Last year I headed out on my first ever US road trip! I dipped my toe in gently with just a couple of days travelling through California from LA to San Francisco via Malibu, Cambria, the Big Sur and Carmel-by-the-Sea amongst others and it left me with a real love for the great American road trip! The trip might have been short but it learnt a lot of really useful tips on how to prepare for a US road trip, here’s my advice to help you plan yours and hopefully my next one:
Get a credit card
This very nearly caught me off guard and it would have put a stop to our road trip before it even began! The USA doesn’t really do debit cards, you can’t use them in many places and online you’ll often see they ask for credit cards only. Sadly the same is true when hiring a car, you can only order if you have a credit card and I didn’t have one. Thankfully I had realised in just enough time to apply for one I recommend Martin’s money fax to look up the best deals (not sponsored they just give really good advice!). I managed to get approved for a card and have it arrive in time for us to get our car booked before we left, but it was close to the wire. Getting approved for a credit card takes time so make sure you apply for one sooner rather than later, I opted for one that was interest-free for 3 months so I used it for the car and then got rid of it so I never had to pay for more than the base cost of the car hire.
Use a comparison website
There are plenty to choose from and they are a great way of finding the best deals, I used RentalCars.com (again not sponsored) which had some great options for cars and it was surprisingly cheap and straight forward, I’d definitely use them again. I got two days car hire with insurance for £35 including the extra cost for dropping it off in a different location then pick up. Just make sure you factor in petrol costs.
Don’t fall for the extra insurance scam
As with most things when you pick your car up they will try and upsell insurance. I actually did buy extra insurance when I hired my car as it worked out pretty cheap but I bought it in advance when I hired my car, not when I went to pick it up. The staff may well try to sell it to you again when you pick up the car but do trip up with this, you will be paying twice for the same service. Take your insurance certificate with you and don’t be fooled!
Have your pickup and drop off point planned
Unless you are planning to drop the car off at the same place you are picking it up from you need to know in advance where you intend to drop off your vehicle, as well as the time and date. Be aware that dropping a car off at a different location than the place where you collected it from usually incurs additional costs. Airports are a good place to drop off or pick up a car as they are usually open late, have good transport links and avoids the need to travel into a city. We picked up our car from Downtown Disney in Anaheim and dropped it off at the Oakland International Airport near San Francisco. This meant we could get a bus or Uber into our the city of San Francisco to enjoy the last week of our trip without having to deal with the hellish traffic.
Be aware you will likely have to drive an automatic car
This sounds like it should be a good thing but it did make me pretty nervous beforehand. We tried to hire a manual car but we just couldn’t find any available on most sites and if they were they were more then 10 times the cost, they just aren’t in common use in the US. I had never driven an automatic before as it’s just not the norm in the UK and I’d heard horror stories about them being hard to control but thankfully that certainly wasn’t the case in my experience. Our car was super straightforward to use and it only took a quick minute to get used to the handling. Being in an automatic car was actually a huge help when we were driving around mountains on our trip as it meant we didn’t have to worry about gears and it made driving in general, a lot less physically tiring.
Download Google Maps in advance of your trip
This was probably the most helpful piece of advice I was given. If you go into Google maps you can save areas on a map for offline use and as long as the areas you save crossover it will stitch together a map of your whole trip. Not only will this save you a small fortune on data but there were plenty of times when driving around the mountains or in rural parts of California where we had no signal at all for hours at a time and without this, we would have been completely stuck! Make sure you bring a cable to keep your phone charged as you will rely on it a lot. If all else fails you can hire a sat nav with your car but they really charge over the odds for the privilege.
US roads are more changeable than in the UK
This is a sweeping statement but it’s definitely been my experience. In the UK when driving on a road you generally know what you are going to get a tarmacked road. In the US this isn’t a guarantee and the changes in road texture can happen quite suddenly. We only did a two-day road trip and the roads changed more than I care to mention. Driving on dirt and gravel roads around mountains really did add to the sense of adventure!
Research road closures in advance
The joy of these crazy roads is that they can be unpredictable, so you need to know about road diversions in advance where possible. For instance, we really wanted to drive along the Big Sur but it’s an area prone to landslides and there was one just before our trip which meant a large part of it was closed. Because of this they were diverting all traffic onto the freeway so we would have missed out on the Big Surr entirely. Because we researched this in advance we were able to plan a route which missed only a small part of the road and instead took us via country roads to wind our way back to the part of the Big Surr that was open and around those aforementioned mountains. This actually involved us driving through some amazing and beautiful terrain which we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
Take snacks and water with you
Unlike the UK where you can rely on passing a service station fairly often for pee breaks, food and petrol in America this isn’t the case. Get petrol when you can and make sure you have plenty of food and drinks ready in your car so you don’t get caught short.
There are portaloos in strange locations, but they are cleaner than you would expect
As there aren’t as many service stations what they have instead are portaloos at many places at the sides of roads, often in strange locations like in the middle of a ranch or on top of a mountain with nothing around! While it might not be your dream situation I found them surprisingly well stocked and clean.
Bigger cars come as standard
I wanted a car about the size of my Fiat 500 at home as it was something I knew I’d be familiar with but in America, this just isn’t possible. It is true what they say, everything’s bigger in US! We ordered the smallest car we could find and it was still about twice the size of my car at home, be aware if you order a small car you will often get upgraded too (do not fall for them trying to make you pay for an upgrade, they often do this before admitting they have no smaller cars left so will upgrade you free of charge!).
Research the road signs and driving laws of the states you will be driving through
Whenever you drive in a foreign country it is really important to research the laws before you go as they can be quite different from what you are used to, but in the US you also need to make sure you search by state as the laws often differ between them and you do not want to end up on the wrong side of the law. Knowing the most common road signs by sight is also really important, we usually print out a cheat sheet to keep in the car so that we were prepared.
You will need to be over 25 and have your UK driving licence and passport
Simply put you will not be able to hire a car under the age of 25 or without both of these, this is also the same for any co-drivers.
Be prepared to pay a deposit
This is another reason why a credit card is required, the hire car company will hold a charge against your card which will be released on the return of the car once it has been checked for any damage.
Give yourself more than enough time
Nothing can ruin a trip more than having to miss a stop you wanted to see or having to rush to get to a place because of lack of time. When driving large distances there are so many variables, maybe you spend longer in a place then you thought, maybe you get stuck in traffic, maybe your too tired to drive; whatever it is make sure you give yourself plenty of extra time to get to places so it doesn’t ruin your trip
Are you looking to prepare for a US road trip? What makes you want to hit the open road?