Transportation in the states can get expensive—partly because this country is big enough to necessitate flying, partly because we haven’t really embraced trains nationwide (high-speed or otherwise), and partly because rental cars and gas are so pricey. So here are a few tips for saving money if you don’t have your own private vehicle.
Domestic flights are expensive these days. Weekend fares below $200 from New York to Chicago seem like a thing of the distant past, and I’m no longer fazed by $500 fares from New York to Seattle. If possible, fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday, fly on Christmas Day (or whatever major holiday), and choose a secondary airport (like Newark for New York or Fort Lauderdale for Miami, which may automatically come up in your search).
Be a diligent comparison shopper on Kayak, Hipmunk, Routehappy, etc., and remember that some airlines like Southwest and JetBlue don’t participate with some search engines. If you travel light, Spirit Airlines has great deals, but they aren’t kidding about the plethora of extra fees for baggage and other amenities. If you’re really flexible, you can bid on a flight on Priceline, but you have to commit before knowing all the details, like your departure time. Some travelers have found limited-time discounts on Twitter, so it wouldn’t hurt to follow your preferred airlines.
Frequent flier miles are notoriously difficult to cash in for a flight that actually works for you (I’ve only successfully done this once), but it doesn’t hurt to accumulate them. Check with your credit card company to see if your purchases help you accumulate miles as well.
It’s hard to know when your desired flight has reached its lowest price, though it’s commonly held that buying 6-8 weeks in advance is wise. In any event, once you purchase your ticket, don’t torture yourself by continuing to search.
Renting a car cheaply is tough, especially because you have no control over gas prices (but you can search for low rates on GasBuddy). Most flight search engines also deal in rental cars. Try bidding on Priceline, use a non-airport rental location, avoid holiday weekends, and go for the economy car with decent gas mileage. If they offer you a free upgrade to a gas-guzzling SUV, just say no, and always fill up the tank before returning it. One expense I do recommend from personal experience, unless you have this already, is insurance. If the rental car company refuses to honor the insurance you purchased online, which happens occasionally (and happened to me once with Expedia), don’t give up until they honor it, or until someone refunds you the cost of a second policy. Many salespeople work on commission and are aggressive with hidden fees.
You may fantasize about a one-way cross-country road trip (like I do), but returning the car in a different location than you picked it up always costs more, unless you happen to be driving the car in the direction the company wants you to. Rental cars get shuffled around the country, for example snowbirds drive down to Florida in the wintertime, and the rental companies eventually need to get those cars back up north.
Amtrak, “America’s Railroad,” can often save you money versus flying, but not always. Check Amtrak.com for discounts and getaway packages (Amtrak has long depended on government subsidies and they actively want to increase ridership). For long distances, there’s a cost-effective USA Rail Pass, available for a certain number of trips over 15, 30, or 45 days, and there’s a similar California Rail Pass. However, in some metropolitan areas, there are local railroads with more competitive fares. For example, Metro-North running out of New York is cheaper than Amtrak within the tri-state area, but then again, Metro-North serves a much smaller region.
Buses are the ultimate money-saver. In terms of quality and breadth of service, our bus system isn’t as impressive as Argentina’s (for example), but it gets the job done. Greyhound may have a dingy and unsavory reputation, but it’s been around forever and operates nationwide, plus there are significant discounts for booking online in advance, even $1 express fares. Megabus and BoltBus are cheap, comfy options if you live near a participating city, and both companies offer $1 advance fares; in general, tickets are cheaper the further out you buy them. Megabus (owned by Coach) operates in much of the country, though not so much in the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest. BoltBus (owned by Greyhound) operates in the Northeast and on the West Coast.
The Northeast is extremely well connected in general, because of the tremendous population density, so you’ll have a wealth of regional bus operations there. Also Florida, which is so rich in sunny beaches and fun destinations, has Red Coach operating statewide.
How do you save money on transportation in the USA?