Now that my home country has a national tourism campaign with a budget instead of relying on the 50 individual states to do all the work, the USA is actually acting like it gives a s%#t whether people come visit or not. Last year we eased up the daunting visa process for countries like Chile and China, with others on the way. There are close to 40 nations on the visa waiver program and that list should keep growing. I’ve heard whispered rumors that there are now immigration people working at JFK airport who actually smile.
Many visitors though, especially from small countries, have no idea how large and spread out the United States is as a country. Miami and Seattle are 3,299 miles apart (5,309 kilometers). To put that in perspective, Paris to Istanbul is 1,797 miles—about half as much. Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile is only 2,127 miles.
I’ve been popping onto the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree message board since the dawn of the internet to see what kinds of questions newbie travelers are asking and to get advice on specific questions. It’s always fun to visit the USA Travel one to see these distance misunderstandings in action. Here are paraphrased ones that are on there right now, and I just pulled these out because they’re typical.
I am planning to go to America in September, travelling alone with my 2 daughters. I might go to L.A., Wisconsin, Florida and New York. How do I travel around without driving?
Myself, husband, child and 60+ plus parents are planning a trip to the USA in August for 3 plus weeks. We want to visit the following places:
1) Dallas, Austin, New Orleans
2) NY, Washington DC, Boston, Philly, Niagara
3) San Francisco, LA, Yosemite, Grand Canyon
I am budgeting roughly 6 days per region, plus a day each as flying time. Does that seem doable? Am I being too ambitious?
Yes, you are being too ambitious. By far.
As I see over and over again, the person is trying to cram a continent’s worth of attractions into one short “trip of a lifetime” that’s going to be a blur of transportation. And believe me when I tell you that traveling around the USA by plane is far from fun these days. If you’re packing more than a carry-on and have a family, you’ll pay a fortune in luggage charges if you’re not at elite status or on Southwest Airlines.
So what’s the solution? Pick a cluster and make the most of it. Even by car, trying to cover both coasts and a few things in between may have sounded fun when reading On the Road, but it’s not so fun now when it’s all a blur of identical logos off an exit ramp. For days on end.
Stick to a Cluster
Save something for the next trip and visit one part of the country right. If you want an idea of what’s reasonable, check the sites for European tour operators to see how they have trips set up and how long they are. If you go to MyUSA Holiday, for example, you’ll see itineraries set up in clusters like “Highlights of the Deep South” and “Pacific Northwest: Seattle to Napa Valley.” These are Fly-Drive holidays, so you fly into one airport, rent a car, and do a loop around various locations. Or in some cases you pick up the car at the landing airport and drop it off at the departure one.
The 13-day Yosemite and the Mountains one is only northern California and the edge of Nevada. The urge for many travelers would be to say, “Oh, I’m just going to add L.A. and Las Vegas to that, and maybe the Grand Canyon.”
No, do not follow that urge because then you’ll be exhausted. California, Nevada, and Arizona are all huge states, with massive distances between the cities/attractions.
If you want to hit a lot of places in a short time, you’re better off staying in the oldest part of the country: New England. This six-state sampler, for instance, hits a lot of highlights in 17 days and the distances are quite doable. Plus you’ll be on pretty country roads much of the time instead of highways through the desert.
When I used to live in Nashville, I’d frequently run into British tourists doing a music-themed tour. They were visiting Nashville, Memphis, Mississippi (birth of Blues Music and Elvis), and New Orleans. That’s a fantastic trip! Good music, unique food, and a few hours in between each destination in a car, not ten.
Whether your interest is wine, national parks, beaches, or baseball, you can set up a cluster like this that’s not going to wear you out. But the bigger the state, the fewer things you should add on. By area, Oregon is bigger than the entire United Kingdom. You could fit the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland into Florida and have room to spare. Texas is bigger than Spain and Portugal added together.
The No-Car Options are Limited
Public transportation in the United States sucks, pure and simple. It’s a young country where there has been no shortage of land, so the automobile has defined how it developed over the past century. To get around, you really need to rent a car.
Yes, there are a few exceptions. If you’re just going to Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., for example, you could totally do that without your own wheels. You can take Amtrak trains between them or hop on a cheapo bus from the likes of Bolt or Megabus.
Chicago is not too bad either. Much of San Francisco is set up pretty well for public transport, plus you can ride a New Orleans streetcar when you go to that city. In Portland you can get everywhere by bus, rail, or bike. You can get between some cities in Florida by rail, but then you’ll spend a lot on taxis (or need to have local friends) to actually get to your final destination.
The good news? Gas is cheap right now, as in $2.50 a gallon (almost four liters) or less. In many spots it has dropped below $2. The United States also has the most competitive rental car market in the world, with bargain rates on cars with ample room for a family and luggage. Get one from your favorite brand or book something on Hotwire for even less.