most of them only offer charter bus services and not scheduled services on fixed routes. The main Trailways subsidiaries offering scheduled services are Trailways of New York, Martz Trailways, Susquehanna Trailways and Burlington Trailways.
The Federal Highway Administration certifies all bus operators, although it has difficulty controlling the large number of services. Neighbourhood buses (Chinatown buses and internet buses) are more dangerous than others, but still much safer than driving a private vehicle.
There are many other small Trailways subsidiaries and small non-affiliated companies that provide bus services throughout the country. Some are operated by local governments as public transport, while others are operated by private, for-profit companies, with buses running within the same state or across state lines.
By motorhome (RV)
Motorhomes – large, sometimes bus-sized vehicles with sleeping accommodations – are the quintessentially American way to travel the country. Some campers like the convenience of being able to go wherever they want in their RV and enjoy the camaraderie that RV parks provide. Others don’t like the hassle and maintenance problems that come with motorhoming. And don’t even think about driving a motorhome in a major metropolis like New York. Nevertheless, renting a motorhome is an option to consider if you plan to do a lot of driving in the United States and are comfortable with a large vehicle.
The excitement and exhilaration of a cross-country ride is heightened when you travel by motorbike. Harley-Davidson is America’s leading motorbike brand, and Harley operates a motorbike rental programme for people who are licensed and able to ride a full-size motorbike. In some areas of the country, you can also rent other types of motorbikes, such as sport, touring and dual-purpose bikes. For those who have no experience with motorbikes, Harley and other dealers offer beginner’s courses. Helmets are not mandatory in all states, but are always a good idea. The practice of riding between the lines of slower cars, also known as “lane sharing” or “lane splitting”, is illegal except in California, where it is tolerated and widespread. Solo motorcyclists may legally use high occupancy vehicle lanes or carpool lanes during their hours of operation.
The American enthusiasm for motorbikes has given rise to a motorbike subculture. Motorbike clubs are exclusive clubs for members dedicated to riding a particular brand of motorbike within a highly structured club hierarchy. Riding clubs may or may not be organised around a particular brand of motorbike and offer open membership to anyone interested in motorcycling. Motorbike rallies, like the one in Sturgis, South Dakota, are large gatherings of riders from all over the country. Many riders are not affiliated with any clubs and ride alone or with friends. In general, motorcycling is considered a hobby rather than a practical means of transportation; this means, for example, that most American motorcyclists prefer not to ride in bad weather. Whatever you choose, and whatever brand of motorbike you prefer, motorcycling can be an exciting way to see the country.