This section describes the local transportation options available in most cities. Traveling from a foreign country to the United States is discussed in a separate section of this site.
Traveler’s Aid International is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to help travelers in need. They have Traveler’s Aid desks at every major airport, bus station, and train station. They do everything from answering traveler’s questions, to serving as a lost and found, to helping the homeless. The Traveler’s Aid web site includes a directory of local Traveler’s Aid societies. For more information about Traveler’s Aid, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You probably don’t need to own a car during your stay in the United States. A car is certainly convenient, but only cost effective if you use it almost every day. If you live near school, you will find walking, biking, and public transportation to be reasonable alternatives. (A car may be more of a necessity in rural communities that lack public transportation.)
If you decide to purchase a car, you can get a 10-year-old used car for $1,000 to $2,000 and a 5-year-old car for $5,000 to $8,000. It will probably need to be repaired frequently, but the total cost will be less than a new car. Used cars are advertised in the classified advertising section of the local newspaper. After you take the car for a test drive, you can usually bargain with the seller, knocking 10% to 15% off the price. If you haven’t previously owned a car, bring along a friend who knows something about cars. You may want to pay a mechanic at the local gas station to inspect the car for you before buying it. An alternative is to buy a used car from a car dealer. Such cars often come with a 90 day guarantee, but cost more than the ones advertised by individuals.
If you want to buy a new car, ask friends about their experiences with different automobiles. Consumer Reports regularly reviews new and used cars, and is one of the few consumer magazines worth subscribing to. You can also read it in the local library.
We strongly recommend getting a local driver’s license instead of relying on an international driver’s license. Traffic laws and driving habits in the US differ so much that it is best to take a driving class and get a local license. Some states will require you to get a local license. (If the state doesn’t require it, the insurance companies probably will.) If you decide to get a local driver’s license, leave your national and international driver’s licenses at home. Otherwise, you will have to turn them in when you receive a local driver’s license.
Check the Blue Pages in the telephone book for the location of the nearest driving test facility. Sometimes these are located at State Police offices, and sometimes they are collocated with the AAA offices. They will give you an instruction book of the local driving laws, which you should memorize. You will be given a written or oral test of the driving laws, an eye test (bring your glasses with you to the exam), and a road test. The road test will involve both tests of driving skill (e.g., doing a three-point turn or parallel parking on a hill) and of practical knowledge of the law (e.g., if the examiner tells you to take the next left and you turn onto a one-way street the wrong way, you will fail). Don’t forget to bring your vehicle registration and proof of liability insurance to the test. You will also need to bring your passport or a copy of your birth certificate.
If you do not already know how to drive a car, you will need to get a Learner’s Permit. This allows you to learn how to drive while a licensed driver is in the car with you. After you’ve learned how to drive, you will be able to take the driving test. We recommend learning to drive through a driving school such as Garber’s, since you will be more likely to pass the driving exam after taking driving lessons.
Driving laws differ somewhat from state to state and considerably from what you are accustomed to. Here is a list of some of the more significant differences.
- Speed Limits. Speed limits are designated in Miles Per Hour (MPH), not kilometers. One mile equals 1.6093 kilometers. Within cities the speed limit is usually 25 mph (40 kph). Major streets with two or more lanes may post a higher limit of 35 mph (56 kph), but you should assume a 25 mph limit unless you see a sign with a higher limit. Highways have a speed limit of 55 mph (88 kph), with some interstate highways posting a higher limit of 65 mph (105 kph). Penalties for speeding are severe and can result in higher insurance premiums and license suspension in addition to large fines.
- Driving on the right. Unlike the UK, Asia, and Australia, in the United States cars drive on the right side of the road, and steering wheels are located on the left side of the car.Even if you don’t drive a car, you need to be aware of this rule. As your mother always said, look both ways before crossing the road. Every year a few international students are hit by cars because they step off the curb into the path of oncoming traffic. On most streets cars will be coming from your left, not your right.
- Liability Insurance. Most states require you to maintain certain minimum levels of liability insurance on your car in case you are involved in an accident. The insurance covers your liability for damage to the other car and injuries sustained by all people involved in the accident. We strongly recommend getting insurance that covers more than the legal minimums. You can also get collision insurance to cover the cost of fixing your car and comprehensive (theft) insurance in case the car is stolen, but this is only worthwhile for a new car or a model of recent vintage. If you don’t have car insurance, you won’t be able to register the car.International students often find that many insurance companies will not issue them a policy because they don’t have a driving history in the state and they also don’t have an existing insurance policy from another state. If you do succeed in getting a policy, it will probably be through the state’s assigned-risk program, which automatically classifies you as a high-risk driver. If you are under age 25 you will also be classified as a high risk driver, especially if you are male. So your premiums will probably be fairly high.If you’re lucky, you will find an insurance company that will allow you to transfer your driving history and insurance record from abroad. Often they will require you to have a clean driving record with no accidents. Ask other international students for suggestions, since they will know which insurance companies are best for international students. Another possibility is the AAA, since they offer their own insurance program and may be able to recommend other insurers.
- Car Registration. When you buy a car you will need to transfer the car’s registration. You can go to a Public Notary (cost $30 to $40) or the AAA. The AAA does not charge members a notary fee. Notaries are listed in the Yellow Pages under the heading “Notaries Public”. You will need proof of liability insurance to transfer the title. You will receive a license plate with a temporary sticker after you complete the paperwork. You should attach it to the proper location in the rear of your car. A permanent registration sticker will arrive in a few weeks in the mail.
- Annual Inspections. You will need to have your car inspected once a year (twice in some states). Some states have an emissions test in addition to the safety inspection. The emissions test measures the exhaust gases coming out of the car’s tailpipe. Most gas stations can perform the inspections. The cost runs from $25 to $50 a year. The inspection stickers will be displayed on the front windshield of your car. If you don’t have the car inspected, you won’t be able to renew your registration. The police will also issue you a fine if your car does not have a valid inspection sticker.
- Stop Signs and Yield Signs. You should come to a full and complete stop at both signs and wait until it is safe to continue driving. At a four-way stop, cars may proceed in the order in which they arrived at the intersection. So you should allow the cars which were there when you arrived to go before driving.
- Yield to Emergency Vehicles. If an emergency vehicle approaches with sirens and flashing lights, pull over to the side of the road to allow it to pass, even if it is approaching from the other side of the road.
- Turn Signals. Automobiles in the US are equipped with turn signals that cause the front and rear lights to blink to indicate an impending turn. The left lights blink to indicate a left turn and the right lights blink to indicate a right turn. It is important to indicate your intention to turn left or right or to change lanes by using the appropriate turn signal at least 25 feet before the turn or lane-change. If you don’t use the turn signals, you may cause an accident.
You should become a member of the American Automobile Association(AAA, pronounced “Triple A”). The cost is modest, and they offer numerous services that make it worthwhile. They offer free maps and guidebooks, will transfer a car registration without a notary fee, and provide a free emergency road service (including a tow if necessary), among other services. They also sell American Express traveler’s checks without a commission. Call 1-800-AAA-HELP (1-800-222-4357) for more information.
Some states have unusual driving laws and customs. You should ask a local driver for information about any driving laws and customs that are peculiar to their state. Here’s a sampling.
- Pittsburgh Left Turn. In most states you must yield to oncoming traffic if you wish to make a left turn. Typically you will pull out into the intersection when the light turns green and turn left immediately as the light turns red. In Pittsburgh, however, some drivers will allow you to make a left turn immediately after the light turns green, if you are quick about it.
- U-Turns. U-turns are legal in some states and illegal in others.
- Rolling Stop. By law, cars must come to a full stop at a stop sign. Many drivers, however, will come to a “rolling stop” where they slow down significantly but continue to edge forward. Typically this involves releasing the foot from the brake pedal before the car comes to a full and complete stop with no forward motion.Beware of the rolling stop when walking across the street, or you may get hit by a driver who insists that he or she did stop and that you hit the car instead of the car hitting you. Police officers do not stand for this nonsense and will issue a traffic violation for failing to stop at a stop sign.
- No Turn On Red. Some states allow you to turn right from the right lane on a red light if there is no traffic, treating a red light like a stop sign, except if there is a “No Turn On Red” sign. Confusing, eh?
- Stop for Pedestrians in Crosswalk. Some states require you to stop if a pedestrian has stepped into a crosswalk. There are large fines if you fail to yield the right of way to a pedestrian (and even larger fines if you happen to hit a pedestrian).
- Seat Belts. Many states have adopted laws making the use of seat belts mandatory.
- School Busses. It is illegal in many states to pass a stopped school bus.
If a police officer stops you for speeding, pay the fine by mail. Do not try to give the money to the police officer, since bribery is illegal.
Car theft rates in the US are very high, especially in urban areas. Don’t leave valuables or packages in sight on the seat, since that may tempt a thief to break the window. Lock valuables in the trunk. Buy a steering wheel lock, such as The Club, and use it whenever you park the car. Don’t leave your driver’s license or wallet in the car, and keep a copy of your license plate number, car registration, and vehicle identification number in your wallet. This will help in case your car is stolen.
In recent years there has been a new type of car theft called carjacking, in which an armed thief steals the car while you are in it. For example, they might steal your car while you are stopped at a red light. To protect yourself from carjacking, keep your doors locked at all times, don’t open the windows more than an inch, and avoid driving in bad neighborhoods.
Most schools have a limited supply of parking spaces, with staff and faculty getting priority. Graduate students are next in line, followed by undergraduate students. If you’re an undergraduate student, don’t count on being able to get a parking space on campus. The annual fee will range from $700 to $1,500, depending on the school.
Most car rental places will not rent you a car unless you are at least 21 years old, and some only if you are 25 years old or older. If you are a member of the AAA, the minimum age sometimes drops to as low as 18 years old. The major rental agencies include Alamo (1-800-327-9633), Avis (1-800-230-4898), Budget Rent-a-Car (1-800-527-0700), Dollar (1-800-800-4000), Enterprise (1-800-RENT-A-CAR or 1-800-736-8222), Hertz (1-800-654-3131), National Car Rental (1-800-227-7368), Rent-A-Wreck (1-800-421-7253), and Thrifty (1-800-367-2277). For renting a truck, call U-Haul (1-800-GO-UHAUL). Check whether your credit card provides collision and comprehensive insurance when you charge the rental to the card. Between credit card coverage and your own auto insurance policy, you will probably be able to turn down the CDW (collision damage waiver) surcharge.
Petrol is known as gasoline or gas in the United States. Gasoline is much less expensive in the United States. Current prices as of summer 2008 are around $4.00 a gallon. One US gallon is the equivalent of 3.8 liters or 0.85 Imperial gallons.
You can find the telephone number for the local taxi dispatcher in the Yellow Pages. Call the dispatcher at least half an hour before you need the cab. It is best to call at least an hour in advance, especially on busy days.
You can also pick up a taxi at the local airport, train station, bus station, and in front of major hotels. It is also possible to hail a cab downtown or on major streets, but you may get a quicker response by calling for a cab. To hail a cab, raise your hand and arm at a 45 degree angle to your head with the index finger (the finger next to the thumb) extended as a taxi approaches. If the cab doesn’t have a passenger and isn’t traveling to pick up a passenger, it will stop.
Taxi fares are metered in most cities and based on the distance. After an initial “flag down” fee for use of the taxi, the meter will charge a fixed amount per mile, typically $1.00 to $2.00 per mile, depending on the city. There may be extra charges if the taxi driver has to lift your bags for you. It is customary to give the driver a tip equal to 15% of the total fare.
Don’t be surprised if the taxi driver hands you a business card with a cell phone number written on it. In several cities taxi drivers have tried to improve service by forming small cooperative groups of taxi drivers, a kind of taxi company within the taxi company. All of the members of the group carry cell phones and a separate set of two-way radios. You can call your driver days in advance to schedule a pickup at a specific time and date, and a taxi will be waiting for your at that time. If your regular driver can’t make it, one of the other drivers will cover for him. This provides you with extremely reliable service. (A regular taxi can take an hour or more to pick you up.) If you travel regularly on a fixed route, sometimes they will offer you a flat fee for the route, saving you 5% to 10% of the normal fare.
If someone approaches you at the airport or bus station offering to undercut the taxi fares, don’t accept. These “jitney drivers” are illegal and unsafe. They aren’t licensed by the city and do not have insurance. In some cases international students have taken rides with strangers only to be robbed of their belongings and money, and dumped in a remote location. Only take taxis with identifiable markings (name of the cab company and cab number) and colors (typically yellow) at an official taxi stand.
Many hotels have free or low cost shuttles from the airport. If a hotel is located near the school, this can be an inexpensive alternative to taking a taxi. Such shuttles usually leave on the hour or half hour, but you may need to call upon arrival at the airport to make a reservation.
A regular ten-speed bike will cost around $100 new, $65 used. If you will be living in the snow belt, we recommend getting a mountain bike with puncture-resistant tires. It will cost more ($150 to $200 new, $100 to $150 used), but is safer. Cities in the snow belt put salt on the roads to melt the snow. This, combined with the freeze-thaw cycle, produces potholes. A mountain bike can ride over a small pothole without problems, while a regular bike might have problems.
Don’t buy too expensive a bike, since bicycle theft is very common, especially around college campuses. We recommend buying and using a good bicycle lock. The U-shaped locks with cylindrical keys are best, since they are harder to cut through than chains and padlocks.
To indicate a left turn, extend the left arm horizontally. To indicate a right turn, extend the left arm and bend it up at the elbow (or extend the right arm horizontally). Similar signals can be used from a car if your turn signals are broken.
Most major US cities have two forms of public transportation: buses and trolleys. Trolleys are also known as the subway, underground, streetcars, metro, or light rail, depending on the region of the country. (Not all trolley systems use underground tunnels or overhead power lines. The distinguishing characteristic is buses are wheeled vehicles, and trolleys travel on rails.)
Public transportation tends to be fairly reliable, with buses arriving within about 5 minutes of the scheduled times. We recommend getting a system map and the map for your local route, as the routes will be confusing until you become familiar with them. (Bus routes often overlap, so there is a possibility that you will accidentally get on the wrong bus until you learn the routes.) Some cities use numbers to identify routes, some use letters, some use colors, some use the name of the community or street at the end of the line, and some use a combination (e.g., “D Riverside” in Boston is part of the “Green Line”). The route number will be displayed in or above the front window and side window of the bus.
Bus fares range from $1.00 to $2.00 for a one-zone ride, depending on the city. If you need to change buses, transfers can be purchased for 25 cents in most cities. You give the transfer to the driver on the second bus instead of paying a second fare. Transfers can be used for a return trip, if you will be returning within the time limit (typically three hours). Bus drivers do not carry change, so you will need to bring exact change with you when you get on the bus. Most cities also sell monthly bus passes, which provide you with unlimited travel for a set fee. Bus passes will save you money only if you take the bus every day. Bus passes can usually be purchased from the local grocery store or supermarket.
Some subway systems use tokens or farecards, which are sold at the station. Subway fares may depend on the time of day or the distance traveled. For example, the Metro system in Washington, DC, uses farecards, with higher fares during rush hour. (Rush hour is the peak period during the day when most people travel to or from their place of employment.)
Some cities have you pay as you get on the bus, some when you get off the bus, and some depend on the time of day. Some will have different rules depending on whether you’re headed inbound (to the downtown area) or outbound (away from downtown). If the bus driver puts his hand over the pay box as you enter, it means that you should pay when you get off the bus. If you’re confused, ask the driver.
Just before the bus reaches your stop, you should alert the driver by activating the “stop requested” signal. Otherwise the driver may skip the stop. You can activate the “stop requested” signal in most buses by pulling on the horizontal wire above the windows. Trolleys don’t have such a mechanism because they stop at every station.
- Flying an airplane.
- Driving yourself using your own car or a rental car.
- Taking an intercity bus.
- Riding the train.
Taking a bus or a train is usually much cheaper than taking a plane, and much less stressful. However, it also takes much longer. For every hour of non-stop air travel, the corresponding road trip will take about five hours.
Greyhound offers Ameripass to international visitors for unrestricted travel on Greyhound. Prices range from $179 for a 7 day pass to $539 for a 60 day pass. For information on Ameripass, fax 1-212-967-2239 or send email to email@example.com.
For train schedules and fares, call Amtrak at 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245) or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask about the USA Railpass and All Aboard America fares. Amtrak gives a 15% discount to students with a Student Advantage Card ($20 from 1-800-96-AMTRAK or 1-800-962-6872). Train travel in the US is not as high quality as in Europe, although it can be more comfortable than traveling by bus. The Amtrak web site includes a list of international sales offices.