10 Things Australians Should Know When Planning a USA Road Trip

Every traveller should do a USA road trip at least once in their life.

The United States is the absolute best country for road tripping. It’s big but very drivable and the roads are excellent.

There is such a huge amount of diversity in America. Each state feels very different from the next, both in landscape and in culture.

After road-tripping in the US for more than a year, we’ve still only covered about 60% of the States but we’ve learnt a few things about travel in USA along the way.

If you’re an Aussie or Kiwi planning a USA road trip, here are 10 things you should know.

Leading to Monument Valley
Road Leading to Monument Valley

Planning a USA road trip

1. The USA is a BIG country

We’ve been road-tripping in the US for over a year and we’ve still only covered 30 states! By the time we finish travelling we will probably be up to around 40.

If you’re limited on time, pick a section of the country rather than trying to cover a lot of ground.

There are some really good US road trips that you can do in under a couple of weeks if you don’t have time to drive across the whole country. Here are five amazing US road trip itineraries that we’ve done on our travels.

2. You Might Need A Visa for the US

If you’re coming to the US for just a few weeks and flying in and out, no problem! You can enter under the Visa Waiver Program using ESTA (electronic pre-approval).

If you want to stay longer than 90 days or if you plan on also visiting neighbouring countries, the US visa situation is a little complicated.

Once you hit US soil, your 90 days starts ticking but it does NOT reset if you cross the border to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.

In fact, any time spent in these countries counts towards your 90 days in the US if you visit them after you entered America. You can apply for a 6-month tourist visa if you want to do a longer trip. Here are the details of how we did it.

Hopi Point
Hopi Point Grand Canyon sunset

3. It’s Cheaper to Hire a Car in the USA from Outside the US

It’ll definitely be cheaper to book your rental car or rental RV before you leave for the USA on an Australia, UK or New Zealand car hire website.

Quotes from US car hire companies might look attractive but they do NOT include taxes or insurance, which are paid when you collect the car, so you’ll have to double them to get the true value of the rental.

We find the best prices for rentals come from UK sites because they include all the fees and insurance.

Drive Through Tree, Redwoods, California
Drive Through Tree, Redwoods, California

4. Buying a Car in the USA Isn’t That Easy

…and it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth unless you’re spending at least six months road tripping.

In the US you have to register the car in a state, probably the one you purchase it in, and get insurance. Both of these things require a US address so if you’re lucky enough to have a friend or relative who can help you, it can be done.

We found only one insurer that would cover us as drivers with a foreign license and the insurance was $450 per month! We managed to negotiate it down to $200 per month after six months of driving with no accidents.

You MUST mention you have a foreign license when you buy your policy or you won’t be covered if you have an accident.

rv trip ford 250 big bend national park
Road trip the USA

5. Don’t Bring Much Stuff from Home

“Stuff” is cheap in America. Pack light or, better yet, come with an empty suitcase! Clothes, shoes, toiletries, electronics…it’s all cheap in the US.

If you need gear for your USA road trip, stock up at a Target or Walmart before you hit the road for items like a car seat, a GPS and a cooler. (Incidentally, it’s almost always cheaper to buy car seats and GPSs outright than it is to rent them with your car when travelling in the US.)

If you’re planning on camping on your road trip in America, find a REI store for all your gear or shop on Craigslist for second-hand supplies.

Bethaney, Reuben and Hazel from Flashpacker Family, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Bethaney, Reuben and Hazel from Flashpacker Family, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

6. The National Parks in the USA Are Amazing

One of my favourite aspects of travel in the USA are the amazing National Parks.

Some of the entrance fees are quite steep, up to $30 for the big parks like the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. You can purchase an annual pass to cover the entrance to US National Parks for only $80.

Don’t forget about State Parks too. There are some incredibly interesting ones like Antelope Island in Utah. State Parks usually have a smaller entrance fee, $5 to $10, and are not covered on your National Parks pass.

7. Accommodation Can Be Cheap (If You Know a Few Tricks)

INNSIDE New York Nomad hotel

We rarely spend more than $50 to $80 a night on hotels in the USA.

2 to 3.5-star hotels are good value in the US and almost always include free wifi, parking and often breakfast. Many rooms also have a fridge and microwave and they almost always have a guest laundry. Travel in the US is really good value!

We have learnt a few simple tricks that save us a ton on accommodation in America.

One of the best tricks is to use Priceline Express Deals, which are like mystery hotels, to get massive discounts on hotels. We usually save 25 to 60% on all our hotels by booking this way.

If you’re on a longer  US road trip, you’ll need to break up your days of driving with longer stays here and there.

Using Airbnb is key to a long road trip. Spending a week in an apartment or house will give you much-needed space from your travel companions, time to catch up on laundry and relax after long stretches of driving.

While Airbnbs often aren’t cheaper than hotels for a night or two, hosts often drop their nightly rate dramatically if you’re staying a week or more.

Don’t forget camping as well. KOA campgrounds are great for families and similar to what you’d experience in a Big 4 campground in Australia.

8. Tipping in the US is a Necessary Evil

To Australians, Kiwis and Brits tipping for practically everything in the US gets annoying and can feel uncomfortable.

It’s actually a necessity for workers in the US as minimum wages are incredibly low. Your waitress is probably only earning a couple of dollars an hour and her income comes entirely from tips.

What should you be tipping?

Wait staff in restaurants should be tipped 10-20%. Tip your bartender $1 per drink. Taxi drivers should be given $1-3 per journey or around 10% of the metered fare. Hotel porters or room service staff bringing something to your room should get $2-5 depending on the level of hotel.

When you check out of your hotel room, you should leave $1-2 per night of stay in a hotel room as a tip for the cleaning staff.

9. Be Careful What You Eat

Dishes are best served BIG!

The quality of food in the US is generally pretty atrocious.

Lots of colourings, preservatives and the dreaded high fructose corn syrup in everything. Combined with the huge portion sizes, travelling in the US can be a recipe for piling on unwanted weight.

There are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t pack on pounds when you’re road-tripping in the US.

Buy a cooler and pack a healthy lunch for the days when you’re road tripping all day.

Shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes for food that isn’t full of chemicals. Avoid fast food and, if you need something on the go, choose Chipotle over anything else.

Skip the ever-tempting free bread and soda refills that American restaurants are famous for.

10. The History of the US is Complicated and Fascinating

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC
Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

We aren’t taught much about US history in school in Australia and New Zealand.

Most of my knowledge about US history, appallingly, comes from TV and movies. That said, you will learn so much by travelling around the US. There is history everywhere! Especially on the East Coast.

You’ll come across lots of fascinating places you’ve heard about like Salem, MA (famous for its 17th-century witch trials) and many you never knew existed like St Augustine, FL (which was actually the first city in the US, settled by the Spanish!).

We often find a historic trolley tour the best way to get to know these special places and their history.

You can also do a bit of learning before you go so you understand some of the key parts of US history.

There is an amazing documentary series on YouTube called Crash Course in US History that will take you from the Native Americans right through to the modern day.

Read more on US cultural and history experiences:

Plan Your Trip to the USA

Here at yTravel we’ve come to rely on a few trusted websites that save us money and time when booking accommodation, flights and car rental. Below are our preferred partners:

Accommodation

  • Booking.com has 56,000+ properties in the USA including hotels, apartments and hostels. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.

Flights

  • Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).

Car Rental

  • RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.

Tours and Attractions

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Are you planning a USA Road Trip? Or have you already visited the USA? Share any tips or questions in the comments below?

77 thoughts on “10 Things Australians Should Know When Planning a USA Road Trip”

  1. As an American, I think these are spot-on, Bethaney! I will also agree, the things allowed in our food are atrocious. I’m glad that things are starting to change for the better! 🙂
    I used to be a server (and my husband was formally a restaurant manager). I would say that 15% is the minimum for a server’s tip. Less than that (unless the service is bad) and they’ll think you’re cheap — mostly because most Americans have no idea that tipping isn’t normal in other places around the world!
    I love this blog because you guys always paint America in a good light. I know we have our downfalls, but we definitely aren’t all septic-tank-Yanks! Ha!

    1. Thanks Leah!!! I was a bit worried about how Americans might take my negative comments about food. It really is the biggest issue for us when we are travelling in the US. When we go to a regular grocery store, I honestly don’t recognise ANY of the stuff in there as actual food. There are so many chemicals and junk in it all!

      We also think 15% is what we should tip minimum, and we’ve been doing that for over a year, but we met some Americans recently who told us that 15% seemed like a lot and that 10% was more the norm. Tipping is SO confusing! Definitely something that you need to learn on the go and be conscious of as a foreigner in the US.

      1. Another Yank here (living in Australia, though!). Loved this article, and we’re planning on “one day” doing the big road trip when our kids are old enough. Thank you for pointing out how amazing hour National Parks are – the very best thing about America, in my opinion!
        I have to agree with Leah that 15% is the minimum for tipping in a restaurant. Nothing less unless you’ve received horrible service. I think whoever told you 10% might be getting a lot of unhappy servers after he leaves! 😉

      2. Loved this article too but 10% is really low for tipping unless the service is extraordinarily bad. Maybe it depends on where you are from, but here in NY generally its 15% as a base but not uncommon to tip closer to 20% or more if the service is really good.

      3. 15% is the norm. Many times, everybody don’t want to tip. I once got blasted for ‘over’ tipping a waitress for extraordinary service. I think I must’ve tipped $10 for $8 worth of food.

      4. Tipping is something in wich non americans are indeed confused, but i also believe it is not right, i’ve stayed several times in the US and have american friends whom live in California, they dont tip unless they are very satisfait about the service, and they dont do 10 or 15% , they give what ever they see fit …. the fact that serving workers dont get a proper wage is a problem of the people they work for …. but it became so common over there that most strangers keep up with it …. to give an example , when i was in a New York bar i had to pay 8.30 dollar and i gave the waiter 10 dollar and said it was ok , he refused because it was not enough , so you see it is a system of wich they take advantage of …

  2. I highly recommend getting a National Parks pass if you are doing a road trip. Like you said, it’s only $80! We have one and we have gotten a LOT of use out of it.

  3. When entering a state, call into the Visitor Centre. Great information, quite often knowledgeable people working there and usually sheets or brochures with “coupons” for special offers for accommodation and other things (very well worth it).
    When travelling, be guided by things you see – often there will be signs to things which interest you, but which weren’t publicised.
    Chat to people you meet as frequently they will give you tips!

    1. Great tips Doug. Yeah we always make an effort to drop into the visitors centre to chat with the folks and get some brochures. And as you say talk with the locals, they often offer the best insider tips!

  4. As an American, I’d say this is a fantastic list! I just began discovering the beauty of our US National Parks myself, as I had only visited the Grand Canyon prior to this year. Now, I’m recommending them as travel destinations to everyone I meet.

    Also agree that our food is pretty gross. I didn’t realize how behind the U.S. is in healthy food options until I headed oversees for the first time. You can find healthier restaurant options in larger cities (SF, LA, Boston & NYC have thriving healthy restaurant options), but it’s VERY hard is smaller towns and in the Midwest/South. Chain restaurants are everywhere. While farmer’s markets can be very expensive for travelers, I recommend them as a place for healthier options — and it’s also fun to shop around.

    Cheers!
    Tami

    P.S. I love that you linked to the “Crash Course” YT channel – that’s one of my favorites.

    1. There is good food in the states; it’s just hard to find! Just watch a few episodes of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and you’ll see!

      Although I suppose if healthy food is what you’re after, you might not find that in those places 😉

  5. Also an American reading this- interesting to see this point of view, but I agree with them all…though I don’t know about insurance for a traveler to the US. I would recommend leaving half the tip for the hotel after the first or second night and then the other half when you leave- I find that sometimes provides a higher level of service- I do this in hotels wherever I am, if I’m going to be tipping the cleaning staff. I also leave the money on a note that says “thank you housekeeping!” or something like that so there can’t be any confusion about the fact that the money there is a tip.

  6. Totally with you on all of this Bethany. We loved road tripping from New York, up to Canada, then down to Key West. Funny thing was, I expected not to like it much. That trip was for my husband, but we all had a ball, so much diversity and loads of unexpected finds.
    Big thumbs up for American junk food though, everyone has to try a chili cheese dawg and biscuits and gravy in N’Orleans. Great memories!
    Can’t believe you’ve been there 12 monhs, time flies.

  7. Spot on about the food; the portion sizes are insane!

    We found that generally a pub meal would feed my wife and I, so just ordered one between two most nights.

  8. I forgot something else to add – I met a British with a pet peeve toward American pricing system because the taxes are not included. He had to carry extra cash when he purchase food or shop around. And also I discovered that America appears to be famous for filling up a cup of ice for soda. It’s like we are paying for ice but not soda. So, when I order drinks especially on the plane, I tell them no ice please.

  9. I’ll agree that there’s a ton of terrible food here, but there’s also a ton of really great, delicious food too. You just have to look in the right places!

    1. Agreed. The fast food gets lots of attention but like everything else in the US the food choices are very diverse, and there are plenty of healthy options, more so than in Australia IMO.

  10. I always feel so jealous when I read a post like this because I don’t know how to drive! I like to say that I go on Road Free Road Trips because I take buses and trains.

    I completely agree about how bad the food is in some parts of the US. I was very jealous when traveling around Europe this summer because even their packaged food is better than ours…

  11. These are great tips for any family road-tripping the U.S., even for us Americans. We’ve traveled more in other countries than our own so we are all looking forward to enjoying all the national parks as you did.

    Before leaving NYC for our long-term travel, there was a movement happening among a few restaurants which started to include the tip into their prices, which is what’s normally done in the rest of the world. I hope by the time we come back home to do our road trip, this will be the norm. It’s just better that people get a living wage from the start. Thank you for these great tips and enjoy the rest of your travels!

  12. Really good advice. I have done a couple of short USA road trips so far and would like to do a lot more. One other piece of advice is not to get stuck in the “I have to be there by x o’clock” mentality. Take the scenic route, you miss so much if you stick to the Interstates and Highways.

  13. When booking a rental car online it is quite confusing as it asks if you want all sorts of different things – some straight forward but others like whether you want to pay a daily rate for road toll charges. I know these exist but my trip is only loosely planned in so much as I don’t want to decide lots of the roads I am going to use yet – just some key destinations. So should I just pay tolls as I get to them or pay a daily rate just in case so no queuing.?

  14. Totally agree with you. Road trip is definitely the best way to discover the US. Working in an events promotion company in London, I have attended several travel events or foreign culture events and lot of them were about the United States and everybody agree to say that travelling around the country is needed to discover it.

    Thomas @ jorlio.com

  15. Hi Bethany! Safe and Happy travels ! I’m from the Southern USA and I hope you enjoy our beautiful country! If you are traveling the U.S. I find the travel websites like booking.com, Hotwire, Priceline, Orbitz, skyscanner, cheapflights just to name a few a must, also priceline and orbits have bundle deals to book flights, hotels and car together and it’s cheap! if you stay in a resort or casino watch for hidden cost the websites may not mention such as resort fees and incidental deposits! the incidentals are usually refundable granted you leave your accommodations with no incidents but it usually takes 3-10 days to get that money back! Research is key in the U.S. to get the most of your trip! if u rent a car it’s cheaper to rent from a car rental rather than an airport ! airports tend to have a lot of hidden tax and deposits! say we rented a car last month for a southwest tour and the online price was $108 but the price we paid was $356 so please research your car rental and hotels! always read the reviews and believe what people say unless you come across a site with several high scores and only a couple of bad ones! chances are that is a great place to stay!! Good luck and have fun!!

  16. AWESOME stuff!! I’m from Canada, but same stuff applies, as I do many road-trips and shoots through the US of A. One note that a lot of people don’t realize is the ‘compensation for work done’ thing. In other words, be careful of any ‘deals’. American friend says “I’ll let you stay for a night free – if you fix a plumbing problem?” NO. Although very innocent, border folk consider this ‘compensation’ for work done – without a work permit. Yes, they (border) can go through your phone, emails, etc. If they find anything suspect, well …. turn around! Keep in mind.
    Great stuff! Thanks!

  17. I was wondering is there a app to use, we are travelling from NewYork all the way down to Miami then to Los Angeles, I would like help with any suggestions on which application to use to create my Itinerary

  18. “Tipping is a Necessary Evil”

    Yep. Paying people to provide you with service is evil, amarite? I’m sure you work for free, right?

    Why are foreigners so against paying the people who work for them?

    1. Ken, people should be paid for the work they do as part of their wage.
      In the UK and many other countries around the world tipping is a bonus for excellent service.
      Being expected to tip for EVERYTHING feels ridiculous when all the person is doing is what they are expected to, as part of their job role.

    2. You need to get out of the US. See how it is done in other places. Get some perspective. Try Japan, for ex. where tipping is more of a no-no.

  19. About tipping: Always, always, ALWAYS check your receipt to be sure the gratuity has not already been added! Minimum wage is NOT a nationally set rate. Wait staff may make minimum wage, but in some cities, minimum wage is more than I make as a child care provider! Also, decent produce can be purchased at most any grocery store, and larger ones have a bakery and deli on site. Picnic anyone?

  20. Great article and tips for the travelers to USA. Although, I’m not from Australia still these tips would help anyone (even those from USA ) as they did for me.

  21. Thankyou for your tips, it’s so nice and useful for me when i’m visit in USA. $50 to $80 for a night ?? that’s so cheap yeeah, and can safe money for accomodation. In your opinion, where is the best place that can visited in USA ? i really want to going to USA for someday. Are you know Bali, ever you visit in Bali ? many beautiful place that can you visit in here and also you must some traditional food in Bali. Don’t worry about the accomodation, here you can rent hotel,villa,homestay or apartment. When you going to Bali you can stay at http://www.theapartmentscanggu.com/

  22. Loved the post. I am an American and yet I found difficulties in learning to drive. If it weren’t for Concord driving school (here in NJ), I would still be a nervous wreck in front of the wheel. So, I would definitely pay attention to those driving tips you had there.

  23. The road trip is a great way to Explore any country, city locality or fame places, food. In this, post your tips are great for road travel planner.

  24. Hi , any suggestions for a road trip from canada to south carolina with a stop in west virgina. travelling with a little doggie too. thanks

  25. I agree, everyone should do a big USA road trip once in their lives. Interesting to hear that car rentals are cheapest in the UK – it definitely would be hard to buy a car, it’s even stressful for an American like myself. I love the national parks here and need to explore more – not long ago I did the mighty 5 in Utah and really enjoyed it.

  26. I am traveling to East Coast in December first week. Can you recommend few places which should definitely be on our list! We aren’t looking for road tripping but yes, given the low temperature, we would really value your guidance. We have two weeks at our disposal. Thanks a bunch!

    1. Hi Abha,

      Where are you starting and finishing your trip from? We love Savannah in Georgia and Charleston in South Carolina. And of course NYC and Washington DC are awesome. And if you love theme parks Orlando is a must.

  27. Happens in April 2018 for around 18 days.

    We nead som suggestions for stops and good maybe scenic Campgrounds from Forest City Iowa to Las Vegas, via Denver or one of the roads south Maybe Kansas City, Wichita Santa Fe and Albuquerque or smal road towns along that road, enything Local also places that dont take that long, has our intrest, not the big places that we might visit as Bryce, Zion, Mesa Verde, Achers and Grand Canyon. Thanks Thomas

  28. Great information,
    We were there last month but don’t get enough time to explore the beauties down there.
    Hopefully or definitely on next time.
    Thank you for those tips

  29. By reading this I remembered a friend when I was on a trip to the USA and I almost had a bad trip if it wasn’t for my friend that told me to buy a car seat gate check and it helped me a lot on my trip to the USA and it saved me a lot of hassle.

  30. Hi Caz & Craig
    Wonderful info, really timely for us. Just interested, the rental car section can you recommend a UK site to have a look at for a RV – camper.
    Cheers guys – Will

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