Cruising along the endless highways of the States is the classic of all road trips. Ever since Hollywood got the way to our TV screens, our desire for infinite roads and vast landscapes grew bigger. From the day we booked our flights, we knew we would explore California on four wheels.
Spoiler alert: It was terrific. We enjoyed it to the very last mile.
In the post, you’ll find some useful tips for first-timers on US roads. We spent most of our time in California. The information about traffic rules and documents applies to California.
1. Planning the trip
America is huge. Don’t underestimate the distances. Plan your stops in advance and think of some time for actual exploring. You’d manage to drive 500 to 600 miles (800-960 km) per day on an interstate. But that way you wouldn’t see anything. If you can, always opt for scenic side roads. We managed to drive up to 350 miles (560 km) a day at a relaxed pace.
For us, one long driving day with 4 to 6 hours at the wheel followed by one day of exploring the cities or hiking in the national parks was ideal.
Tip: When using google maps, always add at least one hour for lunch and an extra hour for little breaks, traffic jams, construction sights, etc.
Even if you plan a spontaneous trip, book a hotel for the first night. After a long flight, it’s very convenient not having to look for a place to rest. Also, check the accommodation options in the national parks. During high season and on weekends, affordable places tend to be booked out.
For the rest, we found the HotelTonight app very useful. It allows you to book last-minute rooms for discounted rates.
3. Renting a car
For renting a car, a European driving license is sufficient. Unless you are staying for more than a few months, you won’t need an international license. The age limit for renting a car is 25 years for most companies.
Pay attention to the insurance policy and roadside assistance. In case your vehicle breaks down, the insurance mostly only covers a pickup from the break down spot. The exchange of the car must take place at the original pickup station. If you are planning a long one-way trip, get the additional roadside insurance.
4. Road conditions
Check road conditions a few days before the road trip starts. For California, use the www.dot.ca.gov. Also, always be informed about the current conditions of the mountain passes and national park areas you are about to drive through. Some roads may be closed due to fires, stone avalanches, or elevated carbon emissions in the parks.
The US National Park Service (www.nps.gov) provides detailed updates about road closures inside the parks.
5. Cruising the roads
In the States, you can genuinely cruise the roads. Automatic gearbox, cruise mode, low speed, and endless highways allow you to enjoy the landscape even as a driver.
At least until the next four-way stop sign. The first time, it’s a little tricky, because cars proceed in the order they arrive. There is no give-way-from-the-right rule. On the first crossing, it was a bit weird, but the other drivers were very friendly and showed politely, that it was our turn. There weren’t any honking or angry faces when we needed a little more time.
Also, you can turn right on the red light, unless indicated otherwise. Being used to German traffic rules, turning right on red always rose our adrenaline level a little.
On multitrack highways, you can overtake from both left and right. When you approach big cities such as LA, there are HOVs (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), where only cars with more than one passenger (usually 2+, sometimes even 3+) inside are allowed. Don’t use the lanes if you are alone. The fines are high.
And finally, even empty bottles or cans from alcoholic beverages are prohibited inside the vehicle. Given the fact that the allowed blood alcohol level is higher than in most European countries, it’s a little strange.
A US road trip would not be complete without a breakfast stop in a diner. A small detour for a breakfast-place with good ratings is always worth it. The unlimited coffee refills in combination with pancakes, eggs, or breakfast burritos are the perfect start for a day on the road.
Tip: The hotel breakfast is often not worth the money. Opt for accommodation without meals and enjoy pancakes somewhere on the road.
7. Rest stops & gas stations
In California, we didn’t come across European-style highway rest-stops. If you need a break, you have to merge into the next city. This isn’t nearly as annoying as it is in Europe, because young American towns were built around the roads, rather than roads around cities. For lunch, head for the nearest diner or an In-N-Out branch. You don’t have to worry about finding a parking spot because there are big parking lots adjacent to the restaurants.
You’ll find a gas station every few miles. Most gas stations work on a prepaid basis. You prepay the desired amount, and then you fill up your tank. Our Revolut cards usually didn’t work for self-service pumps, so we needed to go to the cashier all the time. At their terminal, we never had a problem.
Tip: Always check the fuel prices. The price per gallon can vary by up to 30% within a few miles.
8. Useful gadgets
While traveling, we came across some helpful travel gadgets that make our life a little easier.
When road-tripping outside Europe, we use a GlocalMe hotspot to get internet connection right after disembarking the plane.
How it works: The box for around 100 € allows you to get access to the internet in more than 100 countries worldwide using an electronic sim card. 1 GB of data is included in the price of the device. After that, you have to charge the device with the amount of data you wish to use. For example, 1 GB of data in the US costs 7 € for 7 days.
In our opinion, it’s more convenient than renting a GPS device every single time outside of Europe.
Pre-paid credit card
In the US, you can use credit cards everywhere, even for small purchases. However, losing sight of your credit card during the payment process never feels comfortable. Fortunately, we found a smart solution. For our travels, we use a prepaid credit card from Revolut. You can top up the card with a reasonable amount of your home currency every few days and exchange the money into the local currency for a reasonable rate.
Map & compass
Wherever we drive, we always carry a detailed road map of the area in our car, just in case. In California, we used it quite a few times to find a route to bypass road closures. A compass and a flashlight are also a must.
9. Stop and enjoy
Don’t forget to stop. A road trip is not primarily about driving. It’s about exploring and appreciating the road, the landscape, and the moment.