One of the most appealing aspects of any exchange is being able to travel, and before coming to America this was one of my main goals. I think it’s safe to say that it has been my favourite part of my study abroad experience. The US is such a diverse country, each of the 50 states offers something completely different and they all have their own unique culture and history which is something I’ve really come to appreciate. So far, I’ve managed to visit 8 different states and I set myself a goal to visit all 50 at some point in my life.
I came to the realisation early on, that if I wanted to see everything that I planned to, I would have to go out on my own, finding travel buddies isn’t always easy and UTA doesn’t host a very large exchange student group so I decided that solo travel would be the easiest way for me to get around. Independent travelling has the benefit of being self-driven, I don’t have to find someone else who wants to do the exact same things that I want to, I can make my own schedule and go where I want to go. I also wanted to use this trip to ‘test the waters’ and give myself a taste of what solo travelling would be like in the future. To anyone considering it, I would say do it! It’s so easy to meet other likeminded people by staying in backpackers and most Americans are extremely friendly. I’ve also learned that a kiwi accent really stands out compared to the deep southern accent that many Texans are known for, so anyone you speak to will likely ask where you’re from which can be a great conversation starter.
Car, Plane, Bus or Train?
I’ve used 3 different methods of transport so far which include flying, renting a car, and bussing. Obviously where you are going is going to limit what methods of transport you can use. For my trip to Washington D.C I really had no choice but to fly; I didn’t have the time to drive, and wasn’t keen on a 24 hour bus ride. In my experience Southwest Airlines is by far the best airline to fly with in the US. They offer 2 free checked bags, in-flight entertainment, and free drinks, and still remain the cheapest airline to fly with. They are also unique in that they don’t assign seats; where you sit is done on a first come first served basis. Not really a big deal considering how much you’re paying!
For some trips I needed to rent a car, and at the age of 19 this was no easy task. Most rental car companies won’t even consider renting to someone under 21, and the ones that do charge a premium to offset the risk. Hertz is the only big name company that will rent to 20 year olds, except for states like New York and Michigan where there state legislatures require all companies to rent from age 18 and up.
Catching the Greyhound bus is also a really cheap way to get around. I’ve used this a couple of times and honestly, for what you pay, it’s not a bad experience. It’s a little uncomfortable, but when you’re a young poor student you don’t have a lot of choice. Finally, the US also has a train service called Amtrak. I haven’t used it personally, but from what I’ve heard it’s quite expensive and not very reliable, especially when you can just catch a flight for a similar price.
My first stop in the US was Los Angeles, and man, this is a city and a half, and somewhere that I really wish I had spent more time in. If you do end up going, you definitely want to plan your days and start early. Hollywood Boulevard, Venice Beach/Santa Monica and Universal Studios/Disneyland are all the main touristy places that people associate with LA, but they are all very cool places to visit. Getting around wasn’t too much of an issue, I purchased a Tap Card (AT Hop equivalent) for $7 a day, which gave me unlimited rides on the subway, which also stops at all the places I mentioned above making it really easy to get around without having to hire a car. I chose to stay close the airport just to make things easier when I had to catch an early morning flight. However, this has the downside of being well away from all the touristy locations and means you will have to spend more time on trains and busses which is a good thing to keep in mind in weighing up where you want to stay.
Jumping over to the East Coast, I cannot recommend Washington DC enough. Even if you aren’t big on history or politics, DC is a great city with an incredibly vibrant culture. For someone like myself who is really interested in US politics, getting to see sites that hold so much historical and global significance such as the US Capitol, The White House and the Lincoln monument was an incredible experience. The city is also home to the original Constitution and the Declaration of Independence under heavy security at the National Archives. Seeing such powerful documents in person was also a very surreal moment. I spent 2 days here and (just) managed to see everything I wanted, even if it was a bit rushed and left me with very sore legs! The city is so small that everything is within walking distance, I was even able to use a Lime Scooter to get to the airport instead of spending $15 on an Uber! Security is justifiably tight in DC, expect to have your bags X-Rayed at most museums or public places you visit.
The capital city of Texas – Austin, is also a place I would highly recommend if you’re in the south. A quirky town with a bustling live music scene, great BBQ and food trucks galore. Austin is also home to the world’s largest bat colony, 1.5 million bats all living under one bridge, and at sunset they all leave at once to go off and hunt for food. Sounds creepy, but it was a very cool experience and something that you have to see in person to appreciate!
If you’re looking for something a little more off the beaten track, West Texas is home to some great national parks. Big Bend National Park sits right on the Mexican Border and is definitely worth a visit. The South Rim trail gives you stunning views over the Rio Grande and into Mexico, as long as you don’t mind a 6 hour uphill round trip. I would definitely advise you to bring at least a gallon of water (3L) and start early to beat the heat. Guadalupe Mountains, home to the highest point in Texas, and Carlsbad Caverns are also nearby in Southern New Mexico. While I was out in this area a couple of months back I also decided to take the short drive into Roswell, New Mexico, site of the 1947 Roswell Incident where a UFO supposedly crash landed. The museum here gives a really interesting look into the event with articles and eye witness accounts. I’ll admit, this definitely isn’t for everyone, but it’s something that I found really interesting and makes for a cool story to tell people when I get home. Note: when travelling anywhere around the southern border, it is a good idea to carry your passport. Border Patrol agents have set up random checkpoints within 100 miles of the Mexican border and will stop and ask you questions to confirm your legal status in the United States. As a student, this means they will want to see your F-1 Visa.
I took a 5 day trip to Alaska at the end of October which was such a cool experience. Being the most sparsely populated state in the Union, most of it remains untouched with over half the population living in Anchorage alone, so much so that the entire western half of Alaska is completely inaccessible by roads due to the fact that the population is so small. Most tourism in the state occurs over the summer months from May to September, making a trip during late fall/winter a bit trickier to plan. Once snow starts to fall, driving becomes quite dangerous and temperatures fall pretty sharply. If you visit during this time, make sure you come prepared with plenty of warm clothes and if possible, rent from a company that provides vehicles with winter tires. On the plus side, it is definitely the most beautiful time of the year to visit and you’ll likely be one of the very few tourists in the state, making everything a lot cheaper! 5 days is nowhere near enough time to see everything the state has to offer so I had to be selective on where I visited. Denali National Park, Chugach State Park and Seward are just a few of the places I would recommend you visit, but the state has so much to offer that it really depends on what you want to see. This is definitely a state that I want to return to at some point in the future.
The most famous national park in the US, and by far the busiest. I took a trip here over Thanksgiving weekend and I’m glad I did. There really is something for everyone here, whether you just take a walk along the south rim and enjoy the stunning views, or head on a day trek down into the canyon. I chose the latter and it definitely pushed my fitness to its limits. Being about a week out from winter, large patches of the trail were extremely icy and trying to walk across them without slipping down into the canyon was almost like an extreme sport, but I guess this beats going in the middle of summer when temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees. I also found that I was the only person in the park wearing shorts and a t-shirt during 5 degree weather, something only a kiwi would do!
When I first arrived in the US, I didn’t plan to visit Las Vegas. Mainly because everything I associated with Las Vegas included gambling and drinking, something that I couldn’t do as I’m not 21. However, I decided to take a day trip here when I was in the area and I’m really glad that I did as it was probably my favourite location I visited while in the US. There really is so much more to Vegas than what everyone associates with it. Las Vegas Boulevard (commonly referred to as ‘the strip’) has so much to see and do and I vastly underestimated how overwhelming it would be. It’s hard to summarise how cool it is in a few sentences and I think it’s something that everyone needs to see at least once in their life!
As I’m writing this I only have about 3 weeks left of my exchange before I head back to New Zealand. I’ve convinced my parents to give me a bit of extra money so I’m taking a 6 day trip to San Francisco and Chicago after exams and then spending my final 5 days in New York City which I’m absolutely buzzing for. Plus my flight home has a 24 hour stopover in Hawaii so I can’t really complain!
If you’re planning on coming to the US for an exchange, then I hope this blog has inspired you to travel or at least given you some insight into what it’s like.