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The size of the US and the distance separating major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers. If you have time, travel by car or rail can be interesting. By plane

By far the most convenient form of intercity travel in the U.S. is air travel. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 6 hours, compared to the days or weeks necessary for land transportation. Most cities in the US are served by one or even two airports, with many small towns also having some passenger air service. A hub and spoke system of air travel is most common. In this scheme small cities' air traffic go first to a hub city where traffic is aggregated before flying on to the destination city. Transfer for bags checked at the original airport is handled automatically to your final destination. Depending on where you are starting from, it can sometimes be cheaper to drive to a nearby large city and fly from there or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and drive from there.

Major carriers compete vigorously for business on major routes, and bargains can be had for travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance. The converse of this is that most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be surprisingly expensive. There are some discount air carriers in the U.S. and they are becoming more dominant all the time. Southwest Airlines is the largest and best known; unlike its European counterparts, there are significant penalties for not booking in advance.

Online travel agencies, such as Expedia Travelocity and Orbitz list most flights of all the airlines and you can pick and choose based on price, travel time, number of stops, etc. A little time spent familiarizing oneself with these websites can often save considerable money.

There are a number of ways to save money when flying domestically in the United States. See Cheap airline travel in North America.

By train

Passenger trains in the United States are surprisingly scarce and relatively expensive. The national rail system, Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL), provides service to many cities, concentrating more on sightseeing tours than efficient intercity travel. They have promotional discounts of 15% for students and seniors, and a 30-day U.S. Rail Pass for international travelers only. Separate from Amtrak, commuter trains carry passengers to and from the suburbs of major cities.

Amtrak offers many amenities and services that are lacking from other modes of transport. Many scenic attractions visible from the train are not visible from the road, or are more impressive when viewed from the train as the raised seating gets you above foreground clutter. Amtrak offers many routes that traverse some of America's most beautiful areas. Travelers with limited time may not find travel by train to be convenient, simply because the country is big, and the "bigness" is particularly evident in many of the scenic areas. For those with ample time, though, train travel offers an unparalleled view of America's scenic beauty, without the trouble of a rental (hire) car or the hassle of flying.

A major Amtrak line in regular daily use by Americans themselves is the Northeast Corridor line, running between Boston and Washington (D.C.). It stops in New York, New Haven, Philadelphia and many other cities on the way. This line is electrical, with top speeds of 150 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower). The fastest trains are the Metroliner and the Acela Express, both of which have first class service, but can be quite expensive. Given the difficulty and expense of getting from the center of some of the major Northeastern cities to their respective airports, trains can sometimes be more convenient than air travel.

While some trains in the Northeast Corridor and other medium-distance lines do not require advance reservations, the premium trains and most of the long-distance trains do require such reservations. During usual American vacation times, some long-distance trains can sell out weeks or even months in advance, so it pays to book early if you plan on using the long-distance trains.

One major scenic long-distance train route, the California Zephyr, runs from Emeryville in the Bay Area of California to Chicago, via Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. The full trip takes around 60 hours, but has incredible views of the Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains, things that you just cannot see if you fly. Many of the sights on this route are simply inaccessible to cars. The trains run only once per day, and they usually sell out well in advance.

Amtrak also provides reasonably speedy daily roundtrips between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada and several daily trips between Seattle and Eugene, Oregon on the Amtrak Cascades line.

Passengers travelling long distances on Amtrak may reserve a seat in coach (Economy class) or pay extra for an upgrade to a private sleeping compartment. Amtrak trains in the West feature a lounge car with floor to ceiling windows, which are perfect for sightseeing.

By car

America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans prefer the convenience of car travel for getting to nearby cities in their state or region. Many northern "snowbirds" drive to a haven in the south for the winter so that they have their auto with them. Besides intercity travel, a car can be necessary even to get around in a single city. Travelers from outside the country may not sufficiently appreciate the need for an automobile here. Of course in very large cities like New York City or Chicago there are extensive in-city bus and/or train services and large numbers of cruising taxicabs, but in most medium-sized American cities, particularly in the west and south, cities are very spread out and public transportation thin. Taxis are often available, but except at airports you may have to phone for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, and make similar arrangements to return. Even in some very large cities (such as Los Angeles and Atlanta), a private car is your most practical option.

Travellers from e.g. Western Europe should be conscious that if they intend to drive around in the US, they may spend a lot longer time in their car than they are used to, due to longer distances. This means that some characteristics that one may at first dismiss as gadgetry, such as air conditioning, may in fact be very useful - air conditioning is very welcome in the summer beyond the West coast. Also, roads and parking installations are generally designed for larger vehicles than they are in Europe, you may wish to avail yourself of the opportunity to have more space.

A romantic appeal is attached to the idea of long-distance car travel; many Americans will tell you that you can't see the "real" America except by car. Given the dearth of public transportation within American cities, the loss of time travelling between cities by car rather than flying, can be made up by the convenience of driving around within cities once you arrive. In addition, many of the country's major natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, are almost impossible to get to without an automobile.

The United States is covered with a convenient system of U.S. and Interstate highways. Interstates are always freeways (limited access; no grade crossings), while U.S. Highways may be freeways on some sections and not on others. These roads network between major (and minor) population centers, and can make it easy to cover long distances – or get to the other side of a large city – quickly. Primary Interstates have one- or two-digit numbers, with odd ones running north-south (e.g. I-5) and even ones running east-west (e.g. I-80). Three-digit interstate numbers designate shorter, secondary freeways. An odd first digit signifies a "spur" into or away from a city; an even first digit signifies a "loop" around a large city. The second two digits remain the same as the primary Interstate that travels nearby. The U.S. Highways are generally older routes that lead through the midst of town centers. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to U.S. Highways to expedite traffic that wishes to bypass the city.

American drivers tend to drive calmly in residential neighbourhoods. Freeways around big cities, however, can become really crowded with a significant proportion of "hurried" drivers - who will exceed speed limits, pass unsafely, or follow other cars at unsafely low distances. Enforcement of posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable. Keeping pace with most local drivers will usually avoid a troublesome citation; however, it is possible that some local law enforcement forces preferably stop cars with out-of-state plates.

Renting a car in the U.S. usually runs anywhere from $30 and $100 per day, with some discounts for week-long rentals. The major rental agencies are Hertz (+1 800 230 4898); Avis (+1 800 230 4898); Thrifty Car Rental; and Dollar Rent A Car. There are no large national discount car rental agencies but in each city there is usually at least one. The internet or the Yellow Pages are the easiest ways to find them. One more or less national chain is Rent-A-Wreck (+1 800 944 7501). It rents used cars at significantly lower prices. Most rental agencies have downtown offices in major cities as well as offices at major airports. Not all companies allow picking up a car in one city and dropping it off in another, and most have higher rates for long-distance travel; check with the rental agency when making your reservations.

Most rental agencies accept an International Driver's Permit only when presented along with a valid driver's license from your country. You may wish to join some kind of auto club before starting a large American road trip, and having a cell phone is a very good idea. Most rental agencies have some kind of emergency road service program, but they can have spotty coverage for remote regions. The largest and most popular club in the United States is the American Automobile Association (1-800-391-4AAA), known as "Triple A". A yearly membership runs about $60. AAA members also get discounts at many hotels, motels, restaurants and attractions; which may make it worth getting a membership even if you don't drive. Alternatively, Better World Club (1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA with often timelier service and is a more eco-friendly choice (1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs).

Traffic signs often depend on the ability to read English, using only words. The country is gradually adopting signs with internationally understood symbols, usually with English "translations" for locals not yet familiar with them. Signs rarely use metric units; distances and speeds will almost always be given in miles and miles/hour, without these units specified. (1 mile = 1.6 km.)

Gasoline ("gas") is sold by the gallon. The American gallon is smaller than the UK gallon, and equals 3.785 liters. The US octane scale is different from that used in Europe; a regular gallon of US gasoline is rated at 87 octane, the equivalent of about 92 in Europe.

Despite increasing petroleum prices worldwide and some increases in gas taxes, the American voter's attachment to his automobile has kept retail fuel prices much lower than in many parts of the world. Prices fluctuate by region and season, generally ranging from $2.00 to $3.00/gallon ($0.53-0.79/liter) the past couple years.

By bus

Intercity bus travel in the United States is widespread, but is not available everywhere. Many patrons often use bus travel when other modes aren't readily available, as buses often connect many smaller towns with regional cities. Many of the disadvantaged and elderly often use these bus lines, as automobile travel proves arduous or unaffordable for some.

Greyhound Bus Lines (+1 800 229 9424) has the predominant share of American bus travel. Their North American Discovery Pass allows unlimited travel for ranges of 4 to 60 days, but you might want to try riding one or two buses first before locking yourself in to an exclusively-bus American journey.

Megabus offers inexpensive daily bus service in the Midwest from their hub in Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St Louis, Missouri; Indianapolis, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio.

For bus service between large East Coast cities (particularly Washington (D.C.), New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston), travelers can purchase deeply discounted (below Greyhound prices) tickets from a number of small operators, typically called "Chinatown bus" operators, because they usually enter and depart from the Chinatown area of the cities they serve. These type of services are also beginning to appear on the West Coast.

By Recreational Vehicle (RV)

Recreational Vehicles -- large, sometimes bus sized vehicles that include sleeping and living quarters -- are a uniquely American way to cruise the country. Some RV'ers love the convenience of being able to drive their home anywhere they like and enjoy the camaraderie that RV campgrounds offer. Other people dislike the hassles and maintenance issues that come with RVing. And don't even think about driving an RV into a huge metropolis such as New York. Still, if you want to drive extensively within the United States and are comfortable handling a big rig, renting an RV is an option you should consider.

By thumb

A long history of hitchhiking comes out of the U.S., with record of automobile hitchhikers as early as 1911. Today, hitchhiking is nowhere near as common, but there are some nevertheless who still attempt short or cross-country trips. The laws related to hitchhiking in the U.S. were most recently proposed by the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) and adopted with changes in wording by individual states. In general, it is legal to hitchhike throughout the majority of the country, if not standing within the boundaries of a highway (usually marked by a solid white line at the shoulder of the road) or if not on a major interstate highway prohibiting pedestrians.

In many states interstate highways do not allow foot traffic, so hitchhikers must use the entrance ramps. In a few states it is allowed or tolerated (unless on a toll road). Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon are a few states that do allow pedestrians (ie, hitchhikers) on the highway shoulder, although not in some metropolitan areas. Oklahoma allows foot traffic on all free interstates, but not toll roads) and Texas only bans it on toll roads - and on free interstates within the city of El Paso. Oregon only bans it in the three counties that make up the tri-met transit district (Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington (Metro Portland).) Missouri only bans it within Kansas City and St. Louis city limits.

Though not all laws may necessarily reflect it yet, hitchhiking has come to be discouraged in light of increasing publicity in the news media of the occasional kidnapping or other unusual crime. International travelers to the U.S. should avoid this practice unless they have either a particularly strong sense of social adventure or extremely little money. Even many Americans themselves would only feel comfortable "thumbing a ride" if they had a good knowledge of the cultural and social norms, not to mention the geography, of their current locale.

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