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Roadtripping in the U.S.

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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:

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:

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:

Mobile apps on the go to use during the trip:

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.