Oh, how much fun it is to be on a road trip in the USA. And it’s so easy and stress free. Seeing lots of world famous places, living out of the suitcase and staying wherever and whenever you want. These used to be my favorite kind of trips when I was younger, and they still are. You just get a ton of impressions and thousands of great pictures in a short amount of time. My vehicle of choice for these trips has always been the car, which allowed me to be most mobile during city tours and flexible in the places we stayed for the night.
Here are some of my favorite tips to make the most of your road trip on American territory.
Know where you’re going and when
Time flies by during a road trip, so you want to at least plan ahead a little by outlining a rough route. Check distances and total driving hours between your stops with Google Maps to get an idea of how much time you will be spending in the car. You also want to consider avoiding rush hour in the morning and evening, because nothing is a bigger downer than being stuck in traffic on your vacation. Stay away from city traffic on week days between 7-9am and 4.30-6.30pm.
Take frequent breaks
To make this trip enjoyable for all passengers it’s a good idea to take frequent breaks. My wife and daughter really appreciate the many rest areas here in the US, no matter where you are. Of course, it’s going to be less in the middle of nowhere, but there are always some restaurant chains or local stores that usually don’t mind if you use their bathroom. A good app is the Rest Area Finder or just Google Maps for finding restaurant bathrooms.
Besides stopping to eat or using bathrooms, there are usually many attractions along the way like gorgeous mountain or beach views or just a funny tree in the middle of the desert in Arizona with hundreds of shoes hanging from the branches. Great opportunity to stretch out your legs and take some pictures.
Put your gadgets to work
I used to be pretty good with just navigating with paper maps and some prep work upfront. Today nearly everyone has a smart phone, so you could just hop in the car and start driving and learn where you’re going on the way. Take advantage of that! And if you don’t have a smart phone or just a very slow internet connection through your cell phone provider, stop at one of the many chains like Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc., because they all offer free wi-fi. Sometimes you don’t even have to leave the car for that and can just surf the web in their parking lot.
Last but not least there are also mobile hotspots that you can buy like this inexpensive one from Virgin Mobile. You can pre-pay for a day or month and have internet access everywhere with your laptop or wi-fi only tablet. You can hook up your phone with it too, of course.
On the go nutrition
There will be days when you just can’t find a good place to eat and you are so hungry that you start getting a little grumpy. A real lifesaver for me are protein bars in between meals. I know there are some really nasty mushy ones out there, but the sport nutrition industry has changed a lot and the amount of great tasting and affordable energy and protein bars and snacks has grown a lot. Some of my favorite nutrition bars are Mojo Bars (by Clif Bar), NoGii Bars and No Opportunity Wasted Trail bars. These are all natural, low calorie bars that fill you up long enough to make it through the day. Don’t fall for the mass market candy bars at gas stations, that just give you a sugar rush & crash, making you feel sleepy afterwards. You don’t want to be sleepy while driving, because you’re going to be on the road a lot.
Where to sleep?
Finding a place to sleep while on the road is very easy in the USA. There are motels in different price ranges at every corner throughout the country. No need to make reservations, because you’ll always find a place to sleep. Look out for coupon booklets at gas stations. They are usually in one of these newspaper boxes and they don’t cost you anything. The selection of nearby motels is pretty good and you’ll easily get 10-20 bucks off per night just by presenting a coupon at check-in.
Another good thing to have on the road is a AAA membership which starts at $49/year. That’s a very common American roadside assistance, that comes with great benefits like discounts for hotels and entertainment and obviously getting help when your car breaks down in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge or even worse, in Death Valley. If you couldn’t find a coupon booklet, make sure to mention your AAA membership to the motel staff to receive a good 5-10% off your bill, even if you don’t have one. Some motels give you a discount just for mentioning it.
I’ve tried many different motels during my road trips and I liked Comfort Inn, Best Western and Quality Inn the best. They don’t charge too much and the rooms are always good. I prefer the Inn & Suites over the normal Inns. The difference is that your room door is inside compared to outside in a normal Inn. It makes me feel a little safer. There are of course cheaper motels like Econo Lodge, Motel 6, etc. But you get what you pay for. The worst and cheapest motel I’ve been in so far was a Nite Inn near the Universal Studios in Los Angeles. The room was just a little larger then the bed itself and the fridge was next to my head.
I’ve had very good experiences with Alamo and Thrifty. They charge less than the bigger rental companies and the cars have always been in good condition and with low mileage. If you have the opportunity to book through your home country, it’s worth comparing prices with the US website. Sometimes you land a much better deal and get more insurance coverage by booking through their foreign websites. I experienced that with Alamo.com and Alamo.de (German version). I even got a better rate by booking through their iPad app. Companies often try to promote their apps or Social Media sites by running special promotions. Also to save some money, plan your trip so that you drop off your rental at the same location. It’s a lot cheaper and you’ll save money for the flight too, if you fly back home from the same airport. There are some exceptions though, so get a price for different drop off locations to find out whether or not there’s a drop off fee for your rental car.
There is so much to tell, but I don’t want to write a 10-pager about it in this post.
Please let me know in the comments section, if you’d like me to expand on it and there may be some more detailed posts about road trips in the future.