Great 'MoneySaving city guides, #6: USA road trip' Hunt

Great 'MoneySaving city guides, #6: USA road trip' Hunt

Continuing our series, this week we want backpackers' MoneySaving tips for a top American road trip.

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  • skater_kat
    skater_kat Posts: 751
    First Anniversary Combo Breaker First Post
    edited 16 August 2011 at 9:03PM for a cheap car to road trip in :)

    don't forget you need the top level of insurance for the USA and usually need to be over 25 to drive hire cars

    oh and watch thelma and louise before you go!!
  • moronic50
    moronic50 Posts: 27 Forumite
    edited 18 August 2011 at 11:09AM
    Try couch surfing for those on the uber cheap budget. Good way to meet the locals too. Another alternative is renting locally and avoiding the big firms. Only really works if your flying to more regional airports. Try to guess how far you will travel the day before and work out somewhere youw ill stop so you can pre-book your motel. Takes a bit of the magic out of pulling in somewhere at the end of the day but will save you a few dollars. Make sure the motel offers inclusive breakfast. Fill your car before entering and when leaving major cities, petrol tends to get much more expensive (especially true in Los Angeles). Though it is still peanuts compared to over here!
  • janineo
    janineo Posts: 56 Forumite
    edited 18 August 2011 at 11:09AM
    If you're starting and ending in different states, check for hire car return fees. Occasionally some companies don't have them between certain states (eg California, Arizona and Nevada) as long as you book through a UK broker. Also sign up for the hire company 'fast track' service. It'll save you a lot of time when you pick the car up.

    Make sure the car you hire is big enough. Remember you're going to have all your luggage in it for the enitre trip. We booked a mid-size SUV (Jeep Grand Cherokee) for our 4 person trip, and after the 4 suitcases were put in the boot, we couldn't see out the rear-view mirror! Luckily the 7 seat Chevy Suburban we were upgraded to after our Jeep started telling us it needed a service was much better!

    Look at travel agent organised trips, but also check out booking it yourselves. We DIY'd ours as no standard trip did exactly what we wanted and the tailor made ones were at least £500 more than what we could do ourselves.

    Distances between places are a lot longer than over here, so be prepared for lots of driving. But try and give yourselves at least 2 nights at stops, or you'll spend your entire trip on the road! Buy a good road map. We had a small one and what looked like a straight road on it turned out to be a windy road up one side of a small mountain and down the other. Took us a LOT longer than we thought.

    Don't worry too much about the quoted mpg of the cars. The US gallon is smaller than ours so the figures will all seem very low. They aren't as bad as it seems, and the petrol is a lot cheaper too.

    If you're stopping at Las Vegas, try and plan it for mid week. Hotel prices are 2-3 times cheaper.

    If you're visiting any National Parks, the accomodation in the parks can get booked up a year in advance. If you want to stay near the sights (some parks are huge and can take a long time to get to them from outside accomodation) then make sure you organise it early so you're not dissapointed.

    Most hotels will let you book for a nights deposit, which can be refunded if you have to cancel up to 48 hours beforehand. You can also get cheaper deals if you pay it all in advance. Just decide if you want the flexibility, or the cheaper deal.

    Hope that all helps.
  • steve237
    steve237 Posts: 282 Forumite
    edited 18 August 2011 at 11:10AM
    If you're looking for cheap motels, stop off in car hire places and pick up the free directory/books which have special rates for motels, ordered by state and town in alphabetical order. We got a Las Vegas hotel on the strip for £8 a night a few years back!
  • Nobjocki
    Nobjocki Posts: 947 Forumite

    For the truly independent-minded traveller who is prepared to be flexible auto-driveaway is a fantastically cheap way to do an American road trip.

    In essence you drive other people's cars for free - paying only for petrol.

    I have crossed the US three times this way - flying into New York and out of a West Coast airport but you can do it the other way or any variation.

    You are given a specific period of time to make the journey and a specific number of miles which usually encompass the route plus some extra for sight-seeing.

    There are offices all over the States which, combined with low-cost internal flights, means you can be really flexible - for instance, a lot of people will travel down to Florida by air but don't want to drive their car down or people will be re-locating and don't want the hassle of a long drive which is where you come in
  • Thanks for all the tips so far! I'm planning to drive route 66 next year so any tips will be most helpful!
  • jencat
    jencat Posts: 5 Forumite
    edited 17 August 2011 at 3:39PM
    This is never as easy as it sounds :o Apologies for a very long post, but there are lots of things I wish I'd known when I first did these, and an awful lot of stuff people may be a bit clueless about (going by the questions I see asked in various forums) because road trips in movies are not an awful lot like the real thing :). We spend the best part of a year planning our trips so this is Stuff I Wish I'd Known off the top of my head:

    First off, decide what you want to do exactly. Read up on possible places you want to visit, establish exactly how much time you have, and how much of a budget, and then start making decisions based on that. Otherwise you're going to have an overwhelming amount of options and waste time dithering. If you only want to do LA - San Francisco, for example, it's a relatively short route and there are lots and lots of fly-drives to choose from that take the hassle out of organising. It's not the cheapest option, but there is a bit of a competitive market going for that. Anything remotely out of the way, you might be better spending the time to plan your own trip.

    The other really important thing to remember is that, while it might look easy to do 200 miles between destinations (and it's certainly do-able, and Americans themselves don't think of that as any distance at all), trying to do that a few days running will burn you out. As much fun as it can be driving over there, it can also get incredibly boring if you choose your routes badly. Basically, the interesting routes (twisty turny mountain roads, Route 1 down the California Coast, for example) are not designed to get anywhere fast. It will be pretty but will also take you ages and you'll most likely be stuck behind an RV (or, indeed, driving the RV). Freeways/Interstates are fast but deathly dull (you can only keep yourself amused with the 'niche' radio stations/interesting approach to undertaking/ leaving no space between cars for so long).

    Definitely recommend Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum - do your basic research before you start asking questions (and please be polite and don't ask anything you can't google yourself!!) but very handy for local knowledge and picking the brains of helpful people who have been driving the USA for decades regarding routes/weather etc.

    Decide how low you're prepared to go, accommodation-wise, and how many compromises you're prepared to make with your travelling companions - as an example, I loathe camping. Last year we did an 8 state, 6 week road trip, peak season, including national parks... Camping most of the time really was the only way we could afford it, so I accepted that begrudgingly as the price to pay for an amazing trip. I wasn't exactly converted to the cause, though.

    Bear in mind that you won't be able to camp anywhere near most major cities, and hostels are the only very cheap option then. Most of them do private rooms that will still be cheaper than most hotels but they are limited in availability. Get a YHA card over here and you can use it for cheaper rates in HI Hostels in the USA (they have some very lovely options in California, including some former lighthouses). Also bear in mind that the classic motel of road trip fame is likely to be in the middle of a strip mall or smaller towns as they depend on passing traffic from freeways etc.

    Parking in big cities is also insanely expensive (as per most cities in the world!) and you may not want to deal with the 'eccentric' city road set up/driving. As an example, I've driven thousands of miles over there but driving in Boston itself sounded tricky from what I'd heard. We ended up finding a nice cheap Motel 6 in a little town near Salem, did Salem one day then drove to the local train station the next day, parked for free and had a day in Boston and caught train back again. It's pretty cheap getting commuter trains off peak and you're only spending what you would have on parking costs.

    Do prepare for the fact that camping means you won't get much sleep a lot of the time, especially in RV parks (mind you, the same thing goes for shared dorms in hostels). People aren't considerate with keeping quiet and you're at the mercy of whatever's happening around you. Good ear plugs are a must. Add a few nights of sleep deprivation to a few days of 200 mile drives, and you're a serious danger on the roads. Break it up with cheap motels etc (and buy that 24 pack of Mountain Dew, lol!). Just something to be aware of.

    In terms of the camping equipment - you won't exactly be able to take a tent in your suitcase, but very easy to go online to the Walmart site, for example, order your tent etc (we also added air mattresses and an electric pump with car attachment, plus food prep stuff and the genius that is the electric cooler) the week before you go, schedule pick up from the nearest Walmart to where you pick car up from and just pop in there and collect as you would at Tesco etc. Entire camping set for under $100...

    Theoretically you could sell this equipment before you come home, but don't count on being able to organise that. Much easier is signing up to local Freecycle after your last campsite and offer it up. Do this in LA in July and you won't be able to cope with responses (we had 150 replies in one afternoon... hell of a lot of people camp out there).

    It's fine, some of the time (and especially off season), to just turn up at motels and see if they have availability.. it just pays to bear in mind that you should definitely book stuff like:
    -Your first night after arriving (maybe the first couple if you're staying in one place). You're usually fit for nothing after a flight and will need the address for the Visa Waiver form etc.
    -Anywhere popular - check if there are any big festivals/events in particular towns/cities when you want to head there (ie, San Diego in 3rd week of July every year - don't even bother!)
    - Please be aware that the USA has some different bank holidays to us, and there's nothing worse than suddenly realising it's Columbus Day and you then have to drive 150 miles to find an available motel room...!

    Also, those coupon books you get with all the discounts are a nice idea, but 90% of the time the motel deals are for single rooms and single occupancy. Not much good for most roadtrippers...

    Taking a netbook etc with you will help if you want to semi-plan your bookings as you go along - wifi is mostly for free everywhere and you can change your route according to where there is availability - the vast majority of places are online these days.

    Also bear in mind that the standard US hotel/motel room is 2 Queens (double) beds, or one King. Prices are quoted per room (unlike over here, where they seem to quote per person). If there's only 2 of you travelling, yay, you fit fine. If there's 4 of you then everyone better be happy sharing beds if you want to keep the costs down and only pay for one room... Things do seem to be changing the past few years though, so pay attention to the small print on bookings. If anything says 'European' style, then it usually means there's only 1 Queen bed.

    I know it says 'backpacker' tips in the original post, but I can't say I recommend that... Backpacks don't fit easily into a lot of car trunks, and you're left with the fun of trying to root through all your belongings to find one thing. At least suitcases open easily to extract the bits you need for each overnight stay, then you can leave them in the car and just take an overnight bag in if your motel room is upstairs.

    Re: car choice - we've always booked the cheapest, smallest car we could get for 2 people, and have without exception always been upgraded for free. Sometimes they're fun upgrades, sometimes they're annoying - I adored the Chevy HHR we got last year unexpectedly (one way rentals throw up the weirdest results) but the 'quirky' design means the boot wasn't closed off and contents could be seen through the back windows... We got broken into after the first couple of weeks, lost a couple of bits and had the stress of driving car to nearest depot for an exchange with broken windows. Same goes for soft-top convertibles, I'd feel very stressed about driving something that is easily broken into because sorting it out will put a major damper on your trip.

    Also read the terms & conditions of car hire VERY carefully before booking, you don't want to get hit with a charge for something you could have avoided, make sure all insurance/waivers are included (might be worth paying a little more initially than not having the coverage later). It takes a little time but also definitely worth going around car when you pick up and making note of all existing damage. Take timestamped pictures if you can - we haven't needed them yet but you never know.

    Also definitely read up on rules of the road before you go (turning right on red lights, stop signs, rotaries) and please please take notice of the speed limits. They are slightly low over there compared to what we're used to (I've come across the max 80mph limit precisely twice in 5 trips across 15 states) Mostly they will stick at 50 or 60mph where we might have 70, for example. They may be very nice and polite when they stop you for speeding, but they will do so. Also be aware of the differing rules about having alcohol open in your car, and drugs can get you kicked out of the country and not allowed back in.

    sorry again for the mega-long post, hope any of this turns out to be useful!

    PS: forgot to add earlier, it's definitely worth considering the time of year you want to go - ie, it may be a lot cheaper in many places during winter/spring but bear in mind how extreme the weather can be over there. Many mountain roads aren't passable during snow season, which can last up to late spring (and car rental places won't let you have snow chains...!). Yellowstone, certainly, is only really accessable during the summer months, hence why it gets insanely busy then. It snowed quite a few times on the central California coast when we were there a few years ago in March, Route 1 is prone to landslides and rockfalls and lots of scenic drives end up closed due to flooding as the thaw gets underway.
  • Some excellent tips here, thanks a lot!!
  • Will definately use this when planning to go driving in America.
  • i'm not too sure about road trips, but i went on a coast to coast rail trip on the Amtrax last summer. i think in total i spent about $2000 for everything, including train fares, accomodation, food and sight seeing.
    my trip took me from Seattle on the North west coast via Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, Denver, Chicago and I finished my trip in New York.
    I mainly stayed in Youth Hostels, which were all clean and friendly and the people who worked there were more than helpful.
    obviously most of the sight seeing i did was in major cities, but i got some incredible views from the train window, there is a special carriage in the middle with panoramic windows and a glass roof so you can see even more, and occasionally there was a tour guide offering commentary on what we were passing on the train.
    depending on where you want to stop, some of the journeys can be very long, 20+ hours for example, on the train though you can always have a nap, unlike when your driving a car!
    the grand canyon is a definate must see, it is incredible. also if you get the chance head to the san juan islands in washington state, just an hour or so ferry ride from Anacortes, near seattle. when we werre on san Juan island we saw orca whales from the coast!
    i saved most of my money by not eating out very often and taking my own snacks and sandwiches when i went out for the day, Peanut butter and 'jelly' sandwiches are an american favourite and i bought a jar of each and it lasted me for the whole 3 week trip, it gets a bit boring but its probably worth it if it means you can spend more on doing more exciting things.
    another way i saved money was by taking some overnight trains, often getting to see amazing sunsets and sunrises, after an overnight train i would spend a couple of nights in a hostel to recover.
    to be honest the train is more comfortable than any plane i've ever been on, the seats are pretty wide and they all have a decent amount of leg room, with leg rests and arm rests etc. the food on the trains is reasonably priced too, you can get a lunchtime meal in the dining car for less than $10.
    i paid around $500 for all my train tickets from Seattle to New York, i travelled 'economy' class, but i think the train prices go up quite significantly if you want a sleeper cabin.
    i hope this helps someone
    i know its not really a road trip, but its still a class way to see america, especcially for those who can't drive!
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