Whenever you plan your next trip to America, one of the first things you will see is advice for an “America Road Trip.” Road trips in the United States are iconic, like ice cream or baseball.
And this is for a good reason. The United States is filled with a lot to see and do. From Alaska to Florida, there is something for *almost everyone.
But why would you want to drive across the United States instead of fly?
Whenever you fly, you miss the sights, people, and food.
Look, there are some places I would recommend skipping on your road trip.
However, where else can you get a giant cinnamon roll?
But the primary reason you will want to drive instead of fly across the United States is the cost.
The cost is due to #1) The Unite States is really big #2) Flying domestic in the United States is ridden with fees.
Some airlines in the United States (Frontier Air, etc.) don’t allow you to have a carry-on. Instead, you are limited to one personal item.
Even if you can have a carry-on, there might be a baggage fee if your carry-on is heavier than 50 lbs!
Need I go on?
Now that I have shredded the American Airline Industry, I still can understand why some people would still choose to travel that way.
The American Road System… can be confusing and frustrating sometimes. (I know it is for me…)
We have freeways, interstates, state highways, national highways, scenic byways, dirt roads, toll roads, country roads (take me home).
Did I miss anything?
However, in order to visit the great places of America, you are going to need to know some basic information!
So, here is everything you need to know for an introduction to the American Road System!
Americans drive on the “right” side of the road.
All jokes aside, driving on the opposite side of the road is confusing.
Now, I know that America is not the only country that drives on the right (Russia, Ethiopia, Germany are some others), but if you are from the UK, Japan, India, etc, it’s going to take a minute to re-adjust.
One of the best ways to avoid wrecks is to look “Left, Right, Left” before you cross a lane of traffic.
We still use the Imperial Measuring System
The most important formula that you will need to remember is that Americans use miles instead of kilometers.
1 Mile = 5,280 Feet = 1,600 Meters = 1.6 KM
Look, I’ve never understood the arguments against the United States adopting the Metric System. (It usually comes down to financial costs and American pride.)
If America was to switch to the Metric system, it would make life easier and more efficient.
Plus, Americans would not be utterly lost when we decided to travel to other places. (Thankfully, Americans are introduced to the Metric System in science courses. If not, this problem could be worse.)
But I’m not a Congressional leader.
Since I’m on SI to Imperial Conversions, here is another important conversion for your American Road Trip.
1 Gallon = 3.875 Liters
Gasoline is something that will vary in price, but it will make a huge difference in your road trip’s cost.
Let’s say you purchase 400 gallons for your road trip across America. (You could easily do this..)
40o gallons x .05 cents extra per galloon = $20
To me, $20 is a lot of money. Some people live on less than that every day!
Another interesting fact about the American Road System: Americans actually purchase gasoline for its price plus an additional 9/10 of a cent. So, you might see this:
3.23 per gallon
But you are actually paying this:
3.239 per gallon.
This goes back to the former system of taxing gasoline. (Now, we have sales tax.)
Since I’m mentioning gasoline, I might as well bring up point #3 of my introduction to roads in America.
We have different types of gasoline (and they have different additives)
The three types of gasoline that are typical at gas (petrol) stations are:
- 87 Octane (Unleaded),
- 89 Octane (Unleaded Plus),
- 91 Octane (Premium).
(Also, sometimes there is ethanol in our gasoline, as companies can legally mix up to 10% ethanol in our petrol. That’s why you will see some “100% gasoline” signs on the highway.)
Please note, I am not a mechanic, and I don’t ever claim to be one.
However, gasoline grades are different due to the compression of gasoline.
What does this mean? If you are driving a more expensive vehicle (Ferrari, Lamborghini), they *typically require gasoline that takes a higher octane rating.
If you have any questions, please consult your vehicle’s manual before you travel on the American Highway System.
Even though I may not know about gasoline, I do want to forewarn you about something: When you travel on roads and highways in the United States, there is going to be another option: Diesel.
Never fill your vehicle with this, unless your vehicle requires it.
(Some brands that *might use diesel include Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes).
If your vehicle does require diesel, never fill your vehicle with off-road diesel.
Off-road diesel is cheaper than regular diesel because it is not taxed at the same rate. However, off-road diesel can be used only in equipment like tractors and sprayers.
If you are pulled over by a cop in a vehicle while using off-road diesel, you can be severely penalized.
You may say “they will never know!” But they will… off-road diesel is dyed a different color than highway diesel.
The Status of Our Road Conditions
I am probably going to start a fight, but I don’t think the roads in America are “that” bad.
We (as Americans) often hear about America’s failing infrastructure. For some cases (Flint, Michigan), there needs to be substantial overhaul and accountability for those in charge. There should also be funding and reparations for all involved.
I don’t think America’s infrastructure is failing entirely. (And this is coming from someone who worked for a small city where all that seemed to occur was broken water pipes.)
Throughout my various road trips in the United States, I have come to realize that some states (Oklahoma) have worse roads than others. (Maine)
However, road conditions comes down to two factors
- Population Density
I think that some roads in the United States are worse than other roads. (Specifically, states with larger, urban populations.) However, road conditions also depend on the individual state.
Americans know which states have the worst roads (New Jersey), and the states that have some of the best roads. (Kansas)
In order to know which roads to take, you just need to plan on which road(s) you are going to take!
Different Types of Roads
(Just a heads up, this is going to be a long section.)
Like I mentioned above, the United States has many different classifications of roads.
- U.S. Highways
- State Highways
- County Highways
- Turnpikes/Toll Roads
- Dirt Roads
So, I am going to attempt and explain each one of these:
Interstates in the United States
Interstate Highways in the United States are a recent project by the United States Government.
They began building the roads after the 1954 Interstate Highway Act during President Eisenhower’s term. And even in 2021, the roads are still being built.
Fun Fact: There is a rumor that 1 out of every 5 miles on an Interstate is flat and straight.
Whenever you look at the time of the Interstate Highway Act (1954), this would actually make sense. With the rapid development of the Cold War, these one mile straight passes could serve as landing strips for military planes.
However, this claim is false. These roads are actually built for moving ground troops. (Like the Roman Roads)
Back to reality…
The Interstate Highways, because they are federally maintained, are in good condition.
Interstates range in speed limits, from 65 to 85, and the limits vary by state.
U.S. Numbered Highways
In the U.S., we refer to these roads as “highways.”
Typically, the speed limit varies between 55 miles per hour and 65 miles per hour.
The U.S. Numbered Highway System is massive. In fact, the total length of highways exceeds 157,000 miles (253,832 km).
It’s interesting to study the history of these roads, as they can be traced back to about 1926. (Interesting fact: The Model T ended production in 1927.)
However, their purpose has slowly changed over time.
The Interstate Act (mentioned above) created a national route system. Meanwhile, the numbered highway system is primarily made up of regional routes.
There are a lot more highways in the East than the West, but one of the most iconic examples of this highway system was Route 66.
These roads are maintained by the local and state departments of transportation (think MassDOT or KDOT.) (Maintenance includes both for the patching of holes and winter weather removal.)
The Numbered Highways follow a specific pattern:
North-South Roads are odd: (Highway 65)
East-West Roads are even: (Highway 66 aka Route 66)
These are similar to the federal highways.
They usually have a speed limit of 55 or 65 miles per hour, and they are maintained by the state.
The only noticeable difference will be the highway sign.
State Highways that have been called “scenic” for a specific reason.
Sometimes, these can be pretty sketch.
Other times, they are some of the best maintained roads in the entire state.
It entirely depends upon the county you are currently driving in.
As the name suggests, county highways are maintained by the county’s transportation department.
These roads may not have a shoulder, and if they do, they are narrow. (This isn’t fun when a semi-truck is on the other side of the road.)
The average speed limit is 55 mph. However, because these are the local’s roads, you might get passed by someone driving 80-85.
Dirt & Gravel Roads
Gravel typically has more traction.
Just be careful if you are following a vehicle, as it can throw a rock and crack your windshield.
Dirt (depending on if the road is packed-down or grated) can be slick or even muddy.
Losing traction on dirt road is not fun, and this can really occur at any speed limit over 55 mph.
Another feature of dirt roads is the quick change of what it is made of.
One minute, you might be driving on clay… and the next minute you are on sand (which has way less traction.)
For dirt roads, you need to be aware of what you are driving on.
What is a Minimum Maintenance road?
These roads are going to be the roads you will want to avoid, unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle with a high clearance.
Minimum Maintenance roads might have large tracks where tractors might drive. Or they might just not be maintained.
These are probably the worst roads in America.
Only because they cost to drive on.
There are two ways in which these tolls operate: either they charge you via the mileage or they charge you a single rate for the entire road.
Toll Roads are a subtle ways in which your road trip can quickly become more expensive, so plan accordingly!
(One way to avoid toll roads is by selecting the “avoid tolls” feature on the map software you are using!)
In my experience, the worst state that is filled with toll roads is the state of Oklahoma.
Express Lanes (also known as Carpool lanes) are usually going to be located in the large, metro cities.
For example, I know Washington DC and Dallas both have them, but Kansas City, MO doesn’t (that I have seen anyway.)
Express Lanes are lanes that are reserved for cars that have at least four individuals, and they are separate from the normal road.
These might cost a bit of money to drive on, but they allow you to go faster.
I have actually never driven on an express lane, and they are rare in the American Road System. However, now you know!
Filling your tires with air
Americans get really upset about this one.
Whenever you are filling your tire with air, usually something went wrong. And the last thing you want to do is pay a few dollars for air.
However, in the states, filling your tires with air is not free anymore.
These machines will take either credit card or quarters, and there is no in-between.
So, I highly recommend you stop and convert some dollars into quarters.
Quarters can be used in a variety of ways like filling your tires with air, but it also helps when you need exact change for those pesky toll roads!
Avoid gas station food
Gas Stations (not surprisingly) are not the best place to purchase food.
It’s really expensive, highly unhealthy, and not filling.
Another component about gas stations is their lack of environmental friendly packaging. Here in the United States, everything is going to be wrapped in plastic or offered in a plastic cup.
(Please re-use that plastic cup if you buy one)
Instead, I suggest buying groceries, snacks, and drinks at the grocery stores. This will also save you a lot of money!
Now, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a BIG app I use, Gasbuddy!
Honestly, GasBuddy helps me save money even when I am not traveling.
What GasBuddy does is “compare prices between different gas stations.”
Look, comparing prices can save you a few dollars to a few cents per gallon, but every penny matters. Especially, if you can plan ahead.
There are a couple of phone applications I would suggest using whenever you decide to use the roads here in America
- Your Phone’s Maps
- Restaurant Apps (To save money)
- A music app
With a country this big, numerous small towns exist.
However, this means there might not be as many lodging options on your road trip.
In these small towns, there are typically three options,
- Tent Camping
- Car Camping
- Occasionally an Airbnb
The easiest lodging accommodations are tent camping and car camping.
Numerous State Parks and National Forests offer free camping (although there might not be any latrines or water.)
Meanwhile, Airbnb’s are going to be difficult to locate. When I say “occasionally”, it might be 50 miles until the next Airbnb location.
One other thing: If you stop in a small town, they may not accept credit cards. (Yes, seriously.)
Unlike some parts of the road, Americans don’t really hitchhike.
You might see a few hitchhikers a day, but we have grown superstitious and few people ever stop to pick someone up on the side of the road.
I know this is different than other countries, and it’s weird as it was extremely common in the 1970s.
Now, there have been some people who have successfully hitchhiked around the U.S.
So, if you do decide to hitchhike, please walk on the correct side of the road.
Cell Phone Service
There are a lot of things that America needs to work on, and cell phone coverage is one of them.
If 5G works how it is modeled, it will help with the rural cell phone divide.
But right now, America does lack 5G cell phone coverage. (And I imagine 6G is going to quickly happen after 5G.)
In some places, America’s cell phone coverage is still not even 3G.
Because of this, you are going to run into times where you need a map.
Now, this is going to be even more of a necessity if you visit the western portion of the United States. (Colorado or further)
Paper maps are hard to locate and buy, but you can still purchase them in automotive sections of stores.
Well, that’s all I think you need to know about the America Road System. It can be easy, confusing, and humbling all at the same time. Happy traveling! (If you have any questions about specifics, let me know below!)