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Planning a USA Road Trip

Are you heading to the USA for a road-trip vacation? Good choice, this country is perfectly set up for that kind of touring. Cheap fuel, great roads, affordable and plentiful motels and a million diverse things to see and do make the USA a brilliant driving holiday destination. Everything we know on travel USA after our incredible vacation discovering America

planning a USA road trip

Planning a USA Road Trip. Travel USA!

First a bit about us and our experience in driving around the USA, we’re not from the States, we’re a British/Australian family with a passion for travel of all sorts. When I met my husband, the Chef back in 2000 our first holiday together was a USA West Coast road trip, we had a wonderful time but we haven’t made it back to the States for that sort of holiday since.

Finally we got the opportunity to come back, with kids. We took an Atlantic Crossing cruise and disembarked our wonderful cruise ship into polar vortex New York City.

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Planning a USA road trip. Arriving in NYC
Arriving in freezing NYC after an Atlantic Crossing cruise.

We had booked 4 nights in a hotel off Times Square (NYC is expensive, this was a great deal), and reserved 1 month on a US hire car before we left the UK. That was the extent of our pre-planning on the day we arrived in NYC.

We planned to road-trip our way around as much of the USA as we could, focusing on the East Coast. We had no fixed plans, no schedule, we mostly made it up as we went along and enjoyed that freedom. We hope our experiences can help you in planning your USA road trip

Planning to Rent a Vehicle for your USA Road Trip?

That’s what we needed to do, hire a vehicle.

We considered hiring an RV, it looked to like a wonderful way to see the USA but after a lot of consideration we decided against it. The big RVs are fuel guzzlers, fuel is cheap in the USA ( about 85c/L), but not that cheap!

We wanted to make our trip an A to B route crossing several states, not a round trip, that was going to up our hire car costs. We discovered that the best way to cut costs was to drop off and pick up at airports, so that’s what we did. We picked up in New York, dropped off at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale.

We booked an economy car, but, as usually happens, we were upgraded to a Toyata Rav 4. That’s a very nice car to get about in and a smaller version of our old 4 wheel drive back in Australia.

Car hire cost us $30 per day. If you have your own insurance that would cover you, it could be a lot less.

We didn’t bring our own car seats for the kids, we had previously for a Florida trip when they were younger. In all honesty car seat regulations didn’t cross our minds, we didn’t check and they weren’t supplied. You need to check each state’s requirements.

Do You Need a GPS for a USA driving holiday or tour?

The United States is pretty easy to navigate. My husband, the driver and navigator, suggests that you do not need to rent a GPS system from the hire (rental) car company. It’s not cheap, around $8/day. His solution was to buy a US SIM card ( from $2/day plus SIM cost)  and use his smart phone with Google maps app. It worked a treat.

Accommodation Costs For Our USA Road Trip and Finding the Best Deals

We wanted to keep our accommodation costs as low as possible so that we had more to spend on the big-ticket attractions, there was no way we were skipping Disney!

We found that overall, accommodation costs were the most expensive part of our USA tour.

The cheapest possible way to find budget hotel rooms, was to book online. We scoured all the usual booking sites, Priceline was often cheapest and we found those deals through Hotels Combined. We also checked  Booking.com and Agoda regularly. Hotels Combined are a good choice in a situation like this because they pull the best deals from multiple booking sites at once so that you know you have the best deal. Turning up at the hotel in person was always more expensive than booking online, the same deals just aren’t available. ( This is not the situation in most other countries we visit).

We signed up for hotel chain rewards programmes. Wyndham rewards was the most useful for us, they own loads of hotel and motel chains. You build points by staying with them until you qualify for a free night. If you book through Priceline you do not always receive your points, so we always checked the Wyndham rewards hotel booking site too. Sometimes they matched Priceline’s offer, sometimes they had special offers with significant numbers of extra points.

Planning a USA road trip to Amish country Pennsylvania
Amish Pennsylvania. We did plan this part, it was a beautiful place to visit.

Rooms were mostly very good. Outside of Washington DC, New Orleans and NYC, we found rooms for under $40, always below $50 ( before tax) for our family of four. Don’t forget to factor in the added tax and watch out for places that charge a nightly resort fee.

Finding a room for 4 is very easy in the USA, no problem at all, most motels and hotels have rooms with two double beds.

Hotels with free breakfast save you a lot of money. The breakfasts are often terrible, carbs only, it got as bad as frozen toaster waffles in one motel, but having something to eat and a coffee first thing in the morning is a big help.

Costs and Budgets

I always say that there is no point in scrimping. Sure, we’re not rich, but you have to spend enough to be comfortable and enjoy your trip. There is no point in doing it if you’re not happy.

We all have different priorities, our priority is seeing, doing and tasting as much as possible, we really don’t care much at all about accommodation or occasional bad meals so long as we’re all safe, relatively well nourished and seeing what we came to see.

We don’t have a fixed daily budget, we just do it as cheap as we possibly can, while paying for the things that are important to us.

There are hidden costs in a trip like this, don’t forget to include road tolls, costs of buying warm clothes and admission tickets.

Basic costs, petrol, car hire, accommodation and food, can easily come in at under $150 per day. The USA part of our first year of travel was undoubtedly one of the more expensive parts, our average daily cost for the year came in at $100. In Asia we could easily spend $50 per day. Today, in year 5 of travel, we reckon on a comfortable $100 per day average even in Asia, the kids are older, they eat more, everything costs more and we treat ourselves more often.

Should You Plan an Itinerary for a USA Road Trip or Wing It?

To plan or not to plan? We like going with the flow, ending up where we end up. Our only fixed points were our arrival in NYC and our car drop off date in Fort Lauderdale, other than that we were free.

Planning a USA road trip Canada Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls from the Canada side. That was never in the plan but it was wonderful!

We had certain places we wanted to include. Must-sees for us were Amish Pennsylvania, Orlando, Washington DC and New Orleans. We ended up making it to Niagara falls and Canada ( see our Canada posts here, the border crossing is simple) and staying in some really interesting and unexpected places on the East Coast. High hotel prices cut our stay in Washington DC short and the amount of fun we were having kept us in Orlando for over a week. We eventually made it right down through the Florida Keys to the southernmost tip of America. We never expected to get that far.

Planning a USA road trip Florida
We had so much fun in Orlando we stayed for over a week. Florida Legoland.

I would highly recommend not over-planning. Weather conditions, how you feel on the day, unexpected interesting events and festivals are all likely to change your plans at the last-minute.

We found it very easy to find accommodation, sometimes we booked online just minutes before walking through the doors of a motel, often from the motel’s own car park.

It’s a good idea to check for any big festivals that are approaching if you are planning a USA road trip in advance. We unexpectedly arrived in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, a bonus, but it pushed accommodation costs up.

Drive Times on Your Road Trip

Planning a USA road trip school
Sometimes we used hours on the road to do some back-seat school work.

The United States is a big country but the East coast or West Coast are very easy to explore in isolation. The distance from NYC to Florida is only about the same as Port Douglas ( our old home in Australia) to Brisbane, that was our usual 24 hour airport commute.

Some days we drove for 9 hours, some for 2. You really can play it by ear. Sometimes we stopped in “middle of nowhere” towns just for a rest stop. We found some unexpected delights that way, such as the Darian Sea Monster.

I’ll publish our exact schedule in another post.

Visa Requirements for the USA

International travellers resident in countries which qualify for the USA Visa Waiver Programme will need to apply online for an ESTA. (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). Europe, New Zealand and Australia all qualify, check eligibility here.. This information was up to date at time of publication but always check for yourself, things may have changed.

We’ve had a wonderful time travelling around the USA, it’s been better than we expected, to be honest. We didn’t think we’d find so much diversity, history, wildlife, and great food, ( have a look at some of the amazing food in New Orleans).

If you are planning a USA road trip please don’t hesitate to comment below if you think we can help at all. What places would you recommend to people visiting the USA?

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Alyson is the creator of World Travel Family travel blog and is a full-time traveller, blogger and travel writer. A lifetime of wanderlust and now over 7 years on the road, 50+ countries allowed the creation of this website, for you. She has a BSc and worked in pathology before entering the travel arena and creating this website. World Travel Family Travel Blog has been helping you travel more, better and further since 2012, when Alyson and James first had this life changing idea. On this site you can find endless travel information, tips and guides plus how to travel, how to fund travel and how to start your own travel blog.

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Karen

Sunday 26th of January 2020

Fantastic blog and some really great tips you offered after comments. Thank you for being so engaged. My question is you booked an economy car but “as usually happens” upgraded to a rav4. We are Australian family of four looking to travel in June Seattle to Vancouver and back down to lax. I was looking at hiring a Rav or other suv but would love to pay economy car $30perday.. How do you get an upgrade or how likely is “usually” ? Is this a USA thing. Or do you talk them into it? Love to get a better rate on our car hire.

Alyson for World Travel Family

Sunday 26th of January 2020

We have rented cars all over the world and it just always seems to happen. They never have enough economy cars. But it's a gamble if you have your heart set on a bigger car.

Sherree

Sunday 6th of October 2019

Hello I don’t believe I’ve stumbled across your blog. My husband and I are in the planning process of travelling from Australia doing a 4 week USA road trip in June 2020. I’m thinking I’m over planning after reading your info. Where would I find a more detailed itinerary of your route and accommodation? Basically I want to fly into Washington DC and travel up to nyc then through an amish community onto Nashville and fly out of Dallas. Thanks for sharing your very informative blog.

Alyson Long

Sunday 6th of October 2019

We never published it, but yes, we did a lot of that. We literally booked accommodation the day before or hours before, giving us freedom to drive as little as much as we wanted and stop wherever we wanted. It worked fine. For 2 people it would be even easier. DC and NYC were expensive hotels, NYC was about $150 I think, DC $70 ish. We were looking for the cheapest we could find. Still better than Australian prices. The rest were very reasonable, $50 and under. There was always plenty of availability but we did this in winter, January or February. June could be busier.

Shannon Reeves

Friday 13th of September 2019

Hi! I live in the US. I’m from Texas but live in New Mexico currently. For those of you that have a family size larger than 4 (we have 5), there are suite type rooms that have the standard double bed but that also have a pull-out sofa. That helps when trying to sleep more in a standard room. Hope that helps! Also Mexican food in Texas (Tex-Mex) is different from Mexican food in New Mexico, so be prepared! It was an adjustment for me!!

Kate Nixon

Sunday 1st of September 2019

Hi, I just found your great post😊. We are planning a 6 week tour of the east and west coast. This will be late November and December, 2020. We will be away for Christmas and will hope to find a nice house to hire for a week or two over this period as we would like to create a Christmas atmosphere, Xmas tree etc. with our 2 children. Can you suggest the best way to find/book this type of accommodation? Is Airbnb the go? Or is there a better way to do this? Thanks. 🙏

Alyson Long

Sunday 1st of September 2019

We've spent 6 Christmases on the road and absolutely get a place with a kitchen - the one we spent in a hotel - it was Singapore - just didn't feel right. Certainly have a look at AirBnb, see what they have, but also look at apartment-style hotels on the usual booking engines. We've often found accommodation with kitchens on them - I'm not sure how common this style is in the US though, in some countries it's very easy. Absolutely be sure to check what cooking equipment is provided though, sometimes it's in no way adequate.

Jo

Tuesday 11th of June 2019

Hi. My husband and I and our 5 children are planning on doing a trip to USA in 2021 for about 3 months. The kids ages will range between 15 and 5. We are thinking of flying into LA and doing the must see sites there and then heading to San Fransisco then to Las Vegas across the middle seeing maybe Dallas, Houston to Florida then up to New York. My question is what do you think would be the most cost effective way to do this with a family our size? We are unsure if we should Air bnb, RV, rental car it and stay in motels or maybe try and house swap in a few places. Any help and ideas would be greatly appreciated. Kind regards Jo PS.

Katy

Monday 8th of July 2019

Nice article Alyson, I enjoyed reading your perspective. I read it because I am starting to plan our family's trip around the US next summer. my trip is different because I am from the US, we currently live in western South Carolina. We will be traveling with 3 kids ages 6, 8 and 10 and potentially our 2 big dogs. We travel domestically quite a bit now, and for us the cost of lodging and food is clearly the most expensive. So for our big trip next summer we are definitely traveling by motorhome. Benefits are being able to cook and prepare most meals in the RV kitchen and of course having a place to sleep included. also we will be able to drive while kids are sleeping/late at night, early in the morning. Checking in and out of hotels is tough since our kids are quite rambunctious and we are really cramped in a hotel room and a car. we are big campers and the US has remarkable state, county and US parks for reasonable fees to hop from. If big cities is your interest the parks are not so common and hotels may be the better option. depends what kind of trip you're looking for. When I was going into 3rd grade my parents took the 6 of us by RV around the US. The memories are vivid and and helped shape my love for travel as I grew older!

Alyson Long

Wednesday 12th of June 2019

We found Motels were the cheapest and in the US it;s standard to have 2 doube beds in each room. So you'd need 2 rooms, so , roughly, at least $100, probably quite a bit more per night. We got the best deals booking last minute, literally last minute, on arrival, through Priceline. Have a look at AirBnb and see if you can find anything more cost effective. We found that cities added significantly to cost. Washington DC and New York cost us loads. It's a long, long time since we did the west coast, but people say it's more costly than the east coast. I'd say really, really shop around, see what you can find. You'll probably need a combination of different accommodation styles to keep expenses down. An RV would be lovely, but the burn through fuel and you'd need a big one. Bit of a dream trip, enjoy!

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