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  1. Default Sydney => Western USA RT Help/Questions

    Hi everyone,

    I’m hoping to go on a road trip to the western United States over December/January and am looking for some help in relation to planning it. We’re intending to start off in LA and then doing a huge loop up via the coast to Vancouver and then inland (i.e. via Salt Lake City and Las Vegas) on the leg back to LA. Sorry for the super-long post and countless questions. I guess I'm just the type that likes to be prepared =). Apologies if some of these questions have been answered in other threads.

    a) My friend and I are 21 and want to hire a car from Los Angeles. We will be driving probably around 12,000 kilometres over about 41 days. I’ve heard that there will be a surcharge on the rental given our ages and was wondering if anyone knew which company was best for youth car rentals. In New Zealand, we managed to get a hire car at 18 and on a provisional licence without a surcharge, but I don’t expect that to be the case in the US. Also, would it make much difference in terms of price as to hiring from the airport versus the suburbs? Alternatively, would buying a car be a better option and how would one go about this? Is it even possible given that we're Australian? How would insurance work?

    b) We’re going to be heading north from California through Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Given that it’s the middle of winter, I expect that it would be snowing in places. I’ve also heard (and seen clips) referring to ‘black ice’. As someone who’s never driven in the snow before (but quite a lot of gravel roads), does anyone have any tips for snow driving? And would a 4WD/SUV be better? And are there any car preparation steps I need to take before going into freezing temperatures? (e.g. anti-freeze, snow chains, etc.) Should I buy the snow chains or just rent them (taking into consideration the only place we’ll return to is LA)? The route also involves some ‘back roads’ (i.e. US routes and state routes as opposed to interstates), would these likely be drivable in winter? I realise that many national parks will have road closures (Yellowstone, etc.).

    c) We’re also hoping to see Vancouver whilst we’re up Washington (state) way. Is there anything we need to do in terms of visas and such going over the border to Canada? How long are the queues for customs, typically? We’re also considering hopping over to Mexico for a bit whilst in California; however, I’ve heard stories about how it would take several hours to cross the border in a car. Would travelling over as a pedestrian be easier/faster? And are there any customs/visa issues that need to be sorted out? Also, is it safe?

    d) In terms of accommodation, we’ve planned out an itinerary/route but I’m not entirely sure whether we’d be able to stick to it exactly (e.g. adverse weather, breakdowns, etc.). Do you think there’d be accommodation available if we just drove into roadside motels? And would this be much more expensive as opposed to pre-booking?

    e) I currently have an iPhone 3GS (Australian models can be unlocked). I figure that the cheapest way to have a phone would be to take my iPhone and then get a prepaid SIM card. Does anyone have any specific suggestions for this? We’d probably also want internet access here and there but I’m not sure if I need a plan with data as I’ve heard free Wi-Fi spots are much more plentiful in the US. I also figured I could use my iPhone (alongside a GPS navigation app) in lieu of hiring a dedicated GPS unit. On that note, do any of the western US states prohibit the mounting of a navigation device on the windscreen?

    f) Given the fourteen-hour flight, I assume that jet lag may be a significant issue—any advice? Are there any specific remedies other than just spending a day sleeping it off?

    g) I’ve been checking the airlines’ websites and the sub-$1,000 (Australian) return tickets now seem long gone. I realise that my guess is probably as good as anyone else’s as to how the ticket prices which change in the coming days but at about $1,500 now, should I wait any further? Or just snap them up ASAP?

    h) What would be the best way to handle money? I assume it's not wise to just carry around large piles of money.

    i) I’ve checked that all my adapters are 110V compatible but it would be an annoyance having to get a head converter for each and every adapter. Would it be possible to just bring an Australian power-board and just stick a head adapter to that instead?

    j) Finally, are there any other general suggestions/tips/experiences anyone’s willing to share? =)

    Thanks for the help! =D Congrats for making it through my very long message :P. Hopefully the information provided here will help others out as well. :)

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Location
    Joplin MO
    Posts
    9,270

    Default

    a) This is going to eat a majority of your budget. Buying a car is not feasible unless you are on a formal visa and have an address in the US, and some states even require a US drivers license. You may be able to get the best rental rate by reserving a car through a travel agency in your home country before you leave.

    b) A 4wd will be considerably more expensive to rent than a standard car, and even then, you may not be allowed to put chains on it. You cannot predict conditions, so the best bet is to keep an eye on them as they happen and be prepared to change your routing or wait it out in a hotel. All US vehicles will have antifreeze - even in LA, people take day trips up into the nearby mountains.

    c) If you are going to be jumping across the US border and back, make sure you are allowed "multi-entry". However, you will NOT be allowed to take a US rental car across the Mexican border. You do need to check the Canadian and Mexican procedures and get visas if applicable. There are websites that give border wait times, updated hourly.

    d) There is generally no real advantage to prebooking unless it's in a "high demand" area, you should be able to "wing it" - in chain hotels, the prebooking rate is generally the same as the walkin rate or no more than 10 to 15% lower, assuming they have the type of room you want still available.

    e) Unfortunately, I haven't heard of any prepaid sims here that are available to non-residents, our pay as you go plans that anyone can buy require you to buy a cheap phone. We only have two major carriers here that are GSM and use sims - AT&T and T-Mobile. A cheap phone is as low as $20, and refill cards are available everywhere. You can buy a cheap serviceable GPS here that's preloaded with US maps for about $100. I don't think any of the states will complain about mounting a GPS, but the car rental companies may have a different idea (unless you simply use a suction cup mount). Definitely bring a wifi-equipped laptop.

    f) That's the best way - plan on spending the first couple of days in LA and see LA before hitting the road.

    g) Hard to predict, but I don't think they will go down much, if at all.

    h) Just about everyone here takes credit and debit cards, and you will find ATM machines everywhere. Check with your bank as to any service charges you will be assessed, and don't plan on your debit card working unless it uses a standard 4 numerical digit PIN and it's either Visa or Mastercard logo.

    i) That sounds very doable to me.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Location
    Tucson, AZ
    Posts
    9,358

    Default My, My, My...

    Welcome aboard the RoadTrip America Forums!

    Ok, then, let's just start wading through...

    a) Yes, there typically is a surcharge of about $25/day/driver, so over $2,000 in your case. Our European friends can typically do much better on this by booking through a European company, but we don't know if this is the case for you ANZACs as well. The best advise we can offer is start early and research the options thoroughly. Websites like Travilocity, Orbitz, Kayak and others will help you look up a lot of companies rapidly, but be sure to read the fine print. It's the same thing with insurance: Research. Check with the company that insures you at home and see if you are covered for rental cars abroad. Check with your credit card company and see if they offer insurance when you rent a car using their card. if you belong to an automobile club, see if they offer insurance as part of your package. If none of those three applies, see if you can find a third party company that offers short term rental insurance. Your last and most expensive option will be to buy the insurance offered by the rental company. You should absolutely get liability coverage and probably collision coverage as well.

    b) There is no way you can become a proficient winter driver by reading a few tips, so I just have two bits of advice for you: Don't drive in bad road conditions if you can avoid it, and with your time frame there is no reason you can't sit out a day or two if the weather turns against you, and if you are out in snow, slow down. Most cars these days are front wheel drive which is just about all you should need. 4WD or AWD is overkill and might just lead to a false sense of security. Chains may be required at certain times on certain roads, particularly over mountain passes. They are probably not readily available in the Los Angeles area as there is no need for them there, ever. As you work your way north, keep your eyes open for auto parts stores such as Pep Boys, NAPA, Checker and others and buy a simple set when you find them. Practice putting them on before you get into snow and cold. national, state and provincial highways are not considered back roads and your rental contract will in all likelihood prohibit you from going off-road.

    c) Be sure that your rental contract permits taking the car across the U.S./Canada Border. Note that 'unlimited miles' does not mean that you can take the car anywhere. For example travel to Mexico will be explicitly forbidden, and there may be other geographic restrictions as well. Crossing the border to/from Canada should not be a problem. They, too, are a Commonwealth nation. You might experience delays of about half an hour if traffic is backed up, but I have often driven up to some of the smaller border crossing locations, had a short pleasant chat with the customs agent, and driven right through. As noted, you will not be able to drive into Mexico. there are pedestrian crossings and a trolley between San Diego and Tijuana, but there are currently travel advisories in effect due to the spate of drive-by shootings and other violence as drug cartels wage turf wars. I would recommend that you not include Mexico in your plans.

    d) In the winter, motel rooms will be readily available everywhere except in ski resorts. You can sometimes do a little better by pre-booking a room in terms of price, but not by enough to worry about. Keep in mind, as my brother-in-law likes to say, "An unrented room has no value."

    e) This is one question I have no knowledge on. Poke around the forums (use the Search function) to find previous discussions on this topic. I seem to recall one general piece of advice being that you can buy fairly cheap phones with a limited number of minutes rather easily and that this might be the way to go.

    f) As with a hangover, there are no instant cures. Your best plan is what you have already surmised. Take a day off at the start to get acclimatized to the new time zone.

    g) Actually, $1500 seems high to me. Ticket prices vary from day to day, even hour to hour. I'd keep my options open if at all possible. If the $1500 ticket is refundable, go ahead and book it and then keep looking for a better price. Some of the travel websites mentioned in (a) allow you to set up a fare watch and will automatically notify you if a fare drops.

    h) If you have a credit card, that is the best way to go. Just be sure to inform your company that you will be traveling in the U.S. and Canada. You have time to get one before you travel if you don't have one now. I usually take about $200 in cash for small purchase but charge everything I can. Also, if you have a credit card, getting more cash is as simple as walking into any bank. But again, check beforehand what your card charges for cash advances.

    i) Yes

    j) as noted above, there is a wealth of info here, look around, use the Search function, follow the links to Similar Threads at the bottom of each page. Relax and have a great trip.

    AZBuck

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Location
    Melbourne, Australia
    Posts
    6,936

    Default From one Ozzie to another

    Reading through your post I see that you are looking at all this the same way as I did before my first visit. Very little of the things you mention with knowledge of home, are applicable in the US. Now on my fourth visit I have finally worked out what works.

    Forget about buying a car, it is nigh on impossible! One thought though, considering the time of year... why not take an advanced or defensive driving course before you leave. You will drive with so much more confidence. (Are you still on P plates?)

    Phone.... hey buddy, the phones here do not work anything like at home. There is no such thing as renting a phone, nor of a short term contract... and even for the pay as you go phones, most require you to commit for 12 months, for I forget how much. Neither do most use sim cards. Best I can suggest, and this has worked very well for me, bring a small computer with you and join skype, and get your friends to join skype. I have an Australia wide plan which allows me free calls to anywhere in Oz - even while I am in the US - and it is very cheap to US numbers. I have found it much cheaper than phone cards, which typically charge a hefty fee for using a public phone (that is if you can find one!).

    By all means bring one conversion plug and a power board... that is what I do.

    As for money.... be aware that the credit card companies have hefty charges for international transactions. In the past I have used credit cards exclusively. This year I have worked only in cash, and saved myself hundreds of dollars over five months.

    Get some cash before you leave. If you go to the ANZ counter at Tullamarine (if you live in Melb), you may buy up to about $600 US dollars without having to pay commission. Other airports may have this facilities as well. You will need to check.

    Check with your bank how much your withdrawal maximum is, and up it if necessary. Ask how much their charge is for withdrawing in the US. Then withdraw as much as you are allowed to or feel comfortable with. For instance, if there is a $5 charge per transaction you will not want to use eftpos each time you purchase fuel. But when withdrawing $500 or $700 at a time, the $5 is insignificant.

    Ask the bank to give you a separate card for your savings account and your credit card..... and carry them in different places. This way should you lose one, at least you will still have access to one source of money. The same goes when you withdraw cash, do not carry all of it in your wallet. You may also like to note that atm machines in the US only dispense $20 notes, there is no choice. This is why I always go to an atm machine at a bank during banking hours. That way I can go inside and change the twenties for larger notes. I have one of those pouches you can wear under your shirt where I keep my passport savings account card and excess cash. Only placing in my purse what I think I may need for the day.

    And lastly..... jetlag. The best thing here is to remember Peter Brock. He thought he was fine to drive in that rally the day after coming off a long-haul flight, and we all know what happened to him. If you are flying Qantas you will arrive at LAX early in the morning. Best thing is to stay awake that day... go for a walk, and go to bed early that night. Pick up a car next day, or, if still a bit tired, wait another day. We are all affected differently by jetlag.

    Enjoy your planning and the trip.

    Lifey in the Rocky Mountains
    Last edited by Lifemagician; 09-21-2009 at 10:28 AM. Reason: clarification

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Location
    Joplin MO
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    They are probably not readily available in the Los Angeles area as there is no need for them there, ever.
    Chains are widely available in Southern California because of the proximity of the coastal mountains, which DO get snow and there are chain laws which are enforced. I've seen a large selection in the winter months in the Walmart in El Cajon - a suburb of San Diego.

    With that said, please don't take this wrong, but if you are entering an area where chains are required, you probably don't have any business going there without previous winter driving experience.

  6. Default

    Thanks for the comprehensive replies, everyone.

    Given the information, I think I'll give Mexico a pass.

    @GLC: I found it to be quite unusual that you guys have to pay to receive calls. In Australia, we only ever pay for outgoing calls. What happens if someone who doesn't like you keeps calling/texting?

    @Azbuck: For the car rental young drivers' surcharge, do you know if it's a per driver fee for every car rental company? Or do any just apply it once?
    Thanks for the advice regarding the insurance also. My previous car rental included insurance and I didn't know that I had to get additional insurance separately for car hire in the US. The $1500 return price is in Australian dollars so that'd only be about $1300 US return (incl. taxes).

    @Lifemagician: Both my friend and I are on our full licences. I think I'm relatively confident with my driving. I've down countless multi-hundred- and multi-thousand-kilometre drives and have gone on many gravel/unsealed roads. Snow/ice is the only thing I'm not so sure about, though I doubt courses here would cover that since, well, it doesn't snow in Sydney ;).

    As for the phone, how easy is it to get wireless signal? I mean like, if I break down on some country road, I'd assume I wouldn't be able to get help through a laptop.

    I found a credit card that has no international transaction fees, no international ATM fees, 55 days interest free and no annual fee so I think I've found my solution to the currency issue =). I will swap some cash over to USD beforehand though.

    @GLC: Thanks for the tip. Never having driven in snow before, I don't really know what conditions would require snow chains so I guess it makes it easier that the major routes won't need them.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
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    Melbourne, Australia
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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by auswy View Post
    ............ though I doubt courses here would cover that since, well, it doesn't snow in Sydney ;).
    They will, if you ask. But better still, there will still be heavy falls in Kosciusko NP. Listen to the forecast, and go spend some days or a week up there. You will soon get a good feel for how much you do not know. They still have blizzards up there in Sept / Oct.

    Quote Originally Posted by auswy View Post
    ............I mean like, if I break down on some country road, I'd assume I wouldn't be able to get help through a laptop.
    If you are in a rental car you will never be on a road where you cannot get help. You will not be able to take the car onto unmade roads. I am not aware of any road in the 48 States where you would have to wait more than a couple of minutes for another vehicle to come along.

    Quote Originally Posted by auswy View Post
    I found a credit card that has no international transaction fees, no international ATM fees, 55 days interest free and no annual fee ......
    Tell me more!!

  8. #8
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
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    Default

    You will see an extra fee for additional drivers, regardless of age, but it is entirely possible that you'll get double hit for the underage fee if those extra drivers are under 25.

    Insurance is not included, and yes that can be expensive. However, you might want to check with your insurance company at home and see if their coverage will still cover you if you are driving a rental in the US.

    I would also really double check the fine print on your credit card deal. Things that sound too good to be true generally are - and that tends to be even more true when you are dealing with credit card companies.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Location
    Joplin MO
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    Default

    Paying for incoming calls has been standard here for many years, and the only company that doesn't do that that I'm aware of is US Cellular with their contract monthly plans, which you cannot get. They also don't have very good coverage.

    Coverage with any carrier can be difficult when you get away from the major highways and population areas, especially in the West.

    Some of the major routes through the mountains do have chain requirements under really adverse conditions - if you encounter these, it's best to turn around or wait it out.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Location
    Melbourne, Australia
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    Default Insurance

    Check with your travel insurance company and ask them if they cover rental car insurance, and just exactly what they cover. You may find that it will be a lot cheaper to include rental car insurance with your travel insurance, than it is to pay it in the US. You need to ask all the right questions, to make sure your coverage is exactly what you think it is.

    Don't, whatever you do, come to the US without top travel insurance. One after-hours visit to the doctor (emergency room) cost me US$500. In 2007 the emergency room after a very small weather related accident was in excess of US$1400. Mine is by no means cheap, but they have great customer service with a 24hr freecall number directly into Sydney, and I have never been denied a claim.

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