We’ve all watched movies about taking off on that great American road trip. Some were great movies others were well.. not. Still even as an Australian I loved the idea of taking off on the road with a couple of friends to explore and get a feel for the big old US of A. Now I can finally say I’ve had the chance to experience that little dream while in Florida recently as part of a collaboration with the Visit Florida tourism board.
It was an interesting adventure with some things totally feeling like they were straight out of the movies while others were somewhat quirky and unexpected. As a result I’m noting down my top tips to plan your own american road trip so you’re a little more ready than I.
1. Road Rules
Obviously the first thing I found as an Australian when getting behind the wheel of a car in the US is that you’ll be sitting on the wrong side of the car. The gear stick will be in your right hand, the indicators and windscreen wipers will be back to front, the speedo talks about miles per hour and everything will just feel wrong. I love driving but knowing I was going to be dealing with all that and then driving on the right hand side of the road almost put me off.
The best advice I can offer here is take some time to get familiar with it all. Automatic cars are very common so gear changes won’t be an extra burden either. And if possible pick a quiet time to pickup your hire car and hit the roads. I arrived in Pensacola late in the evening so had the roads to myself which was far less confronting than say driving peak hour through Miami.
Having mastered driving the car there was only one other major fear I had while driving in the US, and that was the dreaded 4 Way Stop signs. I’ve written up my experience about this on a good friends site here but in short where we in Australia install round-a-bouts to direct traffic America just puts in a stop sign for all directions. Apparently the first person to stop has right of way but that relies on everyone playing by the rules and quite frankly I’ve seen how americans shop on big sale days it’s a free for all.
2. Buying Fuel
I know I know what can be different about buying fuel. Honestly I think the way its done in the US is a great way to get around stopping people driving off without paying (possibly that’s why it is like this). In Australia we pull up, fuel up the car and then pay. In America you pull up pay first and then pump the amount you bought.
The problem with this great idea is that your Australian credit card won’t work in the pump so you need to pay for your fuel inside first. What scares me about this is that what happens if I don’t fit all the fuel I paid for in the car, will the service station keep the extra money? As it turns out a friendly attendant told me you’d only get charged for what you used. So if you pay cash you get the extra back but if you pay via card you won’t know what you were charged until a few days later. My tip, pay with cash and save the worry.
Just like navigating in Australia a sat nav device is a must to finding your way around. As my trip took me off the major highways and onto the more scenic routes knowing when to turn and how long before I’d arrive at my next stop was a huge bonus over dealing with maps. If you’re renting a car I can recommend Hertz and their NeverLost Sat Nav Package. If you ask nicely some staff will even throw it in for free saving you around $140 on a 2 week car hire.
The other option if you can get internet on your phone is to Google Map it all but in my experience getting a data pack on a sim card in the US as a tourist is like trying to get blood from a stone.
4. Hiring A Car
And that brings me onto car hire. Personally I’ve only got experience with Hertz so your experience may vary but I found them really easy to deal with from start to finish. You can bundle in the sat nav with your hire and they are a big name that everyone knows so you should be able to arrange the hire of the car before leaving home. Before you take a car know all about car clocking and why it’s wrong.
In America I found the major highways the most boring drive and the middle of nowhere roads the most interesting. Highways are just massive runways funneling large amounts of traffic from one big city to another and I’d avoid them as best you can.
Driving the back roads of Florida allowed me to stop when needed, take in some amazing scenery as you drive along tree-lined roads covered in spanish moss or alligators depending on what part of the state I was in. I could do a whole post on the views seen from the car window but this one from my girlfriend was perhaps the best as we drove over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Perhaps the best part of taking this route was being able to enjoy the adventure of taking a road trip. I got to see America away from the celebrities and big cities and I liked it, there’s certainly a hidden history to be found when you get away from the flashing lights.
The above covers the majority of things to be cautious of but I wanted to add a couple of other tips that might or might not be of use to you as you undertake your trip.
America is all about tipping, it’s not so much to be greedy but more so to make sure staff make a decent wage. From the valet to your waitress they are all going to want a few dollars so always have some change in your wallet so you don’t have to look like an idiot holding big notes when they put out their hand. For a bit of a guide check out this site for calculating tips.
Stop in at the iconic places you’ve seen on TV like the Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse and Walmart etc. It’s a good bit of fun and makes for great stories when you return from your trip. I’m still trying to get over just how BAD the Outback Steakhouse portrays Australia, maybe I’ll write about that soon.
Soft drinks are something to be careful about. You get free top ups when having a meal and I really need to stress that you MUST ask for no ice otherwise you’ll end up with 90% ice and 10% soft drink in your cup.Have you taken a road trip in the US? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
I’m heading out to America in two days to do a roadtrip. I did I a little roadtrip for two weeks last year and I really do not recommend Hertz Never Lost. It’s dreadful! It re-routed us one way only to put us back the the original path the second we make the turn ALL the time. If you’re doing a longer road trip buy a sat nav. Beyond two weeks rental it’ll be much cheaper. That’s what I’ve done. An up to day Garmin with North American maps only cost £100.
James that sucks about the Neverlost, I never had that problem but did find entering some address’s difficult as the actual town/suburb I was giving wasn’t correct. Now that could have been the hotels fault just as much as the gps.
I do agree with you about buying a sat nav if your travelling for longer than a couple of weeks, the savings would be well worth it.
Great tips, Chris! I’m about to do my own Florida road trip!
Caroline, you’ll have a blast driving around Florida I’m so jealous. And you’ll be a bit better versed in the ways of driving in the US compared to myself.
An all-way or 4-way stop *should* be navigated as follows:
First to arrive goes first
Then next to arrive, etc…
If everyone else arrived at the same time you move to the right of the first car and continue clockwise taking turns.
The “best” is when in a small town you will often find intersections that don’t get enough traffic to warrant an actual traffic light but they don’t even put up a stop sign at all. Talk about a crazy near miss…I’ve only experienced this in Montana.
I understand your reticence with right side driving. I have similar discomfort in the UK with the left side. Nothing more jarring than to be on a small road and see a large semi heading toward you… in the “wrong” lane. 🙂
Maria thats the best explanation I’ve had of the 4 way stop yet and I hear you about the driving situation. When you grow up doing it one way, to then try and do it all the other way is slightly un-nerving. Mind you I never had to deal with a semi heading in my direction and I’m so very glad for that.
It’s hilarious that American’s complain about not getting ice in their drinks when they go to other countries, and people from other countries complain about too much ice in their drinks when they visit America! Different strokes, I guess. I find four way stops to be very easy. Stupid, yes. But easy as well.
David, completely agree its just what we all grow up with I think. In OZ as we don’t have unlimited top ups so to have a glass full of ice is a costly exercise when your thirsty.
Regarding paying for gas with a card: Um, what? Unless you are talking exchange rate, the total amount of furl pumped into your car is shown on the island where the pump lives, both in gallons and total cost.
Hi Rebecca, what I was referring to was that due to my credit card being from Australia i couldn’t pay for the fuel at the pump as the system asked for a postcode which I do not have in the US. Hence I needed to pay for the amount of fuel I wanted at the desk first and then return to my car to pump the fuel. My worry doing this the first time was that if I paid for $30 of fuel and only pumped say $25, would I get the extra $5 credited back to my credit card or would the station just keep it.
Usually they will just hold your card and charge it when you are done.
You Aussies drive on the “wrong” side of the road, us North Americans have it right! It definitely takes some getting used to. When we rent cars in England and parts of Asia there’s always that practice in the parking lot moment first before heading out.
It sounds like you guys had a great road trip…can’t wait to read the Outback Steakhouse post 🙂
Great tip about asking for the Sat Nav for free, never thought of doing this before. Next time I hire a car I’ll give this a try. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. One of my best road trips was The Great Ocean Road in Australia, truly unforgettable.
I’m not a big fan of the back roads. Maybe I’ve watched too many horror flicks in my day. I love the ride from Miami to Key West. Reading your article made me realize how much I’d love to go back there.
I completed a road trip up the west coast of the USA/Canada from Vegas to Vancouver in 2012. I had so much fun that I’m going again, this time to the Southern States. Your tips are certainly true. We hired through Avis and had no problems. We downloaded a USA map for our Tom Tom back home and we now have ti for life, so it will be handy on our road trip next year (with updates of course). I had the same worry about the petrol, but we always filled less than we needed. Handy tip for us to remember next time that they will refund. Thanks.
A tip from me…..use travel time wisely. If you plan to go somewhere, read up on it while your travel companion drives. We saved ourselves from some poorly recommended places and instead found gems through complete mishap in avoiding our original destination.
Any tips for the southern states would be greatly received 🙂
PS, looking at starting a blog about our travels….any tips?
Hi Cheryl, jealous of your trip from Vegas to Vancouver. I’d love to drive all over the US and explore but no future trips just yet.
As to starting a blog well I have just completed creating a course with a good friend. It will launch in April this year with tips and advice on what we know. Details are over at the site here http://superstarblogging.com/
Great write up!
My partner and I are road tripping from LA to NYC and back again and we are taking our 3 year old. She a great baby and has no issues being in a car but I may think differently after the trip. I’ve been to america many times even taking my daughter over last year by myself and travelling around caifornia.
I know I’m mad taking my daughter but I’m all about life experiences at any age.
Anyone have any tips for a trip this large.
Interesting times ahead.
I’ve no tips for you Katie but I am certainly jealous of your trip. I love travelling by car where you can stop and do as you please whenever you want to. While I’m sure your 3yr old won’t remember the trip its going to be an amazing adventure for you all.
Great article! I only just passed my test in the UK, have been in South America for 5 months and shortly doing a road trip for 3 weeks in the US. I guess as I am not so used to driving in a certain way, it might be easier. Let’s hope so! At least I don’t have gears to worry about.