When you’re in America, travel lots of different ways and see as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to fly to save time. Take the train to see things you’ll never get a chance to otherwise. Definitely take a road trip. It’s the American way.
The USA is massive. A country that spans a continent, comprised of fifty states, each of which has its own uniqueness and yet feels seamlessly part of the whole. America is beautiful. America is great. America is one of those places that must be seen to be believed, if you’re from abroad. If it’s home, well, then it begs to be explored. And, of course, “America” is just one part of the continent of North America, so don’t confuse it with the whole.
Whether you’re coming to visit, or you call it home, travel within the USA is an adventure. This is the nation that made the road trip an icon (Route 66 anyone?) and the distances are so vast that flying is a totally justifiable option. (Getting from Hawaii to Florida is at least a 12 hour, multi-flight journey).
Ready to explore the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? Here’s everything you need to know to get started.
Pack the Right Bag
Because America is huge and you’re likely to switch up your modes of transportation you want to pack something versatile that’s comfortable to carry in all situations. A travel backpack is perfect because it’s equally at home tossed into the back of a rental car on a road trip, or tucked into the overhead bin on your cross country flight.
Setout Travel Backpack ($179-199)
Whether you need the 35L or the 45L is entirely up to you and depends on whether you are a light or a heavy packer.
The Setout Travel Backpack is the “just right” travel backpack for most people and it comes in both a men’s and women’s fit! It’s roomy, flexible interior space adapts to the way you pack. Even if you’re packing an extra pair of hiking shoes to get your hike on in one of the national parks, you’ll have plenty of room.
Outbreaker Travel Backpack ($269-299)
Sometimes it rains, right? Well, no need to worry about a rain shower or heavy fog on your great American adventure because the Outbreaker is made of waterproof sailcloth. Your stuff will stay dry.
The adjustable harness system and extra cushy shoulder and hip straps on this bag make it an extremely comfortable carry. The obsessive level of organization on the inside means that everything has its place and packing is a joy.
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 are a few of the best ways to get around the US.
Flights to the USA
To visit the US, you pretty much have to fly here, unless you’re from Canada or Mexico. 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:
- London: $514 (Norwegian) – 8 hrs
- Paris: $585 (United) – 8.5 hrs
- Mexico City: $276!!! (United) – 5 hrs
- Rio de Janeiro: $560 (Delta) – 10 hrs
- Los Angeles: $277 – nonstop (Jetblue) – 5.5 hrs
- Chicago: $117 – nonstop (Spirit) – 2 hrs
Roundtrip Flights to Los Angeles From:
- London: $632 – nonstop (Norwegian) – 11.5 hrs
- Sydney: $787 – nonstop (United/Quantas) 13.75 hrs
- Tokyo: $545 (United) – 10 hrs
- Mexico City: $276 – nonstop (American) – 4 hrs
- Rio: $771 (TAM/United) – 14 hrs
Roundtrip Flights to Chicago From:
- LA: $100 – nonstop (Frontier) – 4.5hrs
- Vancouver: $376 (United/Air Canada ) – 4 hrs
- Dallas: $117 (Spirit) – 2.5 hrs
- Seattle: $147 (Frontier) – 4 hrs
- New Orleans: $71!!! (Spirit) – 2.5hrs
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
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
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.
USA Rail Passes
Amtrak offers a number of rail pass options for their US Rail Pass:
- 15-day (8 segments) – $459
- 30-day (12 segments) $689
- 45-day (18 segments) $899
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
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:
Accommodation options are as diverse as the transportation options in the USA. You’ll find everything from the chain hotels you’d expect to very local roadside motels that still hold down the secondary highways across the nation. Camping is a big thing in the States; you’ll find private and state or national campgrounds in every state. My encouragement is to look for the local and the quirky if you’re trying to get a feel for the “real America.” If what you’re into is consistency and comfort, then there are numerous chain options at every budget in every city across the nation.
Hotels: $100 and More per Night
If you’re looking for something a little luxurious to celebrate a special occasion, or have some hotel points to blow, this section is for you.
- Hilton Hotels: Hotels include Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, and others. Hilton hotels are some of my favorites, thanks to their huge availability (they’re like a Starbucks: one on every corner), with free breakfast and WiFi included.
- Starwood Hotels: Hotels include Sheraton, Aloft, Westin, W Hotels, and others. Starwood hotels are upscale and usually found in bigger, metropolitan areas.
- Marriott: Hotels include Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance Hotels, Courtyard and others. Marriott runs the spectrum of super pricey to normal-people prices, so you’ll likely find a hotel that suites your budget.
- IHG Hotels: Hotels include Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Hotel Indigo, and others. A great hotel chain with tons of mid-price hotels and a big selection.
- Radisson Hotels: This chain has solid mid-price options in many North American cities.
Most of these hotels have award programs. So, if you stay at a brand regularly, sign up for their program. You’ll get rewards that eventually add up to a free night.
Or maybe you’d like a boutique hotel. If that’s the case, check out this site: GreatSmallHotels.com
Hotels: Under $100 per Night
Being one of five children, these are the hotels I stayed in as a kid. Short on luxury but long on value, you can find these hotels in almost any town in the USA.
- Super 8: Occasionally, Super 8 gets bigger than its britches and charges over $100, but you’ll usually find a room here under $100/night
- Motel 6: Pet-friendly with free (non-Continental) breakfast, $40-60/night
- Travelodge Inns: $40-75/night
- Days Inn: $40-80/night
- Comfort Inn: $50-90/night
- Ramada Inn: Can be very nice, $40-80/night
- Microtel Inns & Suites: Pet-friendly, aim for a new hotel to get free WiFi and desk units
- Howard Johnson: $40-80/night with a free Continental breakfast and WiFi
- Sleep Inn: $50-90/night with free Continental breakfast and WiFi
- Red Roof Inn: $40-60/night
- Rodeway Inn: $45-70/night with free deluxe Continental breakfast
- Knights Inn: $35-70/night
- Best Western: Can come with a restaurant attached… or not. $40-80/night
- Fairfield Inns: This is part of the Marriott chain, $40-65/night
- Extended Stay America: Include fully-equipped kitchens and WiFi, starts at $59/night
Discount Hotel Sites
I check out these sites when my budget, or hotel points, don’t allow for a full-price hotel stay. Each site varies in its philosophy, but the basic theme is: hotel rooms sold at a discount.
- Expedia: Offers no cancellation fees and best price guarantee.
- Hotwire: Blindly reserve a hotel room based on price per night, hotel rating, and location. I booked a normal Planet Hollywood hotel room in Las Vegas and ended up in a 1300 sq. ft. suite overlooking the Strip.
- Orbitz: Works like Expedia.
- Priceline: Negotiations applied to hotels — name your own price for a hotel room. Check out this article for tips on scoring a good price.
- Booking: I’ve saved at least $20/night on hotel rooms through this site.
- Hotels: Not my favorite discount hotel site as reviews led me astray and I ended up in a very sketchy San Francisco hotel, but you could find good deals here.
Sometimes you need a home away from home with all the benefits of home (i.e. kitchen, living room, space to spread out). This is where a vacation rental comes in. You can rent a private room in someone’s house or an entire house, condo, or apartment.
And sometimes — if you’re traveling in a group of two or more — the price per night beats out the cost of a hotel room.
Check out the many sites full of options:
- Airbnb: Famous database of private rooms and houses that’s taking the world by storm. I’ve used Airbnb in three different countries and loved it every time.
- VRBO: All private house rentals. Community forums and comments section provide insight on rentals.
- Home Away: The world leader in vacation rentals with 1+ million listings and no hidden costs.
- FlipKey: Charges slightly lower fees than Airbnb.
- Vacasa: Most of their listings are in the Western USA. As a general rule, their properties are smoke free. Approximately 40% of their properties are pet friendly, which means there are options for those traveling with furry friends.
- TripAdvisor Rentals: Yes, this is real. And they have some pretty solid listings for cabins, condos, beach houses.
- Wimdu: More of their rentals are in Europe, but they do have North American listings.
- Roomorama: Short-term home rentals.
Camping and Yurts
This can be a cheaper, fun alternative to booking a hotel room. Amenities vary greatly based on if you’re camping or staying in a yurt. For instance, camping will require you bringing more gear, in the form of a tent or a hammock for sleeping, your own food, and a method for cooking that food. Yet, the yurt might have more in the way of amenities.
The rule of thumb for both is: bring your own sleeping bag. Pricing can range from free (car camping next to rustic unofficial camping spot) to $100+ a night. Generally, the more stuff you haul in, the cheaper the night will be.
Here are some sites for camping, or yurt rental:
- National Forest: Search for the national forest you’d like to stay in for info on camping, plus any fees.
- Yurt Lodging
- Glamping Hub: Think camping but with more glamour and less dirt, usually with a real bed rather than a sleeping bag.
- Kampgrounds of America: More urban-style camping, usually with showers and bathroom amenities.
- Cabin rentals: Database of the possible cabin rentals across North America.
- Hipcamp: With over 28,000 public and private listings, this is the most comprehensive camping guide for the USA.
Ah, now we’re to the section where your costs lower dramatically. For a small fee (think $25-75/year) you are hooked up with hundreds of people who need a housesitter for any length of time.
In exchange for watching their house and feeding their pets, they allow you to stay at their house for free. It’s like Airbnb, only with household chores and some responsibility thrown in. This can be a great option if you’ll be in a location for a while. Or, if you’ll be in a typically expensive location — like Alaska, New York City, or San Francisco.
Here are the major housesitting websites and their fees for joining:
Alright, now we’re getting a little weird. This section is not for the introverts, or the faint of heart. We’re talking about hostels, couch-surfing, and more. Typically for a lower cost, or a free, place to rest your head, you’ll be trading privacy, or quiet. These can be great options for solo travelers looking to make friends, meet locals, and learn more about the city you’re in.
Hostels operate like dorm-rooms for travelers, with a shared bathroom and bedroom with bunk-beds. They usually have private room and bath options.
Here’s a list of hostel websites:
Couch-surfing is staying on a stranger’s couch, or in a spare room. It can be a great way to meet locals. Being part of an introverted couple, I’ve never tried it, but I’ve read some great reviews from those who have.
Here’s the best website:
- Couchsurfing: the veteran website with all the listings. Really, there’s no other site as good as this one. (So I didn’t list any others.)
B&B = bed and breakfast. Usually, the B&B is a historic old house that has quirky charm and breakfast is typically included.
Here are some booking options:
Hotel Reviews and Bulk Search Sites
Maybe you’re coming up short on information about the hotel you’ve got your eye on. Or maybe you need a quick one-stop search for all hotels in a city.
Try TripAdvisor or Yelp for real customer reviews on hotels. Including whether or not the hotel really is as close to the metro station as its website claims. Or, how long it actually takes to get there from the airport.