Before you go to the USA it makes sense to do a bit of homework and planning. Remember, it is a huge country: for example the distance from New York City to Los Angeles is 500km greater than the one from Lisbon to Moscow. So you should know what your priorities and also your limits are.
Are you interested in nature or maybe in the cities? Do you like big, cosmopolitan places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, or maybe small charming colonial towns like Charlestown and Savannah? Do you prefer lying on the beach or maybe hiking in the mountains? The tropics or the Arctic? America has it all.
First thing you have to decide is how much time you have and what your budget is. If you only have a week and a few hundred bucks, it doesn’t really make sense to drive from coast to coast. It is of course perfectly doable but you will feel more like a long distance truck driver than a tourist. Also, as you will have to stick to the main highways, your experience will be limited to the fast food chains, and gas stations. Is it really what you want? In my opinion, 10 days, or even better 2 weeks, is the absolute minimum for a cross country trip.
Let’s say your choice is a cross-country trip. The planning doesn’t end here, however. There are of course countless routes you can choose. Many people do the classic cross-country trip from NYC to LA or San Fran. That way you can experience the big cities of both coasts as well as the American hinterland. You can for example travel from NYC to Chicago and then follow the famous (if a bit overrated) route 66. Or you can head in the direction of Denver and cross the magnificent Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Another option is heading even further north towards Montana or Wyoming to visit the Yellowstone National Park. While planning you should also consider the weather. If you travel in the winter, choosing a southern route, from Florida to southern California, might be the best option. That way you avoid the risk of being stuck in cold and miserable weather further north and you might even experience New Orleans during the Mardi Gras. However, if you happen to go during the heat of summer the northern route from New England towards Seattle might be a more tempting idea. Myself, I would always avoid the sweltering humid south in the summer.
Crossing the continent is obviously a fantastic idea. But by no means is this the only option for the great American experience. There are a few other fascinating routes. Most obviously the coasts. The west coast offers absolutely amazing scenery and it is probably one of the most scenic drives on earth. And not only the famous Big Sur in California but also most of the Californian coast north of San Francisco as well as, my favourite, the Oregon coast. East coast might be not as spectacular (apart from Maine) but it offers a rich colonial history. Think of Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston and many more historic places. One more interesting north-south route is obviously the Mississippi River. It offers a great mix of spectacular scenery (especially in its northern half) and cultural sites. Big cities like Minneapolis, Saint Louis, Memphis and New Orleans as well as small interesting towns like Vicksburg, Natchez or Hannibal all line the river.
All the routes mentioned above require flying in and out of the different airports or lengthy backtracking. For those who don’t want to do either, choosing a particular region of the US and doing a loop around it might be a better option. It simplifies logistics as well as makes the trip significantly cheaper (avoiding drop-off fees on your car rental). There are few distinctive regions begging for a specific trip. The most obvious ones are Florida, California, South-western USA and New England. My other favourite options include the Carolinas with Georgia, the Great Lakes, the Great Plains or the Pacific Northwest, which is probably my absolute favourite part of the USA.
Once you choose where to go, do a bit of researching what you really want to see there and how much time you need for it. I usually do the region-specific trips. In such cases, I choose some highlights and use online route planners to check how long it will take me just to drive between them. That way I know that I won’t overstretch myself trying to cover too much ground and that I won’t be budgeting too much time for some closely located sites. Google Maps or Map Quest are the most obvious route planners but there are many more. At this point I usually start looking for flights. Each of the regions mentioned above has at least one large hub airport which offers cheaper fares and sometimes even direct routes from Europe. But this is a subject for another chapter.
Flying to America.
This is a long and changeable subject, but let me try to cover some of the basics. I travel to the US mostly from the UK, so information here will be most relevant for those travelling from Britain but I will try to cover some universal basics.
Transatlantic routes are some of the busiest in the world, which means there is plenty of choice. I am definitely a budget traveller, so the most important factor for me is the price. My rule number one is never to fly in high season which generally means July and August. Prices in these months tend to hike to sometimes ridiculous levels and things get very busy, especially planes, accommodation, attractions etc. For me this is a definite no, no. Similarly Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving and other holidays are dates to be avoided. Flying during the midweek can also save you quite a few bucks, pounds or euros.
Your choice of the airport is equally important. The best rates available are often to the big hub airports like JFK, LAX, ORD, ATL or DAL. Apart from the cheap rates they offer the advantage of direct flights and save you the hassle of changing planes in the USA. And it is a hassle since in most American airports you have to collect your luggage, go through immigration and customs and then recheck your luggage again for the internal flight. In my opinion, it is better to plan your trip in such a way that it starts and ends in a hub airport with direct flights from Europe. So instead of flying to, let’s, Charleston or Savannah and starting your trip there, go to Atlanta instead which is a big hub of Delta Airlines. For example, last spring when I went to Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia and I did fly to Atlanta rather than Nashville, Louisville or Cincinnati.
Nowadays most people (including myself) search for and buy tickets themselves online. I really don’t see the point of visiting a travel agent any more as long as you are not planning some complicated multi-stop itinerary around the world with a few different airlines.
You can obviously check the prices directly on the airlines’ websites, but there are thousands of websites offering searches among the multiple airlines and travel agents. My favourites are Kayak, Skyscanner and Travelsupermarket. However, I never completely trust them. Theoretically, they are supposed to redirect you to the sellers’ sites offering the best deals. I tend to check the chosen flights directly with the airlines as well since sometimes you can get them even cheaper than on the price comparison sites. A couple of years ago Travelsupermarket was offering flights to Washington DC directly from the British Airways site, which were £25 more expensive than the same flight if searched for on the BA site. Also, some of the cheapest offers always seems to sell out as soon as you click on them. It might be my Polish cynicism, but they are probably there to redirect you to to some of these sellers’ websites. However you look at it, the more you search, the more you can save, so be patient.
Remember that most of the cheap deals have severe restrictions when it comes to changing dates and other details once you book. If you have to change something it will increase your fare significantly, if it is possible at all. So only book your flights when you are 100% sure when you are going. Some people still recommend booking flights as far ahead as possible, but I realised that it doesn’t really make sense to book flights many months before any more. I usually follow prices online for a few months and buy them no more than two months or even six weeks in advance of my travels. I never noticed any huge price hikes and sometimes they even drop. For example, last year I booked my flight to Atlanta about two months before flying out, but then I noticed that 3-4 weeks before my trip prices dropped a good £30 or more. Damn, I should have waited even longer. Also last year I was patiently checking prices for flights to Boston in October and finally got a random cheap deal no more then six weeks before departure. I paid £335 when usual price for the same dates was always in the range of £450-500. Offers like that happen so search, search and search again.
Another way of saving money is to travel light. I still remember the good old days when you could take two pieces of checked luggage up to 32kg each. Unfortunately, in these stringent times most of the airlines cut their allowance to one piece of up to 23kg. If you want to take something like camping equipment or other heavy stuff, think twice about it as it might be cheaper to buy it in the US rather than paying the bloody airlines for extra bags. Especially when so many things are actually cheaper in the US than in the UK.
At the end a few words about formalities when crossing the US border. Most Europeans don’t need to apply for a paper visa as most Western European countries are covered by the visa waiver program. You still have to fill in the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) form online and you should do it at least 72 hours before you fly.
The rest of us (including me) need a valid US visa to enter America. You’d better apply well in advance of your travels to avoid disappointment.
At the American airport remember that security officials and immigration officers are among the most humourless people on the entire planet. It is to a degree true about immigration and security personnel all over the world (especially in my native Poland), but Americans are definitely in the top of this league. It is especially weird as Americans are normally very outgoing people. Having said that, I have never had a particularly bad experience with the US Immigration. They tend to be professional and efficient, even if sometimes they ask weird questions. Once in Boston, the officer asked me why I was not married to my girlfriend. What the hell was I suppose to answer?
After immigration you collect your bags and go through customs. Remember that you can’t bring fruit, vegetables, meat or any fresh produce into the USA. Theoretically, you can be fined a good few hundred dollars just for forgetting about an apple in your bag.
Finally, you are out of the airport and ready to go. From my experience it takes about an hour (plus/minus 15 mins) to clear most of the US airports. My usual next step is the car rental agency desk. More about this next time.
Choosing a mode of transportation is one of the most important decisions when you are planning your trip. Technically, you don’t have to rent a car, but let’s be straight and honest: public transport in the US sucks and if you don’t have a car your mobility will be greatly reduced. Besides using public transport in the US is like driving in Venice, it defies the logic.
Anyway, let’s start with the public transport.
Probably the most romantic way of travelling around the USA is by using the trains. Railways built America. Anyone who knows a bit of the US history or even just watches the western movies knows what I’m talking about. However, the truth is that nowadays America has all but abandoned its passenger railways. American freight railways are one of the most efficient in the world, but passenger services are a mess. The government-owned Amtrak still runs the trains, but its services are severely limited and every year there is a fight for subsidies threatening the future of the company. Transcontinental trains are more expensive than flights but they offer a great experience and often fantastic scenery. If you plan to use them a lot, the cheapest option is to book a multi-day pass before you arrive in America. Summarizing, American trains are rather expensive, services on a particular route often run only a few times a week, the network is rather skeletal, but on the other hand they offer a great American experience and scenery (especially in the western half of the country). Trains are fun, but they won’t really be practical during any slightly more complicated itinerary.
One of the cheapest options for covering longer distances is to use the long-distance coaches. The biggest company with the most extensive network of connections is Greyhound. Its buses plough the interstates from coast to coast and from the Canadian border to the Mexican one and beyond. It offers reasonable fares and good value multi-day passes which can be bought even cheaper if you book them from abroad. However, it often offers only one connection a day on particular routes which often arrive or departs at quite ungodly hours. Its bus stations are often located in rather bad and not quite safe neighbourhoods. For example, I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting the Greyhound bus station in Los Angeles after dark. On the plus side, you can meet some interesting if sometimes weird people on board of Greyhound buses. Just remember that many Greyhound customers are not exactly the cream of the society, including people who can’t get driving licences or have had them revoked for reasons you might not want to know.
There are some other bus companies, most notably Megabus, which in the last few years has aggressively developed new routes and at the same time offers very low prices. The problem is that its network is limited to a few hubs like, for example, Chicago. It mostly offers routes from its hubs and it doesn’t serve smaller destinations. On the plus side, its buses are modern, offer Wi-Fi and its customer base is more diverse than Greyhound’s one.
In general, coaches are good only if you want to move between larger cities and don’t really plan to exploration the countryside. For example, as far as I know, none of the national parks can be reached by Greyhound’s coach. For that you really need a car.
In general to really have freedom of movement you will need to get yourself a car. Fortunately renting a car in America is easy and cheap. One of the most common pieces of advice found in the guidebooks is to look for fly-and-drive deals. I can definitely say that it is mostly not true. It might work if you want the smallest and cheapest junk car, but even then you can be better off choosing your own car rental agency. You can search offers and check prices directly on the car rental agencies’ websites or using aggregating sites, like with flights and airlines. Car rental prices do fluctuate, but much less than the prices of flights. I usually book cars quite late, directly on the car rental site and always choose the option of paying at the rental desk rather than in advance. That way I pay a bit more (usually only a few bucks) but if I have to cancel my rental I avoid the hassle of applying for the refund or loosing the “no show” fee. Also if you don’t like service level at the desk you can always walk away to competition.
Next important thing to remember is the insurance. If you book a car from the American site of the multinational companies your prices will be quoted in dollars and most likely won’t include the insurance. The reason for that is that many Americans are covered by their own insurance when they rent cars. I would recommend using the European sites of the big car rental chains because they quote fully inclusive prices which come as a better deal than getting insurance later at the rental desk. Always make sure your price includes the CDW (collision and damage waiver) or LDW (loss and damage waiver), otherwise you will be responsible for any scratch on the car you rented.
Next thing to decide is the type of car you want to rent. Of course, it all depends on how many people are travelling with you but remember that American cars in any given class are larger than their European equivalents. Having said that, I never choose the smallest class or two, even when I travel alone. There might be enough space inside but you can feel that such cars are good enough for shopping drives in the cities or short drive to your resort hotel in, let say, Orlando, but not for the proper long journeys on the American highways. No, thank you very much. Also remember that when you book a car you book a vehicle from a given class but not the specific model. So booking “Mustang or similar” usually means the similar one, not the Mustang itself. Fortunately, if you have a bit more money available some companies offer booking specific models. For example, Hertz offers bookings for Mustangs and Camaros specifically on its website. It also pays to ask at the rental desk if there is any upgrade available. Sometimes for only a little bit extra you can get some really nice cars (that’s how I managed to drive Ford Mustang for the first time).
Never pay for options you don’t need; agents often push for some extra insurance options because it is the way they make the extra money. Also don’t pre-purchase an extra tank of fuel. Normally you get the car full and are supposed to drop it off full. Agents often try to up-sell you the option of dropping the car off empty. It doesn’t make sense as the price of fuel they offer is not really that competitive and you will never drop car off totally dry. Also think twice about the satellite navigation system. All the companies offer them as extras, but often you will be better off buying your own rather than renting one, especially on longer trips. Alternatively, nowadays you can easily use your smart-phone for navigation. I myself, as a traditionalist and map lover, use paper maps and atlases. They give me greater spatial awareness than just dumbly following the instructions of a sat-nav.
Once you finalize all the paperwork and check your car, it is time to finally hit the road. Be careful: You will be probably driving an unfamiliar car, possibly on the opposite side of the road than you are used to and you will be tired after many hours on the plane. Take it easy on the first day even if you are an experienced driver. Take time to get a feel of the car you have rented. Also remember that American airports are a busy environment and driving around them is often frantic. Especially leaving the gates of LAX or ORD (Chicago), you will be dropped straight into the jungle of urban driving. But the same applies to most of the big hub airports.
In general, driving in the USA is quite easy and a rather relaxing experience. Especially for those used to the frantic pace of European driving. Speed limits are lower and people do drive slower. Of course there are exceptions, namely the big cities. One of these is New York City, where driving can be a nightmare. In NYC I would recommend using the public transport which is very efficient. It is in fact one of the few places in the US where you can actually survive without a car. Other place where driving can be crazy is greater Los Angeles. Its freeways sometimes resemble a war zone where every other driver tries to take you out. Unfortunately for those scared of driving, here you will need your own set of wheels. In most of the cities it makes sense to avoid rush hours and while in downtown to park your car and simply walk.
There are very few speed cameras in the US, however highway patrol have a tendency to hide under bridges or in the central reservation and hunt for speeding drivers. If you want to speed a bit, do it in the middle of nowhere (like the Dakotas, Nebraska or Kansas) rather than in suburban America. Also bear in mind that interstates are patrolled much more heavily than the state highways. Also remember that each state has its own driving rules. They are broadly similar but you should make yourself familiar at least with the speed limits or some specific exemptions.
Luckily for the intrepid travellers who want to cover a lot of ground, fuel prices in America are still much lower than in Europe and most of the roads are free. There are a few toll roads in the Northeast, Oklahoma and Kansas as well as short stretches around the suburbs of the southern cities (Dallas, Houston, Austin, Orlando and even LA) but otherwise you are free to roam.
Driving has one more advantage: you will be able to access much cheaper accommodation. More about it next time.
America is in a way country designed for people on the move. That’s probably why it is one of the places where finding a place to stay is ridiculously easy. But still, let me give you some tips.
As I usually travel on a rather small budget informations here will be most relevant for other low budget travellers but I’ll try to give some general advise as well.
So, how do I organize my accommodation? In short, I don’t. OK, I’m joking, but only a bit.
Many people travelling abroad like to book their accommodation in advance expecting big savings and wanting the peace of mind. I really think that when you travel to the US it is not really necessary.
The exact planning depends of course from the nature of my trip. If I start my journey in some interesting city (like Boston or Chicago) then I might book a room for first two or three nights as I know I want to spend some time there. Booking in advance also helps in securing reasonable prices for some good location with easy access to downtown. If, on the other hand, I only fly to some city to start a road trip (like I did in Atlanta or Dallas) I usually don’t want to stay there and want to get moving as soon as possible. In such places I only recommend booking room in advance if your flight arrives late so you can get there quickly and get some rest. There are of course countless websites offering hotel bookings, there is no point of listing them here, just use uncle Google. Remember that when you are booking hotel in a big city you will pay premium for staying in the center. Good way of saving is booking some place outside the downtown but with good access to it. In NYC it means for example staying outside Manhattan but close to a subway station. In most other cities it means staying in the suburbs but close to a major freeway leading into town.
Once you move out of the biggest cities things get much easier (and cheaper). US highways are lined with countless hotels and motels. Most of them belong to one of many chains, most of them you will never encounter in Europe. The cheapest rooms are in some of the remaining independent establishments (so called mom and pop motels) but they can be hit or miss. I did stay in some lovely independent motels (like the one in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) but I also got into some really bad ones (like once in Iowa).
Staying in big national chain hotels at least gives you some assurance of quality. Standards still vary, as most of them are run independently by franchise operators, but risk of getting into really bad place is smaller than with independents (but still exist). One of the cheapest big chains is Motel 6 where you can get rooms for as little as $29. But you will have to pay separately for Wi-Fi and the only thing you get in the morning (apart from your bill) is a cup of awful coffee. A nudge up are chains like Days Inn, Super 8, Econo Lodge, Travelodge or Red Roof Inn which usually offer some sort of continental breakfast. To be honest, coffee will still be bad and it can be only few doughnuts to eat but they might also offer some nice pancakes or waffles. Another step up are chains like Best Western, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, Quality Inn or Comfort Inn. They usually offer hot breakfast and in general their properties are newer and better maintained. They also cater for business travellers so you can often find good deals on weekends. The distinction between the mentioned chains is of course not precise, some of the cheap chains locations are brand new and excellent while some of supposedly better and more expensive chain locations can be dated.
Prices vary tremendously. Even the cheapest chains can be expensive in the tourist hot spots. I remember paying over $80 a night for a Motel 6 in Jackson Hole. It was nice and freshly renovated but, at the end of day, it was only a basic Motel 6.
Of course you can book all these chains online but I never do it. Instead I use free discount coupons which offer the same or even lower prices than online. The easiest way of getting coupons is to print them from the internet. One of the biggest players in the coupon market is hotelcoupons.com (formerly known as roomsaver.com). They offer coupons booklets for different regions of the US. I usually print few pages for my first location during the trip. That’s what I did when I recently arrived in Atlanta, I had coupons for Georgia motels so I could choose any place on my way to Tennessee. I prefer this over having hotel booked from home as I often change my plans, sometimes right after arrival.
Once you are in the US you can get the coupon booklets in many places. One of the most obvious ones are the state welcome centers. As the name suggest they are operated by the states and you can find them along the main interastates when you cross the state boundaries. They are sort of rest areas which during the day offer tourist information, usually provided by some voluntaries, often retired folks. You can get there countless brochures, maps and discount coupons. Not only for accommodation but also for dining or local attractions. I always stop in such places, you might always find something interesting there.
Apart from the welcome centers you can find discount coupons in gas stations or in big supermarkets, usually in special dispensers somewhere around the entrance.
When you get your coupons finding particular location is easy. The coupons give you road and exit numbers and some basic directions if it is away from the freeway. Once on the road the chain motels are also marked on special blue lodging signs few miles before each exit. Such signs list all the major chains you can find next to that exit. Once you are on the exit ramp there is another sign which informs you if you should turn right or left for your chosen hotel. The whole system is very logical and virtually idiot and dumb-proof.
Another cheap option are hostels. They are usually centrally located and you can meet fellow travellers there. One of the best hostels I ever stayed in was in hippie neighbourhood of Northwest Portland. It wast old big wooden house on a tree lined street. They got deal with the local bakery so in the evening we got all the unsold breads and rolls. The place was quiet and welcoming. On the other hand hostels in Seattle or San Francisco were busy and noisy but fun. Particularly the one in San Francisco was located right in the middle of the night-life district so it was crazy place to stay on Saturday night. However hostels only really exist in big cities of east and west coast. You won’t find them in places like Oklahoma City or Kansas City. Fortunately in places like that you can find rooms in motels for the same money you would pay for bed in hostel in San Fran or NYC.
Now a word or two about the B&Bs. While in the UK they are often the cheapest option available in the US they are definitely more upmarket. Often located in lovely renovated old historic houses they are usually priced well above the mid-range motels.
What else can I say about accommodation in the US? Rooms are large, beds are large and even the cheapest and dingiest places have air-condition. And did I mention showers? Somehow showers in American motels and hotels are always so much more powerful than in Europe. Even in otherwise crap places. I remember staying couple of times in not so amazing locations but usually as soon as I stepped in the shower all the worries were gone. They really rip your skin apart. It might not be environmentally friendly but I love it. All the motels have obviously plenty of parking and you can often park right in front of your room. It is great as you don’t have to carry your luggage too far.
The cheapest motels are often the closest to the highways so if you are sensitive to noise make sure to find some place few blocks away from the major interstate.
There are of course plenty of other options. There are swanky resorts and plush five star hotels. There are designer hotels and trendy spas. There are huge business oriented hotels around the convention centers. I can’t advise you on that as I never stay there. I can’t really afford it. But I’m not complaining as I really enjoy the way I travel. The roadside America of cheap hotels, gas stations and fast food joints is way more fun than some boring spas or resorts. It is also much more authentic.
Very thorough and interesting info, Gregor! I’m almost tempted to go to North America after South…