The domestic air system is extensive and reliable, with a number of competing airlines, hundreds of airports and thousands of flights daily. Flying is usually more expensive than traveling by bus, train or car, but it's the best option if you're in a hurry.
Airlines in the Western USA
Overall, air travel in the USA is very safe (much safer than driving on the nation's highways); for comprehensive details by carrier, check out www.airsafe.com.
The main domestic carriers in the West:
Alaska Airlines Serves Alaska and the Western US, with flights to the East Coast and Hawaii.
American Airlines Nationwide service.
Delta Nationwide service.
Frontier Airlines Denver-based airline with service across the continental US.
JetBlue Airways Nonstop connections between Eastern and Western US cities, plus Florida, New Orleans and Texas.
Southwest Airlines Service across the continental USA.
Spirit Airlines Florida-based airline serving many US gateway cities.
United Airlines Nationwide service.
Virgin America Flights between East and West Coast cities plus Las Vegas, Austin and Dallas.
Regional bicycle touring is popular. It means coasting over winding back roads (because bicycles are often not permitted on freeways) and calculating progress in miles per day, not miles per hour. Cyclists must follow the same rules of the road as automobiles, but don't expect drivers to respect your right of way. Wearing a helmet is mandatory for riders under 18 years of age in California and many Western cities.
Some helpful resources for cyclists:
Adventure Cycling Association (www.adventurecycling.org) Excellent online resource for purchasing bicycle-friendly maps and long-distance route guides.
Better World Club (www.betterworldclub.com) Annual membership ($40, plus $15 enrollment fee) entitles you to two 24-hour emergency roadside pickups with transportation to the nearest bike-repair shop within a 30-mile radius.
Bikepacking (www.bikepacking.com) Info on multiday mountain-biking trips through the backcountry.
Rental & Purchase
- You can rent bikes by the hour, the day or the week in most cities and major towns.
- Rentals start from around $20 per day for beach cruisers, and from $40 or more for basic mountain bikes; ask about multiday and weekly discounts.
- Most rental companies require a credit-card security deposit of several hundred dollars.
- Buy new models from specialty bike shops, sporting-goods stores and discount-warehouse stores, or used bicycles via noticeboards at hostels, cafes and universities.
- To buy or sell used bikes, check online bulletin boards such as Craigslist (www.craigslist.com).
- Some local buses and trains are equipped with bicycle racks.
- Greyhound transports bicycles as luggage (surcharge $30 to $40), which must be packed in wood, canvas or a substantial container, and properly secured.
- Most of Amtrak's Cascades, Pacific Surfliner, Capital Corridor and San Joaquin trains feature onboard racks where you can secure your bike unboxed; try to reserve a spot when making your ticket reservation (surcharge up to $10).
- On Amtrak trains without racks, bikes must be put in a box ($15) and checked as luggage (fee $10). Not all stations or trains offer checked-baggage service.
- Before flying, you'll need to disassemble your bike and box it as checked baggage; contact the airline directly for details, including applicable surcharges (typically $150 to $200). There may be no surcharge for lighter and smaller bikes (under 50lb and 62 linear inches).
There is no river or canal public transportation system in the West, but there are many smaller, often state-run, coastal ferry services. Most larger ferries will transport private cars, motorcycles and bicycles.
Off the coast of Washington, ferries reach the scenic San Juan Islands. Several of California's Channel Islands are accessible by boat, as is Catalina Island, offshore from Los Angeles. On San Francisco Bay, regular ferries operate between San Francisco and Sausalito, Larkspur, Tiburon, Angel Island, Oakland, Alameda and Vallejo.
- Greyhound (www.greyhound.com) is the major long-distance bus company, with routes throughout the USA and Canada. Greyhound has stopped service to many small towns; routes generally trace major highways and stop at larger population centers. To reach country towns on rural roads, you may need to transfer to local or county bus systems; Greyhound can usually provide contact information.
- Most baggage has to be checked in; label it loudly and clearly to avoid it getting lost. Larger items, including skis, surfboards and bicycles, can be transported, but there may be an extra charge. Call to check.
- Greyhound often has excellent online fares – web-only deals will net you substantial discounts over buying at a ticket counter.
- The frequency of bus services varies widely. Despite the elimination of many tiny destinations, nonexpress Greyhound buses still stop every 50 to 100 miles to pick up passengers. Long-distance buses stop for meal breaks and driver changes.
- Greyhound buses are usually clean, comfortable and reliable. The best seats are typically near the front away from the bathroom. Limited onboard amenities include freezing air-con (bring a sweater) and slightly reclining seats; select buses have electrical outlets and wi-fi. Smoking on board is prohibited.
- Many bus stations are clean and safe, but some are in dodgy or potentially unsafe areas; in such places, jump in a cab or head for your connecting bus as soon as you arrive.
Useful Bus Routes
Las Vegas-Los Angeles
Los Angeles-San Francisco
Denver-Salt Lake City
- Fares vary depending on when you're traveling and how much flexibility you need; online rates are the best and often very competitive.
- Discounts (on unrestricted fares only) are available for veterans (10%), students (10%), seniors (5%) and children (varies).
- Special promotional discounts are often available on www.greyhound.com, though may come with restrictions or blackout periods.
- Greyhound bus tickets can be bought over the phone or online. You can print tickets at home or pick them up at the terminal using 'Will Call' service (bring photo ID).
- Seating is normally first-come, first-served. Greyhound recommends arriving an hour before departure to get a seat.
- Travelers with disabilities who need special assistance should call 800-752-4841 (TDD/TTY 800-345-3109) at least 48 hours before traveling; there are limited spaces for those in wheelchairs, although wheelchairs are also accepted as checked baggage. Service animals, such as guide dogs, are allowed on board.
Car & Motorcycle
A car allows maximum flexibility and convenience, and is essentially the only way to explore the Western interior and its wide-open spaces.
For 24-hour emergency roadside assistance, free maps and discounts on lodging, attractions, entertainment, car rentals and more:
American Automobile Association (AAA; www.aaa.com)
Better World Club (www.betterworldclub.com)
- To rent your own wheels, you'll typically need to be at least 25 years old, hold a valid driver's license and have a major credit card, not a check or debit card. Companies may rent to drivers under 25 but over 21 for a surcharge (around $25 to $30 per day). A credit card is usually needed for a deposit.
- With advance reservations, you can often get an economy-sized vehicle with unlimited mileage from around $20 per day, plus insurance, taxes and fees. Airport locations may have cheaper rates but higher fees; if you get a fly-drive package, local taxes may be extra when you pick up the car. City-center branches may offer free pickups and drop-offs.
- Rates generally include unlimited mileage (check the mileage cap), but expect surcharges for additional drivers and one-way rentals. Some rental companies let you pay for your last tank of gas upfront; this is rarely a good deal.
- You may get a better deal by booking through discount-travel websites such as Priceline (www.priceline.com) or Hotwire (www.hotwire.com), or by using online travel-booking sites, such as Expedia (www.expedia.com), Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) or Travelocity (www.travelocity.com). You can also compare rates across travel sites at Kayak (www.kayak.com).
- A few major car-rental companies (including Avis, Budget, Enterprise, and Hertz) offer 'green' fleets of hybrid, clean diesel or electric rental cars, but they're in short supply. Reserve well in advance. Also try Simply Rent-a-Car in Los Angeles, which offers free delivery and pickup from some locations; or Zipcar, which is available in California (Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area) and Denver, Portland and Seattle. This car-sharing club charges usage fees (per hour or daily), and includes free gas, insurance (damage fee of up to $1000 may apply) and limited mileage. Apply online. Monthly memberships run from $8 to $55 and higher, and the application fee is $30. Drivers from outside the US will need to present passport, driver's license and accident history prior to rental.
- To compare independent car-rental companies, try Car Rental Express (www.carrentalexpress.com), which is especially useful for finding cheaper long-term rentals, or Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com).
- If you are under 25 years old and in LA, San Francisco or Orange County, check out Super Cheap Car Rental (www.supercheapcar.com), which has no surcharge for drivers aged 21 to 24; daily fee applies for drivers aged 18 to 21.
- Foreign visitors can legally drive a car in some states using their home driver's license, but other states may require an additional international driving permit (IDP); for info see www.usa.gov/visitors-driving.
- An IDP will also have more credibility with US traffic police, especially if your home license doesn't have a photo or isn't in English. Your automobile association at home can issue an IDP, valid for one year, for a small fee. Always carry your home license together with the IDP.
- To drive a motorcycle in the USA, you will need a valid motorcycle license. International visitors need a driver's permit from their home country, or an IDP specially endorsed for motorcycles.
- Liability insurance covers you for people and property you might hit.
- For a rental vehicle, a collision damage waiver (CDW) is available for about $30 per day. Before renting a car, check your auto-insurance policy to see if you're already covered. Your policy probably includes liability protection but check anyway.
- Some credit cards offer reimbursement coverage for collision damages when you use the card to rent a car. There may be exceptions for rentals of more than 15 days or for exotic models, Jeeps, vans and 4WD vehicles. If there's an accident, you may have to pay the rental-car company first and then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company. Check your credit card's policies carefully before renting.
- Many rental agencies stipulate that damage a car suffers while being driven on unpaved roads is not covered by the insurance they offer. Check with the agent when you make your reservation.
Motorcycle & RV Rental
If you dream of cruising across America on a Harley, EagleRider (www.eaglerider.com) has offices in major cities nationwide and rents other kinds of adventure vehicles, too. Motorcycle rental and insurance are expensive.
Companies specializing in recreational vehicles (RVs) and pop-up camper rentals:
Road Conditions & Hazards
- Road hazards include potholes, city commuter traffic, wandering wildlife, and distracted and enraged drivers.
- Where winter driving is an issue, some cars are fitted with snow tires; snow chains are sometimes required in mountain areas. Driving off-road, or on dirt roads, is often forbidden by rental-car companies, and it can be very dangerous in wet weather.
- In deserts and range country, livestock sometimes grazes next to unfenced roads. These areas are signed as 'Open Range' or with the silhouette of a steer. Where deer, elk and other wild animals frequently appear roadside, you'll see signs with the silhouette of a leaping deer. Take these signs seriously, particularly at night.
For nationwide traffic and road-closure information, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo.
For current road conditions within a state, call 511. From outside a state, try the following:
Arizona (888-411-7623; www.az511.com)
California (800-427-7623; www.dot.ca.gov)
Colorado (303-639-1111; www.codot.gov/travel)
Idaho (888-432-7623; http://511.idaho.gov)
Nevada (877-687-6237; www.nvroads.com)
New Mexico (800-432-4269; https://nmroads.com)
Oregon (503-588-2941; www.tripcheck.com)
Utah (866-511-8824; www.udot.utah.gov)
Washington (800-695-7623; www.wsdot.wa.gov)
Wyoming (888-996-7623; www.wyoroad.info)
- Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road.
- The use of seat belts and child safety seats is required in every state. Most car-rental agencies rent child safety seats for around $13 per day, but you must reserve them when booking.
- In some states, motorcyclists are required to wear helmets.
- On interstate highways, the speed limit is sometimes raised to 80mph. Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is generally 55mph or 65mph on highways, 25mph to 35mph in cities and towns and as low as 15mph in school zones (strictly enforced during school hours). It's forbidden to pass a school bus when its lights are flashing.
- When emergency vehicles (ie police, fire or ambulance) approach from either direction, pull over safely and get out of the way.
- It is almost always illegal to talk on a handheld cell (mobile) phone or send texts while driving; use a hands-free device or pull over for a call.
- The maximum legal blood-alcohol concentration for drivers is 0.08%. Penalties are very severe for 'DUI' – driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Police can give roadside sobriety checks to assess if you've been drinking or using drugs. If you fail, they'll require you to take a breath test, urine test or blood test to determine the level of alcohol or drugs in your body. Refusing to be tested is treated the same as if you'd taken the test and failed.
- In some states it is illegal to carry 'open containers' of alcohol in a vehicle, even if they are empty.
Many gas stations in the West have fuel pumps with automated credit-card pay screens. Most machines ask for your zip code. For foreign travelers, or those with cards issued outside the US, you'll have to pay inside before pumping gas. Tell the clerk how much money you'd like to put on the card. If there's still credit left, go back inside and have the difference refunded to the card.
You cannot pump your own gas in Oregon except at rural gas stations.
Except in cities, public transport is rarely the most convenient option. Coverage to outlying towns and suburbs can be sparse. However, it is usually cheap, safe and reliable.
Shuttle buses provide inexpensive and convenient transport to/from airports in most cities. Most are 12-seat vans; some have regular routes and stops (which include the main hotels), and some pick up and deliver passengers 'door to door' in their service area. Average costs run from $15 to $25 per person.
Some cities are more amenable to bicycles than others, but most have at least a few dedicated bike lanes and paths. Bikes can usually be carried on public transportation.
Most cities and larger towns have dependable local bus systems, though they are often designed for commuters and provide limited service in the evening and on weekends. Costs average about $2 per ride. Limited routes in tourist areas may be free.
Subway & Train
The largest systems are in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Other cities may have small, one- or two-line rail systems that mainly serve downtown.
- Taxis are metered, with average flagfall fees of $2.50 to $3.75, plus $2 to $3 per mile.
- Credit cards may be accepted.
- Taxis may charge extra for baggage and/or airport pickups.
- Drivers expect a 10% to 15% tip, rounded up to the next dollar.
- Ridexsharing companies are a very popular alternative to taxis.
Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) operates a fairly extensive rail system throughout the USA. Fares vary according to the type of train and seating (eg reserved or unreserved coach seats, business class, sleeping compartments). Trains are comfortable, if a bit slow, and are equipped with dining and lounge cars on long-distance routes.
Amtrak routes in the West:
California Zephyr Daily service between Chicago and Emeryville (from $138, 52 hours), near San Francisco, via Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno and Sacramento.
Coast Starlight Travels the West Coast daily from Seattle to LA (from $98, 35½ hours) via Portland, Sacramento, Oakland and Santa Barbara; wi-fi may be available.
Southwest Chief Daily departures between Chicago and LA (from $143, 43¼ hours) via Kansas City, Albuquerque, Flagstaff and Barstow.
Sunset Limited Thrice-weekly service between New Orleans and LA (from $173, 46½ hours) via Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson and Palm Springs.
Useful Train Routes
Los Angeles-Oakland/San Francisco
San Francisco/Emeryville-Salt Lake City
- Purchase tickets at train stations, by phone or online.
- Fares depend on the day of travel, the route, the type of seating etc. Fares may be slightly higher during peak travel times such as summer.
- Usually seniors over 61 years and veterans with a Veterans Advantage Card receive 15% discount; students with an ISIC or Student Advantage Card receive 10% discount. AAA members and US military personnel and families also save 10%. Up to two children aged two to 12 years who are accompanied by an adult get 50% off. Special promotions can become available anytime, so check online or ask.
Reservations can be made from 11 months in advance up to the day of departure. Space on most trains is limited and certain routes can be crowded, especially during summer and holiday periods, so it's a good idea to book as far in advance as you can.
- Amtrak's USA Rail Pass (www.amtrak.com/rail-passes) is valid for coach-class travel for 15 ($459), 30 ($689) or 45 ($899) days; children aged two to 12 years pay half-price. Actual travel is limited to eight, 12 or 18 one-way 'segments,' respectively. A segment is not the same as a one-way trip; if reaching your destination requires riding more than one train, you'll use multiple pass segments.
- Purchase rail passes online; make advance reservations for each travel segment.
- For travel within California, consider the seven-day California Rail Pass (adult/child $159/$79.50), which must be used within 21 consecutive days.
Historic locomotives chug through mountain ranges and other scenic landscapes across the West. Most trains run in the warmer months only, and they can be extremely popular, so book ahead.
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway A living, moving museum from Chama, NM, into Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Ends at historic mining town Silverton in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
Empire Builder (www.amtrak.com) This stunning journey connects Whitefish with Glacier National Park in northern Montana.
Grand Canyon Railway Vintage steam and diesel locomotives with family-oriented entertainment running between Williams, AZ, and Grand Canyon National Park.
Mount Hood Railroad (www.mthoodrr.com) Rolls south from the Columbia River Gorge toward Mt Hood.
Pikes Peak Cog Railway (www.cograilway.com) An 8.9-mile track outside Colorado Springs that climbs from the plains to the 14,115ft peak.
Skunk Train (www.skunktrain.com) Runs between Fort Bragg, CA, on the coast, and Willits, further inland, passing through redwoods.