A professional colleague of mine is going to rent a car and drive in the US (California mostly) for the first time, and he asked me if I had any tips. Over the course of a couple of emails, here’s what I told him, based on my experiences as an Australian who rents a car in the US and drives quite long distances there at least once a year. I decided to write a blog post incorporating our email exchange so that I have it for future reference, and in case anyone else is looking for this sort of information.
Renting a car
Where to get it: In the earlier days, I’d hunt the car rental company websites looking for the best deal and trying to compare apples and oranges. However, the last two times I’ve got a car via Priceline.com AND got insurance via Priceline as well. If you enter a bid, you can often get a car for $25 a day or even less, even when it’s normally $50/day. And that’s from the brand name companies. For example, I bid $25 a day on a mid-size car and got it with Avis via Priceline, so it will be just a tad over $500 for the two weeks including all taxes etc. (they are the killer, as are one-way drop-off fees or fees for dropping off at a different location to where you picked up the car!). I could have tried bidding lower, but I thought that was a good deal so I took it. You’re not bidding against other people – Priceline submits the bid to the providers and they choose whether or not they want to accept it. I specified only brand name rental companies too, when I placed my bid.
Drivers license: I haven’t needed an International Drivers License any time I’ve rented in the US (typically in California and Texas). I just show my Australian drivers license and my passport, and that’s all the car rental companies seem to want.
Car size and other info: If you’re driving any distance, consider a standard or mid-size car, not a compact. You’ll have more leg room, driver/passenger comfort, and space for suitcases etc. I rarely get an SUV as I like to have a boot (trunk) that hides my possessions/suitcases/laptop bag from people! The price difference is not a lot between the models. If you’re travelling with more than 2 people for any part of the journey, consider a full-size 4 door. All cars I’ve booked have had air con and unlimited mileage, so that’s a no-brainer. One other thing — car rental companies invariably will NOT let you take the car into Mexico, so if you’re thinking of going to Mexico, do it another way. Typically, Canada is OK, but check with the car rental company before you book in case they don’t cover you and the car while you’re there. If you nominate an additional driver, you’re likely to pay an extra daily fee for that, AND the other driver usually has to be with you at the time you pick up the car so that their license etc. can be checked. So if you and your other party are arriving at different times, that could be a problem.
Car rental insurance: Again, I got this as an add-on via Priceline when I booked the car. I think the insurance cost me $80/week for full coverage with a US insurer. While your Australian travel insurance and credit card insurance offers SOME coverage, don’t expect it to offer all. There were many years when I didn’t take car insurance and winged it hoping that I wouldn’t have an accident. I never did have an accident, but I’m a bit more cautious these days so I take the insurance option that Priceline offers, instead of the very expensive insurance offered when you pick up your car.
GPS or not: I’ve never taken the (expensive) option of a GPS unit. That’s because I’m often going to places I’ve already been, or have printed out my Google Maps and driving directions before I leave Australia and have them ready to use. When I’m in my hotel room I’ll recheck the route via my laptop the night before, and have the printed map next to me when I’m driving.
Fill up or not: I usually opt to fill up the tank myself before returning it to the airport (there are always gas stations ringing the airport for the rental car people), UNLESS you know that the full tank option the car rental company is offering is way less than the price per gallon on the street (it rarely is, and how do you know the street price when you’ve only just landed?). Be aware that if you take the rental car company’s fill up option, they will charge you upfront for a FULL tank of gas no matter how much is left in the tank, so if you take that option, make sure there’s not much fuel left in the tank when you return the car.
Returning the car at LAX: Signposting back to the rental car return places at LAX is fairly clear, BUT stay in the right lane of W Century Blvd heading back to the airport off the 405 (there’s an ARCO gas station on the right after you cross under the freeway and a Shell on the right at the corner of Aviation Blvd for filling up). Look for the car rental company signs about halfway up the poles at the corners of the streets. Different companies have different locations, so your company may be in street A whereas another company may be in street B. That said, many are in Aviation Blvd, and there’s a free shuttle to LAX.
Returning the car at DFW: These guys got it right when they built the airport! ALL the car rental companies are in the same lot, and there’s a single shuttle bus (large) option that services ALL companies. Just make sure you catch the correct bus for your DFW Terminal number. Getting the car back to the car rental lot at DFW is super easy as the signage can’t be missed.
Driving in the US
The car: All the controls in your car are the same as at home (except the windscreen wipers which seem to be different in EVERY car no matter where you are) – so the foot pedals for brakes and accelerator are still on the right side of your body, and the parking brake is either in the centre console or a foot press thing, just as in cars here. You’ll be driving on ‘the other side of the road’, but your controls are still in the same place in relation to your body.
Signs and directions: Driving is SO easy in the US! The roads and highways are very well signed (not like Australia) and it’s all very logical. For example, an exit number relates to the number of miles to/from the state border, so is logically sequenced – e.g. Exit 25 in Nevada is 25 miles from the California state border; Exit 26 is approx. one mile after Exit 25; Exit 30 is about 5 miles past Exit 25. Highways are also logical – main interstates are odd numbered north-south and even numbered east-west and the numbering starts at the west coast and moves from left to right across the country for the north-south interstates and from bottom to top for the east-west ones (e.g. I5 is the main north-south interstate running from Canada to Mexico through California; I10 is the main interstate running from California to Texas and beyond; I80 runs east-west via Utah, and I15 runs north-south in California but further east than I5 – there’s a pattern to it all!). Minor highways are typically two or three digits long and are white on the road signs, whereas interstates are blue/red/white signs.
Merging: Merging is done properly by most people, and merging lanes onto freeways/interstates are invariably long and you can get right up to speed before having to merge. Trucks stay in their correct lanes. People let you in. Yes, there are some crazy drivers and speeds at times, but it all seems very controlled.
Speed on freeways and interstates: No-one seems to stick to the speed limit and it can seem crazy at times, but the traffic tends to travel at the same speed so keeping up with it is the best option, especially in LA. Allow a LOT of contingency room with times as an LA freeway back to the airport can become a car park fairly quickly. I always try to get to LAX at least three hours before my flight, in case there’s a problem with the traffic.
HOV/Car pool lanes: If there are two of you, then you can travel in the HOV lanes on the LA freeways (and elsewhere in cities, depending on where you’re going). These are the car pool lanes and require two or more people in the car. When you see an HOV lane, don’t just pull into it – there are double yellow lines for much of their length with the occasional break for a dashed line. You pull in/out where there are the dashed lines.
Other road rules: There’s ‘right turn on a red light if it is safe to do so’ (for us, that would be a left turn on a red) in most states, which is a most eminently sensible law to keep traffic moving. And they have 4-way STOP signs at some intersections. The rule there is you go in the order you arrived, so first one to the intersection stops, then moves off first, the next one stops, and moves off second, etc. Again, eminently sensible and works well.
The hardest things…: The hardest thing about driving in the US is driving on suburban roads with little/no traffic and few lane markings – you invariably turn the wrong way into a street and end up on the wrong side of the road. When driving on marked roads, highways, freeways, it’s really easy — just follow the cars in front! The other hardest thing is being a pedestrian as we look the ‘wrong’ way when checking for traffic.
Paying for petrol: Gas stations in the US, almost without exception, allow you to pay by credit card at the pump. Super simple and super easy and gets the traffic in the gas station flowing quicker. BUT… you may need to enter a US ZIP code to allow your credit card to be recognised. Either find a ZIP code near where you are that you can enter OR go into the gas station first and give them your credit card to pre-authorise while you pump.
DO NOT travel to the US without travel insurance!!!!! EVER. I can’t stress this enough. A two-day stay in hospital with tests could easily cost $50K and up, and having to be airlifted back to Australia is probably a $30K exercise. I’ve never needed to claim, but one small car accident and a broken bone could cost dearly in both rental car and medical bills without insurance. I get an annual worldwide policy for just over $300 a year. That covers me for any travel within Australia and anywhere in the world. By buying an annual policy, I don’t have to think about travel insurance for individual trips.