Chris Moss Telegraph Travel Team
The mythology of the American highway is as deep and long as the Grand Canyon – which you can, incidentally, drive along. Books, music and films have added glamour, ghosts and grit to what in other countries would be merely a long, even boring, drive.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider are perhaps the best-known celebrations of the American ideal of freedom as an open road. But there are enough pop songs to soundtrack a lifetime of coast-to-coast drives and the challenge may well be to turn off the myths – and turn down the music – and make your own experience out of the journey.
The vast, varied landscapes, small towns and big cities that fly-drivers pass through make the practical matters of hiring and insuring a car, driving on the right and learning a few new laws well worth it. In Arizona, you can park in the quaint desert town of Winslow, still “a fine sight to see”, on Route 66.
Big Sur is that much bigger when you arrive in your own car, at your own pace. Florida feels a lot sunnier when you cruise with the soft top down. Monument Valley’s buttes and steeples somehow fit perfectly into a side-window.
In 1913 the Lincoln Highway was established. It was the first “improved” – hard-topped, occasionally graded – road to cross the continent, running for 3,389 miles from New York to San Francisco.
In 1926, the US began to number its highways, imposing some order on the routes that criss-crossed the country and which had evolved out of earlier stage-coach, mail and cart routes. In the Fifties, President Eisenhower championed the creation of the comprehensive Interstate highway network.
The celebrated American journalist Charles Kuralt noted in his 1990 book A Life on the Road that the Interstate “makes it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody. If the United States interests you, stay off the Interstates.”
This advice still holds good. The ideal American driving holiday will involve at least some quieter state routes and back roads. Those with time to spare can try one of the long-distance epics, but even if you have only a week or less you can do some very photogenic shorter routes .
The following are our favourites – though tweaking them and inventing your own routes is all part of the fun.
How to do it
Who doesn’t dream of hitting the highway in a classic car? Ride Free (ridefree.com/classic_car_tours_rentals) offers guided tours (in Sixties Mustang convertibles or a vintage 1932 Ford Roadster) along Route 66, California’s Route 1 or from LA to Vegas, as well as guided and self-guided motorcycle tours across the US. The company also rents cars to people who want to drive alone – price on request.
If you prefer to book through a British-based firm, see the American Road Trip Company (theamericanroadtripcompany.co.uk), Bon Voyage (bon-voyage.co.uk) or Just America (justamerica.co.uk). All offer Route 66 as well as shorter drives across the US.
All the usual suspects rent cars in the US, and websites such as kayak.co.uk and vroomvroomvroom.com are handy for comparing deals.
Who doesn’t dream of hitting the highway in a classic car?Credit:AP
Rates vary greatly depending on the season, model and pick-up point; circular drives are always cheaper than “one-way” routes involving a (sometimes exorbitant) drop-off fee. Driveaways – driving someone else’s car from A to B and paying for the fuel – are an option: visit the main website autodriveaway.com for a quote.
There are not always many cars available but you might get lucky and be asked to take a vintage sports car from Arizona to Niagara Falls.
If you want to avoid the hassle of planning hotels and motels, a motorhome or RV is an option; Cruise America (cruiseamerica.com) is the market leader.
Greyhound (greyhound.com), part owned by the British FirstGroup since 2007, operates around 16,000 daily bus departures to nearly 3,800 destinations.
You don’t have to do the driving. Grand American Adventures (grandamericanadventures.com), part of the TUI group, does a range of group tours by bus as well as camper van hire. See the Association of Independent Tour Operators’ website (aito.com) for a list of American holiday specialists.