The toughest thing for people from most other countries to get used to when they travel around the United States is how incredibly car-centered most of it is. The USA is a young country and most of it grew and developed along with the progression of the automobile.
Sure, there are a few cities that didn’t rip up all their public transportation and are more popular with the creative classes for it: New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, for instance. There are others with enlightened enough leadership to install good systems in modern times, like D.C., Portland, and Salt Lake City. Others have sort of tried, but have only covered a small portion of the sprawl, such as Dallas and Los Angeles.
The real problem comes in when you try to get from one town or city to another because, well, “Why don’t you just drive?” the head-scratching local would ask. It’s hard for the average suburban American to fathom why or how anyone would try to get around without their own wheels.
You can do it though on a whole lot of routes. For instance if you’re in Portland and are wondering how to get to San Francisco, it turns out there’s a train or a bus.
For that combination, it’s close to a wash between the bus and the train for both time and cost (a bit under $100), so you might as well take the train—especially since the alternative is spending 17-20 hours on Greyhound.
I recently took Amtrak from Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale and Megabus from Tampa to Miami. It turned out that both those options were cheaper than driving would have been anyway just from gas and tolls, not even factoring in parking. I pulled those combos up on Megabus for a date in May and found this great bargain: $9 from downtown Tampa to the Miami airport! You could easily spend more than that at the convenience store they stop at for a snack.
If you book closer to departure, it’s more like $20-$30 and the train is $41. When I took Amtrak from Tampa to nearby Ft. Lauderdale recently, it was $28. Considering you get more legroom than in a business class flight, there’s (usually) Wi-Fi, and you can walk around, it’s a quite pleasant bargain way to get from A to B. The Megabus trip wasn’t bad either since they too have Wi-Fi and electric outlets. Both offer a far better experience than the airport gauntlet and cattle car airline treatment you get in economy class. No baggage fees either.
As Sheila said four years ago in this post about Megabus, “My grandmother had more transportation options in the 1920’s than I do today.” It’s a sad state of affairs in this auto-loving nation, but things are slowly, surely getting better. When I lived in the New York City area you couldn’t get to any of the three airports by rail, but now you can get to Newark or JFK. A few years ago I went to Salt Lake City and waited in line with 120 other people for a taxi. Last summer I skipped all that and went straight to the rail line. A new commuter train line will connect Palm Beach and downtown Miami this year and will then extend to Orlando. We’re finally seeing some legislative movement in states such as California, Nevada, and Texas to connect cities with new train lines.
For now and the future though, don’t assume you have to rent a car to get around. If you don’t know who covers a route, try WanderU to search the route. There you can find multiples bus schedules for any city and see what your train options are for the same combo if they’re served by rail.
Most of the time, you can get around the USA without a car, from city to city anyway.