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Lessons learnt travelling by bus in America

26th May 2015
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The Sun begins to rise over Miami Airport. The air is heavy and humid already, and five teenage boys sit on a bench outside, hair doused in sea salt and hangovers that remind them of the misadventures of the night before. They struggle to keep their eyes open as the bus rolls up in front of them, and the driver steps out to load their bags onto the coach. As they wrestle up the steps of the bus, every step heavier than the last, they spread themselves out over rows of seats, delighted to find the vehicle almost empty. They settle, weary with exhaustion and ready to sleep away the four hour journey to Orlando. And then they hear it. The cries of a child as she enters the bus, piercing through the air, being dragged along by her mother.

The child kept me awake for the whole journey. Looking back, not spending an extra two dollars and getting a bus at 9am instead of 5am was a mistake. Wanting to save money is great, just don't get carried away like we had. This was one of the many lessons my three week trip up America's Eastern Seaboard taught me.

On top of this, if something is negotiatable, there will almost certainly be hidden costs. In New York, under the glorious lights of Times Square, we were sold tickets to a comedy event for about two dollars per person. Which was great, until we turned up to be told we had to buy two drinks, the cheapest costing six dollars. Try to stick to the free attractions.

Once you run out of things to do for free in a city - any destination worth it salt will have a few days worth of such places but it will happen eventually - your expenditure can really start to rack up when paying for attractions so moving around is key. You can help ease the stress of constantly moving around by being prepared, as I learnt too many times.

Firstly, try to book accomodation relatively near to where you are staying. In Miami the airport was so far away from our hostel in Miami Beach that we had to get a taxi that cost us more than any bus journey we made during the trip.

On the other hand, in Philadelphia, we inadvertently booked tickets from the coach station that was over 40 blocks away from our hostel but, not wanting to hire a taxi and having no idea about the local transport network, we decided to walk. It was 35 degrees celsius, we were all carrying large backpacks and for some reason I had decided to wear flip-flops. By the time we arrived at the bus stop, I was damp with sweat, dirty with dust and had bargained with a street vendor to buy ice cubes to put down my back to cool off. Try to use the local transport network as much as possible. We could have easily have researched a route using the Wi-Fi in our hostel, it just completely slipped our mind that this would be important.

Having said that, the hour long walk encompassed Benjamin Franklin’s now-paved-over residence, the grand hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed and gave us a chance to run up the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, immortalised by Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. Not many walks can top that. It is all about balance and preparation.

Upon our arrival in Orlando, even worse for wear than we were at the beginning of the journey described at the beginning of this article, we were dropped in an empty square, surrounded by dull, grey, abandoned buildings next to a disused tram track. There were no taxis, no phone booths and no people. It was as if we had arrived during a zombie apocalypse. We spent twenty minutes sitting around wondering how to get to our hostel, about ten miles from the coach station, questioning whether we were at the right place. I was, before we eventually found a taxi rink, actually scared. Which may sound petty but having been awake and unfed for about 36 hours I just wanted some food and a bed. The thought of not getting that was genuinely terrifying at the time. 

If just one of us had a foreign SIM card to use data on, we could easily found a bus stop. It is crazy how important having one of these is, even in English speaking countries, so that you can get Google Maps up on your phone or search for bus times. For most of the time you will not need it but it can make such a difference the one time you do.

For most of the trip, we were wholly unprepared for the 'what ifs'. Nonetheless, travelling by bus taught me all kinds of things about visiting foreign countries that staying in a hotel never could have, and clearly has given me so many stories to tell. It is a great way to move around easily and for peanuts compared to flying. Just be prepared. Try to avoid taxis wherever you go, don't buy tickets off people on the street and remember to get a sim. Getting to America is expensive enough, there is no need to add to that once you are there.

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