Tips for international visitors: How to plan a classic American road trip

It’s a big country that offers something for everyone; here’s how to prepare so you can experience the best of what the U.S. has to offer

Petrified Forest National Park. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

There’s almost nothing more quintessentially American than the road trip. Sure, the origins of the automobile are European, but it was Michigan visionaries Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford that made cars accessible and relatively affordable to the average person. With more drivers, came more roads, and more to see along the way. Although a large portion of the country is often dismissed as “flyover” territory, there is still no better way to experience the U.S.—from sea to shining sea—than by taking a good, old-fashioned, American road trip. But before you hit the road, here are some helpful tips for international visitors.  

Passports and visas

International visitors are typically required to have a passport that is valid for six months beyond their intended stay in the U.S. However, if your home country is among the 125 nations exempt from this rule, your passport only needs to be valid for the length of your visit. 

Generally, a foreign tourist must obtain a nonimmigrant visa (Visitor Visa B-2) before entering the U.S. A visa gives you written permission to visit for a designated period of time. Make sure to apply well in advance of your departure date, as the process does require an interview and $160 payment. For a complete list of requirements, consult the U.S. Department of State website. If your home country is among the 39 nations in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), you can travel in the U.S. without a visa. However, you still need approval through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to departure.

Air travel rules

Before boarding your U.S.-bound flight, review the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules about what’s allowed in your luggage, especially the Liquids Rule.

Driver’s license requirements

If you’re planning a road trip in the U.S., you’ll certainly need to drive. Bring a valid driver’s license from your own country. Some states and rental companies also require an International Driving Permit (IDP). You must obtain an IDP from the motor vehicles department in the country that issued your driver’s license. For more on driving requirements, click here

And remember, you’ll be driving on the right side of the road.

Car rental

Most car rental companies require that the driver be at least 20 or 21 years old; in Michigan and New York, drivers as young as 18 years old can rent a car. However, any driver under the age of 25 may be charged an additional daily surcharge, depending on the rental company’s policy and the rental location. The extra fee can range from $5 to $57 per day. Younger drivers may also be restricted regarding the type of car that they can rent—if it’s fast and sporty, it may be a no-go.

The cost of renting a car can vary widely and depends on several factors: size of the car, rental location, and time of year. While it’s possible to rent a subcompact car for as little as $13 per day, you’ll typically pay closer to $25. As the size of the car increases, so does the price. Cars rented at airports are generally more expensive than those rented in downtown areas. You’ll also pay more for a one-way rental.

To estimate your fuel costs, take into account the gas mileage of your rental car, current gas prices based on location, and the total distance of your road trip.

Major car rental companies include Avis, Alamo, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Sixt, and Thrifty.

Grand Teton National Park.
Grand Teton National Park. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

RV rental

A recreational vehicle (RV) is a popular choice for road trips. While you’ll save money on hotel expenses and dining out, you’ll pay more for fuel and the rental itself. In the end, your overall costs are likely to be about the same. The real advantages? You only need to unpack once, and you’ll be closer to nature.

The minimum age to rent an RV is 21 or 25 years old, depending on the rental company and the state where you’re renting. Again, extra fees may apply for young drivers. You don’t need a special license to drive an RV, just your country’s valid driver’s license and possibly an International Driving Permit (IDP).

When it comes to RVs, you have choices: Class A, Class B, or Class C. (You won’t want to rent a pop-up or fifth-wheel trailer as those would require a truck rental, too.) Class A motorhomes are large and more difficult to drive. For international visitors, we recommend a Class B (think camper van) or a Class C for more space. 

RV rentals typically have an automatic transmission. Some are gas-powered, while others are diesel-powered. The average gas mileage for a Class B is 18 to 25 mpg; for a Class C, it’s 14 to 18 mpg, depending on the size and weight of the RV. Again, you can calculate your fuel costs by considering your gas mileage, current gas prices based on location, and the total distance of your road trip.

Nationwide RV rental companies include Cruise America, El Monte RV, and Road Bear RV. You also can rent a privately-owned RV through RVshare or Outdoorsy. Or look for an independent RV dealer in your departure city.

Vehicle insurance

Before you leave home, check to see if your personal car insurance, credit card insurance, or traveler’s insurance will cover your vehicle rental. If not, you’ll be given the option to purchase coverage when you pick up your car or RV. 

Tolls

A few major highways in the U.S. are toll roads. The cost varies by location. While some toll collectors will accept credit cards, others won’t. Make sure to have cash on hand; in a few locations, automatic toll collectors will only accept the exact toll in coins.

Fuel

Most gas stations in the U.S. will allow you to pay by credit card at the pump, but this option is only available if you have a U.S.-issued credit card with a zip code. Instead, plan to pay inside before you pump. You can pump your own gas in every state except New Jersey and Oregon.

Blue Spruce Motel in Gallup, New Mexico.
Blue Spruce Motel in Gallup, New Mexico. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Types of accommodations

Let’s look at your options from the least expensive to the priciest.

Hostels: Hostels aren’t nearly as popular in the U.S. as they are in other parts of the world. You’re more likely to find options in large cities. Make sure to note whether the rooms and bathrooms are shared with other guests.

Motels: Motels are affordable, roadside accommodations where rooms have outside-facing doors. They’re particularly popular along Route 66.

Privately-owned rooms, apartments, or homes: Americans have embraced the sharing economy, and many residents offer short-term rentals on websites like Airbnb, FlipKey, HomeAway, Vacasa, and VRBO. Know that some U.S. cities have either outlawed or severely restricted these types of rentals, including Las Vegas, New York City, and San Francisco.

Bed and breakfast inns: Usually found in smaller towns or resort communities, B&Bs are typically large homes that have been converted into inns. Breakfast is included in the price.

Hotels: Hotels can vary from affordable chain brands to five-star luxury splurges. Hotels (and motels) can typically accommodate a family of four (or more). Several chains include a complimentary breakfast in your stay.

If you’re RVing, here are several camping options:

State parks: Affordable and often located in serene natural settings, these campgrounds typically offer hookups for water and sometimes electricity but rarely sewage. Instead, you’ll often have the option of a central dump station for waste. Tents sites and cabins may also be available.

National parks: Similar to state parks in terms of amenities, national park campgrounds are exceedingly popular and should be reserved six to nine months in advance. Evening ranger programs are an added bonus at these locations.

Commercial campgrounds: These privately-owned campgrounds normally offer full hookups: water, electricity, sewage, and cable television. They may have added amenities such as kids programs, camp stores, and swimming pools.

Money

Credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere in the U.S. Occasionally, you’ll find a small diner or shop that still operates on a cash-only basis. If you’re uncertain, just ask.

If you need cash, ATMs can be found at banks, shopping malls, grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. Before you arrive, check with your local bank to ensure that your debit or credit card will work in the U.S. You’ll require a 4-digit PIN number to access your account. Also, check to see if surcharges or foreign transaction fees apply when withdrawing money.

You can exchange money at airport kiosks and some banks. In both cases, you’ll need to present your passport.

Tipping

It’s customary to tip your waiter 15 to 20% of the pre-tax cost of your meal or drinks. You don’t tip at fast food restaurants. Tipping is optional at coffee houses and food carts, where you’ll sometimes see a tip jar sitting on the counter.

It’s also customary to tip your taxi driver anywhere from 10 to 15%. This is true for Uber and Lyft (ride-sharing services) drivers, as well.

Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.
Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Cell phones

Since most international phones use GMS technology, you’ll want to purchase a U.S.-based SIM card from either a T-Mobile or AT&T store; prepaid SIM cards aren’t always available at U.S. airports. If your road trip will take you through some of the country’s more rural areas, you’re better off with AT&T’s wider coverage. Make sure your phone is unlocked and activate the SIM card while you’re still in the store to avoid any problems.

Alternatively, you could use your SIM card from home and pay the often-expensive international roaming fees. Check with your provider for details.

Not all rental vehicles will have navigation systems; some rental companies charge an extra fee for this feature. Rather than eating up your data by using your phone, consider downloading Google maps to use offline.

For emergencies (police, fire, ambulance), dial 911.

Internet access 

Nearly every hostel, motel, hotel, and rental property will offer complimentary Wi-Fi. You’ll also find free internet access at most cafes, and many cities are offering free Wi-Fi in public spaces including Boston, New York City, and San Francisco.

Route 66.
Route 66. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Iconic road trip routes

We’re often asked, “What’s the best U.S. road trip?” That’s an impossible question to answer, as it depends on your specific interests. Are you looking for the most scenic drive? Or are you interested in cultural and historical points of interests? It’s a big country that thankfully offers something for everyone.

To help you decide, here are a few favorite road trips that showcase the best of what the U.S. has to offer.

Land of opportunity

After all your planning, don’t forget to embrace the unexpected; take that detour, prepare to be surprised, and delight in possibility. There are countless ways to take an American road trip—your options are as endless and diverse as the people you’ll meet along the way.

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