Ever since Ford first rolled out the Model T, America has had a love affair with the automobile. The country grew up around it. It has allowed us to travel the vast distance of America, move more quickly, and further our sense of freedom and adventure. With it, the great American adventure was born – The Road Trip. Be it two days, two months, or two years, all Americans have done one. But America is not as easily crossed as is imagined, and there are a few things that should be remembered:
America is not “travel” friendly
America is large, and its size can make it hard to get around. The bus and train systems here aren’t as extensive as in other parts of the world. You can’t take a bus or train to the majority of the national parks and towns around the nation. Want to see the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park? No buses or trains go there. You will get dropped off in cities at least an hour away. Along the coasts, where many of the major cities are, it’s much easier to navigate. But if you decide to cross the United States to see its parks and vast middle region, you need to rent a car from a reputable company. Without a car, there is no door-to-door service to the small areas that highlight America’s culture.
The beauty of the car is that you can stop and go wherever you like. Greyhound buses won’t give you any flexibility to meander in that little town or stop and see the world’s biggest ant farm or elastic ball. If you don’t have a car of your own, there are many rental agencies out there. Most of them will let you pick the car up in one place and drop it off in another. It’s hard to find a national company in the US, but this website provides a good directory of cars on the move: Autodriveaway.
No matter what you do, getting a car in the States is your best option for seeing the country.
Stop and take in the culture!
Because of its size and history, each part of America seems, in many ways, to be its own little country. Make sure you travel to a variety of areas to get a real feel for the country’s diversity. Americans aren’t the stereotype the world media makes them out to be. Explore, and you will see Americans only common bond sometimes is that they’re Americans. Travel to New England and get a glimpse of Yankee frugality and small-town charm. Travel to the South for southern comfort food, country living, and a slower pace. Travel out West for the cowboy spirit. Or go to the Pacific Northwest for a laid-back, hippy approach to life. Wherever you go, you will find something different. And lingering in those little sleepy towns is only really possible by going overland from one end to the other. A bus can take you some places, but a car will take you anywhere.
Hostels are Rare
There’s usually one around a national park and some in major cities, but, for the most part, hostels are hard to find in the U.S. Don’t always count on finding one. Washington D.C., for instance, only has two hostels! America is a more hotel-oriented experience. However, there are camp sites and rest stops if you don’t mind roughing it. Another good option to look into is Couchsurfing, a service where people let you stay with them for free.
You can read more on finding cheap accommodation so you can avoid staying in hotels your entire roadtrip.
You will eat fast food.
I know, I know – fast food is junk food. Normally, I would never recommend it to anyone. But traveling on a budget is tough, and food can eat up (no pun intended) a lot of cash if you are not careful. On the road, you don’t have a lot of options when it comes to food. Maybe Jim’s Diner or Paul’s Sandwich Stop isn’t that good. I mean, how long has that salad been sitting there?! American highways are really only lined with junk, but at least you know what to expect from McDonald’s or KFC. (Though Carl’s Jr. is REALLY good, as is In N Out.) However, don’t always eat fast food to save a buck! Splurge once in a while to taste the local flavor – the Cajun gumbo in New Orleans, southern fried chicken in Georgia, lobster in Maine, or a hearty steak dinner in Iowa. Food is an essential part of any country, and, while McDonald’s can help you out during your 10-hour drive across South Dakota, once in town, grab something unique.
Leave the Interstates
America is such a diverse place that getting lost in it, like getting lost anywhere, can yield exciting results. Stay in the old western farm town in Wyoming, drive an extra 50 miles to see the Hopi Indians in New Mexico, or stop in the quiet Vermont town and taste some maple syrup. Every exit off the highway opens up a new possibility to explore a tiny American sub-culture you’ll never find in a big city. Taking the long way to Arizona, I encountered old deserted oil towns and western towns in the hills that I would have never seen if I had stayed on the interstate. In South Dakota, I came across an amazing little diner and, in Louisiana, a nice little pub with great cajun food. So go and explore off the highway to see the real America!
It may take you longer but it will be more memorable.
It’s all about oil
If you’re driving, learn to scout out the cheapest gas. Gas prices vary greatly across the country. They can be as high as $4.50 in California or as low as $3.20 in Oklahoma. In general, the coasts, major cities, and the North have higher gas prices. If sky-high gas prices don’t exactly fit your budget, try visiting more places in the South, Southwest, and western mountain states. Things may be further apart, but at least the gas is cheaper!
A good alternative is to mix it up. Use buses and trains along the coasts where stops are more frequent, and rental cars in the middle of the country. That way, you can still see those little sleepy towns without giving Exxon Mobil all your money.