Route 66: Hints & Tips
Updated: Aug 18, 2019
I always meant to write this after our trip. Though it is now more than 2 years since we did Route 66 I think the information is still useful. Though we obviously did this on motorbikes, some of the information is just as relevant if you are in a car.
Hiring the bikes
First off - it isn't cheap. For 19 days, we paid just over £2,000 per bike. There isn't really any getting around this, or the one way fee included in the above which was $500 when we did it. We used Eagle Riders, who I think are the main company (another one appeared to have gone bust before we went). Phoning Eagle Riders and sorting the details over the phone was easy. #tip if you are a member of RAC or certain bike clubs, you get a small discount - given the prices, this helps, so do mention it. I did this in January for an August holiday though you probably don't need to be quite so eager, it is worth getting in touch as soon as you can to ensure you get the bikes you want.
Eagle Riders are a kind of franchise with dealers working with them. In the main, the rentals are Harleys, though this looks to be changing. The big thing for me was that I didn't want a Harley - so from Chicago, this meant we had to have Triumphs. This actually worked very well. The dealer is 20 odd miles out of town (still suburbs of Chicago) and this meant we cut out the initial city part of the route. This is actually a good thing (see city routing below). Americans also have a romantic love affair with the Triumph brand. I can't count the number of people, who looked over the bikes and with dewy eyes, mentioned how they had had a Triumph when they were younger. Another chap in the middle of nowhere (well a hamlet of 3 houses) came out to see what the 'quiet bikes' were, having been deafened by Harleys going by for years!
Going solo or guided?
We never really thought about going guided - I mean how hard can it be? From meeting people on the way, we learnt that there are companies that let you go solo, but book all your hotels and provide maps. Another couple had the route programmed into a GPS unit (we followed them for a bit!). We printed off the route over about 80 A4 pages - which we never used!
For the first few days, it was fairly easy to follow signs and ask the odd passer by if we seemed lost. Rather irritatingly, a number of the signs are on the road, about 50m after the junction, rather than as a direction sign as you approach the junction. On a few occasions, we passed a junction only to realise we should have turned left or right. A few days in though and the signs begin to disappear. At this point, we realised that the guide book that was rubbish for facts about sights etc, did in fact have strip maps and we used this for the rest of the ride with great success. #tip: the book is ring bound - Gareth found 43mph the maximum speed he could ride with one hand and hold the book with the other without losing a page to the wind!
The great thing about going under your own steam is meeting people. We had dinner with a few couples doing the same thing that we met in hotels en route and had fun evenings sharing tales. In coffee shops along the way, many people came over and chatted to us which made for the trip. As two of you on bikes, you are quite approachable rather than a gang. So my tip is definitely - do it yourself!
Books and Maps
The handiest book we found for where to go, or rather where to stop and see the sites was Jamie Jensen's 'Road Trip USA Route 66'. This is pocket sized and has pretty much all you need for 2/3 weeks. There is a related app, but to be honest, that mentions every shop en route and I found difficult to see the wood for the trees.
The other book that was our saving was 'EZ66 Guide for Travellers' by Jerry McClanahan which was the ring bound book of strip maps and effectively became our map. We wouldn't have made it without this - or would have done a lot more Interstate. It seems quite expensive on Amazon, so I am guessing it is mainly available in the U.S. We got ours at the Triumph dealer in Chicago as a freebie from the owner to see us on our way. A lovely gesture and a critical piece of kit it turned out.
This is usually people's first question: "Did you book all your hotels before you went?". Before leaving London, the only hotel we had booked was the one in Chicago for when we arrived in the US and before we picked up the bikes. There were however quite a few hotels that I booked a couple of days out. Having been to Grand Canyon before, I was aware that the hotels get very busy and since we were arriving on a Saturday, this was one of those, as with the hotel in Page, AZ, where I think I got the last room in our hotel on a busy Sunday. The other ones booked a few days out were those in bigger cities on the back half of the tour - so Santa Fe, Las Vegas and LA. We learnt from our experience in St Louis that cities are far from the most laid back part of the tour and it was good to know you were aiming somewhere specific that would definitely have a room for you. I would definitely recommend this for Santa Monica. We arrived on a very hot Friday afternoon and after battling 15 miles along Sunset and Santa Monica Blvds, we were glad that we had somewhere to go - though this was the least R66 part of our stay and certainly the most expensive!
Over the trip we stayed in a few different types of places that fall into 3 categories:
Famous Route 66 staples, such as the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, MO
Higher end treats - The Shore in Santa Monica being one and the Hard Rock in Vegas where we had a great suite. The tip for Vegas is going mid week and booking late. A couple of days out, you can tell from any of the big booking sites which hotels have conferences on - and are full or showing rack rates, and those which have availability and in which you can get your rock star suite for a fraction of the cost you would get at the weekend
Chain motels - most people we met did the same thing - you select from a choice of Holiday/Hampton/Comfort Inn on your first night (they tend to all be grouped together), then you keep on using that chain for the rest of the holiday. We settled on the Comfort Inn and found they were great value. Importantly, these also all have laundry facilities, which is very useful when you have limited luggage space.
We generally had a plan of roughly which town we would stay in for the night and where the hotels were in that town. #tip A snapshot taken on our iPad in the morning if the Google maps showing us the road-map around hotel for that night proved really useful.
Roads & driving conditions
Following Route 66, or one if its many incarnations can be difficult, even with the book, though in general the road conditions are fine. Most of the really run down patches are now closed and there were only two patches which were actually unpleasant - the few miles running up to the Baghdad Cafe, which doesn't look too bad in photos, but is a patchwork of mends and is one of the bumpiest rides on road I've ever experienced. It isn't that hard to ride, but I vibrated so much that I had severe pins and needles making me stop a couple of times.
The other challenge is the 5-10 miles of the 'Sidewalk Highway' between Miami and Narcissa. The road deteriorates to a track and if it is wet, it is a slimy, muddy mess and not one for touring bikes. Of course, it was only that night that we read that this section should be avoided at all costs if you are on a motorcycle. Oh well!
Closed/abandoned sections of R66 also means that sections of Interstate is at times unavoidable. The speed limit and adherence to it can change from state to state. Illinois is fairly slow and people stick to limits, but generally the Interstates are 75 mph and expect to do at least this, slightly more near LA. I did have a police car ride beside me and point a speed gun at me - the only time Gareth has ever shouted at me over the intercom to slow down!
The real challenge with Interstates is trucks. Being much larger than those we have in the UK, they have much greater inertia. The truckers get up to speed on the downhills in order to power up the uphill sections and they don't slow down for anything, so you need to make sure you are well clear of them.
There is also a lot of debris on the roads, specifically blown out truck tyres which you want to avoid. The thing I really disliked was very short off ramps, meaning you'd come off at 80 mph with a truck on your tail, then need to do an emergency stop to stop at the junction.
Following the Route through a big city that you don't know, in the heat, is frankly unpleasant. The friend who had done the trip before us mentioned how horrible getting lost in Chicago was and our experience of St Louis was just as horrible. It is worth remembering that the route has been abandoned, as have many of the shops, amenities and factories along the way. Whilst this is interesting, two foreign tourists riding through deprived inner city areas is probably none too sensible. Our plan after our experience in St Louis was to abandon the route through cities and take the fastest / most sensible route from outskirts to outskirts - which we did for Oklahoma City and for LA.
Riding into LA
To follow Route 66, we would have done about 100 miles of suburban riding from Victorville to Santa Monica. In preference to this, we abandoned the route and came in on the 'Crest Highway', which twists and turns through the mountains, gives you a glimpse of the city before dropping you down into Glendale. On a weekday morning, it was just us and two other bikers on the road for miles and miles, before an obligatory stop at Newcomb's Ranch, a welcoming bikers stop.
In the main, I mean road kill. I came across 3 armadillo, 1 skunk and a pet chihuahua (it had a pink collar).
The main wildlife to worry about are dogs. There are loads of country farm dogs and with 2 bikes, I effectively woke them up, then Gaz would get chased by them. When it came to a recommendation in the book to take a side route a few miles to a ghost town, inhabited only by dogs, we looked at each other and agreed, "no, you're alright'.
What to wear
Going through my biking closet, I realised that I didn't have anything appropriate to wear for the trip. I wanted to wear some decent protective clothing, but my leathers would have been too hot and my textiles at the time had no ventilation. I splashed out on an 'Airflow' suit from BMW in a sandy colour. At just shy of £600, this isn't a cheap option, though I have been very pleased with it. This has well vented sections as well as reflecting the heat. Though I did get wet the once - with the heat, I dried off nice and quickly. I did take a pair of Kevlar jeans, but I only wore them the once and felt too hot in them. Gareth did wear his Draggin (Kevlar) jeans and his usual Spada textile jacket (with vents) for the whole trip. Both of us were comfortable and happy to be wearing what we felt was enough protection.
A number of commentators suggest that you invest in a 'cooling vest'. I wouldn't personally bother - when will you wear it again in the UK?! (To be fair, I've only worn my Airflow suit once in the UK(!) - though it has done me proud on our trip to the Balkans and will go overseas again this year).
The best tip I had for heat was from a fellow biker on our last day of the Route. He told me that all Californians know that you should have a bandanna and wet that if you are hot - or wet your t-shirt if really hot. As you travel, the water will feel cool against the skin. He's right. A tip I put into practice about halfway down Santa Monica Boulevard, an hour after we said our goodbyes to our fellow biker.
When to go
Effectively you want to miss winter in Chicago and the summer in the Nevada dessert, which basically means Spring or Autumn/Fall. We lucked out at the beginning of September as it should have been about 5 degrees warmer. The easiest is to look when tour groups go - and use similar dates.
My biggest tip though - is go & do it. This is probably one of the best holidays we have ever had. You will not regret it.