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Road trip in the U.S. – How to plan your trip from another country

11/03/2021

Planning a long road trip can be tough work, especially if you’re doing it from thousands of kilometers away. When my husband and I were planning (or actually I did most of the planning) a road trip to the U.S. I researched a lot (thank you Pinterest) on how to pack, what to see and how to organize the stuff in the car. But all the guides were based on the fact that you lived in the U.S. and owned a car. That wasn’t the case for us. We lived in Denmark and had to rent a car. I want to share with you how we planned it out, because I know how difficult it was planning from so far away with no guides to help me.

 

This is a guide with 10 topics helping you to plan a road trip in the U.S. while not living in the U.S.

 

What do you want to visit?

Many of us have lists of places we want to see before we die. I had one too and I started planning which of those places we could see by researching on Google Maps if any of those were close to each other and in what order it made sense to visit them. If you don’t have a list, start researching each state to see what they have to offer. Always wanted to see the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls? Find out where they are and if there are other things in the area you want to see.

It’s good to have a starting and end point. Some rental car services cost less if you return the car to the same place you picked it up, so you might want to consider a “circular” route. But in any case, it’s nice to know where you’ll start and end, to give you a sense of how much time you’ll need.

We knew right away that we wanted to start in Seattle because we had a friend who lived there at the time, and many of the things we wanted to see were in California, so it made sense to drive along the West Coast.

 

How much time have you got?

For how long do you want to be gone? Or how long can you be gone for? Maybe you only have two weeks of vacation but want to see much more than two weeks allow. If that’s the case either plan less stops, a shorter route or consider waiting all together until you can be gone for longer. For us it was important to be away for a long time, because we wanted to see as much as possible. In our case the U.S. is not somewhere you just fly back and forth from, so we wanted to be over there for as long as possible.

Duration and stops have to coincide

After making a list of the places you want to see and deciding how long you want to be gone for, the next thing to do is making it all come together. Being a very organized person, I made a chart, putting days and places in each their column to plan out what to see on which day and how many days it would take to see that thing. For example, I planned three days for Los Angeles. I also made another list, listing states, cities, things within the cities and places we wanted to see.

What I didn’t do was checking how long it would take to drive from place to place. On the map it didn’t look that far, but in reality, we found out that the U.S. is gigantic. Using Google Maps for this is a life saver (duh), that I wish I would’ve used more back then. How you want to go about it depends on how organized you want to be, but I would add a column to my chart named “distance” or “drive time”. It’s then easier to know where you’ll be on which day and when you’ll have to leave one check point to make it to another, this is great if you plan on seeing the Grand Canyon at sunset for example.

 

To the left: A list listing the things we wanted to see according to state and cities. To the right: Day to day plan of what to see.

Research your stops

Research as much as you can at home to get a better of idea of how much time is needed in a specific location or city. If you want to explore New York City or do some of the hiking trails in Yosemite, one day is not enough.

Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and so on are great for collecting inspiration for your trip. Researching is really great and will help you out a lot, but remember to also make time and place for spontaneous decisions. You might see a sign on the side of the road, take a different road than the GPS suggests or look at a flyer on location and see something interesting. It’s great to plan at home and have an idea of want you want to see. But sometimes it’s easier to do the research on site, because of the obvious: you’re there. That means locals to ask for help, flyers, road signs. Anything can happen.

It of course depends on what kind of person and traveler you are. And it really is two contradicting statements, you’ll have to find the golden middle way.

 

Bixby Bridge in the Big Sur area, California

Renting a car

There are many options for renting a car. I thought this was the toughest part to do sitting in another country. Many airlines have car rental services you can use and might even offer a discount. But I still recommend researching properly, because it can save you a lot of money. We ended up renting from www.autoeurope.com who offers cars through services like Alamo and Avis. The car we choose came from Alamo.

There are different rules depending on which car rental service and which car you choose. Some cars you’re not allowed to drive until you’re 25. If you are more than one driver there might be an “extra driver” fee, same goes for gas where some rental car services require that you return the car with a full tank of gas, and as mentioned earlier there might be a fee for not dropping the car off the same place you picked it up.

Look into the different rules and fees from the car rental services or airline services and make a comparison. It takes time and research but might end up saving you some money and some trouble.

 

Rules of the road

To drive in the US, it’s a good idea to have an international driver’s license. Not all states require that you have one, as your country’s driver’s license will be enough, but to be sure you have to see the rules for each state or contact your country’s embassy.

We both bought an international driver’s license as it wasn’t very expensive and easy to acquire (we did it through the Danish website borger.dk). It’s basically just a translation of your own driver’s license to English.

It’s not required, but I thought it was a good idea to look into the rules and laws for driving in the U.S. They have other signs, signals and speed limits than in Denmark. Many of the car rental companies have guides and lists of the rules of the road but a simple google search will give a lot of useful information. I wrote down all the rules in a notebook/diary I had with me, and even though we didn’t end up using it very much because most of it just made sense, it was nice to have with us.

A more unconventional way I prepared to drive in the U.S. was playing Grand Theft Auto V. Not the maniac way, hitting pedestrians and shooting out the car window. No, I drove very nicely checking for dangers, keeping to my lane and carefully studying lanes and signs. I don’t know if it helped or not, but it kind of gave me a look into the infrastructure.

Road signs and speed limits carefully drawn in my journal.

Driving in the states

You have to prepare for big roads with three-four maybe even eight lanes. There’ll be a lot of merging, but I generally think that the American’s are really good drivers, who make space for one another. You might also have to prepare for really long and lonely distances. Make sure you have a full gas of tank and some water and snacks/food.

If you don’t want to use all your roaming using your phone as a GPS (or don’t have roaming), I recommend bringing a GPS. Most cars have USB, so it’ll be no problem hooking it up. We loaned an old one, but downloaded a new map for it and we were really thankful for that decision.

If you’re not comfortable driving in large cities (especially in another country) I can recommend finding a smaller town in the area and take a bus or subway into the center of the larger city. Or you can book a hotel/motel in the city near a subway station and use that to get to the center. It makes everything a lot easier, and you don’t have to worry about parking.

 

Choosing accommodation

Hotels? Hostels? Motels? Camping? How you want to spend your nights have an impact on how much stuff you have to bring along with you. Camping is definitely the cheaper option, and there are a lot of good camping sites spread across the U.S. But you’ll of course have to bring a lot more gear. Many of them allow you to arrive at night, which is nice because you can allow yourself to take your time, and you won’t have to stress about running late. At gas stations and camping sites you can even find a magazine listing all campsites in the area/state.

Choosing accommodation depends on how much you want to spend and how picky you are, but also which state you’re in. We found out that camping in a tent in Arizona was just a little bit too hot and the bugs were huge.

Some motels were shadier than others, but I was generally impressed. Plus you’ll only sleep there one night most of the time and it’s really nice to have A/C in the warmer states, and shower and mirror not shared with others.

We didn’t book campsites and motels from home as it was very difficult to foresee where we would be each night – it also makes room for spontaneous decisions. Instead book your accommodation from day to day. Our daily routine quickly became to visit a McDonald’s in the morning, use their WIFI to find accommodation options, booking it and then drive off and start the day. I will say though that if you’ll need a place to sleep on the 4th of July book it well ahead of time – preferably from home, and that’s no matter the type of accommodation. There was no vacancy for us and we ended up sleeping in the car.

 

Sleeping in the car

Sleeping in your car is not the best option, but it might be necessary, and the only option left. And there are some precautions you can take to make the experience a little safer.

  • Park in a well-lit parking area.
  • Find a place where others have chosen to settle down – like other cars, RVs or truckers.
  • Lock the doors of course.
  • Cover the windows from inside with something – a bath towel, sleeping bag, blanket, anything. It keeps the light out and no one can stare at you.
  • Keep one of the windows slightly opened so there’ll be less condensation.

We slept in the car for two nights in a row, and though it was daunting at first (and not something we wanted to do), it ended up being an OK experience. Although it was kind of rough on the back and neck.

 

Remember to relax

It’s probably not the first time you see a list of travel tips where this is one of them. But it really is important. Do everything you can to make it easier to enjoy the trip while you’re on it.

If you’ll have to do all the research on the road it might take some joy of it because you’ll have to think and plan all the time. I know that we found out that living out of a car without really having a base was really tough, and I had planned way too many things too see. It’s okay to skip a thing or two on your list or take an extra day in the city or at a national park if it feels right. It’s not about how many things you can see in a certain amount of time, but what you saw and if really took your time to experience it.

 

 

Happy travels!

 

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