Heading for the freeways of America?

It’s that time when many of us will be planning to escape the chill of spring and head to warmer, sunnier climes for a well-deserved break. A road trip in the USA is one of my favourite holiday pursuits, so if you are heading Stateside for the first time, here are some tips for drivers.

Before you leave, do some research into your car hire. Standing a queue at the car hire desk, after a tiring transatlantic flight, is no place to make snap decisions on confusing options regarding collision damage waivers and personal insurance options. Read the small print before you go and decide what options you really need.

driving in the USA
Road trips in the USA give you the freedom to explore and discover

A satellite navigation system is clearly a benefit and the good ones will give you an indication of which lane you should be in – useful when there are so many of them (lanes, that is). (If you download maps and take your own sat-nav, be aware some states ban sticking them to the windscreen, so you need a dash ‘beanbag’ mount.)

If you don’t go for a car with sat-nav, you may think you can get by with route instructions on a smartphone. But, remember, unless you own a bank, you won’t want to rack up the international roaming charges on your data plan for downloading maps.

If, like me, you do want to have data as you drive (useful not just for maps, but also for booking hotels and searching restaurants and attractions) look at options for a USA SIM card before you go.

On recent trips I have purchased a 5GB SIM to be delivered to my hotel on the first night. I put that in my iPad and use it to create a personal hotspot for other devices. (It has proven useful not only on the road, but also in hotels where “high-speed” internet proves to be anything but.)

But, sat-nav is not essential. You can just buy a good map.

Some 20 years ago, in the era long before satellite navigation and route guidance on smart phones, I was driving across Los Angeles with a friend reading the maps. It was only when the instructions started not to work, that I glanced across to see a large area of water in the middle of the city.

I glanced again and realised that my friend was plotting the route through Los Angeles on a map of San Francisco!

Still, that cloud had a silver lining. We would not have found the delights of the Angeles Crest Highway had it not been for his mistake.

Beware, when turning at traffic lights in cities. It is very common for the pedestrian crossing phase to be on “walk” on the street you are turning into – so you need to give way to pedestrians.

Staying with traffic lights, most states allow traffic to turn right through a red light. You, treat it like a ‘yield’ or ‘give way’ as you filter into the traffic in the cross street. That, of course, runs contrary to all our instincts coming from a country where a red stop light is absolute. Also, you need to watch out for prohibition signs that say “no turn on red”.

The other thing you need to get used to is four-way stop signs, which are very common. For those brought up on driving on this side of the Atlantic, it’s not our habit to remember in what order other cars at a junction reach the stop line. But, you need to pay attention as each car gets its shot in order of their arrival.

Talking of stopping, you must stop for school buses when the lights flash. Americans also stop and pull over for emergency vehicles and, in a show of respect, for funerals.

Another difference from Europe and the UK, where you are supposed to overtake only on the right (or the left in countries that drive on the right), is that you can pass either side in the USA (unless signs say otherwise). While the convention tends to be that you pass on the left on smaller freeways, on wider roads with multiple lanes vehicles can and will pass you on either side.

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Unlike Europe, in the USA you can pass vehicles either side

You also need to train your eye to look out for speed limit signs. We’re used to looking for round signs, but in the USA you are looking for a more anonymous-looking rectangular sign.

If the worst comes to the worst and you see those dreaded red and blue lights in your rear view mirror, don’t be tempted to get out of your car if you are pulled over. Stay in the driver’s seat with your hands visible at the top of the steering wheel as the police officer comes to your car. (It is sensible also to make sure your passengers follow suit and sit still with their hands visible.)

If that sounds a little bit daunting, it is not meant to put you off. I have found driving in the USA to be enjoyable and indeed, sometimes less fraught than tackling the more narrow, constricted roads of Europe.

Enjoy your trip and set out with the intention to explore the wide open spaces of America.

  • Before you leave leave remember to check you will have six months left on your passport when you arrive and that your passport is biometric. Also check any visa requirements.
  • Then organise your ESTA (and only go to the official website, don’t be duped by commercial sites offering ESTA applications).
  • Also remember the new driving licence rules mean you may need to get a copy of your licence or an online pass code.
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