USA Road Trip
The Insider’s Guide to USA Road Tripping – Most Asked Questions
Having talked for a number of years about doing a road trip around the South Western US states, we finally took the plunge in 2013 and had the most unforgettable three weeks, seeing some of America’s most iconic sights such as the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge and Monument Valley and driving nearly 4000km through every sort of scenery imaginable. In short, we really caught the road trip ‘bug’ and now as we are about to head off on our third US road trip in the last 20 months, Nigel has become somewhat of a walking Road Trip encyclopaedia and the go-to free travel agent of our friends.
We know that most people find it difficult knowing where to start when planning this unique kind of getaway, so we thought we would let you in on his advice and share Nigel’s most asked questions with you.
If you want a concise guide to making the most of your Road Trip Adventure, please read on!
#1 – When should I travel?
The best time to travel depends on which areas you plan to visit and what activities you plan to do. The climate within the American South West is very varied and in some places at certain times of the year it is literally possible to ski in the morning and sunbathe in the afternoon. Within California there are places like Palm Springs, which enjoys hot sunny days for much of the year. In the peak of the summer the temperature in the shade regularly reaches between 40-45°C which can be too hot for many and even at Christmas it can be as much as 25°C. In the mountain regions of Eastern California around Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes however, there is deep snow and freezing temperatures from late Autumn often well into the Spring. Some of the mountain passes such as the Tioga Pass to Yosemite can be closed due to snow until May or even June. Similarly, in Arizona the cities of Phoenix and Tuscon have very hot summers and mild winters whereas in the north of the state around Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon snow in the winter is not uncommon. Utah also has a varied climate and obviously Colorado with its many famous ski resorts can hold onto the snow in areas until late Spring. Las Vegas usually ranges from mild to very hot most of the year but sunbathing may not always be possible during the winter months. If your route takes in a lot of Southern California and Arizona, as recommended in the second part of our series, I would suggest April/May & September/October as being the ideal months to travel to avoid the extreme summer temperatures.
#2 – What should I bring?
On my first ever US road trip a number of years ago, I actually brought a small two man tent and compact sleeping bags and was able to camp out a number of nights, which was fun and kept the budget down, too. There are campsites at the majority of the National Parks and attractions. Be aware that you would need to make reservations many months in advance for a campsite at the Grand Canyon for example. I have also camped at Monument Valley, Tombstone (home of the OK Corral) and near the town of Page at a place called Wahweap.
Buy a small inexpensive barbecue when you have your rental car and cook out under the desert skies by stopping at a store for supplies on your way or your campground, which may even have its own store. I know that there is one at Monument Valley and close to Wahweap. Spending a few days camping and cooking outdoors really lets you connect with your surroundings and saves money, too!
If possible, try not to over-pack, as with so many different overnight stops of between 1 to 3 nights you really don’t want to be having huge suitcases to pack and unpack all the time. We never fully unpack during our road trips as it would just take up too much time. Some days when we move on to our next destination, we each just put a change of clothes and toilet bags etc into one smaller bag and leave the majority of our luggage in the car. We have found from experience that we generally only wear about two thirds of the clothes we bring. Sometimes we buy souvenir t-shirts etc along the way and many places we stop at even have laundry facilities if required. Remember it’s a road trip – it is meant to be a bit of an adventure and you will probably not always be staying in four star hotels or dining out in the finest restaurants. So ladies you probably won’t need all those high heel shoes and fancy dresses! If you do camp, a torch is useful and things like a spare battery for your camera incase you aren’t able to charge it.
#3 – What’s the smartest way of renting a car?
If you start and finish your road trip in a city then you may not need to have a rental car whilst in the cities, which will save you money. This very much depends on which cities you are in. San Francisco and Las Vegas are quite compact and have good public transport systems and in my opinion a car is not necessary. In Los Angeles and Phoenix however a car would probably be necessary.
Many car hire firms charge expensive add on fees for one way car rentals between certain states – sometimes as much as $500, if for example you rent a car in Los Angeles and leave it back in Dallas. Some companies don’t charge additional drop off fees between California and Arizona or Nevada so it’s important to read the small print or contact the firms directly in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises!
Don’t go for the least expensive, smallest vehicle. You will probably be spending quite a bit of time travelling so you want to be comfortable and there really isn’t a huge difference in cost between an economy and an intermediate size vehicle. I would also recommend a vehicle with a boot large enough to accommodate all of your luggage to keep it safely out of sight if you should stop off for a meal or some sightseeing on your journey.
There are always extras, which car hire companies make you feel like you should take out for excess insurance charges and additional cover etc. They add greatly to the cost of your rental car but if you don’t have adequate cover and do cause damage, you may be left with an expensive repair charge so do make sure you are well protected. What most people don’t know is that many independent specialist insurance companies sell policies to cover these extras at a very reasonable cost. I pay £50/ €70 for yearly worldwide insurance cover for all of our trips, whichever rental company I use. This saves us a lot of money and gives us peace of mind.
#4 – How do I find the best local restaurants and attractions?
Fellow travellers’ comments on websites such as Tripadvisor etc are a great place to start. Once you’ve decided where you would like to stay, hotel reviews often offer an abundance of knowledge on the best places to eat and other information about local attractions and where to visit. I know that we would almost certainly have missed out on some great experiences if it hadn’t been for the information on these websites.
#5 – How should I plan my route?
When it comes to arranging your route be realistic and accept that it probably isn’t going to be possible to see everywhere you want to see during one vacation, unless you have a lot of time and money! It goes without saying that the US is a massive country and distances between places can be extreme so don’t think that you’re going to drive from LA to Monument Valley in a day. Whilst it would be possible – Do you really want to spend 10 or 12 hours driving when with a bit of planning you can break up your journey into more manageable distances and have a stopover somewhere interesting on the way? Make a list of the places which you want to visit and then check the distances between them online, looking for interesting places to have a stopover if need be.
I would also recommend pre-booking your accommodation. You don’t want to waste valuable time when you are there. You might have to try a number of places to get a room for the night and run the risk of not finding anywhere to stay – especially if you want to avoid finding yourself in a situation evoking flashbacks of the movie “Vacancy”. Some areas may not have an abundance of hotels/motels and weekends in particular can be very busy as Americans vacation at home a lot. A city like Las Vegas, which has a number of hotels and in excess of 4000 bedrooms can unbelievably be fully booked at times! The exception to this would be if you were visiting an area in the off season such as Mammoth Lakes in that period between the ski season ending and the summer season starting when you might be able to negotiate a good deal in a fancy resort hotel!
Don’t try to do too much or you will end up driving many miles but not having time to see the places properly. Once or twice we had a drive of about five to six hours but generally I aimed for two to three hours driving between destinations or approximately 240 to 320km. It is obviously good if at least two people can share the driving, as it can be tiring – especially on some of the long straight desert roads. Try to have a few days to maybe even give your car a break and relax at a pool or go breathe some mountain air. Once out of the main cities, it is possible to cover quite large distances on the quiet desert roads or on the highways and interstate freeways. However, remember your speed limits and keep to them as we regularly saw the police highway patrols stopping people!
Sometimes it might be worth taking an internal flight rather than face a two-day drive just to get to your next destination, especially if you only have a limited amount of time rather than face perhaps a two day drive just to get to your next destination. On our first road trip we decided to fly from San Francisco to Phoenix, because San Fran was quite far away from the rest of our route.
Check back for the second part of the series for a sample itinerary, which will put all of these tips to good use. Happy travel planning!