Life Hacks North America Travel Tips United States

Tips for renting a car and driving in the USA

If you aren’t used to it renting and driving in the USA can be pretty stressful. Especially if you rent your car from a downtown LA location and you are thrown into traffic and multi-lane highways within minutes of leaving the car hire place. There is also the little issue of driving on the right hand side, which for an Australian living in Britain is confusing and scary! So I have put together this guide with tips on renting and driving a car in the USA.

Drive on the right

I know I know this is so obvious, but when you are used to driving on the left your whole life it can be a little confusing at first. In the UK and Australia we drive on the left, but most other places do drive on the right. When I started driving in the US for some reason my brain would go into autopilot and I would end up on the left side, especially after making a turn. There were a few close shaves, let me tell you. In the end I got so stressed that I would start screaming at Dave “Which way! Which way! ” every time we made a turn. Needless to say this was not a relaxing trip for either of us.

Pay the extra for a second driver if you can

Dave’s license was set to expire just before we were due to rent the car. What we didn’t realise was that he was going to have to send off his passport to get a new license, and with an impending trip we didn’t want to risk it. So this meant I was the sole driver. At the time it really didn’t bother me, because as I mentioned I love driving. But 10 minutes into the drive out of LA trying to negotiate traffic and getting onto the highway, I ended up down a back alley crying into the steering wheel. No matter how confident of a driver you are, sometimes it helps to have a backup.

Remember the cars are bigger

In the UK I am used to driving small compact cars. It makes sense because the roads here are way more narrow. The other thing is the cars are almost always manual as well. That is not the case in the US. The roads are huge and the cars are designed with this in mind. So we ended up renting this absolute beast of a car. Eventually I got used to it, and was thankful for it especially on the highway. It also took a while for me to stop looking for the clutch. Automatic cars are a lot easier to drive so at least changing gears is one less thing to worry about.

Choose your pickup point carefully

LA is an absolute nightmare for driving. Especially when it is your first time driving on the opposite side, in a really big car that nearly throws you out the front window every time you put your foot on the break. Even as you try and get yourself out of LA you will end up on a highway with more lanes than I could count. You have to weave in and out of cars and trucks, while making sure you take the right turn to your destination. Needless to say we did not, and I spent the whole time on the highway with my knuckles wrapped firmly around the steering wheel out of sheer panic.

Always get full insurance

Every time we rent a car we get the comprehensive insurance. When you rent a car you get a slip where you have to list every scratch and dent. If you miss anything or if you do scratch the car you could be forking out a ton of money. That is why comprehensive insurance is the way to go.

Read your contract before signing

When you rent your car you will need to sign and initial a contract. They went through ours so fast that I really didn’t have a clue what I was signing. That is why it is best to ask questions no matter how stupid you think they are. A lot of the time you will find information about additional charges, like fuel costs if you don’t fill your tank or toll charges.

Always get a SatNav

We highly recommend getting a SatNav when driving in the USA. We forgot and had to rely on Google Maps. This was way too slow, and the car was going faster than the little pointer on the map. Because of this we must have missed the turnoff for the highway out of LA about 3 times. I got beeped and sworn at, and I’m pretty sure someone shook their fist at me too. I ended up hyperventilating down a backstreet, until we studied the map and came up with a plan to get us on the highway.

Always take some time to familiarise yourself with the car

This is so important, even if you drive often, you need to know where everything is in the car. When we rented our car one of the attendants drove it right up to the road for us ready to go. I felt like I had no time to get used to things or adjust the seat etc, because before I knew it a car was behind us wanting us to move. In a panic I tried to indicate to get us on the road but hit the windscreen wipers instead. For some reason these then wouldn’t turn off. We ended up driving through sunny LA windscreen wipers going, and struggling to stay in my lane because I was so preoccupied with turning them off. This is when the beeping started. In all fairness I probably would have beeped at me too.

Buy a phone charger for the car

Because we were using our phones as a map the batteries were draining pretty quickly. Which isn’t good especially if you need them for an emergency. I actually thought there would be a USB socket in the car, but I was wrong. It definitely helps to be prepared.

Don’t forget to fill the car up with petrol on your return

This is a big one. If you don’t return the car with a full tank you will be charged for this. You also need to make sure you have a receipt as proof. We got to the petrol station and I had no idea what to fill the car up with. I rang the hire car company, and the woman kept saying “umm you fill it with gas” as if I were insane. The thing is in the UK you have different petrol options for example Diesel and Unleaded. If you fill your car with the wrong type then it will not work and someone has to come out and fix things. Apparently in the US gas is gas. I get it now.

Another issue we had trying to fill the car up was actually getting the pump to work. We sat there scratching our heads for ages until we realised that you have to pay for your gas before you use it. It was quite confusing for us because we were trying to fill the car up and had no idea how much it would cost. Needless to say we estimated wrong and the car was not completely full on our return.

All in all despite the stress we would definitely do it all again. Renting a car is the best way to see the USA particularly at your own pace. Hopefully these tips will help you through!

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  • Kieren
    May 16, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    Such a useful article – wish I’d have read this before heading to California (at least there aren’t roundabouts to worry about!)🤣

    • [email protected]
      May 16, 2018 at 7:24 pm

      Oh my god if they had roundabouts there I would have just stopped the car and walked off! Haha!

  • Esther Diaz
    May 20, 2018 at 9:18 am

    Great points and well informative. Planning to visit the US soon with my boyfriend. We’ve been planning it since last year and some of our concerns is renting a car. Anyways, thank you for sharing this. Cheers!

  • Karen Ching
    August 8, 2018 at 4:49 am

    Thanks for sharing this info 🙂 We’d like to go to the USA and thought that we’d more enjoy it when we go to places on ourselves with a car. These tips are helpful!

    • [email protected]
      August 9, 2018 at 11:06 am

      We are so glad this article was helpful to you. It is definitely great having a car in the US because it is so big and it means you can go wherever you want. Hope you enjoy your trip.

  • limousine rental hawaii
    November 27, 2018 at 1:42 am

    Thank you very much for giving us some tips and advice. But If You don’t know anything about the traffic rules and the roads of the place that you are going to. You just go and rent a limo service are just get a cab. Just to avoid any hassles.

    • Lizzie
      November 27, 2018 at 6:38 pm

      YES! That is certainly one way to get around.

  • Barato Travels
    April 25, 2019 at 8:57 am

    Great Post and Stunning Pictures. Thanks for sharing valuable information with us.

    • Lizzie
      April 26, 2019 at 6:59 am

      We are glad it helped.