How Easy Is It to Travel the American Midwest without a car?

JUAN MARTINEZ

June 23, 2024

How Easy Is It to Travel the American Midwest without a car?

Exploring the American Midwest without a car sounds like a challenge. Here is my journey through America’s heartland by bus and train.

Public transportation in Europe is a marvel of efficiency, connecting even the smallest towns with regular, reliable service (It’s really amazing no matter how much Germans like to complain). As a European traveler, I embarked on my American adventure with high hopes for its public transit system, expecting a similar experience and without much personal information available. What I found was a journey full of surprises, some delightful, others frustrating.

My motivation for this trip was to challenge the common notion that you need a car to travel around the United States. I wanted to see if it was possible to navigate the Midwest using only buses and trains, and whether this mode of travel could offer a unique perspective on America’s heartland.

I decided on a route that would take me from Kansas City to St. Louis by bus, then from St. Louis to Memphis, and finally from Memphis to New Orleans by train. This journey promised a mix of urban exploration, historical landmarks, and scenic landscapes, all experienced through the lens of public transportation. Here’s how it went.

Be connected at all times in Louisiana.
I got a e-SIM with Airalo and bought a plan of 10 GB for my whole stay in the country.

Union Station In New Orleans
Union Station In New Orleans

Traveling Across the USA by Bus

Greyhound: What a rollercoaster of a ride

In the vast size of the United States, Greyhound is the only bus company that covers the Midwest extensively. It serves as the backbone of intercity bus travel, connecting the West Coast to the East Coast with a network that reaches into the heart of America. I began my journey in Kansas City, aiming to reach St. Louis by bus. The idea of hopping on a Greyhound felt like a quintessentially American experience, but it soon became apparent that reality didn’t quite match up to the romance.

Greyhound’s route map is extensive, offering connections between major cities and smaller towns across the country. Tickets are, to be honest, not affordable, with prices averaging around $50-100 for medium-distance routes like Kansas City to St. Louis. Tickets can be purchased online through the Greyhound website, at bus stations, or via third-party booking platforms. Availability is generally good, but it’s wise to book in advance during peak travel times.

  • Average Price: $30-100 USD depending on the route (I would say 2x the price as an European bus for the same distance)
  • Booking Platform: Greyhound

INSIDER TIP: Never buy a Greyhound bus ticket at the bus station. Greyhound is the only transportation method that does not require identification to book a ticket. This makes that very sketchy characters cross the US by bus. To avoid leaving any track, they book their tickets at the bus stations in cash. The lines can take hours and the atmosphere is less than desirable.

Greyhound buses are the only ones that connect the USA
Greyhound buses are the only ones that connect the USA

The Quality of Service

My journey from Kansas City to St. Louis was a mixed bag. On the positive side, the buses were fairly comfortable, with reclining seats and enough legroom to stretch out. However, the service left much to be desired. The atmosphere on Greyhound buses can be quite sketchy, and it’s not uncommon to feel uneasy, especially during night travels. The reputation of Greyhound is far from stellar, often marred by tales of delays, cancellations, and less-than-ideal onboard conditions.

Compared to European bus services, Greyhound falls short in several areas. In Europe, companies like FlixBus and Eurolines offer multiple departures a day, punctual services, and a generally safe and clean environment. In contrast, Greyhound’s Midwest routes often have just one bus per day, leading to inflexible schedules and long waiting times in case of delays. The bus stations themselves are often located in less desirable parts of town, adding another layer of discomfort to the journey.

My friend in Kansas City was a bit concerned of leaving me on the station late in the afternoon, and mention that once the night comes, I should not leave the station at all. I haven’t feel so uneasy in many remote parts of the world, as I felt in that station.

Greyhound Bus Station in Kansas City
Greyhound Bus Station in Kansas City

My Experience on the Road

Traveling by Greyhound, I experienced first-hand the notorious delays. My bus from Kansas City to St. Louis was two hours late, with little information provided about the delay. The waiting area at the bus station was crowded and uncomfortable, filled with weary travelers and a few questionable characters. The actual ride was tolerable but far from pleasant, with outdated buses and minimal amenities.

The journey from St. Louis to Memphis continued in a similar vein. While the scenery along the way was beautiful, passing through rolling hills and vast farmlands, the bus ride itself was marred by frequent stops and a generally chaotic atmosphere. By the time I reached Memphis, I was ready to explore other travel options.

Which Other Bus Companies operate in the USA

While Greyhound is the primary bus service in the Midwest, other companies operate in different regions of the U.S.:

  • Megabus: Primarily serves the East Coast and Midwest, offering low-cost fares between major cities.
  • BoltBus: Operates in the Northeast and along the West Coast, known for its budget-friendly fares and modern buses.
  • Peter Pan Bus Lines: Covers the Northeast, providing service to cities like Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.
My recommendation is to only use Greyhound when neccesary
My recommendation is to only use Greyhound when neccesary

Traveling Across the USA by Train

Amtrak: The Better Alternative?

Amtrak is the primary operator of long-distance passenger trains in the United States. While Amtrak offers a more comfortable and scenic travel experience compared to Greyhound, it comes with its own set of challenges.

Amtrak’s route map is quite extensive, with lines like the City of New Orleans connecting Chicago to New Orleans, passing through Memphis. Other notable routes include the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco and the Crescent from New York City to New Orleans. Booking tickets is straightforward, with options available on the Amtrak website, via mobile app, and at stations.

  • Average Price: $80-200 USD for short to medium distances
  • Booking Platform: Amtrak

NOTE: For the next leg of my journey, I considered traveling from Memphis to Nashville by bus but Greyhound scared me. I wanted to try the train instead, but for $120 a two hour train ride, this was a very unnecessarily expensive alternative.

For some reason, the beautiful train stations of America are now hotels or malls
For some reason, the beautiful train stations of America are now hotels or malls. This is the Lobby of the Hilton Hotel in St Louis

Comparing Train Travel

Amtrak trains offer a level of comfort that is a step above Greyhound buses. The seats are spacious, with ample legroom and large windows that provide stunning views of the American landscape. Onboard amenities include dining cars, Wi-Fi, and electrical outlets at every seat. However, compared to the sleek, high-speed trains of Europe, Amtrak trains are slower and less modern.

Traveling by train in Europe is often faster than flying, with high-speed rail networks connecting major cities. Trains like the TGV in France or the ICE in Germany can whisk you across the country in a matter of hours. In contrast, Amtrak’s services are slower, and the infrastructure is older. For example, the journey from St. Louis to Memphis took around five hours by train, which is comparable to driving.

Despite the slower speeds, train travel in the U.S. has its charms. The scenic routes through the Midwest offer a unique perspective on the landscape, from the rolling prairies to the dense forests. The atmosphere on Amtrak trains is generally more relaxed and civilized compared to Greyhound buses, making it a more enjoyable way to travel.

The Cost of Comfort

The biggest drawback of traveling by Amtrak is the cost. Tickets are significantly more expensive than Greyhound, often approaching the price of a airline ticket with luggage. For example, a train ticket from St. Louis to Memphis can cost between $80-150 USD, depending on the time of booking and class of service. This makes train travel less accessible for budget-conscious travelers.

My journey from Memphis to New Orleans by train was a highlight. Despite being a long ride, it felt like a walk in the park after a few days of Greyhound buses. The comfort and scenery made the journey enjoyable, though the high cost remains a barrier. I paid for that ticket $110. It was not a bargain, but since I was going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, this was by far the cheapest option to reach the city.

Read more: These are the most interesting platations in Louisiana

Inside the standard passenger train in the USA
Inside the standard passenger train in the USA

What about the transportation in cities

U.S. cities are notorious (especially from a European perspective) for their lack of efficient public transportation. However, some progress is being made. Kansas City has introduced free transportation throughout the city, making it easier for residents and tourists to get around without a car. The buses are modern and run frequently, which is a pleasant surprise.

In St. Louis, efforts are underway to expand the tram service that connects downtown. The current system is limited, but plans for expansion could significantly improve urban mobility in the coming years. While these improvements are promising, the overall state of public transport in U.S. cities lags behind Europe.

Read more: How to plan a road trip in Louisiana

I found transportation In St Louis very easy
I found transportation In St Louis very easy. Still, UBER was my prefered choice for most trips.

How I Would Do It Again

Reflecting on my journey through the Midwest by bus and train, I’ve come to realize that public transportation in the U.S. is still a far cry from the quality and convenience we enjoy in Europe and Asia. While Amtrak offers a more comfortable experience, the high costs and slower travel times make it less appealing compared to flying or renting a car.

If I were to plan a similar trip again, I would rent a car for sure or at least consider a few of the next key points:

  • Rent a Car: For the most cost-efficient and flexible travel, renting a car is the way to go. Companies like Enterprise, Hertz, and Avis offer good deals, and many allow one-way rentals where you can drop off the vehicle at a different location.
  • Fly Between Cities: The U.S. has a well-connected network of budget airlines, making it easy to hop between cities. Budget airlines like Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit offer competitive fares. While these airlines often have additional fees for luggage and seat selection, the base fares can be quite affordable. The downside is that service and comfort levels can vary widely.
  • Use Amtrak for Scenic Routes: If you have the budget and time, traveling by Amtrak can be a comfortable and scenic option, especially for longer journeys. The experience of watching the landscape change from the comfort of a train is unmatched.

Budget Airlines in the U.S.

  • Southwest Airlines: Known for its no-frills service and no hidden fees, Southwest is a favorite for budget travelers.
  • Frontier Airlines: Offers low base fares but charges for extras like seat selection and carry-on luggage.
  • Spirit Airlines: Infamous for its ultra-low-cost fares and equally high fees for any additional service, making it essential to read the fine print.

While my overland journey through the Midwest by bus and train was filled with challenges, it was also an adventure that provided unique insights into American travel. I traveled to the U.S. not expecting to have a challenges like those I face in Africa or remote parts of South America, but as someone who loves a good adventure, this was for sure one to tell about.

Until the U.S. improves its public transportation infrastructure, travelers will need to weigh the trade-offs and choose the options that best fit their needs and budget.

Read more: How to plan a road trip in Nova Scotia

Even though they are simple, the landscapes in the midwest have a charm like no other
Even though they are simple, the landscapes in the midwest have a charm like no other

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