USA Driving Advice and Car Hire Info
Driving in USA
It could be argued that the USA is the ultimate ‘driving abroad’ location. The country is huge, with unlimited sights to see, and as a relatively ‘young’ country is probably more car friendly than anywhere else on earth. Roads are usually in excellent condition, even in remote areas, though the vast distances encompass numerous different climates and terrains which all present their own challenges.
You should research the area you’ll be visiting before setting off so you know what to expect, whether that’s the amount of ‘quarters’ you’ll need for toll roads, which roads in the mountains get cut off by snow at which times of year or escape routes in the event of a hurricane.American cities are usually set out in a grid formation with numbered streets which makes destination finding easier than in most countries. There are some anomalies however, with older Cities such as San Francisco being potentially more challenging. Also be aware that there are often potentially dangerous areas of Cities quite close to the centre which are easy to stray into. Be on your guard and if you feel conspicuous while driving through an area just keep going until you reach a safe location such as a hotel or public building where you can stop and ask directions.
For travellers used to driving in Europe , driving in USA shouldn’t present many challenges. Speed limits are lower than in many countries, and American drivers tend to abide by road rules in most cases and drive at a sensible speed. In my experience they often seem to hesitate when turning corners or approaching junctions so give them more room than you would a driver at home. Away from Cities, roads tend to be long, straight and smooth and the biggest risk is that you’ll put your foot down and get caught for speeding (I speak from experience!). Sometimes using cruise control helps regulate your speed, as does checking the cars on the road around you- if you’re the fastest car, you’ll be the one to get stopped.
Some other differences you’ll experience – cars tend to be automatic rather than manual, and for UK visitors, the steering wheel will be on the left of the car. If you’ve never driven an automatic, ask the rental company to give you a quick demo- the golden rule is to only use one foot, Tuck the other away behind you so you aren’t tempted to adopt a two footed approach! Another difference is that, if the way is clear, you can turn right at a red light. (That would be the equivalent of a left turn in UK ie you aren’t crossing the traffic coming towards you). This rule is potentially the only cause of impatience for US drivers –you’ll get a toot of the horn if you don’t move.
In summary, driving in the USA is generally a great experience and easy for inexperienced visitors to handle. In my view, the biggest challenge is likely to be boredom on long journeys on straight roads as you fight the urge to put your foot down and do an extra 20 MPH!
America is a huge country and therefore the ‘norm’ is to take a flight between Cities, unless obviously you’re on a driving trip. Some distances and approximate driving distances between major cities and areas of interest are as follows-
Chicago to LA, (The start and end points for Route 66- for more detail see my Classic roadtrips page) -3300 km, 30 Hours
Chicago to New York -1300 KM, 13 hours
Chicago to Washington DC – 1130 KM, 12 hours
Chicago to Denver -1600KM, 15 hours
Denver to Las Vegas – 1200KM, 11 hours
New York to Washington DC – 370KM 4.5 Hours
New York to Boston -360KM, 4 hours
Washington DC to Orlando – 1370 KM, 13 Hours
Orlando to Miami -400KM, 4.5 Hours
Orlando to Memphis -1330KM, 14 Hours
Orlando to New Orleans- 1030KM , 10 hours
New Orleans to Houston -560KM, 5.5 Hours
Houston to Oklahoma City – 720KM, 7 hours
Houston to El Paso – 1200KM, 11 hours
El Paso to Phoenix -690KM, 6 hours
Phoenix to Las Vegas – 640KM, 6.5 hours
Phoenix to Los Angeles- 600KM, 6 Hours
Las Vegas to Los Angeles- 450KM, 4.5 hours
Los Angeles to San Francisco – 615KM, 6 hours
Las Vegas to San Francisco – 930 KM, 9.5 Hours
San Francisco to Seattle-1300KM, 13.5 Hours
There are also some handy online calculators giving driving distances between most major Cities such as this one -
This is a useful website which provides info on various classic drives throughout the USA-
USA Car Rental -
Obviously in the home of the automobile, every international rental company is represented ie Sixt, Hertz, Europcar, Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, National, Thrifty and Dollar have branches right across the country. You will certainly not be lacking in choice of who to rent from in USA. Using a broker site such as Argus Car Hire will probably get you a cheaper price than booking direct with one of the big companies but you may not know who you’re renting from until you get your booking confirmation. In many countries this is usually a risk, but with USA, all the companies adhere to high standards so this is one country where the broker sites are probably your best bet. Another option is one of the big web discount sites such as ebookers.com. or Expedia
are an established broker dealing with all the main brands in USA.
This company specialise in renting older vehicles at discount prices. They also tend to have more relaxed rules on renting to young drivers and people without credit cards.
There are also a number of companies dealing in campervan (RV) rentals-
This one based in California-
If you’re flexible and looking for a cheap RV rental option, some companies offer discounted one way rentals as ‘re-locations’. ie they allow you to drive their vehicles to another part of the country. This is likely to be more readily available at certain times of the year eg at the end of summer, companies may want more vehicles located in the warmer south than the North. The following companies provide more detail on this-
This is a well established company who can arrange motor home/RV Rental in a number of countries around the world, including USA
This is a useful site for planning an RV trip across USA-
Most people’s dream would be to rent a classic car for their USA road trip. This company rent classic cars such as 1967 Camarro SS, 1964 Corvette Stingray or 1955 Chevy Bel Aire and allow customers to start in LA or Chicago and drive the whole of Route 66 (plus some other classic USA Drives). The cars are fitted with modern aids such as A/C and satnav so blend the best of modern techology with the spirit of years gone by!
USA Self Drive Rules
You will usually be allowed to take rental cars into Canada but you should check this with the rental company when you make the reservation. There are likely to be restrictions on taking cars to Mexico though the company below specialise in vehicles which can be driven between California and Mexico. I’m not aware of similar companies operating at other US/Mexico borders.