Just a few thoughts for travellers to the USA, particularly from the UK, based on my experience. And my experience, of two long trips now, is based on driving long distances and not planning ahead too much so that you have the flexibility to go where the road takes you.
Driving across the USA:
- it’s a big place but, compared with the UK and Europe, the roads are far less busy
- most people drive on the right, most of the time, so it’s a good idea to do that too…
- American drivers are pretty good, rather nervous folk actually out of the big cities, so driving isn’t scary
- get satellite navigation, and buy it yourself rather than hire it with the car if you are staying for more than a few days. It will save you lots of time and wasted miles and will help you track down places to eat and sleep in unknown distant towns too. Satnav also gives you quite accurate real-time info on speed limits which is useful if you want to stay within them
- get a car with cruise control – it makes life a bit easier and will help keep down your fuel costs
- pay for ‘roadside assistance’, either with the hire car or buy it independently, because you may need it and even if you don’t it feels like the sort of insurance that is worth having for peace of mind
- check where the spare tyre is before you leave as finding it in the rain and the dark by the roadside in South Dakota is no fun in my experience. This is good advice, but not advice that I ever heed…
- you can turn right on red lights, if there is no traffic, in some states – but not all of them
- gas prices vary across states (because taxes do) and with a little planning you can fill up on the right side of the state line
- your car may give you information on fuel consumption – keeping an eye on it is something to do and an aid to cheaper better driving
- buying ‘gas’ is confusing in a fun sort of way. Often you need to pay before filling. You can pay at the pump or inside but with a non-US credit card you’ll find (not always) that you are asked for a zip code by the petrol pump and you don’t have one so then you have to go inside and pay. How do you know how much to pay if you haven’t filled up yet? If you pay for $50 worth of gas and then only get $47 into your car then your credit card is automatically refunded $3 – at least it should be. I have yet to check whether the couple of times this should have happened for me it actually did.
- it’s a big place and your next gas station may easily be 75 miles distant in unpopulated parts of the USA – keep your tank well-filled
- if you reverse into a parking space people will clap and cheer in admiration
- I’m in favour of it!
- if all you want to do is eat Macdonalds then you have come to the right place.
- I made a point of avoiding the big chains wherever possible (I found myself in a Pizza Hut once and a Denny’s once too – not much choice those times) and this is worth it. Most things called ‘family restaurants’ are indeed that and tend to get my custom.
- you’ll usually pay tax on top of what is the price on the menu
- breakfast is the most important meal of the day and is a social occasion for many Americans too. This is the meal you want to get right and it is the time when you will experience American culture best too.
- breakfast menus are pretty standard across the USA: a standard breakfast is protein, carbohydrate and more carbohydrate such as eggs/bacon/sausage/hashed beef/steak with home fries/hash browns and toast (rye, wheat, white or sourdough is often the choice) or ‘English”muffin’. I often had 2 eggs, hash browns and sourdough toast. Be prepared to be quizzed on how you want your eggs, which type of potato you want, which type of toast you want, whether you really don’t want any meat – if you pass the test you get some breakfast.
- most drinks you order, certainly soda fountain drinks (Cokes, Pepsis etc), iced tea and coffee come ‘bottomless’ – you will be offered, or simply given, free refills for the price of your drink.
- I quite like the standard coffee that you get everywhere but can also understand why Starbucks is such a success – it tastes like luxury coffee after a few days of the standard fare (and there is free wifi in most Starbucks cafes).
- I drank an awful lot of sweet fizzy drinks but hardly any alcohol – whether that worked out as a nett health benefit I am not sure
- most US eating places I visited were not licensed so alcohol wasn’t an option and that was fine
- much of the USA is distinctly warmer than the UK and quite a lot of it is desert – you need to buy water (at gas stations usually) to drink in the car. The back of my car filled up with empty water bottles tossed over my right shoulder into the back as I drove.
- I developed the routine of taking a few bottles of water into my motel room at night so I had cool water first thing in the morning
- I stayed in motels across the USA but had to stay in hotels a few nights
- Prices vary from $30/night (rock bottom) to over $100 – plus local taxes – and I think I averaged about $52 (c£37)
- You get the same thing wherever you stay; one or two enormous beds, a large TV, a microwave, a fridge, a shower/bath. The difference in price derives from location and grottiness. Grottier places are cheaper – and if all you want is to crawl into bed, go to sleep, shower and leave, then grotty is fine. Otherwise in-town is more expensive than edge of town, tourist places are more expensive than the type of place where people are puzzled to meet a foreigner, and places that offer breakfast (most hotels) are more expensive than those which don’t. Breakfast is not worth paying for in most places where you stay – go out and find a diner for better food, cheaper food and better surroundings.
- I needed wifi and most places claim to have it and it is always free – please note UK establishments! On a few occasions the wifi connected but didn’t really work. Commonly the wifi barely reaches the rooms most distant from the motel office so I made a point of making ‘wifi that works’ a standard question and requirement when getting a room. I tested the wifi before the bed or the shower on entering a room for the night and asked to change rooms if it didn’t work well.
- Often when you pay by credit card your transaction goes through overnight – which means that some places are reluctant to give you a receipt before your payment has cleared. If you aren’t worried about this then don’t worry about it
The USA is a big place, and a varied one. Driving large distances across it, through it, with it, is a great adventure. It is, though, a middle-aged man’s adventure – not very adventurous really! Americans speak a pretty good version of English (although you will meat Hispanic and Asian motel staff whose English is a bit rough), the food is familiar and a credit card will get you most things that you want.
But, I recommend that you try it. Someone told me that there is a book which says that the USA is really 11 countries rolled into one. That rings true. My experience was that the USA is a wonderful country full of lovely people, fantastic vistas and stunning wildlife. See what you make of it.