We love to tour a destination rather than stay in one place. For the USA the best and most iconic way of doing this is of course the road trip. It’s not as difficult as you may think planning and booking your own road trip in the USA. Following our guide on how to plan a US road trip will certainly make your next US holiday one to remember.
Holidays to the USA have always been popular with the British and we are no exception. We love travelling around the USA! However when you have spent more than 7 hours on a plane to get there is it not a waste to spend your entire holiday in one resort?
As a British Citizen you benefit from being entitled to a VISA Wavier for travel to the USA. This means you don’t need a full VISA but you do need to apply for an ESTA which costs just $14. Some websites are trying to charge a fee to apply for you, don’t fall for this and fill the form in directly yourself on this website – US Customs and Border Protection ESTA Application. An ESTA is authorisation to fly into the USA, if you arrive from a land border and are leaving from a land border (such as Canada) you don’t need an ESTA you will fill out a paper form at the border called a I-94W.
We believe the best way to truly experience America is to join the Americans in their favourite method of exploring – the Road Trip. America is built for car travel and renting a car is easier than you might think if you have never rented a car abroad before.
We’re going to talk you through the step by step process we use to plan and book our road trips to the USA. You can use the principles here to tailor a route that fits with your interests, your budget and the time you have available for your holiday in the USA.
1. Decide on the type of US Road Trip
How to plan a US road trip step one – decide on the type of road trip you want to take. There are really two main types for you to choose from here, each has pro’s and con’s but you can’t go wrong with either and we have done both. The two types of Road Trip to consider are a loop road trip or a one way.
One Way Road Trip
If you opt for a one way route you will have to pay a one way drop fee. This covers the rental companies costs for retrieving the car. We don’t see this as a deal breaker to doing a one way road trip, we just account for the one way drop fee in our budget. The highest we’ve seen this has been $500 which will cover coast to coast trips. In our case we paid this for our West Coast Road Trip from Seattle to Las Vegas.
Loop Road Trip
This is the option to go with if you’re trying to keep costs down. If you plan a loop route for your road trip, meaning you start and end in the same place, you don’t have the one way drop fee.
This is an example of a loop road trip route;
2. Where to Start
How to plan a US road trip step two – decide where you’re going to start. Where you start your road trip will depend on which city you fly into. The cheapest cities to fly directly into from the UK are typically New York City, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Fransisco and Seattle. This gives you a good range for choosing your starting off point. Remember your final stop doesn’t necessarily have to be the place you started.
You can fly into one city and out of another for a similar price to your usual return flight. These types of flights are known as open jaw flights. For example if you were to take a West Coast Road Trip you could fly into Seattle and out of Los Angeles (or vice-versa).
Things to Consider;
The USA is a large country and so has a varied climate. As we get very little experience of driving in snow in the UK we would advise you to avoid the Northern States in the winter, from late December through mid-February in particular. Alternatively Florida and the gulf gets very hot and humid in the summer. So it’s not the best choice for anyone who can’t cope with the heat.
There are also things like tornados and hurricanes to consider which we don’t have to in the UK. You don’t want to be caught up in these if you can avoid it. Peak hurricane season in the gulf typically runs from mid August to late October. The majority of tornados in the Mid-West strike between March and June.
If budget is crucial and you want to keep costs down check with SkyScanner which is the cheapest airport to fly into from your home airport. You can do this by typing in your home airport, Manchester for example, in to the ‘from’ field and USA into the ‘to’ field.
This search will produce prices for all airports in the USA from your home airport. Be sure to tick the direct flights only box if you don’t want to have to change planes on route to the USA.
If you’re planning a one way road trip Skyscanner allows you to search for a multi-city trip. Select this option and you can search for your two different flight paths at once. For example Manchester to Seattle and Los Angeles to Manchester.
The main difference between the return/one way options and searching for multi-city is that you must put in some dates for your flights. You can’t search a whole month as easily. However you can search each leg individually on the one way search option to find the cheapest date before using the multi-city search function.
The Theme of your US Road Trip
What has drawn you to the USA for your holiday? This is key to deciding where to start. If you were drawn to the beaches and theme parks then time in Florida is a must. If you’re seeking out the iconic National Parks the Western States the best place to start. For music lovers a Deep South Road Trip calling in at Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans is a great choice.
So you need to ask yourself what is it you want to see and experience on your US Road Trip? Once you have decided this it will narrow down your starting location to just a few States rather than the whole country.
Tip: Remember you don’t have to see it all this time. Flights are getting more affordable and more frequent between the US and the UK.
3. How to Rent a Car in the US
How to plan a US road trip step three – renting a car. You are going to need a car for your US road trip. There are a few things to consider to make sure you get the right vehicle for you and your group.
Choosing the right car
A key part of planning a US road trip is getting the best car. Firstly you will need to decide on the type of car you want. Are you travelling with family and so have a lot of luggage? You will want to rent an SUV. Is there is just the two of you and you have always dreamed of driving a mustang? Get one, you can hire convertible mustangs in most States. If you’re on a budget choose an economy option, likely to be a Ford Focus or similar.
When you have chosen your vehicle type you can then start your search for the best price.
Getting the best Price
There are a few key companies that supply rental cars. Any may be cheapest so it’s worth considering them all. The names to look out for are;
Avis/Budget – these are different brands of the same company – but their prices could still be different so check them both.
Alamo – they have a handy online check in option at some airports. We used this in Seattle. We filled in the online check in form and this allowed us to head straight to the garage on arrival to get our car. Totally bypassing the queue for an assistant to take your drivers licence info.
Other options include – Dollar, Hertz, Thrifty, National, Enterprise
Cruise America – This is the company you will want to check out first if you are wanting to rent an RV or motorhome. They don’t always have the best price however. We rented a Cruise America RV through an Australian company for a much better price. You can find them here – Camper Travel USA
Also consider using a consolidator such as RentalCars.com. They will book a car for you through one of the above companies but could do so at a better price.
Airport or City Collection
You may not get the best price when collecting and dropping off a car at the airport. However consider the cost of getting from the airport to the city and back to collect and drop your car there. The cost of taxis or Uber to do this might outweigh the savings of collecting your car in the city vs the airport.
Consider the hassle as well. If you’re travelling as a family you might find that having the car for the duration of your holiday worth it.
Additions to the base price
Check what is included in the rental price as it’s likely not the final price.
Additional Driver Fee
You will need to consider whether you will need an additional driver. In some States such as California all the rental companies give you additional driver cover with your booking at no extra cost. However this is the only State we’ve seen this happen. Some companies such as Budget allow a spouse to be an additional driver without you needing to pay the fee for the additional driver. If you’re travelling as a married couple or family it’s worth waiting until you arrive so you don’t over pay. However if you’re travelling as a group of friends and two people want to drive get it booked in advance while you’re booking the car.
In most cases unlimited mileage is included in the rental price for a car in the US, unlike in Europe, which is a huge bonus for a long Road Trip. One vehicle where this is not the case is if you are renting an RV where little if any mileage is included. In this case you will need to calculate the mileage you expect to do to work out whether paying per mile or paying for unlimited mileage works out at the better price for your route.
Insurance is typically always included in the rental price. However make sure you have your booking information with you. You will be asked at the rental counter if you want to pay for additional insurance. This could be to lower the excess or cover key loss, windscreen damage or something else not included in the basic insurance. Just make sure it is in fact something you have not already paid for.
There is always the option before you pay to add on a bunch of other things to your rental. Including but not limited to GPS, baby seats, booster seats and occasionally a tab that will bill any toll charges back to the rental company – so you’re effectively pre-paying tolls.
You might not need any of these. Toll charges will depend on your route so check first if you will pass through any. If it’s only one or two, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge southbound for example, they tend to be easy enough to pay as you go. You also have the fall back that if you don’t pay the toll then the rental car company will just charge the credit card you have paid with when the bill reaches them.
We have never rented a GPS with our vehicle. We have bought a Three pay as you go sim and loaded it up before leaving the UK. Their Go Roam facility allows you to use data included in your package for free in 71 countries – including the USA. This allows you to use your phone as your SatNav, such as google maps. Using google maps has the benefit of giving you live traffic updates.
4. Planning your US Road Trip Route
How to plan a US road trip step four – planning your route. There are a few key points to consider when planning the route for your US Road Trip. To make sure you get the perfect route for you consider the following;
How many driving days
Do you have two or three weeks for this holiday, a bit more or even a bit less? How many days of that time do you want to spend driving to somewhere new? One thing we hear often and it’s true, two nights in a place only gets you one full day. When stopping in any of the big cities two or three nights will give you time to explore the city. Whereas the smaller towns you can usually get away with just one night.
With two weeks to work with if you spend the first couple of nights in the city you flew into to get over jet lag and the last night of your holiday there so you’re not dealing with traffic before a flight that’s 3 nights of a loop road trip accounted for already. Four nights if you’re doing a one way and want two nights in your last city as well. Still you can fit in 5 or 6 different towns and cities if you’re typically only driving every other day. That’s a lot of ground you can cover away from the beach resort!
If you still want a bit of beach time consider scheduling in some resort stays on your route. There may be a two night minimum stay in certain hotels or resorts but unless it’s a public holiday weekend it’s unlikely to be more than that.
Length of Driving Days
The main thing to consider here is how long are you comfortable driving for in a day. If you have more than one driver are you planning to alternate during the day to drive further? We try to stick to an average of a 4 hour driving day over the holiday. Sometimes more and sometimes less depending on what there is to see along the route.
Sometimes 4 hours will get you 150 miles or less and sometimes you can cover closer to 300 if the route is mainly interstate (the US Motorway). Google Maps is your main resource here. The road speeds are programmed into Google Maps and if you change the departure time to the time you’re actually expecting to set off it will give you a good idea of how long the journey is going to take.
To be on the safe side we tend to add 10% onto drive times to cover any unusual traffic. This is wheels turning time and not total travel time so the more you stop the longer it’s going to take.
Tip: Consider the time you will collect your car if you are not planning on collecting it when you land at the airport. If you choose to collect your car on your first day of driving you will want to book an early collection if you have planned a longer driving day. However if your first overnight location of your US road trip isn’t too far you could collect your car in the afternoon.
Do check opening and closing times of the rental location as on weekends some close early. Airport collection counters however run 7 days a week and long hours so you will have less restrictions on collection times at airports.
Once you have decided the length of driving days you are comfortable with, as well as the number of driving days you are happy to have, it’s time to start exploring the map.
Choosing the Overnight Stops
We start with Google Maps again for this part. We also use Trip Advisor and blogs like this one to find out more about what places have to offer. Is somewhere worth an overnight stay or two, or is there only enough to see for an hour or so making it more appropriate for a lunch stop? Trip Advisor breaks down what there is to do in a place, what hotels there are and what types of restaurants. All of the options are rated as well by Trip Advisor users who have actually been there.
To start with use Google Maps focused on your start location – where you are flying into. From there have a look what towns, cities or National Parks are within your first days driving limit. So within 300 miles for example. You will need to do this by eye initially. Type in your start destination then click ‘Directions’ in the sidebar followed by somewhere on the map as your potential first night stop. It may be a town name you recognise. We found we recognised a lot of US towns and cities on our first visit even though we’d never been before. We watch so much US TV that a lot of places seem familiar.
Tip for a one way road trip: You might find it easier to work out the maximum mileage you can cover for the entire route. So for example 6 driving days x 300 miles is 1800 miles. You then need to make sure your starting city and end city are around this many miles apart. Once you have this you just need to spread out your over night stops between the two.
When you have got a potential first stop figured out search that location in Trip Advisor. This will allow you to check what there is to do there and if there’s somewhere suitable for you to stay. From this research you will have an idea how long you’d like to stay there.
For your second stop use your first stop as your starting point. Repeat the steps above to find your second stop for an over night stay. You might decide to do a longer driving day after staying in the same place a couple of nights to cover more ground. Alternatively you might decide if you only have one night somewhere not to drive so far the next day so you have a bit more time in that location before moving on.
Tip for a loop road trip: If you’re doing a loop route remember to start choosing stops in the direction of your starting point once you’ve allocated where you will stay at the half way point of your holiday. So this would be nights 7 and 8 for a two week road trip.
You need to repeat these steps until you have all your over night stops figured out. This will then be your route! You can save your route on Google Maps if you have a Google account (Gmail) by using Google My Maps. This is a different page but works pretty much the same as regular Google Maps. If you don’t have this option or just want to use the Google Maps you are familiar with you will notice in the side bar an icon with three lines. Click on this and choose the option to share or embed map. Copy the link it gives you to share the map and just save that link somewhere. Even if you just email it to yourself. If you have this link you can come back to your map at any time.
5. What to Book in Advance
How to plan a US road trip step five – what you should book in advance. There are certain things to consider booking in advance of taking your US road trip. The US is a popular holiday destination so there is a lot of competition now for the best hotels, lodges and even tickets for some of the iconic sights. So what should you make sure you have booked before you leave home?
The days of just arriving in a destination and finding a great hotel really cheap are almost gone. There are so many people travelling now and with social media a lot of people are heading for the same locations. If you’re staying in a major US city, you’re highly unlikely to find a last minute bargain as you arrive. We booked our accommodation for Seattle and San Francisco over 8 months in advance for a decent price on a free cancelation deal. We kept an eye on prices in the run up to our trip thinking we’d jump on an even better option nearer the time. Over that 8 months the prices just continued to rise. The prices rose so much that one of our hotels would have cost three times the price if we booked last minute and this wasn’t even in peak season!
Tip: We typically use Booking.com for our accommodation bookings. They have a range of apartments and hotels with the majority having a free cancellation option. This allows that flexibility if you did want to change plans, while also having a safety net knowing you definitely have something booked at a price you can afford.
You may pay slightly more for the free cancellation on some properties, but not all, so it’s worth considering if it’s worth just fixing plans sometimes to get a better price.
Smaller towns you may find something when you arrive. However if you’re travelling down the Pacific Coast for example the small towns often have a two night minimum stay over weekends as it’s so popular.
Tip: If you prefer using AirBnB for your accommodation check the legality of using this service in the cities you are planning on staying in before booking. In many US cities now it is illegal to short term let apartments or whole homes. It is driving up local property prices which make it difficult for local people to afford homes in their own cities. Whole property short term rental, so many airbnb properties, are illegally operating in cities such as New York City, San Francisco and others. It is not airbnb’s responsibility to check the legality of properties on it’s website unfortunately so just because it’s listed on there doesn’t mean it’s legal. You could book your apartment or home and find out it’s been closed down before your arrival. You will receive no refund if this happens to you and it’s unlikely your insurance will cover the money lost either.
If you want to stay in an apartment but you don’t want to risk going direct to the owner using airbnb we can recommend Stay Alfred who specialise in this sort of accommodation across the USA in cities where it is legal.
If you’re travelling in an RV don’t expect to be able to park at the side of the road for the night. In most states this is illegal and highway patrol will wake you and move you on. There are many RV parks however and you will find them fairly easily. You can book in advance or if you’re outside of peak season you may still find a space at RV parks as you go – but not always. If you want to stay at the Grand Canyon National Park for example you’re going to want to get that booked in advance or risk missing out.
There are certain activities if they are on your must do list that you need to book in advance. The type of things I’m talking about here are things like visiting the Statue of Liberty in New York – particularly if you want to go inside you need to book weeks in advance. Visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco, you will not be able to buy tickets when you arrive in San Francisco, it will be sold out weeks in advance. You may be able to pick up a ticket for a combo tour closer to your time of visiting of Alcatraz with something else but even that isn’t guaranteed.
Any iconic, well-known site that requires ticketed entry you are best booking in advance or be ok with not being able to do that particular activity when you arrive.
You can book many activities direct, and some activities you must book direct however for everything else Viator is a good resource for tour and activity tickets. We’ve used Viator many times without any problems.
6. Collecting your Car
How to plan a US road trip step six – collecting your car. Make sure you take your driving licence with you (you do not need an international drivers licence if you hold a British Driving licence) as well as your rental confirmation. I like to take a printed copy with us just in case I can’t access my emails. Any additional drivers will also need to be present to collect the car, along with their drivers licences. You will be asked for the credit card you made the reservation with as well so make sure you bring the right card with you.
Once you have finished at the counter you will be given the keys to a car as well as information on where it’s currently parked. It is likely to be in a nearby multi-storey car park.
Check you are happy with the car before leaving the car park. If you are not happy with the car return to the check in counter or the rental companies station in the car park and request a change. You have reserved a category of car and not that specific vehicle so they will be able to offer you another car within that category if there is one available. The only categories they may not have another car available for is the premium categories so the mustangs for example. Sometimes you will get the chance to look over a few cars they have available in the category and then choose which you would like before being given the keys.
7. On the Road in the USA
How to plan a US road trip step seven – things to consider while on the road. There are a few key things that are different between the UK and the USA when it comes to driving. Here is what you need to consider when driving in the USA.
Cars in the USA are typically automatic. They are very easy to drive and it gives you the chance to concentrate more on driving on the right side of the road rather than checking you’ve got the car in the right gear.
Road Positioning and Overtaking
It’s not typical in the USA for cars to stay in the ‘slow lane’ or driving lane like we do in the UK. In the US you are allowed to pass vehicles on both sides, so undertaking and overtaking are allowed and happen frequently. Be aware of this and be sure to check all of your mirrors before changing lanes.
When someone is letting you into a lane don’t expect them to flash their head lights to tell you it’s clear to move. It isn’t done in the US and try to stop yourself from doing it to others. Even though you’re trying to be helpful the person driving the other vehicle doesn’t know what you are trying to tell them.
Generally you can turn right on a red light if it’s safe to do so. Sometimes when we weren’t sure if it was allowed in the State we were driving in we would watch out for other cars doing it first. It’s a case of do as the locals do with this. You may get beeped at if you’re waiting at a red light and it’s clear to turn right. Take it as a sign that it’s ok to turn and you’re holding up the person behind you.
In smaller towns or rural locations you may come across a four way junction with flashing amber lights in each direction during the night. Treat this as a four way stop. Stop the car then proceed if it is safe to do so. You may also find that the traffic lights are turned off at night, in this case use the same approach and treat it as a stop sign.
Don’t take these lightly, they are not a give way sign. You must come to a complete stop here before proceeding. It’s not enough to just slow down even if you can see no other cars in the area. It is an offence to not stop at a stop sign and you will get a ticket if you are caught not completely stopping.
The US Interstate is the equivalent of the UK motorway. Unlike in the UK where the exits are always off the driving lane/slow lane in the US the Interstate exit could be from any lane, in a few cases it could be in the middle of the road! Keep an eye on the road signs which will give you an idea of where your exit is going to be, however the sign might come up at short notice.
If you miss your exit act as you would at home and continue to the next junction, turn round and come back to it. Unfortunately unlike in the UK the interstate junctions in the US can be very far apart. It could take you half an hour or more to get back to the junction you wanted so really pay attention to road signs. Your satnav or Google Maps will be your best friend in this situation.
Something to be aware of if you are in more remote areas, if you are road tripping through Wyoming or similar for example, you need to watch for wildlife. When staying in the likes of Yellowstone National Park do not try to drive during the dark. There are free roaming bison in this area, they don’t care if they walk on the road and their fur doesn’t reflect headlights well at all so you will not see them until it is too late. Many road accidents happen in these areas from encounters with wildlife. So make plans to avoid driving during the evening or during the night in remote areas.
Fuel – Petrol aka Gas
Any vehicle you’re likely to rent will run on petrol. The miles per gallon you will get from it will be awful. However gas is cheap! Really cheap, less than half of the price it is in the UK so this does offset the poor mileage of the vehicles.
Most often in the US you will need to pay for your gas before being able to fill your car. So how can you do that when you don’t know how much it’ll cost to fill the tank of this car you’ve only just picked up? Fortunately you will get chance to get change if you don’t use all the gas you paid for up front. You can pay by cash or card, over estimate how much gas you think you will need, pay at the counter then go back out to fill your car. When it’s full if you need change go back to the counter. If you’ve been lucky and guessed right you can just drive away.
Tip: In some states you are not allowed to pump your own gas! Oregon is the main one we think of when it comes to this. You will notice that there is an attendant on the forecourt of the garage, or one will be out as soon as you park at the pump. Once you have paid for the gas they will fill your car for you.
There are a few toll roads in the USA as there are in the UK and they work in pretty much the same way. Within a day of crossing you need to pay the fee for crossing the toll. If you don’t pay the fee the rental company will be billed and they will pass the cost along to you by billing the card you paid them with.
Some roads have charge lanes which are used for carpools, so if you drive in these and only have a single person in the car you will receive a fine. This will also go to the rental company who will bill you for the cost. They may also add an administration charge.
If you are in an area with a lot of toll roads, such as Florida, you can pre-book a transponder through your rental company which will mean you have pre-paid all toll charges.
8. Food on the Road
How to plan a US road trip step eight – how to plan food stops. The USA is known for big portions of food and from that impression you expect food to be fairly cheap and available everywhere. It isn’t always the case when you’re on a road trip. A few times we’ve found ourselves driving over an hour to find a diner or a restaurant or even a cafe. This can happen when you are outside of the larger towns and cities, particularly in the less densely populated States like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
What about service stations you might ask? Well they don’t really exist in the US. You will see signs on the roadside indicating an exit for food stops however this will be within a town and could be a mile away from the interstate. These are worth keeping an eye out for on the road as the junctions can be far apart. So if you’re thinking you might want to stop soon it will generally be better to stop at the next food stop that’s sign posted rather than wait for the one after. This is more important if you are driving in a more rural area, if you’re driving between large towns and cities which are fairly close together you will find somewhere to eat fairly easily.
Supermarkets in the US vary greatly in their pricing. You also have different State taxes to deal with. When you purchase anything in the US sales tax is added when you get to the till. The price on the shelf is not the price you will end up paying. The exceptions are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon where they have zero sales tax.
If you plan on buying your food from supermarkets, if you are staying in apartments and airbnb properties for example, then you will want to shop around. We found that Walmart and Target although handy if you want to pick up the odd item can be quite expensive for a full shop. A small pack of rocket (arugula) in a Walmart in Tennessee had a $4 shelf price!
Although it’s tempting to go to the names you recognise (Walmart and Target) finding a chain supermarket that you haven’t heard the name of might be better value. We found Fred Meyer and Kroger to offer better prices. Also for a name you will recognise if you are old enough, Safeway. Safeway still exists in the USA and they have lots of stores offering well priced groceries.
Fast food is still king in most States however the brands selling it might not be the ones you expect. You won’t see McDonalds golden arches as much in the South as you will Arby’s huge cowboy hat. Anyone that has visited California will wax lyrical about In-n-Out which is a burger chain. In Washington and Idaho you will find the drive-in chain Zip’s. Each area of the US has its own chains and they vary across the country.
We have gotten use to the variety of large coffee shop chains available in the UK. The only nationwide large chain you are likely to see in the US is Starbucks. For some reason the coffee at Starbucks in the USA tastes less bitter than Starbucks in the UK. If you are not a Starbucks fan you will come across many independent coffee shops in most towns and cities so get your fill while you’re there. These independents are king in the US and many States and cities have their own chain coffee shops. It gives you the opportunity to try a variety while you travel from State to State on your US road trip.
9. Returning your Car
How to plan a US road trip step nine – returning your car. This could not be simpler. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to return to the garage by the return time you agreed to on your rental confirmation. This will save extra charges for a late return.
When you arrive at the garage where you are returning your car you just need to follow the signs for your rental companies return vehicles – it will be well signed. These signs will lead you to a queue of cars, typically you won’t park it in a bay.
Make sure you have all of your belongings with you when you leave the car, and make sure you return it clean.
You will drop the car off and give the keys to the attendant and that’s it!
If you are returning your car on the same day as your return flight make sure your return time works for you. You will need to be at the airport around 3 hours before your flight departure time for an international flight from the US. So you get to the terminal in time after dropping off your car aim to return your car at least 3.5 hours before your flight time. Typically the rental car garages are on or very near the airport. If they are off airport they usually have a shuttle bus to the airport from the garage. You can double check this with your rental company to make sure.
We hope our guide on how to plan a US Road Trip helps you with your future holiday plans! If you liked this guide and want to hear more from us make sure you sign up to our mailing list where we send out free tools to help you plan your next tour!