Driving and renting a car in the United States: our practical guide

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  2. Driving and renting a car in the United States: our practical guide
Written by SandrinePublished on 11/23/17

If you are planning a trip to the United States, you will most likely be driven to the road. But don't panic. Driving in the United States is very easy as long as you know the specifics.

In this article, we will discuss together some practical rules to be known, as well as the attitude to adopt during certain situations on the road. We will also give you instructions on how to refuel at the gas station and a guide on how to manage your car rental.

1Some rules for driving well in the United States

If you are used to driving in Europe, you will soon find many similarities in the United States. In addition, the road signs are very easy to understand with clear directions. But let us focus on what is different.

Car United States

Crossing order at intersections

The first rule to be known is that right-wing priority does not exist in the United States. If you arrive at an intersection without signs, the order of arrival rule applies. For example, if 3 vehicles arrive at an intersection, the first to arrive will pass first, then the second, then the third. Remember to identify your order of arrival. Most of the time, in town, you will still have STOPs.

However, if 2 vehicles arrive at the same time, courtesy applies.

This order of arrival rule also applies to all crossings with multiple STOPs. We pass in the order of finish on the STOP line.

In all other cases, the signage will indicate the priority and order of passage.

Turn right at the traffic lights

In the United States, it is allowed to turn right even when the traffic lights are red. But this only applies if certain conditions are met:

You are not in a specific lane turning right with a dedicated lightNo signs prohibit you from doing so ("NO turn on red")
Prohibition sign to turn at traffic lights.

In this case, you will be able to cross the traffic light and turn right, making sure that no vehicle comes to your left, otherwise you will have to wait until the lane is clear to pass. In any case, you will never have priority unless your approval becomes green.

Knowing this rule, if there are no signs on the right-hand side of the road, avoid standing on the right-hand lane if you have to continue straight ahead (the vast majority of traffic lights have two lanes), you may interfere with motorists wishing to turn right at the red light.

The right overtaking

In the United States, right hand overtaking is usually tolerated, even if the basic rules stipulate that slow-moving vehicles must position themselves on the right-hand lane when there are several lanes. Expect us to be able to pass you on the left, but also on the right.

However, over the years, we have noticed that signs prohibiting right-hand overtaking are flourishing on motorways, seeming to confirm the end of this tolerance, so pay attention to signs.

Priority vehicles

Police vehicle - United States

Contrary to what we know in France, the passage of priority vehicles is highly respected in the United States and it may cost you a lot of money if you don't respect it.

As soon as you hear or see a flashing light, it is imperative to move and stop on the bottom side, simply moving away will not suffice. If you are stopped at a traffic light, you will have to do what you can to get out of the way quickly and make room for the priority vehicle.

School buses

School buses are easily identifiable by their yellow colour. In the United States, they are considered priority vehicles. When a school bus is stopped, its red lights flash and a STOP sign is displayed on the left. It is therefore forbidden to exceed it. You will have to wait until the lights go out or the bus leaves to continue your journey.

School bus - USA
School bus - USA

Slow vehicles

During our various trips to the United States, we have noticed that Americans are rather courteous on the road. The driving, although often long because of the distances, seemed much more serene to us, even in the big cities.

For example, Americans systematically think of stopping on the low side of one-lane roads (when a pull-over or low side allows it) when they think they are interfering with the vehicle following them. A very pleasant practice on winding roads or when you are behind a RV (camping car).

Also, remember to adopt the same attitude if you notice that the vehicle following you is faster.

2Take a freeway in the United States

Highways does not necessarily mean a multi-lane road, but also a national road or a main road. Some have only one lane in each direction. On the other hand, freeways can sometimes have up to 6 lanes in each direction in large conurbations.

6-way freeway in the United States.

The speed

Contrary to what we know in France, there is not a single speed limit on all freeways. In the United States, speed is regulated by each state. It therefore varies from one state to another, for example from 70 mph to 85 mph. But rest assured, speed is systematically displayed at the freeway entrance and regularly recalled on the way.

Ramps lights

In large conurbations, you will sometimes notice traffic lights on freeways ramps. These lights are used to regulate traffic in the event of congestion. If traffic is fluid or not very dense, they are switched off. On the other hand, in case of traffic jams, the fire is lit.

In this case, it will flash at a regular frequency. Each time it goes out, one or more vehicles can be inserted. Depending on the density of each axis, a reference will be made to the number of vehicles that can pass at a time.

Reserved lanes

As you cross the major cities, you may notice reserved lanes on the left side of the freeway. They are widely marked by several successive signs, accompanied by a ground marking in the middle of the track and a double line on the right-hand side.

They can be of several types: carpooling lanes, or express lanes.

Freeway with one expressway and one carpool lane.

Carpool lanes

These lanes are reserved for carpool vehicles. By carpooling, we generally mean 2 people (sometimes 3) or more per vehicle.

These routes are very practical during a trip, where you are rarely alone in your car, to save you a little time in case of traffic jams.

To take the lane reserved for the carpool, you will have to wait until you are in an area that allows access. These areas can be identified by dotted lines on the right side of the track. When the lines become full and doubled, it will no longer be possible to enter or exit the lane. So remember to anticipate your exit if you have to leave the freeway soon. And to help you choose the most convenient time, check out the small signs on the left that indicate for which exit number it is recommended to exit "carpool exit to...".

A sign indicating the start of an access or exit zone for a common express and carpool lane.
Access to the carpool lane for vehicles carrying 2 or more people.

Express lanes

Notification of a new express lane.

Express lanes are chargeable lanes that save valuable minutes when traffic is congested. Fees are always indicated at each entry area.

As with carpool lanes, you will have to wait for the ground sign to allow you to enter or leave the lane. The control is carried out automatically by reading plates or badges if the vehicle is equipped with them. If you take these routes, your rental company will send you the invoice.

Paid portions

The vast majority of the road network in the United States is free of charge, but some portions of the road network may be subject to a fee. In this case, the indication "toll" is indicated on the signs above the lanes concerned. This is often the case for express lines or some bridges such as Golden Gate Bridge. Be careful before you start on a profitable path.

3Filling up gasoline in the United States

A few years ago, it was almost systematically necessary to pay at the counter before refuelling, but recently, the vast majority of card readers integrated in terminals accept European cards, which greatly facilitates the operation. But let's take a look at the different steps to fill your tank.

Gas station

Types of fuels

In the United States, gasoline is the most common fuel. Diesel is not widespread and much more expensive. If you have rented your vehicle, there is a very good chance that it will be "gasoline". It should be noted that there are several types of "gasoline" fuel, the cheapest being the Regular Unleaded.

Gasoline prices

The first thing to know is that in the United States, we don't run in liters, but in gallons.

1 gallon equals 3.78541 liters. The prices indicated on the signs are therefore always expressed in gallons, i. e. the price for 3.78541 liters.

Gasoline prices differ from state to state because of their own taxes. Find out what taxes are applied in each state. This may allow you to save some money by making a full tank before you leave a less taxed state, or wait until you get out of a more expensive state to fill up.

Different rates if cash or credit card payment.

Some service stations prefer a more advantageous cash payment. If this is the case, you will notice 2 prices displayed. One amount for cash payment (less expensive) and a second for credit card payment. If you opt for cash payment, you will have to go to the counter to pay before you start refuelling (see below).

It should also be noted that although the price of gasoline may vary from one sign to another, it is generally the same when several service stations are located at the same intersection or very close to one another.

Payment at automatic cashier

Credit card

If you have a Mastercard or Visa card, chances are that your card will now be accepted by the reader. Insert it in the direction shown on the diagram. Be careful, in the United States, this is the "swipe" principle. We use the magnetic stripe on the card, not the chip. It is therefore necessary to insert the card up to the stop and then pull it out again in one stroke (without going too fast either).

If your card is read and accepted, you will be asked to select the type of fuel by pressing one of the large buttons on top or next to the pistol. Note that you will not need to enter your code (this code is only linked to the chip).

If your card is not accepted, a message will ask you to go to the cashier "see cashier". You will then have the choice to pay in cash or by card by swipe-ant on the side of the machine or by reading the chip (chip) with the code below. If in doubt, ask the cashier.

Payment at the counter


If you prefer to pay in cash or if your card is not accepted, you will always have to pay before using it. The pump will not work if you have not visited the cashier beforehand.

The cashier will then ask you for the amount you wish to put. This may seem confusing at first, but to do so, you just need to understand how it works.

The amount is used to give a maximum amount of money to spend and can be very useful to get a round account, rather than having to manually manage the flow of the fuel gun to arrive at $20.00 exactly (and finally get missed to arrive at $20.01). If you give your credit card, a reservation of the maximum amount will be made on your account.

Then what happens next?

If you spend less than expected, you will have to come back to the cashier who will give you the change, or bill you for the amount of the transaction on your card. Sometimes, some systems will charge you the maximum amount you have indicated and then reimburse you, the 2 lines appearing on the same date on your statement of account, which will not penalize you (see will make you earn a few cents because the currency fees will also be returned to you with the same rule of ceiling at 50 cents)If you reach the maximum set threshold, the pump flow rate will automatically decrease to stop at the amount paid. Magic! In this case, you will not need to come back to the cashier who will have given you the invoice for your prepayment.

Be careful not to set the maximum threshold too low if you want to fill the tank completely. To do this, try to estimate the total price of your full tank and overestimate it to make sure you're at the end of the tank.

Use of the fuel pump

Once you are authorized to refuel, you will need to select the type of fuel by pressing one of the large buttons indicating the type of fuel. A light will then illuminate to indicate the selection.

Automatic terminal with 3 selection buttons for petrol fuels.

It should be noted that there is generally only one pistol for the different types of petrol and one for diesel.

The rest of the refueling is done as usual, with the subtlety that it is possible to lock the pistol handle so you don't have to hold it all the way through. Very practical indeed!

Close-up on the metal tab to be lifted to lock the gasoline gun.

To do this, locate the small tab at the bottom of the handle and lift it up. It will fit into the notch above. You will then only have to position the gasoline gun in the tank so that it will hold itself.

Logically, this will not allow you to get away from your vehicle, always keeping an eye on the progress of the operation, but it is not uncommon to arrive at the gas station and discover vehicles alone, the gun in the tank, the driver having gone to the shop.You can also take advantage of the time to fill up your windshield with squeegee and soapy water that is constantly available at all the stations we visited.

The extras

If the gas station offers additional services such as automatic washing, it may offer this service if you use the automatic kiosk. In this case, accept or decline the service offered, which is usually chosen at the beginning of the transaction. If you're not sure, always decline.

4Rent a car in the United States

To conclude this article, here are some rules and tricks to know when renting a car in the United States.

When making a reservation

Filling up on gas

fuel gauge

Pay attention to options when booking your vehicle. For example, it is good to know that in the United States, you can choose to rent a car either with the tank full or empty (in other words, what to do a few kilometers). We recommend that you select a vehicle with the tank full, as this will save you from running directly to the gas station on arrival, and it will also save you the hassle of taking the lead on the return trip to calculate how many kilometres you will have to drive after your last refueling to return it to the same condition.

If you have chosen your vehicle with the full tank, you will sometimes have the possibility to return it with the empty tank, but this is an option that we advise against.

The return with the empty tank can also constitute a pure and simple scam, some rental agencies simply charging the gallon 3 times the price...!!.


At the time of booking, you will be able to subscribe to a multitude of various and varied insurances. Read the T&Cs carefully and only take what you need. For example, know that if you make your reservation and pay the entire bill with a Gold Mastercard or Visa Premier, you will be covered by your credit card in case of damage. However, please refer to the general terms and conditions of your card to be sure of your coverage.

In this case, there is no need to subscribe to CDW insurances, which are often offered in addition and make the employees of rental agencies happy...

On the other hand, we strongly advise you to subscribe to the civil liability cover. Your French or personal car insurance will not cover you abroad if you are responsible for a personal injury accident.

In the United States, this type of accident makes the fortune of local lawyers whose big billboards you will see on the side of highways, or (often ridiculous) TV commercials. In the United States, there is no cap on compensation in the event of a personal injury accident, and amounts can exceed tens of millions of dollars.

So make sure you are at least covered for liability.

The automatic gearbox

In the United States, automatic transmission is the standard for rental vehicles. Driving with automatic transmission is very convenient and simple. You usually get used to it after a good day's driving (at the risk of adopting it permanently). You just have to think about putting your left foot under the chair so that you don't have the reflex to engage, or you may suddenly apply the brake!

Unpaved tracks and roads

If you decide to venture into the American West, or Big Island (Hawaii), you will most likely have a few trails on the agenda. And if you rent a rental car in a "classic" sign, it is important to know one thing.

You will never be covered if you take a track or unpaved road, even if you rent a large 4x4.

Car rental companies are relieved of any problems that may occur on tracks, and Visa Premier or Gold Mastercard insurance will not work.

On the Notom Bullfrog Basin road in Capitol Reef National Park.

So how do we do it? If you wish to be covered on unpaved tracks and roads, you will have to pass a small local 4x4 rental company or pay for the services of a outfitter who will take you to the desired location, see spending the day with you. But these services are very expensive.

If your wallet doesn't allow it, you can try your luck on the slopes with your rental car and hope that nothing happens to you. Please note that in the event of problems, you will be alone to manage your towing, or even to reimburse the damage of the vehicle if it is immobilized.

If you take the tracks of the American West, get a 4x4 that will be more secure to cross any obstacles. In any case, always check before taking a runway because the weather conditions may make it impassable.

To give you an idea of the western slopes, or the ascent from Mauna Kea to Hawaii, visit our dedicated articles for a preview in video.

Vehicle pickup

Rental car

You will probably have to rent your vehicle as soon as you arrive at the airport. At major airports, charter companies are usually grouped together in an annex hall, accessible by shuttle (bus) or train directly from your arrival hall. For smaller airports, the rental counters are located either directly in the airport, or in a car park just behind the airport, which you can reach directly on foot, or outside the airport compound and you will have to take a shuttle to reach them.

Shuttle buses run just outside the terminal. Locate the car rental shuttle sign and wait for your shuttle there. Make sure that your rental company's logo is on the bus before boarding, or ask the driver for confirmation. In some cases, the same shuttle bus can serve several charter companies, and the driver will ask you for the name of your charter company. This is usually the first question he will ask you either at the bus entrance, or as soon as it starts, so if you don't understand it, you will know what to say;)

Once you arrive at the counter, pay close attention to the small bill that you will receive.

Read all the lines before signing! Some rental companies don't hesitate to add extra fees that you didn't ask for (additional insurance, over-estimated petrol, etc.) and will ask you innocently to sign the paper.

We had the case at Thrifty in Las Vegas very recently. If you do, you will have the bad surprise to see the bill increase by several hundred dollars when the vehicle is returned (more than $300 in our case if we hadn't been careful!).

If you are facing this practice, ask firmly for the withdrawal of any additional funds. The staff will probably try to motivate you to keep these extras with a well-established sales pitch, but don't give in to blackmail. The lessor will then print you a new light invoice.


Once you have completed the administrative part, you will be given either the keys to the vehicle with its location on the adjacent car park or the directions to an area of the same car park.

In the second case, you will not have a allocated vehicle and you can choose the one that suits you in the assigned zone. The keys are in every vehicle. Take your seats and head for the exit. You will then give your documents to the staff located at the parking barrier who will note the vehicle you have chosen and its mileage.

Don't forget to take a good look around the vehicle and add the defects noted on the paper that you were given at the counter. U.S. rental companies are usually quite lax with small defects and scratches (we've never been bothered even after adding a few scratches), but mention them anyway to cover you. We also advise you to make a video showing the appearance of the vehicle, in case.

The car rental return

At the end of your trip, return to the rental agency to return your vehicle. If you need to get to the airport, follow the "car rental return" sign.

On the spot, you will see a parking area with several lanes, as for the loading of ferries. Usually, someone will show you a lane to leave your car. The host will take care to check the condition of the vehicle (very quickly), take the mileage and check the condition of the fuel tank.

If you have to take a shuttle, wait for it in front of the reception area (buses usually park there).

Here, you know how to make your first trips to the United States! And if you have other useful tips to share, feel free to comment on them :)

About us

We are Sandrine and Flo, French thirty-somethings. In 2019 we quit everything to live our dream, become nomads and travel around the world. We left with our baby, Lena, who was only 5 months old at the time. After a first trip around the Pacific Ocean by plane and a long 3 months stay in Hawaii, we left to discover Iceland for 3 months on board our 4WD pickup truck and truck camper. Then we continued our adventure in North America.

Today, if we can continue this adventure, it is above all thanks to our blog, Smartrippers! We created it one day in 2016, with the desire to share our good travel tips, without thinking that it would lead us there! We have developed it a lot over the years and have become experts on our 3 favorite destinations: Hawaii, Iceland and the American West. We now guide you to these destinations to help you plan the trip of your dreams!

Follow our adventures!