AA Guide to driving in the USA

07 Jun Guide to driving in the USA

Driving in the USA is both a sensible and convenient way to get around what is an enormous country. From obtaining your International Driving Permit to abiding traffic laws, find out all you need to know about driving Stateside with our handy guide.

Shop around for car hire

If you’re driving in the USA, 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.

Also be aware that many car hire companies in the USA are geared towards American drivers and so won’t offer car insurance in their total price. Make sure you know what you’re buying, and always ask about insurance if it’s not obvious that it is included in your full cost.

The Ts & Cs of hiring a car

Make sure you have the answers to the below before you drop any dollars on hiring a vehicle.

  • 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 €15 (inclusive of admin/postal delivery charge).

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 which will surprise an Irish driver, such as helmet-free Floridians on motorcycles and New Hampshire drivers behind the wheel without seat belts (yes, in 2016!).

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:

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.

Orla O'Callaghan
orla.o'callaghan@theaa.ie