Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads (or, how to cross America without a car)

The Great USA Road Trip. It’s a rather iconic thing to do, something that crops up on bucket lists of people young and old across the world, and (I’m not gonna lie), I still want to do it myself one day. But, at the time that we booked our three month jaunt to the good old US of A, neither my boyfriend or I were actually in possession of an actual real live driving license. Which ruled out the whole road trip idea before it had even begun: public transport it was! In some places this was tricky, in others it wasn’t, but here are the alternative modes of transport we used to make our way from one side of North America to the other, covering these locations in the process:

L.A. – SAN DIEGO – SAN FRANCISCO – LAS VEGAS – TUCSON – HOUSTON – NEW ORLEANS – ST AUGUSTINE – FLORIDA CITY- MIAMI – SAVANNAH – WASHINGTON, DC – TORONTO – NEW YORK CITY

Santa Monica. Reachable without a car. Fact.


Amtrak 

The best way to travel!! I don’t know why but I get really overwhelmingly excited whenever I step foot on a train going somewhere new, even though I loathe trains with a passion at home in England. We took several trains with Amtrak, which is a fairly cost effective way to get between cities as long as you have time on your hands. Also, if you sign up to get all the news of sales and special offers before you go out like I did, it can often work out (unexpectedly) as the cheapest mode of transport. The trains were way more comfortable than some airlines I’ve flown with (I’m looking at you, Ryanair), with about triple the legroom and all the freedom to roam around the train as you please, taking a stroll to the dining car or along to the viewing carriage with a domed glass top so you can see out all around you. There is something really really cool about chugging through the desert at midnight with the moon dazzling away above everything, or up along the Big Sur coastline right next to the beach and seeing pelicans and dolphins racing alongside the train.

It’s also quite a social way to get about; we met some very interesting characters indeed, and I am all about discovering new characters. We spent an entire trip between Arizona and Texas with a cartoon voice-over artist- he was especially proud to have once voiced Yogi Bear himself- who ended up entertaining the whole carriage with his vocal talents. What a guy. He showed us magic tricks (granted, they didn’t work the first couple of times but I appreciated the effort), told us all the anecdotes and showed us films that he’d made. Awkward times though as I was eventually so exhausted by all this that by around 1.30am I decided the only thing for it was to literally pretend to be asleep. I am so ashamed of myself for it, but I had run out of other options and was desperately in need of some shuteye.

One thing to bear in mind though is that America is really really big. I mean, to get from Tucson, Arizona to Houston, Texas, it took us around 25 hours. That is a long trip. Especially on a train. So, mentally prepare yourself for that. Also, because of the sheer gargantuan size of the country, trains don’t come that often; if you miss a train, chances are there won’t be another one for two days. I’m deadly serious. Or, the train could be mega mega late. We arrived at Houston station early in the morning to catch a train to New Orleans, and it turned out the train had been stopped en route as some crazy fool had decided to have a cigarette on board (the trains do stop regularly for cigarette/leg-stretching breaks, sometimes in the middle of nowhere). So the train was delayed for FIVE HOURS. FIVE WHOLE HOURS MY FRIENDS! And I thought Southern Rail was bad. But I’m sure that’s not a regular thing, never fear. Overall, I bloody loved my Amtrak experiences.

 

The Coast Starlight route

Somewhere in Texas, on the Sunset Limited route



The Hostel Hopper 😊

We used this bad boy shuttle bus type thing to get from L.A. to San Diego, just after the company had started running. It’s basically a minivan that ferries hostel-dwellers directly between their L.A. and San Diego hostels, and the guys who run the company are just bloody awesome I tell you. The couple who set the company up met whilst backpacking themselves, and they gave us amazing tips and advice and stories about the area, being locals themselves. It’s always good to be in the know, know what I’m saying. It’s also always good to assign a Designated DJ in the vehicle so you have a good playlist going for the entire journey. Well done, Hostel Hopper. A* for you.

Greyhound 

The Greyhound bus network is pretty expansive, and you might recognise the huge silver buses in their fleet from many a Hollywood blockbuster. Every time a character runs away/ leaves town/ goes through a breakup, they take a trip to the local Greyhound station to await the next coach out of there.

The one solid pro of taking a Greyhound bus anywhere is the cost- it is as cheap as chips travel, and in addition to the big cities they stop at a lot of small town locations that you can’t get to easily if you don’t have a car. If you’re on a budget like we were, it makes total and complete sense to travel this way; we traveled from New Orleans to St Augustine and then St Augustine to Florida City with Greyhound simply because it was the cheapest option. So, financially speaking GREYHOUND IS DA BOMB.

But I’ve got to be honest with you guys, I was so over the moon at the thought of never having to step foot on a Greyhound bus again that I cried tears of true joy. Because here are the downsides just to bear in mind:

  • The routes aren’t always direct with no stops. This isn’t such a big deal in the daytime but in the middle of the night when you’re exhausted and uncomfortable and need to sleep, it can feel like the worst thing in the history of the world for you to be filing off the bus at 3.30am, in order to stand in the harsh and disorientating strip light glare of a bus station for an hour or so waiting for the next one.
  • They often (purposefully) overbook the buses. I think this is because people sometimes just don’t use their tickets, but the problem is that when everyone does use them and you’re the last to get on the bus, chances are you’ll be getting straight back off again because there is no room at the inn. Luckily this never happened to us, but I witnessed a few people have to do this and it filled my head with increasing paranoia at every new bus we stepped foot on.
  • The strange and intriguing (and potentially dangerous) people. And I don’t just mean the passengers. During one particularly concerning journey in the black of night and with the bus completely silent, the driver randomly pulled up at the side of a pitch dark road, (all I know is we were somewhere between New Orleans and Mobile), got out of her booth and proceeded to swagger up and down the aisle, looking everyone up and down. “Don’t think I don’t know what y’all did…y’all are sinners. You know who you are. Sinners!” We sat in silence for ten minutes or so (I tried my hardest to do my classic fake-sleeping trick), while she continued this, before eventually she giving up and starting the engine up again. It was a strange experience. I’m still not really sure what the meaning behind her actions was.
  • The stations are more often than not in strange and intriguing (and potentially dangerous) locations. They are generally speaking, very out of the way, often on the outskirts of town, and rather scary places to hang out after the sun goes down.

 

This was not taken from a Greyhound bus, but it is a road. A road in Vegas. So.




Internal Flights 

We took three flights during our stay in the US- with Virgin, JetBlue and SouthWest Airlines, and if you want to cut out travel time then it’s definitely worth flying to where you need to be. I signed up to every USA internal airline before we left England for news of sales and special offers, and each time we took a flight it was because it was the most cost-effective way to travel. People tend to think that flying would be the most expensive option, but as long as you’re savvy about it and jump on deals when you see them, it can actually work out really cheap. (Even cheaper than Greyhound buses sometimes, praise the Lord!)

 

Ride-sharing

Do not confuse ride-sharing for hitch-hiking! I WOULD NOT ACTIVELY RECOMMEND HITCH-HIKING IN THE USA EVER!

Mainly as its quite illegal these days.

But also because I heard some horror stories from people who are regular law-defying hitch-hikers. Like a guy I met who had hitched a ride out of Atlanta…after sitting in the passenger seat for over an hour in complete silence, the driver apologised for the lack of conversation and explained that the reason for that was that he’d just shot his brother in law and was trying to process the fact that he was now officially on the run.

On to actual ride-sharing. When staying in hostels (particularly in America), a lot of the people you meet will be on a similar route to you. If they are good people and are going the same way as you and they offer you a ride, you should probably accept it. You can repay them in gas and snacks and great company.


Local Transport Networks 

Some cities are better than others in terms of public transport. Toronto, San Francisco and New York for example are pretty darn tooting awesome. LA and Houston, in comparison, suck bigtime. We had to stick to much smaller areas in those cities as parts were so hard to reach. But there wasn’t one city we visited that was completely un-navigable by public transport- luckily we were able to transport our ginormous backpacks with us on trams, monorails, buses and trains across the country, annoying our fellow passengers no end.

Because I am a geek, I found myself googling each cities transportation system before we arrived at each one. Which I actually highly recommend doing as every place has a different network, way of buying tickets and place to get your ticket stamped/swiped, and it can all get very overwhelming if you’re not too careful.

 

If all else fails…actual official tour buses

Because sometimes if it seems like the only option at the time, you just have to bite the bullet.

What is restricting about travelling without a car in America is the fact that public transport only links you to cities and towns, meaning we didn’t get to see any of the amazing national parks the country has to offer. So if you’re desperate to visit a particular out-of-the-way location, you’ll be able to get there somehow- it just might have to be full on tourist style until you can get hold of your own car.


And finally…on foot! 

Good old fashioned walking. We walked A LOT. Even the places with good transport. On foot you can just wander wherever the hell you like, and that’s always a laugh as it means in theory you don’t miss out on anything. You’re not stuck underground staring at a tunnel, or squeezed on a bus with grimy windows.

Fresh air is your friend, homies, make the most of it!



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