The Ultimate USA Road Trip Planner

16 January 2015

Holidaying in the USA means driving.

Unless you’re landing at party central in Manhattan, sliding into the driver’s seat is the best way to get from A-to-Disneyland and to see the widescreen scenery on Maui.

If you’re going for a Big Road Trip, hiring a fully-equipped motorhome is a great way to head into the badlands without any fixed destination. Or you could buy an old clunker for a truly authentic experience.

 There really is romance to an open road

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You'll Be Overwhelmed By The Hospitality

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And driving in the States is not as bad as you might fear.

Blockbuster movies paint LA freeways in perpetual gridlock and emphasise the stranger danger when you turn off the main roads, but the big screen is wrong. Stop at a local diner and you’re likely to be overwhelmed with hospitality and questions once the locals hear your Aussie accent.

A driving holiday in the USA is easy, simple and relatively cheap.

Your regular licence works, it’s easy to rent cars, fuel is cheaper than Australia, and the brilliant freeway system means you’re never far from affordable food and hotel rooms.

So, let’s start with some basics.

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Taking It From The Top

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The bonnet is the hood, the boot is the trunk, fuel is called gas, and the speedometer reads in miles-an-hour. You also buy gas by the gallon and fuel economy is measured in miles-per-gallon.

In America, you drive on the right and sit on the left-hand side of the car. And I guarantee that, during your first trip to the States, you will go to open the wrong door. More than once...

 Try the hospitality at a roadside diner

I’ve been driving the USA since the early eighties and seem to discover something new on every visit, like the day I realised all north-south Freeways have odd numbers and the east-west Freeways are even numbered.

So, in LA, the 405 is the main north-south feeder road – and up to 10 lanes wide at some points – while 10 heads east into the desert. And they’re usually called I405 or I10, for Interstate.

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'Surface' Only When You Need To

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Away from the Interstates, roads in the cities are usually called ‘surface streets’. That’s because the freeways are often raised, many times on giant concrete pylons. The best way to get around is to take a freeway as close as you can to your destination, only running ‘surface’ at the last minute because they are littered with traffic lights and stop signs.

 It's hard to lose your way

On that front, the most confusing item on American roads is the four-way stop sign. It’s a crossroads, usually fairly minor, where there is a stop sign at each corner.

A friend once joked that everyone gives way to the ute with the gun rack in the back but the proper etiquette is to depart in the same order as you arrived.

Also be aware that many states, including California, allow you to make a right-hand turn at a red light. It keeps traffic flowing, but might earn you a surprise ‘beep’ from behind if you’re not tuned in.

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For Car Rental - Think Big

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Now, about those utes. Americans call them pick-ups and they are everywhere. The smallest ones, like the Ford F150, dwarf a Toyota HiLux and set the scale for the motoring landscape. So a LandCruiser that looks like a giant in Australia is only average size in most of America.

And that brings us to choosing a rental car.

 A droptop is absolutely the way to go

See California from the road. California Road Trippin’ – 7 Drives Worth Taking

Dreaming of that Golden State holiday? California Dreamin’ On An All-American Road Trip


Because the cars are so much bigger, you need to upscale your thinking and shopping. Not supersize, but bigger than you might think for Australia. If you go for a Barina-sized car you’re going to feel super vulnerable, and something bigger will not be much most expensive to run.

There are dozens of rental companies and even more deals, so head online to do your shopping. The easy pick if you’re doing Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco is the all-time classic, a Ford Mustang.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Aussies do the Pacific Coast Highway each year and many do it top-down in a Mustang. That road, incidentally, is the only place in the States where you will see Zebras – thanks to the private zoo of long-dead media mogul Randolph Hearst, whose Hearst Mansion is a major tourist stop – wandering the prairie.

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Make Sure The Luggage Fits The Boot - Or Trunk

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Once you have a rental lock – and always go for maximum insurance in a country where there are more lawyers than cops – you can relax at the airport. All companies run continuous loops by shuttle buses at the major airports, or have a call number to organise a pick-up, and it’s the same at the other end.

It’s possible to have a hiccup on your car choice, but be flexible at the desk. And is it really so bad to be upgraded to a Chevrolet Camaro when you booked a Ford Fusion?

There is one exception, as a friend discovered a few years ago. They had packed for a full-sized sedan and spent a week with their giant suitcases sitting in the back seat.

So pack with your car in mind. And remember you’ll probably come back with much more than you started, unless you can resist the bargains at America’s outlet malls.

Once you’re on the road there is plenty of new stuff. The road signs are bigger, traffic lights often hang from wires in the centre of a junction, and there are all those high-rider pickups.

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Keep That Aussie Accent Handy

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The spaghetti junction intersections can be intimidating at first, but the best thing is to rely on satnav or pre-plan your route so you know you’re looking for I405 north, say – and most cars have a compass built into the rearview mirror – as you approach the junction.

There is plenty of good stuff, like satellite radio that means you can pick a favourite station – or style of music – and then lock it in for the duration of your drive. And parking slots are bigger everywhere, to suit the bigger vehicles, than the downsized spaces we now face in Australia.

 The Mustang - an affordable American icon

And if the worst happens, and you have a brush with the law, it’s important to stay calm and keep smiling. That Aussie accent is your best defence, so sit and wait for the officer, smile and ask what’s wrong and how you can help.

Driving in the USA – Top Tips

  1. They drive on the right-hand side of the road, you sit on the left.
  2. The biggest safety threats came after you’ve stopped, or doing a U-turn.
  3. You often have to pre-pay before filling with fuel.
  4. American drivers are generally courteous and often helpful.
  5. If you get stopped by the police, stay in the car with your hands on the wheel.

Paul Gover

Paul Gover is Australia’s leading motoring journalist and has been on the car beat for more than 30 years. In that time he’s won at Bathurst, driven thousands of new cars, interviewed Jeremy Clarkson, and travelled to 45 countries. He says he still learns something new every day.