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UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ROAD TRIP (HOW TO GUIDE)

(March 25th 2014 – September 8th 2014)

OUR STATS :

  • Miles Travelled 27,000 miles (43,450km’s)
  • National Parks Visited – 28
  • Nights spent camping – 125
  • Birds Photographed – 185
  • Total Animals Photographed – 250
  • Flat Tyres – 0
  • States Visited – 20
  • Tornados Seen – 7
  • BBQ joints visited – 17

We hadn’t met anyone who had travelled to the USA to do a road trip like we were planning so it was all a learning curve for us. Here is a list of things you should know and things we have learned along the way:

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VISAS

Australian & New Zealand passport holders get 3 months on arrival, you may be refused entry if you have a criminal conviction. We needed longer so we had to fill out a very comprehensive online form then make an appointment at our local embassy (for us this was Auckland, NZ) for a face to face interview. Once there they will check all your documents including bank statements making sure you have enough money for the planned trip (i.e. not needing to work in the states), also reasons to leave the US such as owning a home, family etc. The VISA they gave us was called a B1/B2 VISA which now allows us to come and go on the same VISA for the next 10 years as long as the trips are no longer than 6 months at a time, if approved they will then keep your passport and mail it back to you with your new US Visa inside (this took only 2 days which was great, I hate being without my passport).

RENEWING VISA

Even if you’re VISA is approved they stress you can still be refused entry upon arrival in the US, it will be your customs officer that will ultimately decided if can say up to 6 months. If you successfully enter the states you will need to leave before your allowance expires, going to Canada or Mexico is not classed as leaving the country! Once you fly out you need to make sure your previous VISA stamp expires before entering back into the US, you will also need a valid reason to be coming back in to the US so soon after leaving.

PEOPLE & ETIQUETTE

One of the first things you notice when you get to the US is how the general etiquette differs from Australia, in a good way. I can’t remember hearing a single swear word and you should get used to saying Sir and Ma’am. Good morning Sir and thank you Ma’am is the norm, if you’re driving through a rural area make sure you wave to everyone.

Everyone you meet here is just so polite and humble, they seem to love Australians and our accents.

I am still to this day blown away with how many church’s there are here, I’m sure they out number petrol stations!

BUYING A CAR IN THE US

Yes you can buy a car here in the US without a local drivers licence. You will need a full overseas drivers licence and a passport, you will also need a permanent address so they can mail any fines to you and also for your insurance. I think a hotel address would probably suffice, lucky for us we had a home base in Texas which certainly helped.

Cars here are very cheap compared with Australia. We budgeted $5000 for our car, this got us a 2002 Automatic 5.3 L V8 Chevrolet Tahoe with 130,000 miles on the clock. It had plenty of room in the back for us to sleep and allowed us to stop anywhere after storm chasing and not have to worry about setting up a tent. Tent camping here is very easily as there are so many campgrounds everywhere you go.

One thing you really NEED to know about buying a car, actually buying anything here in the states, SALES TAX! Every state (except Montana) charges it on just about everything (including restaurants) and it’s not included when you see that price on the shelf, ticket or menu. In most states it is around 7 – 9% in the cities but can be less outside city limits.

CAR INSURANCE

When owning a car here insurance is compulsory and you will need to organise it before you pick up the car up from the seller or dealer. This can be expensive as we found out because when you don’t have a past insurance/driving record in the US you are quoted pretty much as a novice driver. This cost us $550.00 for 6 months and that is just third party liability.. nothing more!

SALES TAX

Every state we travelled in (except Montana) charges a sales tax on just about everything and its not included when you see that price on the shelf, ticket or menu. In most states it is around 7 – 9% on top of the purchase price.

CREDIT CARDS & GETTING CASH OUT

This is always hard when you are travelling overseas for a long period of time and don’t like carrying too much cash, your bank will usually charge you about 3% whenever you make purchases on your credit/debit card. There is a company that doesn’t.

The company is called 28 Degrees and their credit card is free. The best thing is they don’t charge the 3%, they just charge you what ever the rate is on the day of your purchase. I’m not sure if the interest rate is all that competitive because we keep the card in credit and never pay interest but for travelling it’s perfect for us.

When you get cash out of an ATM they still charge the 3% and the bank here will charge you $2 – $5 withdrawal fee but in the USA you can purchase just about anything with a credit card so you never need much cash.

PHONE & INTERNET

This one is a challenge! There are many different options you have when it comes to picking a provider for your internet and phone.

As we don’t have social security numbers it’s very difficult to sign up for a contract, unless you want to pay a $500 bond so prepay really is the only way to go.

The two biggest carriers here are Verizon and AT&T. We have found after a lot of trial and error that as long as you stick to one of these two you should be find reception most of the time while travelling.

Walmart has a deal with both carriers and provides a service called Straight Talk prepaid. You can pick up a “bring your own phone, sim card pack” from Walmart which costs around $59.00, with this you get unlimited calls, texts and internet (2.5G limit on fast internet then it slows down) then $45 per month there after as a prepaid top up for the unlimited use. This package is valid for 30 days, make sure you top up again before it expires or your phone gets disconnected and you have to start again. For all those who “hotspot” their other devices such as tablets to their phone forget it, they disable this function on all prepaid options with unlimited internet.

Another thing is when you open the package the first time make sure you pick the AT&T simcard, not the T-mobile! T-mobiles coverage was total garbage.

As far as a wireless dongle goes (or Mifi as they call it) we went with Straight Talk again, they use Verizon for their service and we found the coverage to be reasonably good, the only downfall is its only 3G but this seemed to work fine for what we wanted it for.

The dongle itself cost $79.00, then you buy your data plan on top of this. We went with the $50 for 5 Gig plan which has a 60 day expiry which is good.

FUEL COST

Fuel here is CHEAP! It costs between $3.00 – $3.80 per gallon in most places we went which is around 0.92c per litre. Only problem is the cars here are mostly V8’s so you have to expect to use more than you would with the little 4 cylinder cars we are used to in Australia.

The West Coast cost a bit more (due to their strict emissions laws they add something to the fuel there to lower emissions), $3.90 was common and even as high as $5.00 per gallon in remote areas of California.

We bought a Chevy Tahoe which has a 5.3L V8 and we would get around 18 miles to the gallon on average, this works out to around $12.00 per 100km of travel. In Australia our 4 cylinder Toyota Rav4 (at $1.60 per litre for petrol) would cost around $16.00 per 100km.

Now if you could find a 4 cylinder car or a Hybrid to drive around you would be laughing!

MUST DOWNLOAD APPS

  • Public Camp Pro ($1.99): This app shows you all of the camping available for every region in the states and Canada which includes; State Parks, National Parks, Free camping, Regional, US Forest, Fish & Wildlife, Corps of Engineers as well as RV Parks. This app has saved us many headaches when trying to find a home for the night, most times it gives you a list of that campgrounds facilities and elevation which was great. Most of the camp sites cost around $10 – $20 per night and were occasionally free.
  • Maps with Me (free): This app allows you to download the state and country maps for free before you get there so you can use them offline. It has an arrow that comes up to show you exactly where you are and what direction your pointing, this allows you to know exactly where you are even when you do not have phone reception or internet.
  • Radar US+ ($2.99): If you’re a keen weather watcher like me then this app is awesome! Show’s Radar and Base Reflectivity which is perfect for storm chasing and sever weather watching including super-cells, flash flooding and tornados warnings.
  • Viber (free): I’m sure everyone already knows about this app but its worth a mention. It allows you to call or text message any one of your friends, anywhere in the world for FREE! As long as you have a decent WIFI connection that is.

FOOD & EATING OUT

The food in the states is AMAZING! We are massive Pork Rib fans and gezz I landed in the right state for that, Texas has BBQ places everywhere and they are really cheap.

Food prices all depend on where you eat, here is a couple of examples.

  • Typical BBQ place: 3 Meat combo with 2 sides cost around $12 – $16, The serving size is usually generous but you should manage it on your own. A full rack of ribs usually costs around $20 – $30, these are massive and the two of us would struggle to finish one with sides of beans and slaw of corse.
  • Taco Bell : One of our favourite fast food places, consistently yummy fresh food. We would normally spend about $10 and this got a lot, you didn’t feel horrible afterwards like you do with a lot of the fast food around.
  • IHOP: Great place for breakfast. A two plate sampler breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash brown and 2 pancakes will cost around $10, this doesn’t include coffee.
  • Mexican restaurants: They are everywhere and are very cheap, you should be able to get a massive meal and roll out of the place for $10 per person.
  • Starbucks: The best place to get coffee (they even have drive-thru!). Most places will only serve plunger coffee so an espresso at Starbuck’s is the way to go. Prices all depend on what you get but our long backs (Short Double Americano) cost around $2.20 each. Another benefit, free & fast WiFi! We only drink black coffee so I wouldn’t be able to tell you if they did a good Cappuccino, from what I observed Australia is much better at frothing milk.

ALL THE BBQ joints we visited, in order of best down to worst (As you can see we are BIG fans)

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  • IM SURPRISED WE HAVEN’T TURNED INTO RIBS AFTER THIS TRIP!
  • Tylers BBQ Amarillo, TX. This little BBQ place in the middle of the city is very inconspicuous, they serve the BEST ribs we found in Texas! There beans and coleslaw where also very good as was the home made BBQ sauce. Defiantly a 10/10! We even went back a second time!!
  • Blue Moon BBQ, Hearne TX. This BBQ was is in the middle of nowhere about 30 minutes north east of College Station, it’s located in a little shack on the side of the road on the OSR. It was awesome! The BBQ ribs were some of the best we have had, make sure you try their Cowboy Cornbread too. We will definitely be going back.
  • BBQ Station Cassville, MO. This BBQ place was located close to a State park we stayed at. We drove into town looking for something for dinner and stumbled upon this place. Their ribs where to die for, the green beans and baked beans where also very good. My wife said the corn bread was the best she has had. They also had 3 kinds of BBQ sauce and they where all amazing! So a very pleasant surprise in a very random spot!
  • Fargos Pit BBQ, Bryan TX. This was our local while we where staying with Cyndi and Steve, there BBQ is very good especially their ribs and baked beans. Now that we know a bit more about BBQ this one had ok smoke flavour.
  • Rasco’s BBQ, Las Cruces NM. This was our first BBQ for a good 6 weeks, so we were excited. It was a bit hard to find but was worth the search. The ribs fell off the bone a little too much for our liking and had no smoke flavour but the sides were spectacular a good overall St Louis style BBQ.
  • Joe’s Real BBQ, Phoenix AZ. Lauren found this place on trip advisor, it was located south east Phoenix which worked for us. The BBQ was awesome! We shared a slab of ribs and they where just cooked perfectly, they also did the best fire sauce we have had so far on this trip. Their beans where also very nice, not too sweet like most.
  • Famous Dave’s BBQ, Bozeman MT. This was a chain BBQ join so didn’t expect much. The Ribs were awesome and they had 6 sauces which were all great! The corn bread, beans and slaw were also good. The best chain BBQ you will get in our opinion.
  • J Cody’s, College Station TX. This place was very popular and for a good reason. They had a great selection of meat and sides, the sides where all included in your meat plate purchase. The home made bread and corn bread where great and kept in a warmer which was a good idea.
  • Big Texas BBQ, Wilcox AZ. Was a really cool BBQ place in the middle of Wilcox, it was located in an old train carriage. The brisket was the best we have had but the ribs were a little tough, the beans were really good.
  • Black’s BBQ Lockhart TX. We arrived at a funny time of day for this place, they are a very well know good BBQ place but we found them just average. The chicken was a bit dry and chewy and the rib portion was a little to small for my liking.
  • Blazes BBQ, Enid OK. We found this BBQ on a storm chasing day so got takeout. We got a whole rack of ribs and it was a really good serving size but no smoke flavour at all and a bit fatty
  • Billy Sims BBQ, Lawton, OK. A chain BBQ place on the highway, a good average BBQ place that did really nice Texas toast and sausage. Between the two of us their 4 meat combo was a great size for us to share and only cost $15.00.
  • Southwest Pit BBQ, Lincoln NE. This had heaps of character, the guy running it made a lot of effort. Very good value for money, ribs feel off the bone but maybe a little too much, the cornbread was really good and the chicken wings were the best we had.
  • Rib City, Fruita CO. Good solid BBQ, good for a chain. The baby back ribs were tasty but we prefer spare ribs. They served it with 4 sauces which was a win.
  • Chucks BBQ Hotsprings AK. A very quirky little place next to the highway, they had a great smoke ring on there ribs. Lauren had the sample plate and everything was just good, maybe a little too salty.
  • CJ’s BBQ, College Station TX. Kind of a chain BBQ place but still family owned and local to College Station. The ribs didn’t taste like they were barbecued and there sausage was just ok. Cheap and cheerful, Lauren said the pork loin and coleslaw was very nice.
  • Woody’s BBQ, Centreville TX. This BBQ was just ok, it tasted a little plain. This place was part of a petrol station/gift shop and was very touristy. The ribs and chicken where very dry but the smoke flavour was good.

TIPPING

Tipping is required when ever you are served at your table. If you’re at McDonalds and you’re ordering a Big Mac you do not have to tip but if you’re at IHop and you have a waitress you defiantly have to tip.

The amount you are expected to tip can be anywhere between 10 – 20%, Most people tip 15% if they were reasonably happy with everything.

The easiest way I found to work it out quickly is if you see the 8% sales tax down the bottom of the receipt, double that.

BEER & ALCOHOL (AKA – The Beer Economy)

Beer is CHEAP! But all depends on which state you are in, it will usually cost around $2.50 a bottle in a BBQ or Mexican restaurant, if your at a Dodgers baseball game then expect to pay $12! If you buy it from the service station you can pick up Budweiser for as low as $7.00 for 8, 16 oz cans (470ml).

Walmart is usually a good place to buy alcohol (in some states they are not allowed to sell it), you can usually pick up a 30 box of Miller Highlife 12 oz cans for $17 – $20, Budweiser around $22.00.

Keep in mind the difference between supermarket/petrol station beer compared to bottle-shop beer, the bottle-shop will have full strength beer (average 5%) and supermarket/petrol station can be 3.2%. Must be something to do with their liquor licensing laws I guess, this differs from state to state too.

Spirits can also be very cheap, again it depends which state you are in as the rules change drastically on where you can buy hard alcohol. In the better states you can pick up a 1.75l of Smirnoff vodka for $20 at the supermarket, bottle of Jaegermeister for $16 etc etc.

Wine is a bit harder, we a very spoilt in Australia for great wine so we have become quite fussy with wine over the years. It’s hard to find a red or white that isn’t sweet, even a Shiraz can be sweet. White Zinfandel (or Rose’) can be nice if you can find a dry one. I guess like most wines the more money you spent the better it gets so being on a tight budget we gave up after a while and stuck to beer.

ROAD RULES

Driving a left hand drive car was very interesting for the first week or so, I seem to have picked it up easily and it now feels strangely natural. Except for roundabouts.. they still feel odd.

Most drivers in the US don’t seem to know what an indicator is used for? I’m really not sure who gave them a drivers licence but they need to go back to driving school. Seriously, just slam on your brakes when going 70 miles an hour on the highway without an indicator seems to be the norm!

A “Yield” sign is the same as a “Give Way” and there are stop signs are everywhere, you will quickly figure out how to be a courteous driver. There are a lot of “4 Way Stops” here instead of traffic lights, it seems to work really well as the only rule is that the first one to stop gets to go next. Easy but just take note of the order everyone arrives at the 4 way stop so you know when it’s your turn!

Everything apart from the above is very similar and its easy to pick up.

Make sure you watch out for the drivers in Oklahoma, they are the worst! While the best drivers we saw were in Texas.

CRAZY RULES

If you’re visiting Oregon on the West Coast they have a weird law that doesn’t allow you to get out of your car to pump your own gas, it was really annoying! The reason for this, we were told, is that it has created a heap of new jobs for people which helps the economy. It also makes the gas more expensive and does’t allow you to top up your tank completely, there are 1 or 2 other states that do this on the East Coast.

SHOPPING

  • Supermarkets: everywhere you go you need a darn rewards card, otherwise you don’t get the specials. Seriously if you lived here you would probably have a 100 membership cards in your wallet! Sam’s Club and Costco are great for bulk buying and random cheap items (such as the mattress for our car), you need to pay about $40 per year for the privilege. We still don’t know which buildings are supermarkets in each state they all have funny names like Kroger’s and Kohl’s, from the outside they just look like another department store.
  • Clothes shopping: ARRIVE WITH AN EMPTY SUITCASE, SERIOUSLY! I wish we had of known this before we arrived! Outlet shopping is the way to go but if you don’t have one close by places like Macy’s, Sears, JCPenny are all very cheap also and carry all the good brands, brand new current trend Levi’s for $35 full price!

CAMPING

When we arrived in the US we really didn’t know what to expect when it came to camping. We were pleasantly surprised to find nice camping spots everywhere, using the iPhone app I talked about above (Public Camp Pro) it made it very easy to find a camping spot pretty much anywhere in the country.

There are three main camp types:

  • National Parks – You have to pay an entrance fee $10 – $25 per car for up to 7 days before entering the park or you can buy an annual pass which gets you into all the National Parks in the country for $80. Once in the park it usually costs between $10 – $25 per night which is reasonable. We visited 28 National Parks so probably saved $500 with the annual pass, the National Parks in America are spectacular and well worth the visit. Please note tho that the National Park campgrounds as a rule do not have showers, larger parks may have pay showers alongside their laundromat and general store. Another thing to note is reservations, if you plan to just turn up make sure you get there early (especially Friday and Saturdays) as the “first come first served” sites generally fill quickly.
  • State Parks – These are run by the individual states, you usually have to pay a $5 / $10 entry fee to get into the park then your camping fees on top. The camping fees can vary from $8 – $45 depending on the facilities. These parks usually have really nice sites and also showers but can get expensive for the privilege.
  • Wildlife Reserves – These camps usually have very basic facilities but are usually really good spots to see wildlife. They are not normally on the (Public camp pro) app so you need to do your research on the refuges website before heading there, on the up side they are often very inexpensive or free.

SELLING YOUR CAR AT THE END

  • We placed our car on Craigslist (similar to Gumtree) which was free and sold it within 24 hours! We even got back what we paid for the vehicle even after adding an extra 27,000 miles.

A lot of people will tell you that the US is very dangerous, I guess if you only visit the major cities this could be true but how boring is that! No, you need to get out there a see what really makes this country so special and its definitely not in the cities. The National Parks, back-counrty, small towns, wide open spaces, thats the real America, where there is no fast-food chains or Walmart and the countryside that is in one word, diverse!

Americans I think could be the friendliest and most hospitable people you could ever meet, if you do make it here take the time to get to know the locals I promise you you won’t regret it and you will probably make some new friends along the way too.

If you have ever thought about doing a US road-trip just do it, you will have the time of your life!

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