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College 101: How to Do the Great American Roadtrip (When You're Not an American)

I am a foreign exchange student studying in the US (from Germany). I want to do my big USA road trip this summer, because when else will I get the opportunity? I’m doing a big loop, up and down the coasts, and twice across. I’d never been to the US before studying here, though. I haven’t even left campus very much; I work hard. What are some of the things a foreign student should know while tripping around the USA?

Ah, the classic road trip. It has a special place in American culture. There is (probably) no better way to see the country than gassing up and hitting the road to see the country coast to coast. It’s a trope that appears in pop songs, television shows, and Hollywood movies. As someone who has never been to the USA before, doing the Big Drive can seem a little crazy, but don’t worry: we will talk you through the tips and tricks of navigating this big country—from sea to shining sea—as a foreign exchange student. (If you’re reading this and you’re an American, don’t worry. We will have plenty of tricks for you as well.)

Travel Safe

You probably know this already, but you always want to have your passport with you. If things get sticky (say you end up hospitalized, or in a wreck) your passport could be your key to getting help. With your passport, the authorities can contact your consulate or embassy in the event of an emergency. You also may want to check your auto insurance policy. All cars on the road in the United States have to have auto insurance. According to Preszler law, an accident law firm, foreigners in the United States must ensure that their insurance is extended to cover them while abroad.

While we’re sure your car is great, you need to make sure it is in tip-top shape. According to Ernest McCarty Ford, which conducts new ford vehicle research, recommends changing the oil, checking the battery, checking your tires, but includes some unexpected advice. For example, how’s your alternator doing? Your HVAC system? What about your headlights or your wipers? It is a good idea to bring your trusty car in to a shop for some pre-trip servicing, just to be sure it is road-ready.

Set a Budget

The best place to start when planning your road trip is with dollars and cents. However, there are a few things to remember when you have to estimate how much you are going to spend per day. Though many interstate highways are free, you will encounter toll roads and parking fees, so be sure to bring quarters and dollar bills to pay your way. As you’re driving, remember that gas prices fluctuate across state lines. The difference can come out to a 25% increase or more. Remember to budget your gas bill on the higher end.

Aside from gasoline, taxes are usually not included in the listed sale price of any item you see on store shelves. Furthermore, tobacco products often have additional taxes levied on them. This means that your headphones or jam monster may be $14.99 on the gas station shelf, but anywhere from $15.50 to $16.50 when you make the purchase. Tips for services are also not included in a restaurant bill. If you sit down for a meal, the average tip is 20% of your bill. If you’re just buying a coffee or a sandwich, tipping isn’t required, but the people behind the counter appreciate it if you throw a buck in the jar.

Hotel and hostel culture is not as developed in the United States as it is in other countries. Staying in a hotel every night can become very expensive very quickly, but there are many ways to cut down on costs. Staying with friends is an obvious one. Airbnb offers cheap options for tourists. Just remember to figure taxes and tips into the price of anything you purchase.

The US National Parks are arguably the country’s crown jewels. You would be remiss not to see them. They’re visitor-friendly, even if you’re not a hard-core camper or hiker. Viewing some of the most amazing natural sites in the world sometimes requires nothing more than a 10-minute walk. Furthermore, you can get a yearly national park pass for $80. Camping in a national park also comes on the cheap. If you have your own tent, you can stay for less than $40 a night. Sites can fill up quickly, though, so be sure you book beforehand. If sites are not available in the park, look into staying at a campsite run by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM campsites are often close to national parks and run as low as $10 a night.

Keep Your Travel Plans Loose, but Always Have Backups

For better or for worse, the US is a country built for the car, which means that you can see everything from the comfort of your cab. The country is crisscrossed with scenic byways that take you past stunning scenery and through charming towns. Backroad Planet lists the many types of scenic roads found in the US. As gorgeous as they can be, driving through the sinuous backroads of the US can become tiresome after awhile. On top of that, you won’t travel nearly as quickly as you would on the highway. Make plans to get on those scenic byways, and make plans to get off of them. You will see more and save yourself the headache of getting stuck somewhere.

Check Out the Local Color

As many foreigners note when traveling to the US, every state can seem like its own little country. If we look at attractions to explore in Vicksburg, MS, we see antebellum mansion and civil war battlefields. If we look up Milwaukee, it’s river walks, food markets, and brewery tours. Santa Fe is full of glass art and historic parks. Everybody goes to the big cities--LA, NYC, Chicago—but you should give yourself some time to explore the lesser-known corners of the USA. Most of the highways in the US link cities together, but most cities are then surrounded by “ring roads” that loop around the city and don’t quite get to the city center. Most US cities, furthermore, have a shaky public transit infrastructure, so you will have to drive into town on your own. Once you do, though, you will be surprised and delighted by the surprises this big country offers.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” -- Mark Twain

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