Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Greyhound Bus + Backpacking + USA = Err...

Before embarking on the LA to New York leg of my round the world trip, the following travel options were considered and er, quickly discarded. Car hire (a no go at $2000+ for 6 weeks), an all inclusive bus trip like Contiki (pricey, the same people, no option to get off, 50 days straight bus tripping from place to place. Shudder), the train (HOW MUCH?!) and flying from coast to coast (bypassing the more interesting places I wanted to visit). So while travel options aren't exactly limited, they're not really that cheap.

Several people had mentioned the Greyhound Discovery Pass, which at $530 / £320 for 60 days unlimited travel anywhere in the US, was a clear winner.

Still, the Greyhound gets a lot of bad press. The word "dangerous" is bandied around a lot in backpacker circles and internet forums, and some might say it's cheap for a reason. It's uncomfortable, relatively slow, has strange travel hours, and does it's business in dodgy bus stations often located on the outskirts / seedier areas of town. However, for the price, lack of other similarly priced options and general optimism on my behalf, I wanted to give it a chance.

So far, lets just say my mind is far from made up.

Yesterday we arrived in Phoenix at 5am after a nine hour overnight bus trip. The sun was coming up as we grabbed our backpacks and walked out of the bus station. Arizona’s mountainous desert loomed behind huge expanses of freeway, and an arid heat that was already rising into the 30s warmed our faces. I checked the transport instructions hastily scribbled on a piece of MGM Grand branded note paper, and we begun the arduous walk to the nearest Metro station, following the directions to our hotel, in silence.

Last night's bus wasn't the longest journey we've done, or the most disruptive. We've done four bus trips so far, the longest being an exhausting, tranfer-ridden slog from San Francisco to Vegas. This one, however, was on time, had just 5 stops through the night and with a sleeping tablet I even got a couple of hours sleep.

It's just...ah. While I'm usually one to celebrate getting off the beaten track and have no problem mingling with the locals, some of our fellow passengers were a world away from what I've encountered anywhere so far. Notably, the men: huge, with shaved heads that were covered in tattoos. The designs were indecipherable, apart from the poignant black tear drops falling from their eyes, something I'd always thought was an urban myth until now. Add to this the lack of sleep, a Vegas comedown and the knowledge that in less than four days we'd have to do it all again, but for double the travel time, and something seemed to have changed overnight. Whilst I didn't ever feel threatened or unsafe, it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The fact is, our relatively generous budget still only affords us the same transportation as ex-convicts. We both arrived subdued by the experience.

As we walked around the streets near our Phoenix hotel, me and the Boyfriend talked. It feels like America, particularly the south, is pretty inaccessible to us as “budget” travellers. I refuse to believe that it's because there's "nothing to see". For me, there's always something to see, even when there's nothing; that's why I'm always drawn to outback Australia. That said, clearly certain portions of this country have been designated the tourist areas, received huge investment in terms of transport and aesthetics, and the rest has just been left to get on with it. Take Los Angeles and San Francisco: two cities in the same state just hours apart; one with no sign of even the most downtrodden information centre, the other a flourishing tourist mecca.

Once you move away from these easily accessible places, with their leaflets, maps and 3-day-all-in transport passes, it’s actually impossible to get around and see the country unless you pay ridiculous amounts for car hire or taxis. The further away from the coast we get, and the more it seems like we’re venturing into territory that the tourists aren’t meant to see. Through the Greyhound, we're undoubtedly exposed to the more gritty parts of the US, but in a way, the lack of any other reasonably priced choice is irritating me. Travelling quickly and safely away from designated tourist spots soon becomes very difficult; almost like your eyes are being drawn away from anywhere that hasn't received the "American Dream-Gloss" treatment.

The upshot is that we decided to splash out on a flight to our next destination, as the exhausting 34 hour stint on the Greyhound through the southern states didn't really appeal.

And given all thats gone on there in recent years, I'll be curious to see where the US tourist bureau will be averting our foreign eyes in New Orleans.


jman said...

New Orleans is a great tourist town, a good chunk of it (French Quarter and Marigny) easily walkable and others accessible by street car (Garden District). A honky tonk feel with lots of live music.

The trouble with most AMerican towns and even cities is they have lousy public transport. The car rules and while many of the interesting things to see are in the city center areas, no one lives there so that after the working day, it shuts down. A town which is on the way which you would probably like is Austin, Texas as it is a university town with a tradition of lots of live music and a mentality at odd with most of the rest of the state. The other problem with bus vs car is that you can't stop to see things like the Grand Canyon because it is not a place Greyhound is taking passengers. Oh well, one can't have everything. Once you get to the east coast (Washington to Boston) things will be much different.

James said...

I second Jman's comments on NO. You can walk up from the French quarter hotels to Marigny and see some awesome local music. No problem.

But there is tons to see in and around where you are now, and a car is really the only way to do much of it.

I've done a few road trips with friends visiting from the UK, and the car hire is expensive. What about this: you could just buy a car, and sell it at the end of your trip. Something old but vaguely reliable would go for a lot less than the $2000 for one-way rental.

Are you stopping in NM or Texas, or going straight to NO?

The Unbearable Banishment said...

I am awash with relief to hear that you've bailed out on the Greyhound plan. It'd be a terrible experience and you would be filled to the brim with regret. It's a good call. And don't worry about the damn money. In several years, the money you spent isn't going to make a damn bit of difference. You won't have the rotting memory of fetid bus stations in no-name, uninteresting towns.

Ellie said...

How many tear drops did you see?

heybartender said...

What rental car company were you looking at? I usually get a car for a week for around $200. If you book through you can get the insurance a LOT cheaper. BUS? Across the whole country? Are you serious?

Please Don't Eat With Your Mouth Open said...

jman - That's the problem we've found in places like Arizona is the lack of public transport. Plus the heat makes it pretty impossible around there anyway.

James - We flew via Houston, TX, but will be skipping most of the south purely because we can't afford car rental in everywhere we go, and most places are too spread out to see by foot in this part of the country.

Unbearable - To be fair to the Greyhound, it hasn't been TOO awful. I could deal with it on and off, or for a few hours at a time. But overnights every few days is pretty difficult to be enthusiastic about.

Ellie - Too many.

Heybartender - We looked at a load of different ones, they were all fairly alright apart from we'd be picking up in LA and dropping off in New York / east coast. The one way fees were what drove the price up every time. And unfortunately, even $200 a week, every week, doesn't fit our budget once you factor in food, accommodation and doing something other than driving from place to place. We have hired a car for Florida though, for just over $200 for 9 days. But we're picking up and dropping off at the same place, and only I can drive (my boyfs 23).

Borwin said...

Hi we're (60yo with my 78yo girlfriend) living in Frankfurt(Germany) and plan a trip in September from Los Angeles(CA) by Greyhound via Phoenix(AZ); Flagstaff(AZ); Gallup + Alququerque(NM); Amarillo + Dallas(TX); Vicksburg, Jackson + Biloxi(MS); Chattanooga(TN); Columbia + Raleigh(SC); Fredericksburg(VA) to Quakertown(PA) and the trip will last ~30days since we are really "towners" and live here without needing car-license. Do you think we could make it.

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