Want to take an epic road trip in the USA, but you don’t own a car? It’s not an easy goal, but it can be done.
For a whole lot of reasons, the United States of America has a reputation for being a pain in the butt for independent travelers. On many other continents you can easily hop a train or nice bus to get exactly where you want to go, but that’s a tough task to pull off here. Combine the fact that most American infrastructure development took place in the age of the automobile with the regressive political idea that public transportation is for poor people and you’re screwed if you don’t have your own wheels.
That’s the prevailing wisdom anyway, but it’s not necessarily true if you are creative and savvy. You can get around the USA without being a resident with a car. Here are a few options.
Do a One-Way Rental
When you rent a car, you don’t have to drop it off where you got it. The big care hire companies have offices all over the country and most of them are owned, not franchised. That means it’s one big operation instead of a loose alliance of small business owners. If you’re going a long way there might be a drop-off charge, but within a big state with lots of tourists—like Florida or California—a one-way rental can end up being close to the same price as a local one.
If it’s the right time of year, the car company might have a reason to give you a massive discount. When the snowbirds migrate south for the winter or back north in the spring, the rental car fleets have to migrate as well. So you could drive from the northeast to Florida at the end of the year or the other direction in the spring for a super-cheap rate. (Or, say Chicago to Phoenix.) They need their fleet to migrate, so they offer incentives to get you to drive one way.
Sometimes the snowbirds themselves will hire someone to drive their car back while they catch a flight. Plus people buy cars over the internet and someone needs to make the delivery for the seller. You actually get paid to do the trip.
Rent a Camper Van
A camper van is called an RV—short for “recreational vehicle”—in the USA, or sometimes a “motorhome,” but you don’t have to get the super-sized vehicles you see that look like a rock band’s tour bus. You can rent an RV that’s more modest and budget-friendly. The added bonus is it will get better than 4 miles per gallon of gas, but will still have enough room for a couple or a small family.
You’ll have to do a loop usually to return the RV from where you got it, but with some planning you can see a lot of things without doubling back. This is especially true out west, where you’ve got lots of national parks and wide open spaces to explore. You could, for example, pick up a motorhome in Utah, Nevada, or Arizona and see lots of the best-known places without retracing your steps.
Or you could live the Dirtbag Diaries lifestyle and sleep in a real camper van like this that I found in the Salt Lake City listings:
Buy a Car and Sell It
This is a romantic notion featured in many a Hollywood movie, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. In theory you could buy a car on one coast, drive it to the other coast, and sell it for close to what you paid for it originally. You may even make a profit. Economically, this is not very risky: used car prices are transparent and widely checked, so the only variance is what it’s worth in California (where emission laws are strict) and, say, Georgia (where they are not).
The devil is in the details though, which in this case is all the bureaucracy. If you’re a foreigner, you have to confront issues like having a state driver’s license, having a local address, and dealing with where you’re going to register the vehicle while you wait for your license plates. If you’ve got a relative in the states and have time to hang around, this is relatively painless. If you’re just passing through, however, it could delay your trip for weeks.
Then on the other end, you have to face the bureaucrats again. When you sell the car to someone else, you may have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles together and sign papers in front of a witness. At a minimum, you have to sign over the title and make sure the buyer is able to register the vehicle with no issues. The DMV does not have a reputation for moving quickly.
Take Public Transportation
In a perfect world, traveling around the USA would be as easy as traveling around Europe. Trains would depart frequently from city centers. Buses would offer other point-to-point options. As a last resort you would find a budget airline flight that gets you there.
But…that’s not the case in Uhmerakah. We dutifully accept the status quo and hope the frumpy old white guys in the GOP don’t make it worse.
You can actually get to a lot of places by bus or train in the USA though. I routinely take one or the other between Tampa and Miami. If I had the time for a leisurely trip, I could get from Florida to the Pacific Northwest by Amtrak.
When I lived in Mexico I could have bought a bus ticket from Mexico City to Atlanta if I didn’t mind spending days and days on Greyhound. With companies like Megabus and Bolt Bus making point-to-point travel affordable, it’s getting easier to get where you want to go in reasonable comfort.