Vanlife USA: 10 tips for a successful roadtrip in the USA

Vanlife USA: 10 tips for a successful roadtrip in the USA

Article updated on 01.04.24

In this article, we provide you with our tips to have all the keys in hand to make your roadtrip to the USA a success. Some points may seem insignificant at first sight, but believe us, they all made our life much easier during our 3 months in the USA.

1. A pass for the National Parks

The entrance fee for a national park is usually 30-40 dollars per car. If you are planning a roadtrip that includes at least 3 national parks, we strongly advise you to buy the “America the beautiful” pass. It costs 80 dollars, is valid for 1 year and gives you access to all national parks (with some exceptions). It is possible to order it online or to purchase it in specific locations ( see the list here ). It can also be purchased second hand on Facebook Market or Craiglist. Indeed, this pass is nominative, but can hold two owners. It has two fields for each owner’s signature. Generally, people who buy this pass only sign in one of the two fields so that they can later give or sell it to another person who can sign in the second field. At the entrance to each national park, you will have to present it with your ID and leave it hanging on the windshield.

2. The application in roadtrip

In the USA, the cell signal is a rare commodity outside the cities and populated areas. That’s why we strongly recommend you to download the application during your roadtrip. This GPS app allows you to download maps in advance so that you always have access to them when you are offline.

The advantages of are:

  • You can save all the places you want to visit and add a description.
  • The hiking trails are indicated in a very precise way. An extremely practical detail when you go hiking.
  • The app is free.

The only negative point we noticed is that sometimes it is not very accurate in the city in the USA to indicate the places on the map

3. Savings on gasoline

A roadtrip means a large number of KM to cover and therefore to fill up regularly. With the current price of gasoline, every cent counts. In the USA, the price of gasoline varies enormously from one station to another and from one state to another.

To avoid driving around town and comparing prices from place to place, we found a trick that shows you the gas prices at each gas station. On Google Maps and when you search for “Gas station”, the app shows you most of the gas stations with their updated rates (more or less). The rates shown can sometimes vary, but it will already give you a good idea on which station is the cheapest.

There are no small savings when you travel by van 😉

4. The iOverlander & Campendium applications

When traveling in a van, the first question you ask yourself every day is “Where will you sleep tonight? On top of that, you also often need to know where to fill your water tank, where to dump your dirty water, where to shop, where to do laundry, etc.

All these questions are available thanks to a great community that powers two applications: iOverlander and Campendium. Using them is very simple. Both apps display a map and offer filters that you can change depending on what you are looking for.

iOverlander has the advantage of being accessible without a network if you have downloaded the maps beforehand (only the photos of the places are not accessible without a cell reception).

Campendium displays a greater number of paying campsites, dump stations and is more precise on the infrastructures that each place offers (Example: it indicates the number of network bars for each telephone operator, the price of the campsite and the details of the infrastructures, etc).

As these two applications can be complementary, we advise you to download both of them. They are free and will really make your life easier on your roadtrip.

Application iOverlander
Application Campendium

5. BLM & National Forest

If you are looking for free and legal places to camp/sleep in your vehicle in the wilderness in the United States, there are the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and National Forrest. These are state-owned places where it is allowed to camp for free and legally. These places are limited to 14 consecutive days in order to prevent people from settling there permanently.

These locations are very popular with American camping enthusiasts with their huge RVs. Being often located on large areas, you will always find a place. These spots are easy to find thanks to the iOverlander and Campendium application.

6. Free sleep in the city

Vanlife and American cities are not always compatible. It can sometimes be difficult to find places to park your vehicle and stay overnight.

The first thing to do is to make sure that it is not illegal to sleep in your vehicle when you are in a certain city. For example, in San Diego, it is illegal to stay overnight in a converted vehicle and risk getting a fine on your windshield in the morning. But in most other places, it is possible to do so while being as discreet as possible (don’t take your camping chairs out, don’t cook in front of your car, don’t pee in the street, etc). We advise you to find a park, a school or a church and to arrive early in the evening and leave early in the morning to be as discreet as possible while not bothering anyone. Also be aware of the parking signs on the streets. They sometimes indicate the days and times when the streets are cleaned and therefore the times when you should not park there.

In Los Angeles, we used the SpotAngels app to find out which streets we could park on for several hours/days.

Another option is to sleep in store parking lots. It is less and less easy to do this, as there has been a lot of abuse in the US, but there are still some places that will allow you to do so. To know if it is allowed to stay, you have to check with the store manager or with the security of the parking lot and ask them if it is possible to stay for a night.

7. Public transport with City Mapper

Using public transportation can sometimes be a headache in some cities. The City Mapper application helps you with this. When you want to get from point A to point B, it shows you different public transport options, timetables, duration, number of stops. When you choose the option you want, the application will follow you live and tell you when to change transport or when to get out.

The best part is that this application also works in Europe and is free.

8. Shopping for food

In the United States, there are a lot of food stores and it’s hard to know which ones are cheap without testing them. Here are a few stores that we went to during our roadtrip and that we recommend:

  • Walmart : It is the most famous store in the USA. You can find everything there. From groceries to car tires to furniture to electronics.
    It’s convenient to go there because you can find all kinds of things in one store, but it’s not necessarily the cheapest when it comes to food.
  • WinCo : This is a store that offers very attractive prices and sells a lot of cereals in bulk. American stores often sell in large quantities. Having the possibility to buy in bulk is a great advantage when we travel and our storage capacity is limited. BONUS: bulk is cheaper!
  • Grocery Outlet : The choice is limited, but the prices are attractive. You can find the essentials with major brands at reduced prices.
  • Trader’s Joe : This is the hipster store of choice. It offers almost only quality products and at very attractive prices (the same or cheaper than Walmart). In addition to selling organic food, all the shelves are very attractive (it’s a bit like Manor, but with Migros prices for the Swiss ;)).

9. Showers in roadtrip

Traveling in a van, it’s getting out of your comfort zone. We learn again to appreciate the small things of the everyday life as the shower for example! We do not know many people who wash every day in roadtrip. Therefore, as soon as we have access to a shower that has pressure and hot water, it’s a blast!

Here are some tips we’ve discovered for showering while traveling in the United States:

  • It is possible to take a shower in the fitness. They sometimes offer a trial session in their center, which will allow you to access the showers for free (feel free to do a sport session or not before your shower 😉 ).
  • As in many places in the world, you will find public pools on your way. By paying for the entrance, you can enjoy the facilities and showers.
  • Campgrounds often offer a fee for people who are not staying with them and would like to use the showers.
  • If you travel during the summer, you can enjoy the showers at the beach for free. This one being in front of the beach, we advise to use biodegradable soaps.

10. Dump stations in roadtrip

Traveling by van is common in the USA. You will therefore easily find facilities adapted to this mode of travel. If your van is equipped with toilets and running water, you will regularly have to go to places equipped with dumps stations. To find them easily, we advise you to use the two applications mentioned below (iOverlander and Campendium). And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, here are some links to interactive maps we’ve used that list:

BONUS: Discounted rates in the USA

Americans love coupons and online sales. That’s why we advise you to always look online for coupons or the possibility to register online for free to get discounts.
Moreover, we have noticed that most of the time, prices are cheaper online than in stores. So we suggest you always check online for the price of what you buy in store. At the cash register, show the difference in price to the sellers. 90% of the time, they will adjust the price.
If you are staying in a hotel for a night, we suggest you do the same; look at the best price on the internet and show them the difference so they will adjust the room rate.

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