Travel tips

Published on February 17th, 2014 | by Adam Slater


How to survive the great American road trip

Read time: a bit over 4 minutes

Despite what you see in Hollywood movies, not all motorists on the American highway fall victim to roaming serial killers or giant fireballs. In fact, most of the time you’ll find that driving in the USA is a damn-fine way to see a damn-fine country.

That said, before you can roll back the sun-roof on a Cadillac, pump  ‘LA Woman’ and scream  ‘Mr. Mojo Risin’’ while trashing hotel rooms and picking up drifters – there’s a few things you should know.

Picking up drifters

Don’t do it.

Driving on the right

OK. This one’s a biggie, and has the potential to cause you the most embarrassment/airbag bruises.

If you can, resist the temptation to get in the car the moment you arrive. Try and sleep off the jet-lag and observe the traffic a bit before you get behind the wheel. If you’re renting, find a pickup location in the suburbs, with nice wide streets for you to practice and gain a bit of confidence.

Remember: it’s not only the traffic you’ll need to get used to. If you’re driving a manual you’ll have to use a different hand to shift gears, and the fact that you’re sitting on the opposite side of the car does all kinds of things to your road placement and general feel for the vehicle.

But like anything, it soon becomes second nature (after the 40th time you’ve made an arse of yourself by attempting to get in the wrong side of the car).

Turning right through a red

You’re sitting at the lights like a good citizen, minding your own business and thinking about which of Mcdonald’s Dollar Menu items you can sample today. Suddenly, a redneck in a pickup truck starts honking his horn, calling you a pile of sticks and generally making a fuss at your perfectly reasonable desire to not drive straight into a live intersection.

Unless you’ve stolen his cowboy hat, the commotion you are hearing behind you is a result of the U.S department of transport’s efforts to reduce congestion by allowing drivers to turn right through red lights. The first few times you do it, it’s a bit of a thrill, on about the same level as stuffing candy bars down your pants at a 7-11. But remember, even though it’s legal in all 50 states, it’s still risky business even for experienced drivers. So take your time, breathe, and make sure the intersection is completely clear before you even attempt it.

Filling the tank

For first timers, arriving at a service station in the USA is a baffling experience. For starters, you’re probably in a rental car, and have no idea what side the fuel hatch is.  Then, after you’ve embarrass yourself by doing several laps of the pumps, you’ll then have to overcome the weirdness of putting ‘gas’ in your petroleum powered engine.

Finally, you’ll realize that while everyone around you has no problems operating the pumps, yours won’t work. Here’s the deal: 99% of petrol stations in the U.S require you to prepay your fuel before you fill. American’s have the luxury of doing it at the pump with a credit card, however foreign cards have a less than impressive success rate (precisely zero in my experience). To fill your car, you’ll have to approach the in-store attendant and pretty much guess the dollar amount of your fill by saying something like ’40 dollars on pump one’. Then, after you’ve returned to your car and filled it, you can go back and request any change left over. It seems weird and convoluted at first, but you can be assured that millions of Americans do this successfully every day.

Awkward four-way intersections

There is only one thing that the American’s hate more than the metric system, and that’s roundabouts.

Forgoing a proven, logical way of dealing with minor intersections, the USA has instead decided to just throw their hands in the air and let motorists themselves sort things out. The result is a system that most of the time resembles that horrifically awkward moment when you and a complete stranger argue about who should go first through a small doorway.

Here’s the lowdown: The basic rule in a four-way crossing is that whoever enters the intersection first gets right of way. But you must come to a complete stop, so it’s more like, whoever comes to a complete stop first gets to go. The complication comes when four people simultaneously try and work out who stopped, with less than polite motorists burning through the intersection, and too-polite motorists arguing via hand signals about who is the more considerate driver. It’s an absolute debacle.

Get organised

The days of pulling over on the side of the road and sprawling a map across the bonnet are over. These days, road travel is made much easier, and safer with a good GPS system, which can give you important information on speed-limits and services such hospitals and police stations should you need them. And don’t worry, you’ll still get lost – but instead of yelling at your partner, you can yell at a machine. Everyone wins.

It’s also important to know a bit about what type of car you’re driving, and how the conditions might change depending on the areas you’re travelling in. If you’re travelling in winter, be sure that the car has been serviced with a good brand of anti-freeze, and has the correct tire pressure. If you’re renting and find yourself needing to change tire pressure on the fly, you can find detailed info on optimal pressures etc. on the inside of the drivers door.

It’s also a good idea to take photos of your rental car before and after your trip. And of course, get as much insurance as you can pay for. You want to be covered for absolutely everything.

Like your mum says: be careful

In an average year in the USA, the road toll can top 34,000 fatalities. To put that into context, the UK averages just fewer than 2,000. Canada is around the same. And if we’re talking road deaths per capita, then Mexico, the Philippines, Somalia and even North Korea have more favourable records than the USA.

That’s not to say it’s impossible, or even particularly unsafe, to drive in the USA. But remember that not everyone is as cautious as you are, so keep a keen eye out for trouble.

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About the Author

Two things keep me awake at night. The first is a crushing fear that we've discovered everything that is there to be discovered. The second is snakes. I have at least one snake related nightmare per week. Luckily, on the nights that I don't wake up screaming, I have fond memories of being fattened by Texas pit-BBQs, scented by Vietnamese fish markets and having the pigment burnt out of my face by the Malaysian sun. And when I'm done checking for serpents under my bed, I think back to when I used to work next door to Geckos. That was pretty fun too.

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