Before I moved to the U.S., I was often here visiting. We did multiple road trips and went all over California. Luckily I had a friend who knew how things here worked. Still every once in a while there were moments when I was doubtful whether we knew what we were doing, and I still have sometimes. That is why I decided to write down some information for all those who are planning a road trip in America.
When I started writing this post, different kinds of things from travel insurance to renting a car came to mind. I will later write another post in generally about visiting the USA since otherwise this post would become way too long. This will be about road tripping only. And then of course, we have to remember that I live in California, so some of the things might not apply in other states. Hopefully someday I will be able to visit every state, but for now I can only talk about the ones I have been to. So if you have something to add, please share it in the comments section as it will be very helpful to those who are planning a road trip to some other states.
PLANNING YOUR ROUTE
America is huge and the distances are really big, so while planning your route you should allow yourself a lot of time. Especially if you are passing some big cities or mountains, calculate more time on your schedule than what your navigator says. In metropolitan areas you are most likely to get stuck in traffic, especially between 6 am. and 10 am, or between 3 pm. and 7 pm. Also while driving mountain roads it usually is slower due to the twists and turns of the road. And then of course, there are those extra stops when you get hungry or need a restroom break that your navigator doesn't take into account. We also sometimes stop to take some photographs, especially when driving through some scenic area. If you see a "Vista point" sign, you might want to check it out, as it refers to some kind of an area with a great view. So plan your route as flexibly as possible. Many times the best trips come by just winging it when ever you see something you like.
The best map applications used by the locals are absolutely Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps. To use these, you will need a data plan, so a good option for this is to rent a navigator with your rental car. The newer cars usually have a navigator built in, so before renting one, make sure your car doesn't already have one. One great help is to always save your route in offline mode in Google Maps for example, or even to carry a paper map with you. Since the USA is a huge country, you will most likely be driving in a "no service area" every once in a while. Map applications will also tell you about possible road closures and tolls.
A good app for planning a road trip is "Roadtrippers" for example. You can plan your route, check the map, and get suggestions of sights that you will be passing while driving. I have found many cool places with it that I never knew existed. Roadtrippers uses Google Maps as a base.
As a visitor, you can drive and rent a car in the U.S. with a foreign driver's licence. They actually don't even acknowledge the international driver's licence here, so don't bother getting it because of your trip to the U.S. Each state has their own driver's licence and their own laws, so what ever is the law in California might not be in New York. If you want to read more about driver's licence or traffic laws, you should be able to find some kind of a drive's manual from the DMV page of each state. Here for example is the one from California California Driver Handbook (2018).
You should note that the foreign driver's licence usually does not qualify as an ID while going into clubs or casinos, so when going out, you should always carry your passport with you. It's a good idea to carry a photocopy of your important documents with you. While traveling, I usually snap a photo of my passport or licence, and my rental car licence plate on my phone. Many hotels will ask for the licence plate number when checking in.
ON THE ROAD
Driving in the U.S. is actually not very complicated at all. From time to time there can be a lot of traffic depending on where you are, and some big cities can require a little more concentration while driving there. One difference at least to most European cities are right turns, and the STOP signs that are everywhere. So traffic lights allow turning to the right on red unless there is a sign forbidding it. For intersections with STOP signs, is first come first serve. If both arrive at the same time, the person on the right goes first. When you get used to these two rules, you wish they would be used elsewhere as well.
Speed limits vary based on what state you are in. If you want to a drive little bit slower than most on the freeway, you should stay in the outer-most lane (slow lane) where the inner-most lane is often called the "fast" lane. Many metropolitan areas also have car pool lanes or some kind of Express lanes. The car pool is marked as HOV or with a diamond shaped symbol ◇ . Look for the signs indicating who can use the car pool lane and when.
Many times while driving longer distances in the USA you will notice, that the next gas station or food stop can be far away. In case you are in the mountains or desert areas for example, it is always a good idea to get gas whenever it is available. Some gas stations don't accept foreign credit cards unless you walk inside and show it to the cashier. If you need to check the air in your tires, at least according to Californian law the gas stations can't charge money for it if you buy gas. Many people don't know that and of course, they wont advertise it either. So if you need air, just go inside after getting gas and ask them to unlock the air pump.
Parking is allowed on the road side when there is no sign that forbids it. Parking can also be restricted by the color of the curb. Solid red colour means no parking or stopping. On a green color make sure you check any signs that will tell you how long you can park, usually it is 15 or 30 minutes. If there is no paint or signs you are usually free to park on the road.
In the big cities it is often easier to find parking from parking garages than from the road. Unfortunately though, they are pretty often quite expensive. Some smaller cities offer garage parking for free. You can easily check the closest parking areas from Google Maps, or for example from BestParking app, which also shows the cost of parking and opening hours.
For a couple times on our trips, we have forgotten where we parked our car. Many parking garages are huge and multiple levels, and they all look the same. We have started to take a photo with our phone of the parking spot number or the level number. Sometimes I even take a picture of the road name so I know how to get back to the car. It makes life so much easier when you don't have to walk around for hours to look for your car.
It is also good to remember, that you should not leave anything that looks valuable in a visible place in your car. For example, any kinds of bags, cameras, phones and such are liable to get stolen. Especially in the bigger cities the car thieves are actively looking for cars where people left their belongings in the open. I understand that often while on a trip the only option is to leave things in your car. In those cases I try to cover bags and other things with a blanket or a towel. Knock on wood, so far we have been lucky not to have our car broken into.
WHAT TO BRING WITH YOU
It is easy to give advice to people about what you should take with you on a road trip when you live in the U.S., and have everything needed at home. But I realise most of you will fly over from another country and can not bring so much with you. However, there are some items that you can buy very cheaply when you arrive in the U.S., and they will make your trip more comfortable, and then there are some things that you absolutely need.
WATER AND FOOD
Always carry plenty of water and some food with you. As I mentioned earlier, the distances here are long, and sometimes you can get caught up in extreme weather too. If your car breaks down in the Nevada desert, you will be happy that you brought some water with you. Also, some of the national parks that people love to visit are in the mountains, in forests or the desert where the phones wont work. Unfortunately every year here we read in the news how someone got lost or got stuck with their car in a remote location without any food and water. There have been cases where those people have been found in pretty poor condition or even dead. So it is always better to be well prepared when you hit the road.
One of the most helpful items on a road trip is a cooler. For example, you can get one from Walmart pretty cheaply before you start your trip. At the same time you can buy water and other supplies. We always have a cooler with us which I fill up with ice cubes. Then I add water bottles and other perishable foods. When we get to the hotel, I empty the cooler by placing the foods in the fridge and throwing away the ice. When we are ready to continue our drive, we get some more ice from the hotel ice machine. Ice is also sold at the gas stations and by the doorways of grocery stores.
Last summer my friend taught me a great trick; we placed few water bottles in the freezer in our hotel fridge and the next morning they were frozen. We used them as ice packs in our cooler until the water melted and the water was drinkable again. This can only be done by the store bought bottles which we usually have in our garage in our earthquake safety kit. Otherwise we use reusable bottles, but on a road trip the store bought bottles are very handy because you can just buy a whole case in your trunk. At least here in California you can recycle those bottles by leaving them in recycling bins instead of trash cans.
In case you are driving through the mountains, make sure to check the road conditions before leaving. In some places there might be snow even during June. If there is a chance of a snow storm, make sure to carry chains with you. Some car rental companies have chains, but you can also buy them from Walmart for example. Depending on how long you need them, you should calculate whether it makes sense to buy or rent. If you drive through the mountains while chains are required and you don't have them, you will have to buy them from one of the road side stores where you pay double or triple price.
You can find information about road closures and conditions from here. In case you are visiting some national parks, they usually update all the relevant information on their website. And you can always call your destination, for example to your hotel, and ask about the current weather conditions.
OTHER USEFUL THINGS
It is always a good idea to have a little survival kit with you. Some of the items to carry with you are; bandages, disinfectant wipes, a bottle opener and a flash light. I usually also carry some baby wipes with me and they have saved us from many messes in the car, and they can be used to wipe your hands before eating. I also carry some empty plastic or paper bags with me. Bigger ones can serve as a trash bags in the car, and smaller ones are good for snacks or other items that you want to keep clean. And for a few times we have needed the famous sick bag while driving on mountain roads.
Always also carry some change with you. You can use the coins in parking meters and bills to pay road tolls. Some states the freeway tolls are collected as coins.
Depending on the trip, we might sometimes leave the reservations for the last minute. We might even book the hotel on the same day when we see how far we can drive. I have noticed that the online prices are often better than what you get by just walking to the front desk. Some hotels will match the price but few times we have stepped outside to make a reservation and then walked back in. It sounds so silly but hey, if you get a room cheaper that way and they wont accommodate you, why shouldn't you then? But if you are driving around in a popular area during the holiday season, I would definitely recommend booking the room beforehand. For example the Pacific Coast Highway hotels in California during the summer are often full booked.
I sometimes use either Hotels.com or Booking.com to find a room on the road. I always check though if the hotel has the room with a cheaper price on their own website. If you are not sure how far you will be able to drive, you should read the cancellation policy before booking the room. We usually travel with kids, so we prefer having breakfast at the hotel. It makes it faster for us to get out on the road again when we don't have to look for a breakfast place first. Hotel breakfasts in the USA varies a lot, so be sure to read the reviews first. That is how you find out what they truly offer. In big cities the AirBnB might be cheaper than a hotel, and naturally motels and hostels are the cheapest options.
Wow, this was a lot! And I will add more if something comes to my mind later, or someone will point out something important I forgot. Until then, have fun on your road trips and stay safe!
And here are some of our most memorable road trips. I think we most liked the ones at the famous Pacific Coast Highway aka Highway 1 in California, our two road trips in beautiful Utah, and the Loneliest Road in America (Highway 50) which is in Nevada. Enjoy!
The Beast of California's Pacific Coast Highway
The Loneliest Road in America - would you dare to drive it through?
Walking in the Steps of Dinosaurs in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
Bryce Canyon, Utah - My most unforgettable national park experience