10 things UK visitors should know about driving in the USA
By Helen Wright
Search any Internet forum and questions about driving in the USA will pop up all over the place. With movies like The Fast and The Furious (speeding muscle cars flying off cliffs) or Dead End (a family chased on a country lane by a crazed killer) as reference, or even the sunny musical intro to La La Land (which takes place in a crazy traffic pile up) it’s enough to put people off for life. A recent study by roadside assistance firm Green Flag found that 32% of Brits would sacrifice a holiday to avoid driving abroad and 71% said the thought of driving in America made them nervous. This makes me so sad because you could seriously miss out on some of the best holidays out there!
The journey is part of the fun
Anyone that follows our youtube channel will know that we love a roadtrip at passportstamps.uk and have driven all over the world from Italy, to New Zealand, Iceland and the USA. These have been some of our best and most memorable trips. I first drove in the USA when I was 18 and I had to pay double for insurance until I was 25 – but it was worth it. The most frustrating fact about us Brits and our reluctance to get behind the wheel abroad is that driving in the USA is much easier than people think. In fact, since I live in London and drive around the city here, I would go as far as to say it’s easier to drive stateside! As someone who drove 2000 miles across the Arizona desert on my own, I’ll let you into a secret – if I can do it, you can too.
CONFUSED ABOUT RENTAL CAR INSURANCE? You will find information about what insurance you need further down this post.
10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT DRIVING IN THE USA
1. With the exception of some compact cities (San Francisco was a tricky one), the roads in the USA are wider, less frantic and far more simple than in the UK. Most of the US road infrastructure is laid out in a grid style format so you won’t come across as many winding, hidden streets or dead ends as you would in Europe. This is as true in the cities as well as on major freeways and remote areas.
2. 99% of rental cars in the USA are automatic so don’t get in a flap about having to change gear with your right hand, it’s all done for you.
3. Most UK drivers in the US say they adjusted to driving on the other side of the road easily and quickly. Due to the simple grid format of US roads, it’s rare to come across a junction where you don’t know which way you’re supposed to go. Roundabouts (or ‘circles’ as they are called out there) aren’t used that much (except in Massachusetts where I encountered more on one road trip than I have on all my other trips since). Meeting a roundabout was genuinely the first time in the USA I had to pause and wonder which way to go.
4. Roads in the USA are extremely well signposted with lots of notice before your exit on the freeway and helpful guidance on what lane you should be in. If you are renting a car in the US, I do recommend paying extra for the Sat Nav (or for free data on your phone during the trip) as this will help you greatly with directions. Most freeways and Interstate highways have mile markers to help you see where you are – which, if in the unlikely event you break down can help you instruct roadside assistance – plus, exits are numbered and a sat nav will also tell you the number of your exit.
5. You can turn right on red. At most junctions, unless it is signposted otherwise, cars in the right lane can turn right at a red traffic light once you have made a complete stop to check for oncoming traffic or pedestrians. I never find American drivers particularly aggressive (except in LA) so if you forget to do this, don’t worry. They’ll either just wait patiently behind you or give you a polite reminder with their horn. Speaking of making a complete stop, you must do this at all stop signs and if you are caught doing a slow moving pause at a stop sign, you will get a ticket. Often, junctions with stop signs with have a 2-way / 3-way / 4-way / all-way sign. This indicates how many directions are required to stop. In the case of a busy crossroad, all four traffic directions will have a stop sign (all-way) and priority to move is based on who reaches the junction first. When this isn’t clear, always give way to the right as you would on a roundabout.
6. Road rules vary in different states so it is worth checking for anything you should know. For example, in Florida, you must drive with your lights on in the rain whether it is daylight or dark. In California, you have to park in the direction of traffic (so if you see a parking space on the other side of the road you’ll have to turn around or make a U-turn before parking). In virtually all states you are required to drive with your license and insurance documents with you at all times. The majority of states prohibit an open canister of alcohol in the car so if you are bringing the remainder of your bottle of wine from a restaurant or have a box of wine for camping (etc) these need to be stored in the boot (trunk).
7. School buses. Traffic in both directions on a single lane carriageway (normal road) must stop when a school bus has reached a bus stop and lights are flashing. A stop sign will also extend from the side of the bus. It is illegal to overtake the bus.
8. Sometimes a freeway may have a ‘left hand exit’, which means that instead of leaving the motorway on the right from the ‘slow lane’, you will be leaving from the left, in the ‘fast lane’. Don’t worry, it sounds more Dominic Toretto than it is in reality. Left hand exits aren’t that common and you will be given plenty of notice if your exit is on the left.
9. If you see an emergency services vehicle on the hard shoulder, you are required to move into the next lane unless the volume of traffic makes that impossible. Most drivers also often do this if there is a broken down car or when they can see people are working on the side of road (roadworks). Speeding fines are doubled or tripled in the USA if you do not reduce your speed when there are road workers present so keep an eye out for temporary signs and obey them.
10. If you are travelling with a child, make sure you check the car seat requirements for the child’s age and whether there are any extra rules for that state. The USA does not recognise European safety standards and so bringing your European car seat with you from the UK will mean your child is not legally strapped in correctly by US law. It is unlikely that you will get found out unless you are pulled over, but be advised that in the event of an accident your child may not be covered by your rental car or travel insurance.
You will need to rent or buy a US-safety approved car seat. On our recent trip to California, the cost to rent an infant car seat was $10 per day, making it $140 for a 14-day trip. We purchased a $75 safety approved seat from Walmart and used it for three subsequent trips in the USA and Canada. It may be worth buying your own, even if you have to leave it at the airport before you come home.
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What Uk visitors need to know about driving in the USA
WHAT CAR INSURANCE DO I NEED?
The subject of car insurance in the USA is another tricky one and without knowing your stuff, you could end up getting lumped with extra charges or inadequate cover. Remember that the USA is a ridiculously litigious country – they’ll sue each other for anything so having decent car insurance cover is essential. This is unlikely to be covered anywhere near good enough in your travel insurance, so don’t think you will be able to cut corners. Having said that, when you arrive at your destination you may find the commission-hungry agents aggressively trying to sell you a package upgrade so it’s best to know exactly what you need before you travel and almost always cheaper to choose those upgrades at the time of booking with a UK agent.
Eight things you need to know before renting a car in the USA
1. When visiting America from the UK, it is always best to use a registered UK agent for car rental, such as holidayautos.co.uk. I often use this company because they include basic insurance and are clear about what is included with options to purchase additional cover. Booking with a US-based company directly can be confusing because the insurance packages they offer are often linked to domestic residents’ personal car insurance and so if you decide to go down this route make sure you are properly covered.
2. What is CDW? Collision Damage Waiver (or sometimes called Loss Damage Waiver) isn’t actually insurance at all and it only covers minor bodywork damage to the rental car, sometimes tire damage or lost keys. It does not cover any third party damage to other vehicles, buildings or people, so in the USA it is strongly advisable to have a more extensive insurance to make sure you are properly covered. The purpose of CDW is to limit the amount you would be charged if you were to cause any damage to the rental car while it is in your care. For example, if you were driving carelessly you may be liable to replace a bumper or stump up for repairs after a crash and this means you will only pay the excess for the damage rather than the full bill.
3. What is an excess reimbursement policy and do I need it? There are companies in the UK who offer an excess reimbursement policy (usually around £50 a year). This is because most car rental firms will include excess on your insurance package, which you will be liable to pay in the event of an accident claim. Always check your policy to make sure you are happy with the excess terms before taking a hire car. Excess fees can range from £200 – £2000 so it’s not a small thing.
If you hire a car more than once in a year period, it could be worth taking out a separate reimbursement policy from a UK-based company that is approved by an the ABI (Association of British Insurance). For your one-off fee, this company will cover the costs of any excess charges you may incur. Bear in mind that if you do take out an excess reimbursement policy, that would usually cover any breakdown assistance and so you don’t need to take that on in addition if they try to up-sale it to you.
4. When you land at the airport you will be made to participate in the ‘optional extras’ dance. This is the car rental company’s chance to offer you upgrades, meatier insurance deals and a bigger car etc, etc. If you have done your research, it’s likely you wont need any of these add-ons so just politely tell them you’re all sorted. Be aware that some necessary things are not bookable in advance and can only be purchased at the collection desk. These include charges for one way trips or dropping the car off at a different destination from where you collected it, extra drivers, child car seats, navigation units and under-25 fees if any driver of the vehicle is under 25. Anything like this will be explained in the small print of your original booking.
5. You need a credit card to rent a car. A debit card will not suffice as rental companies use the credit card as assurance you are not a credit risk. Remember to print your voucher or have it accessible on your phone. Sometimes the booking reference will be digital but in some cases having a voucher to scan has been insisted upon.
6. Visitors from the UK can now use their pink card driving license only and do not need to bring the paper document version.
7. You will be offered the chance to bring the car back with a full or empty tank. Unless you have a special offer where your deal includes a ‘free tank of gas’ it is always more cost effective to bring back the car full of petrol. Top Tip: When you leave your resort, fill the majority of the car up at a nearby gas station which will charge a lower price for petrol than one near the airport. Then, google the closest gas station on your route to the airport and use the more expensive fuel just for that $2 or $3 top up. Remember, if your tank isn’t completely full you could get charged a penalty by the rental firm.
8. Always take pictures of the car, inside and out. Photos on your smartphone will record the condition of the car when you collected it to avoid any dispute that you have damaged the vehicle yourself. It takes less than a minute and could save you a lot of hassle and cash.
And that’s it! Enjoy your road trip! Tag us on Instagram and let us know how you are getting on.
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