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Guide to driving in the US

driving in usa

Driving in the United States is both a sensible and convenient way to get around what is an enormous country. Here are some tips when hiring and driving a car in America:

Shop around
There are lots of choices and every airport has a huge selection of car hire companies operating there or nearby. You don’t have to go with the first option. Hertz offer 10% off pre-paid rates for all AA members.

The AA has recently launched a new car hiring service available at almost every airport, city or ferry port worldwide. Whether it’s a business trip or your holiday, we look to provide you with the best price with no hidden extras. Simply click here and book your car online and it will be waiting for you when you arrive.

car hire

Some basic things to look out for in the hiring terms & conditions:
• Do you have to pay for a child car seat?
• Do you need to have a full tank when returning the vehicle?
• Are you of the correct age requirement to take out the vehicle?

Choose wisely
While a Ford Mustang convertible is tempting remember that you’ll need luggage space, too. SUVs are ideal for families and cost around the same to run in the US as a small car here - just be prepared to exercise caution when parking.

Automatic Transmission
Familiarise yourself with an automatic transmission; they are easier to use than our “stick-shifts” but it’s still a good idea to borrow a friend’s automatic car for a quick spin around on a quiet road before you go Stateside. It will make it less of a surprise when you’ve potentially got so many other “firsts” on the day you rent the car.

Driver’s licence
Get an International Driving Permit (IDP); it’s an internationally-recognised document that accompanies your Irish/EU driving licence and ensures you’ll be accepted as a qualified driver by the authorities across the US. IDPs are issued on behalf of the State by the AA and the fee is €10.

Motor insurance
Car rental companies will offer whatever basic insurance is required in the state you’re renting but will try to sell you a more comprehensive level of cover, often at extortionate prices. The basic insurance often just covers you with an enormous excess, so search for deals on car hire excess insurance before you leave – many companies will cover you to that higher level for a fraction of the price.

Traffic laws
Familiarise yourself with traffic laws; most of the signs on US roads are either familiar or self-explanatory but no-one will explain a California 4-way stop to you before handing you the car keys, so ensure you know all about the unique customs and practices in whichever state you’re visiting. In some, for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to turn right at a red light; in others, it’s as illegal as turning left at a red light would be in Ireland. In general though, it’s the things that are legal that will surprise an Irish driver, such as helmet-free Floridians on motorcycles and New Hampshire drivers behind the wheel without seatbelts (yes, in 2015!).

Public transport
Avoid driving in certain cities; US cities are often car-dependent and the idea of getting around by taxi or bus is ludicrous. But in a host of cities - Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle – public transport is so good that driving is not only stress-inducing, it’s eye-wateringly expensive. $45 is a reasonable parking garage charge in San Francisco, so consider holding off on car rental until you absolutely need it – even in the land of the automobile.

US national average fuel prices:

petrol prices

These figures are accurate as of the 11th June 2015 and are courtesy of AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report using the conversion rate on the same date.

Fuel is incredibly cheap and costs a fraction of what it does in Ireland. This is in part due to our high taxes; we pay about 64% of the cost of petrol and 67% of diesel to the Irish Government.

Oil trades on the world market in US Dollars which works in their favour as they wouldn’t have to worry about their exchange rate weakening, unlike us Irish. In comparison to Ireland it works out less than half the price we pay for petrol here. However, as demonstrated in the table above the price of fuel varies from state to state.

While diesel is the same in both America and Ireland, trying to identify a direct comparison of unleaded petrol in the US is not as straight forward. Unleaded petrol contains about 95 RON rating; to find the nearest US comparison watch out for anything over 91 AKI which is generally found in “premium” branded fuel.

It is also worth noting that when you see the listed price in US fuel stations they are listed in gallons as opposed to Ireland where the listed price is calculated per litre. A quick tip to calculate the price of fuel per litre is to divide the price by 3.8 (gallons).

US petrol is also weaker than what we use in Europe. Most European cars wouldn’t have the capacity to function on US petrol, which can be as low as 87 RON (EU cars run on 92 or higher), without an adjustment that would likely reduce its power output. However, US cars are designed to run on lower octane fuel, so using cheap fuel in a car wouldn’t damage it like it would European cars.

One little tip when filling up in the US; unlike in Europe, where petrol is a green pump and diesel is a black pump, US petrol (gasoline) pumps are marked black and diesel pumps are marked green.

Toll fees
Go with the toll tag. Unless you’re planning to avoid every single highway and freeway in the state, you’ll likely encounter a toll booth or electronic toll and paying for that can be tricky and awkward, especially using a non-US credit card or scrambling for change. Many car rental companies offer a toll tag that covers all tolls for around $40 a week and we would advise that it is certainly worth the investment. See Cost to Drive where you can calculate the cost of tolls you meet on your route.

Don’t fear motoring Stateside
The roads are straight and wide, the cars are big and comfortable and between cruise control, sofa-esque suspensions and ultra-assisted steering (just how Americans like it), driving in the United States is a doddle for most Irish people. It will give you a new sense of appreciation for the truly-daunting situation a visiting American must find themselves in when driving an Irish rental car.

Image: Angus McRae / CC