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I would like to make a trip to the Great Plains - specifically, Montana and the Dakotas - because I haven't ever been to that part of the country, but I know nothing about logistics of getting around once I'm there. Renting a car seems like the option that would give me the most flexibility, but it would be expensive and there's also a LOT of miles that those states cover. I don't have specific plans yet, but this would probably be a one to two week trip in summer (no snow!). I don't mind long car / train / bus rides, but I don't want to spend all my time in a car and I don't want to spend a fortune.

What are my options for traveling within and between those states? Is renting a car the best way to do it, or are there public or private transportation options that I should consider?

Note: I'd be flying out there from the east coast, and my question is not about how to get there, just how to get around once I'm already in the region.

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4 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I think you're limited to renting a car or traveling on Greyhound. Amtrak does have a route that crosses the upper parts of Montana and North Dakota but I wouldn't call it very useful. If you rent a car, you can save money by renting and returning the car to the same location. Returning a car to a different location is usually more expensive.

Greyhound has a Discovery Pass which can be used on certain other carriers and in Canada, if I understand correctly. A 7-day Discovery pass is $246. A 14-day pass is $356.

As a test, I checked Billings, MT to Fargo, ND. Greyhound said that it would take 17 h 30 m on a Monday in June with one transfer (from 12:15 to 18:45). Google maps reported a travel time of 9 h 12 m by car. At 608 miles, and gas at $4/gallon (likely more in the summer), gas would cost around $122. Cheapest Greyhound ticket is $96.

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Thanks for including price comparisons! This is great info. –  Laura Nov 3 '11 at 14:33
    
Greyhound discontinued their Discovery pass. discoverypass.com –  Vince Feb 3 '13 at 0:19
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Renting a car and returning to a different location is either more expensive or, it can be dramatically cheaper if you time it right. For example, moving a rental between seasonal tourist destinations at the end of the summer can save you a lot of money. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Feb 3 '13 at 14:59
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As a native-Montanan and a traveler, I highly recommend renting a car when traveling in Montana. Bus service is expensive and irregular. What's more, many desirable destinations simply do not have bus service. Greyhound recently cancelled (see article linked below) many of their in-state routes. Megabus and other cheap bus companies DO NOT operate in the state. Amtrak's Empire Builder does still run through in the northern part of the state but most of the stops are in very small, remote towns without bus service; if you decide to de-train there you may not have the option of renting a vehicle. Also, the tracks often freeze for weeks at a time. If you're traveling in the winter expect delays. I have tried several times to ride the Empire Builder in the winter without success due to frozen tracks. Amtrak will refund your tickets in the event of a freeze.

On a personal note, much of Montana's allure lies in its wide-open spaces and is best experienced at a relaxed pace. Attempting to do it by bus won't allot you the time or freedom to truly appreciate what it has to offer. I encourage you to stop and linger in the small towns, let locals direct you to experiences you won't find in guidebooks or websites. Rent a car and explore!

Alas, if you must travel by bus, Rimrock Stages offers the most comprehensive routes. Here's their site:

http://www.rimrocktrailways.com/

You may find these sites useful:

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Megabus is hands down the cheapest buy for the value, granted you're on the Eastern side of the plains. Plan ahead, and anything is cheap. I went from Indianapolis to Denver for about $70 in 2007 because I bought 4 weeks ahead.

Always buy four weeks ahead, minimum.

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Why do you want to buy bus tickets 4 weeks in advance? I always walked up to the counter and got a ticket for the next bus, and i have never seen a full bus in the states anyway. –  iHaveacomputer Nov 5 '11 at 6:13
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@iHaveacomputer Megabus and Bolt Bus are the two "cheap" bus companies here - they sell at at least one seat on every bus for just $1. (Though they're behaving like airlines these days and jacking up prices for holiday travel so that it's, in some cases, double or triple what their cost used to be.) Because they're cheap, popular routes do sell out regularly (at least on the East Coast - never used Megabus outside of the Boston-NY-Philadelphia-Baltimore area.) –  Laura Nov 5 '11 at 15:27
    
@Droogans Thanks for pointing this out! I actually hadn't realized that Megabus operates west of Chicago...I knew they were expanding in the south, but apparently missed announcements about expanding westward. Definitely good to know. –  Laura Nov 5 '11 at 15:29
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You could try your luck and look for a ride share at least for some parts of the trip, or see if someone wants to chip in for gas. I usually found some notices in the local hostels where backpackers ask or offer a lift via scenic route without being in a hurry, so that might work for you as well if you decide to hire a car and explore all the touristy spots along the way.

Another tip is to ask for a relocation at rental places - this means you drive a rental car from its drop off location to its next pick up location. This is usually much cheaper since they would otherwise have hire a tow truck or pay a driver, but you will have to meet a schedule and won't have too much time for sightseeing, unless you don't travel alone and can share the driving with another person.

Also try Craigslist, sometimes small companies offer cheap and somewhat regular lifts between 2 popular destinations in the local rideshare section. A guy in a 12-seater van took me from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, Door to Door for $25. Was not only cheaper than Greyhound, but also faster.

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