In the past few years, we have enjoyed several road trips in the USA, taking in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, with new states planned for our next holiday. I would like to tell you everything we’ve learned about how to plan a road trip or holiday in the USA. In fact, I have over 70 tips to share with you.
We are often asked how we can afford to do it. It’s quite simple – we live a frugal lifestyle, we spend a bit of time hunting out the best deals and we plan our road trip with lots of free things to do while we are on holiday in the USA.
We do visit some tourist spots, but we also do a lot of walking along beaches, around nature reserves and mountain resorts. The landscape in the USA is so different from the UK and the view changes every couple of miles. There is always something new to look at on a road trip.
I have lots more features to come which will include hotel reviews, attractions, where to visit on a budget, and our route itineraries, so do sign up to get free email notifications.
Here are over 70 tips in 13 categories that may help you to plan and enjoy your road trip holiday in the USA including:
1. INITIAL PLANNING
3. TRAVEL INSURANCE
5. PASSPORT & ESTAS
6. CAR HIRE
8. DRIVING LAWS
12. EATING OUT & TIPPING
We travel in from the UK but I’ve had feedback to say these tips are useful even if you live in the USA.
1. INITIAL PLANNING FOR A ROAD TRIP HOLIDAY USA
My first bit of advice is to make use of people like me, check out blogs and forums, read reviews, buy/borrow a tour guide, ask Facebook friends and Google “things to do in …/free stuff in …”
I bought several Dorling Kindersley guidebooks at a car boot sale from which I jotted down some ideas and then used the internet to find out more.
Sign up to tourist bureau newsletters in advance as they may give you new ideas and offer discounts on attractions. Many will send out guides in the post too, and there are always UK travel agents.
If you are planning to visit particular tourist attractions, you may find you need to book them ahead. Alcatraz in San Francisco and the Statue of Liberty in New York, for example, both require advance bookings.
Check out Attraction Tickets Direct especially if you are planning on visiting theme parks like Disney and Universal. We were able to get great ticket combos that weren’t available in the USA.
Make sure you are signed up to Groupon and Wowcher as they offer some fantastic deals.
Take in all this info and plan your own rough itinerary but be flexible to change. It may involve a bit of time and effort but you can save yourself a packet and will find loads of things to do.
Most towns will also have a Tourist Information Centre (Visitor Center) which is invaluable for on the spot information.
You can also pick up coupon books here (and in many petrol stations and shops) for money off attractions, shopping and restaurants.
In the same vein be sure to pick up loyalty cards for supermarkets, casinos and restaurants for huge discounts.
On our first two trips, we stayed with friends and they gave us lots of ideas of where to go. Speaking to local people is the best way of finding stuff that’s not in the tour guides. Of course, once Americans hear that you are English you’ll strike up conversations wherever you go.
2. FLIGHTS TO THE USA
We are just a normal working-class couple but we have been able to fly Upper Class on some of our flights by buying normal seats and then using Airmiles to upgrade.
We get Airmiles by buying everything for the home and work on our Virgin Money credit card which we pay straight off to avoid any fees.
We also have our Tesco Clubcard points set up to be converted to Airmiles too.
We try to book our seats when Virgin is having a seat sale and are always flexible on what days we fly and how long we go for. It’s cheaper to fly on certain days and you should consider going for 12 or 16 days rather than a standard 14 day Saturday to Saturday!
Alternatively, rather than upgrading, you could use Airmiles to buy an economy seat and all you need pay are the taxes (currently about £250 to LAX or £200 to Orlando compared to about £750 for a standard price seat).
Keep an eye on the frequent offers that Virgin have for taking out the credit card as you may be able to get additional miles as an introductory offer.
3. TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR YOUR HOLIDAY ROAD TRIP USA
Sort this out as soon as you have booked your flights so that you are covered should you need to cancel.
Use a combination of a cashback site* and price comparison site to find the best deal each time.
If you think that you’ll be travelling more than once in a year, an annual policy may work out cheaper.
You will also find that some bank accounts offer you free travel insurance but be sure to check the terms and make sure that you are covered for existing conditions.
4. ACCOMMODATION FOR YOUR ROAD TRIP USA
We book our hotels with Booking.com via a *cashback site. There are other booking sites like Trip Advisor, Hotels.com, Expedia, etc., but we prefer Booking.com as it’s easy to navigate and read reviews.
There is a huge variety of accommodation available and we like to find one that serves an early breakfast where possible. If you are on a road trip, chances are you’ll want to leave early and it’s nice to have a good breakfast before you travel. You don’t know where you’ll find the next place to eat.
Booking.com will take your credit card details when you book, but don’t usually take payment until the end of your stay if you book with a cancellation. With this option, you can cancel your booking free of charge up to two days before your stay in most cases (do check terms).
So if you were to check back a month or so later and find that the hotel price has gone down, you can cancel and rebook it again. We have done this and saved over £100 on one occasion and have found a “Buy One Get One Free” night on another, saving £400. On the majority of occasions, the prices rise as your holiday date gets closer and by booking it early you have the peace of mind that you have a room if you don’t find one cheaper.
Take into account that there are US taxes to go on the prices shown. Also if you are staying in a resort in Vegas there will most probably be resort fees and parking which can add another $40+ a night! Parking, wifi, and meals are chargeable in many hotels (again Booking.com do state taxes and additional fees clearly).
You can pay by cash at many hotels on checking out but all will require a credit card when you check in.
When booking one trip we used Airbnb which is a company specialising in the private rentals of houses, rooms, and apartments all over the world. It was a very positive experience but for one night stays it doesn’t seem to be much cheaper when you add on all the additional fees such as cleaning. Of course, you can’t get cashback with Airbnb and there isn’t free cancellation.
5. PASSPORT & ESTAS FOR THE USA
Make sure your passport has at least 6 months to run on it at the time of your road trip – you will not be allowed to travel if it hasn’t! You need to complete an online ESTA before you go, but this is valid for 2 years. It costs around $14 currently (2019).
You will need to fill in a customs declaration card per family for presentation as you enter the USA. You can get these on the plane or at the airport in the UK. If you are bringing in any food even if it’s just tea bags and biscuits, be sure to declare it. It’s not a problem to take it into the US but it will be a problem if you don’t declare it.
Some airports now have self serve machines and you can fill in the customs document on the screen as you go through.
6. CAR HIRE FOR A ROAD TRIP IN THE USA
Firstly think about what sort of car you want for your holiday.
If you’re going to do a lot of shopping make sure you have a car with a large enough trunk as they are pretty small in a normal saloon car.
We always get an SUV as you’re up nice and high and there’s enough space for 3 suitcases in the trunk (just) then room on the back seat for more. We try to choose from the same manufacturer as our own car as the controls then tend to be the same, but they are all automatic.
It is best to plan and book ahead about what sort of car you want for your road trip but you can upgrade when you read the car hire depot. It will usually cost you much more though.
Choose whether to return the car with a full or empty tank of petrol. In the past, it has been cheaper to return empty but since the rise in US fuel costs, it is currently cheaper to return full (August 2019).
WHICH CAR HIRE COMPANY TO USE?
We normally book with Alamo via Rental Cars or Auto Europe as these have generally offered higher insurance cover included in the price, and it’s cheaper than going direct. We have always been highly satisfied with their service. There are free buses to shuttle you from the airport to the car hire depot and you get to pick a car from the price range of your booking.
One year we booked our car hire with Virgin when we booked the flights as they were offering the same rental £100 cheaper (but still with Alamo), so check how much your car hire would be (again via *cashback site) before you book your flight. Last year we used Europe Car via Auto Europe. We’ve been happy with the service from each company.
Whatever model of car and company you chose, book in advance with full insurance terms including collision damage waiver.
Check that your UK driving license is adequate as some States require an international license (California and Nevada didn’t at the time of our last trip in March 2019). You will need both your UK driving license card and a digital code now that the UK paper license has been abolished.
SAT NAV GPS
If you have a sat nav, see how much it would cost to buy US maps for it. Alternatively, if you know an American resident, consider buying an American sat nav before you go. We bought one from Amazon.com for our first trip for $70 and had it delivered to our friend’s house to pick up when we got there. It is probably much cheaper now, whereas hiring one with the car would have cost us an extra £200 per trip!
It is essential to have one in my opinion if only to tell you which lane to be in.
MOBILE PHONE GPS
On our last trip, we used Google Maps on our phone instead of a sat nav. A friend highly recommends a similar app, Waze.
Three mobile phone network currently allows you to use your phone allowance abroad as if you were in the UK for up to three months in selected countries (correct at March 2019). We pay just £15 a month on a plan that gives us free calls, texts and data!
If you are not with Three, do check first with your network provider if you are intending to use your phone as you may incur high roaming charges abroad. Three send you a text when you return to England to tell you how much it would have cost you had you not been on a plan – our last trip would have been £1670!
7. PETROL FOR YOUR ROAD TRIP HOLIDAY IN THE USA
Petrol is dirt cheap in the US compared to the UK, and sold priced per gallon. We found prices ranged from $3.19 – $4.19 per gallon (2019 in California. It was much cheaper in Arizona.) When you work it back to litres and pounds there’s really not much in it price-wise, so it’s not worth driving around looking for a cheap filling station.
However, Arco are often cheapest, along with supermarket filling stations attached to Ralphs or Walmart.
You have to pay before you fill up and cash prices are often cheaper than card prices. On one trip we travelled 1150 miles and only spent $150 on petrol.
Do check whether the car is diesel or petrol before you fill up.
Want to know what side you need to fill up on? Look on the dashboard display – there will be an arrow on the petrol pump icon to show you which side the cap is on.
8. DRIVING LAWS & TIPS FOR THE ROAD IN THE USA
Make sure you read up on all driving laws before you go on your road trip, they vary from State to State! Here are a few that we picked up on:
* Obviously they drive on the wrong side of the road 😉 .
* There are very few roundabouts.
* At a crossroads, the first person to arrive at the junction has the right of way.
* You must STOP (not just give way) at a stop sign.
* You can turn right on a red traffic light as long as it does not state otherwise, and the road is clear.
* You must STOP at flashing red traffic lights, proceed with caution if clear.
* You can overtake on the inside and outside lanes of the freeway.
* You must enter and exit a carpool lane only through open road markings.
* Carpool lanes can be used by any car with two or more occupants.
* You must stop and wait on both sides of the road for school buses to load/unload children when there are flashing lights and an extended stop arm on the bus.
* You must give pedestrians right of way if they are on a crossing even if your light is green.
If you think you want to use fast track lanes or toll roads check with your car hire company first as it is sometimes cheaper to arrange this before your road trip dependant on admin fees.
9. PARKING LAWS, TIPS & COSTS IN THE USA
Again make sure you are aware of all the parking laws and restrictions or you might be like us and make a costly mistake.
* Do not park in front of a fire hydrant.
* Do not park in front of red kerb markings, even by a fraction.
* Only park on the side of the road where traffic is facing.
* Turn your wheels in/out on a hill.
* Check all parking restriction signs.
Keep quarters (25c) in your car for parking meters. Many take credit cards but we have not had success using our cards out there in parking machines.
There is free parking at most beaches usually on the roads leading off the seafront but even if you have to pay the most expensive we found in Southern California was $1.50 an hour at Huntington Beach.
In LA and San Diego, it is usually cheaper to use one of the many parking lots that offer all day parking for around $15-20 although you can find meters for shorter stays.
In San Francisco parking is very expensive and I’d advise using public transport which in contrast is very cheap.
Las Vegas parking varies from free-$2 an hour in Downtown, some casinos offer free valet parking (but with a recommended tip of $5 to drop and collect) but as of 2017 most casinos on the Strip charge – see individual websites for up to date charges.
10. CURRENCY FOR YOUR HOLIDAY IN THE USA
We use a mixture of cash, debit and credit cards. Check with your bank* what the terms are for using cards abroad are and look on Money Saving Expert for the best current deals. It may be worth setting up a new card purely for that trip. The Post Office and some travel agents also do a money card.
11. PACKING FOR YOUR ROAD TRIP HOLIDAY TO THE USA
I am the queen of lists and packing lists are my specialty but I’m sure you all have your own.
Obviously, remember all the usual things like passports, money, gadgets with chargers and adapter plugs.
Ladies, I would also consider buying a “she wee” if you’re road tripping through the desert – available in Poundland. And gents maybe an empty bottle might come in handy.
As a Brit, I would say the most important things to take to the USA are teabags and possibly a travel kettle. Most rooms have a coffee making machine but we have stayed in one that didn’t, so check before you go, especially if you are staying in budget accommodation. Other nations don’t get our appreciation of tea, but we do find it quite unbelievable that rooms in other countries do not have kettles!
Alternatively, to use the coffee machine for tea, just pop the tea bag in the compartment where you’d normally put the coffee sachet/pod and it brews itself then comes out in the pot below. Do give it a couple of cycles with just water first. Have you ever tasted coffee infused tea? It’s not nice!
I would also suggest packing all the things that you’ll need in the car such as charging cables, tissues, sunglasses, small first aid kit, etc., in a separate rucksack so it is to hand when you get to the car hire depot.
And packing cubes are a godsend to make it easier to find specific clothes from your suitcase if you’re constantly on the move from hotel to hotel.
12. EATING OUT & TIPPING IN THE USA
Foodwise we tend to eat at the equivalent of a Harvester/Toby for our main meals and cafes or hotels for breakfasts. For two people, meals would on average work out about $30-40 for a breakfast with drinks and $40-70 for a one-course main meal with soft drinks (this includes taxes and tip). So you can see it is usually cheaper to have an inclusive breakfast with your hotel.
All you can eat buffets in Vegas ranged from $24 – $70 per couple depending on what day you went. And fast food joints/foot courts, which are abundant, cost about $20 per couple for oriental/burgers/pizza, Subway, etc.
Tipping is customary in the USA. You should tip between 15-20% in restaurants and diners. A tip of at least $1 per drink is expected in bars and casinos and $1-2 for drinks servers in buffet type restaurants where you get your own food. Many shops now have tip pots by the till but this isn’t mandatory. If you wanted to tip the shop assistant, it’s generally loose change.
13. CASHBACK ON YOUR ROAD TRIP HOLIDAY IN THE USA
To maximise our savings when booking a road trip in the USA, we use TopCashBack and Quidco to get cashback for all our hotel bookings, car hire, and some attraction bookings.
I have held my accounts now for several years after seeing Money Saving Expert/Martin Lewis recommending them. I wish I’d signed up sooner.
You are paid by BACS or PayPal so totally safe and it is free (unless you want a premium account which gives higher cashback rates). Please use the links below to register.
Click to read my full post on How to Use Cashback Sites.
If you are looking for hotels, feel free to use our personal referral code for Booking.com where you and I may both get a £15 credit after your stay.
You may get an introductory gift depending on current offers, and I may get a referral credit if you reach a certain spend.
* current offer at 1.2.19
I hope you’ve found this useful, please let me know if you have.
Do you have any tips to share?
Feel free to contact me or ask below if you have any queries.