USA road trip!
March 13, 2004 9:02 PM   Subscribe

RoadTripUSAFilter [part 1]
I & a friend will be arriving at LAX this Easter for my 4th visit to the US & my 3rd coast-to-coast road trip. We fly out of NYC on June 2nd.

This is the first time I've had to arrange my own transport. (First time was East-West in a Dodge RAM van, next was West-East in a converted School bus). Advice required...[A whole bunch more inside]

The route will be something along the lines of LA-SF-Reno/Black Rock desert-Route 50 to Moab, UT-around UT-AZ-Grand Canyon-Vegas-NM-Monarch Pass, CO-Bishop's Castle, CO-[not sure about OK/TX]-AR, New Orleans, LA-MS-TN-AL-FL panhandle & up the coast to NYC. This map shows the vague areas (green hurricanes) we're heading for.

Apart from either end, it's all very flexible eg possible change to take in Yellowstone/Tetons. I get the Rand McNally road atlas & go. Hooking up with old friends, making some new ones & seeing the scenery roll along. Camping grounds are the main accomodation option with occasional house/motel stays to see friends/freshen up.

I'm thinking of buying a station wagon/mini van/camper van/small RV in LA & selling it 6-7 weeks later when I'm in NYC with an extra 6-8000 miles on the clock. I want to pay with Visa. I don't want to shell out too much. (Is $5000 an impractically small amount?)

I'll also need insurance. (I'm a UK resident, over 30 with a clean driving licence.) Any other documentation (road tax, registration of ownership, road worthyness certificate)?

The station wagon (with added bedding & camp cooking gear) seems like the preferred option - low outlay, cheaper gas mileage. (We're 'living' in one in New Zealand at the moment. As long as the weather holds out it's good fun.)

So, to sum up a pathetically sprawling question I'm after;
- any advice regarding buying, selling & insuring (plus other documentation?) a vehicle to cross the US,
- anyone (esp. from the UK or EU) who has done this or similar,
- & any additional advice anyone can think of relating to any of the above, no matter how oblique.

Or would I be better off renting? From whom?

BTW, I'm going to post about locations/places to visit advice at a later date so no need for any of that yet.

In other words, where are my car keys?!
posted by i_cola to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
That's almost *too* much info, really, and I can't advise on transport, since I've always had my own (tuned up) car to drive for road trips. If you come near St. Louis way (across i-70 from Colorado to parts east), tell me, and I can put you up.
posted by notsnot at 10:19 PM on March 13, 2004

Sounds wonderful! For used vehicles in CA, you can try You'll need a few zip codes for LA to get started, but you can look those up easily. Your budget seems reasonable, all depending on what you end up actually buying, but you can find just about anything in the SoCal car market.

In terms of documentation, you may want to consider a membership with the AAA ( not only because they might be able to advise you on all the documentation you would need, but also because they have a service you can pay for to have a tow truck come get you if you break down no matter where you are. That service is tied to you, the member, not your location, nor the vehicle. They also have a famous trip-planning service which, if you provide them your start location and destination, can recommend roads, places to stay, visit, eat, etc. Sure, you'll get interesting recommendations from AskMe, but the overall big picture may be best from a place like the AAA.

Off the top of my head, you'll need to register the car with the CA DMV (, perhaps get it inspected (depending on when it was last inspected), get it insured, and make sure your international license is in order.

I did a solo cross-America ride (East-West) on a motorcycle during my university years and it is one of the most vivid memories I have. My suggestion: visit more National Parks. They are America's best treasures.
posted by gen at 10:31 PM on March 13, 2004

Get AAA. Do NOT use their trip-planning, it will kill the fun out of anything. You can read a map perfectly fine by yourself, obviously. I would be concerned about your ability to get proper insurance, registration and documentation without residency and in timely fashion.

BEWARE in California of "off-shore" insurance companies. When they refuse to pay a claim, the insurance commission will not help you. You'd have to hire a lawyer (then sue the agent who sold it, which you can do).

It may be the case that California taxes and red-tape may make it better to fly to Arizona to buy a car, but I am just speculating. Easy (and beautiful) to drive back to California to do that part of the trip.
posted by Goofyy at 12:08 AM on March 14, 2004

Best answer: When I was researching options for a long-term trip, I found Transatlantic with offices in LA and NYC... they will either lease you older vehicles, or sell them with the option of buying them back. Their prices are quite steep from what I could tell, but the advantage is that they take care of insurance and all other paperwork, and give you a fairly good upfront cost (plus, no hassle to sell your car under time pressure in what might be a buyer's market).

Unfortunately, I never managed to do a trip like you are planning (my travelogs can be found online), so I am envious, and want to read more once you're on the road, or back. :)
posted by ckemp at 12:13 AM on March 14, 2004

I would recommend minimizing risk and either leasing or renting as a general proposition. I rented a really big Ford F150 when I moved a lot of stuff out of Seattle to Vermont [3500 miles] and got it via for the obscene amount of $25/day though I did have to return it to where I got it from. They may have milage limits now.

I think it's a balance between how you feel about trusting a car you just bought versus having someone else charge you more for peace of mind. Also depends how capable you feel about getting out of trouble. I've driven x-country in the aforementioned truck but also in an $800 van that I got out of the want ads, which also worked pretty well. $5000 in the US *should* get you a reliable vehicle, easily. In fact you could almost go as low as $3,500-$3,000 before you'd worry about unreliability [according to me, who is not a mechanic, but can fix some things] Some other advice below, and feel free to email me for more. I've driven cross-country about 12 times in the last decade in a variety of vehicles including station wagons. I am a big car-camping fan.

1. Get AAA and splurge for AAA plus. It gives you 100 miles of towing up to four times per year if you need it and all the maps you can eat. Battery jumps and lockouts as well. I second the "do not let them plan your trip" part
2. If there's any state you will be exploring in detail consider investing in a gazeteer which has more of the smaller roads and can help you find campsites [AAA camp books are also great for this] and smaller roads to go on. I have one for the state of Vermont where I live and it's invaluable in locating shortcuts and weird little side attractions
3. I also enjoy travelling with a GPS [I have a Garmin III] which has maps in it which can be good for pinpointing your location and knowing how fast you're going and how far it is to the next exit/destination/bathroom. It's definitely overkill, but they're cheapish now [$200?] and have a lot of good info in terms of local sunset, long/lat, etc.
4. When you buy a car, you'll need to get a title [unless the car is very old] and a bill of sale from the seller. You'll need registration + insurance + an international or local drivers license+ maybe an inspection to drive it. Registration costs and hassles vary widely by state [California has smog requirements that are strict if I am not mistaken], as does insurance. usually when you get a car insured they want to know where it will be garaged, and this affects your rate. The correct answer is NOT "Los Angeles", a better answer is someplace remote/rural. I have never done this as a non-American, but I suspect it might be tough without a mailing address and/or domicile in the US.

As people have said, this is really a combination of questions really. I reckon you won't be near Vermont but if you are, feel free to stop by.
posted by jessamyn at 7:04 AM on March 14, 2004

I love how you have a big question mark over TX, OK, KS!
Seriously, though, if you're going to stop somewhere in TX, it should be Austin. There is a nice RV park right off of Barton Springs road, great location. It takes a long time, though, to drive through TX and there simply isn't much to see. From Austin to Las Cruces, NM it's ~9 hrs driving -- I think much longer from Santa Fe.
If you're driving through, drop me an email.

Sorry -- can't help you re: car rental/purchase in the US.
But definitely have to say -- get AAA. They can be a godsend.
I was also thinking that it might be a good idea to get one of those pre-paid cell phones here. Just in case you run into emergencies without a pay phone in sight.
posted by j at 8:48 AM on March 14, 2004

Dunno about California, but some states have a 30 day "Transport Registration." This would let you drive without the hassle of getting real plates (just a piece of paper in the back window). I did this when I drove from NY to GA. Worked great and was much cheaper and easier than double registering. Since your trip is longer than 30 days, you could do this twice, once at the start and once along the way. If you have the title and bill of sale, you can get one of these without inspection and other hassles.
posted by zpousman at 9:51 AM on March 14, 2004

Best answer: Have you or your friend got any experience driving on the right side of the road? It can be quite mind boggling to switch, and LA is probably not the best place to learn new driving techniques.

Get a national parks pass. It'll give you free access to the entire US national park system, plus discounts on things like riding to the top of the St. Louis Arch. America's national park system is amazing, and you should do as much as possible to see as much of it as you can.

Get AAA, and ask for their maps and guidebooks to all the states you plan on visiting.

Consider getting a full-sized spare tire for your car. Most cars these days have spare tires that can only be driven on for 30 miles or so. But if you get a flat in the mountains of Arizona, you could easily be 100 miles from the nearest mechanic.

When I drove across country in 2001, my friend and I started out camping a lot. But after a few weeks we got tired of setting up camp several nights a week and we also found that we weren't saving as much money as we'd expected--a lot of campgrounds are expensive.

We still camped when we needed serenity, but we also ended up sleeping in the car at rest areas--it's generally allowed unless posted signs indicate otherwise. And we slept in the parking lots of 24-hour Super Wal-Marts. The chain allows overnight parking lot camping, it's safe because there are cameras everywhere, and they don't mind if you come in in the middle of the night to use the restroom to wash up and change your clothes.

If you look for the cheapest motel around whenever you need a place to stay, you can often get rooms for around $25 a night, at least outside of urban and extremely touristy areas. I found that immigrant hotel owners were much more open to bargaining over room price than Americans.

Finally: I suggest you map out a vaugue trip plan for yourself just to get acquainted with the places you want to visit and how far apart they are. America is big, and sometimes it take calculating the number of miles between two spots to really fathom how far apart they are. Don't feel you have to follow the plan, but it is a nice tool to have.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:12 AM on March 14, 2004 [1 favorite]

Hell yes there are places to see in a Texas route, from NM, go south to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, with, what i think are the best caves in the US. Guadulpe Mountains National Park is also very close and offers hiking or just beautiful scenery.

Leaving that area, I would either go to Big Bend National Park (be sure to check out the photo gallery), or just head on to Austin. If you like outdoors things Big Bend is beautiful, it is an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and Globally Important Bird Area in addition to having some very cool geological formations.

So then, on to Austin, which is fun, visit the parks, go to sixth street, go in some of the cool locally owned shops and things.

Then maybe San Antonio, if you would like to tour the Alamo, they also have a riverwalk, but it's kinda touristy.

Then I would go on to Houston, there's lots to do here (where i live), good museums, the Menil Collection is a must see, also the Rothko Chapel is here. The Museum of Fine Arts usually has rotates through exhibitions, so who knows when you're here. Also Houston is home to JSC of NASA, and you can go tour that for the height of your touristy attractions ;) at Space Center Houston. We also have a lot of good restaurants and sporting events, pick up a copy of the Houston Press for all sorts of goodness.

Then I would definitely go to New Orleans, that is not to be missed. go to café du monde, in the square before, then go out that night and have fun. There's all sorts of other things to do there though besides getting drunk, all depending on your tastes.

I see you want to go to Little Rock, for whetever reason, so I guess you're back on track there!
posted by rhyax at 11:53 AM on March 14, 2004

Response by poster: Excellent replies so far guys. Many thanks to all.

NM to Big Bend to Austin & on looks like the route for us (a few people have said that Big Bend is a good visit). Thanks to j & rhyax for info.

I may try the Transatlantic guys to save headaches as they have a few options but jessamyn's experiences sound good too. I'll be in touch ;-)

Oh, and I have been vaguley blogging the trip so far (Singapore-Sri Lanka-Thailand-Bali-Oz-New Zealand altho' so far it's photos only as far as Thailand so far. I've got 1600 pix to sort through (!) Site on user page.

Right, now to head off in to the wilds of New Zealand. Thanks again y'all.
posted by i_cola at 4:04 PM on March 14, 2004

Do not get AAA!!!!!!!

Better World Club is much better.
posted by corpse at 4:50 AM on March 15, 2004

You've probably got this covered already, but just in case: Make sure you have adequate travel insurance for if the unpleasant should happen. Medical bills in the US are ugly.
posted by normy at 9:54 AM on March 15, 2004

I'd recommend going across Kansas, just becaue it's amazing that there's a 6 hour jaunt of nothing but flat prarie. The Spaniards used sea compasses to navigate through it.

Also be aware that US DUI laws are really low (or not low enough if you're in MADD). Two drinks will probably set you off. Especially if you're a New Zealander driving in unfamiliar territory trying to obey weird traffic laws in a junky car with temporary tags. You're just asking to be pulled over. I don't know what an international DUI is like, but it can't be pretty.

In fact I don't know how you'd drive across the country without being pulled over at least once. A lot of places cops like pulling over suspicious cars, and I can't imagine you'd not run into a dick cop who'd spot you making a stupid error. Best thing you can do is be really cooperative, consent to every search, make him feel like he's in charge and cry like a little baby. Not to scare you, 99% of traffic cops are nice, the other 1% are dicks. Luckily they can't do much, but they'll do what they can if you rub them the wrong way.
posted by geoff. at 11:25 AM on March 15, 2004

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