Getting Around the USA
The size of the U.S. and the distance separating major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers. If you have time, travel by car, bus, or rail can be interesting.
The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the U.S. is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 6 hours from east to west, and 5 hours from west to east (varying due to winds), compared to the days necessary for land transportation. Most cities in the U.S. are served by one or two airports; many small towns also have some passenger air service, although you may need to detour through a major hub airport to get there. Depending on where you are starting, it may be cheaper to drive to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and rent a car.
Major carriers compete for business on major routes, and travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance can get bargains. However most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be expensive.
There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:
- Mainline or legacy carriers - Due to bankruptcies and acquisitions, there are only four major (soon three) and two minor legacy carriers left: Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines, and U.S. Airways, plus Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. American and US Airways announced a merger in February 2013; when finalized, the merged company will operate under the more established American name. These carriers used to be full service, although are increasingly taking after carriers like Ryanair and becoming "no-frills". On a domestic flight in economy class, expect to pay extra for anything beyond a seat, 1 or 2 carry-on bags, and soft drinks. Some flights to/from Hawaii or Alaska still offer a few perks, but check for your particular airline and flight.
- Mainline carriers also offer first class for a larger seat, free food and drinks and overall better service. Round trip fares can run over a thousand dollars, even for short flights, making the added cost not worth it for the vast majority of travelers. (Most travelers in first class get their seat as a complimentary frequent flier upgrade or similar perk.) You may also be offered an upgrade at a much lower cost during check in or at the airport if there are open seats available.
- A notable exception are certain premium transcontinental services between New York City and Los Angeles/ San Francisco offered by American (" Flagship Service") and United ("United p.s."), where First (as well as Business Class) is comparable to equivalent international offerings with gourmet meals and lie-flat seats. Additionally, flights between the East Coast and Hawaii typically feature an international business class like product.
- Regional airlines come in three varieties.
- Regional subsidiaries operate under an umbrella such as "American Eagle" or "United Express" and run small regional jets or turboprops to locales where it is not economically or technically feasible to run a full sized jet. These flights are booked through their parent (e.g. Delta Connection through Delta), either by themselves or connecting to a mainline itinerary. On-board service is very basic.
- There are also Independent regional airlines which are not affiliated with a mainline carrier, these are usually found in more out of the way places, as well as near island communities (Cape Cod, Hawaii, Virgin Islands, etc...)
- Commuter airlines primarily serve the business travel market, with 10-30 seat turboprop planes. If you can work with their schedules and choice of airports (usually private aviation airports and municipal airfields) - their consistent fares can be a bargain compared even to low cost carriers. Additionally, since fares are the same whether you buy a month in advance or the day of, tickets are also flexible with no cancellation or change fees.
- Low-cost carriers have grown over the past decade. The most famous of these is ubiquitous Southwest Airlines, favorite of leisure and business travelers alike, with Frontier, Spirit, and others becoming formidable competitors. Amenities vary greatly by carrier. On one end, Southwest is the only airline in the United States that lets passengers check two bags free of charge, and have done away with some of the formality of air travel - with no travel agents (all reservations are through their website or call center), assigned seating or buy-on-board programs (free soft drinks and snacks for all passengers.) At the other side of the Spectrum, Spirit Airlines sells seats as low as $9, but charges for everything beyond the seat: checked and hand luggage, advance seat assignments, checking in at the airport, on board refreshments, etc....
- Southwest, Frontier and Spirit serve destinations nationwide, although they sometimes use smaller or alternative airports such as Chicago Midway instead of the larger O'Hare International Airport.
- Other low cost carriers such as Allegiant and Sun Country focus on "vacation destinations" (Florida, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, etc...)
- Hybrid carriers offer more amenities than low cost airlines but with fares lower than the legacies. The most famous of these is JetBlue Airways which has an extensive network covering primarily major airports, one free checked bag, 34 inches between seats (very generous for an American airline) and free satellite TV in every seat. A relative newcomer is the trendy brainchild of Sir Richard Branson: Virgin America which also offers a low-priced (comparatively anyway) First Class option.
Fortunately, most of the prices that you immediately see when searching for flights already include taxes and other mandatory fees applicable to all passengers. This is true whether you directly check the carrier's website or a consolidator (e.g. Travelocity). Unlike carriers in other foreign countries, those in the U.S. do not explicitly have a fuel surcharge. However, carriers charge for extra services, especially mainline/legacy ones. Here is a run down of services that may incur additional fees, as well as strategies for avoiding them if they aren't a service you need or want. Even baggage fees can be avoided with careful planning:
- Checking in with an agent : A few airlines are charging an additional fee ($3-10) for checking in with an actual human being, and Spirit Airlines also charges you for using the airport kiosk instead of checking in online. Unless you need to check in with an agent (e.g., if you have specialized equipment that qualifies for a baggage fee waiver) you should check in online and print your boarding pass at home to save time and avoid additional charges. Some airlines will let you use your iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry as a boarding pass, either by showing an e-mail with a barcode to security and the gate agent, or through a specialized app, although many smaller and regional airports do not support mobile boarding passes yet.
Checked baggage : Though prices vary by airline, you're generally looking at between $25 and $35 to check a single bag, an additional $50 for a second bag, and up to $100 or more for a third bag. Bags that are oversized or overweight will easily double or triple these fees.
You're allowed to carry on one small suitcase or garment bag and one personal item (like a briefcase, backpack, or purse) free of charge+. If you can get everything in your carry-ons, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Due to ongoing security restrictions, liquids, gels, shaving creams, and similar items must be under 3.4oz (100ml) and be presented to security inside a zip-lock bag. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge can never be placed in your carry-on.
- + Ultra low cost carrier Spirit Airlines charges $20-35 per bag for carry-ons, depending on whether you're a member of their fare club and whether you pay online or at the airport, in many cases it's actually cheaper to check these bags instead of carrying on. As of 2011, no other airline charges for carry-on bagage.
- Members of frequent flier rewards programs who have "elite" status may typically check 1 or more bags free of charge, or may receive other perks such as additional weight allowances. Some airlines have a branded credit card that offers similar perks.
- Pre-paying baggage charges online may give you a slight discount on some carriers.
- Discount carriers JetBlue and Southwest allow all passengers one and two checked bags free of charge, respectively.
- Due to these fees, another popular alternative is to ship luggage via UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service, although this does take some extra planning and preparation.
- You're allowed to carry on one small suitcase or garment bag and one personal item (like a briefcase, backpack, or purse) free of charge+. If you can get everything in your carry-ons, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Due to ongoing security restrictions, liquids, gels, shaving creams, and similar items must be under 3.4oz (100ml) and be presented to security inside a zip-lock bag. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge can never be placed in your carry-on.
- Curbside check in : $2-$10 on top of any bag or check-in fees, plus a tip is usually expected.
- Extra legroom seats : the cost depends on the length of the trip but expect to pay anything from 5 to 15% of the standard economy class fare. This is bookable at the time you purchase your ticket. Those in higher tiers can get this at no extra cost.
Food : Most airlines offer some small snacks (e.g., peanuts, potato chips, cookies) free of charge on all flights. On flights longer than 1.5–2 hours, a buy-on-board option may be offered where you can purchase prepackaged sandwiches, snacks, and occasionally hot food at inflated prices. Flights from the east coast to Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. Pacific territories (which can be over 8 hours each way) generally still feature traditional meal service.
- All airlines allow you to bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages on board. All except the smallest airports have an array of fast food and quick serve options in the terminal — but you can't bring liquids through the security checkpoint (and some airports do not allow food either), so don't purchase anything until after you've cleared security. While airside food outlets will inevitably be more expensive than what's available before security or off-airport, it still costs much less and likely has a larger selection than what's available on board. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, regulate airport food vendors and limit how much air-side restaurants can markup.
- Drinks : Beverage service is one thing the airline industry hasn't done away with, and even the shortest regional jet flights still feature complimentary coffee, tea, water, juice and soda - an exception is ultra low fare carrier Spirit, who charges for anything other than water. If you'd like something stronger, you can pay $5–7 to pick among a decent selection of beer, two or three varieties of wine, and a couple of basic cocktails that can be mixed easily and quickly (e.g. gin and tonic).
- In-flight entertainment : Most U.S. carriers offer entertainment of one kind or another on longer domestic routes. Delta, JetBlue, Virgin America, and some of United's fleet offer free satellite TV in every seat, as well as movies on demand for purchase for $3-8. American has overhead screens showing movies and sitcom episodes on most longer routes, while U.S. Airways and Southwest do not have in flight entertainment of any kind.
- In-flight WiFi : Delta, JetBlue and Southwest offer in-flight WiFi on nearly all their domestic fleets - American, U.S. Airways and United offer it on select flights. Prices range from $5-20, depending on the airline, length of flight, and device (tablets and smartphones get a discount as they use less data) but the Internet connection is good for almost the entire flight (at least until told by crew to switch-off your devices). Daily and monthly passes are also available for less than $50/month. Most airlines do not offer power ports in economy, so be sure you're charged up or have extra batteries for your device. Mobile phones are usually permitted to be operated in-flight as long as they have been set to flight mode (which effectively shuts-off the mobile phone signal from your provider) before being airborne.
- Pillows and blankets are disappearing rapidly. Some airlines don't have them at all; some will charge you for them (but you get to keep after you pay); and one or two offer them for free (but you have to ask for them). Red-eye and long (>5 hour) flights are more likely to have free pillows and blankets. As always, check with your airline, and bring your own from home if you think you'll need them.
- Lounge passes : Each mainline carrier operates a network of lounges, such as Alaska Airline's "Board Rooms" and Delta's "Sky Clubs" - offering a quieter space to relax or work in, business amenities such as free WiFi, fax services and conference rooms, as well as complimentary finger foods, soft drinks, beer and wine. Frequent flyers buy annual memberships to these lounges, but any passenger can buy a day pass during check in or at the club itself, usually around $50, although sometimes less if you buy online. Only you can decide if the fee is worthwhile, but if you're in the upper elite tiers of an airline alliance (One World Sapphire or Emerald, Star Alliance Gold or SkyTeam Elite Plus) you may have access to these lounges for free with your frequent flyer card. For members in the highest tiers, this privilege may be extended to a travelling companion. Additionally international Business and First Class passengers can also access these lounges for free.
- First class upgrades : Delta, United, and U.S. Airways sell upgrades on a first come-first served basis at check-in if first class has open seats. This is one to actually consider, especially if you're checking bags - "day of" upgrades can sometimes be as low as $50 each way, less than the cost of two bag fees. You'd may be paying less to check your bags and additionally getting priority security screening, boarding and baggage handling, along with a larger seat and free refreshments on board.
Most mainline carriers feature "cashless cabins" meaning any on-board purchases must be paid with either Visa or Mastercard (Delta also accepts American Express). Regional subsidiaries generally do still accept cash on-board, although flight attendants may not be able break large bills - hence the traditional request "exact change is appreciated." If you paid in advance for first class, checked baggage, meals, and alcoholic beverages are all included with the price of your ticket, as well as priority access to check-in agents, lounge access and boarding.
Ironically, America's discount airlines, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America sometimes have more amenities than the legacy carriers, and for many people may be a much better experience. Jet Blue offers over 45 channels of satellite television, non-alcoholic beverages and real snacks for free on every flight; Virgin America also has satellite TV, in addition to on demand dining (even in economy). On Jet Blue your first checked bag is free ($35 for a second bag), and Southwest is the only U.S. carrier to still offer two checked bags per passenger free of charge. Virgin America charges for checked bags, but their fees are considerably lower than the legacies.
Security at U.S. airports is known to be onerous, especially during busy holiday travel periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Ensure the amount of liquids you bring does not exceed the prescribed limit and is properly placed in the prescribed containers. Currently those limits are referred to as '311' - 3 ounces or less liquid bottles placed in a single (1) 'Ziplock' bag that is 1 quart or less in size. Please note that you can take as many of the little "travel size" 3-ounce bottles that you cram into that single bag. The little bottles of shampoo and conditioner that they give away at most decent hotels are perfect for this.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4000 per flight hour, with the cost substantially higher for larger, longer-range aircraft, and cheaper for smaller propeller planes. While private flying is by no means inexpensive, a family of four or more can often fly together at a cost similar to or even favorable to buying first class commercial airline tickets, especially to smaller airports where scheduled commercial flights are at their most expensive, and private flying is at its cheapest. Though you may find it cheaper than flying a family of four first class internationally, it is rarely the case, except when traveling from Western Europe.
Air Charter refers to hiring a private plane for a one time journey. Jet Cards are pre-paid cards entitling the owner to a specific number of flight hours on a specified aircraft. As all expenses are pre-paid on the card, you need not to concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
Except for certain densely populated corridors (mostly just the Northeast), passenger trains in the United States can be surprisingly scarce and relatively expensive. The national rail system, Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL), provides service to many cities, offering exceptional sightseeing opportunities, but not particularly efficient inter-city travel, and is often just as expensive as a flight. In more urban locations, Amtrak can be very efficient and comfortable, but in rural areas delays are common. Plan ahead to ensure train travel between your destinations is available and/or convenient. They have promotional discounts of 15% for students and seniors, and a 30-day U.S. Rail Pass for international travelers only. If you plan to buy a regular ticket within a week of traveling, it pays to check the website for sometimes significant "weekly specials".
Amtrak offers many amenities and services that are lacking from other modes of transport. Amtrak offers many routes that traverse some of America's most beautiful areas. Travelers with limited time may not find travel by train to be convenient, simply because the country is big, and the "bigness" is particularly evident in many of the scenic areas. For those with ample time, though, train travel offers an unparalleled view of the U.S., without the trouble and long-term discomfort of a rental (hire) car or the hassle of flying.
Trains running on the Washington D.C. to Boston Northeast Corridor (Acela Express and the Regional) and the Philadelphia to Harrisburg Keystone Corridor (Keystone Service and Pennsylvanian) generally run on time or very close to it. These two rail lines are electrified and owned by Amtrak or other commuter railways and are passenger only. Outside these two areas, Amtrak operates on freight lines and as a result must share track with host railroad; this means you have about as good a chance of a delay as not. While these delays are usually brief (trains make up time enroute), have a contingency plan for being at least three hours late when traveling Amtrak. In fact, six hour or longer delays, especially on long-distance routes, are not uncommon, either.
If you miss an Amtrak connection because your first train is late, Amtrak will book you onto the next available train (or in rare cases a bus) to your final destination. If your destination is on the Northeast Corridor, this isn't a big deal (departures are every hour) but in other parts of the country the next train may not be until tomorrow. If your reservations involved sleeper accommodations (Amtrak's First Class on their long-distance overnight trains) on either your late-arriving train or your missed connection, you will get a hotel voucher for the unplanned overnight stay. For coach class passengers in the same situation, you will not get a hotel voucher; your unplanned lodging arrangements and cost will be your responsibility. However, after your travel is completed, Amtrak's Customer Service will commonly offer travel vouchers of $100 or more off future Amtrak travel to inconvenienced passengers. This is true for all classes of service.
If you plan to board an Amtrak train at a location other than the train's initial place of departure, it's usually a good idea to call ahead before you leave for the station to see if the train is running on time.
A major Amtrak line in regular daily use by Americans themselves is the Acela Express line, running between Boston and Washington, D.C. It stops in New York City, New Haven, Philadelphia and many other cities on the way. This line is electrified, with top speeds of 150 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower). The Acela Express has first class service, but can be quite expensive. Given the difficulty and expense of getting from the center of some of the major Northeastern cities to their respective airports, trains can sometimes be more convenient than air travel. There are also frequent but slower regional trains covering the same stations along the Northeast Corridor for lower fares.
During usual American vacation times, 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 on using the long-distance trains. Booking early also results in generally lower fares for all trains since they tend to increase as trains become fuller. On the other hand, same-day reservations are usually easy, and depending on the rules of the fare you purchased, you can change travel plans on the day itself without fees.
One major scenic long-distance train route, the California Zephyr, runs from Emeryville in the Bay Area of California to Chicago, via Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. The full trip takes around 60 hours, but has incredible views of the Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains, things that you just cannot see if you fly. Many of the sights on this route are simply inaccessible to cars. The trains run only once per day, and they usually sell out well in advance.
Amtrak's single most popular long-distance train is the Chicago-Seattle/Portland "Empire Builder" train via Milwaukee, St. Paul / Minneapolis, Fargo, Minot, Glacier National Park, Whitefish, and Spokane. In FY2007, this train alone carried over 503,000 passengers.
Amtrak also provides reasonably speedy daily round trips between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada and several daily trips between Seattle and Eugene, Oregon on the Amtrak Cascades line.
Passengers traveling long distances on Amtrak may reserve a seat in coach (Economy class) or pay extra for an upgrade to a private sleeping compartment (there are no shared rooms), which also includes all meals in the dining car. Amtrak trains in the West feature a lounge car with floor to ceiling windows, which are perfect for sightseeing.
Separate from Amtrak, many major cities offer very reliable commuter trains that carry passengers to and from the suburbs or other relatively close-by areas. Since most Americans use a car for suburban travel, some commuter train stations have park and ride facilities where you can park your car for the day to use the commuter train to get to a city's downtown core where it may be more difficult to use a car due to traffic and parking concerns. Parking rates at the commuter train stations vary due (some facilities may be operated by third parties). Some commuter train systems and services though do not operate on weekends and holidays so it's best to check the system's website to plan ahead. Please don't forget to buy tickets before you board the train as some systems will have a substantial mark-up on the tickets sold on-board while others won't sell tickets on-board and will subject you to a hefty fine instead.
Bradt's USA by Rail book (ISBN 9781841622552) is a guide to all Amtrak routes, with maps, station details and other practical advice.
America has the largest system of inland waterways of any country in the world. It is entirely possible to navigate around within the United States by boat. Your choices of watercraft range from self-propelled canoes and kayaks to elaborate houseboats and riverboat cruises.
Rivers and canals were key to developing the country, and traversing by boat gives you a unique perspective on the nation and some one of a kind scenery. Some examples of waterways open to recreational boating and/or scheduled cruises are:
- The Erie Canal System of New York State operates four canal systems consisting of 524 miles of waterway open for recreational and commercial use. The most famous of these canals is the Erie Canal, which starts around Albany and heads west to Buffalo. By navigating up the Hudson River from New York City, it is possible to go all the way to the Great Lakes and beyond via these waterways. Side trips to the Finger Lakes in Western New York or to Lake Champlain and Vermont are possible. Small watercraft, including canoes and kayaks, are welcome on these canals.
- The St. Lawrence Seaway is now the primary port of entry for large ships into North America. Recreational boaters are welcome, however, the Seaway is designed for very large craft and a minimum boat length of 6 meters applies. The Seaway starts in eastern Canada and goes to the Great Lakes.
- The Mississippi River There are two channels of navigation from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. The Mississippi affords north-south access through the interior of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico and connects with all major interior waterways, including the Missouri River.
- International Charter Group: Yacht charter and sailing, one of the worlds largest yacht charter companies, can take care of all charter requirements, from bareboat to crewed in the United States of America. Operating from nine offices worldwide (USA, Spain, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Caribbean, Honk Kong and Dubai).
Each year, many first time and beginning boaters successfully navigate these waterways. Do remember that any kind of boating requires some preparation and planning. In general, the Coast Guard, Canal and Seaway authorities go out of their way to help recreational boaters. They will also at times give instructions which you are expected to immediately obey. For example, small craft may be asked to give way to larger craft on canals, and weather conditions may require you to stop or change your route.
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans use a car traveling within their city, and when traveling to nearby cities in their state or region.
Generally speaking, American cities were built for the automobile, so renting or bringing your own car is usually a very good idea. This applies even to very large cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami, where public transport is very limited and having a car is the most practical way of getting around. (The exceptions are New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., where having your own car is not only unnecessary, but discouraged.) In most medium-sized American cities, everything is very spread out and public transportation thin. Taxis are often available, but if you're not at the airport, you may have to phone for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, making similar arrangements to return. While most Americans are happy to give driving directions, don't be surprised if many aren't familiar with the local public transport options available.
Gas stations usually sell regional and national maps. Online maps with directions are available on several websites including MapQuest and Google Maps. Drivers can obtain directions by calling 1-800-Free411, which will provide them via text message. GPS navigation systems can be purchased for around $100, and car rental agencies often rent GPS units for a small additional fee. Many smartphones are now bundled with GPS navigation software that offers turn-by-turn directions. Even states that ban the use of hand-held phones by drivers often allow the use of GPS features, as long as the driver enters no data when in motion (check local laws in the places you will be traveling).
Unlike the rest of the world, the United States continues to use the imperial system, meaning that road signs are in miles and miles per hour, and fuel is sold in gallons. If driving a car from Canada or Mexico, make sure you know the conversions from metric to imperial units.
Great American Road Trip
A romantic appeal is attached to the idea of long-distance car travel; many Americans will tell you that you can't see the "real" America except by car. Given the dearth of public transportation in most American cities, the loss of time traveling between cities by car rather than flying can be made up by the convenience of driving around within cities once you arrive. In addition, many of the country's major natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, are almost impossible to get to without an automobile. If you have the time, a classic American road trip with a rented car (see below) is very easy to achieve. Just keep in mind that because of the distances, this kind of travel can mean many long days behind the wheel, so pay attention to the comfort of the car you use.
The United States is covered with a convenient system of Interstate highways. Interstates are always expressways (or "freeways")—that is, controlled access divided highways with no grade crossings, the equivalent of what Europeans call a "motorway". These roads connect all of the major population centers, and they make it easy to cover long distances—or get to the other side of a large city—quickly.
Primary Interstates have one- or two-digit numbers, with odd ones running north-south (e.g. I-5) and even ones running east-west (e.g. I-80). Three-digit interstate numbers designate shorter, secondary routes. An odd first digit signifies a "spur" into or away from a city; an even first digit signifies a "loop" around a large city. The second two digits remain the same as the primary Interstate that travels nearby (e.g., I-495 is a loop that connects to I-95).
The vast majority of interstates do not charge tolls. However, the Departments of Transportation of Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania operate long-distance, limited-access toll roads called Turnpikes. Tolls are also frequently levied for crossing notably large bridges or tunnels, and some states are even turning to requiring tolls on Federal Interstate highways to defray their maintenance costs (West Virginia is most notable for this). While the majority of entrances and exits for the Turnpike systems of these states collect tolls in cash, states are increasingly turning to electronic tolling by outfitting vehicles with small RFID transponders, or, more recently, photographic recording and recognition of the vehicle's license plate. If you plan on driving in a state that offers toll roads, it is worthwhile to ask your rental car agency about the electronic tolling options available to you, as paying tolls in cash is becoming incrementally more difficult as electronic options and open-road tolling (paying tolls electronically without having to stop), on Florida's Turnpike in particular, are rapidly becoming more widely accepted. Nearly all rental car agencies that operate in Florida offer some form of prepaid tolling plan. Credit cards and travelers' cheques are not accepted by state-operated toll plazas.
Speed limits on the interstate highways can vary from state to state, and also according to geography (for example, slower on mountain passes and within cities than on long straight rural sections). Posted speed limits can range from as low as 45 miles per hour (70 km/h) in densely urban areas to as much as 85 miles per hour (135 km/h) in rural stretches of Texas, but mostly they'll be between 65 and 75 mph (105–120 km/h). The speed limits (in miles per hour) are always clearly posted on interstates.
American drivers often drive 5 to 15 miles per hour (8–25 km/h) over the posted speed limit; driving slower than the speed limit can actually be dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to avoid driving much faster than 5 to 10 mph (8–15 km/h) over the speed limit, and be sure that some other cars are always passing you; avoid being the fastest or the slowest vehicle. If you are pulled over by police for speeding, the excuse "Everyone else is speeding too" will not help. Highway Patrol officers are usually most concerned with the fastest drivers, so ensuring you are slower than the fastest speeders is one way to avoid their attention. If you are pulled over, be respectful, address the officer as "Officer," and express heartfelt regret at your excessive speed. You will nearly always get a ticket, but it never hurts to express 'regret' as maybe you will get lucky and only receive a warning.
Many U.S. Interstate Highways, particularly around and through very large cities, will segregate the far left-hand lane or lanes and reserve them for high-occupancy use. These lanes are clearly signed, marked which white diamonds down the center of the lane, have double-white lines on the right, and are limited to vehicles with two or more occupants. High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes, called HOV lanes, are designed to ease congestion on Interstate freeways around large population centers during the very start and very end of the business day, also known colloquially as Rush Hour. Enforcement of these High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes typically coincide with rush-hour, from 7:00am to 9:00am, and again from 4:00pm to 6:00pm on weekdays. Driving in an HOV lane as the sole occupant of a vehicle during these times is could result in a traffic citation and fine.
Commercial rest areas were prohibited on the U.S. Interstate Highway system by the Federal government. As a result, the vast majority of stopping points are state-operated rest areas with public toilets, parking, tourist information, vending machines, and a small picnic area. While there are no restaurants, gas stations, or other stores, some rest areas are equipped with vending machines. (A notable exception are tolled, limited-access highways such as Florida's Turnpike, where exiting would force you to pay a toll; service plazas with both food and gas are found on these highways every 20–40 miles [30–60 km] or so.) Commercial traveler services tend to congregate on the local roads just off popular interstate exits, even if the exit is miles from the nearest population center. Sometimes you'll find a truck stop, an establishment that caters to long-haul truckers but is open to all travelers; Truck stops provide several services all in one building, with a "greasy-spoon"-style restaurant, gas station, general store, and even hot showers. Signs on the highway will indicate the services available at upcoming exits, including gas, food, lodging, and camping, so you can choose a stopping point as you're driving.
Off the Interstates
A secondary system of federal highways is the U.S. Highway system. U.S. Highways may be freeways on some sections, but they are often surface roads, sometimes with just one lane in each direction. U.S. Highways, which generally predate the Interstate system, tend to be older routes that lead through town centers. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to U.S. Highways to expedite traffic that wishes to bypass the cities and towns. If you don't mind stopping at traffic lights and dealing with pedestrians, U.S. Highways can lead you to some interesting off-the-beaten-path sights.
Each state is responsible for maintenance of the Interstates and U.S. highways (despite the names), but each one also maintains its own system of State Highways (or State Routes) that form the bulk of the inter-community road network. State Highways are usually surface roads but may occasionally be freeways; you can generally count on them being well maintained (and plowed in the winter) and that following one will get you to some form of civilization sooner rather than later.
As with the rest of North America, Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left. White lines separate traffic moving in the same direction and yellow lines separate opposing traffic. Right turn on red after coming to a complete stop is legal (unless a sign prohibits it) in nearly all states and cities, although New York City is a notable exception. Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all U.S. jurisdictions. Traffic lights and lane lines are strictly enforced, and there is zero tolerance for many traffic maneuvers often seen elsewhere in many countries around the world. Jumping the green, running a red, straddling lanes (especially in a car or truck) or swerving across the double yellow line into opposing traffic on major urban roadways to pass slower, but still moving, traffic will all result in an expensive ticket.
Most American drivers tend to drive calmly and safely in the sprawling residential suburban neighborhoods where the majority of Americans live. However, freeways around the central areas of big cities often become crowded with a significant proportion of "hurried" drivers — who will exceed speed limits, make unsafe lane changes, or follow other cars at unsafe close distances (known as "tailgating"). Enforcement of posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable and varies widely from state to state. Not exceeding the pace of other drivers will usually avoid a troublesome citation. Beware of small towns along otherwise high-speed rural roads (and medium-speed suburban roads); the reduced speed limits found while going through such towns are strictly enforced.
Driving law is primarily a matter of state law and is enforced by state and local police. Fortunately, widespread adoption of provisions 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 one state to the next. All states publish an official driver's handbook which summarizes state driving laws in plain English. These handbooks are usually available both on the Web and at many government offices.
AAA publishes a AAA/CAA Digest of Motor Laws, which is now available online for free at drivinglaws.aaa.com. The Digest contains comprehensive summaries in plain English of all major driving laws that typically vary between states. The Digest's coverage includes all U.S states and all Canadian provinces.
International visitors age 18 and older can usually drive on their foreign driver's license for up to a year, depending on state law. Licenses that are not in English must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a certified translation. Persons who will be in the United States for more than a year must obtain a driver's license from the state they are residing in. Written and practical driving tests are required, but they are usually waived for holders of valid Canadian, Mexican, and some European licenses.
Traffic signs often depend on the ability to read English words. Drivers who can read English will find most signs self-explanatory. (Progress toward adopting signs with internationally understood symbols is extremely slow; don't count on seeing any.) Distances and speeds will almost always be given in miles and miles per hour (MPH), without these units specified. Some areas near the Canadian and Mexican borders may feature road signs with distances in both miles and kilometres.
Police patrol cars vary in make, model, color, and livery from state to state and even town to town, but all are equipped with red and blue flashing lights and a siren. If you see the lights or hear the siren, pull to the right-hand shoulder of the road to let them by. If the patrol car is directly behind you, it's your car the officer is targeting; in that case, pull over as soon as it is practical for you to do so safely, even if this means driving some extra distance. It is extremely important that you pull off the road as soon as you are able. The officer will request to see your drivers license, the registration for the vehicle, and your proof of insurance coverage, and/or rental car documentation. Most traffic stops are recorded by a video camera in the trooper's patrol car, as well as a lapel mike on their person. See the section on police officers in the Stay Safe section below.
You must be 25 or older to rent a car. Virtually every car from every rental agency in the U.S. runs on unleaded gasoline and has an automatic transmission. Renting a car usually costs anywhere from $20 and $100 per day for a basic sedan, depending on the type of car and location, with some discounts for week-long rentals. Most rental agencies have downtown offices in major cities as well as offices at major airports. Not all companies allow picking up a car in one city and dropping it off in another (the ones that do almost always charge extra for the privilege); check with the rental agency when making your reservations.
One factor that influences the price of your car rental will be location. Sometimes renting a car at an airport location will cost 3 times as much as renting the same car (from the same company) at a downtown location. In other areas the airport location will be cheaper. On-line travel websites such as Orbitz or Expedia can be useful to compare the best prices and make reservations.
Rental agencies accept a valid driver's license from your country, which must be presented with an International Drivers Permit if your license needs to be translated. You may wish to join some kind of auto club before starting a large American road trip, and having a cell phone is a very good idea. Most rental agencies have some kind of emergency road service program, but they can have spotty coverage for remote regions. The largest club in the United States is the American Automobile Association (+1-800-391-4AAA), known as "Triple A". A yearly membership runs about $60. AAA members also get discounts at many hotels, motels, restaurants and attractions; which may make it worth getting a membership even if you don't drive. Alternatively, Better World Club (+1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA with often timelier service and is a more eco-friendly choice (1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs). Note that some non-U.S. automobile clubs have affiliate relationships with AAA, allowing members of the non-U.S. club to take full advantage of AAA road service and discount programs. Among these clubs are the Canadian Automobile Association, The Automobile Association in the UK, and ADAC in Germany.
Most Americans renting cars are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either by their credit card or their own private vehicle insurance policy. Without appropriate loss/damage waiver cover, you could be liable for the entire cost of the car should it be written off in an accident. Purchasing loss/damage waiver cover and supplemental liability insurance may add up to $30/day to the price of a rental, in some cases doubling the price of the rental. If you visit the car rental website and identify your country of origin, you may be given a quote which includes the loss/damage waiver and liability insurance for considerably less. Many travel insurance policies include cover for some rental car damage - check your policy against the rental terms and conditions.
Gasoline ("gas") is sold by the gallon, at stations that are primarily self-service (you must pump your own gas) with the exception of those in New Jersey and Oregon (where self-service is illegal). The American gallon is smaller than the UK gallon, and equals 3.785 liters. The U.S. octane scale is different from that used in Europe; a regular gallon of U.S. gasoline is rated at 87 octane, the equivalent of about 92 in Europe. In most states, gas stations offer a choice of three levels of octane: 87 (regular), 89 (midgrade or plus), and 91 (premium). Unless you are renting a luxury vehicle, your vehicle will likely require only 87 regular.
Visitors from countries where self-service is illegal may feel intimidated by the idea of pumping their own gas, but should not be. U.S. self-service gas pumps have clear directions printed on them and are easy to use. The pump will automatically stop when it senses gas backing up into the nozzle (thus indicating the tank is full). When you finish, replace the nozzle in its slot on the pump, reinsert and turn the gas cap until it begins to make clicking noises, and then close the gas cap access door.
Diesel is not as common, but still widely used and available at most stations, especially those catering to truckers. Untaxed "offroad diesel", sold in rural areas for agricultural use, is dyed red and should not be used in cars, as there are heavy fines if you're caught.
Despite increasing petroleum prices worldwide and some increases in gas taxes, the American consumer-voter's attachment to his automobile, combined with abundant domestic oil reserves and relatively low taxes on gasoline, has kept retail fuel prices much lower than in many parts of the world. Prices fluctuate by region and season. As of February 2013, current prices are averaging near $3.75/gallon (equivalent to $1.00/liter) for regular and $4.15/gallon for diesel ($1.10/liter).
Gas prices vary dramatically from state to state based on a number of variables, primarily state sales tax rates (which are invariably included in the advertised price) and anti-pollution requirements. The highest prices are usually found in Hawaii, Alaska, the West Coast, Illinois, and New York. The lowest prices are generally found in the south central U.S.
Intercity bus travel in the United States is widespread, and while not available everywhere, there are at least three daily routes in every state. Service between nearby major cities is extremely frequent (e.g. as of July 2012 there are 82 daily buses, by seven operators, on an off-peak weekday each way between Boston-New York, an average of nearly one every 10 minutes during daytime hours). Many patrons use bus travel when other modes aren't readily available, as buses often connect many smaller towns with regional cities. The disadvantaged and elderly may use these bus lines, as automobile travel proves arduous or unaffordable for some. It's commonly considered a "lower class" way to travel, but is generally dependable, safe, affordable.
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1 800-229-9424) and several affiliated partners have the predominant share of American bus travel. Steep discounts are available to travelers who purchase their tickets 7-14 days in advance of their travel date. Their North American Discovery Pass allows unlimited travel for ranges of 4 to 60 days, but you might want to try riding one or two buses first before locking yourself in to an exclusively-bus American journey. Greyhound buses typically runs in 5-7 hour segments, at which time all passengers must get off the bus so it can be serviced, even if it's the middle of the night. Continuing passengers are boarded before those just getting on. There are no reservations on Greyhound buses. All seating is on a first come, first served basis, with the exception of select cities, where you can pay a $5 fee for priority seating. Greyhound buses are being refurbished with more comfortable seating, wireless Internet, and other improvements.
Internet based buses are becoming very wide-spread. Megabus offers inexpensive daily bus service departing from curbside bus stops across the eastern half of the country: the entire East Coast from Maine to Florida and as far west as Texas and Nebraska (and to Canada) from 9 hub cities. BoltBus competes with Megabus on major routes in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest.
So called Chinatown buses also provide crub-side departures for a standard walk-up cash fare often much lower than other operators' fares. These lines operate through the East Coast down with some further out destinations in the Midwest and South, along as along the West Coast. GoToBus.com is the largest online booking agent for these buses. Please note that most Internet-based and Chinatown buses only go to large cities, skipping the smaller towns that many bus travellers ride to.
There are numerous other local operators, many of which are also affliated with Greyhound or Amtrak. The next largest affliation is Trailways.
The Federal Highway Adminstration certifies all bus operators, though they have a hard time keeping wraps on the large amount of services. Curbside bus operators (Chinatown and Internet based buses) are more dangerous than others, though still much safer than driving a private vehicle.
By Recreational Vehicle (RV)
Recreational vehicles – large, sometimes bus sized vehicles that include sleeping and living quarters – are a distinctly American way to cruise the country. Some RVers love the convenience of being able to drive their home anywhere they like and enjoy the camaraderie that RV campgrounds offer. Other people dislike the hassles and maintenance issues that come with RVing. And don't even think about driving an RV into a huge metropolis such as New York. Still, if you want to drive extensively within the United States and are comfortable handling a big rig, renting an RV is an option you should consider.
The thrill and exhilaration of cross country travel are magnified when you go by motorcycle. Harley-Davidson is the preeminent American motorcycle brand and Harley operates a motorcycle rental program for those licensed and capable of handling a full weight motorcycle. In some parts of the country, you can also rent other types of motorcycles, such as sportbikes, touring bikes, and dual-sport bikes. For those inexperienced with motorcycles, Harley and other dealerships offer classes for beginners. Wearing a helmet, although not required in all states, is always a good idea. The practice of riding between lanes of slower cars, also known as "lane-sharing" or "lane-splitting," is illegal, except in California where it is tolerated and widespread. Solo motorcyclists can legally use "high-occupancy vehicle" or "carpool" lanes during their hours of operation.
American enthusiasm towards motorcycles has led to a motorcycling subculture. Motorcycle clubs are exclusive clubs for members dedicated to riding a particular brand of motorcycle within a highly structured club hierarchy. Riding clubs may or may not be organized around a specific brand of bikes and offer open membership to anyone interested in riding. Motorcycle rallies, such as the famous one in Sturgis, South Dakota, are huge gatherings of motorcyclists from around the country. Many motorcyclists are not affiliated with any club and opt to ride independently or with friends. In general, motorcycling is seen as a hobby, as opposed to a practical means of transportation; this means, for example, that most American motorcyclists prefer not to ride in inclement weather. However you choose to ride, and whatever brand of bike you prefer, motorcycling can be a thrilling way to see the country.
A long history of hitchhiking comes out of the U.S., with record of automobile hitchhikers as early as 1911. Today, hitchhiking is nowhere near as common, but there are some nevertheless who still attempt short or cross-country trips. The laws related to hitchhiking in the U.S. are most covered by the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), adopted with changes in wording by individual states. In general, it is legal to hitchhike throughout the majority of the country, if not standing within the boundaries of a highway (usually marked by a solid white line at the shoulder of the road) and if not on an Interstate highway prohibiting pedestrians.
In many states Interstate highways do not allow foot traffic, so hitchhikers must use the entrance ramps. In a few states it is allowed or tolerated (unless on a toll road). Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon are a few states that do allow pedestrians on the highway shoulder, although not in some metropolitan areas. Oklahoma allows foot traffic on all free interstates, but not toll roads and Texas only bans it on toll roads — and on free Interstates within the city of El Paso. Oregon only bans it in the Portland metro area. Missouri only bans it within Kansas City and St. Louis city limits.
Hitchhiking has become much less popular due to increasing wariness of the possible dangers (fueled in part by sensational stories in the news media). International travelers to the U.S. should avoid this practice unless they have either a particularly strong sense of social adventure or extremely little money. Even many Americans themselves would only feel comfortable "thumbing a ride" if they had a good knowledge of the locale.
Craigslist has a rideshare section that sometimes proves useful for arranging rides in advance. If you are open with your destination it's almost always possible to find a ride on C.L. going somewhere within the U.S.
Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialling 511 on your phone.
The content on this page is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. It has been written by the users of WikiTravel and gapyear.com cannot not accept any responsibility for its accuracy. For any critical information you require, please be sure to check with the relevant embassy for the most up to date information before you travel.