I’m almost 2 months in to a 3-month road trip around the USA and Canada; definitely the longest block of travel I’ve ever participated in. So far, it’s going great – we’re on schedule, we’ve managed to visit a great number of cities and nature, we haven’t spent that much money and we haven’t killed each other!
Of course, there’s another month and it may all go horribly wrong, but for now I wanted to give you a little insight into how you can plan your own awesome road-trip in the USA/Canada (before certain politicians, perhaps, ruin everything..?).
- Make sure you have enough money. This should be obvious, but tripping around the USA is not a cheap thing like backpacking around Thailand. Public transport is expensive here, the £ is at an all-time low to the $, food isn’t that cheap – you have to add tax and tips to everything – and renting a car actually turns out to be the cheapest option; unless, of course, you want to try your luck hitchhiking (which I think is illegal in the States) or cycling. There are lots of tips and tricks for saving money on your road trip, which I’ll cover later, but it’s still better to budget accordingly. Here, my travel partner Anna writes about how she saved money for the trip.
2. Pick a time in your life when you can take a big chunk off work, or work remotely. I’ve been doing some Skype teaching while I’ve been travelling, and Anna has been doing a little transcription. I didn’t have a full-time job back home when I left for this trip. I realise that can be a little scary for some people, so the only other options would be to find a job that lets you take a big chunk of time off, or neatly line up a new job to coincide with your return. Read “When is the right time to do a road trip?” from our road trip blog.
3. Pick a good travel partner! If you haven’t done long-term travel before, you won’t realise how important this is. For road-tripping, we feel that two people is a great number – travelling alone can be tough and lonely, and travelling in larger groups means more people to appease when making decisions, less chance of finding a free place to stay, and less space in the car. We have friends joining us for small portions of the trip, we’re staying with friends and bumping into them along the way, but for the most part it’s Anna and I.
Reasons we work well as travel buddies: both fine doing our own thing and meeting up later, fine with long periods of silence, we both take shifts driving, we are both pretty chilled in terms of where to go/what to do and we are upfront and honest with each other if one of us annoys the other. You might not know until it’s too late that someone you get on with really well as a friend is a nightmare travel partner, but as a general rule of thumb you probably want somebody who is similar to you on the spectrums of spontaneous-planned, morning lark-night owl, splurger-stingy, independent-clingy, chilled-frantic etc, otherwise you’re going to clash a lot and find it leads to conflict.
4. Plan your route ahead of time. So many people dream of renting a car in the USA and just winging it, e.g. driving around at a leisurely pace, seeing what town names tickle their fancy and just meandering over. However, the travel stories I’ve read along these lines almost always end in a lot of disappointment; campsites fill up months ahead of time, several tours (e.g. the White House) require you to book months in advance, and a lot of towns with fun names are totally boring holes. Additionally, if you don’t plan, you’re probably going to spend a lot more on accommodation, miss out on some great places you just passed by, or get somewhere at the completely wrong season.
We spent a lot of time planning our optimum route, making sure we made it to the maximum number of places that we wanted to see. We did this by playing around on Google maps a lot, calculating driving times, making sure we weren’t going back on ourselves etc. Another advantage of planning ahead is you’ll know what days you’ll be in each place, meaning you can follow step 5.
5. Couchsurf/stay with friends! One of the main reasons we’ve been able to afford this trip is the number of friends we seem to have accumulated in the States. We managed this by living in places with a lot of expats – Japan, Prague, Berlin, London, Romania… and what’s more, a lot of these lovely friends were keen to put us in touch with their friends if they knew somebody who might be able to host us. So, if you know people in the States you’re going to find it a lot easier to travel – plus, you get to catch up with friends, who’ll likely be able to show you the best things to do in their cities!
If you don’t know anyone, we’ve also found Couchsurfing to be really good. We’ve surfed so far in New Orleans, Oxford, Montreal, Charleston, Denver, and Baltimore, and had great experiences with all of them. Some hosts are happy to let you do your own thing, while others will gladly feed you and show you around!
6. Rent your car. Buying a car in the States is a complicated, bureaucratic mess from what I hear, and you’ll probably end up dealing with breakdowns and paying out a lot more than you’ll make back if you manage to sell it at the end. There are rental companies specifically geared to Europeans coming to the US on road trips, and they work out a great deal cheaper than if you live in the US! Think around $1000 a month for a brand-new, beautiful car, with all insurance covered and up to 3 additional drivers – that’s what we got through netflights.com. See our post “To buy or rent a car?” if you don’t believe me yet!
7. Factor in some down-time. I guarantee you that a few weeks into your trip, you’re going to start to feel burnt-out and tired. If you’re constantly moving, trying to fit in as much as possible, and perhaps giving yourself loads of driving time, you’re going to start feeling drained. So, every 2 weeks or so, make sure you have a day where you don’t really have to do anything or go anywhere. Give yourself 2-3 nights in some places, perhaps even 4 in places you really want to see properly. It’s better to go for quality over quantity, otherwise most of your trip will be spent in a car and you’ll feel rushed wherever you go. We’ve spent a fair few days on our trip just chilling out, catching up with TV shows, writing the blog, and reading. It’s important; as silly as it might sound, travelling can be really intense, and if you’re used to down-time on the weekends you’re going to suffer if you suddenly take that out of your regular schedule.
8. Prepare for the long drives. Some days, we only drive 1 or 2 hours, but there have been some where we’ve been on the road almost all day. This is going to be a far more pleasant experience if you plan accordingly. What do I mean? Well, make sure you have bottles of water (refill them wherever possible – buying water bottles is just a waste of money and plastic) and snacks, your phone has GPS or you have a SAT-NAV so you don’t get lost and can find the nearest gas stations/rest stops easily, and finally – entertainment!! I absolutely recommend getting a crappy, cheap iPod or mp3 player and filling it up before the trip with music, audiobooks and podcasts. They’re around £4 on Amazon these days. Alternating music with audiobooks and conversation has meant that even our longest days of driving haven’t felt that bad.
9. Prepare for the seasons. Whenever you go to the USA, you’re going to experience a variety of climates. From March-June, we’ve worn our sandals and summer dresses in Florida and our winter coats in Vermont. We’ve needed waterproof coats and hiking shoes as well as shorts. Factor in rainfall and average temperature when you’re planning your trip – if you’re anything like us, you want to minimise the amount of snow or blazing sun that you experience, meaning that starting in the South around March and heading northwards as it begins to warm up is a nice idea. However, it turns out that the ‘season’ for many things in the North of the US starts in May, so we were too early for whale-watching in Maine and some of the white-water rafting near Denver – check these things before you plan your route, especially if there’s something you really want to do.
10. Look up events happening while you’re there. Somehow we managed to get to Boston on the day of the Boston Marathon, Austin while South by South-West was on and New Orleans when the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival was going on. There are also smaller, interesting events going on everywhere – Facebook’s “Events” feature lets you search for nearby events happening today, tomorrow or this week, so you can take a slightly less touristy route and turn up at anything from DJ nights to salsa classes if you so wish. Makes it a little more interesting!
Happy trip planning!
Want to plan a trip but don’t have time? Contact me to find out how I can help you!!