12 January 2017

How to drive in America (a Kiwi perspective from the wrong side of the road)

Covering 800 miles of American freeways in less than 10 days is something I never thought I’d do to be honest – an inexperienced driver at best I’ve driven short distances (and through a Florida tropical storm from Cape Canaveral back to our Orlando apartment) – but somehow we survived unscathed driving diagonally the length of Louisiana from New Orleans to Shreveport, through the crazy traffic of Dallas and along the long, undulating motorways of Texas.

How to drive in the US on holiday Adventures of a London Kiwi
How to drive in the US on holiday Adventures of a London Kiwi

It was amazing. We saw places that we never would have been able to explore, it gave us a freedom to nip into cute restaurants we spotted from the road and stay in a couple of really quirky hotels off the beaten track.

We intentionally hired a small car, ending up with a Scarlet Nissan which I christened Bonnie (both named for our lovely waitress one morning and after the infamous Bonnie & Clyde). She was automatic and had a sweet spot around 75miles/hr (or 120km/hr, I’m so glad I hadn’t converted that over whilst in the US) but best of all (I think) the colour and size marked us out as tourists amidst the white 4-wheel drives that all the locals drove.

Tips for driving in America on holiday Adventures of a London Kiwi

We flew (hopped really, on the American Airways buses of the sky) from Austin to New Orleans to avoid the chaotic traffic jams of Houston and taxied around Dallas (mostly to give me a break from concentrating – we got some of the best recommendations from our drivers though, one restaurant we visited two nights in a row) but our hours on the road were definitely some of our favourite.

Louisiana has one of the highest speed limits in the continental US and some beautiful camber, whilst Texas seemed a little slower but had more 18-wheeler trucks sharing the tarmac with my admittedly Nana driving.

Tips for driving in America on holiday Adventures of a London Kiwi

The driving is super quick, but I simply kept in the right-hand lane to 5 miles under the speed limit which was comfortable for my confidence - and helped us avoid the $175 Louisiana speeding fines. At the start of the trip I was a nervous wreck, that night almost falling asleep in the hot tub in our hotel from exhaustion after clenching the steering wheel all day. By the end of our mammoth road trip I was changing lanes with ease, occasionally floating in the middle lane before tucking back in behind trucks and sauntering out of the car with keys jangling on my fingers.

I’ll be honest, and admit that did we encounter a couple of scary situations – a truck driver changing lanes not allowing me enough time to enter a motorway (I luckily just popped into a shoulder lane), getting lost in the middle of Dallas skyscrapers (we jammed every device we had onto navigation), accidentally assuming a road was much narrower than it really was (luckily the road was relatively quiet so I just guided her nimbly over to the correct lane) and dodging some of the twits who pulled out in front of us – one with a trailer full of wood – but overall it really was fine.

Tips for driving in America on holiday Adventures of a London Kiwi

I doubt much of this is helpful, but a few things/tips to bear in mind when planning an American roadtrip are;

CHECK YOUR CAR INSURANCE BEFORE YOU START DRIVING.

Photograph the dents in your car when you pick it up, just in case.

Rest. We stopped every hour or so, just to grab a drink and stretch our legs, my Dad’s voice echoing in my head every day.

It's totally OK to call your family in England to check if you can put tap water in the window washing reservoir. (As a student and before smartphones invented, I once call my Dad to check how long to boil potatoes for. They'll still love you, they'll just laugh a little at you.)

DON’T PANIC.

We planned to mostly drive in the middle of the day to miss the city rush hours and allow loads of time to stop and do random things.

Buck-ees have nice restrooms and are all along the highways BUT hopping out at a small town gas station can be quite an eye opener.

There weren’t as many signs to stop and see random things as we were hoping, but luckily a touch of Google research provided ample sufficiency. 

Tips for driving in America on holiday Adventures of a London Kiw
'scuse the blurry photo...

DO NOT PASS STOPPED SCHOOL BUSES OR POLICE CARS (OR AT LEAST SLOW RIGHT DOWN PAST THE POLICE CARS)

We downloaded an app that was perfect when we drove around Florida (NavFree I think?) but the best app we found en route was still Google Maps as it assisted with picking lanes in the busy city junctions but it can be a data vacuum and unhelpful when there is patchy data signals.

DON’T SPEND ALL THE TIME DRIVING – we probably needed an extra day really – with traffic etc most 60 minute distances were really around 75 minutes which adds up over a few days and there was an additional place we fancied visiting (but we demurred as it would have meant 5hours+ driving one day).

MOST IMPORTANTLY KIDS: DON’T EAT SERVICE STATION SANDWICHES, GO DEEP-FRIED.

Driving again has given me a real confidence boost - oh how I miss the convenience of four wheels. Whilst planning our next road trip away, I think I'm gonna start working on my next bumper sticker that says "My Other Car Is A Boat."

Tips for driving in America on holiday Adventures of a London Kiw

Have you ever driven on the wrong side of the road? Would you?

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Tips for driving in America on holiday Adventures of a London Kiwi

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