We drove 4300 miles over 4 weeks from Philadelphia and back via the Atlantic Coast, northern Florida, New Orleans and the Appalachians. It was quite a different experience – and because much of what is written about American road tripping is from an American perspective, I thought it might be fun to write from a foreigner’s point-of-view.
Driving on the “wrong” side.
Is only a challenge if you are riding bicycle or motorbike – otherwise it’s easy – though be careful about turning into multi-laned roads particularly if there is no traffic around. More challenging are the other odd traffic rules such as:
- traffic lights are on the other side of the intersection – make sure you stop on the solid white line;
- you can usually turn right on the red – sometimes there is a sign saying “no turn on red” – otherwise you can do so.
- 4-way (or 3 way) stop signs. First person at the intersection has right-of-way, the next arrival and so on – it works but requires a willing suspension of faith in the normal give way rules.
Petrol (“gas”) is cheap.
But some cars are gas-guzzlers. We hired a “compact” car ie the cheapest and had a choice of a Toyota Yaris or Chevrolet Sonic – both were 5 door hatch backs with more than adequate room for 2 plus luggage. The mileage was excellent and over 4000 miles (6500km) we spent just $400 on petrol! If you go with the “mid-sized SUV” often recommended on the Tripadvisor road trip forum – you will probably be paying 3 or 4 times as much in petrol.
The Roads are Well-Signed – but you need a GPS!
Really you do. Buy one or bring one and buy US maps – but have a GPS. Hiring one is generally uneconomic as the companies charge $10/day and you can buy one for around $100. Your iPad won’t do – at the moment you need to take the next exit from the Interstate, which will pop you out in the fast lane of then next highway, where you will need to cross 5 lines of traffic, including enormous trucks moving at a minimum speed of about 70mph, to exit right, all within 1/2 mile – you’ll thank me for this piece of advice. An iPad, iPhone, Google maps – will not do – you need lane assist. End. Of. Story.
A GPS will certainly save your sanity, probably your relationship and maybe even your life. However you also need maps – unless you want to actually just drive the Interstates. You need to get off these concrete super-highways which successfully bypass all that is interesting, and get on the highways. These are theoretically slower, sometimes you stop for traffic lights, but these are still major roads by Australian and New Zealand standards. And they are at ground level and allow you to exit to real towns, sometimes they even run through the centre of said towns. And there are far fewer monster trucks.
Our GPS – a girl called Tom – got quite apoplectic telling us that we should “turn around when possible” to get back on the interstate – but once we got far enough along our chosen highway – she came to the party and guided us to our hotel of choice. How did we know which highway to follow? Paper maps. Free and available at every state border’s “Welcome Center”, or the AAA (bring your membership card of your home equivalent). Google maps can help too – but paper is easier in the car.
Be careful about town names, they repeat all the time, take note of the state or your GPS may have you heading in the wrong direction.
Cheap Motels are found on the outskirts of town.
Thanks to the Interstates – the cheap accommodation is never in the middle of town – but is on the outskirts. Along with a bunch of chain restaurants and sometimes a Walmart as well. There is accommodation in the heart of many of these towns but it was invariably more expensive.
$40 Will Get You a Decent Room
Initially I was nervous of $40 rooms, and I am an expert on $10 Asia rooms. But really there was no difference between paying for $40 and $80 apart from the quality of the breakfast and the WIFI. The rooms were often the same but with fewer bottle of shampoo and sometimes less or older towels.
The beds are comfortable. The rooms are large – even a cheap room will often have a queen or king bed.
You’re not get a kettle in a room – but you will get a coffee maker, microwave and fridge.
The level of “green” awareness is pretty much shocking. I’m no greenie but I think ONCE I saw the standard invite to hang up my towels rather than having them replaced.
Almost invariably a cheap room is a chain – the same names repeat over and over – and they are all pretty much the same: Motel 6, Super 8, Wingate, Day’s Inn. Usually it’s cheaper to book online than just turning up. We rarely saw signs up giving rates, or even if there were vacancies. Booking online the morning of our arrival got us good deals sometimes on Priceline, sometimes on other booking sites (hotelscombined.com is a good site to check many other booking sites at the same time).
Americans are Well Behaved Drinkers
One time we checked into a $40 motel in Tupelo, Mississippi there were two blocks of motel units – one of which was full of aging bikers. We arrived in Ocacoke Island to find the main motel filled with a large “boy’s own” fishing trip. In both cases we were given a unit far away as possible from the group. In both cases the group said hello, and we expected to hear them party well into the night (and leave very early with the fisherman). Maybe they did, but we didn’t hear it!
Want to know more about travelling on a budget? Check out my Non-Boring Travel Guides on Amazon – click here