Travel: Road Trip USA

By Michael Satterfield

I have had the great fortune of traveling to many interesting places around the world, mostly by car, driving across Europe in a little Peugeot or exploring the islands of Indonesia by hired SUV, there is no better way to see a country than by car. When you are in a car, you stop and interact with people at rest areas, sightseeing destinations, restaurants, and gas stations. Plus, the stories are so much better, and in some places, the act of driving to dinner in a country with no street names becomes an adventure. 

But I have discovered that while there are a lot of guides on how to see America, there are few guides that are targeted at foreigners wanting to come to the USA and experience it by car. Having visited almost all 50 states here is my short-order guide to seeing America by car.

The Route:

America is big, our vast country has so much to see and many different types of adventures you can go on, depending on your tastes. The diversity that makes America so great also means that it has landscapes at both extremes. From the seemingly unending desert to cold and tree-covered mountains, and depending on the time of year you plan to come, some areas might be too dangerous to travel to. 

Route 66:
The Mother Road is already famous around the world, connecting Chicago to Los Angeles and historically it was the main road to the west. A large portion of it is still open and many great roadside attractions and historic points of interest are open to the public. The minimum amount of time I would suggest is 10 days to see and enjoy the sites. It can be driven in an average of 4 days, however, once I did it in 36 hours with the aid of lots of red bull and stopping to sleep a few hours. Route 66 will take you through some of the coolest small towns, stuffed with Americana, if you plan your trip right there are several other diversions you can make including; The Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westhope house in Tulsa, OK. 

The Lincoln Highway:
America’s first transcontinental highway connected New York’s Time Square with the streets of San Francisco for the first time in 1913.  If you want to see the original Main Street of America, the Lincoln Highway is a great trip and the Lincoln Highway Association makes it easy with some amazing interactive maps and information CLICK HERE. The Colorado loop was removed in the 1920s from the official Lincoln Highway, however, it is not a bad detour if you want to visit the Rocky Mountains or stop in and see the Shelby American Collection in Boulder. In 2013 the highway turns 100 and there will be tours starting off on both the west and east coasts meeting in the middle for a celebration from June 30th – July 2nd. Give yourself about 14 days to see the sights.


The Dixie Highway:
Started in 1915 this is an old road as well, that was designed to connect Miami to Montreal. The  Dixie Highway is divided into three divisions Western, Eastern and Central, and in reality, it is three highways.
The Western Division starts in Chicago and takes you through some great cities, Bowling Green (Home of the Corvette factory), Nashville (Grand Ole Opry and Amazing BBQ), Atlanta, Tallahassee, Orlando (Home of Disney World), ending up in Naples.
The Eastern Division starts in Sault Ste. Marie Michigan and takes you through Detroit (Stop off in Dearborn at the Henry Ford Museum and the village), Lexington, Chattanooga, Savannah (an amazing city), Jacksonville (Europeans first settled here in 1564), and ending on the beaches of West Palm Beach.
The Central Division only serves as a  cutoff between the western and eastern divisions from Macon, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida.
Give yourself at least 10 days to really enjoy this route, if you take the western route Nashville has amazing nightlife and live music. If you are in the east spend an extra day in Savannah.

Pacific Coast Highway:
California State Route 1 is one of the most scenic drives in the world. You can start down near the Mexican Border where Mexico 1 the Central American Highway dead ends into the border wall. If you want to venture into Tijuana for a day do so with caution, make sure your rental car is covered, and to be safe get back to San Diego before nightfall. If you want to drive the entire coast of California you start on the 75 in Imperial Beach, and you will get redirected back to the 5 North. But get back off and take Torrey Pines Road along the coast and through the world-famous Torrey Pines golf course. This turns into 101, but you will get back on the 5 until you get to Dana Point. This is where you pick up highway 1. Highway 1 will take you through some of the most exclusive communities along the California Rivera. Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Santa Monica, and many more. Plan to spend a day in Orange County where you will find Disney Land, Knott’s Berry Farm, and countless other attractions. Plan on stopping and spending at least a day in Santa Barbara to visit the mission, if you want another off-route day trip the city of Solvang offers a little European charm in So California. Highway 1 will take you up to San Luis Obispo and Morro bay after here there is a long stretch all the way to Carmel by the Sea and Monterey. The next major stop is San Francisco. Across the Golden Gate Bridge and into Mt Tamalpais State Park much of this part of the highway is a state park or protected so expect long stretches between cities. You’ll find yourself in the Redwood’s as the 1 turns back into the 101 which you can take all the way along the coast to Washington. 

Road Tripping Around Texas in a Fiat 500 Sport
 The Car:
Everyone has a different budget, but a company that I have used many times is Fox Rental Car they have economy cars that will seat 4 people and get in the mid-30 MPG range on highways for as low as $86.00 a week like a Fiat 500 or Chevy Aveo. With a sporty car like a Mustang or an SUV for around $190 a week. They do have pick-up and drop-off locations in most of the areas listed above. They even have Jeep Wrangler 4X4s, Convertibles, and more. I have found that booking directly with Fox has always been cheaper than renting with one of the travel sites. To give you an idea I looked up the same rates from one of the larger chains and they wanted $1,645.08 for a two-week rental from Chicago to Los Angeles. Also watch out if you are not planning to return the car to the place you picked it up at, all rental companies charge a fee that can range from $200-$1500 for that option. 

You could always buy a car, many of my friends have flown over to Los Angeles bought a car off of driven it to Florida or New York, and sold it for the same or less then what they paid for it. Of course, you always run the risk of mechanical problems with a used car, so plan accordingly. Insurance is easy and many online sites will sell you auto insurance and allow you to print off your insurance card. Buying a car with current registration as registering a car to a foreign national without a green card can be trouble. Or just have a US friend register it for you.
Not All Historic Hotels are still Open but they are still cool to look at. Amboy, California Route 66

If you are like me, you just find a place when you decide to stop, but if you are really wanting some order and set stop points plan ahead. Do some research and check out some of the historic hotels along your route. There are some great places like the El Rancho Hotel on Route 66, you can sleep in the same room that John Wayne did and eat in the same restaurant as Virginia Mayo. Most are inexpensive from $30-50 a night. Avoid getting talked into renting an RV, the cost is through the roof, you might think that you are saving because you are driving your hotel, but with the added gas, plus most campgrounds charge $30-50 a night to park your RV…all that and you get to pump your own toilet. 

Home of the 72oz Steak Challenge, Amarillo, Texas, Route 66
Many people believe that Americans are fat because we have access to cheap, fast, large portions… and they are right. Again, depending on the budget you can spend as little as $5 a day on food. If you have the space in your car, a cooler for drinks will save you a ton at fast food restaurants. You can get a case of water for around $3 a 12-pack of soda is about $6. If you don’t feel like making sandwiches you can always stop in and order off “the Value Menu” basically every major fast food chain has one. A good example is if you want to buy a Famous Star Combo at Carl’s Jr. you are looking at $7.00 with tax (I’ll get more into tax later) but if you have your drinks already and can forgo the French fries the “Big Cheese Burger” by itself is only around $1.50. It is a massive burger, and the only thing the Famous star has is lettuce and tomato.
If you are not on a budget (You likely would not be reading this as you would just book it and drive) restaurants are plentiful in any town, being America you can find everything from noodle bars to BBQ in any good-sized city. But even our Fast Food restaurants have healthy options, salads, wraps, fruit, oatmeal, etc… another road trip favorite of mine is the 59 cent Red Burrito from Del Taco and the 49 cent Tacos. 
Try to stop off at some of the local diners, and check YELP for reviews, I was driving through Texas earlier this year and using YELP found an amazing BBQ place in the town of McGregor, Texas. The local High School Coaches owned it and the owners came out to chat with the California boys and check on how we liked their version of Texas BBQ.  It was a ton of food for about $9.00 a person.

Gas Prices are as Advertised, but ask look for Discounts if paying by Cash

Sales Tax:
I always hear my foreign friends complain that the price of $99 plus tax is so misleading because they come from a country that taxes everything with a VAT. Well in the US that does not work since each State, County, and Even City can pass their own sales and use taxes. There are some fun facts if you buy bread, ham, mayo, and cheese at a grocery store many states don’t tax it at all. If you buy a sandwich made at the deli counter to eat there is tax. Now if you have some major purchase like you want to get a Leather Jacket or a Pair of Boots you might want to keep in mind that some states in the US have no sales tax at all… (Take that VAT lover), Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire (Does tax Prepared Food at 9%), and Oregon.  Other states have much lower sales taxes, but again cities can add their own sales tax to goods. Alabama has a statewide general sales tax of only 4%, however, in the Capital city of Montgomery, the sales tax is 10%.

Occupancy Tax:
Another hidden cost is the Hotel Occupancy Tax. A report by the National Business Travel Association last year says taxes for a single night at the national average room rate of $95.61 were $13.12. The combined lodging taxes levied by the state, county, and city averaged 13.73%. Tax rates ranged from 10.05% in Burbank, Calif., to 17.91% in New York. So be sure to ask if your rate includes all taxes and fees when booking.

Gas Tax:
Gasoline is again taxed differently in every state, but unlike retail items, the price on the sign is including state, federal, and local taxes. So $3.99 a gallon is $3.99 a gallon, however, some gas stations offer discounts if you are paying by cash so look to see if the advertised price is for cash or credit card. 

Watch Out for Signs restricting Parking... you'll get towed.
Speeding Tickets & Other Laws:

The US has some high-speed limits in parts, but the tickets are just as high, in California the highway speed is 75 in most areas, in Texas 85, but the posted limits change often. If you are on a smaller highway like Route 66 you see an average of about 55 MPH, but as you come to cities it can drop as low as 25 MPH and the cops love to write tickets that can average $150, including court fees. In Texas, speeding 15 miles per hour (24.1 kilometers per hour) over the limit can include fees of more than $240, and speeding 30 miles per hour (48.2 kilometers per hour) over the limit can mean having to pay $300 or more according to Driving To top it all off if you are speeding in a construction zone the fine in most cases is doubled. Also, the only way to fight it is to return to the county where the ticket was issued and go to court. 

Front License plates, it may seem like a little thing, but some cities like Los Angeles love to nickel and dime people with fees for license plates, tags, or other minor offenses. If you get one they are about $25, just pay it, because as someone who has spent three hours on the phone trying to get an illegitimate ticket canceled it's not worth the time or the stress of dealing with a surly city employee that just endlessly transfers you to another hold line.

Right on Red/No Right on Red. In many states you can turn right on pretty much any state West of the Mississippi you can turn right on a red light after coming to a complete stop, so long as it is not posted "NO Right on Red" most other states allow it, but many cities have posted restrictions. New York City does not allow right turns on red unless there is a signal (green arrow) indicating a right turn is ok. Beware because traffic cameras will snap your picture and they will mail the ticket to the rental company or the registered owner.

Speed Cameras:  As of 2009 speed cameras existed in 48 communities in the United States, including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, and Washington D.C.. However, many states have not renewed their cameras services, such as Arizona where the cameras were removed in 2012. In all cases, signs will be posted a warning about Speed Cameras.


Cell Phone:
There are a number of Cell Phone Rental Companies here in the US at most airports, however many are .25 cents a minute plus they require a deposit. I suggest the Jason Bourn / Drug Dealer Route and buy a cheap burn phone from Metro PCS or Boost Mobil. You can also get prepaid phones like these at many major retailers like Target or Walmart.

Google Maps are great if you plan your trip out and print beforehand, or if you have a friend in the USA that is a member of the Auto Club have them swing in and pick up some free maps for you.

If you buy one book pick up the Lonely Planet USA’s Best Trips it has a ton of info, phone numbers, and points of interest.  Get it Here

Have a Question: E-Mail the Author CLICK HERE