Road trips are an American institution. In a country as far-reaching as the United States, it is no surprise that visitors and citizens alike find a romantic and alluring pull to getting behind the wheel and just hitting the road. Personally, road-trips are my favorite way to see this country. I love having complete control over when and where I stop, as well as having the flexibility to quickly and easily change plans. If you are looking to deepen your understanding of the USA, then doing an extended road-trip is the ultimate way to grasp how vast this nation is and to discern the differences found from state to state. I have road-tripped all over the USA (here are the states I have visited) and have even driven across the entire country…twice! Two summers ago, I spent ten days driving from Cleveland to LA. Then, last summer, seven weeks going from LA to Cleveland – with a lot of detours. In other words, I am a fan of the road trip. Here are my top tips for planning one…
HOW TO PLAN FOR A USA ROAD TRIP
KNOW YOUR TRAVEL STYLE. No matter what kind of trip you are about to embark on, the key to it being a successful experience is being honest about your travel style – especially when traveling with other people. Would you prefer to possess a highly-detailed travel itinerary? Or, are you more of the laissez-faire school of travel? Is trying the local cuisine your main priority? Or, would you rather grab a quick bite and spend more time on activities? Whether you are flying solo or compromising with companions, the more you know about what is going to make you happy and present, the easier it will be to make that the reality.
MAP OUT YOUR REALISTIC ROUTE. With its endless road trip routes, no matter how much time you spend in the USA, there will always be somewhere else for you to see. From the get-go, appreciate that there is no way you are going to be doing everything (sad face), so instead spend your time focusing on mapping out a realistic route. When you know how many days you will be on the road, then you can start to schedule in the “must-stop” places. Once you have plotted these places out, you can then look for routes that connect them. Don’t necessarily go with the fastest way, instead look for scenic byways and county roads to ensure you don’t spend the whole time on the highway. Generally, I wouldn’t recommend driving for more than eight hours a day. If there is no getting around a long driving day, make the next day a “no-driving day” and spend the time exploring the locale. Paper maps are great, but you want to have online maps downloaded – Google allows.
BOOK ACCOMMODATION. During a long day of driving, it is nice to know that you have a confirmed place to sleep. Depending on where you are, hotels, motels and even campgrounds can fill up fast in popular tourist areas, especially during prime vacation season. Many campgrounds sell out months in advance! I mostly stay in AirBnB’s or Couchsurfing, both of which can be done last-minute but work better if planned beforehand. Once you’ve mapped out your realistic route, start to make reservations. Unlike the rest of the time when I travel, during road trips, I prefer to book my accommodation in advance as it keeps me on my intended driving schedule (sort of).
RESEARCH ATTRACTIONS ALONG THE WAY. While there is nothing better than just stumbling upon something, after too many missed opportunities, I now like to do some research into what I will be passing. Atlas Obscura and Roadside America are always checked to see if there is anything slightly out of the ordinary, while the combination of Lonely Planet, Eater, and NYTimes Travel always give a good sampling of the must-dos & must-eats. During the road trip, take every opportunity to ask locals for their recommendations and, generally, Airbnb and Couchsurfing hosts provide a list of recommendations for the area.
CREATE A REALISTIC BUDGET. Gas/petrol quickly adds up, so it is good to prepare yourself with an approximate amount – this government website works well for that. After calculating this number, you can make a daily food budget, as well as putting to the side money for emergencies, souvenirs and stumbling upon some can’t-be-missed sights or vintage dresses. Knowing your budget will help you to feel more in control of your trip and will decrease the chances of you being stranded in the middle of nowhere, with nothing. TIP: Have smaller bills/coins at your disposal for paying tolls and parking meters.
SERVICE THE CAR. Can you imagine starting your long-awaited road trip, only to have your car break down? That would be pretty devastating. To decrease the chances of this scenario happening (although it could be a good relationship test!), make sure your car is in tip-top condition and don’t rent the cheapest thing possible. If it is your car, get a service check before you head off – it should include an oil change and plenty of checks (battery, brakes, tire tread & pressure, windshield wipers, headlights & brake lights, fluid levels, belts, and hoses). In your car have a waterproof container filled with jumper cables, flashlight & batteries, first aid kit, flares, blanket, and water/ snacks just in case you do break down. Leave the spare tire and jack in the trunk and, if traveling with someone else, give them the spare set of keys just in case the driver’s pair gets lost or locked in the car.
PACK SMARTLY. Packing smartly for a road trip doesn’t just mean not overpacking (although it means that), it also includes having your essentials in an easily accessible place. In addition to driving while wearing slip-on shoes, I like to make sure that I have a sweater, jacket, and blanket on the back seat, just in case I get chilly (which I will) and want to be comfy asap. Comfort is key, so in the front with me will always be my water bottle, phone, camera, and lip balm. Plus, hand-wipes, change for tolls, and anything else I find myself quickly or frequently needing.
DOWNLOAD ENTERTAINMENT. Nothing makes or breaks a long drive more than your queued up entertainment. Music helps memorialize feelings and emotions and assists in declaring the things our vocabulary sometimes fails in – why I consider it one of the simple pleasures of travel. When you are on the road for hours, you want to press play and begin the singing session! A couple of years ago, I created the Ultimate Roadtrip Playlist filled with tunes that are guaranteed to have everyone in the car humming along. But, I also make monthly playlists and destination-specific playlists (check out my Spotify here), so I am never short of a tune. Also, I make sure that several playlists, podcasts, and audiobooks are downloaded offline so that losing signal in the middle of the mountains doesn’t force me into a deep silence. Podcasts and audiobooks make long drives go really quickly, so I tend to switch between podcasts, audiobooks, and hours of music.
LOAD UP ON SNACKS & DRINKS. When you are driving for so many hours in a day, you are inevitably going to want a snack(s) and things to sip on. How very convenient that you can turn around and have what you want without leaving your seat! Keep in mind that especially when driving cross-country, you can easily drive for dozens of miles without seeing a rest area or town with restaurants. Plus, it is a waste of time to continually get off route just for a bag of chips or sparkling water. Packing snacks ensures you can eat healthy snacks (if you want!) and also helps cut unnecessary costs from your budget. I like to pack things like fruit, nuts, string cheese, plantain chips, granola, and some dark chocolate.
+ Watch my entire USA cross-country road trip here