Last year my husband and I spent six months road tripping around the US in a small mini-van. It was possibly the best six months of our lives and we loved the freedom to move as we chose and stop off en-route to explore anything we fancied.
We learnt quite a few tips for planning a US road trip during the journey and I’d love to share them with you now in case you decide to travel down that wide-open road.
1. Plan But Don’t Over-Plan
We had a rough idea to travel in an anti-clockwise direction around the US, starting in New Hampshire and finishing in Florida. We did end up going this way but we altered our itinerary depending on what advice we got along the way.
For example, when we were in Wisconsin someone told us that we should drive through the Badlands and also visit Devils Tower. We hadn’t even heard of these places before but we went there and didn’t regret it.
We also originally decided to visit Chicago but were short of time and so ended up skipping our stay there in favour of venturing through Yellowstone National Park. The park was unlike any landscape we’d ever seen before, so we justified altering our itinerary. If we’d planned too far in advance and booked accommodation in Chicago then we might not have been so flexible.
So plan a little but have the option for spontaneity for those moments of curiosity that will no doubt strike you on your road trip.
2. Camp to Save Money
The best thing about a road trip is that not only are you in control of your destination but you’re also in charge of your accommodation while you travel. You can stay in cheap motels, expensive hotels or camp.
We decided on the latter and it’s what I’d recommend for longer trips like ours. America is possibly one of the best places in the world to camp and with nearly 60 national parks at your disposal you’ll be silly not to make the most of staying amongst the beautiful scenery.
The national park campgrounds will set you back about US$10 for a basic site or US$25 for one with showers and other amenities.
If you want a more ‘luxurious’ camping experience, you can find KOA Campgrounds all around the USA. These have facilities like swimming pools, mini golf, lounge rooms and kitchens. They’re a bit more expensive than the national parks but if you buy yourself the KOA VIP card you can save yourself some cash.
We’d seriously recommend buying the America the Beautiful Annual Pass if you plan to visit more than five national parks. It only costs you US$80 and it’ll save you a lot of money in the long run.
3. Be Aware of the Road Rules
We knew Americans drive on the right side of the road before we started our road trip, but that was the extent of our US road rules knowledge.
We didn’t bother investigating any of the laws before we arrived in the country, and this mistake cost us a whopping US$900.
We passed a school bus on the opposite side of the road when it was stopped and then got pulled over by a policeman who didn’t find our ‘but we’re Australian!’ excuse adequate.
Don’t make the same mistake we did. Ignorance isn’t an excuse to break the law. This website will help if you need a quick rundown of the main road rules in the US.
4. Don’t Get Lost… Or Embrace It When You Do
Unfortunately, we were in the US when the government shutdown. We’d planned 10 days of road-tripping through national parks but these plans were turned on their head when we kicked out of Yosemite after the government shutdown.
We decided to drive to a nearby state park (state parks weren’t affected by the government shutdown) but because we were unprepared we didn’t have time to plan our route and got hopelessly lost.
But we wound up at a beautiful campground set in a forest of Sequoia trees – some of the biggest trees in the world. Best of all, we had the place to ourselves!
It was extremely peaceful and certainly won us over after our disappointment of getting kicked out of Yosemite.
As author Erol Ozan says, “Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.” And I have to agree…
Although sometimes getting lost can be a truly stressful experience and we certainly had those too when we were in the US. One of the best ways to avoid this is by getting a sim card when you arrive in the US and using this (much more cheaply than you would with roaming services on the sim card from your home country) to look up addresses on Google Maps.
If this fails – and we did manage to go for six months without sim card in our mobile phone – you can download offline road maps when you have wi-fi connection.
5. Make the Most of Helpful Apps
Speaking of apps, there are a plethora of choices to download on your mobile phone before you set out on your US road trip. Here are some of our favourites.
Travel Budgeting – Use the Trail Wallet App
The Trail Wallet app helps you to track all of your spending. You can enter your monthly budget in your home currency and it’ll convert the US dollars back into it for you so you can keep track with numbers that makes sense. It’ll also let you know when you’re blowing your monthly budget so you can pay more attention to your spending. I’m sure it saved us dollars on the road!
Trail Wallet App Information (iTunes only)
Accommodation Deals – Use the Priceline App
The Priceline app is helpful for finding motels on the fly. It’ll tell you all the ‘Tonight Only’ deals so you can get a good price on a motel near you.
Priceline App Information (iTunes, Android, Windows Phone)
Cheapest Fuel – Use the Gas Buddy App
Gas Buddy is yet another great money-saving app, this one will let you know what gas stations are near you and what their current fuel prices are.
Gas Buddy App Information (iTunes, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry)
Best Restaurants – Use the Urbanspoon App
Urbanspoon is such a handy app, especially for when you turn up in an unknown town and you don’t have any idea on where to eat. You can search for restaurants depending on cuisine, rating, etc. And then you can book a table through the app! Your taste buds will thank you.
Zomato App Information (iTunes, Android, Windows Phone, Kindle)
Plan and Share Your Itinerary – Use the Travellution app
Travellution is a fairly new app that we haven’t had a chance to road-test (pun totally intended) yet. It sounds brilliant though – you can plan your entire itinerary with it and then share it with your friends so that they can add their input too.
Travellution App Information (iTunes only)
Carmen Allan-Petale moved with her husband Dave to London from Australia back in 2008. After working their ways up the career ladder, they decided that lifestyle wasn’t for them and quit their day jobs in mid-2013 to travel the world indefinitely. Today they can be found hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, scuba diving in the Caribbean or sipping wines in Canada. They document their adventures on Double-Barrelled Travel. You can follow them on Facebook, like them on Twitter, or add them on Google+.
And there you have it – five road-trip hacks we learnt on our six month trip around the USA. Do you have any to add?