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  1. Default Chapel Hill, NC to Los Angeles, CA

    Hi everybody,

    My name is Ruaraidh, and I'm 21 years old. I'm from England, UK and I'm spending next semester (Jan - May) studying abroad at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When I'm finished with my studies, I'd really like to drive all the way across to the west coast before flying home.

    I've seen a lot of the east and west coasts on previous travels but am yet to explore the heart of America, which is why I think this is such a good opportunity for me. But, a few questions:

    - as a 21 year old, will I be able to rent a car? if so, do I need to pay premiums for being young?
    - if I cannot rent a car, how should I go about buying a car? will I be able to sell it in CA?
    - do I need some sort of International Driving Licence or US licence/permit? or is my UK licence enough?
    - what sort of routes could/should I take?
    - I was thinking of not rushing things, perhaps take 3 weeks or so over it, how does that sound?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin

    Default basics

    Welcome back to the RTA Forum!

    At 21 you can typically rent a car, but yes, you will be looking at a significant surcharge because of your age. Expect to pay $25 or so per day.

    If you are renting a car, a UK license will be fine.

    Buying a car just for a roadtrip is usually not cost effective, especially one that will only last a few weeks. Buying a car is usually difficult as an international visitor, but since you'll be here as a student the legal hurdles could be a bit easier. You'd then likely have to get a US license before you could register the car and get insurance - although you should check with your school to see what advice they might have. Selling a car in California can be tricky, as it must pass a smog test before it can be sold, and in any case, you'll likely be taking a financial bath by having to sell your car for wholesale or less to get rid of it before catching a flight.

    For routes, you need to start by figuring out what it is you want to see and do. Once you've got the basics of your trip, we'll be of more help in this regard.

  3. Default

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your response. I am currently in Chapel Hill and having a great time; an English friend of mine has bought a car since we got out here and it seemed relatively hassle-free. It cost $2000, it's a 1998 Nissan Sentra but it runs fine, he's had it for nearly 2 months now and we recently went down to Miami and back for Spring Break and experienced no problems with it.

    I was surprised that it only cost $2000, in England it would have cost way more. And at the dealership where he bought it there were other cars for even less, some as low as $1200. So I think the possibility of buying a car is still alive; he is paying about $1300 for 6-months insurance so if I were to get just one months' insurance that would hopefully be no more than $250 or so.

    He had to (I think he had to, he might've done it voluntarily) get a North Carolina state ID although I know that you are OK to drive with just a full UK driving licence.

    So I am thinking of doing this, with regards to looking around for the best deal on car insurance, are they any price comparison websites I could be using? I know lots of UK ones but none for the USA! And with regards to buying the car I guess I'll wait til after my semester ends in May, because I don't really have anywhere to park it. The dealership my friend bought his car from seemed friendly and legit so I might head back there; craigslist etc have cheaper ones but then there's no assurance that my car wouldn't just break down in the middle of the desert.

    I've decided I'd prefer this to renting because like you say, with me being just 21, it would end up being expensive and a big hassle. My only concern is selling the car, this is something I haven't really looked into yet. Could I byass the California smog test palaver by selling up in Vegas and then just getting a bus/train for the final stretch to LA? Surely as long as I keep all my registrations documents etc I should be able to just go to a dealership and make the sale? Or is it more involved than that?

    One final thing I looked into was driveaways, but I couldn't find many companies offering that, and the ones that I did required all drivers to be 23 or older. Is there any website where people (i.e. individuals) just post up driveaways that they need done? Or are they always done through some company?

    I have just ordered a huge road map of USA on eBay so when that comes I'm going to start working on a route. Lots of things I'd like to see and do but once my map comes I can start seeing what is realistic in the time that I have (a little over 3 weeks).

    Anyway sorry for the flood of information but I hope you can help me out with some of my queries! Many thanks and long live the American roadtrip!

  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin

    Default the issues that remain

    The issues you'll have are still basically the same issues I brought up before.

    Its generally not cost effective to buy a car for this short of a trip, but you'll have to work the numbers out for yourself.

    The less you spend on a car, the more likely you are to have a problem with it. Its going to be older and have more miles, which just means your odds of having a break down will go up. Things just wear out, especially when you're talking about a car more than 10 years old, and likely over 150k miles, and you need to have a plan for what you'll do if you do have a mechanical break down - which could quite possibly cost more to repair than the car is worth. Also, you need to plan to spend some money for a pre-purchase mechanical inspection, even if you do buy from a dealership. Buying from a dealer does not mean you're getting a car in perfect mechanical condition.

    For insurance, there are any number of insurance companies and sites that will show you a few different quotes- although I've found you'll get much more accurate information by contacting a local insurance agent (or a few of them) in the town where you live. 6 months is typically the shortest term that you can buy a car insurance policy, so your hope to spend just $200 for insurance is probably optimistic. What is more likely is that you'll have to pay for several months up front, and then hope to get a pro-rated portion of that back when you show them proof that you sold the car. Again, talk to an agent to find out what your options are.

    You will likely have to get a NC Drivers License before you can get insurance or register any car at all. It is legal to drive with a UK license, but owning a car is a little different story from a paperwork standpoint. I don't know of any insurance company that will issue a policy without a US license, and proof of residentcy (in the form of a license) is typically required to register a car.

    Selling a car could be tricky as well. First, yes, most dealerships will buy your car, but they will pay wholesale price. That means if you bought a car from a dealership (thus retail price) for $2000, its quite likely that you will only get $200 dollars back when you go to sell it. Before you sell the car, you will also need the title, which could be a problem if you don't purchase the car until right before you leave. Often it takes several weeks for the title to be processed by the DMV and then mailed back to you. Contact the NC DMV to see what the policy is, and if its possible to get the title processed on the same day that you register the car.

    I strongly suspect that once you factor in all of the costs -depreciation, insurance, taxes, title/registration/licence plate fees, and mechanical/maintenance- that you really aren't going to come out ahead of renting. Quite likely the true cost of buying a $2000 car for this trip will be $2500-3000. Even when you factor in a one way drop off fee and the underage driver fee, I'd bet you could rent a car for less than that - which would also be a nearly new car, with no worries about breakdowns, and much less work/hassle.

  5. Default

    Wow, how right you were! After lots of looking around I've managed to get a killer deal with Hertz - $826 for 22 days rental and that includes the one way drop off fee and the underage driver fee is waived! Not bad eh?

    Even better is that I've found someone to go with and we're splitting the cost so it's only costing me $413 + gas, so naturally I'm very pleased. Chose an economy vehicle with the hope that it will be relatively fuel efficient.

    So we're setting off from Durham, North Carolina. Here is the planned route thus far:

    Durham NC - Washington DC on 6th May, spend 2 nights in DC
    Washington DC - NYC on 8th May, spend 2 nights in NYC
    NYC - Schenectady NY on 10th May, spend 1 night in Schenectady (I have a friend there who I'd like to visit)

    From Schenectady we're heading to Chicago, looking to arrive on the 12th - so that gives us the night of the 11th to stop somewhere en route. We'd like to visit Niagara Falls on the way since it'd be almost criminal to miss when we're driving so close. So maybe stop there for the afternoon on the 11th then press on to somewhere in Ohio, maybe Cleveland? Can anyone recommend anywhere?

    In any case, arrive in Chicago on 12th May, spend 2 nights there.
    Chicago IL - Omaha NE on 14th May. I have a friend in Omaha who we'd like to stay with for 2 nights. I realise the drive from Chi to Omaha is quite long but I guess we can stop in Des Moines for lunch or something.

    Then we'd be leaving Omaha NE on the 16th May, and this is where we'd be pretty much freestyling. I hear that Colorado and Utah are two of the nicest states to drive through in terms of landscape and scenery. I'm assuming we should stay off the interstates and try and take some of the quieter more scenic routes? Does anyone have any more information on this? We basically want to get to San Francisco by the 21st so from leaving Omaha NE we have 5 nights to get to San Francisco which I think is more than enough if we do about 300-400 miles a day. This is the main part of the trip that I was seeking advice on though because I'd very much like to take a route where we can see some amazing things. I understand that when we're in the North East like New York etc. we're better off just taking the interstates but when we're in states that are so beautiful it'd be a shame to speed through them on the interstates.

    And then from San Francisco, cruise down Highway 1, spend some time in Santa Barbara, couple of nights in LA, then head to Vegas where we have to return the car on 27th. So we basically have 6 days to go down the coast of CA and then get to Vegas which I guess is reasonable.

    Anyway I am sure there are people here who are very experienced in routes similar to this so please share your knowledge and let me know if there's anything I should know! I'm so excited!

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Joplin MO


    Your pace is steady but quite reasonable. To give you an idea, Schenectady to Niagara Falls is about a 5 hour drive via the Thruway (toll). Niagara Falls to Chicago is right at the limit of being a 1 day drive - it's about 11 hours, so your plan to take a day and a half is good. It's about 4 hours from NF to Cleveland, so that would be a good area to look at for the overnight stop. I'd probably look for a hotel out near the airport rather than going downtown. Chicago to Omaha isn't that bad, it's about 8 hours. Omaha to SF via fastest route is 3 days, so with 5 days you have time to see some things, but you are going to have to choose very carefully and most of your sightseeing is going to be out of the windshield.

    6 days from SF to LV via LA is very reasonable. Figure 2 days to Santa Barbara, a couple hours to LA, and about 5 hours to LV.

    Okay - what I might try to do is this.

    Day 1 - Omaha to Denver via I-80/I-76. Figure about 9 hours.
    Day 2 - Denver to Moab UT via I-70/US-191, get an early start and go through Arches NP on your way into Moab. Denver to Moab with no stops is a 6 to 7 hour drive.
    Day 3 - Moab to Bryce Canyon via US-191/I-70/UT-24/UT-12. On your way by, take a quick trip through Capitol Reef. Spend the night at Ruby's or in Panguitch. I'm guessing this would be about a 7 hour drive plus stops.
    Day 4 - Get up early, spend a few hours in Bryce Canyon and take US-89/UT-20/I-15/UT-21/US-50 to Ely NV for the night. Panguitch to Ely is about 5 hours.
    Day 5 - Ely to SF via US-50 (The Loneliest Road) and I-80. This will be a LONG day, about 12 hours.

  7. Default

    Wow that sounds like a great route! I just put it into Google Maps and got:

    1,946 mi – about 1 day 11 hours

    Like you say, it's a lot of driving to do in 5/6 days, so I might try and see if I can convince my friend to push San Francisco back by a day so we don't need to rush as much. I've been looking at images online, looks absolutely incredible, I can't wait to see some of it with my own two eyes. I've also rented Bonnie & Clyde and Thelma & Louise in preparation!

    A couple of other questions; what's the deal with speed limits on these roads? I'm guessing on the Interstate roads it's gonna be 65mph - 75mph or so, and quiet well enforced? On the long stretches of open road with no traffic, it's gonna be quite tempting to press down on the gas a little, but what's the unwritten law on this?

    And also, whenever I fill up with gas, I always go for regular cheapest unleaded. But are the premium ones actually more efficient in the long run, does anyone have any knowledge about this?

    Thanks once again for all the help!

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

    Default rules of thumb

    Once you get into the Western US, speed limits on rural interstates will be 70-75 mph. While it is possible to get a ticket for going even 1 mph over the limit, it would be very rare for you to be stopped doing 5 mph over, and even at 8 or 9 mph, you're more likely to get a warning. Once you've reached 10 mph over the limit, then you're pretty much asking for a ticket if you get stopped. Also keep in mind since you are driving on a UK license, its quite possible that you'd be required to pay the ticket on the spot (this also comes up at times for out of state drivers).

    Premium gas will only drain your wallet, unless you are driving a car that specifically calls for premium gas - and if you're renting an economy car, that won't be an issue. In many cases, you can actually see slightly better fuel economy going with regular.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Joplin MO


    United States speed limits by state and general type of road.

    If you can squeeze one more day, that would help - then you wouldn't have to go all the way from Ely to SF in one shot - you could drive around Lake Tahoe and spend a night there.

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