Guide to Transportation in the U.S.

Nina Livelo
01/12/2021
Guide to Transportation in the U.S.

Navigating Transportation in the U.S.

Whether you’re traveling to a single U.S. city or touring the country, you’ll need to know how to get around. Public transportation in the United States is not always the most reliable option. Understanding the different modes of transportation available at your destination is the best way to avoid getting lost or stranded.

Use this article as an introductory guide to the different kinds of transportation you might come across while traveling in the United States. From public transit to hiring a car, discover which options are the cheapest, most accessible, and most reliable.

Public Transportation in the United States

Public transportation is rarely the most convenient way to get around in the United States. Although every city offers some form of public transport, only a few major cities have extensive public transit networks, including buses, trains, and rapid transit. Some well-connected cities include New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco.

That said, American public transportation is expanding. U.S. cities are increasingly incorporating more accessible, economical, and environmentally friendly transportation options every year.

Some of the public transportation options you might come across in the U.S. include:

  • Buses
  • Light rails
  • Subways and metros
  • Commuter trains
  • Streetcars and trolleys
  • Cable cars
  • Vanpool services
  • Ferries and water taxis
  • Monorails and tramways

While public transportation continues to grow across America, cars remain the most reliable way to travel within and between cities.

Bus Systems in the U.S.

There are two types of bus transport in the United States: city buses and interstate buses.

City Buses

As the name suggests, city buses are part of a city’s public transportation network. These buses make frequent stops within city limits and may offer limited service to surrounding areas.

The quality and reliability of city buses differs from city to city. Some of the cities with the best bus systems are Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu, and Pittsburgh.

Interstate Buses

Interstate buses, on the other hand, are run by private companies and take passengers between cities across the country. These buses serve a vast selection of cities in every state and offer direct routes between most major cities. Travel to a smaller town, however, may require one or more transfers.

Interstate buses are a relatively comfortable mode of transportation. They tend to be clean, air-conditioned, and have on-board bathrooms. Many bus companies even offer free Wi-Fi.

The downside of traveling between cities by interstate bus is the length of the journey. The United States is large, and buses make stops every few hours to allow passengers to buy snacks, stretch their legs, and use the restroom. As a result, it usually takes longer to travel by bus than it would by private car.

Here are the average trip lengths of a few popular interstate bus routes:

  • Boston to Philadelphia – 7 hours (5 hours by car)
  • Los Angeles to San Francisco – 8 hours (6 hours by car)
  • New York to Boston – 4.5 hours (3.5 hours by car)

How to Travel by Bus

City Bus – Navigating city buses can be confusing the first time around. Before you take a bus, get to know the city’s various bus routes and identify the stops of departure and arrival.

Interstate Bus – The leading bus company with the most routes and stations in the U.S. is Greyhound. Other interstate bus companies include Megabus, Trailways, and Boltbus. We recommend reserving your seat on an interstate bus in advance. You can do so online, by phone, or at the station.

On the day of departure, plan to arrive at the station about an hour early to check in and check your items. Interstate buses leave on time.

Bus Fares and Payment

City Bus – You can usually purchase single-ride bus tickets directly from the bus driver. Simply board the bus and pay in cash. Otherwise, go to a public transit office to pay by card or to purchase a bus pass. Some cities may also allow riders to buy bus passes by card online.

Standard one-way bus fare ranges from $1.25 to $2.75. Most U.S. cities also offer discounted tickets of up to 50% for youth, senior passengers, students, military service members, and individuals with disabilities.

Here are standard bus fares in a few U.S. cities with highly rated bus systems:

  • Seattle – $2.75
  • San Francisco – $2.25
  • Honolulu – $2.75
  • Pittsburgh – $2.50

Interstate Bus – Purchase an interstate bus ticket directly from the bus company online, by phone, or at the bus station. You may be able to purchase bus tickets from independent agents as well, such as convenience stores or gas stations. Greyhound allows cash-paying passengers to reserve their seats in advance and pay at the station on the day of departure.

Bus travel may not be the most convenient, but it is the cheapest mode of transportation for long-distance travel in the U.S.

Examples of standard fares for popular Greyhound routes:

  • Boston to Philadelphia – $21
  • Los Angeles to San Francisco – $25
  • New York to Boston – $13

Like most public transportation systems, bus companies offer discounts for various passengers. For example, Greyhound offers discounts for children, students, active and retired military service members, and seniors. They also offer lower rates on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Tips for Traveling by Bus

  • Use a Map App – A GPS route-planning app, like CityMapper or Google Maps, is a useful tool for navigating city bus routes.

  • Purchase a Bus Pass – Multi-ride tickets and bus passes are a great way to save money if you plan to stick around in one city for an extended amount of time.

  • Label Your Luggage – Passengers traveling on an interstate bus will have to check full-sized luggage, so make sure it is clearly labeled. Checking larger items, such as skis or surfboards, may require an extra fee.

  • Locate the Bus Station – Interstate bus stations may be on the outskirts of the city. Consider the amount of time it will take you to get there when planning your departure.

Train Systems in the U.S.

While the U.S. rail system played an essential part in the initial growth of the country, it represents only a marginal role in modern American transportation. Various public and private rail systems exist across the country, but not all Americans use them regularly.

The United States has two types of train transportation: commuter trains and intercity trains.

Commuter trains are part of a city’s public transit system and serve to connect suburbs with downtown areas. They offer quick and affordable transportation across metropolitan regions. Only a few cities in the U.S. have a commuter rail system.

Here are a few of the country’s largest commuter rail networks:

Intercity trains are a mode of long-distance train travel, connecting cities across the country. Amtrak runs all American intercity train routes. With 35 lines across the country, these trains are mostly used for leisure travel, offering scenic views of both small-town America and big cities. Long-distance trains feature sleeping cars and on-board dining options. Most trains also offer free Wi-Fi.

Intercity train travel is neither fast nor cheap. Still, it is a fun and unique way to travel if your goal is to sightsee and you have ample time.

Some of the most popular intercity train routes include:

How to Travel by Train

Commuter Trains – Research which commuter rail lines you need to take to travel to your destination. Depending on the volume of traffic, trains may leave more or less frequently. Look up the train schedule and plan to arrive a few minutes in advance so you can purchase your ticket at the ticket counter or vending machine. Most commuter trains do not have reserved seats, so you can sit or stand where you please.

Intercity Trains – Arrive at the train station at least 30 minutes in advance. Arrive even earlier if you need to check a bag or bike or if you need help with your ticket. Amtrak trains sometimes arrive later than scheduled and may not rest at the station for as long as planned. Be prepared to board as soon as the train arrives.

Train Fares and Payment

Commuter Trains – Commuter trains are an affordable way to travel around metropolitan areas. Tickets may be slightly more expensive than a bus or subway fare and increase with distance. Unlike bus or subway fares, which are flat-rated and permit riders to get on and off where they please, commuter train fares are distance-based.

When purchasing your ticket, you will need to specify where you will get off the train. There are also discounted options available for people who plan on using the train more frequently. Some commuter trains offer discounts for round-trips, 10-trips, and monthly passes.

Purchase commuter train tickets at the train station. Reduced fares may be available for minors, seniors, people with disabilities, students, and military service members.

Here are some examples of commuter train fares:

  • MTA Long Island Rail Road (New York Metropolitan Area) – from $6.50 to $37
  • NJ Transit Rail (New York to New Jersey) – from $1.50 to $11.50
  • Metra Rail (Chicago) – from $4 to $8.25

Intercity Trains – Long-distance trains tend to be more expensive than other quicker forms of transportation. However, the comfortable experience and stunning views may be worth the cost.

There are four categories of tickets, from least to most expensive: Unreserved Coach, Reserved Coach, Business Class, and First Class. You can purchase tickets online, via the Amtrak mobile app, over the phone, at an Amtrak station, or through a certified travel agent.

Examples of Unreserved Coach fares on popular Amtrak routes:

  • The Adirondack – from $70
  • California Zephyr – from $141
  • Coast Starlight – from $50

Tips for Train Travel in the U.S.A.

  • Get a Train Pass – If you plan on staying in an area with a commuter rail line for a long time, consider purchasing a multi-ride ticket. You may also want to download the rail company’s app to cut down on paper.

  • Don’t Travel at Rush Hour – Save money on commuter trains by traveling at off-peak hours.

  • Use Commuter Trains on the East Coast – Commuter trains are especially popular in the Northeast Corridor (between Boston and Washington, D.C.). Prominent stops along this route include New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

  • Book Early – Amtrak fares are dynamic, which means tickets are cheaper the earlier you reserve them. Travelers can book tickets up to 11 months in advance.

  • Purchase a Rail Pass – For more flexible intercity train travel, consider a USA Rail Pass. Passes are available for 15, 30, and 45-day periods and include up to 18 one-way segments.

Rapid Transit in the United States

Rapid transit is a kind of high-speed public transportation available in urban areas. Some examples of rapid transit include subways, metros, and other urban high-speed rail lines. These forms of public transit have a high passenger capacity and a high-frequency schedule.

Rapid transit systems are a quick, cheap, and reliable way to navigate urban areas in the United States. Unfortunately, you will only find them in a handful of highly populated U.S. cities.

The most-used rapid transit systems in the country include:

  • New York City Subway – New York City
  • Washington Metro – Washington, D.C.
  • Chicago “L” – Chicago
  • MBTS Subway – Boston
  • BART – San Francisco Bay Area
  • SEPTA – Philadelphia
  • MARTA Rail – Atlanta
  • Metrorail – Miami
  • RTA Rapid Transit – Cleveland

Cities without a rapid transit system may have other similar forms of public transportation, such as light rails, monorails, tramways, and trolleys. These are also examples of high-capacity, high-frequency urban rail systems. However, unlike subways and metros, they move at the average speed of traffic, typically cover a shorter distance, and are less likely to travel underground.

Rapid Transit Fares and Payment

In general, subways and metros are an affordable way to travel in American cities. Some rapid transit systems charge a flat fee, while others may charge by distance or time of day.

Here are some examples of standard fares for rapid transit in the United States:

  • New York City Subway – $2.75
  • Washington Metro – $2-$6 (depending on distance and time of day)
  • BART – $2-$16.65 (depending on distance and travel to or from airports)
  • Chicago “L” – $2.25

To purchase single ride tickets for a subway or metro, you’ll need to buy from a vending machine or, in some cases, at a ticket counter. As with other forms of public transport, some passengers may be eligible for a reduced fare.

Tips for Traveling by Rapid Transit

  • Validate Your Ticket – Most subways and metros require you to validate your ticket before entering the platform. Light rail systems, monorails, and trams, however, may require you to validate your ticket after boarding. An unvalidated ticket could cost you a hefty fine!

  • Know Where You Are – Taking underground rapid transit can be disorienting, especially when entering and exiting the station. Use the maps located at exits to help you get your bearings.

  • Plan Your Route with an App – Use a trip-planning app like Google Maps to help you navigate the maze-like rapid transit networks.

  • Be Considerate – Subways and metros are often crowded. Practice common courtesy by letting riders off before boarding, not leaning against the pole, and keeping feet and bags off of seats.

Taxis in the U.S.

In big cities, taxis are a convenient alternative to public transportation, especially if you are heading to or coming from somewhere far from a rail station or bus stop.

In New York City, yellow “Medallion” cabs are plentiful and dominate Manhattan. Other cities where taxi transport is standard include Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Houston; and San Francisco. In the downtown areas of these cities, finding a taxi shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. In most other cities, however, it may be easier to call a taxi service and order a driver to your location.

How to Take a Taxi

To identify an available taxi, look at the lights on the top of the car. If the lights are on, the cab is available for hire. If the lights are off, the taxi is occupied or off duty.

In cities with a high concentration of taxis, the best way to take a taxi is to hail one by raising your hand and making eye contact with a driver. You can also wait at a taxi stand. Once a taxi arrives, get in the backseat and give the driver the address—not the name—of your destination.

Taxi Fares and Payment

Taxis are metered and have a starting rate of around $3. Every mile traveled costs an additional $2 to $3. You should always tip your driver a few dollars, even for short rides. For longer journeys, be prepared to give your driver a tip of 10% to 15%.

 

Confused about the American rules for tipping? Download your free Guide to U.S. Cultures and Customs to learn how to handle tipping & other everyday social interactions in the United States!

 

Why Choose Taxis Over Ridesharing?

  • You Don’t Need a Smartphone – Unless you have paid for an international data plan for your smartphone, you probably won’t be able to access ridesharing apps. Taxis are an easy, app-free way to get a ride when and where you need it.

  • You Can Pay in Cash – To avoid burdensome foreign transaction fees on your credit card, you might want to pay in cash. Unfortunately, cash payments are not an option in most rideshares. Taxis, on the other hand, still accept (and often even prefer) cash payment.

  • Predictable Pricing – Unlike “surge pricing,” which can increase ride fares by up to 400% on ridesharing apps, taxi pricing is very straightforward. At most, fares may be taxed an additional $0.50 during peak hours or on Sundays.

  • More Reliable in Remote Areas – While ridesharing drivers are plentiful in cities, they have a much smaller presence in remote areas. Even in remote areas, you may still be able to call a taxi company and arrange a driver to come to you.

Ridesharing in the U.S.

In the last decade, ridesharing has become a principal sector of transportation across the developed world. In the United States, Uber and Lyft dominate the market.

To use these services, you must have a smartphone with data service. In the ridesharing app, input the address of your destination, choose your trip preferences, and request a ride from a nearby driver. Once a driver accepts your ride request, you will get a confirmation notification. You will be able to track your driver as they arrive.

Cost and Payment

When you create an account with a ridesharing service, you must provide your credit card and billing information. In general, this is how you pay for any use of a ridesharing service. 

 

NOTE: Uber recently rolled out a payment option called Uber Cash, but it does not actually allow you to pay drivers in physical money. Rather, it allows riders to create a "cash budget" to prevent overspending on the app. It works essentially like a gift card. 

 

Uber and Lyft use dynamic pricing that factors in a base fare, a cost per minute, a cost per mile, and other fees, such as “surge pricing.” Surge pricing occurs when drivers are in high demand, typically due to large events or holidays, causing an increase in fares. Surge pricing is unpredictable and may be twice as much—or more—than your standard fare.

Like taxi drivers, Uber and Lyft drivers in the United States expect a tip of 10%-15%. Forgetting to tip might result in a lousy passenger review.

Why Choose Ridesharing Over Taxis?

  • More Convenient – With ridesharing apps, you don’t have to wait until an available taxi appears on the street. Simply order on your phone and a driver will arrive at your location within minutes.

  • Reliable Rating System – After each ride, passengers and drivers rate each other, contributing to an overall user score. This score is a great way to gauge the quality of a potential driver.

  • Don’t Have to Worry About Payment – Ride sharing apps automatically bill you after each trip, so you don't have to waste time fumbling with credit cards or cash.

  • See a Price Estimate Before You Order – Before you choose ridesharing over public transportation, you can see how much the trip might cost you. If the final price ends up being significantly greater than the estimated cost, you can always file a complaint with the company.

Safety Tips for Ridesharing

Although convenient, ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft do have their downsides. Because they are less regulated than traditional taxi companies, it is easier to be duped or scammed by a driver or someone posing as a driver. When using ridesharing apps, practice the following safety precautions, just in case.

  • Share Your Trip – Select “share trip status” on Uber or “share ride details” on Lyft to share information about your trip with someone you trust. This tool will send your contact a link allowing them to track your trip in real-time and make sure you get to your destination. 

  • Confirm Your Driver and Car – Before you get into a car, make sure the vehicle and driver match the description provided in the app. A good practice is to ask the driver to confirm the name of the passenger to prove they are indeed your driver.

  • Track Your Ride – In your app or in a separate mapping app, track your course to make sure you are taking the most direct route possible. Some drivers may try and take advantage of foreigners by driving off-course and running up the meter. If you notice the route is taking longer than it should, say something to the driver or make a complaint to Uber or Lyft.

Renting a Car in the United States

According to the U.S. Department of State, 95% of Americans own a car. Driving is a big part of American culture and the preferred method of traveling in and between cities.

So, for a truly American experience, why not rent one? It may not be the most economical or eco-friendly form of transportation, but it is the most flexible. Driving will grant you access to places you might have trouble getting to otherwise. Keep in mind, the United States is expansive, and distances between attractions may be vast and poorly served by public transportation.

Reserving a car in advance is recommended, but not necessary. Doing so will help you budget for your trip and may save you some money on fees.

U.S. Requirements for Renting a Car

Travelers who plan on renting a car in the United States should research the driving laws at their destination before departing their home country. Each U.S. state has its own rules and regulations for renting a car and the types of accepted documentation. Rental companies also have rules and regulations that may differ from state laws.

Generally, travelers who are at least 25 years old and have a valid driver's license written in English should not have trouble renting a car. However, you may run into trouble if your license is not originally in English and does not include English translations. These travelers may need to acquire an International Driving Permit (IDP) before traveling abroad.

Depending on the state and the car rental company, some travelers under the age of 25 may still be able to rent a car for an added fee. 

 

NOTE: The United States does not issue International Driving Permits to foreign nationals. To get an IDP, you should contact the department of motor vehicles in the country that issued your driver's license. 

 

Drivers must have auto insurance to operate a vehicle in the United States. Make sure you have auto insurance coverage before signing a rental agreement.

Tips for Renting a Car

  • Beware of IDP Scams – The only way to attain a valid International Driving Permit is through the department of motor vehicles in your home country. However, you may come across various services and organizations claiming to provide them. These are not authorized vendors, and you should not give them your personal information or money.

  • Read the Rental Agreement – Review your rental contract in detail before you sign it to make sure you understand any fees and stipulations.

  • Don’t Duplicate Coverage – Before you agree to the rental company's standard auto insurance, make sure you don't already have coverage. You may already benefit from your personal auto insurance, credit card, employer (if traveling on business), or other entity.

Biking in the U.S.

Over the last couple of decades, biking has become more prevalent in cities and among those trying to lower their carbon footprint. Now that most cities have bike lanes, biking is more accessible as a form of everyday transport than ever before.

Avid cyclists or travelers who want to hold on to their bikes as they move around might want to buy bikes for the duration of their trip. Bikes are usually available for low prices on sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. At the end of your trip, you can sell your bicycle back on the same platform.

Long-term bike rentals are relatively easy to find, as well. It typically costs about $100 per week, and you may be required to provide a security deposit.

Bike lovers should consider traveling to these bike-friendly U.S. cities:

  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Boulder, Colorado
  • Seattle, Washington
  • Eugene, Oregon
  • San Francisco, California

Bike-Sharing Programs

In recent years, bike-sharing services have exploded across the United States. Between private bike-sharing companies (like Uber’s Jump and Lyft’s Motivate) and bike shares run by public transportation systems, bicycles are now easy to borrow in most American cities.

Some bike-sharing systems rely on docks scattered around a city. To borrow a bike, simply input your payment information, and a bike will be unlocked for you to use for a short amount of time. Other bike-sharing programs are app-based. Use the app to locate a bike near you and leave it at your destination.

The cost of borrowing a bike is about $2.50 per hour, depending on the service you use, making it a cheap—not to mention healthy—way to navigate a city. Some bike shares also offer 24-hour passes or multi-day passes. For example, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. only charges $8 for a one-day pass and $17 for a 3-day pass.

Tips for Using Bike Lanes in the U.S.

  • Plan Your Route – Going for a casual bike ride can be a fun way to take in the sights of a new city. However, if you have a destination in mind, always look up directions in advance. Some routes may be more bike-friendly than others.

  • Wear Your Helmet – You should always wear a helmet when riding a bike. In some cities, it is even required by law for children under 18.

  • Stay Off the Sidewalk – Use a bike lane whenever available and avoid riding on sidewalks as much as possible.

  • Save the Music for Later – Riding with headphones is a safety hazard for you and everyone around you. Stay alert and aware of everything going on around you, especially when riding in an unfamiliar city.

The United States offers many modes of transportation to suit your travel needs and preferences, but remember each city is different. Do further research on each of your destinations to learn which forms of transport will be available to you and determine which is best for your trip.


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