Transportation - Get In
The United States is home to some of the most popular airlines in the world. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and resultant fall in air traffic, the entire industry has seen consolidation on a grand scale and the U.S. is now home to some of the largest airlines in the world. Most visitors from outside Canada and Mexico arrive in the United States by plane. While many medium sized inland cities have an international airport, there are limited flights to most of these and most travelers find themselves entering the U.S. at one of the major entry points along the coasts. The international airports in Atlanta, New York City (Newark & JFK), Los Angeles, Chicago(O'Hare) and Miami are the five main points of entry to the United States by plane.
- From the east New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston, Washington, D.C., Orlando, and Miami are the primary entry points from Europe and other transatlantic points of departure. All the major east coast airports have service from a few key European cities. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, while not in the east, also have a good number of flights from major European cities.
- From the west Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu are the primary points of entry from Asia, Oceania and other transpacific points of departure. Las Vegas, Portland (Oregon), and San Diego also have a few international flight options. Of course, if you arrive in Honolulu, you must take another flight to get to the mainland. Foreign airlines are not allowed to transport passengers to/from Hawaii or Alaska and the other 48 states (except for refueling and in-transit). Chicago, while not on the west coast, is still a major point of entry from Asia, offering non-stop flights from Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, with a direct service from Singapore. Qantas serves Dallas/Fort Worth and Honolulu non stop from Sydney, in addition to their daily service to Los Angeles and San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne, and New York City from Sydney. New York City, while on the east coast, is also well-served by flights to East and Southeast Asia, with nonstop flights from Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei, as well as direct services from Manila and Singapore. There are flights to Boston and Washington, D.C. from a few Asian destinations.
- From the north Chicago, New York City, Detroit and Minneapolis have a good number of flights from major Asian and Canadian cities. There are flights from Toronto to many Eastern and Midwestern cities; flights from Toronto to the United States are generally considered "domestic," as Toronto-Pearson Airport has U.S. border preclearance facilities (i.e., persons traveling to the United States clears U.S. immigration and customs in Toronto and arrives in the U.S. at a domestic terminal).
- From the south Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, New York City and Los Angeles are the primary entry points from Latin America and the Caribbean, but primarily South America. Also, Dallas, Atlanta, and Charlotte are major international waypoints. From Mexico, many major U.S. airports have non-stop service to Cancun, Guadalajara, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City, and from Los Angeles and Houston there are more non-stop service to additional Mexican cities. Direct air travel to/from Cuba is available on a limited chartered basis from Miami, only to those licensed or approved by the Office Of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) to trade with the "enemy" and tickets on these flights are only available through specific travel agents (mainly in Miami) who are licensed by OFAC to sell the tickets. As of December 2014 Presidents Obama and Raul Castro came to an agreement to normalize diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries ending 55 some years of trade embargo. Plans are underway to implement normalization of relations and trade which may include direct flights from Miami and other cities in the U.S. to Cuba. The airlines still need to clarify the rules of implementation with their legal team, plan on the routing and apply for permission from both the U.S. and Cuban governments. Others may wait and see how this is implemented before they plan.
- From the other side of the world New Delhi, India has non-stop service to New York(via JFK and Newark airports) and to Chicago. Mumbai has non-stop flights to New York (JFK and Newark). From Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and United Arab Emiratesyou can also fly to New York (JFK). Qatar, and Saudi Arabian fly to Washington, DC, and South African Airways goes to New York (JFK) and Washington, DC (Dulles). Los Angeles and Houston both offer non-stop service to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Miami has service from Qatar.
The U.S. requires full entry formalities even for international transit. If you normally need a visa to visit the U.S. and can't avoid a transit, you will need at least a C-1 transit visa.
Customs and immigration are cleared at your first U.S. stop, not at your final destination, even if you have an onward flight. Allow at least three hours at your first U.S. stop. If luggage has been checked through to the final destination from the originating airport they STILL must be reclaimed at the first U.S. stop and passed through customs for inspection. After clearing customs & immigration there's usually a check-in desk or a conveyor belt beyond for passengers to re-check their bags before going out into the international arrivals area where the non-traveling public to greet & meet those coming back from a trip. All international arrivals must go through the security TSA screening to continue on the next flight.
Luggage allowance for flights to or from the U.S. usually operates on a piecewise system in addition to the weight system even for foreign carriers. This means that you are allowed a limited number of bags to check-in where each bag should not exceed certain linear dimensions (computed by adding the length, width and height of the bags). The exact allowances and restrictions on weight, linear dimension and number of baggage allowed are determined by the carrier you are flying with, your origin (if coming to the U.S.) or destination (if leaving) and the class of service you are traveling in.
When arriving once you have collected your luggage you can head toward the exit. Most airports have near the exit a wall of "courtesy phones" with the description and the prices of motels in the area. You can call these motels free of charge and ask for a room and a pick up shuttle will come to fetch you at the airport. It is very convenient and mostly free of charge (but you are supposed to tip the driver).
Security procedures for commercial flights departing from anywhere in the U.S. continue to evolve. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) now requires all passengers to remove shoes and outerwear and submit personal belongings to X-ray screening. Full body scans using millimeter wave or X-rays are becoming increasingly common, and are now standard for most U.S. airports. Refusal to submit to a full body scan is permitted, in favor of a pat-down, though you may have to wait a few minutes for an agent to be available to do the pat-down. Should you opt for a pat-down, the TSA agent will offer to do it in private, and you also have the right to demand that it be conducted by an officer of the same sex, but no clothing other than shoes and belts will normally be removed (you can ask the agent beforehand), although the agent will feel some private areas through your clothes. Random passengers may also be selected for additional screening. This may include an "enhanced pat-down." Do not assume that you are in any sort of trouble or that you are even suspected of causing trouble, simply because you are being subjected to these screenings.
If you wish to lock your checked baggage, the TSA requires you to use special locks that have the Travel Sentry TSA lock system. These locks can be opened by TSA officials using a master key should they wish to inspect the contents of your bag. If your lock is not one of the TSA-approved locks, the TSA will break it open and you will not be entitled to any compensation for the damage.
Passengers whose journeys originate in major Canadian airports and involve either U.S. or Canadian carriers will have the advantage of clearing U.S. entry formalities (passport control and customs) at their Canadian port of exit. As far as most flights from Canada are concerned, they are treated similarly as U.S. domestic flights but only because clearance has been performed at the Canadian airport. Hence once passengers from Canada arrive at their U.S. port of entry, rather than walk through a secluded corridor above or below, they walk into the departure gate where they see the display of restaurants and shops at the domestic terminal on their way to baggage claim. It is worth noting that most Canadian carriers are located in U.S. domestic terminals or concourses in most airports. As a result of this arrangement, some otherwise domestic airports (such as LaGuardia Airport in New York City), which lack customs and immigration facilities also serve international flights from Canadian airports with pre-clearance facilities.
Travelers on U.S.–Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific, as well as those from minor Canadian airports that do not have preclearance facilities, will still encounter traditional entry formalities upon arrival at their first U.S. stop; a Canadian transit visa may be required even if passengers are confined to a holding area for the entire transit time.
Some airports in Canada, including Vancouver International Airport, Terminal 1 of Toronto-Pearson Airport, and Montréal-Trudeau Airport generally do not require passengers in transit from abroad to pass through Canadian Customs and Immigration controls before going through U.S. preclearance formalities. However, even if you pass through these airports, make sure that your papers are in order to allow you to enter Canada: if you cannot travel to the U.S. on the same day you go through preclearance, if you are not cleared for entry to the United States, or if you and/or your luggage is not checked through by your airline to at least your first destination in the United States, you will need to report to Canada Customs; a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required. Also note that the arrangement does not apply in the reverse direction, meaning that you will have to pass through Canadian customs and immigration on your flight out.
Preclearance facilities are available at most major Canadian airports (Toronto-Pearson, Montreal-Trudeau, Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier, Vancouver, Calgary, etc.), Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, Grand Bahama and Lynden Pindling International Airports in the Bahamas, Bermuda International Airport in Bermuda, and Dublin and ShannonInternational Airports in Ireland.
Passengers on British Airways flights from London to New York City transiting via either Dublin or Shannon, Ireland can take advantage of U.S. passport control and customs preclearance at Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival at the U.S., they will arrive as if they were domestic passengers.
Traffic travels on the right hand side (as it does in Canada and Mexico), except in the U.S. Virgin Islands, due to left-hand driving being common in the smaller Caribbean islands.
If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Program, you will need to pay a $6 fee, in cash, at the point of entry. No fee is payable if you are simply re-entering and already have the Visa Waiver slip in your passport.
The U.S.–Canada and U.S.–Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders with millions of crossings daily. Average wait times are up to 30 minutes, but some of the most heavily traveled border crossings may have considerable delays—approaching 1–2 hours at peak times (weekends, holidays). Current wait times (updated hourly) are available on the U.S. customs service website. The U.S.–Mexico border is lucrative for drug trafficking, so vehicles crossing may be X-rayed or searched by a drug-sniffing dog. If there is suspicion, your vehicle may be searched. Since this is an all-too-common event, expect no patience from border agents.
As Canada and Mexico use the metric units of measure but the U.S. uses customary units, bear in mind that after the border, road signs are published in miles and miles per hour. If you are driving a car from Canada or Mexico then be mindful that a speed limit of 55 mph in the U.S. is 88 km/h.
Greyhound offers substantial inexpensive cross-border service from both Canada and Mexico throughout their network. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo have hourly service. Megabus U.S. also runs multiple daily trips from Toronto (also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for as low as $1.
Bus passengers often experience greater scrutiny from U.S. customs officials than car or train passengers.
Prior to World War II, most travelers and immigrants to the United States from foreign countries entered by boat. Today, this is not the case, as most enter by plane.
Entering the U.S. by sea, other than on a registered cruise ship, may be difficult. The most common entry points for private boats are Los Angeles and the surrounding area, Florida, and the Eastern coastal states.
Some passenger ferries exist between Canada and the U.S., mostly between British Columbia and Washington State or Alaska.
Cunard offers transatlantic ship travel between the United Kingdom and New York City.
Amtrak offers international service from the Canadian cities of Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades has two trips per day to Seattle), Toronto (Maple Leaf once daily to New York City via Niagara Falls), and Montreal (Adirondack once daily to New York City via Albany).
On international trains from Montreal and Toronto, immigration formalities are conducted at the border; this takes significantly more time than it would on a bus, which means the bus is often both less expensive and faster than the train.
Travelers from Vancouver clear U.S. immigration and customs at Pacific Central Station before they get on the train itself, just as they do for air travel. Be sure to allow enough time before departure to complete the necessary inspections.
From Mexico the nearest Amtrak stations are in San Diego (Pacific Surfliner with multiple departures from San Diego to San Luis Obispo) and in El Paso (Once daily Sunset Limited & Texas Eagle between Los Angeles and San Antonio. In San Antonio the Texas Eagle continues northwards towards Chicago and the Sunset Limited continues east to New Orleans). Trains do not cross the border into Mexico so passengers continue to the border on local public transportation or taxi. There are no onward trains south from the Mexican side of the border.
There are many border crossings in urban areas which can be crossed by pedestrians. Crossings such as those in or near Niagara Falls, Detroit, Tijuana, Nogales, and El Paso are popular for persons wishing to spend a day on the other side of the border. In some cases, this may be ideal for day-trippers, as crossing by car can be a much longer wait.
Transportation - Get Around
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.
Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialing 511 on your phone.
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 six 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 large cities in the U.S. are served by one or two airports; many smaller 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.
Unlike in many other countries, the U.S. has never had a state-owned national airline. The American airline scheme has dramatically changed within the past 10 years because of bankruptcies and mergers. The largest airlines are the three remaining mainline legacy carriers (American Airlines, Delta, and United) and two of the country's low-cost carriers, Southwest and JetBlue. Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are legacy regional carriers, while smaller airlines Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, Virgin America, Dynamic International Airways and Sun Country are trying to make inroads. There are also a number of smaller regional airlines that are subsidiaries of the mainline carriers and can be booked through their parents.
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. With that said, the borderline in fees and service between low-cost and mainline carriers are getting thinner. You can often fly mainline or regional carriers with a similar or even lower price to their no-frill counterparts, provided you do not buy anything beyond a seat, carry-on bags, and soft drinks. But ironically, low-cost carriers can occasionally include more amenities than mainline carriers, such as inflight entertainment for even a short-haul flight or free checked baggage in the price of their tickets! Southwest Airlines, for instance allows passengers to check in up to two pieces of bags in their base price.
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 free 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. Depending on the cost for a last minute upgrade, the savings in checked bag fees alone may make this a worthwhile option (and you'll also get priority boarding, the bigger seat, more legroom, free beverages and food.)
Certain transcontinental services offered by American ("Flagship Service"), Delta ("BusinessElite Transcontinental"), JetBlue ("Mint"), and United ("BusinessFirst p.s."), where an international style Business Class (with lie-flat seating and upgraded dining) is available, American's Flagship service also offers the equivalent of International First Class in a very private 1-1 configuration. Upgraded transcontinental service is usually only available between New York–JFK and Los Angeles/ San Francisco, although Delta also offers it on some flights to Seattle. Flights between the East Coast and Hawaii along with all flights from the mainland to U.S. Pacific Territories (Guam, CNMI, etc...) typically feature international business class.
Security at U.S. airports is onerous, especially during busy holiday periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Adults must show approved picture ID.
There are limitations on liquids (including gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes) in carry-on baggage. Liquids must be in individual containers each no bigger than 3.4 ounces (100 mL). The containers must all be placed within a single zippered plastic bag that is 1 quart (946 mL) or less in size. Only one such bag, with however much liquid, is allowed per passenger. Liquids in excess of these limits will be confiscated. (Liquids in checked baggage are not restricted.) Medications (including saline solution for contact lenses) and infant and child nourishment (formula, breast milk, and juice for toddlers) are exempt but subject to additional testing; notify TSA agents if you are carrying these items, store them separately from your other liquids, and if possible clearly label them in advance.
If arriving from international destinations ALL passengers must go through security screening to continue on the onward flight, after clearing immigration and customs inspections. That means all liquids and prohibited items (per TSA rules) that were purchased in a Duty Free shop or allowed through as carry on from a foreign airport must re-packed into checked luggage after coming out of the customs area and before re-checking luggage. In most airports there is a check-in desk outside or conveyor belt outside of customs for transiting passengers to re-check their luggage. Items cannot be re-packed or re-arranged before customs inspections in the luggage reclaim area.
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 concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
Many small-town airports on America's borders welcome individually-owned small aircraft; points like Ogdensburg, Watertown and Massena with just a few scheduled domestic Essential Air Service flights daily fill the rest of their time with general aviation. Give them an hour or two advance notice so that they can fetch border officials to meet the tiny private plane from exotic and foreign Brockville, and you've provided just the excuse they needed to add "International Airport" to their names.
Due to the popularity of flying and private car ownership, the passenger rail network in the United States is only a shadow of what it once was in the 1920's, and while the United States continues to have the world's longest rail network, it is primarily used for freight transport these days. Except for certain densely populated corridors (mostly just the Northeast where something approaching high speed rail is available), passenger trains in the United States can be surprisingly scarce, slow 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". Travellers from Europe and East Asia may like to note that there is no dedicated high-speed rail network in the United States, and driving yourself will often be quicker than taking the train when travelling long distances.
Amtrak offers many amenities and services that are lacking from other modes of transport. Amtrak's routes 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 that "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. Some of the most scenic routes include the California Zephyr that runs between Emeryville in the Bay Area of California to Chicago and the Empire Builder that goes from Chicago to Seattle or Portland. Both offer a specific lounge car with floor to ceiling windows and double decker cars.
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.
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 (some facilities may be operated by third parties). Some commuter train systems and services do not operate on weekends and holidays, so it's best to check the system's website to plan ahead. Buy tickets before you board the train as you will either face a substantially more expensive fare or a hefty fine.
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 New York State Canal System operates four canals comprising 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 and Ohio Rivers.
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.
In the northwest of the country, you can travel with the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System from Bellingham (Washington) all the way along Alaska's southern coast to Dutch Harbor-Unalaska. As a bonus you get to enjoy beautiful mountain and archipelago scenery. Moreover, much of off-the-beaten-path-Alaska is just accessible by boat.
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans use a car when traveling within their city, and when traveling to nearby cities in their state or region. Traveling the United States without a car can be difficult, though it is not impossible.
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.
Renting a car usually costs anywhere from $20 to $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. 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.
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 (1-800-3733411), 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 most of the world, the United States continues to use the imperial measurement system, meaning that road signs are in miles and miles per hour, and fuel is sold in gallons. Most American cars generally display both the imperial and metric system because they are manufactured for Canada and Mexico's market as well, but if your car's speedometer doesn't display both, make sure you know the relevant conversion (1 mile is about 1.6 km) and read the owner's manual to see how to convert the units. Traffic signs do not conform to international standards as well, but if you understand English, they should be self-explanatory.
The national road system consists of Interstates, which are controlled access divided highways with no grade crossings, the older U.S. highway systems that can go as small as one lane for each direction, and state routes. All of them are generally well maintained by the respective states, but while the former generally links only the major towns of every state, the U.S. highway and state routes can lead you to many interesting off-the-beaten-path sights, if you don't mind stopping at traffic lights and dealing with pedestrians. Most sections of the roads are free to use, but there are some which levy fees.
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 scarcity 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. A "coast-to-coast" trip with multiple drivers and minimal stops will take at least five days (four and a half if you have strong bladders).
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 that covers especially a few difference of traffic rules applied by all U.S. states and 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, though exceptions may sometimes apply depending on the state they are in (eg. some states waive this requirement for those on student visas). Written and practical driving tests are usually required, but they are sometimes waived for holders of some Canadian and European licenses.
Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left, same as in Canada and Mexico. White lines separate traffic moving in the same direction and yellow lines separate opposing traffic. Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all U.S. jurisdictions. At all intersections, vehicles must stop behind the thick, white line painted across the road and cannot block crosswalks. Turning right at a red light (after coming to a complete stop and yielding to cross traffic) is legal in every state, though exceptions exist (such as New York City and where signage or signals explicitly prohibit it). You must stop your vehicle immediately when you hear a siren from the police, ambulance, or fire truck in order for them to pass.
Speed limits are variable depending on the area you are driving at. 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.
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 and affordable.
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1-800-229-9424) and several affiliated brands such as BoltBus, Lucky Streak, NeOn, Cruceros USA and Valley Transit (in SE Texas) have the predominant share of American bus travel. Discounts are available to travelers who purchase their tickets 7–14 days in advance of their travel date. 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.
Coach USA operates a variety of commuter routes, airport shuttles, casino shuttles and university connection services under different names including Megabus, their intercity brand to rival Greyhound. Megabus operates mainly in the midwest and the eastern half of the country between the hub cities of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, New York, Washington DC and several other cities surrounding and between the hubs as well as connections to Montreal and Toronto in Canada. They also have a couple of routes from Los Angeles to San Francisco & to Las Vegas and another route from San Francisco to Reno in the west which are not connected to the other ones in the midwest & and the east coast.
The so called Chinatown buses are small independent companies that provide curb-side departures for a standard walk-up cash fare often much lower than other operators' fares. These lines operate mainly in the northeast between Boston, New York, Philalphia, Washington DC, and Baltimore. Some continue further out to destinations in the Midwest and the South from the northeast. Others operate between California, Nevada and Arizona the West Coast. See the relevant city guides and GoToBus.com for more information.
Hispanic bus companies tend to have the most spacious buses in the country. Many are affiliate brands or subsidiaries of Mexican bus companies offering cross-border services beyond the border areas to as a far north as Chicago, to as far east as Atlanta and as far south as Mexico City. Connections from Texas hubs to the Midwest including Chicago, the Southeast and Mexico are offered by Tornado Bus, El Expreso, Omnibus Mexicanos and Groupo Senda. Service in and out of Florida is offered by the Chilean JetSet, Argentinian RedCoach, and Cuban-American La Cubana. In California and the Southwest operators include FuturaNet, Tufesa, InterCalifornias and El Paso-Los Angeles Limousines, which may have tickets starting from $1.
The next largest affiliation is Trailways which consist of 70 different independent franchisees, franchising the 'Trailways' brand together. Most only offer chartered bus services and do not offer regularly scheduled services on fixed routes. The major Trailways affiliates that offer regularly scheduled services are Trailways of New York, Martz Trailways, Susquehanna Trailways and Burlington Trailways
The Federal Highway Administration 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.
There are numerous other smaller Trailways affiliates and non-affiliated small companies offering bus services throughout the country. Some are operated by local government as public transportation while others are operated by private companies for profit with buses traveling within the same state or across state lines. See "By bus" under "Getting Around" and "Getting in" in a state article or "Getting in" in a city or town article as to what is available there.
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, and American drivers also practice caution for the same reasons.
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 going somewhere in the country, with payment often being sharing the fuel costs.