Weve 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 Ive 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 Im noting down my top tips to plan your own american road trip so youre 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 youll 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 wont 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. Ive 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 Ive seen how americans shop on big sale days its 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 thats 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 wont 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 dont 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 youd only get charged for what you used. So if you pay cash you get the extra back but if you pay via card you wont 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 Id arrive at my next stop was a huge bonus over dealing with maps. If youre 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 Ive 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.
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 Id 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, theres 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, its 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 dont 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 youve seen on TV like the Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse and Walmart etc. Its a good bit of fun and makes for great stories when you return from your trip. Im still trying to get over just how BAD the Outback Steakhouse portrays Australia, maybe Ill 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 youll end up with 90% ice and 10% soft drink in your cup.
Have you taken a road trip in the US? Id love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.