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Getting around

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Distances in the US 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, by advance planning, you can usually reach the main points of interest without too much trouble by using local buses and charter services.

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.

By rail

Travelling on the national Amtrak network (t 1-800/872-7245, w http://www.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 see 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 around $200 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 round trip down to around $300–350. Money-saving passes are also available for details.

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 $300 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 airplane 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 a hurry, hop aboard the speedy Acela service in the Northeast, 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.

By bus

If you’re travelling on your own and plan on making a lot of stops, buses, by far the cheapest way to get around, make sense. The main long-distance operator, Greyhound (t 1-800/231-2222, w http://www.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. It used to be that any sizeable community would have a Greyhound station; now, in some places, the post office or a gas station doubles as the bus stop and ticket office, and in many others the bus service has been cancelled altogether. 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 – a ticket from New York to San Francisco booked online three weeks in advance can cost only $117.

Other operators include Trailways (t 1-800/776-7581, w http://www.trailways.com), whose regional divisions cover some parts of the country more comprehensively, Megabus (t 1-877/462-6342, w us.megabus.com), whose low-cost service covers the northeast and midwest, and the alternative Green Tortoise.

By plane

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 gasoline 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 in your plans in buying a “non-refundable” fare – which if changed can incur costs of $100 or more. Nonetheless, if you arrange your trip properly, flying can still cost less than the train – especially if you take into account how much you save not paying for food and drink while on the move – though still more than the bus. In those examples where flying can make sense for short local hops, we mention such options wherever appropriate throughout this Guide. Otherwise, phone the airlines or visit their websites to find out routes and schedules.

By car

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 US. 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. In some centralized cities – mostly in the Northeast, plus Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle – the main attractions and facilities are concentrated within walking distance of each other.

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 $200 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 $50–150 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.

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 (w http://www.insurance4carhire.com).

The American Automobile Association, or AAA (t 1-800/222-4357; w http://www.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.

 

Cycling

Typically, cycling is a cheap and healthy way to get around the big cities, an increasing number of which have cycle lanes and local buses equipped to carry bikes (strapped to the outside). In country areas, roads have wide shoulders and fewer passing motorists. 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. Rates in heavily visited areas can be higher. Local visitor centres have details.

The national nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, Montana (t 406/721-1776 or t 1-800/755-2453, w http://www.adventurecycling.org), publishes maps of several lengthy routes, detailing campgrounds, motels, restaurants, bike shops and sights of interest. Many individual states issue their own cycling guides; contact the tourist offices listed. Before setting out on a long-distance cycling trip, you’ll need a good-quality, multi-speed 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, logging trucks – that screams past creating intense backdraughts capable of pulling you out into the middle of the road.

Backroads Bicycle Tours (t 1-800/462-2848, w http://www.backroads.com), and the HI-AYH hostelling group (see Hostels) arrange multi-day cycle tours, with camping or stays in country inns; we’ve also mentioned local firms that offer this where appropriate.

Greyhound, Amtrak and major airlines will carry passengers’ bikes – dismantled and packed into a box – for a small fee.

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