The very best form of travel in the state of Iowa is certainly an automobile. There are so many small, out-of-the-way towns to discover, and the only way to accomplish that is to drive.
Jill and I realized when we began our 8-day tour that it would be far more expensive than our annual trips have been in the past. We had to pay between $3.29 and $3.59 per gallon. I will say that it was much cheaper in Iowa that week than it was in Illinois!
Another reason to drive [if you shop like we do] is that you need plenty of room for the purchases. Jill is a quilter, and she purchases lots of fabrics. She also purchased clothing, shoes, a hat, several purses, and a hat. Some of the fabric that we purchased was for a new quilt for my bedroom.
Also, being typical American women, we need plenty of room for the clothing and shoes that we take along [between 8-10 outfits each]. And, since we were staying in a time share where we could cook, we also took along supplies.
We found the roads in Iowa to be excellent. At times the signage was a bit difficult, but we managed. One of the best experiences was traveling the scenic and historic Great River Road. It's a 3,000-mile network of highways that parallels the Mississippi River; thus, it goes along Iowas eastern border.
I recommend flying into Chicago, then renting a car and driving on I-80. You can take this interstate all the way through the state, and most sights are on the way.
You need a car! There is little or no public transport!
You can fly into the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, or Sioux City airports, or take the train into Osceola, though it may be cheaper to fly into Omaha and rent a car if you are coming to the western half of the state.
It is a must to have access to a car. Some of the cities have good metro bus systems, but to see the countryside, you will have to drive. We Iowans think nothing of driving two or three hours to spend some leisure time.
I flew from London to Minneapolis, then drove south into Iowa. There were alternatives - Des Moines was one - but for the area I was going Minneapolis was by far the best choice. From London, the prices aren't extravagant - I think I paid £250 for the flights.
DEFINITELY by car, in the area where David lives. Really, you would have to have a car to get anywhere. I guess if you were travelling between cities then you could use Greyhound or Amtrak same as most places, but there were no Amtrak or Greyhound stations anywhere close to David's town.
The best way to get here I think is by car, otherwise you will have to rent one (since there really is no other transportation). Airfare is usually expensive in Des Moines anyways.
Pratically the only way to get around Iowa is by car. There really is not a lot of transportation.
Although there are bus services and a few trains, US public transport ('mass transit') is simply not as extensive as services in Europe.
So if you want to explore Iowa you really do need a car of your own. I found driving very easy indeed, with rural roads wide (in UK terms) and generally straight. Driving behaviour seemed as courteous as I would expect and speed limits tend to be on the low side.
I hired my car from Enterprise. I've hired from them before, both in the US and in the UK, and they have always treated me very fairly. Their rates are very reasonable but, for those of us who come from countries where the vehicle is insured rather than the driver, the cost of insurance means rates are not as cheap as they first appear. Nevertheless, it is sensible to bite the bullet and take all the insurances on offer if your own insurance will not cover you.
For those from the UK, the size of vehicles may come as a surprise. The one in the photo was my 'small car'...I'd asked for the smallest they had. It's almost twice the size of my own vehicle and took some getting used to! But fuel is so cheap that it doesn't really matter (at the time of writing a US gallon costs only a little more than a European litre).
Megabus serves two destinations in Iowa: Iowa City and Des Moines. I took the Megabus from Iowa City back to Chicago, a journey of just over 4 hours.
Buses on this route are double-decker, with reclining seats, 'restroom' and free wifi (I didn't try it, but there were plenty of people who were surfing as they rode).
Megabus fares work like Amtrak and European budget airlines: the further in advance you book the lower they are. My one-way fare to Chicago, booked a couple of months ahead, cost me 5USD. Fare the day before travel is around 19USD (which is still pretty cheap).
You get a reservation number when you book, which you give to the driver, and need to be at the bus stop 20 minutes or so before departure time.
Luggage restrictions: one bag in the 'hold', max 50lbs, and one bag in the bus.
Megabus isn't plush, but it is a comfortable and very cheap way of getting to Iowa.
There is a company called megabus that you can take from downtown Des Moines to Chicago that is reasonably priced and a bit better quality than the Greyhound bus. I have family in Chicago that take the megabus all the time back to Des Moines for visits.
There are several ways to get to Iowa - Cedar Rapids and Des Moines have the biggest airports and, with Interstate 80 running through the middle of the state, driving is certainly an option as well.
However, the focus of this tip is the train. Amtrak goes through Iowa. One route (Chicago to Oakland, CA) stops in Ottumwa, Mt. Pleasant and Burlington. All fine cities. The other route (Chicago to Los Angeles) has only one stop in Iowa - the small river town of Ft. Madison. It isn't a very good option. Although it has improved over the last few years (it used to be almost impossible to rent a car), it's still a very small town that isn't nearly as well-equipped to handle the arrival of visitors as you would think a town with a train stop would be (or should be). Also, certain times of the year, the town is overrun with bugs. Ft. Madison is right on the river and so, naturally, the bugs are drawn there and when they're mating or dying or something (I've had it explained to me but, I guess I don't know enough about bugs because I didn't completely understand) they go crazy around the river. Of course the train station is just across the tracks from the river so when this natural phenomenon is going on, standing out on the platform waiting for your train or your ride from the station is a horrible experience.
So, what I recommend is staying on the train for one more stop and getting off in Galesburg, IL. It's just across the river from Iowa. It's a lovely town with a darling little train station and a car rental place in the parking lot of the station, and the drive to most parts of Eastern Iowa doesn't take very long. (See my Things to Do Tip on Galesburg on my Illinois page for more information about what to see and do in Galesburg).
Just something to consider.
Interstate 80 runs right through the middle of Iowa and has several lanes in each direction so it looks as though it would be a quick, easy way to get where you need to go. Most of the time, that's true but, a lot of the time it isn't.
80 has A LOT of truck traffic for exactly the reasons I mention above. In addition to all the trucks, you mix in a little weather - some snow or some rain - and driving the 80 can get really dangerous. The trucks also seem to shed an awful lot of tires on their way to wherever they'e going and those tires, flying down the road at 70 mpg or so can become very dangerous projectiles - trust me, I, unfortunately, know all about that.
So, as an alternative, try some smaller roads. Highway 30 comes in from Chicago and is an excellent road. It goes through Davenport, Cedar Rapids, and Ames. The 20 is just a little further north and runs through Dubuque, Waterloo, and Fort Dodge. Running north to south, Hwys 151, 71, and 65 can usually get you where you need to go with a more pleasant driving experience.
Dfaniately Drive! Traffic isn't bad. In Des Moines in a traffic jam you're looking at about and hour wait.
Be careful on county highways. Semi trucks get to hauling and will come up on you fast and might ride your butt because of the hills and the inability to pass.
We flew into Nebraska this year, because the ride started at Council Bluffs, Iowa....just across the river.
Recommend shipping bikes via UPS
The only way to go.
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