So, you’re thinking of travelling the US in 2020?
But you don’t quite have the funds needed to enjoy your dream vacation?
…Or no funds at all…
Here’s my alternative guide to travelling the States on something that’s a very distant relative to what used to be a shoestring.
It’s supposedly the land of the free! And the home of the brave! What could be better than being free and brave at the same time?
In America you don’t need to talk about the weather to fill conversational gaps, the US political system inspires too much discourse to ever run out!
When it comes to natural beauty, the USA is a gazillionaire!
The Grand Canyon! Yosemite! Sequoia! Death Valley! Antelope Canyon! Horseshoe Bend! Zion!
…That’s just some of the best-known attractions between California and Arizona….
You have 50 beautiful states to choose from.
(Although a little internet research seems to suggest that not all states, like Iowa and Delaware for instance, are created equally!)
America is a colourful mix of exceptional people!
Good people, crazy people, and a few bad ones scattered in-between.
And, seeing as there is no official language, you will probably fit right in, no matter where you come from!
One in three people is obese, so if you want to feel good about your figure, America is a great destination!
(Be warned though, this statistic is for the country as a whole and there are incredibly high quotas of really really ridiculously good-looking people all over the country too!).
There is also so much good food around that you too may quickly find yourself becoming a statistic!
It’s legal for children to smoke, so if you’re tired of yours, bring them along and start decreasing their life expectancy early!
In this modern age, the options are endless:
Dog-sled in from Canada.
Swim in from the Caribbean or Cuba.
Dig a trench from Mexico.
Get flown in by drone, one limb at a time.
Personally, I’m a fan of boats.
There are cheap relocation cruises from Europe and South/Central America every now and then, but there is so much more fun to be had on sailing boats!
In exchange for watch-keeping, some help aboard, good company, and the occasional keel-hauling; you can often get a free (or small contribution) passage all the way from your home town. …Depending, of course, where your hometown is…
This is by no means the fastest option!
(Check out: findacrew – Crewseekers – crewbay )
Be aware that when arriving by boat, you need a B1-B2 visa that must be obtained at an Embassy BEFORE arriving in any American Territory. For lack thereof, I had to jump ship in the Bahamas in 2018.
You could also build your own boat, but take heed, I tried that back in 2011 and am lucky to have been rescued from the deserted island I washed up on!
(Feel free to message me if you want to find out more about finding a boat to sail in on, or how not to build a raft.)
Rumour has it that there are cheap flights too, but I’ll leave that bit up to you to research.
No matter what your parents told you, or how much the media casts it in a bad light, I need to say that hitchhiking is dangerous, regardless of your gender, or whether you do it alone, with a friend, or with a giant teddy bear! But it is also one of the most exhilarating, frustrating, and awesome ways to get around!
My first American ride took no less than 5 hours and 37 minutes to procure, and that only carried me seventeen miles. It did restore my spirit and the five rides that followed dropped me right at the doorstep of the friends I was off to visit (313 miles away)!
I even made new friends whom I hope to catch up with on my next visit!
(There will be a next visit!)
You need to be flexible! Have a plan B. Maybe even a plan Z (depending on the day…)
You don’t always end up where you planned to go.
My second day of thumbing it veered me far away from highway 1 (the Ocean trail down the West Coast of California) and dropped me much closer to Yosemite (which is so beautiful, it might actually be God’s back garden). Fortunately, I had no commitments, and a second visit to the national park was equally as breath-taking as the first!
Suss out your driver before you jump in the car.
You have at least 7 seconds, while you ask the driver where they are headed, to make primal assumptions: Do they look like they will kill me? Are there already body parts scattered on the back seat? Are their eyes glazed over? Are they currently drinking alcohol? Do they look like they might share?
Make sure that both you and the driver are on the same page when it comes to what is expected from either party.
Firstly, is the driver actually an Uber, Lyft, or taxi driver? – If you aren’t wanting to pay for transport; GET OUT!
Secondly, are they purely after good conversation? Company? Or someone to talk to? Or do they want more… Do you want more?
Follow your intuition, you’ll know what to do!
(What to say is another story – in that passenger seat you’re basically a travelling psychologist!!)
While I made some good friends and met a lot of interesting people as I hitch-hiked from San Francisco to New Orleans, I did simultaneously feel like I was a disappointment to half of America!
Firstly, I don’t smoke, and turned down dozens of bongs, joints and vapes. Legal or not legal, rather give me a beer!
Secondly, because I don’t smoke, I wasn’t carrying any of the aforementioned goodies.
I turned down sex with old men.
I turned down sex with young men.
I opted not to double team it with a duo of charming colleagues.
A Mexican truck driver simply wanted a photo of my boobies.
Unfortunately, there seems to still be a lot of misinformation circulating about what a hitchhiker is.
Hitchhiking can make you a lot of money!
I was confused as a homeless person almost daily.
(Yes, I am technically homeless, but I don’t live on the street).
The generosity of the American public had people offering me money almost everywhere I went.
I should have pushed my pride aside earlier and accepted it.
The sad part is that most of these people would rather give money to appease their conscience than a ride; the idea of them actually having to connect with and talk to a stranger, let alone have them in their car, is too much!
It’s much greener than renting a car seeing as the drivers are generally going in your direction anyway.
You can hitchhike both day and night thanks to the abundance of truck stops and gas stations.
You never know who is going to pick you up and might end up making life-long friends.
It provides ample time to study the behavioural patterns and facial expressions of the American public.
You learn how to deal with rejection.
You might have to wait hours for a ride. [In the rain.]
You will probably end up in the middle of nowhere more than a couple of times.
You might not end up reaching your planned destination.
You may actually get picked up by a psycho-killer.
In both Hawaii and San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to borrow bicycles, which proved the perfect vehicles to explore the terrain with, and escape traffic.
In New Orleans, I built one.
In many of the bigger cities (and some smaller ones too) there are community bike centres where you can venture in, use tools, replace parts, or even build a whole new bike!
You pay a fraction of the cost and you support a community project while you’re at it!
(Plus, you get to meet a whole host of like-minded creatures, most of whom are bicycle wizards!)
(These are also incredibly good places to donate your old bikes/parts.)
If you feel like a quick fix (good to go) bike, there’s Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.
Try and avoid the ones that have been stolen.
Don’t get too good a bicycle, because then it probably will be stolen.
With a short attention span and a need for exercise, I started peddling towards Key West – a 1005ish-mile journey. That’s direct. Without any side-tracking. And that’s with a sense of direction.
Google said I could do it in 3 days and 4 hours. Google forgot that I need to eat, sleep, wee, break down, and get lost!
The first few days are always the hardest! And seeing that New Orleans held me captivated for longer than expected, I only had the first few days!
Things break, they wobble, they fall apart.
Your butt hurts.
But it really is one of the best ways to travel!
Flat tyres make you new friends (especially when you’re not travelling with a pump).
I also broke 11 spokes enroute, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of the bike repair shops that spanned my path, the bicycle never completely fell apart. (Everybody knows that almost doesn’t count.)
The States is littered with old railway lines that have been transformed into bicycle paths, and there are some beautiful quiet stretches of ocean road that you can follow.
But some days, you must simply ride the highway where there may or may not be a shoulder which may or may not be coated in shrapnel.
There will be bicycle haters yelling curses.
There will be people curving into the cycle lane.
Surviving those stretches gives you a whole new lease on life!
When a stretch of highway becomes too deadly, or when you get yet another flat tyre, hitchhiking with your bike is an option too! It’s amazing how good you feel after a simple five- or six-mile break!
Better yet, there are ultimate shortcuts!
After ten days of cycling 80-mile days, with over 200 miles still to go, and no time remaining, I hopped aboard the Key West Express!
They did in four hours what would have taken me days!
And I got to sit back with a beer in my hand and the wind in my hair.
(Highly recommendable! With or without a bicycle!)
The nicest thing about not having too much time to bond with your bike is that it is easier to give it away when you’re finished with it!
You don’t have to carry all your stuff.
You get a really tight ass.
You can navigate the world as you please.
You have an excuse to really eat. A lot.
You sleep really well at night!
You go slow enough to see the last living armadillo on the side of the highway.
Your bike has to carry all your stuff and it might not actually be designed to do that.
It can be slow. Especially on the hills.
You will probably get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
You may have a bear eat your last peanut butter sandwich.
America is full of them!
And they do provide a completely different view of the country than the land provides!
If you have the time, try and get at least one boating adventure into your trip whether it is sailing or fishing or just kayaking across the water!
If you go down to the local marina you can probably find a half dozen people that would love to take you out on the water for a play around! You don’t have to book a tour or board a cruise ship.
(You can also check out websites like Use The Boat for affordable real boating adventures.)
In Hawaii, I enjoyed both a turtle squirmish aboard a friend’s boat and a fishing expedition.
In Key West, I had a five-day adventure sailing and snorkelling the Keys – the perfect destination to motivate my pedalling, and the perfect recovery for my battered buttocks!
If you’re up for a real adventure, you may as well pick up a free boat.
Boats cost a lot of money and time to maintain and there are plenty of people needing to rid themselves of their vessel…
…The happiest day of a [wo]man’s life is the day that they buy their boat, and the day that the sell it…
When they don’t have an engine, they are relatively good for the environment.
You can go to places most cars can’t drive.
If you live on a boat, you carry your home with you. If you don’t like your neighbours, you can move.
You have front row seats to all sorts of marine life nature displays.
You can actually follow your life-long dreams of becoming a pirate.
They sometimes sink.
You must always pay attention to the weather.
They cost a lot to maintain.
The anchor doesn’t always hold.
They can cost a lot to dock/store.
Your neighbours might be pirates.
For those who don’t want to join the homeless camps that decorate most of the country’s major cities, you’ll be pleased to know that there really are plenty of alternative options for the broke and adventurous alike!
Even if you are wary of pushing your Tinder skills to the max!
Couchsurfing has to be one of the most highly recommended!
Make sure you have fully completed your profile so that people have a good idea of who you are before you start sending requests. And if you are lucky enough to have a home, host a few [hopefully awesome] travellers before you leave on your adventure!
Hosts are more likely to accept people who have hosted before.
I lucked out with awesome hosts, some of them last minute, some of them even nice enough to accommodate the family I was hitchhiking with as well!
Remember it is not a hotel, it’s a lifestyle exchange, a chance to share lives and stories and experience cultures!
Make sure to check out the events page, sometimes there are even people offering rides to places you may actually want to go!
Warmshowers works the same way that Couchsurfing does, but it’s specifically built for people cycle touring. It’s a great tool not only for meeting exceptional people and accommodation but also to find the best bike routes in an area and to have great evenings spent discussing past and future journeys (and laughing/marvelling at all your broken spokes.)
Hostels are always a fun away to meet other travellers. And when it is low season, they are a great place to meet hostel owners. If you’re broke and don’t mind breaking a sweat, you can sometimes negotiate to work as a housekeeper in exchange for accommodation.
I always carry a tent! That way, when I get stranded in the middle of nowhere, I have something to keep the bugs and rain and psychopathic eyes off me.
When darkness descended on my cycle, I didn’t much feel like pedalling the narrow rubble-infused shoulder of highways, so I’d suss out a place to camp.
RV parks are everywhere, and provided several havens of rest, especially when I spoke to the owners and explained why I was [stuck] there.
Conventional campgrounds also have a soft spot for cycle tourists and often go out of their way to accommodate you.
My trusty $8 tent served me very well!
Be aware that typing “Camping” into a google search does not always send you to campgrounds, but sometimes it’s for the best and you luck out and meet exceptional civilians who are happy to accommodate you anyway.
There are homeless shelters, bus shelters, and you can often find a cosy park bench to curl up on; when you open your eyes to adventure, the whole world could become your bedroom!
But what will I eat?
Food is abundant in America! Like marketing, you can hardly take two steps without seeing a fast-food outlet!
Still, there are stretches of barrenness where only the bare bones of the armadillo lie straddling the highway so make sure you have some sustenance with you! And water, especially if you are hitching or cycling!
America is paradise for dumpster divers!
On the first dive, I came up with 15 litres of wine, packs of beer, fruit, vegetables, snacks, flowers, and enough meat to throw a BBQ for a village.
One of my Couchsurfing hosts has survived over five years from the bin alone!
On Thanksgiving, once again mistaken for a homeless homeless person, I was handed a Styrofoam care package of deliciousness.
If you haven’t converted to veganism yet, the roads are abundant with fresh meat and the oceans team with fish.
You won’t go hungry!
What about the rednecks?
Being both darker-skinned and African, I was warned about “all those racist rednecks in those Southern States.”
All I ever experienced was overly kind and polite people.
(To my face at least.)
What about the police?
When they pick you up for hitchhiking outside a Texan airport, they will give you a friendly pat-down and happily escort you to a nearby gas station; free of charge.
What about the crazies?
Simply give them tinfoil. It distracts them while you make your getaway.
What about the guns?
Don’t worry, people move them off the passenger seat so you can sit down when hitchhiking.
TV is boring! Go and have a real adventure!