Five quick tips for your dream US road trip

An American road trip is the dream trip for many.

Hiring a car, hitting the road and seeing the best of the country at your pace and with your own itinerary.

Gets you a bit excited just thinking about it, right?

Well sure, all that freedom and imagining the wind in your hair from your open-top car sounds great, but the cold hard reality is that there are some essential steps to be taken before you tap your inner wild child. 

Car rental 

Car rental is a minefield, because it’s not just the daily fees. Car rental companies are very keen to extract as much cash from you as possible.

After just a quick search, I found just some of the fees rental companies charge including toll fees, navigation system fees, late return fees, mileage limit fees, roadside assistance fees, airport surcharges, additional driver fees and underage driver fees.

That is a by no means an exhaustive list, so you need to educate yourself about how much you budget before signing on the dotted line.

It’s also a good idea to carefully fill out the condition report and take photos of the car from all angles inside and out before you head off and when you hand the car back.

Many drivers are reporting a scam where a damage bill turns up after you have returned home, making it difficult to contest a claim.

Car rental insurance

It’s probably not news to anyone, but signing up for car rental insurance is a minefield vastly tipped in the insurer’s favour. You will need to do some rigorous research before you accept any contract.

If you accept the mindset that the insurer is hellbent on extracting as much cash from you as possible, then you should be okay.

They will try to sell you a whole bunch of extras, and I’m not here to support your decisions one way or another, but just to say that it pays to be very clear about what you do and do not want as the upsell can add hundreds to your bill.

There are a few terms you should be familiar with before you enter into an agreement.

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) covers the cost of damage to the external part of the car but does not cover theft.

Theft Protection (TP,) an obvious one.

Third Party Liability, covers you for any injury or damage you cause.

Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) is a combination of CDW and TP. Sometimes it means you are off the hook for daily fees if the rental is off the road due to required repairs.

It also pays to check what your travel insurance and credit card insurance covers, so you don’t double up.

Plan to go off-season

Most US workers only get two weeks of holidays a year and as such there are some popular travel periods to avoid.

Top of the list are the Northern Hemisphere summer, Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas/New Year. Americans generally avoid the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so there are some bargains to be had then.

So, in reality you have plenty of time to hit the road. And the varied climate and landscapes mean you can still enjoy the weather you want if you plan. A warm drive through the south or a more invigorating northern adventure.

Travelling out of season also means better accommodation deals and less traffic on the roads.

Plan your route

You don’t have to go overboard about it – we all know that one person who loves their spreadsheets a little bit too much – but even a rough itinerary is better than nothing.

At a basic level, just planning where you sleep at night can go a long way to making your trip and budgeting more enjoyable.

A handy online tool is, which has loads of suggested itineraries from exploring southern Californian cuisine to winter sports in Utah. The site details the estimated length of the trip, attractions on the way, travel time to destinations and suggested side trips.

Don’t plan your route

So you’ve done all the planning, hired a car, booked accommodation, but don’t forget to have fun. Following a schedule can suck the life out of a trip, so if an attraction not on your itinerary tickles your fancy or you want to stay a few more days at a spot, do that.

Leave a few ‘free’ days in your schedule to just mess around and find out.

Have you done a US road trip? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Pack right, pack light

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.


  1. Back in 2013 my wife and I went there for the first time, first os trip too. We had a fantastic time, lots of research beforehand, made out an itinerary using a spreadsheet, even what roads we would take but always open to change as we went. We had 5 weeks and drove around 8,000kms, LA to LA via the Western states and into Canada. NO travel agent for anything, booked a rental car online which went perfectly, while waiting for the car to come out I was talking to the agent, after 5 minutes no car was brought out, he saw a luxury car in the lot and said we could have that one, way higher priced vehicle but obviously no more charge and it performed without a hitch. This was with Avis, couldn’t fault them and their price was good. Booked flights online and the LA accommodation online. Also booked a few places along our route before we left home that were busier to ensure we had somewhere to stay but 80% of the motels we booked on the day using my phone. Used Google maps to find our way.

    The whole trip was wonderful and with the internet so easy to book everything and take your time where and when you needed. Total cost for everything including fuel, food was $13,000 for five weeks which was great and far less than going with a tour group and there’s no rushing for that 6.00am bus or thinking you have to go there today when you really don’t feel like it. Self drive means doing what you want when you want and you can stay in small towns, regular motels, which gives you a better feel for the country.

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