Just half an hour west of the neon madness of Las Vegas, you can begin a circuit through some of America's most spectacular desert scenery. Turn off the air-con, open the windows and let the warm Nevada breeze wash over you as the road twists through peaks and valleys. Several days and almost 1,000 miles northwest, you finish a drive beside the beautiful Columbia River valley, and head south along Highway 101 beside the Oregon coast. With the music up and the surf raging, a Pacific Northwest storm is a compelling experience – as is gliding along one of the Depression-era parkways in Virginia or Tennessee that give access to terrain as dramatic as it is historic.
Americans are so wedded to the road that they don't define distance in miles – they do it in hours, with the general assumption that you can tick off one mile a minute on the interstate network. The US is designed to allow someone in Bangor, Maine, who decides to visit a pal in San Diego, California, to get into a car and drive – as expeditiously or adventurously as they like. You can take advantage of the low cost of car rental to create your own road movie – exploring the Great Outdoors of the south west US in wide screen, or New England in close-up. You escape the restrictions of public transport – skeletal or non-existent in much of the US – and gain the freedom of the open road.
You could single-mindedly set about ticking off the natural phenomena of the Rockies, or the best theme parks in Florida. Or you can see how the serendipity of the road unwinds, exploring rural backwaters in Louisiana or Michigan. Every fly-drive trip is different, but some basic principles apply. Pre-booking a car in the UK is almost always the best policy and securing a proper fly-drive package is better still.
Virgin Holidays (0844 557 4321; virginholidays.co.uk) has an excellent online fly-drive search option, with appetising prices. A week's holiday, picking up and dropping off at McCarran airport in Las Vegas on the first Saturday in August, with non-stop flights from Gatwick, a four-door saloon from Alamo and fully inclusive insurance, costs just £1,073pp based on two travelling. Knowing you have the right level of insurance means you can safely decline all the salesperson's extras. (For comparison, Virgin's ordinary economy air fare alone on those dates is £960 – meaning use of a $20,000 vehicle costs you just £16 per person per day.) And although Americans gripe about the cost of "gas", it only costs about 50p a litre.
Numerous tour operators offer deals for accommodation plus car hire. Trailfinders has a nine-day "Rhythms of the South" trip from New Orleans to Nashville with a B&B stay at the Heartbreak Hotel, Memphis and a stop in Natchez for £959pp, based on two travelling (valid to 24 March). Western & Oriental (020-7666 1234; westernoriental.com) has a one-week "Canyon Adventure" in Utah, Arizona and Colorado for £1,201 with flights, car and hotels.
If you prefer to make your own arrangements, consider using a car-rental broker rather than going direct to the hire firms. Holiday Autos (0800 093 3111; holidayautos.co.uk) can negotiate excellent prices and, in my experience, offers good customer service when things go awry. A one-week, one-way rental from Miami airport to Orlando airport in May costs £144 for the "Max" option, which is really everything you need: unlimited mileage (standard in the USA), airport fee, breakdown assistance, collision damage waiver, environmental tax, state taxes, supplementary liability insurance, theft waiver, third-party liability insurance and loss damage waiver. Oh, and a full tank of petrol. Pack a family of four in, and the cost for a week of Floridian exploration works out barely a fiver per person per day.
One-way rentals have plenty of appeal: while the road trip from Boston to Miami along US Route 1 constitutes a fascinating drive, it is not necessarily a journey you would want to make on a return basis. Rental firms can charge punitive sums – normally payable locally, in dollars – for the privilege of dropping off a car in a different state. For that Boston-Miami run, Holiday Autos quotes a very reasonable £168 for a car for a week, but warns you must hand over another $500 to drop it off. Even across a single state line, you can expect to be charged.
Finally, on a long latitudinal trip, always go west: as time zones change, this extends the days.
Route 66, from Chicago to the Pacific at Santa Monica, State Route 1 on California's coast, and Route 61 along the Mississippi from Minnesota to New Orleans – all resonate. Before you book, however, make sure expectations are realistic. On Route 66, just a few scenic byways remain. Titan Travel (0800 988 5823; titantravel.co.uk) has a 17-day coach tour, at £2,295 with flights on BA or Virgin, hotels and stops in St Louis, Amarillo and Albuquerque. California's State Route 1 is an ideal connection between LA with San Francisco, on a spectacular route. The best stretch of Highway 61 is through Mississippi, where it earned the name "The Blues Highway".
In the heart of Texas
Texas exemplifies why America is made for fly-drive. Start in the east, at Houston and explore the spectacular San Jacinto Monument, Space Center Houston and the beaches of Galveston. The capital, Austin, three hours west, is more diverse, tolerant and relaxed. For early Texan history, aim south to San Antonio, home to the Alamo. From here, go north to the Hill Country or west to Big Bend National Park, above. On ba.com, you can book a fly-drive week with non-stop flights between Heathrow and Houston, departing 1 June, for £670 based on two sharing. If you join BA's Executive Club, which is free, you qualify for a second driver free.
Mind how you go
Fly-drive should be carefree and good value, but pitfalls await the unwary. Car-rental clerks are often on commission for selling extras so, if you have an all-inclusive deal, resist them. Beware strange practices such as overtaking on the inside on freeways. The "Stop" sign is sacrosanct, as is the school bus when loading or unloading. Each state has its speed limits, typically 60-75mph on freeways and rural highways, 25mph or less in town.
The railroad may have built America, but in the 21st century its lifeblood flows along the highways that mesh, mesmerically, across the nation. So, before you choose your itinerary, it helps to understand how the US road system works. The foundations comprise the "Interstate and Defense Highways", prefixed I-, providing the postwar network that still carries most long-distance traffic. East-west highways end in zero, and range from I-10 – at times scraping the Mexican border – to I-90, the route threading close to the Canadian frontier, and the longest interstate in the country. North-south interstates are suffixed with a five, from I-5 in the west to I-95 in the east.
If you were to choose only one interstate, make it I-80 – it runs between George Washington Bridge, New York City, and downtown San Francisco, some 2,900 miles. You pass the Crossroads of America (where it meets I-75 in Ohio), Salt Lake City and the Bonneville Salt Flats, and California's capital, Sacramento. BA, United and Virgin Atlantic offer "open-jaw" tickets, to New York, non-stop from Heathrow, and back via San Francisco.
A Ferrari F430 Spider has a top speed of 199mph. You can rent one from Hertz (via its US website, hertz.com) in Miami on Independence Day, 4 July, for $1,500 (£1,000) for 24 hours. You get 75 free miles, after which you pay $3 (£2) per mile.
Bon Voyage (0800 360 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) has a nine-day guided Wild West motorcycle trip from 23 May for £2,665. It takes in Death Valley, Yosemite and California State Route 1.
For a more sedate trip, try a motor home (RV), especially if you plan to take in the national parks. Established specialist Cruise America (001 480 464 7300; cruise america.com) has a week's "Intermediate" RV rental (sleeps six), picking up in Denver on 3 August for $1,253 (£835). No mileage is included, so each mile costs $0.42, adding £140 for a 500-mile trip. Look out also for relocation deals, such as Chicago to California, departing April/May.
The driveaway concept is simple: a vehicle owner who doesn't fancy the trek asks an agency to find a stranger willing to drive thousands of miles, while they fly – ideal for travellers with plenty of time but limited cash.
Overseas visitors are favoured by companies such as Auto Driveaway (001 703 360 8250; autodriveaway.com). The Virginia-based firm currently lists a saloon from Seattle to Maryland and an SUV from Nashville to Arizona. You need to be 23 or over, with a clean driving record. Expect to be fingerprinted and to leave a $350 (£233) deposit. You pay for all the fuel, apart from the first tank.
You are given some leeway on the length of time you are allowed and the maximum mileage you may drive. On a driveaway from Miami to Oregon, direct distance 3,500 miles, I was allowed 3,750 miles within 10 days.
If you exceed the mileage, your deposit is in jeopardy and if you fail to deliver on time your liberty is threatened – the police will start looking for you.