In Europe you may be used to getting around by bus or train but in Texas the car is king. If you’re planning a family holiday to the USA you’ll almost certainly need to hire a car to get the most out of your trip.
In the past I’ve found that car hire often ends up costing more than you expect, but this time we booked and pre-paid for our car rental in Houston through Argus Car Hire who compare prices of different providers to come up with the best deal. Although you have to pay up front, the advantage is that the price should be fixed without any unexpected extras.
On our trip to Texas we flew into Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, took the free airport shuttle bus to the car hire centre and headed for the Dollar counter to pick up our car. On arrival at the car rental desk, we presented our Argus Car Hire voucher that detailed what we’d paid for. Well – up to a point.
No problems with our voucher except that the lady at the desk told us that breakdown cover was not included in the Dollar price, even though it was specified on the Car Rental voucher. We decided not to argue and hoped that we wouldn’t need it (we didn’t). She was also concerned that our car might not be big enough, even though we had ordered a mid-size car suitable for 5 adults. We resisted the up-sell to a larger model, but realised that everything is bigger in Texas and when we reached our car of course it looked enormous to our European eyes. We also discovered that there are road toll charges in the Houston area, so we opted for a 2 week pass that covered all road tolls for our peace of mind, costing $36 per week which with taxes added $85 to our bill.
Car Hire Tips
If you are happy to commit, it can be a good idea to compare prices, pre-book and pre-pay for your car rental through a company like Argus Car Hire to avoid hidden charges that materialise when you arrive at the car rental pick-up.
Think carefully about your requirements and include them all in your advance booking, then resist any attempts to up-sell as this is where additional charges are most likely to be incurred.
Even if you are tired after your long journey, examine the small print before you sign anything and request explanation for anything you don’t understand.
If there is any damage to the vehicle when you collect it, make sure it has been noted by the rental staff and take photos to have a visual record.
If you will be driving on toll-roads, it is probably worth buying cover for the duration of your stay, for your peace of mind and to avoid any traffic fines. If we had unwittingly incurred any fines for not paying our tolls, they would have not only been charged to our credit card but the car rental company would have added a $25 administration fee for each violation.
Filling up in the USA
Unlike in Europe, our USA car rental included a full tank of fuel and but we could return the car empty, an indicator that fuel is cheaper in the US than in Europe. We drove over 1000 miles on our 11 day road trip through Texas and got through around 3.5 tanks of fuel. The unleaded petrol was $3.60-$3.90 per US gallon, less than half the price that we would be paying in the UK, so driving is an economical option although cheaper fuel is offset by larger cars with higher fuel consumption. Nevertheless, for Europeans a driving holiday in the US is a good value option. One other difference was that you have to pay for your fuel before you fill up at the pump in the USA rather than afterwards as in Europe.
Navigating around Texas
Our Texas road trip took us from Houston to San Antonio (a 4 hr drive) then north to Austin (a 2 hr drive) south into the Texas Hill Country (1 hrs drive) and then back to Houston (4 hrs). In planning our itinerary I was pleased that I had limited the driving times to avoid fraying tempers and opted to base ourselves for a few days in each area so that we could relax and enjoy looking around.
To plan our route and check driving times I used the Get Directions feature of Google Maps and also printed off Google maps and directions for the routes we would travel in the first few days. I found that the hotels where we stayed had business centres where you could print off driving directions or they were happy to do so at reception. As soon as we could, we also bought a detailed driving atlas for Texas which proved very useful.
We would have paid quite a bit more if our rental car had included a Sat Nav but found that my son’s Smart Phone did the job perfectly and even called out directions, using a app called NavFree. The app works even when you are abroad with your Roaming switched off, so long as you can use the hotel wifi to program in the locations and maps, which are then stored on your phone.
Roadside diners and other Road food
Once you get out of the cities, there are plenty of great family diners and roadside restaurants to stop and it may even be worth venturing a little off your main route to try some home cooked specialities of the area. Rather than have lunch in the cafe at the Space Center Houston, we decided to stop outside Houston on the way to San Antonio on Interstate 10 at Tony’s Family Restaurant in Sealy where we had fried catfish and okra as well as Tex Mex specials. I found a valuable resource in Roadfood.com, a website that celebrates authentic regional food in the USA. I used some of their Texas food tours to identify places where we could stop and if you travel a lot in the USA it might be worth investing in their Roadfood Book. It was through Roadfood.com that we ventured a little off our route to discover Black’s BBQ at Lockhart (Mouth wateringly tender beef brisket and ribs cooked slowly over oak wood) & the Texas Pie company at Kyle (Life’s short, eat more pie) as we drove on Interstate 35 from San Antonio to Austin.
So apart from driving, what did we get up to on our 11 day Texas Toad Trip?
Things to do in San Antonio
After visiting the Space Center Houston we drove 4 hours west to San Antonio where we stayed for 3 nights in the downtown area at the lovely boutique Hotel Valencia Riverwalk. The riverwalk has a lively buzzing atmosphere at night with bars and restaurants and riverboat tours and from the hotel we could walk to many things of interest such as the La Villita historic district, San Fernando Cathedral and the Alamo. After visiting the Alamo that played such a major part in Texan independence we hired bikes and drove along the Mission Reach where the river has been developed with a cycle path that takes you to the historic Spanish missions. We also spent a day at Picosa Ranch just south of San Antonio where we enjoyed hearing about the ranch’s history as the former home of Texas Governor John Connally, spotted some African zebra, enjoyed a poolside lunch and did some skeet shooting.
If you decide to stay in the downtown area of San Antonio, you will probably need to pay for parking and we opted to use the Hotel Valencia Valet Parking Service at $29 per day plus tax which enabled us to take the car in and out during the day. Alternatively we could have used some of the centrally located public car parking around town which would have been about half the price but not as convenient. When researching hotels it’s worth checking whether they offer free parking as over a few days the parking charges can considerably add to the cost of your stay. To save costs, you could also decide to stay somewhere less central but drive into the downtown area to park while you are sightseeing, although we found it much more relaxing to park the car and explore San Antonio on foot and bike, using the Riverwalk as our main corridor.
Things to do in Austin
The next stop on our Texas Road trip was Austin, an easy drive for a couple of hours north along the Interstate 35. In Austin we’d decided to stay in a holiday rental that we booked through HomeAway, so that we could experience more of a neighbourhood feel. All the bungalows on the leafy green residential street in Barton Hills had off-street parking, so no parking problems, but we really needed our car to get around Austin. Even though there were many great places to eat near our house, they were all designed to drive to and involved crossing a busy 2 lane highway with no obvious crossing places.
If we had stayed closer to the downtown area, perhaps in the South Congress neighbourhood, hiring a bike would also have been a great way to get around as there were many parks and the paths by the river for walking or cycling. In Austin we enjoyed the Barton Springs Pool and other parts of Zilker Park like the Botanic Gardens, shopped for vintage finds and ate trailer food on South Convention and took the free tour around the Texas State Capitol building. We also enjoyed the live music that you can find in almost every bar such as Flipnotics, Threadgills and all the venues on 6th street in the downtown area.
Things to do in the Texas Hill Country
Our final couple of days was spent in the Texas Hill Country where we stayed at the wonderful JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country resort. The Hill Country is an area of rolling hills with interesting small and historic towns that make ideal places to stop on a road trip through Texas. From our base at the resort we stopped in Gruene Historic district of New Braunfels and went tubing down the river followed by a Bluebell ice cream at the local store.
We also tried some horseback riding at the Silver Spur Ranch in Bandera that considers itself the Cowboy Capital of the World and has many Guest and Dude ranches where you can stay if you want to get into the Cowboy spirit. We also took the opportunity while driving through the hill country to try out some interesting local eateries like Black’s BBQ in Lockhart where after tucking into our ribs and beef brisket we were given a tour of the kitchen where the beef is slow cooked over oak chipping for 10 hour on a fire that hasn’t gone out since the 1940s. Finally we drove back to Houston for our final night at the stylish Hotel Sorella in the lively City Centre district for a morning of chilling out and shopping before our flight home.
As they say, everything is big in Texas and even though we did a lot of driving, the roads were rarely congested (although we were warned to avoid the rush hours around the major cities). Even though we used walking, cycling, horse-riding and even tubing to get around, our rental car enabled us to pack in the action on our Texas Road trip.
Thanks to Argus Car Hire who provided the hire car for our Texas road trip – I recommend them to compare prices of different car hire providers in worldwide locations and come up with the best price for you with no hidden extras.
More Things to do in Texas
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