Every traveller should do a USA road trip at least once in their life.
The US 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 travelling in the country along the way.
If you’re an Aussie or Kiwi planning a USA road trip, here are 10 things you should know.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
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
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:
- 5 Important Experiences on the U.S. Civil Rights trail in Montgomery AL
- 17 Legendary Things to do in Boston MA with Kids (or without)
- 10 Things to do in Gettysburg PA to Inspire and Educate
- Reflecting on Freedom and How to Visit Statue of Liberty
Plan Your Trip to the USA
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