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Transportation within the USA

Air

The domestic air system is extensive and reliable, with dozens of competing airlines, hundreds of airports and thousands of flights daily. Flying is usually more expensive than travelling by bus, train or car, but it’s the way to go when you’re in a hurry.

Main ‘hub’ airports in the USA include all international gateways plus many other large cities. Most cities and towns have a local or county airport, but you usually have to travel via a hub airport to reach them. The website parkingaccess.com offers information, reservations and discounts on parking at most major airports.

Air Passes
Air Passes are normally available only to non-North American citizens, and they must be purchased in conjunction with an international ticket. Conditions and cost structures can be complicated, but all passes include a certain number of domestic flights (from two to 10) that typically must be used within a 60-day period. Often you must plan your itinerary in advance, but sometimes dates (and even destinations) can be left open. Two of the biggest airline networks offering air passes are Star Alliance and OneWorld.



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Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Boat

There is no river or canal public transportation system in the USA, but there are many smaller, often state-run, coastal ferry services, which provide efficient, scenic links to the many islands off both coasts. Most larger ferries will transport private cars, motorcycles and bicycles.



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Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Bus

To save money, travel by bus, particularly between major towns and cities. Must-go middle-class Americans prefer to fly or drive, but buses let you see the countryside and meet people along the way. As a rule, buses are reliable, cleanish and comfortable, with air-conditioning, barely reclining seats, on-board lavatories and no smoking on board.

Greyhound is the major long-distance bus company, with routes throughout the USA and Canada.

Competing with Greyhound are the 75-plus franchises of Trailways. Trailways may not be as useful as Greyhound for long trips, but fares can be competitive. Upstart long-distance bus lines that may offer cheaper fares include Megabus, primarily operating routes in the Northeast and Midwest.

Many bus stations are clean and safe, but some are in dodgy areas; if you arrive in the evening, it’s worth spending the money on a taxi. Some towns have just a flag stop. If you are boarding at one of these, pay the driver with exact change.

Reservations
Tickets for some Trailways and other buses can only be purchased immediately prior to departure. Greyhound bus tickets can be bought over the phone or online. You can print tickets at home or pick them up at the terminal using ‘Will Call’ service. Seating is normally first-come, first-served. Greyhound recommends arriving an hour before departure to get a seat.



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Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Car & Motorcycle

Foreign visitors can legally drive a car in the USA for up to 12 months using their home driver’s licence. However, an IDP will have more credibility with U.S. traffic police, especially if your home licence doesn’t have a photo or isn’t in English. Your automobile association at home can issue an IDP, valid for one year, for a small fee. Always carry your home licence together with the IDP.

To drive a motorcycle in the USA, you will need either a valid U.S. state motorcycle licence or an IDP specially endorsed for motorcycles.

Insurance
Don’t put the key into the ignition if you don’t have insurance, which is legally required, otherwise you risk financial ruin and legal consequences if there’s an accident. If you already have auto insurance, or if you buy travel insurance that covers car rentals, make sure your policy has adequate liability coverage for where you will be driving; it probably does, but beware that states specify different minimum levels of coverage.

Rental-car companies will provide liability insurance, but most charge extra. Rental companies almost never include collision damage insurance for the vehicle. Instead, they offer an optional Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), usually with an initial deductible cost of $100 to $500. For an extra premium, you can usually get this deductible covered as well.

Paying extra for some or all of this insurance increases the cost of a rental car by as much as $30 a day. Many credit cards offer free collision damage coverage for rental cars if you rent for 15 days or less and charge the total rental to your card. This is a good way to avoid paying extra fees to the rental company, but note that if there’s an accident, sometimes you must pay the rental car company first and then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company. There may be exceptions that are not covered, too, such as ‘exotic’ rentals (e.g. 4WD Jeeps, convertibles). Check your credit-card policy.

Car Rental
Most rental companies require that you have a major credit card, be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s licence. Some major national companies may rent to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge of around $25 per day. Those under 21 are usually not permitted to rent at all.

Car-rental prices vary wildly. Airport locations may have cheaper rates but higher fees; city-centre offices may do pick-ups and drop-offs. Adjusting the days of your rental even slightly can completely change the rate; weekend and weekly rates are usually cheaper.

Most national agencies make ‘unlimited mileage’ standard on all cars, but independents might charge extra for this. Tax on car rentals varies by state and agency location; always ask for the total cost, including all taxes and fees. Most agencies charge more if you pick the car up in one place and drop it off in another.

Automobile Associations
The American Automobile Association (AAA); has reciprocal membership agreements with several international auto clubs. The Better World Club donates 1% of revenue to assist environmental clean-up, offers ecologically sensitive choices for every service it provides and advocates politically for environmental causes. In either organisation, the primary member benefit is 24-hour emergency roadside assistance anywhere in the USA. Both also offer trip planning, free travel maps, travel agency services, car insurance and a range of travel discounts.

Road Rules
Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. The use of seat belts and child safety seats is required in every state. Most car rental agencies rent child safety seats for around $12 per day, but you must reserve them when booking. In some states, motorcyclists are required to wear helmets.

On interstate highways, the speed limit is sometimes raised to 75mph. Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is generally 55mph or 65mph on highways, 25mph to 35mph in cities and towns and as low as 15mph in school zones (strictly enforced during school hours). It’s forbidden to pass a school bus when its lights are flashing. Unless signs prohibit it, you may turn right at a red light after first coming to a full stop – note that turning on right on red is illegal in NYC. At four-way stop signs, cars should proceed in order of arrival; when two cars arrive simultaneously, the one on the right has the right of way. When in doubt, just politely wave the other driver ahead. When emergency vehicles (i.e. police, fire or ambulance) approach from either direction, pull over safely and get out of the way.

Most states have laws against (and hefty fines for) littering along the highway. In an increasing number of states, it is illegal to talk on a hand-held cell (mobile) phone while driving; use a hands-free device instead.

The maximum legal blood-alcohol concentration for drivers is 0.08%. Penalties are very severe for ‘DUI’ – driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Police can give roadside sobriety checks to assess if you’ve been drinking or using drugs. If you fail, they’ll require you take a breath test, urine test or blood test to determine the level of alcohol or drugs in your body. Refusing to be tested is treated the same as if you’d taken the test and failed. In some states it is illegal to carry ‘open containers’ of alcohol in a vehicle, even if they are empty.

Road Conditions & Hazards
America’s highways are legendary ribbons of unblemished asphalt, but not always. Road hazards include potholes, city commuter traffic, wandering wildlife and, of course, cell-phone-wielding, child-distracted and enraged drivers. For nationwide traffic and road-closure information, click here. In places where winter driving is an issue, many cars are fitted with steel-studded snow tires; snow chains can sometimes be required in mountain areas. Driving off-road, or on dirt roads, is often forbidden by rental-car companies, and it can be very dangerous in wet weather.

Hitch-hiking
Hitch-hiking is potentially dangerous and definitely not recommended. Indeed, drivers have heard so many lurid reports they tend to be just as afraid of those with their thumbs out. Hitch-hiking on freeways is prohibited. You’ll see more people hitch-hiking in rural areas and in Alaska and Hawaii, but these places aren’t safer than anywhere else, and with sparse traffic, you may well get stranded.



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Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Local Transportation

Except in large cities, public transportation is rarely the most convenient option for travellers, and coverage can be sparse to outlying towns and suburbs. However, it is usually cheap, safe and reliable. In addition, more than half the states in the nation have adopted 511 as an all-purpose local-transportation help line.

Airport Shuttles

Shuttle buses provide inexpensive and convenient transport to/from airports in most cities. Most are 12-seat vans; some have regular routes and stops (which include the main hotels) and some pick up and deliver passengers ‘door to door’ in their service area.


Bicycle

Some cities are more amenable to bicycles than others, but most have at least a few dedicated bike lanes and paths, and bikes can usually be carried on public transportation.


Bus

Most cities and larger towns have dependable local bus systems, though they are often designed for commuters and provide limited service in the evening and on weekends.


Subway & Train

The largest systems are in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Other cities may have small, one- or two-line rail systems that mainly serve downtown.


Taxi

Taxis are metered, with flag-fall (fixed start fee) charges of around $2.50, plus $1.50 to $2 per mile. They charge extra for waiting and handling baggage, and drivers expect a 10% to 15% tip. Taxis cruise the busiest areas in large cities; otherwise, it’s easiest to phone and order one.



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Train

Amtrak has an extensive rail system, with Amtrak’s Thruway buses providing connections to and from the rail network to some smaller centres and national parks. Compared with other cross-country modes of travel, trains are rarely the quickest, cheapest, timeliest or most convenient option, but they turn the journey into a relaxing, social and scenic all-American experience.

Several long-distance lines traverse the nation east to west, and even more run north to south. These connect all of America’s biggest cities and many of its smaller ones. Long-distance services (on named trains) mostly operate daily on these routes, but some run only three-to-five-days per week.

Reservations can be made any time from 11 months in advance up to the day of departure. Space on most trains is limited, and certain routes can be crowded, especially during summer and holiday periods, so it’s a good idea to book as far in advance as you can; this also gives you the best chance of fare discounts.

Classes & Costs
Fares vary according to the type of train and seating; on long-distance lines, you can travel in coach seats (reserved or unreserved), business class, or first class, which includes all sleeping compartments. Sleeping cars include simple bunks (called ‘roomettes’), bedrooms with en-suite facilities and suites sleeping four with two bathrooms. Sleeping-car rates include meals in the dining car, which offers everyone sit-down meal service (pricey if not included). Food service on commuter lines, when it exists, consists of sandwich and snack bars. Bringing your own food and drink is recommended on all trains.

Various one-way, round-trip and touring fares are available from Amtrak, with discounts of 15% for senior citizens aged 62 and over and for students with a ‘Student Advantage’ card ($20) or an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), and 50% discounts for children aged two to 15 when accompanied by a paying adult.

Train Passes
Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass offers coach-class travel for 15, 30 or 45 days, with travel limited to eight, 12 or 18 one-way ‘segments’, respectively. A segment is not the same as a one-way trip. If reaching your destination requires riding more than one train (for example, getting from New York to Miami with a transfer in Washington, DC) that one-way trip will actually use two segments of your pass.

Each segment of the journey must be booked and reservations should be made by phone (call 800-872-7245, or 215-856-7953 from outside the USA) as far in advance as possible.



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

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