Getting Around in North America: Ultimate Guide to Transportation

Shawn Forno

North America’s three major countries are all massive. Canada is #2 in landmass (the U.S. is #4) so “getting around” is an undertaking.

Distance is the biggest obstacle, but winter weather, seasonal availability, rental restrictions, and cost are all factors when planning out how you’ll get from A to B on your trip across North America. Logistics are a big factor.

So, to save you a few dead ends, here is an exhaustive look at air, train, bus, and local transit in Canada, the US, and Mexico.

Remember, not all who wander are lost; most of them just haven’t done enough research.

Table of Contents

Travel in Canada

getting around Canada

This list will go in geographical order, north to south, so grab your toque because we’re starting in the Great White North.

Getting to Canada is easy enough—there are dozens of international airports from Vancouver to Toronto—and a Canadian tourist visa is easy to come by. Once you land, it only gets better. Cruise ships routinely dock in major cities on both coasts, and a VIA Rail system connects the country with over 14,000 km of track.

So, let’s take a closer look at which modes of transport will get you where you want to go the fastest and at prices you can afford.

Flights to Canada

International Carriers Servicing Canada

Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ)

getting around Toronto

Toronto’s Pearson International Airport is Canada’s busiest landing pad with twice as many yearly visitors (38 million) as runner-up Vancouver International Airport (19 million). Located 14 miles from the city center, this airport is a hub for international destinations and connecting flights throughout North America.

Part of Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam, Toronto is your obvious choice for destinations on the east coast of Canada or the US and is conveniently located just an hour and half flight time from both New York City and Chicago.

Flights to Toronto From:

Getting from Toronto Pearson Airport to Toronto
It’s a 30 min drive from Toronto Pearson airport to the city, so your best (cheapest) option is likely the Union Pearson Express (UP) public transit train. Trains take 25 minutes to reach downtown and leave every 15 mins from 5:30am – 1am from Terminal 1. Trains include free wi-fi and charging ports to revive your phone and double check your plans.

An Adult One-Way ticket from Pearson to downtown Toronto is $12 CAD

Vancouver International Airport (YVR)

Home to the second busiest airport in Canada, and the gateway to the west, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is a great place for a layover considering it was voted “Best Airport in North America” five years in a row and consistently makes Top 10 Airport lists year after year.

Flights to Vancouver From:

getting around Vancouver
Getting from Vancouver International Airport to Vancouver
The Canada Line provides service from the airport (YVR) to multiple destinations including the Waterfront and Richmond, to the south, with stops along the way. Trains come every 8 minutes from 4:48 am – 1:05am and reach the waterfront in 30 mins.

Buying a ticket to the Canada Line SkyTrain is a little tricky. You need a Compass pass to ride the Canada Line, and they offer multiple options from a single use 90 minute pass ($2.75 with a $5 surcharge) to preloaded cards. The Canada Line also uses the zone system (3 zone fares) so make sure you know which zone your destination is in before you pay.

Flights Within Canada

Canada is big, so domestic flights are a great idea, especially if you’re looking to save time on a short visit. This list can’t possibly go into detail on every airport servicing different destinations, but suffice it to say that you have dozens of great options to get where you want to go for a reasonable price.

Domestic & Regional Canadian Airlines

West Coast

Northern Canada

Central Canada

Eastern Canada (with service to the U.S.)

Here’s an extensive Canadian airport list if you’re curious.

Driving in Canada

At 8,030 kms end to end (5,000 miles), the Trans-Canada Highway services all 10 Canadian provinces and stretches from coast to coast. It’s one of the world’s longest roads, and is your only real option for a long-distance road trip across the Great White North. Some sections of the Trans-Canada highway are primed for leisurely weekend drives while others are long stretches of monotony. Know before you go.

Popular Trans-Canada Highway Routes:

But it’s not just breathtaking scenery on the Trans-Canada Highway. There are some hazards and hassles associated with the long-haul.

Bad Weather (Winter!)

You can’t just drive across Canada whenever you feel like it. Salted roads can destroy your car’s underbelly at the best of times, Canadian car registration is a finicky mistress (when’s the last time you had your timing belt replaced?) and snow and ice can close stretches of road during the winter and beyond. Ice tires are $200. Each. If you’re in a hurry or visiting during winter, driving might not be the best option.

Renting a Car in Canada

Renting a car in Canada is a viable option—if you’re willing to pay for it. Expensive one-way rental fees (it costs a lot of money to ship a car from Toronto back to Calgary), and insurance can add up on a weeks long voyage. If you have the cash to rent a car, you might want to consider just outright buying a car and selling it when you reach your final destination.

Car Rental Companies in Canada:

Zipcar even has locations in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and elsewhere.

Crossing the Border in a Rental Car

This can be done, but you shouldn’t assume it’s okay when you rent. There are some issues to address with your rental company and not all companies allow it in the first place. Definitely ask:

Train Travel in Canada

getting around Canada
If Canada is too big to drive you have another great option. Trains. It’s 4,350 km from Vancouver to Toronto, and another 600 km to Montreal, and while I love the open road, driving across Canada is hard. So… take the train.

Enjoy the leisure and comfort of rail travel as you voyage across Canada like a titan of industry—without paying a king’s ransom. Here’s a look at train travel in Canada on VIA Rail.

Cost of Train Travel in Canada

Train travel in Canada is fairly inexpensive. However June to October is the peak season, so expect a price bump during the summer.

Sleeper car tickets from Toronto to Vancouver—the ultimate 83 hour long-haul—can cost $700 (and up), while fares to Edmonton are only $250. If you book on Discount Tuesdays, tickets from Toronto to Montreal can be as cheap as $45.

Canadian Rail Passes

Europe isn’t the only place you can buy a multi-use rail pass. That’s right, Canada has one too, albeit on a much smaller scale, and limited to Eastern Canada, but still…

The CanRail Pass services popular destinations from Quebec City to Windsor, including:

Choose from either 7 or 10-trip options with plans starting at $299. Student fares (25 and under with valid ID) are as low as $269, and both options cover a travel period of 21 days in Economy class.

Four Classes of Canadian Trains: Prices & Differences

Canadian rail travel comes in four shapes and sizes:

Economy
The cheapest way to get from A-B. Basically, a seat with a headrest. If your train travels overnight, you will most likely get a pillow and a blanket. Bonus: Many trains in Canada come with chargers and free wifi. So, that’s nice.

Business
This is only available on busier lines in Ontario and Quebec. Similar to business class on a plane, chargers, wifi, priority boarding, comfy seats, and a meal are often included.

Sleeper
Sleeper class varies wildly depending on your train, destination, and budget, but usually includes a berth (upper or lower), blankets, meal, and all the basics of economy (wifi, chargers, etc.). You can upgrade to 1, 2, or 3 person cabins, but the price is steep.

Touring
These “Fancy Sleeper Class” trains come with better sleeping accommodations, meals, and a glass-roofed “sightseeing car” in many cases. You might even get a tour guide if that’s your thing.

Long Distance Bus Travel in Canada

Ah buses, the last resort of the budget traveler. Buses combine all the worst parts of driving—long distances, uncomfortable seats, no control over stops—with the worst parts of budget travel—other people. Obviously buses are the cheapest option, but not the most appealing.

Greyhound Buses Rule Canada

Greyhound rules the bus routes of Canada. There are other regional providers and city-to-city routes—like Megabus from Toronto to Montreal ($48)—but Greyhound is the only way to go for the long haul.

Greyhound: Toronto to Vancouver – $267 (65 hrs)

Intercity Canadian Bus Lines

Have fun. Hope your cell phone battery lasts long enough to drown out the sound of snoring and your own quiet, desperate, sobbing.

Getting Around the USA

getting around the US

America. Birthplace of the road trip, and the TSA. Travel to, and within, the US has fluctuated over the years as security concerns and economic turmoil have upended the travel sector—particularly flights. However, independent travel within the US is still a national pastime and a major draw for tourists from around the world looking to visit iconic cities, gorgeous national parks, and tourist traps: from balls of twine to Las Vegas herself.

Americans like to move around (within our own borders at least), so here’s a few of the best ways to get around the US.

Flights to the USA

getting around the US

To visit the US, you pretty much have to fly here. That being said, you might be surprised which airports are the busiest in the country.

Atlanta tops the list of not only the busiest US airport, but the busiest airport in the world, with over 100 million passengers landing here every year. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of flying through this Delta hub…you truly know that hell is other people.

Travel Hack Alert!

Years ago when I was a broke budget travel survivalist I used to purposely book flights on Delta because I knew that I’d have to connect in Atlanta. The trick was that almost without fail my connecting flight would be overbooked. Delta is notorious for this practice, and I took advantage of it. I would always check in at my gate and offer to get bumped to the next flight—usually 2-3 hours later—in exchange for a free flight voucher (worth more than my original ticket).

Ticket agents loved my “helpful attitude” and I was usually able to get airport vouchers ($20-$40 of “airport money” for use at stores and restaurants in the terminal). This method of free travel was so consistent that I didn’t pay for a flight for almost 3 years.

Keep in mind that Atlanta is a hellscape where connections go to die, but if you have the right attitude and flexible plans, it can be a great way to snag a few free trips.

Booking a Cheap U.S. Flight

I’m also a big fan of the flight search app Hopper. It makes looking for a cheap flight almost like a game, and the best part is you can set a price alert and wait for the fare to drop before you book.

Flights to New York, Chicago & LA

That being said, no one really ends up in Atlanta. You just pass through, so here’s a rundown of more popular destination cities and what it costs to get there from a few major hubs:

Roundtrip Flights to New York From:

Roundtrip Flights to Los Angeles From:

Roundtrip Flights to Chicago From:

Flying Domestically in the USA

Flights within the US are a great way to see multiple destinations in a short period of time. Las Vegas for instance, is a mere 45 minutes from LA via plane, as opposed to the hot, traffic-ridden drive that can take between 4 and 6 hours. Snag a flight and save yourself some time.

Popular Domestic Flights in the U.S.
LA to Vegas is just one of hundreds of puddle jumpers you can catch for a cheap deal. Jackson Hole is the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Atlanta is a hub that services New Orleans. Seattle runs flights all over the Pacific Northwest, and Texas is…well Texas. You should visit Texas.

Check small regional carriers and budget airlines like:

Driving Across the USA

getting around the USA

The Great American Road Trip. Route 66. Rebel Without a Cause. I don’t know if that last one belongs on the list (I haven’t seen it, but I hear there’s a motorcycle involved so…), but however you imagine it, you’re probably not too far off from the reality of driving across the USA.

Americans love driving, and the roads reflect that. Roadside attractions, from Bakersfield to Boston, show off the quirky character and unique charm of this diverse nation. I can’t recommend driving across the US enough. Millions of Americans do it every summer, and millions of tourists visit to live out their dreams of exploring the great continental expanse on the open roads. And that’s exactly what you’ll get: open roads. Except for the tolls.

Tolls & Fees on Highways in the USA

Toll roads aren’t super common on longer interstate freeways like I-10 from LA to Florida (get it, “free” ways), but in states like California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, you can rack up a surprising bill for driving on the highway.

Pay close attention to “Toll Road Ahead” signs, and if at all possible prepare ahead of time (or at the rental car company) with an E-Z Pass system linked to your credit card to avoid long lines, fines, and the hassle of exact change at toll booths across the country.

Renting a Car in the USA

Renting a car in the USA is surprisingly inexpensive. With just a few minutes of searching you can find attractive deals at most major cities, including airports, to save you the hassle and money of getting to your downtown destination on our (admittedly) terrible public transit systems. More on that in a bit but, seriously, you don’t want to take public transit in the US unless you have to. We suck at it.

One-way fees on rentals are generally negligible (unless you’re going to smaller cities across the country), and insurance options are reasonable—often only $7/day. You have to be 25 years old to rent a car in the US, a surprise to many European millennials that have been drinking absinthe since they were teething, but other than that it’s open season on renting a car.

Here are some budget car rental options that I’ve personally tested and had great experiences at low prices):

Train Travel in the USA

getting around the USA

Contrary to popular opinion, the US has an extensive network of trains. We just don’t use it very often. The most traveled rail lines are on the east coast, connecting commuters from Boston, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York together in a web of steel and timetables, but routes through Chicago, St. Louis, and even New Orleans are worth a visit, not to mention the beautiful California coastal lines.

Trains in the USA aren’t as fast as European TGV lines or as luxurious as…well a lot of places, but they run frequently and they’re an unique way to actually see multiple destinations in the States without a car—a big plus on the East Coast in particular.

Amtrak is the biggest name in train travel with service all over the US. The NE region is their most well traveled area where they share service with competitors like Metro North and NJ Transit. As a New Yorker, Metro North and NJ Transit are both fantastic day trip options for getting out and exploring the natural wonders around New York City and beyond.

getting around the US

USA Rail Passes

Amtrak offers a number of rail pass options for their US Rail Pass:

Another appealing, unique option is the California Rail Pass which grants pass holders 21-days of access to the beautiful Pacific Coast rail line—from San Diego to San Francisco for only $159. I hate driving in LA. The next time I visit my family back on the West Coast, I’m going to try this one out!

Bus Travel in the USA

getting around the US

The story is pretty much the same as in Canada. Greyhound dominates the market with cheap fares and understandably underwhelming seats. A few other bus lines include:

Travel in Mexico

getting around Mexico

Mexico is the 14th largest country in the world by landmass (Canada is #2 and the US #4), and driving the 4,300 kms from Tijuana to Cancun would take 50 nonstop hours under the best conditions.

With beautiful coastal drives along Baja and the Gulf, scenic vistas on the mesas, nightlife, history, and culture in major Metropolises like Mexico City, there’s a heck of a lot to see.

Getting around this large diverse country takes a patience and a plan. Here are your best options:

Flights to Mexico

Mexico City is the most obvious choice since it houses the largest international airport in the country, but if Cancun, or a secluded beach, is your final destination, it’s often a lot easier (and cheaper!) to fly directly to a nearby regional airport.

International Carriers with Flights to Mexico:

Getting to Cancun

Everyone wants to go to Cancun, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful beaches, rich cultural history, and some pretty spicy nightlife. Luckily, Cancun is well worn territory. In 2014 over 17 million visitors landed at the Cancun International Airport which means that thanks to volume discounts, your next direct flight to Cancun should be cheap and readily available.

Roundtrip Flights to Cancun From:

Getting to Oaxaca

The southern state of Oaxaca is a popular tourist destination for mezcal enthusiasts and surf bums alike and is served by two inexpensive regional airports—Xoxocotlan International Airport & Puerto Escondido Airport.

I’ve flown out of Puerto Escondido, and it was a pleasure. Flights to regional airports aren’t as frequent as to larger airports, obviously, so plan accordingly. It’s a 10 min drive from the beach, security was a breeze, and I had a lovely wait for my pleasant flight.

getting around Mexico

Flying into and out of regional airports in Mexico can save you the time and hassle of getting out of the major cities in Mexico, which can be a problem, and almost always involves a bus.

Roundtrip Flights to Mexico

Bus Travel in Mexico (and Mexico City)

Mexico City is the central hub for bus service in Mexico, and there are dozens of lines to other states. However, there’s no single national service line, so don’t be surprised if you need to book multiple tickets on different providers for truly long haul trips. Buses are still the way to travel long distances in Mexico—but make sure you’re up for it. The ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca is not meant to be taken lightly.

Spoiler alert: It’s super curvy near the end.

Mexico City has four main bus terminals serving most of the routes you’ll likely take:

Bus Companies in Mexico

Here’s a Full List of Bus Companies, Prices, and Travel Times from Mexico City

Rome2Rio is another good source for planning your bus routes across Mexico.

Bus Routes Out of Cancun

If you’re one of the thousands of tourists looking to get out of Cancun and explore the region, a bus is your best bet. Cancun has three regional bus stations, but the main one is located at Tulum and Uxmal Avenues.

ADO should always be your first option, but if you speak Spanish and have a Mexican bank card, Mi Escape is also another good site.

Mexican Bus Classes

The quality of your bus varies dramatically based on your needs and budget. Generally speaking there are three classes of bus in Mexico:

Executive Class
Think LCD tv screens in your seat, AC, and complimentary sandwiches. There’s room to stretch out a little (important if you’re tall like me), but most importantly, Executive Class tickets usually travel nonstop, meaning they are way faster than local routes and other regional lines. If you’re fancy, in a hurry, or in a fancy hurry, executive is the only way to go.

First Class
Similar to executive with less legroom and more frequent stops. Still swanky with bathrooms and AC, just not quite as posh.

Second Class
No AC, no legroom, and sometimes no bathrooms, Second Class busses make a lot more stops, and in random places. I dozed off and missed my stop on a second class bus and had to walk a few miles back to town. Don’t let that happen to you. It sucked.

The biggest difference between Executive, First Class buses, and Second Class buses is the safety risk. Bus lines that use regulated highways and make fewer stops are just less likely to be robbed, which sadly still happens to second class busses in Mexico.

Train Travel in Mexico

In the past decade Mexico has all but eliminated passenger trains throughout the country. Some private companies still book trips, but the last remaining passenger train provider—Ferromex—has clearly made the shift to freight train service. Check out their website to see what I mean.

According to USA Today, a few tourist lines still exist, but the future of train travel in Mexico looks bleak.

Driving in Mexico

getting around Mexico

I’ve road tripped to Baja for surf and lobster a few times, and I loved the experience, but a cross country trip across Mexico is not for the faint of heart. Long unregulated roads, theft and violence against tourists, and unsafe conditions from other motorists make driving in Mexico an option that many tourists forego.

I want to be clear: I am not fear mongering. I’ve driven in Mexico several times and while I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience—I had to bribe a policeman for “speeding” while I was at a stop light—I know plenty of people that have driven large stretches of the country and enjoyed every second of it. I’ll just reiterate some of the salient safety information if you choose to hit the open road in Mexico:

Rental Car Companies in Mexico

Renting a car in Mexico can seem unbelievably cheap, and it is. Unbelievable that is. Don’t be seduced by cheap online offers around $5/day. Often there are hidden obscure rental fees and charges—like “basic personal liability insurance“—that can triple the cost of rentals. Don’t get me wrong—you definitely need full coverage and insurance while renting a car in Mexico—just don’t expect the rates to be super cheap.

If you do rent south of the border, here are a few companies to choose from:

TL;DR

Enjoy the bumps along the road, because, good or bad, the time you spend getting from your home to your dream destination will likely make up the bulk of your trip. Remember, it’s not the destination—it’s the journey. Hopefully you have a smooth one!

Image Credit: Visual Hunt</small>