Road tripping through another country seems like the ultimate adventure, am I right? But it can also be pretty intimidating… Not only are you driving an unfamiliar route but you also have to figure out a bunch of new road rules. Needless to say, it can be quite stressful if you’re not prepared! Since I’ve been lucky enough to plan not one but two road trips in the USA, I wanted to share some of my best travel advice for anyone keen to do the same. Here are 13 essential USA road trip tips that are guaranteed to make your journey a hundred times better!
Planning a USA road trip? Here are 13 essential tips:
1. It’s a lot cheaper than expected
From car hire, to tolls, to gas, you’ll be happy to know that road tripping in the USA is NOT going to break the bank. Actually, when compared to other famed road tripping destinations such as New Zealand, Iceland or Scotland, it’s by far one of the cheapest countries for a driving holiday.
2. Avoid parking in the big cities
It goes without saying that parking in cities can be tricky. Unless you can find an awesome Airbnb with a free parking spot like this one we stayed at in LA (claim your Airbnb discount here), you’re most likely going to have to pay for parking. If you can find a half-decent parking garage with reasonable rates, great. If not, you’ll have to use the valet, which can be very pricey. In San Francisco, for example, most valets were charging around $60 per night. Crazyyyy.
A better option is to think about returning your rental car off before you start exploring the city. Use public transport or Ubers to get around instead.
3. You have to pay for fuel before filling up
Virtually all gas stations in the USA use a ‘pay before you pump’ system. There’s no option for filling up and then paying after. You have to swipe your credit card at the pump before you can use it. The annoying thing is that most of the time, the machine will also ask for a 5-digit zipcode. If you’re from a country that doesn’t use this format, it’s tricky. If you try to put in your actual postcode and it’s rejected, the machine won’t accept your card. Sometimes this even causes the bank to block your card (it happened to us not once, not twice, but THREE times)!
If you have any issues, you have to go inside the station to pre-pay in person. But how do you know how much will fill up your tank? You don’t and you’ll have to guess. If you guess too high, the difference is refunded back onto your card. Sounds painful? It is.
4. Freeway driving can be overwhelming
Sometimes you have no option but to take the big interstate freeways. If you can though, try and avoid them and take smaller roads instead. It might take you a little longer to reach your destination but the drive will be a lot more enjoyable. Freeway driving in the USA can be quite overwhelming, especially for travellers not used to these kinds of roads. With their high speeds, huge number of lanes (some are even eight lanes wide!) and busy traffic, they’re just not relaxing roads to drive.
5. There are 4-way stop signs
In place of where a roundabout would be in Australia or Europe, in the USA you’ll often find a 4-way stop sign. What the heck is that? It’s where roads meeting an intersection from all directions have stop signs. It can be confusing to know what to do if you’re not used to this road rule! So how does it work? Well, everyone has to stop once they reach the intersection and whoever arrived first gets right of way. If you’re not sure, use gestures to communicate and you should be fine!
6. Download offline maps
Even though your car rental company might try and convince you that you need a navigation system, save your pennies. Buy a SIM card when you arrive (ideally one with a good data allowance) and let Google Maps guide you instead. It’ll display real-time traffic conditions and won’t take you off-route like some navigation systems tend to do! Also, before you hit the road, download an offline map of the area you’ll be driving through. That way when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the signal drops out, the directions will still work.
7. Beware of lane changers
One thing we noticed while on our USA road trip was that drivers really liked to change lanes without indicating. People loved weaving in and out of different lanes, particularly on the busy freeways near major cities. Even if they did indicate before changing lanes, the indicators on most American cars are red, not yellow, making them the same colour as brake lights. This means that it is less obvious when a car is indicating and you really have to be paying close attention.
8. The speed limit seems to be a suggestion rather than a rule
On the freeways in particular, people drive with very heavy feet and don’t seem to pay much attention to the speed limit at all. If you’re sitting on the speed limit, you’ll notice that cars are zooming by all around you, often at 20 miles p/h over! The thing is, it seems like EVERYONE drives like this. In two weeks on the road, we never saw a single police car or speed camera so the speed limits don’t really seem to be enforced (at least in our experience). Of course, I’d recommend sticking to the speed limit but just don’t expect everyone to.
9. Take the back roads
If you’re not in a hurry, we all know that taking the back roads is ALWAYS better. You get to avoid the intimidating interstates and the driving experience is a whole lot more relaxing. The scenery is almost always more beautiful and you’ll get to pass through interesting little towns. Driving the back roads allows you to really experience the character of the region while getting to skip a whole lot of traffic.
10. Prepare to pay for toll roads
You’ll find a number of toll roads across the USA. Sometimes you’ll be charged a toll when you cross over a bridge (e.g. the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco), go through a tunnel or use an express lane. Payment can sometimes be made with cash so it’s best to always carry some. Other times it will automatically be charged to your rental car company, who’ll then pass on the cost to you.
11. You’re allowed to turn right on a red signal
To us Aussies, red means ‘don’t go no matter what’. In the USA, however, if you’re turning right at an intersection, you are allowed to turn through a red signal – you just have to give way to oncoming traffic. We were completely shocked when we saw cars doing this when we first arrived, thinking everyone was running red lights at will! Within a day though we were doing as the locals did (although it did feel like we were breaking the law every single time)!
12. Turn your wheels when parking on hills
When you park uphill, you need to turn your wheels away from the curb. When parking downhill, you need to do the opposite and face your wheels towards the curb. The reason for this is that if your brakes fail and your car rolls, it will roll into the curb and not straight down the hill. Try to remember or you might find yourself with a parking fine.
13. Be careful around school buses
When you’re driving, me careful around school buses. Did you know that when a school bus starts flashing its lights (signalling it’s about to stop) that ALL cars have to stop behind it, even on roads with multiple lanes? Children getting off the bus have priority to cross the street over all traffic. This is why all cars have to be at a standstill so they can give way. Just be on the lookout.
I hope these USA road trip tips help you get the most out of your driving adventure!
Looking for more USA travel tips? Read these posts next:
- The Ultimate 2-Week California Road Trip: An Itinerary
- A Beginner’s Guide to LA: 20 Things to Know Before You Go
- The Best of San Diego: A First-Timer’s Guide
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Do you have any other USA road trip tips to our list?