Yes, here we are, finally the first time I set foot on this North American continent, at almost 34 years old, during a family trip. I had already stopped several times at LAX, as they call it (Los Angeles airport), but I had never had the opportunity to spend any vacation there. It’s now done! I just came back from a one-month road trip in the United States, between San Francisco and its famous Golden Gate bridge, the arid area around Salt Lake City and the Rocky Mountains on the Canadian side, where I was lucky enough to spend a week. The West, its immensity, the breathtaking open spaces, the great Californian coast, the grandiose landscapes of Yosemite National Park, the stunning park of the Keys and Everglades in Florida, does it speak to you? The American dream, right?
I can’t say I know the United states very well after having spent only one month there. Nevertheless, it gave me a very good impression of the country and areas I had the opportunity to visit. Who has never dreamed of such a road trip, honestly? Who has never wanted to drive for hours on endless roads in the middle of the desert? In this article, which is the first one about the USA, I’ll explain everything you need to know to prepare your trip to the USA: itinerary, weather, organization, logistics once there, etc. Depending on how you travel, there are several ways to plan a road trip to the United States. Preparing your trip is never easy, and I hope this article will help you! For those who are interested, here is the website of the U.S. Embassy.
In my opinion, this is the first question to ask if you are planning a road trip in the United States. To be precise, you should think about it at the same time as you think about your itinerary, but also according to the price of the airfare to go there. Keep this idea in mind. Of course, you can go to the USA all year round, we all agree. But is there a better time to visit the Great Lakes? The immensity of Alaska? The Sierra Nevada? The Cape Cod? For all that, according to what you want to do, you will have to choose an “ideal season”, since visiting the Grand Canyon in December would be very different than visiting it in August… (well, it’s especially much colder… yes, it does snow in this very busy area in the winter!).
The country is huge, and the possibilities of circuit in the USA are almost endless. You can see everything, from desert, mountains, bears, dolphins, forests as far as the eye can see, and all in one and only trip. You can also decide to split it into several road trips. For lovers of off the beaten track and remote areas, there’s enough to enjoy yourself! No need to necessarily go to Mesa Verde, Lake Powell or Tahoe, the majestic Arches National Park, etc. to truly enjoy your American trip.
Regarding the climate, here is what I think we should remember: the South of the United States is, on average, much warmer than the North. Going to Texas or Louisiana in the middle of summer? You’re surely suicidal! I am not going to give you the average temperature and precipitation over the whole of the United States. There are some very good websites for that, such as Where&When, for example. So, start by looking at the weather in the areas you’re interested in. Chances are you won’t be able to choose your vacation dates, for example, depending on your job.
Be aware that most tourists plan a road trip on American soil usually between May and September (roughly), and a very large majority of them will be there in July/August. These are of course the hottest periods. You should also know that even in the middle of summer, some areas can be very cold at night. After having spent several nights at zero degrees in Yellowstone or Grand Teton, I do confirm. So, be careful about the chosen season depending on which places you want to go. Conversely, some places (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, etc.) can be very hot during the day.
To sum up, I recommend:
- In winter: you can for example choose a road trip on the east coast of the United States (under the snow), or else on the west coast, discovering the big American cities and their surroundings (New York, San Francisco, etc.). Visiting New-York or the Golden Gate under the snow must be a great thing to do in winter, I think! It can also be an opportunity for winter sports fans to discover the North-West of the USA for a little skiing or snowboarding, like Utah, Idaho or Montana. Overall, it can be cold, even very cold, on the classic states of the USA for a road trip, so a minority of people will decide to visit Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon or Brice Canyon under the snow. Beware also along the Pacific coast, it is not as hot as we think! One of the big advantages is that there will be much less people, obviously. Know that:
- The vast majority of the Western American parks will be open,
- It is the perfect season to visit the hottest areas (Vegas, the mythical Death Valley, etc.),
- Some parks may be however totally or partially closed (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia National Park, etc.),
- In summer: you can consider going anywhere in the United States. I would say the only limit will be the overwhelming heat during the day in certain areas. I am thinking in particular of Arizona, Utah, and all of the southern United States (Texas, etc.). Another negative point: tourists! You will never be alone to fully enjoy all these wonders, and don’t be surprised to see (too) many tourists. Be aware that some parks are only open during this period (Yellowstone N.P), maybe because it is during this period that you will normally not freeze to death (Glacier N.P).
In my opinion, I would advise you to travel to the United States during the off seasons, that’s to say the months of May/June and September/October. Many will not have any choice (like me) because of the school vacations for example, and a majority will do the road trip in the American West, between San Francisco and Las Vegas. So, I think it’s not a bad idea to avoid heat and tourists, isn’t it? Travelling out of season, in the middle of winter, will allow you to go for a walk while being almost alone in the world. You will also be able to find a cheap accommodation (lower prices).
This is one of the other questions to ask yourself for your road trip in the USA. If you don’t have choice regarding your vacation, the question won’t really raise. In most cases, I will say that you’ll have to adapt your itinerary according to the time you stay there. Those who have time (rarer) will do the opposite and choose an itinerary in the country and then adapt the time spent.
So, start by choosing in which scenario you are. Once you’ve decided on a 2-weeks, 3-weeks or 1-month road trip in the US, you can move forward on your itinerary and start planning what to do next. Then, the journey really begins. I don’t think there is an ideal length of time for your road trip in the US. It will also depend on how you travel (running or slow traveling), how much time you can take for your vacation, and most likely your budget as well. The United States is not Thailand, and traveling there for a month will end up being quite expensive (and I know what I’m talking about!).
I have an advice but that’s only my opinion: I rather see less things but better ones. For me, it seems unthinkable to want to see “all the most famous parks” in a single road trip. The national parks are sometimes quite distant one from the other, and I prefer to enjoy a few days in a single park rather than to stay there only 2 hours just to be able to say “I did it!”. To think about thus, according to your desires.
Here is the most difficult part, the one which will require the most time, organization, and which will force you to make a choice (well, several…) … To see everything is clearly not possible, you will inevitably miss things. But in the end, it is also what’s the most exciting, the most rewarding and motivating. The preparation of the trip is an integral part of the trip, right? We could open a debate on whether or not it is necessary to plan your road trip to the USA. It is a question that can be discussed, and that’s only every one’s opinion. Personally, I plan my trips less and less, but I still prepare a bit the main lines. For example, for this road trip, I had planned which national parks I wanted to go to. For the rest, I usually go with the flow!
Once you know how much time you have available for your vacation, it’s time to think about what you want to see and do there. What do you have in mind for your road trip in the USA? Visit the deserted lands of Arizona? See a geyser, a skyscraper, sunbath on the California or Florida beaches? Go hiking for several days in Yellowstone or Glacier National Park? The desert area of Utah? In short, as you will have realized, you first have to define your desires and what you wish to see.
It is possible that you will realize this step in correlation with the first one (the climate one), but also with the next one, which is the purchase and so the cost of the plane ticket to get to the United States.
I would tend to advise you to plan a set of areas you want to see, very often the national parks of the country. Once you have more or less everything in mind as well as your final destination, you can then look at a map of the USA, for example on Google Maps, and try to plan an exact route for your road trip in the USA. You should leave a margin of time regarding what the planners will give you. You will inevitably make stops to take pictures, go to the bathroom, make an unscheduled visit, have a bite to eat somewhere, etc. In short, think big!
Personally, I had planned the main national parks and other nice places, keeping in mind the time I had (1 month) and the way we travel (quietly and with a 2-years-old child).
Once the length of your vacation is set, and your itinerary done (more or less), you may be interested in purchasing your flight. We’re all looking for cheap flights, aren’t we? Here are some key points to know:
- Be FLEXIBLE with your dates, schedules and airlines. Consider even landing in other cities for your arrival and departure,
- It is clearly possible to find international flights starting at 200€ to Los Angeles, New-York or Miami (yes, I promise) from Paris or some major town in Europe. And for the airline, you will be spoilt for choice!
- I personally use Skyscanner, which I consider being the best flight comparator. The idea is setting “the cheapest month” and then to adapt your vacation dates to the ticket price, as far as you can.
- Remember that generally, the price of the flight will mainly depend on the season you are travelling, but also on the city you are arriving in.
- It is of course possible to arrive in one city and leave in another one. You can then consider taking two one-way trips for example, or even take a domestic flight.
For my part, I personally decided to fly from Papeete to San Francisco with the new low-cost airline Frenchbee, which offers really cheap flights depending on the dates, from 350€ round trip. Then, I flew with Delta Airline for the San Francisco – Salt Lake City section. The idea was to avoid the 4 extra days of travel (2 return trips).
Things are quite simple here. There are two things you have to absolutely think about:
- You must have a passport with a validity date of more than 6 months when you enter the United States. If you have a biometric passport, you have an authorization to stay in the country for 90 days.
- The other point to remember when visiting the USA is the ESTA application. It is done online and there is only one official website. Beware of all kinds of scams with related sites that try to make you believe they are official… The fee is 14$ per person, and you usually receive the answer within the day. The ESTA is valid for 2 years.
For people who have questions about border crossings, often the Canadian one, I have heard several different versions. Theoretically, it would seem that you have to pay $6 per person to cross the border. I passed through in August 2018, and I only had a passport check, both on the way to and from Canada. Nothing to pay.
Here is the time to wonder about your trips in the country, because road trip in the United States obviously implies means of locomotion and travel time, that’s the goal, isn’t it? Possibilities here are huge and everything will mainly depend on your desires and your budget. Between small city cars, campervan, 4×4, SUV, etc. there is something for everyone, I think.
If you are looking for a campervan or a van for your road trip in the USA, I recommend you have a look at the comparator below. It is, in my opinion, the best way to compare prices directly in a very large number of agencies. You can go there with your eyes closed.
There are countless must-see sites – so make the right choice for your rental vehicle!
Here are the key points to keep in mind when renting a vehicle for your road trip in the USA:
- Insurance: this is an important item to look at in your contract. So, pay attention to what is included or not. Personally, we decided to add at the last moment a repatriation and car exchange insurance.
- Age: it’s simple, you’ll need to be 21 years old, and it will be more expensive if you’re between 21 and 25 years old.
- International license: in theory, it is not mandatory, but some people have already had problems with it. As a security measure, I have done it.
- Gasoline prices: it is much cheaper than in France. You fill up to the gallon (about 3.8L). Very often, you will have the choice to pay either by credit card or in advance in cash, inside the store, before helping yourself. No problem with gas stations, they are plenty of them overall.
- Options: you can very often add a GPS, a baby seat, etc.
- Extra driver: very important thing. We didn’t pay attention and it costed 20$ per day extra for the second driver. So, be careful when renting your car!
A little tip: don’t necessarily look to pick up your car at the airport, as the bill can be much more expensive. As a general rule, a daily rental car can vary from 35 to 40$ depending on the model.
Long story short, I had two possibilities to pick up my car in Salt Lake City: at the airport or downtown. Go figure, downtown was $300 cheaper. I simply took a $25 cab from the airport to the rental company. You can also use the UBER application, which works very well for a stay in the USA.
During your road trip in the USA, this question will inevitably arise: where to sleep? The more time goes by, the less I prepare things in general, even since my little one was born.
Everyone sees it its own way: there are some who rather organize and plan everything during their trip, and others who prefer to let themselves be carried by the wind. Take into account these few important points:
- The season: in the middle of summer, it would be in theory wiser to book in advance, at least more than in winter.
- Some parks may be full several months in advance, so if you wish to stay within, you will have to book it then. You should also know that sometimes, you can find very good accommodations just outside, for less money…
- There are many couchsurfing and Airbnb in the country.
Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily advise to book everything, far from it, but it’s my own way of looking at things and of travelling. Nevertheless, I had booked my first two nights in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, time to arrive there and given the flight arrival times. On the way back, I had also booked all four nights in San Francisco. During my whole trip, the only other nights booked were the campgrounds in Yellowstone Park. It’s only open a few months of the year, and the campsites are taken over quite quickly.
For short vacation periods (less than 2 weeks), and if you are the kind of people who plans everything to the letter, then book your accommodations. For those who have time and a little latitude, you can handle it very well one day at a time. I had no worries during all my road trip in the United States, and I was right in the middle of the tourist season, in August.
Here are some info and prices ideas for your accommodation on site:
- Campsites: you can find them at all prices, from free (see this website) to about $30 per night for the most expensive ones (private campsites). I will write a complete article on the subject as soon as I have time, but camping in the country is easy and it’s by far what I prefer doing, with Airbnb.
- Motels: first prices are around $30 per night. Usually on the roadside, they can help out but lack charm in my opinion!
- Lodges/cabins: prices go up very quickly to more than 100$ per night, or even much more. I did not test personally.
I largely prefer road trips in the USA in camping, but it is just a matter of taste. However, it does require to have all the camping equipment. It is what I prefer, in order to be as close as possible to the parks and nature. I have to admit that when it’s cold, it’s not always fun (especially with a 2-and-a-half-years-old child). I enjoyed a few nights in Airbnb in the warm! You can also use the Booking website, which works very well and offers many accommodations in the American West.
This is a point I haven’t yet taken the time to develop on this blog. However, it’s a matter that should not be overlooked when traveling in the USA, and if you want to be sure to have a good trip… You’re going to tell me: why especially in the USA? Because when you travel to underdeveloped or low-income countries, hospitalization or a doctor’s appointment costs little or nothing. I have experienced a dentist in Laos, a doctor in Malaysia and several days in hospitals in Indonesia. And even without any insurance, you can afford it.
In the United States, there have been several feedback of travelers who have had problems there without insurance. Medical costs are colossal and can easily exceed hundreds of thousands of Euros.
I had therefore chosen to take an insurance with my bank for the three of us, to cover all the hospital and eventual repatriation expenses we might have for this road trip in the USA. For your information, this cost me a little more than 100€ per person for the year.
In reality, there are some insurance companies specialized in the tourism area (AVI, Chapka Assurances, etc.) and they all offer weekly or monthly packages for your vacations. Prices vary according to which areas you are going to. Be careful to take a good look at the places covered, and especially at the coverage limits. For your information, the most expensive prices (this is not a coincidence) are displayed for Canada and the USA.
For your information, if you bought your ticket with your credit card, you usually have a basic 90-days insurance (almost 3 months). Its limits are quite low, so be careful. With a premium or Gold card, it’s already much better.
Remember also that you will spend a lot of time on the road, and we all know that an accident can happen very quickly. If you have to go to the hospital or if someone files a complaint against you for an accident, you will usually be happy to have an insurance. Wouldn’t it be a shame to ruin such a trip for that?
This question will surely interest everyone, because unless you have the wherewithal, you will have to keep a budget or an estimate. As always, it’s quite tricky to answer and give ready-made answers.
Depending on how you travel, where you sleep (camp sites, motels or hotels), how you eat (snack, restaurant, fruits), the activities you want to do on site (hiking, kayaking, helicopter, etc.), your budget for a road trip in the USA could be very variable, from simple to double, I would say. It is therefore difficult to give perfect figures.
The main points of expenses to be calculated will be (excluding air tickets):
- Renting a car: from 25/30$ per day minimum
- Transportation by car, gas: a full tank of gas, between 40 and 50$ depending on the car.
- Accommodations: from 12 to 25$ in camping, 30$ on average for an Airbnb, from 50$ minimum in motel, much more for hotels (>100$). Beware of tips in the United States which are in theory mandatory, about 15 to 20% of the bill.
- Food: it is not excessive in Walmart-type supermarkets. It all depends on your habits and where you originally live. Compared to Tahiti, the USA is not expensive at all. It will cost you less to eat your own lunch and dinner. A menu at MacDo/Fast Food for 7$, a meal in a snack bar or small restaurant for 20/25$.
- Activities: a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon costs more than $200.
- Entrance to national parks: from 10 to 35$. Do not hesitate to get the “America the beautiful” card, which give you the possibility to visit all the parks of the USA for 80$.
- Sidelines (shopping, ESTA, credit card fees, gifts, etc.).
If you are looking to plan activities during your road-trip in the USA, I recommend you take a look at this website.
As a rule of thumb, based on my experience this month in the US as well as the one of other travelers in the country, you should expect an average of at least $70 per day per person. The average is more around 100/120$ per day without the flights, all inclusive.
Last important point in my opinion to plan for your trip to the USA is the equipment. It will obviously depend on several points:
- Season: it is the first thing to think about. Don’t think that because you’re leaving in the middle of August, it will be very hot and you’ll only have to take shorts and T-shirts! Many parks in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, etc. are at high altitudes and can therefore get chilly or cold in the evening, and especially at night.
- Parks you’ll visit: As mentioned above, even in summer, some parks are known for their relative coolness. We had voluntarily chosen to move away from the hottest parks (Grand Canyon, Brice Canyon, Antelope Canyon, etc.) and focus on the ones in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. To give you an idea, we had a few nights at zero in Grand Teton National Park, and also many cold nights in Yellowstone as well as all over Montana. Very often, it was around 4° at night. Same on the Canadian side around Banff and Jasper, so be careful.
- Type of accommodation: if you are in a camper van for example or in a tent, it’s game-changing. If you sleep in Airbnb, your risk of getting cold is lower…
In any case, even in the middle of summer, I advise you to take a good look at the average temperatures of the parks you will go to during your road trip. Anyway, bring some clothes for the cold if you’re going to camp in tents!
Randomly, I would say:
- Some sweaters, a poncho for the rain or the wind,
- All the material for hiking,
- A swimsuit (for hot springs or rivers and lakes!),
- Adapters for local plugs (you can take a universal adapter).
I’m coming to the end of this long article, and I hope you will find it useful for the preparation of your road trip in the USA. This road trip really made me want to discover the United States and Western Canada on a next trip, to get another glimpse of the other national parks. I keep such good memories of it, and I am already longing for the next trip. I’m processing my travel pictures and I’m being blown away again!
If you have any questions about this article, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment! What are your plans for your first trip so far?
I wish you a nice trip and a good road! Among the natural sites and beautiful landscapes I fell in love with… a visit to the Grand Teton National Park? I will forever keep in mind the unforgettable panoramas of the Tetons.
I’m curious, where have you felt the most change of scenery in the United States? Your most beautiful excursions? Most beautiful waterfalls?