Jessica Zoo and Lars Christensen embarked on a one-month long trip to scout out the USA stretching from Texas to Massachusetts covering 18 states by car. This is their story from the road from A to Z
For those of you that have been following our travels, you will know that Lars and I have spent the past month traveling the USA Gulf and East Coast in the search of new horizons, discoveries and opportunities for the near future (we also had a shorter trip in November from Orlando to Dallas). Discovering America by road trip was not only mine and Lars’s dream since the beginning of time, but it was extremely valuable to get a good understanding of the work ethic and culture of the USA, as well as giving us a crash-course on how to effectively juggle our lives as “digital nomads” for the future of our blended business and personal lives.
Whether you are interested in finding out how to effectively keep your work going whilst on the go, you are planning your very own USA Road Trip or you are simply curious about what we got up to, we want to share some gems we picked up along the way.
Accommodation – When you’re on a road trip, one of the more important things is to find a place to stay. The main things we discovered is that while on the road, it is better to be flexible and book rooms last-minute. This is for three reasons:
- Trying to book 25 hotels in one go may be overwhelming as well as charging your credit card all at once
- It will reduce your flexibility of deciding to change route due to weather or unexpected plans and meetings
- It will end up being more expensive.
To find great accommodation at great prices, even though consulting TripAdvisor can always be helpful, we found that Booking.com’s “TONIGHT” mobile app was the most hassle-free way to find hotels as well as offering you up to 70% discounts on last-minute deals for the same night. This in not just for more generic chains, but also for more high-end resorts and 5 star hotels.
Consistently, we found that the best value to quality hotels were Red Roof Inns and Super 8 Motels (with a rating of 7.0+) whilst you are on the road. For peak dates and weekends, however, using Booking.com a week or 4 days in advance will be a better option if you want to be sure to find a good location before they get booked out.
Breakfast – When you see “breakfast included” don’t get over-excited. This means there is a coffee machine, apple and orange juice from a carton, some apples, muffins and a waffle-making machine which could also double up as excellent insulating material.
Equally if you go to iHop or Waffle House you may get drowned in whipped butter, maple syrup and pancakes. As delicious as they are, having a full “American” breakfast every day for a month or more may result in having to go clothes-shopping half way through.
We did, however – find a great healthy and delicious option if you want a great filling, healthy breakfast: iHop does a range of delicious fluffy omelets packed only with vegetables. As long as you stay clear of the “egg-substitute” low-fat option, something like the garden omelette with added spinach will make a tasty, healthy breakfast!
If you’re in a rush, another great hack we used was to buy an icebox ($10) which we topped up with ice machines we found for free in almost every hotel, and wend breakfast shopping once a week to keep any fruit, snacks and yoghurts handy!
Car Hire – When you look for car hire options, comparison sites will lure you into “cheapest car hire” deals. Having used a handful of companies in the past, we can confidently say to stay clear of the cheaper options as they have a RIDICULOUS amount on hidden costs (such as usage per mile, tax, one-way fees and additional deposits) which more expensive car hire companies are more upfront about.
Companies such as Alamo and Enterprise may seem more expensive at first, but their fees are more transparent and the final bill will be significantly lower that their “cheaper” competitors. Plus, they are much more likely to give you an upgrade at the counter as they have more available cars, and offer much better service if you have any problems.
Driving – Driving in the USA can be a mixed experience. At first, the wide roads and large cars will give you a liberating feeling from your previous claustrophobic european driving experience. Things to note about driving in the USA which will save you from a few panic situations (we’ve suffered so that we can warn you!)
- Anyone can overtake left or right, and americans love playing “fill the gap”. Be aware that you may be in the situation where the two people next to you may try to overtake you AT THE SAME TIME. We have never seen so many overturned or that have come off the road. The further away you can stay from having any cars around you. the better
- You can turn right at a red light in most states, just as long as you stop for pedestrians. This can be unnerving and confusing at times. A red light to turn right basically means: “You can turn right as long as you’re not in anyone’s way”
- Parking facing the wrong way will land you a fine. Just make sure that when you park your car is facing the direction of traffic at all times.
Exercise – Keeping fit whilst on the road may be a challenge: unlike Europe, it is much harder to walk places as the roads are not always pedestrian-friendly so you will find yourself sitting for most of the time. The more economic hotels will not have a gym, however most of the slightly more upscale chains will have a gym and a pool. 3 great ideas to keep fit while you’re on the go are:
- Every 4 days book yourself in a slightly more expensive Hotel ($80.00 per night will be enough to get you a nice hotel with a gym) .
- Get an online subscription to websites such as GymCube.com with live streaming classes or you could also go on Youtube for some great at-home workouts for both men and women.
- If you’re feeling cheeky but have no solution, you can also get a free 3 or 7 day pass to a local gym chain if you tell them you’re considering moving to the area.The top nationwide chains are Golds Gym and Anytime Fitness.
Friends – Making friends in the USA is probably the easiest thing you can do, especially in the South. The north tends to be slightly more reserved, so depending on your preference and need for privacy you need to be prepared. When being waited on in restaurants and bars in Southern states, expect to be welcomed with a beaming smile and genuine interest in who you are, what you are doing, and pretty much ask about your life-story. This is not meant in an intrusion to the privacy or coy to leave a larger tip: it’s simply the Southern way and they take great pride in their jobs and customer service. We found that it was incredibly easy to go out and meet easy-going and interesting people wherever we went, in some states more than others. If this is not your “cup of tea” then smiling politely will go a long way – being snobbish down South will not give you along way!
Gas – (or fuel, never “Petrol) will be much cheaper along the gulf and will get more expensive the more you drive North. In order to make gas consumption more effective, it’s important to know a little bit about your vehicle. If it’s a 3 – 5 Liter V6 or V8 it’s best to keep the revs below 3000rpm. This drastically keep your fuel cost down and keep your vehicle healthy. Large American vehicles need to be driven in a relaxed manner so that you don’t accelerate too much and consume excessive fuel as a result.
Also when driving in higher altitudes use a higher octane fuel (mid-level one not premium necessarily). The other recommendations would be to stick to more known brands of gas stations (smaller ones may give you less fuel that the meter says!) and with UK debit or credit cards you have to prepay in store for gas, you can’t pay on the pump.
Under all costs try and avoid to buy gas in the states of New York, Connecticut and Maryland its very expensive, almost $0.50 more per gallon than the Gulf states. When up North try refuel either in Virginia or Pennsylvania & New Jersery, and Massachusetts, the states up North are small so it’s quite easy to do.
Health – Traveling lots and getting used to different environments on a day-to-day basis will most certainly put a strain on your immune system.
Firstly, it’s worth remembering that air in airplanes during flights is dryer than the Sahara, which makes it all much easier for you to catch all those wonderful bugs and germs that infest the aircrafts and airports. Washing hands on board and in general when traveling (especially after using Gas pumps which get manipulated hundreds of times a day with questionable levels of hygiene) – or keeping germ-kill detergent will make it a lot easier to stay in top condition.
The sugar-rich foods and change in climate will also make it very easy to get migraines: drinking lots of water and taking a daily Echinacea tablet will help you to feel better on a daily basis.
International Calls – Receiving or making calls from the USA (and sending texts) can be extortionate unless you have an international contract on extra charge (FYI there should be no extra charge for 3 customers, just check your contract).
If you don’t want to come back from your trip with lots of zeros at the end of your phone bill, there is one hack that will work perfectly well: Skype. This wonderful app that you can have on your iPhone or laptop has a lot more functions than just calling t another Skype account. The three best functions that you can add are:
1) Having your own number, so you can get a UK landline for people to call you on without you or them costing them anything.
2) With Skype credit you can call any mobile and landline worldwide. With an average of 2 calls a day (about 5min each) I managed to survive with £18 of Skype credit only and no extra charges on my phone
3) Answering machine – if anyone calls you whilst you’re offline (through Skype or your temporary number) they can leave you a message which you will pick up as soon as you’re online.
The last suggestion we will give you is to record a temporary message on your mobile’s voicemail saying that whilst you are abroad you will not be taking voicemails (listening to voicemails while abroad can cost up to £1.00 per minute), and ask people to either text you or call your Skype number if you want to give it. Then turn off the ability for people to leave messages so that you won’t return home with a load of unanswered messages.
JetLag – Jetlag on your way to the USA can be a very good thing as it will put you at exactly the right speed for USA schedules. Even though they may be 5-7 hours behind, it is worth noting that over there, the average American’s day starts and ends about 2-3 hours that the average European’s. For instance: do not be surprised if you are refused dinner service after 9:30pm.
Most of the USA wakes up between 5am, eat lunch before 12, dinner around 6 and bed-time is never later than 11! Obviously this differs on the weekend, but if you use your jet lag (especially if you are usually a night-owl like us) to your advantage, it makes it very, very easy to adapt to American living. Plus you will find that your day almost doubles in time!!
The same thing cannot be said for the way back: this is where Jetlag can be brutal especially in the morning. It is strongly suggested that you do not plan an early-morning start on your return before your 3rd day back to Europe.
Kicking Back – The USA is great country for kicking back, having cold one at beer o’clock. There is myth in the UK that American beer is terrorble. This as true as the British drink luke warm beer and only eat boiled vegetables. Every town has an interesting brewery, when you are in a bar or restaurant simply ask the barmen or waiter whats ‘Local on Tap’ and you will be surprised every time.
Not only do the Americans make some of the best beers I’ve ever had, they also produce of very good wines on both the east coast and the west coast. And for those of you like something stronger, in the South you will find many variety’s of American whiskey and not to forget the mind blowing Margaritas in the kicking back capital of the USA Texas. Nothing like watching the sun go down over Lake Travis near Austin, Eating fresh Taco’s and washing it down with a margarita or cold Shiner Bock.
Laundry – When you’re constantly on the go you might find that you run out of clothes very quickly. Even though you packed 25 shirts and shorts, you could be faced with rotating the same 5 over and over again as they simply suit your travels better. No panic: there is always a washer/dryer in most of the budget hotels (NOT in the higher-end hotels) so chains such as Super 8, Motel 6, Days Inn and RedRoof Inn should have one: just check on the Booking.com app or call ahead of time.
Money – Money can go a long way if you use it wisely in the USA. You can easily budget around $200 for two people including accommodation in a well-rated inn, two meals and fuel for two people.
The trick is to spend 5minutes on TripAdvisor and Booking.com to find a good option for Hotels ($60-90 per night will get you a very decent option especially outside downtown areas) and on TripAdvisor look out for the $$ filter (options are: $, $$, $$$, $$$$) as this will give you the local’s choice for great quality at local’s prices. $ option will most likely bring you to a shack or self-service, whilst $$$ and $$$$ tends to attract more touristy or extravagant diners.
Another note about money is that you can use credit and debit cards in most places, but having some cash is very useful for smaller purchases such as parking etc..
Navigating – Navigating in a new city can be very daunting, and it’s worth noting that most cities have a very brutal one-way system that will keep you going round and round (special mention to Boston who kept us going round in circles for about 2 hours before we could escape it’s tunnel Maze of Mayhem).
You will also find that unless your GPS is connected to the Internet, you are very likely to be stuck in a traffic Jam. If you thought traffic jams were bad in the UK, you have not yet been prepared for the US.
Plus if you get stuck in a jam on a one-way system there is little hope for getting off it. The best things to do is either have two people navigating and using Google Maps navigator on your phone to warn you of heavy traffic and find an alternative, and carefully study the structure of the city before you enter it.
Another point worth mentioning that each street may have a WEST and EAST or NORTH and SOUTH section. So for instance You may need to go to 300 International Drive West, and if for any reason you select East on the GPS it will take you to the other side of the CITY!! Or, a city may have 7 streets named in the same and you might end up in the sticks. Take it from us, and check the post code or you might get some serious GPS rage!
Parking – USA loves Valet parking (especially in major cities and in the North) This can be a bit more expensive and if you have valuables in your car you may not be happy with leaving your car keys to a stranger. Parking may be free in some areas, or can cost $5-15 per day depending on location if you do not use Valet. Meters are often restricted by time so it’s better not to park there if you want to take your time. Evenings and weekends may have street parking, just be careful not to park next to a fire hydrant, check street cleaning times to avoid towing and always park in the same direction of the traffic to avoid a hefty fine.
Questions – If you’re stuck for directions, suggestions or simply how things work in your new town there are three places you can ask. The first place to look would be TripAdvisor: you just put the name of your location or select ‘Near Me Now’ and it will come up with a profile of your town, what it’s known for and suggested places to visit. If you get to an area which is a bit confusing or you want some indication, best people to ask are cops. They know the area well and will be very very helpful (unless they are busy raiding the building next door).
Restaurants – Food an travel go hand in hand: you can truly discover the culture of your surroundings by discovering the local culinary delights (plus waiters will love to fill you in about their beautiful town and give you lots of great ideas and pointers too!).
We found TripAdvisor unbeatable when it comes to selecting a good local spot. The trick is to select the top ranked restaurants within the $ or $$ sign (unless you want to splurge on $$$ and $$$$ ones too!). TripAdvisor will allow you to filter by price range and rank by popularity.
We had no trouble finding great places to eat by following these criteria, and it’s always useful to quickly look at photos, read the short intro and also check the website for opening times (most restaurants outside cities may stop serving between 9:30-10:00pm and some steakhouses may not open for lunch).
If in doubt: try and find a local Texas Roadhouse for a juicy Rib Eye steak – you can’t go wrong! If you drive late and past the 10pm kitchen curfew, you can always try to find your local Chinatown as they serve well into the night!
Sugar – Especially when you travel south, you will find sugar in everything. And yes, I mean everything: especially vegetables. And in large quantities. If you are not accustomed to an over-sweet tooth (and if you want to avoid making an extra hole in your belt after a week) an easy way to opt out of this is to ask clearly that your food comes with only your specified condiments, and if in doubt ask them for them on the side.
Similarly with drinks such as sweet tea, frappuccinos etc, they will have 2 or 3 times more sugar than you’re used to – so it’s better to ask for plain or unsweet, and add the sugar or a sweetener yourself to your taste.
Tax – Remember that when you make a purchase (especially for hotels, shopping etc) You will be asked to pay sales Tax. This varies around 15% depending where you are so keep this in mind! You do not have to pay Tax in restaurants however remember that waiters are paid less than minimum wage (just enough to make it legal for them to work!) and their salary comes 80% from tips so it is customary to leave 15-20%. On a serious note, if you leave less than 10% you better not return to that restaurant unless you want a sneeze-muffin or worse!
Umbrella – If you think you have escaped the curse of the British rain, think again and multiply by 10. If you’re traveling East in the summer, be prepared for regular heavy rain, especially in the afternoon and evening.
We’re not talking drizzle, we’re talking full-on power shower and you may not even be able to walk out with an umbrella. These heavy showers tend to come and go in waves, with an initial downpour followed by lighter drops and then settling back to heavy for a few hours.
If you’re looking to make an escape to your car, the best thing to do is wait for that initial break and make your way unless you want to swim through the streets. If you are driving on the Interstate when a down pour like this comes, Switch on your hazards lights so that other vehicles can see you. Reduce speed but not by breaking hard, just slowly lift your foot off the gas & if you have rented an SUV switch the vehicle into 4×4 or off road mode.
This rain shower could last for over half and hour so you will have to keep driving, keep the vehicle at 50 mph and do not unnecessarily change lanes and do any sudden breaking.
Vitamins – Even though the american countryside is home to vast fields of vegetation, it can be tricky to get enough fresh fruit and veg on a daily basis if you rely on restaurants, unless you want them smothered in butter, fried or topped with sugar. Fortunately we managed to find a few ways to sneak some extra vitamins into our diet by figuring out a few things. 1) Taco lunch can be very healthy if you stick to your leaner options. These include sides of Guacamole and Pico de Gallo, as well as doing for a lovely taco such as the Brisket taco which is beyond delicious and packed with lean protein. 2) Packing fruit in the car and keeping them in the ice-box will ensure you have extra fresh source of vitamins on the go. 3) Starbucks in the USA have an excellent range of blended vegetable and fruit juices with no added sugar, in many different tastes (these are sold in a plastic bottle where the soft drinks are). Not to say that this is the only way to rely for your daily intake of vitamins, but a quick and easy fix if you need an extra boost.
Wifi – Getting online can be a problem. If you want to be a true “Digital Nomad” and be able to work on the go and be around at all times may be a bit more difficult than you think if you’re unprepared. Using data on your phone (unless you have free data abroad) will only result in extortionate bills upon your return. There are two things that you can rely on:
1) Hotel Wifi – most budget hotels will have wifi but let us warn you that dependability is hit-and miss. You are very likely to be able to check your emails but you can forget Netflix streaming and Skype most of the time. If you know you will be in need of good internet, the best option is to either go to Starbucks or book a night in a slightly more up-scale Hotel to be sure to have high speed internet.
2) Purchase a Jet Pack from Verizon – this will cost $100 for the device and $100 per 10GB of data (which should last you the whole month unless you start streaming videos). Even though this may seem pricey at first, it will give you full independence to always be connected to your world and not miss important emails or calls when you’re on the go.
Plus it will give you a backup plan in case your Hotel wifi has issues (and trust me, it WILL happen!) Just a note that some of the devices’ battery may be temperamental. Check in the store that the device does not behave erratically and if it does, press the ‘RESET’ button on the side.
Xtra Large – When they say that everything is bigger in America, they are not just talking about the space. This really is true and especially in the South you can expect gargantuan servings of food, plus most meals will come with an obligatory loaf of hot bread and whipped butter. Before you start ordering everything on the menu, it may be worth ordering just one main dish unless you want to be carried out in a wheelbarrow.
Yankees VS Rednecks – Every state has its own identity and strong personalities. Most also have very strong stereotypes of the other neighboring state too.. mostly based on sports rivalry and characterized depictions. Yes it is true that the South and the North are two worlds apart, but it’s also true that that within each state there are many shades of gray, just like anywhere else.
Most people assume, for example, that Texas is populated mostly by trigger-friendly cowboys driving big trucks or that Alabama is mostly inhabited by river-rats. Let us tell you that this is far from the truth and that we immensely enjoyed immersing ourselves fully in each state’s culture by meeting wonderful people from all around.
For example we loved to discover that South Carolina must be one of the most up-scale, clean and prim states we have ever seen in our lives. The University of Charleston and the surrounding city are one of the most beautiful locations we have ever seen, immaculate, historic, and full of intellectual, well-to do Southerners.
Gulf Shores Alabama also has one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen, and our favorite so far in the USA. Like anywhere else, each state and each city will have some great areas, lots of surprises and of course, a few stereotypes too!
Zoology – The USA is home to many different creatures (tamed and wild) that you may never see. We were also gobsmacked to learn that for example in the state of Alabama, it is illegal to have a pet pig but you are very welcome to have a tiger in your home (no, this is not a joke). Most states keep their fauna under control, but it is worth noting not to wonder around in marshy areas especially in the dark (Alligators are not so friendly), and if you are traveling with pets they may run around chasing many of the squirrels that roam freely in the parks.
The main animals to watch out for will be snakes in the shrubbery (an extra excuse to buy yourself a pair of cowboy boots if you’re planning to spend time outdoors in arid areas), and dusting yourself in a cloud of insect repellent unless you want to get devoured by mosquitoes when you’re horse-riding.
BIO: Jessica Zoo and Lars Christensen are the founders of Social Media Mentors digital marketing agency based in London, they are a group of young, dynamic professionals with unique backgrounds in social media marketing & SEO offering a wide variety of services. After numerous visits to Austin TX they fell in love with this exciting diverse city, throughout 2015 Social Media Mentors will be setting up shop in Austin opening their first office outside the UK. Find out more about SOCIAL MEDIA MENTORS. Get in touch with them on Twitter: @UKbeSocial