Roadtripping in the U.S.

I recently spent 12 days on a road trip through Utah and Arizona. More details on that in another post, but here’s a brain dump of what I learnt (or was surprised by!) about road tripping in the U.S. It’s just the one trip so it’s not exactly distilled wisdom, and I don’t know if anyone will ever find this useful, but I know I will want to remind myself about some of these things before any future road trips, so I might as well post it.

Rules of the road

What we regard as the highway code is entirely different over there!

The authoritative rulebook is generally called the Driver Handbook or Driver’s Manual, and is issued by each state’s DMV or equivalent. Yes, each state has their own set of rules that vary a little. These can be a fun read on a 15-hour plane ride!

The obvious differences apart from driving on the other side of the road are in the road markings (like yellow centre lines instead of white) and traffic signs (white/red are rules, yellow are warnings and advisories). These are usually more uniform across states, thanks to the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) that sorta-kinda influences what the states actually do. One resource is Wikipedia’s Comparison of traffic signs in English-speaking countries, which includes Singapore next to United Kingdom and United States.

Some things that I thought were quite different:

  • Single solid white lines between lanes are merely discouraging you from crossing those lines. It’s the double solid white lines that forbid crossing the lines.
  • U.S. routes and state routes have numbers, but may be primarily signposted using some other road name, especially in towns. Sometimes, there are separate shields marking out the routes lower on the pole. This is occasionally confusing at intersections. Use Waze.
  • Multi-lane roundabouts may have turn restrictions. For example, for a 2-lane roundabout, the right lane will only be able to go right or forward, while the left lane can go forward/left/U-turn. There will be a little lane-use sign before the roundabout but it’s a little cryptic the first few times you encounter it. This WSDOT page on roundabouts has road diagram examples.
  • Large roundabouts may have a “truck apron” around the island, which is like a usually-red donut around the island that the big trucks are expected to mount. You’re not supposed to drive on that! See the third vehicle in the MnDOT animation of Roundabouts in Minnesota at 0:23.
  • Turning wheels when parked on a slope, with and without curbs.
  • Centre yellow line variations that indicate passing or no-passing.
  • Centre turn lanes are extremely important and also entirely foreign to us.
  • Pulling over and stopping for emergency vehicles.
  • Moving over a lane or slowing down a lot for stopped vehicles on the roadside, especially if there’s a police car or other emergency vehicle stopped with their lights flashing.
  • High-speed rural highways may have little “slip roads” or lanes to enter/exit that are separated from the through lane by a single white line and turn arrows. Watch out for these whenever your side of a 2-lane highway widens - you only want to move over to the right when it’s a passing lane or some other kind of regular lane that has dashed lines; otherwise stick to the left lane near the centreline lest you run smack into someone just turning onto the highway and still speeding up.
  • High-speed rural highways may simply not have these lanes and have gravel or dirt roads turn directly onto the highway! Sometimes they aren’t even preceded by the intersection warning sign! I guess the locals must be used to having really good brakes, given how they don’t slow down for reduced-sight-line curves or slightly hilly areas.

In general, a foreign drivers license is accepted (no IDP required) as long as it’s in English, but perhaps double check for each state.

Things that surprised me and were more variable across states:

  • Permissibility of mounting things on the windscreen or on the dash.
  • Right turn on red is generally allowed except in some cities?
  • School bus flashing red rules - traffic in both directions must stop except in some complicated set of rules that vary significantly between states.
  • Las Vegas (Clark County, NV) does not paint lane markings on their roads. They use patterns of reflective dots instead, something about the heat causing the paint to be obliterated quickly. It’s very confusing, because they still paint road arrows and stop lines and zebra crossings, but they’re all faded as heck.
  • State highway/route signs are dramatically different, and aren’t always easily distinguishable since they might not have the state name or outline on it. There are also county roads, but I suppose those might not have special signs.

Trip planning

The distances are vast. The possibly apocryphal adage that Americans think a hundred years is a long time, and the English think a hundred miles is a long way… rings with some truth.

Where possible, you should try to manage your plans such that you don’t spend too much of your trip time driving or in the car. It’s a balance between seeing more places and spending more time at fewer places. I actually met some locals who are happy to spend 3 hours or so at a National Park and then move on, and then spend maybe 10 hours driving before and after that stop. (It’s quite telling that at several of the National Parks I visited, the itinerary guide signboards outside the visitor centres often first present a <3 hour itinerary, then suggestions to expand it beyond 3 hours.)

It’s a pretty good idea to limit your drives to daylight. Make sure you check sunrise/sunset times against local times, and remember to factor in time zone changes across your trip. It’s probably ok to drive at night within towns/cities and possibly on the interstates, but any smaller roads tend to have various hazards at night, including wildlife that will treat it as their grandfather’s road - cows, deers - as well as idiot drivers who don’t know how to lower their high beams when approaching or behind other drivers.

One rule of thumb from certain forum members on Tripadvisor is to add at least 30% of the Google Maps drive time for breaks. This is especially important for solo drivers like me - I think in the end I actually typically ended up typically taking 30-50% more over the map drive time, because I like indulging my supermarket window shopping in gas station marts and drinking coffee while stationary. (It’s so interesting how even these gas station stores are so different!) This might be less of an issue for people on trips with >2 drivers, because then you’d be primarily limited by gas filling time and bathroom time.

Figuring out weather on the roads can be a bit tricky, especially off the interstates, due to the varying terrain. I was surprised by snow on Highway 12 between Boulder, UT and Torrey, UT, when the forecasts for the neighbouring towns/area was just rain showers - well, turns out that that part of Hwy 12 goes above 9000 ft in elevation, and up there it just happened to be around 30 deg F and the precipitation turned into snow. I learnt then that snow doesn’t stick to your windscreen like rain does, which is pretty cool, but the real hazard is in snow that’s blowing in other directions.

Snow chains are a hassle. Anytime there’s even a possibility of snow or chain controls, like in the Sierra Nevadas anytime before summer, it becomes quite a headache. I didn’t deal with chains this trip but apparently you need them to be exact size, and given that rental car companies do not promise you any particular car model (or even car category) in advance, it’s difficult to get chains in advance. But other than that, I think depending on the region the rental cars may just usually have the basic M+S tyres.

Route/Highway pretty much means any sort of long road; what we think of as highway/expressway (controlled-access) is more of freeway/interstate. Some highways might be limited-access but possibly only for some sections.

Trip planning tools

Tools for pre-trip planning, might exist on mobile but much better on a laptop:

  • Roadtrippers has a reasonable POI database that lets you map out your route, and find interesting things within x miles of your existing route that you may want to add. It’s quite helpful to get distances and time estimates between stops, compared to spending hours entering and re-entering destinations in Google Maps while iterating on the itinerary. However, they recently lowered the number of points you can add to on a single ‘trip’, so the free version might not be so useful anymore. (I actually paid up the discounted price for a year’s subscription using a coupon code from the targeted email they sent to users who would be affected by this change.)

Mobile apps on the go to use during the trip:

  • Google Maps, with offline maps, because cell coverage can be really spotty off the interstates.
  • Waze, for when you’re online, because it has better speed limits monitoring/notifications and the crowd-sourced event data. To attempt using it offline, make sure you search for all your destinations while you are still online, and try your luck.
  • GasBuddy, for finding gas stations and their prices. (Waze’s gas prices were comically out of date.)
  • iExit app, for checking out amenities available at exits along the interstates, but I didn’t spend too much time on those.
  • Spotify offline mode - which requires Premium subscription. This is a lifesaver, especially if your car doesn’t come with Sirius/XM radio. (It usually costs extra.) Otherwise, bring many hours of music.
  • Yelp for food reviews - or in sufficient rural places, just finding food, any food.
  • Your favourite weather app

Paper maps are a good idea as a backup though: I got the Rand McNally Road Atlas that covers all 50 states and I think the Canadian provinces as well. I was a bit skeptical about covering a state in 2-4 pages, but it actually works out surprisingly well for navigation between towns, though that might be because southern Utah and northern Arizona are so empty.

The standard “Road Atlas” is really huge, you might want to check out the dimensions on Amazon. There are other variants: some come with spiral binding instead of staple binding, some trade the length/width dimensions for thickness. Other companies also make state and regional maps, some gas stations (or better - truck stop type places) will stock them.

You might also want to check out the coverage maps from the cell providers, in practice just AT&T and T-Mobile, to get a sense of what the cell signal will be like. With that in mind, possibly consider whether to use a domestic SIM from T-Mobile or one of the MVNOs that operate on their network, or to use the Starhub prepaid roaming SIM which currently roams onto both AT&T and T-Mobile once you fix the APN config. There are still whole swathes of the country that are Verizon-only or at best have only some expensive local/regional telco, which can be so expensive that even domestic telco subscribers have limited to no roaming privileges on.

Finding a car rental is what you want. For this trip, it found a Hertz (!!) car rental for $30+/day out of LAS, then a week or so later found a Thrifty car rental for just over $20/day, which is really dirt cheap. And in both cases, they were fully refundable bookings up till 24 hours prior (and only subject to a nominal fee after that), and were cheaper than the fully prepaid/non-refundable direct bookings. (Turns out Thrifty was dirt cheap for good reason, but I’ll get to that in a future post…)

You should still compare with the major chains and with other aggregators like Kayak, and if Autoslash is not presently giving you a better deal, just make a fully-refundable booking on that another site and then get Autoslash to track it and try to beat that. You may have to act relatively fast when Autoslash sends you that email, because prices can vary a surprising amount.

Actually driving

Apart from all the items mentioned in the rules of the road, I still got surprised by other things.

  • Especially for interstates, the on-ramp is really long and taken really seriously; vehicles must and will accelerate to freeway speeds and slot themselves into a gap in the existing through traffic. Now, this generally works by having the through traffic yield to the merging traffic. But what was mildly surprising to me was that the huge trucks/semis in the right lane will very very urgently change lanes to the left to free up the right lane entirely, when they see another huge vehicle coming up the on-ramp. Result: you have to be extremely alert about passing large vehicles in the left lane, especially when approaching a freeway exit/entrance, and you better step on it if you’re halfway through passing and they start signalling left!!!
  • A corollary of the above: if there are three lanes on the interstate, even if you’re only driving at or just above the speed limit, you might want to consider taking the middle lane instead of the rightmost lane, to avoid the merging traffic. Also, in those cases, it seems that only the slow large vehicles are in the right lane, the speed-limit truckers will be in the middle lane too.
  • Very large vehicles will use their blinkers/hazard lights for two different reasons: (1) slowing down due to something ahead, like a vehicle stopped on the shoulder, or going to stop on the shoulder, (2) I’m going slow and it’s clear ahead please overtake me. I have not figured out how to clearly distinguish between these two cases.
  • Vehicles may slow down very sharply at each speed limit sign, especially when it’s being gradually lowered as the highway enters a town. This might be rational behaviour: towns may have their own police with their own jurisdiction, and those cops can raise revenues by sitting at the town line and trying to get people who’re speeding.
  • Gas stations pumps vary widely in their acceptance of debit cards. My primary card for this trip was a card issued in the U.S. but recently had the billing address changed to my Singapore one - some pumps asked for zip code and accepted my truncated Singapore postcode, others askeed for zip and rejected it, others asked for the debit PIN and accepted that… I didn’t test out how a Singapore signature-only credit card would work. This might be a little constraining for the 24-hour or unmanned gas stations. At the manned ones, you can take the card in and ask them to place a hold for X dollars on your card for pump Y - in that case you should specify the dollar amount, otherwise they will run the default hold which might easily be $100. (The default hold/authorization amount is unavoidable when running the card directly at the pump, which may be inconvenient for debit cards. I’ve seen anything from $1 to over $100.)
  • Gas station air pumps cost money, maybe $1.50 in quarters for perhaps four minutes of air.
  • Some high elevation areas/states permit gas of octane rating (R+M)/2 (AKI) of 85 to be sold, compared to 87 everywhere else. Various authorities on the internet appear to disagree on whether this is still a good idea with modern engines. I suspect that the car might be ok with some usage of it but you’ll probably get lower mileage, so it might be better to just stick to 87? (AKI 87 is around RON 92.)
  • Gas may contain varying amounts of ethanol, up to 10% or 15%. Some stations might have 0% ethanol gas but it seems to be for some specific use cases, not cars in general.