I wanted to start my move to the United States with a bang—life is a highway, and I wanted to drive it all night long and, of course, get my kicks on Route 66. I had a few months free before I started my new job, so I took a road trip. I’m outgoing and independent, plus none of my friends had enough vacation time to tag along, so I decided to go it alone.
My solo road trip wasn’t only an amazing way to explore America, it was also a great way to ease into my life here. By the end of the trip, I had more knowledge than the average tourist.
Before I hit the road, I planned out my routes, going first from Chicago to Los Angeles. Taking Route 66 and letting me check out big cities, important national landmarks, like the Grand Canyon, and relax on the beach. Route 66 was decommissioned as an interstate highway in the 80s, but most of it remains. Luckily, plenty of websites and travel guides helped me figure things out. I didn’t stick to a strict timeline, though, and kept my options open.
Since I’d be living out of cars and hotel rooms, I worried about packing. Traveling in the fall was supposed to be the best time, and I’d be going from cooler temperatures to warmer ones first. So, I packed a lot of layers.
While on the road, I discovered that I needn’t have worried too much about forgetting something. In big cities, many places are open 24/7, or at least very late. You can buy everything from breakfast to toothpaste at the store, even in the middle of the night.
Have Car, Will Travel
At home, I took public transportation almost everywhere, so I needed to figure out how to rent cars for my trip. For my trek along Route 66, I couldn’t resist renting my dream classic car to get the real American driving experience. Unless some miracle happens, I’ll never be able to buy a 1966 Ford Mustang, starting at around $26,000 these days, for everyday driving. Yet, it was the perfect fit as I checked out landmarks and tons of nostalgic spots. The Mustang cost more than other rentals, but it was well worth it for my once-in-a-lifetime journey.
To protect myself and the car, I looked into rental car insurance. I didn’t have any existing coverage since I didn’t own a car in the USA yet, but the credit card that I used for the car rental offered good coverage for accidents and damages.
To take care of myself, I took advantage of the car rental company’s offer of Personal Accident Insurance (PAI) to serve as health insurance coverage, as well as being covered by the travelers insurance I took out for a year before leaving the UK.
Learn the Customs
Accents, politics, foods, and even names for the same foods can change depending on where you go. Want to buy a soft drink? Depending on where you are, locals might say soda or pop! A certain type of sandwich might be called a sub, a hoagie, or a grinder based on where you order it. I found it easiest to just say the brand name of what I wanted or ask questions. Now I can even help my American friends when they travel.
Everybody uses debit or credit cards, and sales tax is kind of hidden. Anytime you buy something, you’re not seeing the actual price on the shelf or the menu. Prices are before the sales tax is added, and the amount is different everywhere you go. In the US, tips are part of a server’s income. Seeing suggested percentages at the bottom of a restaurant bill helped me figure it out. Most everybody bases it off the quality of the service, and the average tip is between 15% and 20% of the amount before tax.
Keep an Open Mind
Speaking of restaurants, we’ve all heard about big portions in America. It’s true, but it’s also not too hard to find smaller portions in the form of appetizers, or even kids’ meals. Sometimes I’d pick a hotel that offered refrigerators and microwaves in its rooms (and if they didn’t, I’d sometimes ask for one). It was a good way to save money and avoid wasting some seriously delicious food.
There are recognizable hotel chains all across the country, but to get the real experience I tried to stick to local spots.
Servers and hotel desk clerks are probably the best sources of information for restaurants and local attractions. I visited so many places that I might not have otherwise seen. America is also full of fun festivals and fairs. Name a food or an animal, and there’s probably some kind of festival connected to it. It’s a chance to try new foods, pick up souvenirs, and take in local music. I also learned that some people will fry anything, which resulted in some of the best and worst culinary experiences of my life!
On my trip, I discovered that my new home country is beautiful and diverse. I also got a primer on some of the basics of American life, and I can’t wait to take another trip.