Our 16 day USA road trip was a travel experience that we will always remember. For just over two weeks we got to live the American dream.
Wind down the windows, let down the hair and put the pedal to the metal with the tunes up loud.
This road trip offers so much, from coastal views, quaint towns, national parks, and the excitement of the big city lights – it has something for everyone. Whether you are looking to meander around this triangular route, or are short on time and need to get from A to B, this trip will surely surpass any expectations and give you the real American road trip.
We travelled these roads in October after hiring a car from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
16 day USA road trip itinerary
*We love to travel quickly and see as much as possible. We can happily fit in 2-3 different things each day and drive around for four hours a day without making each other unhappy. If this isn’t how you like to travel add a few days extra!
Day 1: Los Angles
Day 2: Santa Barbara
Day 3: Monterey
Day 4-6: San Francisco
Day 7: Yosemite
Day 8-9: Mammoth Lakes
Day 9: Driving through Death Valley
Day 10-14: Las Vegas
Day 15: Palm Springs
Day 16: Los Angeles
See below for more information of what to do in each destination.
The car hire process
You’ve done the research into your road trip, and now it is time to buckle up and get the journey started. LAX has free courtesy shuttles to most car hire companies which are located a short drive away. It is worth checking ahead if you need to give them a phone call to tell them you have arrived (which the lovely ladies at the help desk will do for you), otherwise the company van will do regular pickups from the dropoff area outside the terminal. Just remember to tip the driver who takes you to the car hire site ($1 USD per passenger will suffice).
As with most car hire companies, there is a bit of paperwork to do, double checking your driver’s license, and of course the awkward question about insurance (and the double check that you have organized your own – tip, make sure you are insured through your travel insurance, it is much cheaper).
Once you have cleared the red tape, it is time to adjust the mirrors, tune the radio, and creep out of the carpark while getting used to the controls of your car.
Driving in America
Depending on where you are from, the road rules might either be fairly similar, or completely opposite. It is worth looking into what to expect well ahead of time, as you don’t want to be caught out by turning on the windscreen wipers when you should be going through a right-hand turn (even if it is a red light, which you are allowed to do in most states).
Check out websites like JustLanded.com which will give you a good rundown of what to expect when you start your trip.
Coming from a country that drives on the left side of the road, be prepared to have your mind blown, and it will take a couple of hours in the car to be fully comfortable with the new way of driving. You will sit in the driver’s seat on the left, your gearstick will be on your right, and don’t get me started on how uncoordinated backing the car feels.
Buying fuel for your road trip
Let’s be honest, America is known for its crime rate, and this is very apparent at the pump. If you are from any country in the world that is considered safe, you will be confused at the process to buy fuel is that you have to pay for it before the pump will even work. That means a trip to the teller before you even lift the nozzle, so don’t stand at the side of your car looking like a muppet with no injection into your car. On the other hand, a lot of pumps have the local news playing on small TV screens that can entertain you for the 45 seconds it takes to fill the tank.
One word: Boring. Try to stay off them as much as you can.
They are just massive slabs of concrete which directs huge amounts of metal between major cities and you can’t actually see much over the massive side walls which separate the outside world from the flow of traffic. We had a much better time when we chose to stay on the smaller roads and got to drive through small townships along the way. That is how a road trip should be, shouldn’t it?
In saying this, if you are in a hurry, jump on the highways, as it is a lot faster.
Walmart and other important places to visit
As people who live on the other side of the world, one of the best things about the great American road trip is that you will have the opportunity to visit places that you have seen on TV.
Walmart superstores are rarely found in the middle of big cities, so you can make one or two (or three, or four) stops into Walmart on your way past. Each store is pretty much the same, but the possibilities of finding some great deals are endless, and this is the place to stock up on all the American candy that you have heard of but never tried before.
Other places you may want to visit are the Cheesecake Factory, IHOP (International House of Pancakes), Bubba Gump’s, Denny’s and any old-school roadside diners (there are plenty!).
What to bring on your road trip
After you’ve packed your bag (like a boss), it is time to think about all those other things that you may miss off your checklist. Make sure these are in the car before you set sail.
Snacks – Remember to keep them healthy. Throughout your road trip in America, you will be faced with large portion sizes and a typically unhealthy diet – this is a generalization, for sure you will be able to find healthy food, but more often than not the sugary treats hit your eye level first. On this, opt for a water bottle rather than soft drink.
Go Pro – We have the GoPro HERO4 Silver with a dashboard attachment. This means that we could record what was going on around us in case there were some questionable driving skills which resulted in road rage.
GPS – most car hire companies will offer to bundle GPS, but if you have a mobile phone with internet abilities you can use the maps straight off your phone (check with your local provider to see if you have access to cheap data). Otherwise, you could buy a cheap unit, like this TomTom GPS unit. Side note: Did you know that Jezza was a finalist in the ‘voice of New Zealand’ competition where he almost had his voice recorded to be the direction giver on a TomTom GPS system – imagine that!
Sunglasses – Let’s be honest, you need to look cool while you drive. Not to mention the benefits that proper UV resistant sunglasses give you on those glarey days. Ride on Maverick.
This historic roadway which was one of the original highways in the United States stretches from Chicago and ends in Los Angeles. While it is not intact anymore, there are plenty of options to catch a glimpse of it and travel along this historic piece of pavement.
The golden Triangle road trip itinerary below will give you a chance to cruise along the road, but you can find out more at Historic66.com which includes turn by turn directions through each state.
Golden Triangle USA road trip highlights
When you think of LA, surely the first thing that comes to mind is Hollywood. Although this is a cool spot in town, it can be seen in half a day. You can take a walk past the Hollywood stars, drive up to the Hollywood sign, a trip down Rodeo Drive and even check out some live filming of your favourite TV shows.
Otherwise, make sure you check out some live sport. One sport we were blown away by (as we are not used to it) was ice hockey when we went to see the Anaheim Ducks play, a dude scored a hat-trick so everyone threw their hats onto the rink, it was a special moment. We also went to an NBA game at the Staples Center where the LA Lakers took on the Utah Jazz.
Santa Barbara, The Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur
We used Santa Barbara as a stopover to restore the energy cells in preparation for a couple of days on the Pacific Highway. Santa Barbara is a neat coastal township about 150 kilometres north-west of Los Angeles. The palm tree clad boardwalk really puts you in holiday mode.
The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the worlds most scenic coastal drives, and will surely not disappoint. You can take a few hours if you rush it, or a couple of days if you want to make a few overnight stops. We started out with some clam chowder before heading north towards the elephant seals at San Simeon. These massive creatures are dotted along the coast, but the great viewing area here will have you staring at them for hours.
Heading north had us creeping around the winding roads, past numerous waterfalls and across massive bridges connecting the wavering cliff tops.
After a big day of driving, we reached Monterey which is a hub for outdoor adventures of the marine kind. We didn’t have much time scheduled here so used it as an overnight stop only in preparation for our last burst before reaching San Francisco.
Known for a famous bridge, San Fran has many other things to offer too. We paid a visit to the famous Alcatraz (make sure you book ahead as it can be busy at peak times), hired bikes and burned through the brake pads gliding down Lombard Street, took a tram to Fisherman’s Wharf, marveled at the Pink Ladies and went to China Town to see how fortune cookies are made.
The city is not short on culture, and you will definitely see the funky side of what the United States has to offer.
One big tip for San Francisco is to avoid booking your accommodation in the suburbs of Tenderloin or the Mission as they can be very dangerous at night time. They have plenty of character during the day and are deemed relatively safe, but we were worried about our safety when ordering Subway near our hotel after a drug-affected man started hassling us.
National Parks – Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes and Death Valley
By now, you’ve enjoyed the serenity of the coastal track. Now it is time to take your road trip inland and head another 400 kilometres towards Yosemite National Park.
At the gate, buy a multi-park pass which will get you into most of the national parks for a set fee. At the current time of writing, it is $30 for a seven-day pass (per car). More information can be found at the National Park Service website.
Yosemite doesn’t need much of an introduction, known around the world for its outdoors, walks, and a rock climbers haven. The famous Half Dome peak towers above the park like a beacon high in the sky. We spent an afternoon here and were amazed at so many people camping, trekking, and enjoying the great outdoors. We chose to do an easy walk up the river which had us going ‘off-piste’ to climb over boulders and find a nice quiet place to take in the fresh air.
Onward to Mammoth Lakes which is just around the corner and was our home for a few nights. Known for its skiing in the winter, we were here in the summer and got to enjoy the huge oak trees and more hiking trails. Be careful, as Mammoth Lakes is situated two kilometres above sea level, so even the easiest walk up the road will have you panting.
Death Valley was the next stop which is an amazing place in its own right. Sweltering temperatures will have you realise exactly why it has been named in such a morbid way and it is one that you will want to make sure your air conditioning is working. There is a tourist information hut in the centre of the valley (you can’t miss it), which will set you on our way. We went to Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America, and went for a few short walks through the canyons and rock formations.
Next stop, the city of sin.
When you cross the border into Nevada, you feel that you are in cowboy country. There are billboards advertising cheap fireworks and liquor (not recommended to use these in conjunction with each other), and the baron landscapes mean that Las Vegas will stick out more than a supermoon on a clear night.
Las Vegas is much cheaper during the weeknights, as prices hike up for bucks and hens parties over the weekends. We stayed at New York, New York and enjoyed a massive room, casino at our doorstep, and a rollercoaster that went around our hotel. It is worth shopping around for buffets too, as you can go to a ‘Last minute ticket’ place which doesn’t only sell tickets to shows, but you might pick up a cheap breakfast too. Freemont street is worth going to as well which is the older area of town where you feel like you are back in the art deco age of the 60s and 70s – you can even do a zip line experience down the main street! Why not, right?
Having said this, it is worth getting out of Las Vegas to take a trip to the Grand Canyon which is a short 30-minute helicopter flight, or a day trip in a bus. We went with Sundance Helicopters and couldn’t recommend their service and professional operation highly enough – the limousine pickup and dropoff to our hotel helped too!
Another long day driving and you will be back in Los Angeles to finish your road trip. We decided to spend a bit of time in Palm Springs to visit some family, and visited the Joshua Tree National Park, which was included in our National Park pass we had purchased previously.
Don’t miss this gem on your road trip
If I told you that there was a fast food restaurant that was better than McDonald’s, tastier than KFC, and easier to order than Subway. Would you believe me? In-n-out Burger is a fast food restaurant which is well signposted and in most parts of the west coast of the United States. The simplistic ordering style – hamburger or cheeseburger – with homemade fries and killer thick shakes make this place the number one place to go.
Hot tip: Ask for ‘animal fries’ which are on the secret menu – this will add a layer of cheese and grilled onions, along with the In-n-Out Burger special sauce on top of your fries.
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