Explore the Land of the Free

During Febuary, March and April 2011, I travelled across America from Seattle to New York via numerous US cities. I don't by any means know everything there is to know about backpacking across the USA but I thought I would write down what I had learned in case it helps any fellow gappers down the line.

Before Travelling

First off, you need to get your ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) at least 72 hours before you travel. This is the equivalent of a visa and lasts for two years (so you don’t need to make subsequent applications in the next two years).

There is a payment that's required when you apply for your ESTA and this is paid at the time the application is made. You are also charged an additional $10.00 when the ESTA is awarded.

You do not need to print a copy of the ESTA (although it won’t hurt to do so.) Complete your advanced passenger information when you book your tickets as this is also needed to enter the USA.

Gather information about your finances to take with you if you're going for more than a two week holiday. I met numerous people who were asked to show bank statements on entering the USA. One couple I met who did not have the information were detained for seven hours and had to access their bank accounts online! Obviously you probably won’t get stopped but it’s always easier to plan for the unlikely.

It's also a requirement to have an onward flight from the USA. This has to be a flight to somewhere other than Mexico City or surrounding islands.  You'll probably benefit from having proof of links with home (examples of this can be proof of property/family/job links etc) as this can come up in conversation as well.

Travelling around the USA

There are a million and one ways to travel America I shall try and give some info on all areas as follows:

Flying

Easiest but most expensive form of transport. Try and book in advance as you will save money. Look at flights with Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Continental Airlines and Jet Blue.

It's often worth noting that in America airlines overbook flights. If you can be flexible with your seat they'll offer you great deals for coming off an oversubscribed flight. For example, they might offer you the next available flight to your destination and $200.

Flights go all over the USA so you should be able to get from A to B with relative ease.

Car

Cheap if there's more than one of you and you're over 25 (for insurance purposes). Petrol is a lot cheaper in the USA than in the UK so you get more miles for your money. It also gives you freedom to go where you want to go, when you want to go. My friends and I drove for a week and got to see loads of the countryside (the downside is it takes a long time to drive anywhere in the USA). There are plenty of rental companies to choose from, so look around for the best deal.

Beware, as a final note, one way fees and tax, both of which are added at the time you collect the car (it was an additional $500 for us!).

Train

I never used the train but Amtrack do have special deals which you can buy to travel around the USA. It tends to be nicer but more expensive than the bus journeys! To plan your trip you can use: amtrak.com

You can purchase passes which allow you to do a certain amount of days using a set amount of ‘segments’. For more information check out amtrak.com/itd/amtrak/selectpass. Note, however, that even the cheapies are almost as expensive as the 60 day bus passes available from greyhound.

Bus

This is by far the cheapest and most basic form of transport available in the USA. The buses tend to go in strange directions (Chicago to Boston via Buffalo for example) so journeys can take a really long time. However, you can use this time to save money on accommodation and to sleep.

There are lots of bus companies that go across some or all of the USA:

  • Greyhound - largest network of buses. They also do a discovery pass which allows the purchaser to use as many buses as needed in a set amount of days (15, 30 and 60)
  • Mega Bus - predominantly on the middle and east side of the USA they can have very cheap tickets (Boston to New York for $1.00 for example). Very good experiences on clean safe buses - would use over and above greyhound any day!
  • Peter Pan - Cheap east coast bus company
  • Bolt Bus - Cheap east coast bus company

Note that in the USA everyone uses cars for short journeys and flights for long journeys. Therefore, people on buses are either travellers (limited) or poorer people (I jest not). Buses and their depots can be rough and often have police and security on hand. Keep a very close eye on your belongings and keep safe! Convicts are given a ticket when released from prison to use on a bus of their choice. Again, just keep an eye out (on one bus there were four convicts) but to be fair there were no problems - I was just told to keep an eye out as I was clearly not a local.

One other thing is to keep your passport on you and another form of ID. Twice the bus I was on was pulled over and State troopers got on. They ask you about your travels and want proof of residency or your passport.

Transport

Buses - tend to be a set fee disregarding the distance travelled at usually $2.00-2.50 per journey. Weekly tickets are about $10.00 and day tickets $5.00.

Tram - $2.00 per journey.

Tube trains (Boston/NY) - are about $15.00 per week, daily tickets are about $6.00.

Tours

There are tour companies who do comprehensive (but in my opinion) expensive tours of America. This includes Trek America, Green Tortoise Tours, Suntrek, and many more. Again, look around to find the best deal.

Accommodation

Hostels

Hostels are a backpacker's first thoughts when travelling but this is easier said than done in the USA. Not all major cities in the US have hostels, and some of the ones that do exist are not great (AA hostel in Memphis had the worst bed I have ever slept in and was really a room rented out from a hotel which they had stuck 4 bunk beds in).
That said, some of the best hostel experiences I had were in America, mainly Chicago where I spent a bit more money and stayed in a Hostel International hostel (the YHA of America). Here they offer free dinner, free breakfast and free tea and coffee! Well worth the extra pennies/cents! (their website can be found here - hihostels.com)

If you can't afford a HIHostel use websites like Hostelbookers and Hostelworld to find an alternative.

Hostels cost between $20.00 and $40.00 a night for a normal dorm sized room.

Hostels I recommend from personal experience and information given to me by other travellers are:

  • Seattle - Green Tortoise
  • San Fran - Green Tortoise. (I've also used HI in San fran and this is right in Union Square, so one to be looked at.)
  • Los Angeles - Stay Hotel (it was a very cheap hotel.)
  • Vegas - get a hotel!
  • New Orleans - Indiana House
  • Miami - Miami Beach
  • Orlando - get a hotel/motel! Our hostel worked out more than a nice quality motel!
  • Daytona - get a hotel. (Or miss out and go to Tampa Bay - much easier to get to!)
  • Memphis - (AA is the only hostel but I would not use it!)
  • Nashville - Music City Hostel
  • Chicago - Hostel International
  • Boston - Hostel International
  • New York - (way too many to say!)
  • Washington - Didn’t stay in a hostel but there are loads to pick from!

Motels

If there's more than one of you travelling a real alternative to hostels is a good old fashioned America Motel/Hotel. These tend to be between $30.00-$70.00 per room and come with coffee making facilities, breakfast and swimming pools.

Some of the many options are:

  • Days Inn
  • Comfort Inn
  • Holiday Inn
  • Americas Best Value Inn
  • Quality Inn

Food

Supermarkets - IGA, Safeway, Walmart, Walgreens and CVS. These are quite cheap and sell a multitude of foods. Most hostels have kitchens and most hotels have fridges.
Food in USA is reasonable. It tends to be the case that you get more than you need for the price. An example of costing would be: $15.00 all you can eat buffet in Vegas. $5.00 all you can eat buffet in Orlando. $15.00 main meal in New York (ribs and fries for example).

Fast food outlets are always a cheap option - Wendys, Arby’s, Burger King, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Krispy Kreme and one I used quite a lot - Subway.

Restaurants in the USA - TGI Fridays, Dennys, Olive Garden, Hard Rock Cafe (there are millions, but these are ones which exist in most cities and aren't too costly).

Entertainment

  • Cinema costs - $15.00
  • Museum - (not free but suggested amounts aren’t forced upon you) $12.00
  • Art Gallery - $15.00
  • Internet - free (usually there is wi-fi in a hostel or food outlet)
  • Theme Park - $80.00 (Disney or Universal)
  • National Park Fee - varies but about $25.00 a day
  • Grand Canyon - $100 from Vegas

Rememeber there are often free things to do in cities - in places like Washington DC and New York/LA etc this can simply be enjoying the city itself. Check out hostel notice boards and the information centres in motels which tell you of local deals and specialist interests in and around the area.

I hope this helps a tad to anyone looking to travel the USA but if you have any questions please let me know.

NB - This information is based only on my experience. I'm sure other people will have things to add. Also, things like visas change all the time, as do travel requirements, so please make sure you check everything you need to do before you travel so you're not caught out.