First of all, much of this is dependent on having a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Every hotel or motel we stayed at, along with most restaurants have Wi-Fi available. We’ve both got Android phones, but most of these apps have iPhone equivalents.
First thing you need to do is pick up a cheap monthly PAYG sim card with mobile data. We paid $50 for a card with unlimited everything, and as outlined below, it paid for itself in a matter of days.
SIM cards can be bought in any mobile phone shop, and topped up in almost any convenience shop and supermarket or by using a credit card online.
Compare all the different plans at this useful wiki site. AT&T or Verizon packages were far more expensive, so we bought a T-Mobile sim card. This may have been a mistake as in many remote areas there was no reception. I’d be interested to know if the other mobile providers are as bad in the US.
It’s worth checking whether they allow tethering, as it can be useful when the hotel Wi-Fi is particularly weak. Our mobile plan offered 4G, but the signal was frequently barely 2G, so it’s not really worth paying the extra if you’re not planning on watching streaming videos and the like.
Navigation – Google Maps
We planned a 12,000km road trip using Google Navigation, and other than being a severe drain on the battery it was flawless, especially in the US where the maps are most up to date.
It’s much easier if you use desktop Google maps to add a bunch of waypoints, then on the mobile you can quickly press the waypoint then get directions towards it.
Another useful feature on Google Maps is the ability to cache huge map areas whilst on Wi-Fi, which means you can navigate accurately, even in areas too remote to get a decent data signal.
Restaurants – Urbanspoon & TripAdvisor
Urbanspoon was probably my most used tool after Google Maps. Once you get used to filtering out the numerous suspect/fake one-off reviews you can find some amazing hidden gems. Frequently these were the 5-10th best with the honest reviews rather than the media-savvy higher rated restaurants with a lot of one line, one review entries.
Yelp offers much the same service for all sorts of stores, but is commonly linked to articles about extorting fees in exchange for not highlighting poor reviews.
Opentable is good for making last minute restaurant bookings at busier venues.
Gas/Petrol – Gas Buddy
This app takes your location and lists the 30 lowest fuel prices in the area, either as a list or on a map.
A pattern soon becomes clear, that it’s often worth a 2 minute detour past the first gas station off from the interstate to the next one that’s up to 30c a gallon cheaper. Obviously don’t drive so far for a deal that it costs more than you’ve saved!
A couple that we tried but soon uninstalled were RoadNinja and iExit, which tells you what is at the upcoming road junctions. We found we tended to stop at the cheap gas spot then look for food, rather than the opposite, so it didn’t matter what else was at the junction.
Hotels – Priceline and Hotwire
When we started, we booked the first hotel full price. Looking down the guest list I could see others paying far less than we were. A quick search revealed Hotwire and Priceline, which offer heavily discounted hotels, but don’t tell you which ones until you’ve paid.
The hidden deals are generally great value. I found that the quality of the Priceline hotels was consistently excellent, whilst a couple of the Hotwire deals were slightly run down hotels. Both always gave safe choices in excellent locations.
A large proportion of the Priceline hotels were from the Choice Hotels brand, so ranged from Econolodges to Quality Inns. Hotwire generally had a wider selection and we stayed in older Best Westerns or La Quintas. The Best Westerns in particular were often a little disappointing.
A search on sites like betterbidding.com often reveals the hidden hotels on offer in every city, although it can be outdated in smaller towns.
Once we were confident that the hotels weren’t going to be awful, the restricted choice actually became a huge bonus. Instead of stressing over which hotel in which part of the city to choose, we just selected the best we could get for our budget. This resulted in staying in some unexpected places and led to some great out-of-the-way restaurant finds.
It’s also very satisfying to get a 4* hotel for $45, and see that others have paid $165 for the same size room.
If you’re happy to pay full price, then TripAdvisor will give you user ratings for nearly every hotel. Ignore the one and five star reviews, and look for reviewers with a few reviews under their belt, and you can get a realistic impression.
Visitor Information Centres
For the more traditional recommendations, every state line interstate crossing, most small towns or tourist spots have a visitor information centre (VIC). They hand out brochures, flyers and discounts for their state, and are ideal for finding places that you may never have heard about before.
Discounts are usually good on attractions (10-50% off), but hotels are far cheaper through the apps in the previous section.
The Oregon VIC has an excellent mile-by-mile guide to their main routes. It would be an excellent example for others to follow. Florida’s VIC gives out cups of their famed orange juice and Louisiana had a giant alligator.
The best resource
The best resource is always other people. Chat to people and find out what’s good, fun or new in the area – that way you’ll see and do far more than just the few things listed in the guide books.
Do you know of any other tips and tools we can try next time, either in the US or elsewhere? Alternatively, any useful road trip tips and hacks would be appreciated for an upcoming post.