Driving in another country (especially on the opposite side of the road) might seem a bit scary, but it is usually the best way to see some of the most beautiful landscapes.
We first drove in the US to get from LA to Indio for Coachella in 2016 as it seemed like the easiest option, and then we could have a car to get us to and from the festival each day. We then drove from Indio to Las Vegas through the Joshua Tree National Park (beautiful) and the Mojave Desert (bumpy!). Later on that trip we also hired a car in Chicago so we could drive out to visit friends in Indiana.
The couple of days of driving were enough to spark our interest and we returned to America for a 2 month road trip! If you are thinking of embarking on a road trip of your own here are some tips to keep in mind.
Some marked roads are not maintained
As I was saying the Mojave Desert is BUMPY as the roads are not maintained so they are full of pot-holes and cracks. It is still a road marked on a map and there were heaps of trucks driving by, but if you are heading out for the first time I would recommend staying on more major highways for a smoother ride.
Exits are very well signed with numbers
Australian highways and freeways are numbered but they are not very widely used or well sign posted. Driving in the US is so much easier in this regard, as every single exit is numbered and it is obvious when you are passing exit 25 that 26 will be coming up next.
Four-way stops are weird but you get used to them
America doesn’t seem to have any round-a-bouts and instead plenty of intersections have a four-way stop, where every direction has a stop sign. The idea is that you stop and let whoever was there first go, and wait for your turn. If two cars arrived at the same time you are meant to let the person on your right go first.
You can turn right on a red light
Unless otherwise signposted you are allowed to turn right on a red light provided it is safe to do so (like a give way sign). It feels a bit odd at first but it is actually really handy to keep traffic flowing!
Just keep the yellow line to your left
Most roads in Australia are all marked with white lines, but in America the middle center line is marked yellow which makes it a lot easier to help you stick to the right side of the road!
It is very easy to drive on the ‘wrong side’ of the road, but harder to adjust back home
I found that I picked up driving on the right hand side very easily, but then when I returned home I suddenly forgot how to drive on the left! I think you are paying attention so carefully in another country that when you come home your auto-pilot is a bit off. For a few weeks after I returned home I was flipping my windscreen wipers instead of my indicator – oops.
Petrol is pay at the pump
The default payment option at every fuel station is to pay with a credit card at the pump before you start filling up with fuel. The machine will require your zip code, and we would have some luck with 90210 or using some random 5 digits. Other times the machine would just not accept it and you have to go into the store. If this happens you can pre-pay an amount and they will refund you whatever you don’t use, or you can leave some money with the cashier and come back after.
Petrol is cheap but varies from state to state
Petrol is very affordable compared to Australian prices, but it does vary between states (due to different taxes) and more populated areas like California are usually more expensive. If you are dropping off your vehicle at somewhere like LAX then I recommend you pre-pay to drop off the car empty as it will be cheaper than filling it up yourself nearby.
Everyone seems to disregard speed limits
Apparently there are speed cameras in the US but I can tell you we drove from Boston to LA and only saw one contraption we think might have been a speed camera. Everyone zooms past you at 10-20 miles an hour more than the sign post. We did see a few cars being pulled over by police so I would say still be careful and just get used to others zipping past you all day long.
Roadside stops are aplenty
I was surprised at just how often there were roadside stops, and they include huge petrol stations, multiple take away options, hotels and shops etc. There were less on the west coast but still came up often enough we could have rest stops and buy snacks or water. While the driving distances are comparable to Australia is is nowhere near as remote. We also found that welcome centers and tourist stops were very well stocked with nice clean toilets too.
Beware the toll roads
There are a lot more toll roads than we have in Australia. Most car rental companies fit their cars with the electronic payment system so you don’t have to do anything, but they charge you a fee per day to use them on top of what the toll is. We mostly tried to avoid toll roads (usually it just means taking a more scenic route which is nicer anyway!)
An international licence is not needed
You can hire and drive a car in the US on your normal Australian drivers licence, and you don’t need to get an international licence. Having said that we did get our international licence on both occasions just in-case, but we never needed to use it.
Don’t drink and drive
The blood alcohol limit in most states is 0.08% which is slightly more than the Australian limit of 0.05% but to be on the safe side make sure you are parked and stopped for the night before having some drinks.
Have you ever driven in a different country?