A guide to my USA road trip
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Our road trip started during our snow season at Big White Ski Resort where we spent weeks researching vans and finding one for a price we could afford. After taking several vans on test drives, we finally purchased our dream van Barbie, a 2002 GMC Safari. If you do happen to be buying a van for your road trip make sure you take it on a test drive to a local mechanic and get them to check it out, they will be sure to tell you what state the car is really in. Unfortunately, there are some dodgy people out there who will just try to sell you a lemon for a quick buck!
In terms of mapping out where you will actually go on your road trip, we used Google maps to create the perfect road trip for us. Google maps allows you to pin point each and every destination you want to go to and you can actually save it as a map, ours was called Road Trip USA for example. This makes it really easy to see your trip as a whole and ensures you don't miss any of those destinations you have on your bucket list! It's important to note that you should download your map and the local maps as an "offline map" before you take off. This requires an internet connection to download if you don't have a SIM card for the USA. For example, we would download the map of the area we were heading to which allowed us to use the directions as normal without internet connection. Keep in mind however that Google Maps only allows you to download small segments at a time so you will have to reconnect to some Wi-Fi along your travels and make sure you download the next segment of your trip to ensure you don't get stuck somewhere without a clue where to go. More information on how to do this can be found on Google.
After renovating our van (I will do a separate blog post about this specifically) we headed south to the British Columbia, Canada/Washington, USA border. You will need an ESTA visa to enter the USA whether that's by car or by plane. Make sure you buy this through the correct Government website (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov) and don't get caught up in an online scam like I did! Now be warned, the border patrol staff can be quite intimidating. Be sure to be prepared and have everything you need (passports, ESTA, ID etc.) and be prepared for them to search your car. My advice is to just be polite, give them everything they ask for and get out of there as fast as you can! It is worth knowing that you will also be asked for an address of the destination you are travelling to in the States. For us (we were unprepared) we Googled the nearest hotel to where we were headed and gave them that address. It might help if you actually have one ready to give them though.
Below I will show the rough guide of where we went on our two individual road trips. It is worth nothing that these maps are not 100% accurate of all the places we went to, we actually went to a whole heap of other locations that we didn't update on our map.
Our first road trip we did the West Coast only due to time limitations. We did this between our winter and summer season in Canada.
Our second road trip was done after our summer season in Banff, Canada and we did both the West and East Coast and everything in between!
The most beautiful time for a road trip in my opinion is in America's fall season. You get the best of all worlds. From the beautiful fall colours of the leaves on the trees to some places still having snow about, to the warmer places having no snow at all and rolling green hills! Just make sure you check the weather conditions before you set out to particular destinations otherwise you may get caught in un-drivable conditions if there is snow.
Well, I think it's obvious by this stage that our accommodation was indeed a 2002 GMC safari. I cannot recommend driving through the USA enough. The amount of money it saves you on flights and hotels isn't even the biggest benefit. You just cannot beat the experience of driving into a new town or city as if you were a local. You're on the road, stopping at local cafes and road stops and really seeing everything these small towns or big cities have to offer. There is so much more to America than its popular big cities.
Now I know what you're thinking, how did we shower while living out of a van? Well, that's where we got creative! A friend gave us a great tip to sign up to a Planet Fitness gym and use their facilities for showers every night (or every second night, depending how isolated you are). Planet Fitness is one of the biggest gym chains in America so you won't ever have to go too long between showers. It's also a great opportunity to work out and get the blood pumping every afternoon after a long day in the car.
Now we all know America is famous for its supersized food. But let me tell you about some hidden gems (and classics) that I enjoyed in the States.
Whataburger: Whataburger is my number one favourite takeaway burger joint in America. The only downside is it's a smaller chain so can only be found in particular locations. So, if you find one, get it! No matter what time of the day it is.
Shake Shack: This is a classic, but for good reason. The burgers are so juicy and delicious and you can't beat the crinkle cut fries! Getting a thick shake with your meal is also a must.
Voodoo Doughnut, Portland (pictured): If you're ever in Portland this is a MUST. Voodoo Doughnuts have a range of amazing and creative doughnuts that taste as good as they look. I promise you won't be disappointed.
Giordano's, Chicago: Deep dish pizza lovers unite! I am a massive pizza fan and in true road trip style wandered into this place with some time to kill before an NBA Bulls game (not knowing this place was actually famous for their deep-dish pizza pies). It is the combination of a pizza with a pie crust almost? Made in a dish so deep there are layers upon layers of toppings, cheese, sauce and all things mouth-watering.
Dairy Queen: If you love ice cream as much as me you have to try one of Dairy Queen's "Blizzard's". I would compare them to a McFlurry but 10 times better.
Olive Garden: Pizza and pasta lovers this is a must for you! It's a family vibe there and the servings are huge. They have the most delicious chicken carbonara, trust me I did the leg work. Plus, they give you delicious bread sticks and as much parmesan for your pasta as you please. They even do a really good salad (trust me I'm shocked that came out of my mouth as well) but it's true!
The Cheesecake Factory: It's all in the name. A menu as long as your imagination and it's full of every different type of cheesecake you can think of! It isn't just for dessert though. You can go there for lunch or dinner as well as they have a full food and drink menu.
Carl's Junior: Carl's was our go to for when we were looking for a big meal for a small cost. It's a takeaway burger place that left me shocked when I paid just $5.95 for a cheeseburger meal that came with cookies and an additional burger or hot dog. The value is just insane and it was actually so delicious. Keeping in mind it tastes nothing like Australia's Carl's Junior counterpart.
The cost of food in America is generally quite cheap. Depending where you eat of course. One thing worth mentioning is tipping is a custom in USA and consider this when ordering. A pizza might only be $10 but you have to take into account tipping your waiter! (15% - 20% is reasonable, 25% if you really liked it/were happy with the service). I would say as far as restaurants go the price is rather similar to what you pay in Australia once you include the tip. However, it's a different story for takeaway, you will get a lot for your money! I spent a lot of time in drive throughs I'll say that much.
- Salvation Mountain, CA (pictured): This is the place featured on the movie "Into the Wild", the true story of traveller Chris McCandless. It's as equally inspiring and interesting as it is on the movie. It is in the middle of absolutely nowhere in California out in the desert and was constructed by Leonard Knight. It is one of the most special places I've ever been.
- Sunset at Point Reyes, CA: This is hands down the best sunset I've ever experienced. We raced through the rolling hills, admiring some beautiful deer in the paddocks to make it for sunset. There was a stillness out there that I've never experienced since. The skies were pink as the sun set which complimented the rolling green hills and created the most dreamy and serene afternoon I'd ever seen.
- Grand Teton National Park, WY: It's all in the name to be honest. It is a grand, awe inspiring, vast and significant landscape. We stayed the night there (thanks to a spot found on iOverlander) and we had the most perfect view of the Grand Tetons as the sun set, an image I will never forget.
- Yellowstone National Park, WY: I have described this place as heaven on earth and will continue to do so. We were there when the animals were freely roaming the vast green plains. There were bison the size of cars, bears eating berries alongside the road, a pack of wild wolves howling and attracting mayhem among a group of photographers trying to locate them, you name it and Yellowstone has it. Keep in mind if you were to go in winter you would not see things like bears as they will be hibernating.
- Maroon Bells, CO: The Maroon Bells are mountains in Colorado that are so accessible it'd be rude not to. You can drive right up to them and park your car and go for a short walk to get some awesome up-close views.
- Aberdeen, WA: If you are a Kurt Cobain fan this is a must on your road trip! Located just outside of Seattle you are greeted with a very moving "Welcome to Aberdeen, come as you are" sign. We drove into Aberdeen twice just so I could take a photo of this! It left me with goosebumps. You can see the house he grew up in and the very bridge he slept under during his time of being homeless where a lot of his music was written and inspired from.
- Having a drink on a NYC rooftop: If you are in NYC it is imperative that you find a rooftop to enjoy a sunset drink and some dinner on. Sure, you can do the top of the rock experience but you'll be fighting off hundreds of other tourists for a moment of silence and a good photo opportunity. There are plenty of rooftop bars there it isn't hard to find one (when in doubt, Google!).
Some other destinations I'll let you just Google and see for yourself but were also some of my favs:
- Cedarburg, WI
- New Hampshire
- Leavenworth, WA
- Houston space centre, TX
- Laguna Beach, CA
- San Clemente, CA
- Carmel by the Sea, CA
- The Breakers, RI
- Alcatraz Prison, CA
- Las Vegas
- Bellingham, WA
- Death Valley, CA
- Mount Hood, OR
- Lake Shasta, CA
- St John's Bridge, OR
- Multnomah Falls, OR - Canon Beach, OR
- Big Sur, CA
Plus, so so so so many more!
- Buy/hire a van that looks as inconspicuous as possible. Our van looked like a work van so we were able to sleep without disturbance on safe suburban streets as opposed to having to pay for RV or camp sites.
- If you aren't near a Planet Fitness (as mentioned in "accommodation") there are truck stops called Loves which have showers for passing trucks or travellers.
- Most Walmart’s permit parking in their car parks which is also another good/free option for where to park for the night. Most of them are open 24 hours as well so you can use their toilets should you need to go in the early hours.
- Trust your gut. If something doesn't feel right or you don't feel safe where you have pulled up for the night, move move move! Do not stay anywhere that makes you feel unsafe. Most of the times you are probably right.
- There is an app called iOverlander that has a range of different (sometimes secret) camping spots where you can pull up for the night. It has entries and tips from fellow travellers and is a GREAT tool for choosing where to stay, whether that's an RV park or a side street somewhere out of town. I cannot stress this enough, we used it religiously for both of our road trips.
- If you are going to hike or go for any kind of walk in nature while in USA, TAKE BEAR SPRAY. Educate yourself on how to use it and always walk in groups. If you are travelling during spring and summer this is when bears are out in force so you will need to be incredibly vigilant.
- On the note of bears, if you are in an RV park or somewhere that bears frequent, ensure you lock up all food securely and do not leave your car unlocked at any point. RV parks provide bear boxes which are used to put food in and keep them locked away so the bears can't smell it or access it. A funny fact about bears is that they can actually let themselves into your car, sometimes ripping the door off (it's true, Google it) so make sure you do not leave any food scraps near your camp site and have the doors locked at all times so that bears aren't tempted into the area.
- Collect momentos! I personally collected Christmas baubles from my favourite destinations and now every year when I put my tree up, I get a beautiful reminder of all of the wonderful experiences I've had. If that's not for you, you can also get stickers from most gift shops with the national park or city name on it that you can put on your suitcase! Whatever momento you choose, I promise you it'll be so much more special to you once you are home.
- Think in US dollars: Once you've converted your Australian money there is no use in thinking "that's X amount of Australian dollars" every time you pay for something. You'll just feel guilty and not enjoy your experience to its fullest potential.
There's so much to be learned roaming the open roads of the USA. Some experiences can never be described as wonderful as they were in the moment until you see it for yourself. I hope this post was informative for you all and should you ever have any further questions about road tripping around the USA feel free to comment below and I can provide further information there.