The Complete Guide To Fly-Drive America

Forget trains and buses, you'll need your own wheels to explore North America properly. David Orkin has the lowdown on the routes, rentals - and rules of the road


WHY FLY AND DRIVE?

This summer sees more flights from more UK airports to more cities in the US and Canada than ever before. And it's hard to think of anywhere more suited to the car than North America: the sheer diversity and size of each individual state or province makes driving a great way to see the country on your own, with the flexibility of diverting to places that take your interest whenever you want. There's an extensive, excellent and well-signposted network of (mainly) wide and relatively quiet roads.

That's the carrot; the stick is that public transport in much of America ranges from poor to non-existent. Although many big cities in the US and Canada have excellent public transport networks, most of the citizens of this continent are wholly dependent on their automobiles. So you'll need your own vehicle to best see the continent's multitude of non-urban sights, numerous natural splendours, man-made attractions and fantastic scenery.

I WANT SOME PARTICULAR PLACES TO GO

Aim high. Not even the sky is the limit in North America. British Columbia's Highway 99, which links Vancouver with the great ski resort of Whistler, is known as the "Sea to Sky Highway" - and you can cross Glacier National Park in Montana, US, on the fabulous "Going-to-the-Sun Road". Plenty of specialist tour operators offer pre-bookable set fly-drive itineraries in North America. With good reason these companies tend to focus on key regions: the West Coast, East Coast and the Deep South in the US, and the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario in eastern Canada, and Alberta and British Columbia in the west. These are all areas with a particularly high concentration of places of interest best reached by car. But there are great driving holidays to be had all over the continent.

For the US, you can find inspiration from websites such as www.byways.org, a listing of designated National Scenic Byways. Many individual states and provinces have a section on their official tourism website which details scenic drives - for example, for Oregon, the Scenic Byways pages on www.traveloregon.com, or the Scenic Road Trips section on Alberta's www.travelalberta.com.

CAN I RENT A CAR IN BOSTON AND RETURN IT IN MIAMI?

Yes. On most UK, US and Canadian airlines, you can fly into one city and back from another: a so-called "open-jaw" arrangement. Car rental companies are happy to offer one-way hires - but you might not be happy about the one-way drop-off charge that often applies. This varies from one car-rental company to another, and from state to state. Often, for example, you can rent one-way without penalty within Florida or California, the two biggest states for British fly-drivers. For example, Alamo and Dollar make no charge for one-way hires within either state, so you could pick up a car in San Francisco and drop it off in San Diego, or start in Miami and end in Orlando.

Note that one-way hires between the US and Canada - or the US and Mexico - are rarely permitted, and where they are, the "drop-off" fees are hefty. Picking up in Calgary and dropping off in Seattle, for example, is allowed by Avis only for a couple of car types.

WILL A SINGLE COMPANY FIX IT FOR ME?

Indeed. Many companies organise fly-drive tours to North America, offering suggested "set" itineraries that, from experience, work well and let you see what are considered to be the highlights of particular areas. These typically last between four and 15 days, and are planned to fit in with realistic daily driving distances - reckon on 50mph on the open road, allowing for refuelling and the odd "comfort stop". The tour operators also organise accommodation.

Here are a few examples: prices are based on twin share, exclude flights but include "all inclusive" car hire and accommodation. Trailfinders (0845 054 7777; www.trailfinders.com) has a circular one-week Rocky Mountain Wanderer Self-Drive, starting in Calgary; the price starts at £226 in September. It also offers a 10-day circular Grand Plantations of The Old South itinerary, beginning in New Orleans, from £472 for September departures. Travel 4 (08701 550 066; www.travel4.com) has a 12-day San Francisco to San Diego coastal trip (including the celebrated California Highway 1) from £626 in August; its 15-day Bears, Native Cultures and Great Lakes circular trip from Toronto costs £1,023 for departures between 28 August and 23 September.

North American Highways (01902 851138; www.northamericanhighways.co.uk) has some less mainstream but equally fascinating itineraries such as a 980-mile trip in Washington State taking in the Olympic Peninsula and the Northern Cascades.

North of the border, Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184; www.canadianaffair.com) has a wide range of trips including a two-week Maritimes itinerary exploring Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Travelpack (www.travelpack.co.uk) offers no fewer than 27 Canadian (0870 121 2020) itineraries and 14 US (0870 121 2010) trips.

A SET ITINERARY DOESN'T SUIT ME

Good tour operators will be able to tweak their itineraries to fit your requirements - most of the tours can be adjusted to operate in reverse order and in most cases, itineraries can commence on any day you like. Accommodation at overnight stops can be changed, extra nights can be added. For example, you might want to fly to San Francisco, have a few nights in a hotel while you explore the city on foot or by public transport, and then pick up a car to go further afield (perhaps to Yosemite National Park and/or the Napa Valley). Even if you don't see any itineraries that are close to what you want, don't despair: these companies will also be able to tailor-make the itinerary of your choice.

CAN I ARRANGE THINGS INDEPENDENTLY?

There's nothing to stop you booking your flights, vehicle rental and accommodation through separate operators but you are in a much stronger position legally if you buy a package - as little as a flight and one day's car rental - through a single company. You are protected in the highly unlikely event of the airline or car-rental company going bust, but more importantly you are covered by the Package Travel Regulations that mean the tour operator must look after you if things go wrong - eg, you get caught in a tropical storm. In addition, some operators may have lower air fare rates that they can use only if putting together a flights-plus-vehicle rental or flights-plus-accommodation package. However you book it, there's no reason why you can't choose the car you want to drive, where you want to go, and the accommodation you want to stay in. *

MUST I BOOK A BED AHEAD?

No; pre-booking accommodation removes some of the flexibility that you might want from a free-spirited North American trip. You can reserve a room for as many or as few nights of your itinerary as you want. The advantages are that you'll know exactly where you are going, how far it is, and that a room is booked for you when you arrive. And in certain areas (for example, in and around National Parks on weekends and at any time during holidays) you might find it very hard to get a room "on spec". If you do want to pre-book independently, chain motels such as Motel 6 (001 800 466 8356; www.motel6.com) and Super 8 (001 800 800 8000; www.super8.com) are dependable, if a little lacking in character. Independent motels are a bit more hit and miss.

Some areas are better than others for inns, guest houses or historic hotels with a bit of character. Guide books and websites (such as www.tripadvisor.com) can also be useful for accommodation suggestions. Another option is to take a tent with you and either camp or stay in a motel as the mood (or weather) takes you. I've done this but there have been a couple of occasions where all accommodation (including campsites) within an hour's drive of where I was were booked out. As I result, I spent uncomfortable (and freezing) nights trying to sleep in the car.

HANG ON - WHAT ABOUT THE "FLY" BIT?

The companies mentioned above (and numerous others) can all arrange suitable flights. This summer, fares to many North American destinations are high - you will be lucky to find much for under £600 for an economy return from the UK to New York or Florida in July and August. But if you can wait until September, fares will fall significantly - and the weather will be much more agreeable in most of North America.

Vehicle rentals tend to be slightly more expensive in the summer, too. It can get very hot in areas such as the deserts of the US's south-west in the height of summer, but by October snow may mean that certain roads - especially some mountain passes) have closed.

Fares fall sharply from October onwards, though with another peak for the month around Christmas and New Year. The winter months can be a good time to tour areas close to the US-Mexican border (such as the southern parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas) or Florida where in general the weather is pleasant at this time.

I'M NERVOUS ABOUT DRIVING IN AMERICA

Driving in big cities can be a bit unsettling, but you shouldn't have any problems in other areas. It probably makes sense not to drive too far immediately after a long-haul flight. Other than the fact that you're driving on the other side of the road, things aren't all that different from here.

A few pointers though: remember to come to a complete stop at STOP signs; never pass a school bus in either direction when its red lights are flashing; and note that (unless there's anything to say otherwise) generally you are permitted to turn right at traffic lights if the road is clear even when the light is red. Oh, and if you're in the middle lane, don't be surprised to be overtaken from either side.

WHAT TYPE OF VEHICLE IS BEST?

That depends on your requirements. Even the smallest cars are fine for most Europeans, and generally offer enough space for passengers and luggage. Be prepared, though, to come under a lot of pressure to upgrade when you go to collect the car; agents earn commission from "up-selling". If you have booked an all-inclusive rental, you will probably not want the various insurances they offer, either.

Most companies offer a wide selection, so if your dream is to cruise over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in a convertible you shouldn't have a problem.

WHAT ABOUT A MOTORHOME?

Renting a "Recreational Vehicle" (RV) is fun and can be great value. Effectively self-catering accommodation on wheels, an RV allows you to go where and when you want to go with no dependency on finding cafés, restaurants or beds for the night. Many campsites are in delightful settings and are immaculately kept: some are very basic, while others offer excellent facilities including shops, laundries and swimming pools. Some campsites take reservations but at others you can just turn up on the day. Of course, there's nothing to stop you eating out or spending a night or two in a motel every so often.

Most RVs are very well equipped and once you've settled in there's no packing and unpacking, no cramped legs, and high windows offering good views. Driving a big, wide RV can feel a bit strange at first, but you'll soon get the hang of it, and you won't be alone: many car parks and campsites are designed for people driving RVs that are likely to be a lot bigger than yours. Most companies will give you a detailed "introductory lesson" when you collect your motorhome to show you where everything is and how it all works.

There are several smaller companies that rent motorhomes but nationwide the market leader (with 29 US and Canadian depots) is Cruise America; north of the border, it is known as Cruise Canada. In general there's a one-week minimum rental period for motorhomes.

I WAS BORN TO BE WILD

If you are a wannabe Hell's Angel, Hemmingways rents motorbikes (including Harley-Davidsons) from 14 US depots, plus three in Canada and one in Mexico.

HOW CHEAP IS PETROL?

Gas, you mean; costs much less than you pay here. Although fuel prices in North America have shot up over the past year by around 30 per cent in the US and 15 per cent in Canada, you still get a lot more for your money than in the UK. A good website to see how gasoline prices compare from US state to state (and Canadian province to province) is www.gasbuddy.com. Note, though, that a US gallon is roughly four-fifths of a UK (imperial) gallon, and equivalent to 3.8 litres. The current average nationwide price for a litre is C$1.07 in Canada (about 54p), and US$2.87 for a US gallon in America (about 42p per litre).

WHERE TO FIND THE DRIVE OF YOUR LIFE

For mountains and stunning coastal scenery: British Columbia (flying into Vancouver) or Washington State (Seattle) or Oregon (Portland) or central California (San Francisco)

As above plus giant redwoods: northern California (San Francisco)

Coast plus desert wonders: southern California (San Francisco / Los Angeles / San Diego)

As above plus gambling and the Grand Canyon: California and Nevada (Los Angeles / Las Vegas)

Desert wonders - Grand Canyon, Monument Valley - plus ancient civilisations: "Four Corners" - Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona (Salt Lake City / Albuquerque / Phoenix)

The US Rockies: Colorado (Denver) or Montana (Bozeman)

The Canadian Rockies: Alberta (Calgary)

Big heads (Mt Rushmore, above, and Crazy Horse), buffalos and badlands: South Dakota (Rapid City)

Music, the Alamo and more desert: south-west Texas (Austin / El Paso)

Lakes and Niagara Falls: Ontario (Toronto)

Jazz, creole, historic mansions, old plantations and civil rights history: Louisiana (New Orleans), Mississippi (Jackson), Alabama (Birmingham) and Georgia (Atlanta)

Crocodiles and Keys: Florida (Miami / Key West)

Coast, whales and autumn colour: New England (Boston, Massachusetts)

As above plus great beaches: Canada's Maritimes - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island (Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Coast, whales, moose and icebergs: Newfoundland (St John's)

NAVIGATING THE MAZE OF HIRE CAR COMPANIES

www.alamo.co.uk; 0870 400 4562

www.avis.co.uk; 0844 581 0147

www.budget.co.uk; 0870 153 9170

www.cruiseamerica.org.uk; 0870 514 3607

www.dollar.co.uk; 0808 234 7524

www.hemmingways.co.uk; 0870 742 2673

www.hertz.co.uk; 0870 844 8844

www.nationalcar.com; 001 800 227 7368

To save having to make a time-consuming trawl through each individual car rental company's website to get a quote, car rental brokers such as easyCar (0906 333 3333 - calls charged at 60p per minute; www.easycar.com) and Holiday Autos (0870 400 4447; www.holidayautos.co.uk) can make life easier by doing the searching for you. They also use their buying power to drive prices down, and will often have lower rates than any of the principal vehicle renting companies.

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