As someone who is American and has never had a driver’s license, I am uniquely qualified to write about traveling in the United States without a car. A lot of people say it can’t be done–and it will be miserable, however I’ve found that it has minimally impacted my experience traveling in the United States.
This post will be about my experience living and traveling in the United States without a car and I hope that inspires you to travel in America in a more sustainable way!
Let’s just leave it at the fact that I’m maybe not the best driver, so I’ve managed. Although I was fairly broke as a student, I managed to see a fair amount of the East Coast without ever driving. This post is mostly based on those experiences, however quite a few of you reached out me after my experience traveling in Texas without a car.
Recently, I headed to a wedding to Houston, Texas. One of my good friends told me that it couldn’t be done: Houston without a car. I admit that I’m a bit of a contrarian and I love to prove people wrong. I traveled with my husband who agreed that it would be much better–and cheaper if we avoided renting a car. In the end, we ended up spending a fraction of what the car rental would have cost and man, we had an adventure.
Things to remember about planning a trip in the US without a car
It doesn’t make sense to have a car for certain American itineraries
I write this as many of my European friends are planning trips to the US. Although the idea of a road trip is great, it’s often expensive renting a car in one location and returning it in another. It’s generally cheaper to return your rental to the same location.
I calculated the cost for a friend planning an East Coast trip and it was cheaper to just take buses one-way between cities without backtracking (as they would with a car). For their itinerary, it made more sense and it was cheaper to rent a car for short durations (1-5 days) for mini road trips using one city as a base. (They wanted to do the Key West road trip from Miami.) In the end, it was cheaper to do their East Coast trip mostly by bus ending in Miami after a brief break in the Keys prior to hopping on a plane in Miami to the West Coast.
Similarly, for major US cities like D.C., New York City, Boston and San Francisco, parking is really expensive. If you’ll be taking good public transportation around, you’re likely to save a lot of money compared to the daily cost of your rental, gas, and parking.
Similarly, for going up and down the East Coast (DC -> New York -> Boston), there’s great bus and train connections that make it so easy that you can just leave the train/bus station without needing to worry about your rental.
It might end up being cheaper to go one-way through US cities as mentioned above (DC -> New York -> Boston) prior to utilizing affordable airways, like Jetblue, to hop around your dream destinations. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t rent a car at any point, but I’d recommend limiting it to locations where you’ll be using it daily.
Ensure that your hotel is located near public transport
This is the biggest point to remember! America is car centric, so you need to be very careful in choosing where you stay to ensure that you have a link to public transport. I generally try to pick locations that are along several bus/train lines to give me good options in terms of getting around, even if I’m twenty minutes outside of my “destination” by foot or bus.
Even if public transportation isn’t great, you want to be close to what you’re visiting the city for. The reason is that some public transportation lines shut down by a certain time, so you can get stranded if you’re out too late. My maximum radius from a city center on foot is generally about forty minutes as sometimes, you’ll need to resort to walking as you stayed too late at the bar. 😉
Check your hotel’s neighborhood for food and safety
This is the big one. If you’re traveling in the US, not everywhere in safe. The United States has some of the highest rates of gun violence in the world. I don’t write that to scare you, but to remind you that crime is an issue in many American cities. If you’re a minority, you may also be more likely to be targeted by the police, so I encourage you to exercise caution.
This is why it’s so important to look up the neighborhood that you intend to stay in carefully as well was which neighborhoods that you might walk through. Someone I know booked an incredibly cheap Airbnb in New York City, however when she told me the neighborhood, I was a bit shocked that she’d stay there as even I consider it a dangerous area. She ended up being fine, but never felt safe walking there.
On a related note, I encourage you to look up your food options in the neighborhood you’re staying in. Check to see if there are any supermarkets, bodegas (little corner markets with snacks), or good restaurants (check Yelp!) near where you’re staying. For many Americans, 2-3 miles is barely distance to drive to pick up food, however if you don’t have a car, you need to have good stuff within walking distance in case you come back late.
Airport shuttles are super helpful and cheap
When heading to your hotel, I recommend trying to book a hotel that comes with an airport shuttle as it will save you some frustration. Even if it doesn’t, you can always book a private/shared airport shuttle for a fraction of the cost of a car if public transportation doesn’t go to your destination. This is especially helpful if your plane comes in late.
When I traveled to the Sarasota area for a conference, I had planned to take the bus out to our scenic hotel resort by the beach. However, my plane was delayed significantly and I arrived around 11pm. Public transit was done by this time.
Luckily, I was able to book an airport shuttle and for only $40, my friend and I got to our hotel. The taxi for both of us was estimated at over $100, so we saved a lot with an almost direct ride to our hotel with just one stop off for another passenger.
Avoid early/late flights
When I found a cheap flight from Pittsburgh to California, I thought that I was saving a lot of money. However, Pittsburgh doesn’t have the greatest public transportation. As I was coming into Pittsburgh from elsewhere, I had to decide whether I’d book a hotel and then leave for the airport at 5am (to make my flight for 8am) or wing it to save money.
…I ended up winging it and hanging out with new friends from Couchsurfing all night until I caught my taxi to the airport at 5am as there wasn’t a bus that early. However, that taxi cost me the difference between that flight and the one later in the day.
Simply, if you think that you’re saving money by coming into a destination very late or arriving at the airport very early, it might be very difficult to get public transportation working during the times that you need. It’s likely that you’ll need to take a taxi, which is fine, but an added expense.
Figure out your trip in an excel. Make sure you think about it.
I love having a trip planning excel to figure out transportation between cities as well as transportation within each city. I like to figure out the links between cities first as well as look up just how good public transit is within the city I’m visiting.
I often save which bus to look for, the direction, the cost of the fare, and how long the total journey takes.You need to be realistic about your timings as things take longer without a car. Give yourself wiggle room and know the buses/fare amounts ahead!
Some cities, not all cities, are easy to navigate with public transit
As mentioned previously, I was in Houston. Houston is one of the largest cities in the United States. On a recent trip, we had to go across Houston. That was over 50 miles. To be fair, there are buses, but none that cut across Houston in the manner that we needed.
My friend told me that it would be not possible. I had to spend a while doing research for this trip as even Google couldn’t figure out the route telling me that it was impossible. I find that Rome2Rio is far better than Google for these creative routes in cities with unfriendly public transit. Luckily, we hacked it.
We ended up taking a cab from my friend’s house on the outskirts to the third nearest bus station, which had a direct bus to downtown Houston. From downtown Houston, we had two hour layover where we had delicious Texas BBQ. From here, we caught a 1+ hour bus towards the Houston Space Center. From the Houston Space Center, we had to call a taxi to bring us the last eight miles to our shared vacation house with friends. It took about four hours total and we went over sixty miles without a car. Trust me, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
You need a working phone
If you plan to utilize any of the transit apps or taxis, you’ll want a working phone. Especially for services like Lyft in more remote areas, you’ll need data. I used Google Hangouts to make phone calls as I was using my Dutch phone number while in the United States.
However, I didn’t need to turn on my international roaming more than once. Each time, I was able to use the wifi and/or ask for the wifi code everywhere that we stopped off and that we had to get a ride from.
Your transit options for taxis (and other ride services)
I’ll be the first one to state that I don’t love using Uber, but in many parts of the US, Uber is ubiquitous. The reality is that when you don’t have a car, you can’t take as firm of a stance against Uber as they’re practically everywhere while Lyft is still not as common.
Lyft is their friendlier rival that treats their contractors better. As mentioned previously, you’ll want to commandeer the wifi at your accommodations to use these apps for free without roaming charges.
I must say that our experiences taking Lyfts around Houston was wild. We met some amazing hardworking Texans . Our most crazy experience: our driver’s husband got arrested while we were in the car. Luckily, she managed to find someone to make bail for him and drop us off in good time.
If you’re reading this thinking that you prefer a traditional taxi, write down the local taxi phone number beforehand and/or ask someone local for their preferred taxi. I found this to be just as effective as I didn’t have data and most Americans have unlimited data.
Greyhounds, Megabuses, and Amtrak are your friends
The best way to get around the United States between cities is by Greyhound, Megabus, and other bus companies. If you’re doing a big US trip or you’re simply traveling between two cities, you’re likely to find a bus headed your direction. That said, bus travel in the United States is far from glamorous, but it will get you from A to B. Amtrak is a good option on the East Coast.
Things are looking up…
I recently discovered that Flixbus, the European bus company has started buses around Southern California with rates as low as $3 for travel between LA and Las Vegas. It’s clear: more Americans are rejecting cars and we’re starting to see some leeway in terms of better options for traveling without a car. We still have a ways to go as rural America still remains difficult.
There’s no shame in taking a tour for the day
One of my favorite “hacks” for avoiding renting a car and doing day trips around a city is using day tour companies to book tours. Most of these day trips from cities include transportation. For instance, if you’re visiting Las Vegas, you can take an easy day trip to the Grand Canyon for a reasonable amount. (Getting to the Grand Canyon without a car is not a trivial task.)
In general, it’s good to remember that you have non-driving options when it comes to visiting famous American sights that typically require a car like Yosemite from San Francisco, the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, and Key West from Miami.
Consider using a tour provider if you’re not a planner
Two of my friends ended up doing Contiki across the United States after just feeling overwhelmed with planning a multi-week trip trying to cover most of the United States. I’m not a big group traveler, but G Adventures, Contiki, and other tour providers have already optimized the itinerary for you. It’s cheaper to do it without a tour, but both of them still rave about the lifelong friends that they made during their Contiki trip.
Rideshares do exist although they’re less common
I’ve used a number of ride share services, generally found off boards at local universities as well as off craigslist (our classified websites). The only thing about rideshares is that I find that they’re not so reliable in advance, so if you’re more of a last-minute traveler and/or you’re traveling close to the holiday season near a major American university, you’ll have more success as it’s often college students who are more likely do rideshares. It’s still fairly uncommon in the US.
Hitchhiking is weird in the US, but possible
I have one friend who hitchiked with her husband in the United States through California. She said that it was easy and everyone who gave her a ride was very friendly.
Many people don’t realize that it used to be very common, however at some point, the perception changed from “the friendly hitchhiker” to the “hitchhiker that will murder you.” It’s less common, however definitely possible. I’ve heard that HHing is far more common in Alaska and Hawaii.
Things to remember once you’re in America
Don’t be afraid to take a taxi to the bus or train station
Sometimes, it’s really not worth walking miles with all your baggage. I’ve thought about this many times, however sometimes it’s really worth the extra $20 for the relaxed experience of just hopping into a taxi. This is especially true if the weather isn’t great and/or it’s late at night.
Walk, even if there’s not a sidewalk
When we were in Texas, we experienced something that I don’t miss about living in the United States: streets without sidewalks. We were in a residential neighborhood that was virtually built for cars, not people. Instead of taking it personally, I happily walked along the edge of the road carrying my backpack. People gawked, but it was fine.
Be aware of the dangers of crime
As a tourist, you’re likely to have lots of nice electronics with you. In general, it’s best to minimize what you carry on you, avoid wearing headphones when walking at night, and use common sense. You’re going to stand out if you’re walking around a not-so-great neighborhood with a fancy DSLR camera, so just be aware of your surroundings.
When you have the chance to visit a supermarket, Walmart, or Target, use it wisely.
If you’re traveling in the United States without a car, you’re going to struggle with finding supermarkets close to you. Especially if you have a longer trip, I strongly recommend stocking up when you get the chance.
I recommend avoiding perishables, but our trips to the supermarket really helped us cut down the cost of our travels in the US as we had enough food to make lunch at our rental. I usually stock up on granola bars when I can!
Don’t be surprised if many of the recommended restaurants are too far to reach without a car. Don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations closer.
When we were in Texas, there were so many great restaurants recommended to us. I spent a while looking up these recommendations only to realize that many of them were at least five miles by car.
Luckily, I spent a while sitting down with my friend Kristy showing her the map of where we’d be. I zeroed in on a smaller radius near the bus stop (.5 mile) and she was able to give us lots of great recommendations that didn’t require much walking.
Most people that we talked to assumed that we had a car… After explaining that we were looking for places less than one mile from one location, most people were able to give us some solid recommendations! I love using Yelp to find close picks although don’t be afraid to show people your map. Some people won’t know anything close to your specific base, however you should be able to find something near you if you’ve planned carefully.
Always have a little cash (in coins) on you for the bus/train/tram
Many buses in the US require coins, rather than bills or credit cards. I recommend having a hidden stash of quarters as well as looking up how much the public transportation costs to ensure that you have enough. A lot of bus drivers can’t break bills as they carry very little cash. I encountered this when I was in Houston and luckily, they let us on the bus for free.
In all, I really hoped that I helped you at least think creatively about your travels in the United States without driving. There’s so much to see in the US and don’t feel that you must have a car, especially if you’re strictly sticking to the major cities.
[learn_more caption=”More practical advice about traveling in the US” state=”open”]