I recently returned to the US to celebrate my little brother’s wedding, and I promised I’d be in the country for the holidays this year, meeting up with my family in Seattle at the end of December. I’ve also just finished up a batch of work that included recording an audiobook (for Considerations), which required silence and stability of location. As such I’ve been hunkering down in central Missouri, enjoying a visit with my parents and working like a crazy person.
But the tug of the road is ever-present, and I happen to be a huge fan of road trips, particularly in the US, where the highways allow for affordable and interesting jaunts all over the place.
So here’s what I’m going to do:
Starting from Columbia, Missouri, I’m going to make my way around the US, trekking along the outer circumference and stopping in on as many friends and soon-to-be-friends (readers and connections) as possible. The idea is to spend a few days in a lot of different places, and to learn something about that particular location: something about the culture, the food, the people.
I also want to show just how affordable such an adventure can be. I’ll be couchsurfing most of the way, with friends and strangers offering to host me, and in many cases also showing me around and telling me about their homes. The main expenses (aside from things like food, which would be expenses no matter where I’m at or what I’m doing) will be transportation from place to place, and I’ll be documenting those costs so that maybe someone will take note and say, “Hey, I’ve got that amount of money, and I’ve been wanting to have an adventure, hmmmmmm.”
Below is my tentative route, though my plans tend to be quite loose and may change in transit. The dates are more theoretical than realistic, and prone to change for any number of reasons. Based on past experience, I’ll probably blaze through some cities faster than planned and stay a lot longer in others. I need to be in Seattle by December 23, and I’ve left myself plenty of buffer room so I can take advantage of opportunities to do and see cool stuff I didn’t plan for.
I’ll be documenting the trip on Instagram, posting invites for locals to join me for drinks and other outings on Facebook and Twitter, and announcing where I’m heading next on these same networks (and updating my itinerary on this page).
Also: the trip is divided into three segments, partially because Google Maps won’t allow more than ten cities per trip, and partially because it helps me keep things organized.
Columbia, MO to Chicago, IL / October 15 / Megabus
Will be hopping a Megabus up to Chicago, which is a central hub for buses and trains, and a far more convenient pivot point for heading any direction than anywhere in Missouri. It also happens to be the home of several good friends, the country’s largest arcade, and a few of my favorite museums in the US.
Cost of transit: $52.75. It’s worth noting that if I would have purchased my ticket a month in advance, rather than a few days in advance, the cost would have been $10; this will be a consistent theme throughout this trip, as not planning ahead costs more monetarily, while planning ahead risks your not being able to change plans on the fly and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Chicago, IL to Benton Harbor, MI / October 18 / South Shore Line (train)
In this part of the country, train commutes are quite reasonable, which I wish was the case throughout the rest of the US. In addition to never having spent much time in Michigan (other than Detroit), I had someone offer to show me the microbreweries in the Benton Harbor area, which I’m looking forward to.
Cost of transit: $8.50 by train. Took the South Shore line from Millenium Station instead of Amtrak as originally planned, as the cost was about 50% less, and the train quite cozy.
Benton Harbor, MI to Kalamazoo, MI / October 19 / Ride
My host in Kalamazoo offered to come pick me up in Benton Harbor, and she’ll hopefully have the chance to check out the area a little, as well, before we head out. I’m told the Kalamazoo area, along with Vicksburg, a small town nearby where I’ll be staying, are quite culturally strong areas.
Cost of transit: I was fortunate to be offered a ride from my Kalamazoo host, but if I had bought a Greyhound ticket as originally planned, it would have cost me $10-14.
Kalamazoo, MI to Toronto, ON / October 20 / Ride
Greyhound seems to be the best carrier on this particular route. In a lot of cases, regional discount carriers like Megabus are the cheapest options, but you simply can’t beat the range and number of branches in the Greyhound system. That being said, my Kalamazoo host has been kind enough to offer a ride up north, and an almost-six-hour journey is even better when you have the option to pull off for a meal or whatnot whenever you like. I’ve passed through Toronto several times, but have yet to really wander around and get a feel for the place. Looking forward to doing that on this trip. I hear very good things.
Cost of transit: my Kalamazoo host offered me a ride on this longer journey, as well, and as such the only cost of transit was a thank-you lunch I finally convinced her to accept. That being said, had I bought a bus ticket instead, it would have cost me $85 through Greyhound, or $47 if I had bought it about a month ahead of time.
Toronto, ON to Niagra Falls, ON / October 23 / Ride
This looks like one of the more interesting national borders I could cross in North America, so I’ll be hopping a bus to Niagra Falls (the Canadian side) and then walking across one of the bridges to the New York side. From there, I’ll catch a bus on to Buffalo.
Cost of transit: my host in Toronto was kind enough to drive me to Niagra Falls, where we photographed and marveled over the view a bit before she headed back to the city, and I crossed the bridge/border into the US. Had I taken a bus as originally planned, it would have cost me $10.
Niagra Falls, NY to Buffalo, NY / October 23 / Ride
On this trip, Buffalo will mostly be a stopover on the way to New York City, but I should have a few hours of layover time to walk around.
Cost of transit: I was offered a ride from a local design student and her father, so the half-hour-ish drive from the border to Buffalo ended up being free for me. Had I taken a Megabus as planned, it would have cost $7 (or as low as $1-5, had I purchased a month ahead of time).
Buffalo, NY to New York, NY / October 24 / Megabus
I’ve visited NYC a million times, and I still really love visiting. I’ve got a lot of people to meet up with here, and a lot of things I want to see. As I mentioned before, Megabus is a great option in this part of the country; lots of bus competition, in fact, so many great options, most with WiFi, sometimes with outlets, and usually there are comfy seats and ridiculously cheap tickets to be had.
Cost of transit: $63 on Megabus. I bought this ticket the night before, and as such the price was significantly higher than it would have been had I bought it even a few days previous. With a couple of days planning, the price drops to $45. There doesn’t seem to be a significant price difference in tickets purchased way ahead of time on this route, however (and it’s worth noting that the other options available, like Greyhound, cost about the same).
New York, NY to Philadelphia, PA / October 31 / Greyhound
Philadelphia is another city where I had someone offer a couch, a tour, and a ride to the next city. Did I ever mention how cool it is, living in a future where strangers can connect with like-minded folks around the world? And how wonderful that is for travel? It is, and it is. I’ve been through Philly several times in prior years, and got to see a slightly different side of it each time. Hoping to see it from another angle this time around.
Cost of transit: $27.50 via Greyhound. Megabus was about $15 more expensive on this particular route, and the buses Greyhound uses in this part of the country tend to be their newer, comparable-quality models that have outlets and WiFi and the like (a much better experience than their older models, which are still operational in some regions). If you buy ahead of time (with Greyhound, Megabus, and some of the train options hereabouts) the prices drop precipitously; bought a month ahead of time, this same ticket would have cost all of $6.
Philadelphia, PA to Baltimore, MD / November 2 / Megabus
This is the last leg of the first third of the trip. Baltimore is not a city I know well, though I’ve been through a few times. I think it’s usually been just a stop on the way to Philly or DC, and though it’s the city between those two in this case, as well, I’d like to learn a bit more about it and what it has to offer this time around.
Cost of transit: $28.50 on Megabus. Again, in this part of the country, there are plenty of options, and it’s worth shopping around between them. If you plan ahead and are willing to take one of the more popular routes, the prices get quite low (a month of planning ahead for this one would have cost me $15, instead).
Baltimore, MD to Washington, DC / November 4 / Ride
Cost of transit: a reader was kind enough to offer a ride from Baltimore to DC, but I was originally intending to take Megabus, which would have cost me about $10.
Washington, DC to Nashville, TN / November 6 & 7 / Megabus
Cost of transit: $44.50 via Greyhound. Disappointingly, Megabus doesn’t offer this particular route, though they do go through Nashville and DC. Thankfully, Greyhound does offer such a route, and it pops passengers through Charlottesville to get there. Most of the routes available weigh in around 20 hours, but the one I got is a meager 16.5. It’s an overnighter, but I’m meeting a friend in Nashville the morning of the 7th, anyway, so it works out pretty well.
Nashville, TN to Atlanta, GA / November 10 / Megabus
Cost of transit: $35.50 via Megabus; a nice, quick ride, after the one from DC to Nashville. This could have been a little cheaper had I taken a really inconvenient, red-eye route through Greyhound, but I’m glad I didn’t.
Atlanta, GA to Tampa, FL / November 12 / Megabus
Cost of transit: $47.50 via Greyhound. This trip took the better part of a day, but it seemed to fly by; beautiful part of the country, and I had daylight to see by for most of the trip. This ticket wouldn’t have been any cheaper had I bought it earlier, so waiting till the last second didn’t ding me in the ol’ wallet.
Tampa, FL to New Orleans, LA / November 20-21 / Megabus
Cost of transit: $59 via Megabus. I had to cobble this trip together, combining a route from Tampa to Orlando with a route from Orlando to Houston (which is an overnighter). Greyhound had a pre-built route that would have cost me upwards of $120, but this one only cost about $9 for the first, and $50 for the second. That being said, the US South (Texas and the ‘desert states’ in particular) are one of the deader zones for bus routes in the US (the other being the US Northwest, from Montana and Wyoming over to the Dakotas); routes exist, but they tend to be pricier, and you usually only have one option (Greyhound, or one of their partner companies).
New Orleans, LA to Houston, TX / November 24 / Megabus
Cost of transit: $46.75 via Megabus.
Houston, TX to Los Angeles, CA / November 26 / Amtrak
I made a last-minute decision while here in Houston to change up the West Coast and Southwest portion of my road trip a bit. I had planned to go from Houston to Austin, and possibly hit Dallas while in the area, as well. From there, I would head to Phoenix and then Las Vegas, before hitting Los Angeles and the beginning of my California journey northward.
Interestingly, the bus system that’s so expansive and cheap across most of the US is a bit less convenient and far less cheap here in Texas. Though the more common routes are cheap and easy through both Megabus and Greyhound (all of $9 from Houston to Austin, for instance), the cheapest I could find from a Texas hub leaving the state was not cheap at all (from Houston to Phoenix, for instance, was $198; not kidding). Sure, the distances are vast down here, but there’s got to be something else at play. Not sure if there’s some kind of regulation or tax or fuel issue that has each mile costing so much more than elsewhere, but whatever the reason, the cheapest I could get a ticket for, planning over a month in advance, was about $150.
Imagine my shock when, looking into alternative means of transportation, I discovered that there was a cheap ticket left on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle route, which would take me all the way from Houston to Los Angeles for $50 less than the cheapest Greyhound ticket I could find to Phoenix (it should be noted that I found Greyhound tickets from Houston to Los Angeles for about $150, as well, but given the option between being on a train and a bus for over 24 hours, I’ll generally opt for the train, especially when I’m riding buses as frequently as I am on this trip).
After combing through all this data, I came to the conclusion that, for the purposes of this trip, it would make more sense to pop right over to LA and double-back to Vegas after the fact (it’s far easier to get to Vegas from LA than to the same from anywhere in Texas, or anywhere I can easily get to from Texas). I’m skipping Phoenix this time around, but am planning to head back to SoCal post-Vegas to continue my California trip as pre-prescribed, afterward.
This is what I talk about when I talk about it being worth the extra costs involved to plan last-minute (for me, anyway). I love that this opportunity arose and I was able to take advantage of it (from my phone, in a car, on the way to a dinner-and-drinks meetup, no less). I’m looking forward to hopping on the train later today and enjoying the ride!
Cost of transit: $156 via Amtrak.
Los Angeles, CA to Las Vegas, NV / December 2 / Ride
Cost of transit: I drove to Vegas with my LA host, but had I taken a bus, it would have cost me about $12-25, depending on how far ahead I planned, and what day I traveled. There are plenty of options for this particular route, though, so the prices and travel times tend to be competitive (same cost for both Greyhound and Megabus, and there are a few smaller, regional buses that cost about the same).
Las Vegas, NV to Los Angeles, Ca / December 4 / Ride
Cost of transit: The cost here is also quite reasonable, though trends about $5 higher than the LA to Vegas route. All the same, ~$20 isn’t terrible, especially considering that gas costs far more than the ticket for this route, and there aren’t many (if any) stops along the way.
Los Angeles, CA to Seattle, WA / December 7 / Amtrak
I was originally planning to stop several places through Northern California, and pop into Portland on my way to Seattle. A family member had some medical stuff going on up in Seattle, however, so I opted to streamline in order to arrive sooner, so I could be here when some test results are delivered. One of the benefits of leaving your schedule flexible? Being able to change course on the fly, when necessary!
Thankfully, there was a cheap ticket left on an Amtrak train (the Coast Starlight) from Los Angeles to Seattle. This is one of the few times (the other being my jaunt from Houston to LA) in which the train ticket price was competitive with the bus ticket prices (which would have been about the same, if not a little higher), so I opted for the train (for the novelty, ability to get up and walk around, and increased leg room).
I should note that with trains, it’s almost always ideal to buy your ticket ahead of time, as the cheap seats disappear quickly, leaving only the (I think) massively overpriced options for last-minute purchasers. I got lucky in finding a ticket on a date that would deliver me to Seattle right on time, but all of the days surrounding it were devoid of anything under several hundred dollars (at which point it ceases to be such a solid option, in my opinion).
Cost of transit: $115 via Amtrak.
I’ll be doing a more complete writeup about road trips in the coming weeks — this page was more a means of allowing people to see where I would (probably) be on a given day, so that we might meet up along the way. It was also a convenient way to show the travel costs associated with US road trips, along with maps to show the scale of such trips.
Thanks for those of you who followed along, those who came out to meet up for drinks or trampoline dodgeball along the way, and those who were kind enough to host me in one of the cities I visited. You guys are amazing, and I feel very fortunate to enjoy a lifestyle in which I can meet such a wide variety of awesome people.
If you want to keep up with my travels (road trips, overseas homes, and otherwise), I post photos to my Instagram account, invites to my Facebook page and Twitter account, and announce bigger projects and plans in my newsletter.