This mega, cross USA backpacking holiday will take you about one month but you can stretch the journey if you can afford and have the time. Backpacking in the USA on a budget was a mission for me at the time as I was a skinned student.
I was doing an exchange semester in the Midwest which was the perfect location to discover many parts of the US. During my eight months in the US I spent most of my time in Missouri, but during the spring and summer breaks I visited:
- San Francisco
- Washington DC
- Miami and South Beach in Florida
- Crossed the country on the California Zephyr and
- The Capitol Limited
The Cost of A Backpacking Holiday in the USA
- The breakdown of the journey worked out like this:
- $20-30/night in youth hostels with 6-dorm mixed rooms
- $150 for transport from Columbia, MO to San Francisco via Chicago.
- $80 for flight to Kansas City from San Francisco
- $80 for transportation to Washington DC via Chicago
- $70 for flight to Miami from Washington DC
- Food costs as little or as much as you make it – but if you are frugal you can get away with $15-20/day or less
My first trip was to Chicago by bus via St Louis. This journey took about 10 hours and cost me only $1.50 as I found a special promotion. If you buy a normal ticket it tends to cost from $20 upwards.
The Megabus To Chicago
The Megabus system is quite large in the US and they used to run a direct service from Columbia, Missouri to Chicago, Illinois. If you are backpacking in the USA on a budget, you should definitely think about using the greyhound of Megabus networks as they are cheap.
Megabus is a Scottish firm and they are dirt cheap so I booked a ticket with them. The ticket cost the princely sum of $1.50, including booking fee! About halfway to Chicago someone actually asked us on the upper deck whether anyone was able to buy the cheapest ticket – I was the only one! Unfortunately, Megabus scrapped this service in Missouri in 2015…
Megabus advertises most of its routes as “From $1 – plus $0.50 cent booking fee”. Apparently, they have one seat for that price on every bus. That is unless nobody else wanted to share how much they paid for their ticket. It could also be that everyone that booked for $1 was sitting downstairs – I somehow doubt it! The bus stopped off in St Louis for about an hour, which was enough for a quick walk around downtown.
The Drive To Chicago
From St Louis it is an open swathe of the prairie all the way to Chicago. There were vast flat areas right, left and centre. It was quite fascinating to see the wide open spaces with the Interstate slicing the fields in half. Most people drove pick-up trucks and SUVs in this region. I saw many pick-up trucks taking the weekly shopping home in the cargo bed at the back of the truck which I found strange at the time.
Another unbelievable thing I saw was the size of some of the people. The further north we got the bigger the people were. To my surprise I saw at least three people that couldn’t actually fit their arms inside the car! The space between the door and their body just wasn’t wide enough! So what did they do? They had to put their arms out of the window. It was quite odd to see it on the interstate, driving at 60 miles an hour.
I arrived in Chicago late at night, around 10PM so I quickly checked in the Hostelling International Youth Hostel by the loop and went to sleep. I spent the next two days in Chicago, trying to spend as little as I could.
Read my article about spending a holiday in Chicago on a budget.
My Epic Train Journey on the California Zephyr
The California Zephyr is one of the most beautiful train trips in all of North America. As the California Zephyr climbs through the heart of the Rockies, and further west through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, it showcases the best of America. The California Zephyr train runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco. First, the train rides through the plains of Nebraska to Denver then across the Rockies to Salt Lake City. For me, it was the best way to do a bit of backpacking in the USA on a budget – I could take in a lot at a relatively low cost.
The final stretch is through Reno and Sacramento into Emeryville/San Francisco. I am a train anorak and I must say I had the best time of my life! It was extremely hard to leave the train behind! The California Zephyr took 54 hours to finish the 2,400 miles and we arrived only one hour late – call that efficient! That is some achievement compared to the Hungarian or British trains that are almost always late!
On-board the California Zephyr
Pulling out of Chicago
We left Chicago in the afternoon and rode through the prairie. Then came nightfall so I did not see much but I still loved to be in the huge carriages and listening to the rattling of the train. Next morning I was up early – it was wonderful to see the huge change in scenery and we soon arrived in Denver which looked like a great city.
Criss-crossing Through The Rocky Mountains
After Denver came the most amazing part of the trip: Crossing the Rocky Mountains. I have never seen so many pine trees in my life before. The high mountains surrounded everything and the railway line was parched on the edge of them all! The view from the edge was simply breathtaking and sometimes pretty scary.
The second day on the train was again totally different from everything I had seen before. The train arrived in Nevada after which the railways hugged the Colorado river. From here we travelled between some magnificent red rock formations and by the afternoon our locomotive was ready to cross the desert. The best part of the train is the observation car, providing 360 degree views of the area.
Arriving in San Francisco – or not?
The station is San Francisco was undergoing renovation at the time so we had to disembark in Emeryville. We arrived there early evening and finished the last leg of the trip to San Francisco on a bus. After the weekend in San Francisco I took a budget flight back to Kansas City and my friend drove me to Columbia from there.
Related: read my article about my road trip from Vancouver to San Francisco here.
Travelling to Miami from Chicago via Washington DC
My second trip out of Columbia was to Miami Beach, FL by bus, train and plane via Chicago and Washington DC. I had three weeks in the US between the end of the semester and the departure of my flight to Lima.
My budget was quite meagre so I had to figure out a cheap way to pass the time. This was my itinerary:
- Travelling to Chicago by bus for two days
- Taking the Capitol Limited train to Washington DC overnight
- Four days in Washington DC
- 12 nights in Miami
My Second Visit to Chicago
Chicago is probably the most exciting city east of the Rockies. Having now visited New York, Boston, Miami, Houston, Austin and a number of other US cities I don’t understand why Chicago is not higher up on the list. It has some amazing parks, a huge botanical garden, a great public transport network and great restaurants and hotels. It is also far less crowded than New York and nowhere near as expensive.
This was my second trip to Chicago (out of three) and I decided to stay for one night only. Problem is, for some reason I forgot to book a place! I looked at various hostels when I was planning my trip but someone must have distracted me and I never booked any. This sort of dawned on me about halway up to Chicago and back then I didn’t have mobile internet so I just had to wait until I arrived in Chicago.
In the end I decided to go back to the same hostel where I stayed in March. To my shock and horror they told me they were full! I was there with all my stuff and I didn’t have a booking – I was kind of upset!
The hostel staff did not want to help at all as it was nearly 11PM and the receptionists were cashing up to go home. I was super disappointed as I had such nice memories from my first visit. In the end I went downstairs, checked my bags into the locker room and walked around town looking for a place to stay. That weekend was very close to Memorial Weekend and everything was so expensive – I even contemplated sleeping at the airport.
Instead, I sneaked into the hostel lounge and slept there on the coach in their TV room! It was the HI Chicago Hostel on East Congress Parkway. The hostel has an amazing atmosphere and I really wanted to stay there again, but obviously I never booked the night. The room where I stayed in March had 12 bunk beds and three huge windows. The ceiling had massive beams and every now and then the train on the loop rattled past. It totally felt like I arrived in “Big City USA”!
I was hoping to stay there for a second time which in the end sort of came true. Since I slept there before I knew where the lounge was and I just walked past the receptionist when I entered. By then they changed shifts so nobody recognised me.
It worked out pretty well, I even made a friend with one of the residents. There was also free internet in the lounge on a free computer so I couldn’t complain. It was well past midnight by then so I passed out on the sofa and didn’t wake until 6AM. Shift change tends to be around 7AM so as soon as it started to be light outside I grabbed my rucksack and headed out into Chicago!
Taking the Capitol Limited to Washington
I spent the entire day wondering around Chicago visiting places I did not manage the first time. I then went to the train station to catch the overnight Capitol Limited train to Washington DC.
The Capitol Limited takes 18 hours overnight from Chicago, Illinois to Washington DC, which is the route I took. The restaurant serves good food and there are sleeper couchettes as well as reclining seats. The ticket cost $68 one way in a reclining seat, though I spent the whole night sleeping in the observation car.
The route is not as scenic as the California Zephyr to San Francisco but I wanted to do it to be able to say that I crossed the US by train. Be sure to bring warm clothes whatever the weather outside though. The attendants tend to turn the air-conditioner right down day and night which made it feel like travelling in a freezer.
The Journey Across the Appalachians
As we left Chicago the train was going through swathes of industrial developments. No wonder they call it the rust belt of the US. Derelict industrial estates lined both sides of the tracks, with the odd suburban housing. By midnight I was ready to sleep so I didn’t see much else until the morning. The train crossed the Appalachian Mountains overnight. By around 7 o’clock in the morning the hills and forests were on either side of the train.
This was the first time I saw the East coast. We crossed some marvellous towns built in the New England style – seeing it for the first time in the fog and mist gave it a nice mystical feel. It reminded me a lot to parts (real) England and some regions of Transylvania.
Pulling Into DC
We arrived in Washington DC on time at 1PM. Washington DC has the reputation of a boring and expensive capital city – but it is far from it! As soon as I stepped off the Capitol Limited and arrived in the city I felt at home! I don’t know why but it just felt like the perfect place to be. The streets were clean, wide and straight and there were trees everywhere.
The underground network looked great and the stations were simply amazing with their cement/concrete architecture. Most people were friendly and staying there was not very expensive. The city architecture was really unique as well, so I really had nothing to complain about. It would be amazing to have the opportunity to live there one day.
The Hilltop Hostel in Takoma
My hostel was in Takoma, one of the districts of Washington DC. The Hilltop Hostel is a lovely, private hostel in a Victorian home dating back to 1891. The building has lots of charm and character and is on the DC register of historic buildings. Unfortunately I only booked three nights because I thought DC would be a boring place! How could I get it so wrong! Everyone in the hostel was super friendly and sociable and I had the best parties there on any backpacking holiday. Watch the video below to see it for yourself!
Downtown Sights in Washington
Most of the downtown area looks stunning with world class architecture. If you don’t have the money to visit all the museums, it is enough to look at the buildings from the outside. There are also plenty of monuments in the various parks free of charge.
Some of my favourite buildings were along the Mall. I remember walking past the bureau of the Radio Free Europe dreaming about one day working there. I actually nearly got a placement there because my International Journalism lecturer, Mr Loory recommended me to the editor-in-chief at the radio. Unfortunately Stuart did not know I was only in my second year and I had not graduated, so I had to refuse with a really heavy heart. Anyway, I went around town by bus and using the underground as well. I would totally recommend a visit to Washington for everyone.
On my first day I walked around the Mall, visited the usual tourist attractions as well as the White House and the Capitol Building. The Abraham Lincoln Memorial was stunning and the statue inside was enormous. The obelisk at the center of the park looked great, dominating the entire area. Then of course there are the various Smithsonian Museums and a myriad of other museums in the nearby vicinity.
The George Washington Masonic Monument
Another monument which is worth seeing is the George Washington Memorial in Alexandria in Virginia. The monument is a short train ride from downtown but a visit is very rewarding. Read my full post about the monument here.