All you need to build the ultimate U.S. road trip

This page is currently being translated from French to English, they may be a few French words still during the  process starting on January 8th of 2018

Welcome on my blog! I’m Mathilde, I’m French and I’ve been living in Boston since January 2012. You’ll find on this blog all my travels in the USA for the past years: city guides and road trips. I travel a lot in New England and I do guided tours of Boston in French – see the website Boston le nez en l’air for more info. As a job, I’m also a travel and lifestyle writer: I wrote several guides of the USA in French for Michelin, books about yoga, trivia games, etc.

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✐ If you use this article to build your trip, don’t forget to mention it on your blog, social media or come back here to comment on your trip! 

Hello ! Le blog de Mathilde

Fear of heights in Anza Borrego, California

It’s one of the best way to travel on the huge American territory: road tripping! Just the words make you travel. Some roads are so long, straight and seem to never end, some other are narrow and look dangerous. In any case, the landscapes are breathtaking…

On this page, you’ll find:

  • General recommendations to prepare a road trip in the USA based on many years of road tripping!
  • Ideas of road trips we actually did, with an estimated budget and time to allow for it.

 

What to ask yourself before a road trip in the USA:

Do I need to plan every detail, or should I let some room for improvisation?
We tried both ways. Our first road trip was planned in details, we did it with a couple of friends from France. For a first road trip, I think it’s a good idea to plan as much as you can. Nobody wanted to camp, so we booked some motels/hotels/AirBnb in advance along the way. It requires a lot of organization but it’s easier to enjoy yourself when you’re there; there’s still some day to day planning, like where to eat, what to do (hiking, activities). Lately, we’ve planned less and less our road trips: we camp more, we give ourselves more freedom to stay in a park we really like. Planning or not: it depends on your budget and your style of travelling. 
Can I go on a road trip in the South West in July without booking anything in advance?
It’s possible, mais it’s risky, specially during the summer. You’ll end up paying a shitty motel room for 200$;. I’d do it with a tent in the car, just in case, and with a phone with some data to be able to call and book online. If there’s one place you really want to go, you should book a spot to sleep somewhere in advance.
Can we trust Google Maps for the distances?
To plan the road trip, it’s useful to use Google Maps or Roadtrippers; the times are almost all the time underestimated. Count maybe 20% time more than Google Map, also because you’ll want to stop to take pictures, eat, take your time, change driver, etc.  specially if the drive is nice.
What type of insurance do I need?

You will need 2 types of insurance when you rent a car in the USA, and more insurances for yourself if you want it. For the rental car:

  • une assurance contre les dommages et les vols, en anglais ça s’appelle car damage waiver CDW
  • et une responsabilité civile (personne et biens d’autrui) =  personal liability en anglais 

En fonction de votre carte de crédit qui sert à la réservation, le CDW peut être déjà inclus (c’est le cas dans beaucoup d’American Express).

Prévoyez aussi une assurance santé au cas où vous auriez un pépin, les coûts peuvent être vite exorbitants.

Do I need an international driving license for a road trip?

In most States, if you stay less than 90 days (which is also the limit of time if you don’t have a work visa), your driving license from your country of origin is enough. Check this info with the rental car. Each State has its own rules. Dans la plupart des Etats, si vous restez moins de 90 jours, votre permis d’origine est suffisant. Il faut vérifier avec votre loueur de voitures. Chaque Etat a ses propres règles, more info here.

What about if I'm only 21 years old or 25? Is there any issue for renting a car or having a beer?
You cannot enter a bar if you’re less than 21 years old, you won’t be allowed to buy or drink alcohol anywhere. You can rent a car when you’re under 21, the age limit to pay less insurance is 25.
What type of car I should rent for a road trip in the USA?

Cars are bigger in the USA than in Europe, and you’ll want a big car for a road trip: comfy, with some room for legs and your luggage. I would recommend to rent at least a compact car or an intermediate category. We like to drive on gravel roads, and most of the time a SUV with a 4 wheel drive and high clearance is necessary. It’s just more fun, safer, and we can explore more of the back roads of national parks. Be aware that the rental car office will always offer you an upgrade… but it’s not free! Check the bill.

How much does cost a road trip?
The United States are a pricy destination, even if the dollar is cheaper than the euro. Specially in the big cities, the cost of food and lodging add up pretty quickly. The West is also expensive, specially in high season (June to mid-September). We like to camp and cook by ourselves, but we also do one or two nice nights, sometimes even more, in a nice Airbnb or Lodge in a National Park. A road trip per person costs at least 1500$/person for 2 weeks.
Is it different to drive in the USA?

We drive on the right side of the road: there’s not a big change (well, unless you’re used to driving on the left side). Most of the American drivers are courteous, except in big cities. Be aware that people drive and call or text at the same time, that people pass cars by the left and the right sides, and not many people respect the speed limit.

There are many differences in the way people drive, specially coming from France:

  • We can turn right at the light, unless it’s written on a sign NO TURN ON RIGHT,
  • you can find unexpectedly a light in the middle of the highway,
  • there’s no such thing as a “priorité à droite” or let pass the car on your right,
  • in some intersections, you’ll find 4 Stop signs: it’s the first one who got there who go first, and so on.
  • If you manage to parallel park on your first try, people will clap (for real).
  • Highways are free, except when you get close to cities – be ready to have some 1$ bills. The system “Pay per plate” works also on many turnpikes, you’ll receive the bill a few weeks later.
  • You may need some quarters (25cts coins) to park your car in cities .
What to do not to get bored when you drive for 6 hours every day?
When you do a road trip, the star of the show is the road (and the car), but it’s true, sometimes it’s long and can get boring. The distances between places are sometimes huge (1 mile = 1,6 km), some roads are straight, there’s not a lot of dedicated areas on the side of the road with restaurants and restrooms to take a break. The gas station is your friend. When we road trip, we always travel with a big podcasts selections, music, audiobooks, already dowloaded.
Is gas really less expensive in the USA?
Yes! but it still depends of the different states, and it also depends on where in the same state. 1 gallon of gas, which is almost 4 liters, can cost between 3,20 to 4 dollars. 
How to do a road trip on a Harley Davidson, or on a van?
I’ve never tried any of them, but it looks pretty awesome in both cases. You can rent a RV (recreational vehicle) or a Harley Davidson if you dream to road trip on a different type of vehicle.

Road trip #1: The classic road trip
California-Nevada-Arizona-Utah (2012)

For whom: it’s the road trip for every first time road tripper. It’s the first one I did, everything was new and seems absolutely amazing (it still does, but I get less excited about a gas station in the middle of nowhere). It’s cliché, it’s great, it’s HUGE.
How long: 15 days

✏ The full recap of the Classic Road trip is here

road trip ouest americain

(1) San Francisco (3 days). We stayed in an AirBnb.
(2) Yosemite (2 days). Hike: Four Mile Trail. We stayed in a cabin at the Yosemite Bug.
(3) Sequoias in Yosemite: we loved the Grand Grizzli.
(4) Still in Yosemite, we drive along the Tioga Road.
(5) Mono Lake, the Dead Sea of Californie (1/2 day).
(6) Death Valley (1 night and 1 morning, to avoid the heat). We stayed at the Atomic Inn in Beatty
(7) Las Vegas! (1/2 day + 1 night on the Strip). We spent the night at the JW Marriott, in a huge resort a little bit outside of town.
(8) Bryce Canyon and the orange hoodoos: a must-see et ses hoodoos orangés (1 day). We stayed at the Parry Lodge for the next 4 nights
(9) Antelope Canyon a gorgeous though very touristy slot canyon, and Horseshoe Bend, a nice point of view over the Colorado River (1 day)
(10) Grand Canyon by the North Rim (1 day)
(11) Pure road trip, we didn’t have the time to stop in Zion Canyon, and just drove through it, then we drove by the Mojave Desert and spent the night in Bakersfield having dinner in a Basque restaurant
(12) Big Sur! Magical drive along the Route 1 and night in a rustic cabin  (1 day, 1 night)
(13) Pointe Reyes and its cute lighthouse (1/2 day)
(14) Silicon Valley (to see some friends) and we came back to San Francisco (1 day)

Road trip #2: Pacific North West + Yellowstone (2013)

How long: 15 days
For whom: It’s a complete change of scenery for our second road trip! The North West is colder, greener, bye bye canyons and hello mountains. The goal of this trip was to spend some time in Montana and seeing Yellowstone. This is one of the longest road trip we’ve done in terms of mileage, so it’s definitely for a road tripper who likes to drive a lot. Most of the places are remote and wild. The weather was also cold and wet before crossing the Cascades. Lots of hikes in Glacier.

✏ The full recap of the Pacific North West road trip with Yellowstone is here

Montana Yellowstone

(1) Starting from Seattle (2 days). We stayed in an Airbnb
(2) Going West first: we drove to the Olympic National Park, with Hoh rain forest, one of my best memories in the US. We stayed in an Airbnb in Port Angeles.
(3) Going East: Mount Rainier, a huge volcano, hidden behind a sea of clouds where we were there. We stayed at the Crest Trail Lodge.
(4) We cross the Washington state going East, and stop for 1 day in North Cascades National Park. , et son beau lac d’un bleu laiteux. After crossing the Cascades, the weather became warmer, we stopped one night in Chelan, took a ferry to go all the way to Stehekin
(5) We keep going East, and cross Idaho, to get to Montana (change of time at that point); at sunset, we drive on the bisons park
(6) We spend 3 days in Glacier National Park which is a true gem for mountain lovers. We see for the first time some mountain goats and an iceberg on a lake.
(7) We arrive finally in Yellowstone, which was for me THE American national park I wanted to see for years (with the Grand Canyon): geysers, and other geological craziness. We camped for 3 nights.
(8) We go South! Grand Teton et PARIS !
(9) We arrive to our finale destination where we take off to go back to Boston: Salt Lake City.

Road trip #3: Colorado & Utah (2014)

How long: 15 days
For whom: hikers, campers, drivers. For this third summer road trip, we started with the green and the coolness of the mountains and kept going with the red and the heat of the canyons.

✏ A complete recap of this road trip Colorado Utah here

✏ You can also read my recommandations about camping in the USA

Road trip colorado utah

 

(1) We arrived in Denver, and slept at a friend’s in Boulder.
(2)
First day and night at the Rocky Mountain national park, hiking and camping!
(3) We drove “through the sky” on a high altitude road. No views at all though because of the weather! We change the scenery and drive all the way to the north rim of the Black Canyon
(4) Hiking on the Black Canyon, then driving along the Elk Loop ; night in Crested Butte at the Old Town Inn
(5) 
Elk Loop again, then the Marroon Bells in Aspen, then we drive West through the gorgeous Colorado National Monument; night in an AirBnb in Moab.
(6) Hiking in Arches National Park, it’s so hot, but so pretty
(7) Hiking and driving in Canyonlands, and then Arches again at night
(8) One last morning in Arches, then we leave for  Capitol Reef while stopping in Goblin Valley park, we spent the night camping in Capitol Reef
(9) Hiking and driving in Capitol Reef. We sleep in a motel near Monument Valley, not the great The View, but a simpler motel in Mexican Hat
(10) Monument Valley, and afternoon at Bisti Badlands, New Mexico. We drive all the way to Mesa Verde, where we camp.
(11) A day to explore Mesa Verde, and the cliff villages.
(12) We drive and hike for 2 days in the mountains, back in Colorado: Ridgway, Ouray and Telluride – it’s gorgeous
(13) Great Sand Dunes: we camp for 2 nights in this incredible park where we see sand dunes in the middle of the mountains
(14) We drive north, stop in an Airbnb in Colorado Springs
(15) Last day in Denver, which we like much more that we expected!

Road trip #4: Suns, bugs and beaches, Southern Florida! (2012 and 2014)

Floride road trip

For whom: anyone who wants to chill under the Sun, but also people who like snorkeling and wilderness (in the Everglades!) ; there are also many interesting museums in Miami, and the art lovers will enjoy the Art Deco of Miami Beach.

I visited Florida a couple of times, it’s not my favorite place to be honest, but it’s great for a sunny vacation (except during the summertime! it’s hot and stormy). My favorites places are the Keys, Naples and Miami Beach. You’ll find many off road places in these articles:

(1) 1 week : MiamiEvergladesKeys (stay at least 3 days in the Keys). That was our first trip in Florida, for Christmas and New Year, in 2012!

(2) 15 days: MiamiLes KeysNaples – Fort MyersPalm BeachFort Lauderdale

✏ The 25 things I love in Florida

Road trip #5: New Mexico (2014)

 

Road trip Nouveau Mexique

How long: 1 week
For whom: Desert, history and culture lovers.

It was a short road trip in June, focused on the north of New Mexico.

(1) Albuquerque
(2) The turquoise route towards Santa Fe
(3) 2 days in Santa Fe
(4) Taos Pueblo, an Indian village, and the Rio Grande
(5) Driving back to Albuquerque through the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos

✏ The complete recap of the New Mexico road trip is here and here’s a video

We went back to New Mexico (see the road trip #9) and saw then the White Sand Dunes

Road trip #6: Wintertime! Boston-Montréal-Québec (2014)

Road trip Montreal Quebec

How long: 1 week – it was a very short trip around Christmas time. There’s so much more to explore in Quebec!

(1) We leave Boston and stop in Vermont in a cute Airbnb
(2) Yeah, we arrive in Montréal, everything is in French!
(3) On Christmas, we went on a safari at the Omega park
(4) A day at Mont-Tremblant
(5) A day in Québec City
(6) Morning at the Chute Montmorency and then we head back to Boston (it’s a 7 hour drive)

✏ Recap of the Boston/Montreal/Quebec road trip

Road trip #7 –  Los Angeles-Las Vegas (Feb. 2015)

road trip californie

This trip was actually a blog trip, I picked 2 of my fellow blogger friends to go with me on a road trip organized by a travel agency called Voyageurs du Monde, they took care of us and the itinerary! I liked spending 3 days in LA, then we drove up to Sequoias National Park. We went to the Death Valley, that was the second time for me, but a first during wintertime, which allowed us for a lot of hiking. We arrived in Las Vegas just for one night and one day, and enjoyed visiting the Neon Museum.

(1) 3 days in Los Angeles
(2) Sequoia National Park, California
(3) Death Valley during wintertime
(4) Las Vegas and the Neon Museum

✏ The full recap of the Los Angeles-Las Vegas road trip is here

Road trip #8 – Old South (July 2015)

road trip savannah charleston

 

How long: 5 days
For whom:  Romantic South lovers, with 2 gorgeous cities: Savannah et Charleston. History lovers would like this trip. I recommend reading The invention of the wings, by Sue Monk Kidd to dive into the history of the South before the end of slavery

This trip was very particular, and I love it. Apart for visiting the 2 cities, we spent some times in state park by the beach and jungle, and ate some great barbecue.

(1) Savannah
(2) Beaches in South Carolina and Georgia
(3) Charleston
(4) Southern food

✏ The full recap for this trip between Charleston and Savannah can be read here

Road trip #9 – Deserts in the American SouthWest, a road trip from Austin, Texas to San Diego, California
(Summer of 2015)

road trip deserts sud etats unis

How long: 15 days
For whom: heat lovers, drivers, hikers, lovers of remote places. It’s wild. Have I said that before? This is one of my favorite road trip. I like when the beginning and the end are not in the same places.

(1) Austin, does the capital of Texas live up to the hype? We spent the night in a tiny house found via Airbnb
(2) Big Bend, a fantastic and remote National Park in Southern Texas, by the border of Mexico
(3) Guadalupe, I’ve never heard of this National Park before, we hiked and camped there. And it was great!
(4) Carlsbad, a National Park in New Mexico that’s all about caves, and bats
(5) White Sands Dunes, there’s everything in the name: white sand dunes. It’s eerie! We slept in a motel in a town nearby, Alamagordo
(6) Chiricahua, a mountains full of stone “columns”, unique! We camped there for one night, in the middle of a storm
(7) Tucson, we spent 2 nights in this cool town in Southern Arizona (Airbnb)
(8) Saguaro, near Tucson, a National Park with cacti
(9) Mt Lemmon, we drove up the peak near Tucscon
(10) Apache trail, a scenic drive to go North, along the way, we stopped at Tonto, where there are some cliff dwellings similar to the ones we’ve seen in Mesa Verde
(12) Petrified Forest, an old forrest transformed in stones
(13) Joshua Tree, a desert and some awesome trees. We camped there for 2 nights.
(14) Anza Borrego, the desert of Southern California. We hiked, and then spent the night in an Airbnb in Julian, in the mountains, where the air was much cooler!
(15) San Diego, and that’s the end! We spent a couple of days in San Diego with some friends who live there, and then took off to Boston (the 10 things I like in San Diego)

The full recap of this fabulous road trip between Austin and San Diego is available here

Road trip #10 – Oregon (Summer of 2016)

road trip oregon

Read the full recap of this road trip in Oregon here

How long: 18 days
For whom: A great road trip in Oregon, that doesn’t only stays on the Coast. We drove all the way West to more remote places, like the Alvord Desert.

(1) Portland 
(2) Columbia River Gorge Scenic Drive, and all the waterfalls
(3) Hiking around the mount Hood
(4) A quick stop by Smith Rock
(5) John Day National Park and the painted hills
(6) Hells Canyons
(7) The Alvord Desert and the Steen Mountains
(8) How blue is Crater Lake, one day, 2 nights in the only National Park of Oregon
(9) A brief stop in Northern California: Redwoods National Park
(10) Along the Coast of Oregon

Road trip #11 – Smoky Mountains (July 2017)

smoky mountains road trip usa

The full recap of these 6 days in North Carolina, with a tiny bit of Tennessee

How long: 6 days
For whom: when you need a quick getaway. It was a mini-road trip during Summertime, which we discovered too late that it wasn’t the best time to travel in this region: hot and humid, a lot of people, and a lot of cloudy views.

(1) 3 days in the Smoky Mountains National Park
(2) 1 day of driving on the scenic road: the Blue Ridge Parkway
(3) 2 days in Asheville

Road trip #12 – Road trip in the South West, 5 years after: let’s go off road! Nevada + Utah (September 2017)

Road trip Nevada Utah

The full recap of these 15 days of road trip off road, Nevada & Utah is here

How long: 15 days
For whom: we came back 5 years after in a region we’ve visited during our first road trip. But this time, we are more equipped and ready to go in more remote places and less know for some of them.

(1) Las Vegas
(2) Valley of Fire
(3) Great Basin National Park, Nevada
(4) Cathedral Gorge Canyon
(5) Cedar Breaks National Monument, sunset at Bryce Canyon
(6) Kodachrome Canyon
(7) Cottonwood Canyon Road
(8) The best camping night ever at Alstrom Point
(9) Escalante Grand Staircase
(10) Capitol Reef National Park
(11) Canyonlands National Park : Needles district
(12) Rafting on the Colorado River in Moab
(13) Gooseneck Point, Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley
(14) Evening in a brewery in Flagstaff and night in Sedona, Arizona
(15) Red Rocks Canyon in Sedona
(16) Back to Las Vegas, through the Hoover Dam

If you like to know where stuff are, use this map on which in pin leads to an article.

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Mathilde

Mathilde

Writer, organizer and social media-ter for my own blog. When I'm not in front of my laptop, I'm organizing guided tours of Boston with my own company "Boston le nez en l'air". It's in French! Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest.

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