I’ve got loads and loads of advice to give about traveling in the US so I’m gonna try and compress it by writing it all down in list form à la Buzzfeed (who knows, maybe they’ll see this and offer me a job.
- America is really big (like ‘uuuuuge): Yes I know, thanks Captain Obvious. This may seem like a statement of fact rather than advice, but it’s seriously an important thing to remember. Though you may rationally know just how ‘uge the US is, there’s a difference between knowing it and experiencing it. I come from Belgium, where if you drive for two hours you’ve probably left the country. In North Carolina, if you drive for two hours you’re not even close to leaving the state. I have a friend who lives in Tennessee; before actually going to the US I thought: we’ll be neighbours! I can just pop over for a visit anytime I like! Yeah…no. It’s a nine hour bus journey to Nashville with a layover in Atlanta. Feeling a little nostalgic for my lost naiveté now. To give you a bit of a visual, here’s Texas laid over Europe…yeah.
- Planes, trains, and automobiles (but mostly buses): Ok first thing you should know: public transport in the south is severely lacking, absolutely lamentable, which brings me to…
- Trains: I don’t really have much to say on this point seeing as I never took a train. Well, I took a train from NYC to upstate New York but I never took one from North Carolina. As far as I’m aware you can take trains going north e.g. to NY or DC, but not west or south. They’re also quite expensive so I’d say fly if you can, you’ll get there much faster and it’ll probably cost the same.
- Planes: 10/10 would recommend flying (see tip 1), it cuts down on travel time, and is much more comfortable than buses. However, it’s important to know your airlines: American Airlines will give you loads of food, but no personal tv on transatlantic flights (I’m still bitter); Virgin Airlines seem friendly and welcoming but they will literally charge you for peanuts and give you no food whatsoever on a six-hour trans-continental flight; and don’t get me started on Spirit Airlines, their tagline is “Bare Fare”, but that’s because you have to pay a fortune for everything else e.g. cabin luggage, hand luggage, your dignity. As the flight attendant put it “have your credit cards on hand, because nothing is free with Spirit Airlines”(this really happened). My personal favourite is Delta Airlines, but you can’t always get what you want. In fact, you may have to suffer quite a bit if you want to save money on flights. For example, when we flew to Puerto Rico for spring break, the cheapest flights featured an 11 hour overnight layover in Charlotte on the way back. Now Charlotte is only a 3 hour drive from Chapel Hill, so you can imagine how frustrating it was to have to sit around in the airport while we were so close to home, but for some reason it was more expensive to fly directly to Charlotte than it was to stay there for 11 hours and then get a half hour flight to Raleigh-Durham. Flights are expensive, so do your best to book as far in advance as you can (this also helps to avoid the suffering I mentioned).
- Buses: I won’t lie to you, there have been several occasions over the past year when I swore to myself I would never set foot on a bus again, but turns out those promises were about as sincere as “I’ll never drink again”. The fact is, for the average broke students buses are a godsend. You might not think so when you’re on a 14 hour bus ride through Alabama and the person next to you is telling you all about how they found Jesus, but trust me. Let me give you the rundown: you’ve got your Megabus (purgatory on wheels), you’ve got your Greyhound (beats out megabus by a few points), and then you’ve got various dodgy, unofficial bus companies. In the latter category, there’s the chinatown bus. This bus is really cheap, you can get a $30 return to New York, but you have to sacrifice quite a bit in the way of comfort. The bus doesn’t leave from the regular bus station, but a random pick up point. When I went to New York over fall break, this pick up point was a car park in the middle of nowhere. This resulted in us waiting in a deserted Toys R’ Us car park for 3 hours in the middle of the night because the bus was delayed. This was marginally terrifying, but it helped that we were in a group. I wouldn’t recommend traveling alone if you’re going to be busing it. Nothing good happens in a bus station after about 8pm, or ever probably. The first time I was in a bus station at night, both the police and an ambulance were called at various points throughout the evening. Sorry, I’m making buses sound scary and awful, they’re not! They’re a great, cost-effective option, especially if you’re traveling long term. My friends and I managed to get a bus to Nashville for $5; the world of buses is your oyster, go forth and conquer.
- Cars: If you’re over 21 and have a license I would definitely recommend renting a car, especially for visiting other parts of North Carolina (if neither of these things apply to you, you can always befriend an American with a car who will drive you places. I know it sounds mercenary but Americans are very friendly and will probably offer.) Like I said before, there’s not much public transport for getting around the state. We discovered it was actually easier to get to Washington DC with public transport than it was to get to Wilmington on the coast of North Carolina. There’s a car rental company called Zip Car that has a partnership with the university. You can pick up a car on campus and they won’t charge you extra for being under 25. If you split the cost between 4 or 5 people, it could be quite cheap. There are plenty of beautiful, but hard to get to places around North Carolina that are worth visiting. The Great Smoky mountains, Asheville, and the Appalachians in particular are impossible to reach without a car.
- Planning: This has never been my forte, and I was lucky in that I had a friend who enjoyed making lists and schedules, but it is very important if you want to get the most out of your exchange experience. Be proactive kids.
- Know your vacation days: Americans have all kinds of weird holidays we’ve never heard of so be sure to have a wee look at your term calendar at the start of the year. You’ve got Labour day weekend, fall break, and Thanksgiving first semester. As an added impetus: they actually close dorms over fall break, and Thanksgiving so it’s best to figure out your travel plans early. Americans tend to be horrified by the idea of anyone spending Thanksgiving alone (it doesn’t seem to occur to them that it doesn’t really bother non-Americans), so even not-super close friends will invite you to come and stay with their families over Thanksgiving. Hospitality is a big thing in the south so I’m sure you’ll have lots of lovely people welcoming you into their homes.
- Book in advance: I know I keep saying this, and I’m getting redundant, but it bears saying again. It will save you a lot of money and stress. Also, don’t underestimate the difficulty of it. Especially if you’re traveling with a big group, it can be really hard getting everyone on the same page and coordinating your booking.
Ok so I lied, this post wasn’t compressed at all, my chances with Buzzfeed are shot. I hope my rambling has been at least a bit helpful. The US may be big, but that just means there’s that much more to see and experience. Don’t let the difficulty discourage you, take advantage of every opportunity to travel and you’ll have a fantastic time! The bus journey to New York may not have been much fun, but without it I’d have missed out on this view: