Monday, 28 August 2017 / London, UK

Top Tips For Planning An American Road Trip

If you follow me over on Instagram, then you would know from my 38219319 slightly annoying Instagram posts, that I am flying to Florida next Friday for a jam-packed (trust me I'm already exhausted from it and I haven't even gone yet) road trip, where I'll be exploring Miami Beach, Orlando, Key West, Fort Lauderdale and *drumroll please* none other than the Disney World. Although I am ridiculously excited, I'm not going to lie to you, the OCD organiser 'I need to know the plan for every second of every day' in me is freaking out a little about the fact that the itinerary is very (very) vague and although the eager beaver in me has been researching everything from the best brunch spots in Miami Beach to the best places to buy cigars in Little Havana (I don't even smoke) for the past 4 months, I still feel ridiculously unprepared for what to expect and can't help feeling that I'm turning up at Heathrow Airport on Friday with no bloody idea what I'm doing for the next 12 days, or where I'm going and how I'm getting there. But do you know what? That's the beauty of an American Road trip and something which I'm slowly teaching myself to embrace, rather than freak out and panic about. Road trips are meant to be fun. They're meant to be spontaneous and they're meant to be liberating, and the excitement of the unknown is what makes a road trip so special after all. There's a reason people opt for them over pre-planned packaged holidays after all...
So I wanted to share with you my top tips for planning an American road trip for anybody who is planning on visiting the USA, whether that be exploring the West Coast like I did two summers ago, or heading to Florida like I am this year. Planning a road trip in the USA can be stressful at times when there's heaps and heaps of wishy washy information all over the internet and you're dealing with a huge country - and I mean it when I say America is HUGE. Planning a road trip over in America is not like all hopping into your mates KA in England and heading on a 'road trip' to Southend-On-Sea for the day, with your mate's smashed up iPhone 6 propped up on the dashboard to direct you and a bag full of Sainsbury's goodies in the back. 

So without further a do, lets get stuck into your one-stop guide for everything you need to know before you head off on your road trip, you lucky things..

1. MAKE SURE YOU'RE ALLOWED TO BE IN THE COUNTRY FIRST

First things first, you need to get yourself an ESTA. It's something that is overlooked by so many people, but considering you can't get into the USA without one, I'd say it's pretty dam important! You can fill out the form here and it costs around £11 (depending on the exchange rate) to do so and once you're approved the officers will already have the information electronically for your arrival in America, so no need to print it out. 

2. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE SIZE OF AMERICA. 

When you're from an island as small as the United Kingdom, you tend to forget just how easily accessible everything is for us. Friends live just a 10 minute drive away, the nearest seaside is probably about an hour away from your house and if you run out of milk mid-cuppa, then don't fret because chances are, you've probably got a Tesco Express or Sainsbury's Local within walking distance. This does not apply to America. Nothing (I repeat nothing) is within walking distance. Ok, slight exaggeration, but just please don't underestimate the sheer size of America. Things may look close together on Google Maps, but a distance that looks about a 30 minute car journey could actually be a 3 hour and 30 minute car journey, so do your research. Use Google Map directions to calculate timings (trust me Google Maps will be your best friend) and don't plan your itinerary before first figuring out how long it will take you to drive from destination to destination. 

3. TIP, TIP, TIP.

One of the things that shocked me the most after spending a month in America, was the difference in tipping culture between America and England. In England, tipping isn't compulsory and with many restaurants offering bar service (Nandos I'm talking about you), it's fair to say we're just not that used to tipping a lot. In England, the standard is 10%, whereas in America, the average expected tip is 15-20%. When I was in some parts of California however, some restaurants actually brought back our bill to (not so) politely tell us we hadn't left enough tip...we'd left 20%. This happened both in Vegas and several times in LA and it can be embarrassing to say the least - especially when you've left more than enough. But just be conscious that the waiters are paid minimum wage and depend on their tips, so do try and give the 20% if you've received good service, but also don't be like me and get mugged off by rude waiters and be demanded to leave a 30% tip. You can be honest if you received bad service and you don't legally have to leave a tip, but just please remember to factor in tips into your budgeting. It's very easy to calculate your meal up and put your $40 down, only to then realise you've gotta find another $10 to put down for the tip.
Also worth noting that you're expected to tip $1 per drink and to tip about 10% of a cab journey as well...

4.  GET YOUR ASS INSURED. 

Unless you majorly failed Geography at school, then you will know that America isn't in the EU, meaning our trusted EHIC health cards are useless in America. Unlike holidaying in Spain or Greece where we can easily visit a doctor or hospital without having to spend a penny thanks to that trusty blue card, the USA is a completely different story. A visit to the doctors will set you back anything from $100+ and hospital fees can be in the thousands. I ended up with a seriously nasty spider bite on my big toe in California which meant I had to hobble about in flip-flops for about 2 weeks of my trip and was attempting to self-treat the bite whenever possible with whatever I could find in the pharmacies to avoid a lengthy and costly hospital stay. It probably wasn't my wisest move not attending a hospital, but the idea of having to find hundreds of dollars in my travel budget to pay for treatment upfront before it could be reimbursed by my insurer was just not an option.
You never know what could happen on a trip and it's just not worth taking a risk, so make sure you get yourself some good travel insurance before you go. Comparethemarket.com and Moneysupermarket.com are the best websites for travel insurance comparison, so do your research and make sure you are fully covered before you set off on your trip, as it's always better to be safe than sorry. 

5. BRING A PHONE WITH INTERNET ACCESS.  

I usually love the idea of a digital detox when I go on holiday and before EE introduced free EU roaming, the closest I got to having a phone abroad was frantically checking my Instagram everytime I walked through the hotel lobby and rinsed their wifi en route to the buffet, but I have to admit you really do need a phone with working 3G in America. Maps on your iPhone will be your best friend in America and I'm not just talking about the driving aspect. America is huge and not always easily navigable like the European cities I'm so used to visiting. It can be difficult to find lunch spots or restaurants when the area you're in is so vast and overwhelming, so it really does help to have internet access on your phone to be able to easily find reputable restaurants nearby using the travel saviour that is Tripadvisor. It cuts out a lot of time wasted wandering aimlessly down street after street to eventually end up settling with a tacky chain restaurant because the hunger gets the better of you.

I couldn't have got around California without 3G, as I used it daily for Uber, Tripadvisor, Google Maps and online banking. If you're on a 4GEE Extra plan, you can now take all your data with you to Europe, Canada and America, meaning you don't have to pay a penny extra. 3 also offers free roaming in the USA for all their customers and other networks offer daily roaming rates so do your research and see what your options are for your mobile network. Failing that, you can pick up a pay-as-you-go American SIM when you're out there which will give you a daily allowance of data for not a lot of money, so consider your options and then roam to your hearts content!

6. DON'T HAVE IN 'N' OUT TWICE IN A DAY. 

Word of advice...if you're spending a few weeks in America, then do try and counteract the numerous In 'N' Out burgers you'll be eating with the odd gym visit or some form of rigorous exercise. I went to California a good, healthy size and landed at Heathrow Airport one month later in tracksuit bottoms (no joke) to be greeted by my Mum saying "ooh you look like you erm...enjoyed yourself". Just say it Mum, I got fat. A mixture of sugary iced teas, bottomless fizzy drinks (everything in America is bottomless, I swear), a new-found obsession with In 'N' Out burgers, fluffy pancakes for breakfast, peanut butter M&M's and Birthday cake flavoured Oreos, I pretty much destroyed my figure over a 4 week period. The quality of food in the USA is generally pretty poor and tonnes of hidden colourings, preservatives and the dreaded high fructose corn syrup in everything can be a recipe for disaster if you're prone to gaining weight.

It's extremely hard to stay motivated when there are treats left right and centre that we just don't get in the UK, but if you don't want to be waddling back through Heathrow arrivals, then here are a few tips I'll be attempting to follow this time around in America:
  • Avoid sugary drinks (iced teas, fizzy drinks, slushies etc.) where possible and try and stick to water with meals, as most soft drinks are refillable in America, meaning you're unintentionally adding hundreds of calories to every meal without even noticing. 
  • Shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes for food that isn't stuffed full of preservatives and chemicals and is as natural as you can get in America. 
  • Food on the go isn't really a thing in America and when you're on the road, the only options you're usually presented with are Taco Bell, McDonalds, Starbucks or In 'N' Out. So if you have a long drive ahead, then plan ahead and make a packed lunch or make a detour via a Whole Foods and pick up a deli salad. 
  • If there is really nothing on the road apart from fast food, then try and stick to Chipotle - the healthiest of the lot. 
  • Swop sugary, fattening treats for frozen yoghurt, for a slightly healthier (and yummy) alternative. 

7. BOOK YOUR RENTAL CAR BEFORE YOU ARRIVE.

Car rental in America isn't cheap, so do make sure to make some (hefty) space in your budget. For both road trips, I have used Alamo car rental and it's considerably cheaper to book and pay for your car rental before you arrive in the USA, so be sure to book in advance and make sure all charges are included. The second vehicle we booked for California was ridiculously cheap when we booked it online and there was a reason for that...when we arrived to collect the keys, we had to cough up about another £300 each for insurance etc. which they had conveniently not included in the online price, so I advise you to call up instead of booking online and make sure to get verbal and physical confirmation that everything is included in the total price and you won't have to cough up any more money when you arrive in America, as it's a sure way to ruin your trip as soon as you arrive otherwise.

 If you're under 25, then it's worth noting that you will be charged a 'young driver daily surcharge' rate, which is usually about $25 per day, so it can soon add up if you're planning to hire a car for a few weeks. The car rental in America works by vehicle category and both times I have paid for a SUV category car. After a short shuttle ride from the airport, you are shown to the rental car park and you can literally take your pick from about 30 vehicles in the category that you paid for. The keys are in the cars and you're usually fighting other people for the fleekiest SUV in the plot, but it's worth saying that please don't do what we did the first time and choose a vehicle which is the most Instagrammable, but instead choose the one with the biggest boot! Usually the most visually sassy vehicles have the smallest boots, so put your Instagram shots to the side and let practicality take over as don't forget, you will have a boot full of huge suitcases for the duration of your road trip, so the bigger the boot, the better! You also want to make sure you choose a vehicle which is comfortable as you will be spending anything up to 6 hours on one drive, so comfort and leg room is key. And remember leather seats + 30 degree heat = sweaty AF legs, so be very sensible with your car selection...

8. AIRBNB WILL BE YOUR BEST FRIEND.

For both my West Coast road trip and my upcoming Florida trip, not one single hotel was booked. Hotels in America can be extremely pricey (especially in LA and Miami Beach) and when booking from the UK or another European country, you are greeted with a hefty additional tax bill upon your check-in. In order to avoid this, Airbnb is the way forward.
Unless travelling solo, Airbnb will be the most purse-friendly option for accommodation as the nightly rate is split between you all, usually meaning your nightly rate is usually something like £50 each. I could rave and rave about my love for Airbnb and how it has allowed me to travel to places I never thought imaginable before (thanks to ridiculous hotel prices), but for now, here are the main reasons to opt for an Airbnb apartment over a hotel:  
  • Your host will always have the best knowledge of the neighbourhood and most apartments have a travel guide, bursting with recommendations, favourite restaurants, bars etc. cutting a lot of your research out! 
  • You have access to a kitchen, saving you hundreds of dollars on unnecessary breakfasts and drinks out. Cooking in is a great way to make room in your budget for more exciting things, or more importantly...shopping.
  • Apartments are usually in prime spots - close enough to the action, but not in the middle of noisy, crowded tourist spots and neighbourly and residential, but not too far away from the action! You will feel like a local and nothing beats that feeling! 
  • Most apartments come with a free parking spot, cutting out any parking fees and unnecessary costs.
  • You will have access to a lounge/balcony/terrace, meaning if you're feeling like a cosy night in with Oreos and popcorn, you can do that to your hearts content - unlike in a hotel where you only have a bed. Some of the best nights I had in California, were when we got some wine in, got in our PJ's and put something on on Netflix and chatted until sunrise. When you've been travelling for weeks, you'll be so grateful for that extra space...

9. DO HAVE A ROUGH ITINERARY/DON'T CRY IF YOU DON'T STICK TO IT. 

As I said earlier, with both road trips I've felt extremely unprepared itinerary wise, but that is the beauty of road trips. Road trips allow you to be spontaneous and they encourage you to explore unexpected and unique places off the beaten track that you never even knew existed. So do try and have rough itinerary of what place each day will be spent in, but leave the days as free as possible to figure it all out while you're there. You'll soon figure out what you want to spent your time doing.
For each trip I've had a Google docs spreadsheet where I've literally just put each day and what area it will be spent in and have left the rest down to spontaneity. By planning your route and where each day will be spent will help you to budget and book your accommodation accordingly, but I strongly recommend just leaving the rest down to spontaneity.

If you plan too much and have a rigid itinerary with every minute of every day planned, that lessens your chances of being able to make detours or stop randomly at roadside attractions or beaches along the way. So resist the temptation to organise every day and get on the flight with a few weeks of uncertainty ahead and trust me, you won't regret it...

10. TAKE PHOTOS AND LOTS OF THEM...

There is absolutely nothing worse than returning from a trip of a lifetime, only to discover you hardly took any photos. As time goes on, you will remember the memories less and less, so your photographs are all you have to remind you of what a bloody good time you had. Whenever I'm feeling down, I turn my laptop on, head over to Photos and waste hours flicking through my West Coast road trip photos and videos and within 5 minutes I'm sat beaming away to myself and feeling all nostalgic. So take as many photos as you can, film whatever you feel like filming (even if it's just your friend in the front attempting to dutty whine with a seatbelt on to some Sean Paul on the open road) and most importantly, have the time of your life! 

USA road trips are often a once in a lifetime opportunity, so enjoy every minute. Battle through the jet lag, say yes to every opportunity, chat to and meet as many people as you possibly can, be spontaneous, treat yo self in the outlets, be a cliche tourist and forget about what everyone will think and do it all whilst wearing the I Love LA t-shirt if you want to! 
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