How to Plan an Epic USA Road-Trip
Road trips are an American institution. With 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 favourite way to see the country. I love having complete control over when and where I stop and having the flexibility to quickly and easily change plans. When driving around the United States you begin to realize how vast this land is and why that influences the differences that are found in people from state to state. It really is the best way to deepen your understanding of the USA.
I am currently finishing up a cross-country road-trip (scroll down to the bottom to see the first vlog) and wanted to start a series of “road-trip posts” by compiling my tips for planning an epic road-trip. In addition to this current road-trip, in the past couple of years, I have done road-trips to Vegas, Big Sur, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Moab, and Death Valley (to name a few) and every trip runs a little more smoothly with these tips. Let me know in the comments what road trip tips and tricks you have!
Know your travel style. The key to a successful travel experience, whether road-tripping it or not, is, to be honest about you and your companions travel style. Some of you may prefer a highly-detailed travel itinerary and don’t appreciate straying from it, others may be slightly more laissez-faire about the whole ordeal and shrug when asked to make anything resembling a decision. When making decisions about how to spend your time, some of the group may prioritize trying a local cuisine whereas others may prefer a quick bite to eat and more time to stroll around an art museum. Whatever your travel style, make sure to communicate with your companions before setting off and come to an agreement about how you are going to compromise. Even if it is just you driving solo, know your travel style and prepare based on that. If you know that you will get stressed about where to sleep, book your accommodation beforehand or be diligent about the time you hit the road each morning.
Map out your route. The most exciting part of planning your trip is actually deciding where you want to go! There are endless routes to take around the USA, meaning that no matter how many road-trips you take, there will always be something new for you to see and somewhere new for you to go. Start by deciding how many days you have to spend on the road and then what are the “must-stop” places. Maybe your destination is non-negotiable, or there is a particular event you have to stop for in a city. Plot these places out and then look for routes that connect them. Don’t necessarily go with the fastest route, instead look for scenic byways and county roads to add to the route to make it more exciting! When planning your route, consider how many hours a day you are willing and able to drive. I wouldn’t recommend anything over 8! If you do have a long driving day, make the next day a “no-driving day” and spend some time visiting the locale. Finally, take along a current map, in addition to any online directions or GPS systems. Each is a good backup to the other, as none is foolproof, and you don’t want to get completely lost!
Book accommodation. After a long day of driving, it is nice to know that you have a confirmed place to sleep. Depending on where you are going, hotels, motels and even campgrounds can fill up fast in popular tourist areas, especially during prime vacation season, and some places (campgrounds mainly) sell out months in advance! I love staying in AirBnB’s and Couchsurfing, both of which can be done last-minute but show much greater search results if planned a little bit in advance! Once you’ve mapped out where you want to stop each night, start to make reservations. How flexible you want to be with these stops, definitely depends on your travel style. When it comes to road-trips, I do like to plan out my accommodation in advance, as it keeps me on driving schedule!
Research attractions along the way. Once you have mapped out your route, start to research attractions that are on the way. Personally, I don’t like to just rush through places and would prefer to get up a bit earlier to at least see one attraction and eat in one new place! I always check Atlas Obscura and Roadside America to see if there is anything a little out of the ordinary around, especially for detours and things you pass on the road. When saying in cities in the US, I look at Lonely Planet, Eater, and NYTimes Travel to get a sense of what are the must-see, must-do, must-eat places! However, I always make sure to stay open-minded about what locals recommend. AirBnB’s and Couchsuring hosts normally have a list of recommendations when you check in that can point you in the right direction!
Create a realistic budget. One of the benefits of mapping out your route, booking accommodation, and researching attractions before you set off, is that it aides in helping you to create a realistic budget. Use Google Maps to calculate your driving distance, then determine your approximate gas bill (add an extra tank or two for getting lost or choosing to deviate from your planned route) and include the cost of any tollways you know you’ll pass through. After calculating these essentials, decide ahead of time what your daily food budget will be, as well as extra money for emergencies, souvenirs and stumbling upon some can’t-be-missed sights. Knowing exactly what your budget is will ensure that you feel in control and don’t ruin your trip by stressing over money or running out of it!
***Also make sure you have smaller bills for paying any tolls you may pass through and quarters for paying parking meters!***
Get your car serviced. It is not uncommon to hear of people starting a long-awaited road-trip and then almost as soon as they start having their car breakdown. Luckily that has never happened to me, but to prevent it I make sure that my car is in tip-top condition. The image of being stranded in the middle of nowhere waiting for AAA or losing hours and days waiting for a part is enough to keep me diligent about service checks. When getting your vehicle serviced, make sure it includes an oil change, plus safety checks on your battery, brakes, tire tread and pressure, windshield wipers, headlights and brake lights, fluid levels, belts and hoses, and your spare tire and jack. In addition, in your car keep a waterproof container filled with jumper cables, flashlight and batteries, first aid kit, flares, a blanket, and bottled water and nonperishable snacks! If travelling with someone else, make sure they carry the second set of keys in case the driver’s pair gets lost or locked in the car!
Pack your suitcase and car smartly. When doing a rather large amount of shopping in NYC last month, I dodged any worries about the size of my luggage because I “knew I was driving back to California”! Without having to worry about paying airline luggage fees, I didn’t mind carting everything back to the West Coast. This probably isn’t the smartest way of looking at the journey, after all you don’t want to take away precious arm and leg space in your car because you are buried within shoes! Luckily, everything fit, but in the future I need to be more mindful of how much I pack.
Packing smartly for a road-trip also means having the things you are going to want during the drive in an easily accessible place. I always make sure to have a sweater, jacket and blanket on the back seat, just in case I get chilly and don’t want to comb through my suitcase. I have my water bottle, phone, camera and lip balm with me in the front and wear slip-on shoes so I can get myself comfy asap. Put hand-wipes, change for tolls and anything else you may quickly need in the front with you as well.
Get the music, podcasts & audiobooks ready. 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. It’s why I am a bit of a playlist organizing freak. When you are on the road for hours, you just want to press play and begin the singing session! Last year I posted Tristan and my “Ultimate Roadtrip Playlist” filled with tunes that are approved by both members of the party. Before we leave, I make sure that I have music playlists, podcasts and books downloaded so that losing signal in the middle of the mountains doesn’t force us into deep silence. Podcasts and audiobooks make long drives go really quickly, I personally prefer them to listening to hours of music. On our cross-country road-trip, Mum and I listened to Hilary Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened, which I would highly recommend. If you are looking for podcast recommendations check out this and this post!
Fill up a cooler with snacks and drinks. Before leaving on this trip, Mum and I headed to Trader Joes and Whole Foods to stock up on healthy snacks and drinks (coconut La Croix to be specific). When you are driving so many hours a day, it is inevitable that you are going to want a little snack or something to sip on and it is very convenient to be able to just turn around and have what you want in the back. Especially when driving cross-country, you can easily drive for dozens of miles without seeing a rest area or town with restaurants and it is a waste of time to go searching for a bag of chips. Packing your own snacks ensures you can eat healthy snacks (if you want!) and also helps cut unnecessary costs from your budget. I like to pack healthy snacks like fruit, nuts, low-fat string cheese, plantain chips, granola and some dark chocolate. Stop at local grocery stores to get muffins, fruit and orange juice for breakfast on the go, and sandwich fixings and chips for an easy lunch at a roadside stop.
Cross-Country Road-Trip Vlog Pt.1 (Cleveland to St Louis)