Tips for the USA: Car Rental, Travel, Navigation and SIM Cards

I’ve travelled to the USA a few times over the past years and typically start the trip from California. The United States is a big country with that comes complexity and a lot to learn as a visitor. This short guide covers a few key things that an Australian in the States needs to know. If you’re from another country, it’ll probably help you too but just keep in mind that things are geared to Australians.

All info is correct at the time of writing. Also, it goes without saying that all information is offered without any form of warranty or guarantee. Comments are always welcome, mind you.

SIM Cards and Phones

It’s easy to get a SIM card before you leave for the USA. A company like Travel SIMs Direct is who I tend to use and go with the T-Mobile options. That said, you tend to pay an extra premium these days for the convenience of getting the SIM card before you leave Australia, but definitely check to see if there are good deals available. Depends on how much fiddling you want to do on the ground after you arrive.

Alternatively, you can pick up a SIM when you get the USA, but you might have fun getting to the location to buy one. If you’ve got a car or are willing to pay for Uber/taxi then you’ll be fine. Plus if you’re non-technical you get the benefit of a cheerful store rep to help you activate your SIM. In that case, check out your local AT&T store because their coverage is excellent, speed is good, and price is right at USD$45 per month for 6GB data, roaming in Canada/Mexico and unlimited calls (at time of writing). Check out the details on the GoPhone website. By contrast, T-Mobile’s prices can be cheaper (sometimes) but you won’t get as good coverage. For instance, I’ve found blackspots indoors in LA, even in a well-windowed house.

Which SIM you go with it depends on what you need from your mobile provider — for instance, are you planning on visiting Mexico or Canada whilst you’re in the USA? If so, then you’ll need roaming because - unsurprisingly - they’re different countries. Think about how much data you think you’ll need — if you’re using Skype to call home and looking up plenty of guides then you might need several gigabytes of data.

Something notably different from Australia is that you get charged for incoming calls in the States, as well as outgoing calls as you’d normally expect. By “charged”, I mean that if your account has a limited number of minutes a month (say 1000), then you’ve got that many minutes total for calls you make and receive. Most of the big plans that you might pick with lots of data tend to also have unlimited minutes so it’s probably not that much of an issue. Plus something like 1000 minutes in/out is a lot of talk time for just a month. Anyway, aren’t you on holiday?

Car Rentals and Insurance

This is a surprisingly major issue for me as an Australian. I suppose this should be expected given how litigious the USA is but there’s a lot of key differences between driving in the USA versus Australia. Firstly, in order to legally drive a rental vehicle in the USA, each driver must be named on the rental agreement - the same as here in Australia. This means you’ll have your driver’s licence sighted and recorded at the time of rental. The only exceptions to this are in your rental terms and conditions, but in my experience, typically someone who isn’t on the agreement can only drive in an emergency. Immediate family, such as a spouse, might also be allowed to drive without being named. If you’re arriving later than when your travel companions pick up a car, you may be able to visit a rental agency and have them amend the booking; it may cost extra though. Also expect that adding extra drivers to the rental agreement will cost per driver as well; Im’ yet to come across a rental agency that doesn’t charge.

Now comes the mirth that is insurance. Each driver must have personal insurance in order to legally drive in the USA. This is the equivalent of CTP (Compulsory Third Party) insurance here in Australia, which covers you for any death or injury you cause in your role as a vehicle operator. However, the key difference is that in Australia this insurance is on the vehicle and already included in the registration of all vehicles across the country because - you guessed it - it’s compulsory. In the USA, it’s a little different because the insurance is on an individual person. In order to legally drive, each different state has their own minimum value of insurance required (see this Wikipedia article to learn more).

In a rental agreement, this type of insurance is called one or a combination of:

  • SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance);
  • ALI (Additional Liability Insurance); and
  • PAI (Personal Accident Insurance).

At the time of writing, I have not found any insurer in Australia that offers this type of personal insurance and your travel insurance (if any; you really should have it for medical cover, but that’s a different story) explicitly denies coverage of operating a motorised vehicle. I’ve also tried sourcing this insurance inside the USA but after much searching and calls, no insurer will cover a non-resident. So, the only way a traveller can get this insurance is from the rental car agency. If you know otherwise, I’d love to hear from you; comment below.

It’s really important to know that essentially all car rental rates quoted from travel comparison sites (eg Expedia, Travelocity etc) or car rental companies directly typically don’t include this insurance in their quoted price. The result is a shock on your part when you get a good “deal” and then are forced to pay upwards of $10-30 USD per day at the rental desk if you book in this way. Do your calculations and read the terms and conditions and make sure you know how much you’ll pay all up.

One solution is to use a broker like Happy Tours USA who list all their prices with “Third Party Liability Insurance” included in the price, as well as collision damage and theft insurance as well. These types of brokers aren’t very common and the few that I knew of have closed in the last years. SkyScanner has recently started offering car rental searches and a few new brokers have appeared in their listings, many offering SLI and LWD (Liability Damage Waiver) for $0 excess so try that too.

The best option I found - although this only works if you’re picking up the car in California, is to rent directly with Hertz. They offer $1 million of SLI automatically to foreigners (eg, as long as you have a foreign driver’s licence) and also provide a $0 excess for loss/collision damage (LDW) for free; so you’re automatically covered for personal liability and if you hit anything or your car gets stolen. There’s usually some deals on with Hertz. Make sure you read the Hertz T&Cs down the bottom of the page when you search for a date range and confirm the insurance is right for you. A final aside about Hertz: if you prepay your rate in AUD, you’ll might find random charges for some discrepancy; talk to the customer service people when you drop the car and they’ll fix it.

In summary, read the T&Cs in detail before you book and ensure you have the correct insurance. That way, when you get to the rental desk, if they demand you buy some insurance, you can refuse and point out why. In my experience, the person at the desk always tries to up-sell you insurance, fuel, GPS etc, presumably because they’re working on commission.

Lastly, if you’re thinking of driving without being on the rental agreement or without the correct insurance, you’re in for pain if you get pulled over by the police or hit/are hit by someone. Don’t cut corners; it’s possible to get a great deal on a rental without getting screwed at the counter.

Much of this I’d discovered through trial-and-error but there’s another great reference on LonelyPlanet for a breakdown of all things rental cars in the USA.

See also:

Flying in the USA

Flying domestically in the USA is a little different to flying domestically in Australia. For starters, the security on American flights matches what you’d experience flying internationally — limits on liquids, aerosols and gels, only travellers beyond the TSA checkpoints and detailed screening processes. Not too many surprises there.

One key difference you’ll find — or hopefully be aware of after reading this! — is that in the terminal, you won’t hear boarding announcements blaring. And the same goes for announcements within airline lounges as well. Speaking to one of the staff in the lounge, I found out that they only announce changes or delays and if a flight is on time you’ll hear nothing at all.

Coming from Australia where each and every flight is called potentially half a dozen times before departing, this is a real shock to the system, one I wasn’t prepared for and almost caused us to miss our flight one day. By comparison, in Australia, they’ll announce boarding coming up, pre-boarding, priority boarding, boarding, a boarding reminder, a final call and if you’re on a non-discount airline, probably names of individual passengers failed to board, and these announcements will go out to the entire terminal (or that airline’s section if the terminal is like Brisbane domestic and has wings for different airlines and separate PA systems). In the USA, you get far fewer announcements and they’re limited as I mentioned above to relevant changes, or just limited to the gate area for your flight. In my case, there were gate changes (significant ones to the other end of the terminal) and even still, there was no announcement in the USA on another occasion.

I expect this is because of the sheer number of flights in the USA compared to Australia. This was evident later after our flight debacle when I checked the departure screens in Atlanta — they’re organised by destination alphabetically rather than time, and the number of flights within that time filled 5+ big-screen TVs. Even the busiest airports in Australia wouldn’t come close to comparing, so this key different kind of makes sense.

Anyway, this is what I’ve experienced in LAX, DFW, Houston, JFK and so on so I expect the same applies to most/all other airports across the country. The lounges I’ve been in are the Admiral’s Clubs in those respective ports and the same behaviour was what I found so again, it seems to be standard practice.

It’s not a mistake I’m ever going to make again anywhere — I’ll be asking the customer service staff at check-in whether they make announcements and likewise always self-managing myself to the gate.

Breakdown support

As an added bonus, here’s how to make your Australian automobile club membership (such as RACQ, RACV, NRMA or the like) work for you in the USA. Firstly, know that your auto club membership extends to the USA with automatic reciprocal membership; take your physical club card with you. This gives you breakdown support from the AAA (American Automotobile Association), including towing, breakdown help, winching, emergency fuel and a lockout service if you happen to lock your keys in the car. All you have to do is call AAA’s Emergency Road Service on 1-800-AAA-HELP (1-800-222-4357); you might want to record this phone number in your contacts.

Refer to the AAA Breakdown site for more information and check the support offered for the latest details.

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