People have been taking road trips across the United States since the days of covered wagons. But ever since Route 66 connected the Atlantic to the Pacific, it’s gotten way easier to hit the open road and see this big beautiful country.
Our family has traveled up the west coast from Southern California to Canada, driven through the Inland Northwest states of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. We’ve also driven from the western U.S. all the way out to Rhode Island, detouring south to Alabama on the way home to see family. And while these trips don’t take anywhere near the level of planning that the pioneers faced, it can still be daunting to figure out how to make this type of vacation run smoothly.
Whenever we travel, we schedule specific things we want to see, but leave time for the unexpected, too. I mean, who can resist pulling off the highway to see a gushing waterfall, or a historic fort or the biggest bookstore in America? Not me!
So how do you plan out a cross country road trip? Here are the steps I take:
Figure out your dates
When I drove my son out to Massachusetts for his freshman year of college, we knew we had to arrive by a certain date. So we planned backwards from there to figure out how many hours we would have to drive each day to make it on time.
For example, if you’re driving from Seattle to Boston, according to my handy dandy iPhone map app, it would take 45 hours if you avoid highways with tolls. If you take I-90 all the way across, you will have to pay tolls, but it’ll shave three hours off your drive time. You’ll have to decide if it’s more important to save money or time.
Note: The straightest route to your destination isn’t always the best.
If you’re on a time crunch to get from Point A to Point B, that’s one thing. But it can also be fun to take some of the scenic byways and smaller highways that wind through little towns. It’ll make the experience that much richer to see more of America than what’s directly off the interstate. The Federal Highway Administration has an interactive map that can help you find National Scenic Byways in each state.
Once you know the total number of hours for your drive time, you’ll need to decide how many hours you want to drive each day. Using the example above, we know our total drive time is 45 hours. If we decide that we don’t want to drive more than 8 hours each day, then we know that our drive to Boston is going to take five and a half days. (8 hours x 5 days = 40 hours, with 5 hours leftover for the half day.) If you decide to add another hour of driving to each day, you’ll make it to Boston in five days. If you decide to make more stops along the way, you might only want to drive five hours each day which would make your trip out there closer to nine days.
Which brings me to the next point…
Decide what you want to see along the way
When we did a road trip out to Iowa to visit family, we knew we wanted to stop and see Mount Rushmore, so we planned to drive less that day. When we did our epic drive through the western states, we set aside two days in Jackson Hole so that we would have time for a white water rafting trip on the Snake River.
Sometimes it helps to pull out a map or a road atlas that marks points of interest along your route. Or you can simply google “what to see in South Dakota” to find blogs or visitor information sites with ideas.
Note: South Dakota has so many tourist stops along I-90, you could literally set aside a month to visit every single one!
Once you have your list of things to see and places to visit, you’ll have a better idea of how much time you’ll need for each stop. Don’t forget to factor in meal times and potty breaks. It’s important to get out of the car and move around so your body doesn’t cramp up. And let’s face it: it’s more fun to stop at a kitschy museum and take care of business while you’re there, than to dash into a filthy gas station rest room that makes you want to disinfect your entire body when you’re through.
Planning your Overnights
Some people like to go with the flow and find a hotel when they’re too tired to drive any further. While I’ve been known to do this on occasion, the truth is, I’m a planner. As far as I’m concerned, getting a good night’s rest is critical to having an enjoyable road trip! I need to know where I’m stopping for the night and make sure that rooms will be available.
GPS, mapping apps and online tools like mapquest make things easier than ever to plan your overnights. I like to go on mapquest and type in a city name along the route, just to see how many hours it takes to get there. This helps me figure out the best places to stop for the night, and adjust my drive time if I need to.
Since plans can change, it’s a good idea to make reservations at hotels that offer free cancellation (one of the reasons why I typically use booking.com to make my hotel reservations). If you’re going to camp along the way, you definitely want to make sure there’ll be open campsites during prime summer months. Recreation.gov is a great resource for camping reservations, tickets and permits that you might need for national parks and landmarks.
Although we love staying at Airbnb’s for longer trips, they don’t usually make sense for a road trip. The initial price can look good, but once you factor in cleaning and other fees, they wind up being a lot more expensive unless you plan to be in one spot for a week. Which isn’t typically how a road trip works 🙂
Pro tip: When visiting big cities like Chicago or Los Angeles, staying in nearby suburbs is usually cheaper. Don’t be afraid to stray from the hub. Many of the smaller cities have fun things to see that you might miss out on if you’re in the city.
Planning your meals
If you have small children, it goes without saying that you need to pack some snacks. But older kids can act up too when they’re hangry and running on low blood sugar. These days, my kids like to use their phones to scan the route ahead and plan stops based on whatever looks good in the areas we drive through.
My son, who is obsessed with Chipotle, has pretty much mapped out every single restaurant from coast to coast. My daughter will go to happycow.net or simply google “vegan restaurants in —” whatever cities are along the way. We’ve found some very cool, local spots by doing this and seen more places by getting off the interstate and not just hitting the drive thru. (Though I do have to say a big thank you to Carl’s Jr. for introducing the Beyond Famous Star. That is a damn good vegan burger and they are now officially my favorite fast food place!)
Water is important, too. You might just be sitting in a car not doing anything active, but you still need to stay hydrated. Bring a refillable jug and individual water bottles so everyone can get plenty to drink.
Service Your Car
Some people prefer to rent a car and not add the wear and tear of a long trip to their own vehicle. But if you decide to take to your own car, make sure to take it in for an oil change, check the tires and top off your windshield wiper fluid. Don’t forget pillows for napping, cords for charging, and bags to help keep trash under control. A rooftop carrier is great for packing luggage and souvenirs, especially when you have older (bigger!) kids. They won’t feel so crowded in the back seat.
Expect the Unexpected
Learn to be flexible. Nothing ever goes completely according to plan and honestly, some of the best vacation stories come out of experiences when things go wrong.
Like the time we had to walk two miles to a gas station because my daughter wasn’t paying attention to the bright red light on the dashboard and we ran out of gas on a residential exit ramp. But hey, it got us out of the car and moving on an otherwise sedentary day. And now having experienced that, she isn’t likely to ever run out of gas again!
Or that time when we had the wrong passports and couldn’t get on our plane to the Bahamas…we still had a great vacation!
The point is, things might not go the way you expected. Your hotel might not look as good in person as it did on the internet. There might be road construction that slows down your drive time estimates for the day. You might arrive at your destination during a hail storm when you were expecting sunshine. Chalk it up to a memorable experience. Vacations don’t have to be a magical time where everything is perfect. It’s real life and it’s all good.
If you’re planning a road trip in the United States but you’re from out of the country, you might need an International Driving Permit. Check the regulations for the states you’ll be driving through and make sure you have insurance on your rental car.
Find quirky, unexpected places to visit RoadsideAmerica.com