Welcome to Bigroads.com's guide to planning a U.S. road trip!
The goal of this page is twofold: two encourage you to take more U.S. road trips and challenge the ways in which you currently travel. It's not an easy task to plan a road trip, and it's even tougher to plan one well. I guarantee that the tips presented on this page will help you plan amazing road trips that are fun, memorable and nearly, if not completely, anxiety and stress-free.
There is a lot of information on this page. I encourage you to scroll through the section titles first to see which ones may be of interest to you. Or you could read the entire thing and get closed to becoming a road trip master.
WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?
The first step in planning a road trip is to decide where you want to go, what to see, and what to do. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
WHO WILL JOIN YOU?
- Which friends and/or family do you want to visit?
- Which U.S. states do you want to visit?
- Which cities and towns do you want to visit?
- Which national parks do you want to visit?
- Which state parks do you want to visit?
- Which museums do you want to visit?
- Which amusement parks do you want to visit?
- Which scenic drives do you want to drive?
- What types of outdoor activities do you want to partake in?
- Which events, concerts, fairs, or festivals do you want to attend?
- Which other attractions do you want to see?
The next step in planning a road trip is to decide who you want to travel with. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
HOW WILL YOU TRAVEL?
- Which friends and/or family members would you to like to travel with?
- Who is actually willing and able to join you? Will they be able to get time off work and actually afford to go?
- How many people can comfortably fit in your vehicle? Will a different or additional vehicle be required?
- Do you actually want to travel with the people you are intending to? Can you stand each other for that long of a period of time?
The next step in planning a road trip is to decide how you are going to travel. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
WHEN WILL YOU GO?
- What type of vehicle do you want to use?
- Will you be driving from home, or will you be flying into an airport and renting a vehicle?
- Will you use your own vehicle, or borrowing someone else’s?
- How many miles or hours are you willing and able to drive, both per day and in total?
- How many days will your trip be for? Is there any way to make the trip longer?
- Will you be making advanced reservations for your trip, or are you going to just 'wing it'? Or perhaps a combination of both?
The next step in planning a road trip is to decide when you are going to travel.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
- When get you actually get time off from work?
- What is the best time of the year to visit the places you wish to visit?
- What are the weather conditions going to be like based on the month(s) I intend to travel?
- How crowded will my destinations be for when I intend to visit?
- What are the pros and cons of visiting my destinations in the season I intend to visit?
The next step in planning a road trip is to determine how much your trip is going to cost. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How much will gas cost?
- Cost of Gas Formula: [total miles / vehicle mpg] / estimated cost per gallon
- How much will lodging and/or camping cost?
- How much will supplies cost?
- How much will tolls cost?
- How much will food cost?
- How much will attractions and activities cost?
- How will costs be shared among people?
- How will you track the costs?
SELECTING A SEASON TO TRAVEL
You can take a road trip any time of hte year, but you should know the pros and cons of traveling in each season:
TRAVELING IN SPRING
- Positives / Pros:
- You’ll generally beat the summer crowds.
- Wonderful wildflower displays, especially in the Southwest.
- Waterfalls are generally at their most magnificent.
- Long days of sunlight, especially towards the end of spring.
- It's warm enough for swimming / sunbathing / beaches in some southern areas.
- Temperatures will be much more comfortable in the South / Southwest than in summer.
TRAVELING IN SUMMER
- Negatives / Cons:
- Biting bugs can be severe, depending on location.
- Lingering snow on roads and trails in the higher elevations and/or northern states can present issues.
- Roads, trails, lodging and other tourist services may not yet have opened for the summer season yet.
- Positives / Pros:
- Most people are able to take vacations in summer because that is when school is out.
- Everything is generally open for business.
- Long days of sunlight, especially at the beginning of summer.
- It's warm enough for swimming / sunbathing / beaches.
- The most concerts, fairs, festivals and other events are held in the summer.
- There is generally no need for hats / gloves / heavy jackets (except at higher elevations).
- Lingering snow is generally gone from most roads and trails.
- Wildflowers are likely to still be outstanding at the higher elevations.
TRAVELING IN FALL
- Negatives / Cons:
- Lodging/hotels/campgrounds can be very expensive since this is the most popular time to travel.
- Biting bugs can be severe, depending on where you are.
- Most crowded time of the year for most areas and parks.
- Can be excessively or even dangerously hot and/or humid.
- Generally the most expensive time to travel.
- Afternoon thunderstorms are common in some areas.
- Waterfalls can be dry (especially in the middle and towards the end of summer)
- Potential for tornadoes in some areas.
- Positives / Pros:
- You’ll generally beat the summer crowds.
- Potential for glorious fall foliage.
- Biting bugs of spring/summer are generally gone.
- Weather can be comfortably cool / less humid than summer.
- Warm enough for swimming / sunbathing / beaches in some southern areas.
- Lodging/hotel/campground availability is generally very plentiful.
- Temperatures will be much more comfortable in the South / Southwest than in summer.
TRAVELING IN WINTER
- Negatives / Cons:
- Some businesses close after Labor Day; others close after Columbus Day
- There is a chance of hurricanes in some areas of the country.
- There are generally no biting bugs to contend with.
- Limited daylight hours.
- Positives / Pros:
- Lots of winter sports to partake in.
- Generally the cheapest time to travel (except for areas that are near winter resorts).
- Generally the least crowded time of year to travel.
- Negatives / Cons:
- Lots of winter sports to partake in.
- Generally the cheapest time to travel (except for areas that are near winter resorts).
- Generally the least crowded time of year to travel.
- Many roads are closed, and you may need chains (and the skills to put them on) for other roads
When it comes to taking road trips, there are many different vehicles to consider:
When selecting your vehicle, make sure to consider:
- Truck plus Mounted Camper
- Truck plus Travel Trailer
- Truck plus 5th Wheel Travel Trailer
- Truck plus Camping/Pop-Up Trailer
- Passenger Van
- Conversion Van
- Custom Van
- Class A Motorhome/RV
- Class A Motorhome/RV plus tow a vehicle behind it
- Class B Motorhome/RV
- Class C Motorhome/RV
- The amount of gear, supplies and luggage you’ll be packing into the vehicle (will it all actually fit?).
- The maximum number of people who will be riding in the vehicle (will everyone actually fit?).
- The driving capabilities of the vehicle, including its off-road and bad-weather driving capabilities.
- The comfort of the vehicle on long drives.
- The gas-efficiency of the vehicle (how much will gas cost?).
- The condition of the vehicle (will the vehicle survive the whole trip?). How are the brakes and tires? Is the A/C and heat both working?
MAKE THE BEST OF YOUR ROAD TRIP
Here are some tips to help you make the best of your next road trip:
RESTAURANTS & FOOD
- Challenge yourself to avoid eating at the same chain restaurants that you have back home. Mom-and-pop style restaurants are the way to go, although you may also be tempted to try some of the other chain restaurants that you don’t have back home.
- Use roadfood.com to find amazing mom-and-pop style eateries that feature unique foods. They also have an awesome guidebook and a smart-phone app, too. Many of the best places I have ever eaten on the road have been found through this website, book, and app.
- Use Yelp.com, Tripadvisor.com, and the reviews of Google Maps to help you find great restaurants throughout all areas of the country.
- These websites can be visited through an internet browser or through an app on your smart-phone or tablet.
- A good general rule is to aim for restaurants that have at least 50 reviews and a rating of at least 3.5 stars (out of 5.0 stars).
- Take note that a lot of famous restaurants are scrutinized to a much higher degree (because expectations are so much higher). For these restaurants, the number of actual number of reviews can also be a good indication that a restaurant is worthwhile, even if their rating is lower than other restaurants in the immediate area.
- Example: I would choose a restaurant with a 4.0 rating with 256 reviews over a restaurant with a 4.5 rating with 24 reviews.
- Example: I would choose a restaurant with a 3.5 rating with 125 reviews over a restaurant with a 4.0 rating with 12 reviews.
- It can be unwise to trust the reviews of restaurants that have 20 or fewer reviews. Too many restaurant owners try to abuse online review sites, and very often they can easily find a dozen or two people to write reviews of their restaurant. However, it’s not likely they would be willing or able to find many more people than 20 to write reviews for them.
- Some foodies plan some of their restaurants in advance, especially if they know that the restaurant is legendary.
- Yelp.com is our favorite source of finding legitimate and helpful restaurant reviews and tips.
- Look for reviews from “Elite” Yelp members as they typically the most trustworthy.
- Be wary of trusting any reviewers that have less than 20 reviews. They could very well be fake accounts or friends of the restaurant owners.
- The more reviews a Yelp member has, the more trustworthy they generally will be (since you can generally assume they have experienced a plethora of restaurants).
- Download the Yelp app on your smart-phone or tablet. You’ll find “tips” within the app for each restaurant that the Yelp.com website itself does not show.
- You can “bookmark” restaurants that look appealing to you on the Yelp website or through the Yelp app.
- Make sure to try the local food specialties as you travel (i.e. fried clams in Massachusetts, prickly pear margaritas in Arizona, cheesecakes in Pennsylvania, key lime pies in Florida, crawfish in Louisiana, etc.).
- Ask the locals for restaurant recommendations. It is sometimes wise to confirm their recommendation with a second person, or by confirming their recommendations by reading Yelp.com and/or Tripadvisor.com internet reviews.
- Bring lots of snacks for the car, and keep them within easy reach.
- Patron the farm stands/farmers markets that you see along the way.
- The best restaurants in major tourist destinations often require advance reservations, especially fine dining establishments. One or two days in advance is usually sufficient for a few people, but if you have a larger group you should make reservations further ahead than this.
- Many hotels offer a complimentary “continental breakfast” that can help you save a few bucks and also get your day started faster (you'll save time because you won't have to stop for breakfast).
- Bring a grill and cook food at picnic areas along the way. This can save you a lot of money, and there are thousands of fantastic picnic spots across the USA.
- While our preference is always to try to eat at the mom & pop style restaurants whenever we travel, there are over 100 major restaurant chains in the US. And many of them are arguably worth a try at least once (as long as you aren't a health nut). Some of our personal favorite U.S. chain restaurants include the following:
- Capital Grille, The (steakhouse – very expensive)
- Carl Jr.’s / Hardees (burgers - inexpensive)
- Cheesecake Factory, The (variety of foods – moderate)
- Chick-fil-A (chicken - inexpensive)
- Chipotle Mexican Grill (burritos – inexpensive)
- Cracker Barrel Old Country Store (variety of foods – inexpensive to moderate)
- Dairy Queen (ice cream – inexpensive)
- Famous Dave’s Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que (BBQ – moderate)
- Fatburger (burgers – inexpensive)
- Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries (burgers - inexpensive)
- Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers (burgers - inexpensive)
- Fuddruckers (burgers - inexpensive)
- In-N-Out Burger (burgers - inexpensive)
- Krispy Kreme (donuts - inexpensive)
- Maggiano's Little Italy (Italian – moderate to expensive)
- Melting Pot, The (variety of foods – moderate)
- Moe’s Southwestern Grill (burritos – inexpensive)
- On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina (Mexican food – moderate)
- Outback Steakhouse (steakhouse – moderate)
- Panda Express (Asian – inexpensive)
- Panera Bread (soups, salads, sandwiches – inexpensive)
- P. F. Chang's China Bistro (Asian – moderate)
- Sonic Drive-In (burgers – inexpensive)
- Texas Roadhouse (steakhouse – moderate)
- Whataburger (burgers - inexpensive)
- A more complete list of the major chain restaurants of the United States can be found by clicking on these links:
- You can use any one of the following websites (or their corresponding smart-phone or tablet apps) to help you find great hotels, resorts, bed-and-breakfasts, or other forms of lodging:
- Purchasing a AAA-membership will often save you 10% on hotel/motel stays, and it may also save you money at campgrounds, too.
- Call or walk into hotels and ask for special last minute rates. Ask the front desk staff (or even the manager or owner if they are around) if the hotel will give you a discount if you book with them directly instead of going through an online site like Hotels.com. They may be willing to do this in order to avoid paying the online reservation referral fees.
- If you are unsure of the safety of the area that a hotel is located in, you can read online reviews or use the Google Maps ‘street view’ to see the neighborhood yourself.
- 99.9999% of hotels in the United States now accept credit cards. Hotels that do not accept credit cards are incredibly rare.
- There are dozens of major hotel chains in the US.
- Each hotel chain typically focuses on one particular income-level for all of their properties.
- The consistency of inexpensive hotel chains is poor. Some locations can be very nice whereas others are in poor shape. It's always wise to read online reviews before booking.
- Most of the major hotel chains have free rewards programs that can allow you to earn free hotel nights after staying for a certain amount of nights. Many rewards programs also offer special deals throughout the year (some of which you have to manually enroll into).
- More information on the major hotel chains of the United States can be found here:
- We love staying in unique accommodations, so we recommend that you read guidebooks and/or the internet to help you find unique places to stay, such as:
- log cabins
- dude/guest chances
- mountain lodges
- ski lodges/ski condos
- fish camps
- beach/lake houses
- vacation rentals
- themed hotels
- backcountry huts
- house boats
- guard stations
- train cabooses
- fire lookout towers
- underground caves
- Most campgrounds are operated within and/or managed by:
- National Parks / National Park Service
- National Forests / US Forest Service
- National Monuments / National Park Service
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- State Parks
- Kampgrounds of America (KOA)
- Other private campground owners
- Reservations for many campgrounds can be made online
- Population campgrounds should be reserved 6-12 (or more) months in advance.
- Some campgrounds (especially those federally-managed) do not accept reservations and instead have a first-come, first-served system.
- Some campgrounds have a mixed system, whereas some campsites can be reserved in advance but others fall under a first-come, first-served system.
- www.recreation.gov is the best website for finding and making reservations for federally-managed campgrounds, campsites, cabins, historic houses, guard stations, and fire lookout towers.
- If you are not, or cannot, make campground reservations in advance, try to arrive at the campground between 10:00am-1:00pm to find an open campsite. If you arrive later than this, your chances of finding a campsite diminish significantly (especially in national parks and state parks, where campgrounds fill up very quickly).
- It is wise to have a backup plan in case your first choice of campground has no campsites available when you arrive. You may want to have several additional backup campgrounds in mind.
- KOA Campgrounds
- There are over 400 KOA Kampgrounds in the U.S. and Canada.
- You can find a KOA Kampground close to nearly every major tourist destination in the U.S (and also on the edge, or sometimes even within, many major cities). There's one found outside most of the major U.S. national parks, too.
- All KOA Kampgrounds have RV sites, tent sites, and small cabins or cottages. Some of the campgrounds have other forms as lodging as well, including some unique offerings, such as tepees, Airstreams, and train cabooses.
- We consider KOA Kampgrounds to be a form of “glamping”, which means luxury camping. This is because many of these campgrounds have swimming pools, a small retail store, hot showers, pancake breakfasts, and other amenities that most state or federal-managed campsites do not.
- Consider purchasing a KOA Value Card to save 10% on all KOA campsites and lodging. It will quickly pay for itself once you stay a few nights at a KOA. You will need to remember that KOA campgrounds/cabins are still expensive in comparison to federally and state-owned campgrounds (although they do have more amenities).
- KOAs can be very expensive, especially since most charge a per-person fee if you have more than two (2) people and an extra vehicle fee if you have more than one (1) vehicle.
- Walmart will let you park and sleep in your RV in the parking lots of many of their stores so long as you stay out of sight in your RV.
- You can call the store ahead of time and ask if that specific Walmart allows overnight visitors in an RV. Many Walmart stores are prohibited from allowing overnight visitors by local town ordnances, especially those found in touristy areas.
- The website walmartlocator.com lists which Walmarts do and do not allow overnight stays.
- National park campgrounds are filled almost every night of their primary tourist seasons, and also for many nights of their shoulder or off-peak seasons. If you find that a national park campground is full, there is often some national forest or BLM-managed campgrounds nearby that have availability.
- KOA campgrounds can also be found close to nearly all of the U.S. national parks. KOA campsites tend to sell out last because they are generally the most expensive form of camping.
- Make sure the campground you are reserving or selecting is NOT next to an interstate, major state highway, other busy road, or a railroad that is currently in use. You could lose a lot of sleep.
- Many KOA campgrounds off the U.S. interstates are guilty of being in locations that are subject to this mild form of torture.
- Try at least one campground that offers an unlimited pancake breakfast. Many KOA campgrounds offer this, but some only do it during prime season and/or only on weekends. Families seem to love this camping perk.
- Camping when the overnight low is predicted to be 70 degrees or higher can be very uncomfortable. Know the day and night temperatures of where you are heading before you decide whether you want to camp or not.
- The South, Southwest and Midwest are legendary for having occasional (or sometimes even frequent) summer nighttime temperatures that exceed 70 degrees. Some will even exceed 80 or 90 degrees if the cloud cover is thick. If you have ever tried to camp when the overnight temperature is more than 70 or 80 degrees, you know how uncomfortable that can be.
- Like most things in life, you get what you pay for with tents. If you use one of the inexpensive tents from a discount retailer, the (usually fiberglass) poles are likely to break if there are wind speeds greater than 20mph or 25mph. The more expensive and smaller/lower-profile tents (with aluminum poles) that you can find at specialty retailers and gear stores will generally hold up much better in windy conditions.
- There is a great “Best in Tent Camping” guidebook series that can you help you find many of the best campgrounds (and best campsites within those campgrounds) in the country. This series covers many but not all U.S. states. When purchasing these guidebooks, make sure you buy the most recent version as many of them are now in their 2nd or 3rd edition.
- There are several websites you can visit to read campground reviews.
- Woodalls.com has a directory of many campgrounds on its website.
- Some of the best places to stock up on road trip and travel supplies include:
- Bass Pro Shops
- Walmart / Walmart Supercenter
- Target / Target Supercenter
- Major supermarket chains
- Sam’s Club (requires a membership)
- COSTCO (requires a membership)
- BJ’s Wholesale Club (requires a membership)
- Target / Target Supercenter
- Some travelers like to plan out their supply stops ahead of time because many rural areas don’t have discount superstores, and stores in tourist destinations are notoriously overpriced.
- If you plan your supply needs well, you should only need to resupply every 7-10 days or so.
- Avoid buying supplies in convenience stores, camp stores, and gas stations whenever possible. You will always pay too much money for supplies there (although you would probably be supporting local businesses).
- Know the average temperatures of where you are going for the specific time you will be visiting.
- Consider the elevations that you will be visiting, and how those elevations compare to the weather forecasts you are looking at.
- Generally speaking, each 1,000 feet of elevation gain leads to a decrease in temperature of 3-5 degrees.
- Many weather forecast websites will list the elevation that the forecast refers to.
- There are several good weather websites and apps for your smart-phone and/or tablet that you can use. Several favorites include:
- Weather.com and related apps.
- Weather.gov/NOAA.gov and related apps.
- Accuweather.com and related apps
- Weatherunderground.com and relates apps
Here are some tips to make your road trip driving experience even better:
PROS AND CONS OF DRIVING AT NIGHT
- If you can, avoid driving on the U.S. interstate highway system as often as possible (i.e. I-90, I-80, etc.). State highways and local roads are often far more scenic and interesting, although they admittedly take much more time since the speed limits are lower and there are many attractions that will distract you.
- If you are traveling with more than one (1) vehicle, I recommended that you bring walkie-talkies with you. They can be very fun to use, and will come in very handy as you make on-the-fly driving and pit-stop decisions.
- Have a discussion with your companions (preferably before the trip begins) as to who will drive, and when everyone will drive:
- Who is, and who is not, comfortable or competent at driving at night?
- Who is, and who is not, comfortable or competent at driving in or around cities?
- Who is best at navigating, and who is the best driver?
- Take turns driving on scenic drives so that all members of your party can have a chance to enjoy looking out the window.
- Consider using your vehicle's cruise control whenever possible; it can make driving more pleasant, reduce the chance of getting a speeding ticket, and will likely save you money on gas as well.
- If you don’t know how to use cruise control, or are yet to master its use, try to learn how to effectively use it before your trip; it is surprisingly simple, so don’t be shy about learning how to use it.
- Try to plan your road trip so that you avoid traveling through (or even around the outskirts of) major cities during “rush hours”, which often means between 6:30am-9:00am and 3:00am-7:00pm.
- The following cities have the worst traffic in the USA and are infamous for extremely congested traffic for many hours during the day and evening (not just during rush hours):
- Los Angeles
- New York
- Washington, D.C.
- Traffic may also be heavily congested in or around the following cities for several hours during each of the two “rush hours”:
- San Francisco
- Make use of a "bathroom break scale"’. Convince your companions to tell you how bad they have to go the bathroom using a scale of 1 (no bathroom break needed) to 10 (extremely urgent bathroom break needed). Make sure to pull over quickly when they reach 6 or 7 on the scale.
- This system works very well in that it will likely reduce the number of pit stops you have to take. Without such a scale, you will have a tougher time gauging how badly somebody really “needs to go”.
- Learn how to read maps/atlases and always try to pick the roads that are marked as "scenic" if you have the time. If you aren’t familiar with the commonly used symbols that mark scenic roads, each map typically has a legend that you can refer to.
- Make sure that all companions are well-fed at all times. Hungry travelers = cranky travelers.
- Consider subscribing to satellite radio for great and reliable music for your trip. Or just bring a ton of CDs and/or fill up your mp3-playing device, smart-phone or tablet with music.
- Get a roof box or cargo bag for your vehicle’s roof. This can significantly increase the amount of storage space and/or allow you to leave more open space in the car (which can make you more comfortable and allow you to see out windows better). The resale value of these boxes and bags is incredibly high, so if your trip is substantial enough, you could purchase one and sell it on Craigslist when you return.
- Drive in comfortable clothing (tip: jeans are not comfortable for long drives).
- One cool trick that some seasoned road-trippers will do is plan out their exact route each day and put a numbered sticky note on their dashboard for each major direction or highway change. This will make it so that you don’t have to use your phone as a GPS (which will save a lot of data and also free your phone up for other things, like uninterrupted music). This also comes in handy for when cell phone coverage is spotty.
- Try to take at least a 15-30 minute break for every 2-3 hours of driving.
- Refill your tires every 1-2 weeks to keep optimal gas mileage performance.
- Driving more than 8-10 hours in a single day can be really exhausting, unless you have a large group that is taking turns.
- If the outside temperature is over 105-110 degrees, you may want to turn off the A/C every once in a while to reduce the chance that your car will overheat and break down.
- Skip the official interstate rest-stops. Get off the highway and you’ll almost certainly find cheaper gas (especially if you use the Gasbuddy smart-phone app). You may also stumble upon an interesting roadside attraction or local restaurant as well.
- Billboard advertisements can often lead you to fun and/or wacky attractions, restaurants or other places. Pay close attention to them and have a passenger use Tripadvisor or Yelp.com to look them up before the exit arrives.
- Audiobooks can be a nice change of pace from listening to music. You can purchase audiobooks through your smart-phone or tablet and listen through your cars’ stereo speakers if you have Bluetooth, auxiliary cord, or USB port connection.
- Take frequent rest breaks, preferably at scenic picnic areas (there are thousands of them in the U.S.).
- Remove all the trash from your vehicle on a daily basis. You can dispose of trash at most gas stations, fast food restaurants, campgrounds or hotels.
- Whenever a sign or billboard along a highway highlights that something that is “world-famous”, its probably actually true. Take the exit and have some fun. Not all places will be worth the money, but you'll find some great "Americana" type places along the way.
- Make sure to follow the speed limits on state and local highways. There are thousands of places in the USA where the speed limit suddenly drops from rural speeds (65-75mph) to small-town speeds (25-35mph) in a matter of just seconds. This occurs commonly on the outskirts of small towns as you approach within ¼ or ½ mile of such a town.
- A high percentage of people who have gone on several cross-country road trips have been pulled over for speeding on the outskirts of small towns at least once. It'll probably happen to you unless you take this advice seriously.
There are many pros and cons to driving at night. Overall, it is better to avoid or significantly limit the amount of driving at night as much as possible. Here are the pros and cons:
Pros/Benefits of Driving At Night
Cons/Downsides of Driving At Night
- Children will often sleep at night, meaning you can drive further than you probably could of during the day while they are awake.
- Less traffic / avoid rush hours.
- Save money on lodging/hotels by taking turns driving.
- Potential for awesome sunsets and sunrises.
- Arrive at your destination earlier.
- City lights can be beautiful at night.
- Beautiful stargazing.
- Can allow you more time to visit things during the day.
- Allow you to check into lodging/hotel/campgrounds sooner.
- Some bridges are artistically illuminated in beautiful colors.
- Can be tougher to navigate.
- Risk of drunk drivers.
- Risk of falling asleep (yourself and also others on the road).
- Risk of animal collisions.
- Some drivers don’t like driving at night and/or can’t see well.
- Passengers will probably be sleeping, meaning you won’t be as entertained.
- Forcing yourself to stay up is not good for your health and can disrupt your sleep cycle for future days of the trip.
- Getting some sun during the day is great for you (psychologically-speaking).
- There are generally more radio station talk shows during the day to listen to.
- You’ll meet fewer locals traveling at night (they are sleeping and businesses are often closed).
- You can’t see pedestrians and cyclists as easily.
- You’ll miss the scenery along the way.
- There are fewer places to resupply on gas.
- Rest stop areas can be closed.
- There are fewer eating/restaurant choices.
- You’ll likely miss some interesting roadside attractions.
- It’s not fun if you have to fix a flat tire or experience other vehicle problems at night.
Here are some general tips focused on helping you travel in the United States: :
- Buy the "Annual Parks Pass" from the federal-government (it is officially called the "Annual Pass").
- These passes entitle you to free admission at most national parks, national monuments, national battlefields, national forests, and other federal properties for a 12-month period of time from the date of purchase (the pass is not based on calendar year).
- You’ll start saving a lot of money after you have visited more than five or six parks in a 12-month period.
- You can buy these annual passes at the entrance gates of most national parks and national monuments (when they are open). You can also buy a pass online ahead of time, but there is usually a service fee involved.
- Consider joining AAA as a basic-level member and then consider upgrading your membership to a higher level after a few years.
- A AAA basic membership will typically cover you for the following:
- towing if your car breaks down
- locksmith services if you get locked out of your car
- battery jump/recharging
- Refer to your local AAA chapter for a full list of membership benefits and services.
- An AAA-membership will give you discounts at many hotels and campgrounds (the discount is typically 10%)
- AAA publishes maps, TourBook® guides and TripTik® travel planners that are free to their members. You can walk right into any AAA office and request them. You may be able to request them online as well.
- Always consider staying in a hotel or cabin on the final night of your road-trip. We strongly encourage avoiding camping if there is any rain or foul weather in the forecast. Staying in a cabin or hotel on your final night helps everyone get organized, which can prevent anyone from losing things when you say your final goodbyes the following day.
- Figure out where you will be doing laundry along the road. Here is where you can do laundry (tip: bring lots of quarters):
- Hotels (only some hotels offer this amenity).
- Privately-owned campgrounds (only some private campgrounds offer this amenity; however, all KOA campgrounds have it).
- Laundromats (do a Google Maps® search for where you are staying in order to find a laundromat).
- It is often beneficial to ask the local residents for their travel and food recommendations, but I would also compare those recommendations to what internet reviews are saying. Two or more supporting recommendations are going to be much more trustworthy than a single recommendation.
- Play the license plate game. Keep a record of all the different states that you find along the road.
- Bring a spare key in case you get locked out of your car. Keep the spare key in your wallet, or in a magnetic spare key box that is attached under the car.
- Make sure to try the local wines and local beers along the way. Every region of the US has some great wineries and microbreweries. Some of these wineries and microbreweries only sell within a certain radius, so buy and try them while you can.
- Bring enough cash so that you never have to go to an ATM. If you run out of cash, get cash back at a large retailer or a grocery store. ATM fees have never been so excessive than they are right now.
- Bring a passport along with your state driver’s license. A growing number of stores and restaurants won’t let you buy or consume alcohol with just an out-of-state driver’s license, even if you clearly appear old enough to drink.
- Consider keeping a separate stash of cash on you or hidden in your vehicle at all times (putting cash into an empty lip balm container is one commonly used option). This can be extremely helpful in the event that your lose your wallet or purse.
- Check the weather for your next destination ahead of time. Based on the forecast, you may want to consider changing your destination altogether.
- Look for brown-colored highway signs. They usually indicate places of strong historical value and/or places of marvelous scenery. Stop at a few of them along your route.
- Many people collect souvenirs from each destination. This includes items like:
- Shot glasses
- Stuffed animals
- Admission/entrance tickets
- T-shirts / other clothing
- Rest days or low-intensity days are incredibly important. You don’t want to drive long distances every single day of your trip, nor do you want to blast through every attraction or state. You need a few low-intensity days to really immerse yourself in the local culture and scenery.
- If you are going on a long road trip, always try to give yourself one rest day at home before you have to return to work. Road trip adventures are usually quite exhausting, and that first day back to work can be hell.
- Instead of trying to visit hordes of places on a road trip, considering focusing on a few select places instead; this will allow you to explore each place more intimately/comprehensively.
- Just a warning—you are probably going to need a “vacation from your vacation” after a long, intense road trip. Remember: road trips are more a grand adventure than a relaxing, typical vacation.
- After your road trip is over, consider the following:
- Write a ‘trip report’ of your travels in a journal and/or on online travel forum or blog. Do this either while on the road or shortly thereafter.
- Post your experiences and/or photographs to social media.
- Update your packing checklists so that your next trip will be easier.
- Put all your stuff away in a fashion that will make it easier to find the items again; this can also encourage you to take on another road trip.
- Backup your photographs, either to a cloud-based website (such as Dropbox.com or Box.com), or better yet, but an external hard drive and store a backup of your photographs in another location beside your house or apartment (i.e. your office, a bank safety deposit box, your parents’ house, etc.). It can be traumatic to lose your cherished travel photographs.
There are 63 official national parks in the United States as of 2023, and much of the most beautiful and mind-blowing landscape scenery in America is contained within them. These parks are labeled as "our greatest national treasure" for a reason, and we encourage you to visit every single one of them over your lifetime.
One of the silliest things you can do on your road trip is to try to blast through national parks. Each national park should be savored. If you would like a detailed overview of each of the U.S. national parks, please click here.
TRAVELING WITH SMARTPHONES AND TABLETS
Everyone should bring their smartphones and 4G/5G-enabled tablets on a road trip. They can make travel significantly easier and much more enjoyable.
- The best things about traveling with smartphones and tablets are:
- The ability to find great attractions and restaurants real-time (e.g Tripadvisor, Yelp, Google Reviews).
- The ability to find and book great hotel deals real-time (e.g. Hotels.com)
- The ability to check up-to-date weather conditions (e.g. weather.com, noaa.gov)
- The ability to use it as a GPS (e.g. Google Maps)
- The ability to post status updates, pictures and videos to social media.
- The ability to avoid traffic jams and construction zones (e.g. Google Maps, Waze)
- The ability to take electronic notes as you travel.
- The ability to play games/watch movies while you travel.
- The ability to find roadside attractions (e.g. Atlas Obscurra or Roadside America App for Iphone)
- The ability to find campgrounds
- Cell phones now work on nearly every mile of every U.S. interstate highway so long as you have one of the major carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.).
- Cell phones now work on most state highways, but there are still some state highways (or sections of highways) where service can be spotty or even non-existent.
- Mountains, thick forests, and deep or tight canyons often cause cell service dead-zones.
- Cell phone service on Native American lands can be extremely unreliable
- Keep an extra smartphone charger and USB cord in the bag that you will bring into hotels, lodges, etc. This will allow you to leave a charger and USB cord in the vehicle at all times.
PACKING YOUR VEHICLE FOR A ROAD TRIP
Take the time to pack your vehicle intelligently and you won’t regret it.
GENERAL PACKING TIPS
ITEMS FOR THE GLOVE BOX OR CENTER CONSOLE
- Force everyone (including yourself) to use duffel bags or backpacks instead of rigid and stiff suitcases.
- Make your own road trip packing list, and improve it after each road trip that you take. Be obsessive about updating your packing list each time.
- Try to pack only 7 days’ worth of clothes, no matter how long your trip is. Just plan on doing laundry every 6-8 days.
- Challenge yourself to only pack a bag that is the size of an airplane carry-on bag.
- Don’t bring more than 2 pairs of shoes. Only 1 pair of shoes should be brought for walking/hiking.
- Look at each piece of clothing that are you bringing and consider where there is a smaller and lighter alternative. Think about whether you will truly need each item of clothing.
- Many travel experts recommend rolling clothes instead of folding clothes (it will supposedly save space, although it may wrinkle your clothing). Rubber bands can be used to keep them rolled.
- Many travel experts also recommend using compression sacks to save space, although they can be annoying to use, expensive, and add a little weight.
- Use a toiletry bag, but couples should try to use a combined bag to save space.
- Don’t waste any space in your vehicle. Pack things:
- into coolers
- into your shoes
- under the car seats
- in the glove box
- in the side compartments
- under the trunk
- Giant see-through Ziploc bags have a million uses. Consider using some to stay organized, both in your vehicle and in your bags.
- Create an overnight bag so that you only need to bring that bag into hotels, cabins, etc.. This will allow you to leave a lot of stuff in the car.
- Keep your camping gear together so that you can quickly and easily setup camp once you reach a campground. Keeping all this gear together will also prevent you from having to bring all the gear into other non-campground lodging that you stay at.
- A hanging shoe organizer can work very well if you hang one from the back of a seat.
- Consider using a plastic cereal container as a trash can in the car; empty the container every 1-2 days.
- Consider a back-of-seat tablet mount so that passengers can watch movies without holding the tablet in their hands.
- Consider buying a dashboard “sticky pad” so that you can keep your phone hands-free but still visible while driving (for driving/GPS purposes). You can also use these for sunglasses and other small items, just be aware that they may leave a mark on your dashboard over time.
- Consider a magnetic spare key holder; place under the vehicle in a spot where no one would notice it and where it is unlikely to fall off (i.e. not the tire wheel well).
Put these items in the glove box or center console so that they stay handy.
OTHER ITEMS TO KEEP HANDY
- Quarters (for parking meters, tolls, laundry, self-car washes, soda/snack machines, etc.)
- Prevent these from spilling all over the place by keeping them in a pill bottle or candy tube container (or something similar to that)
- Bag clips (or binder clips)
- Napkins, travel wipes, and/or tissues
- CDs/audio tapes
- Cell phone charger
- Chargers for all your other electronics
- Tire gauge
- Emergency contact numbers
- Emergency medical information
- Proof of car insurance / car registration
- Owner’s manual
Place these items in a location where you will easily remember where they are.
- Bottle opener
- Pens & Paper / post-it notes
- First-Aid Kit
- Hand sanitizer
- Food / Snacks
- Camera (keep it close so you’ll be more apt to take a lot of pictures)
- Camera Tripod
- Water / Beverages
- Hats / Gloves
- Trash Bags
- Travel plans / reservations
- Cooler (tip: use freezer Ziploc bags to snag ice from hotels)
- One or two-port USB cigarette lighter power adapter (for charging smartphones, tablets, cameras, etc.)
If you want to take the last-minute stress out of preparing for your road trip, follow these tips:
2-4 WEEKS PRIOR
1 WEEK PRIOR
- Carefully review several online road trip packing checklists and then make your own road trip packing checklist.
- Trips go so much smoother if you begin your trip fully prepared. It can be really disruptive to your fun if you have to keep running to buy supplies consistently while on the road.
- Finalize who is taking care of your pets.
- You may need to get shots (or update them) for your pets if they will be staying at an overnight facility that requires them. You should also make sure that you have your proof/paperwork in order to prove that they received the shots.
- Finalize who will be taking care of your landscaping/mowing and also any plant/watering needs.
1-2 DAYS PRIOR
- Get a haircut if you need one.
- Document a work “backup/coverage plan” for your work staff or coworkers so that you can minimize the chance or frequency of being bothered while you are on vacation. They may even be willing to do some of your work while you are away if you train them how to perform your tasks or duties beforehand.
- Load up your phones, tablets, and/or laptops with apps, music, movies (either purchased or rented), audiobooks, and games.
- Start organizing everything that you will be taking on your road trip. This will ensure that you are able to find things that you know that you already own (and give you time to go buy them if you can’t find them).
- Prepare your vehicle for the trip:
- Wash the exterior of your car, and consider waxing it as well. Hundreds of bugs will get splattered on your front-end bumper and hood, and the wax can make it easily to clean them off later on.
- Clean the interior of your car and remove everything from the car that won’t be needed for your trip.
- Get an oil change if you haven’t had one recently. Take note of the mileage as of the time of the oil change.
- Get new windshield wipers if you haven’t replaced them in a while.
- Throw in a new air filter.
- Fill your tires to the proper PSI (check your tires for the maximum pressure)
- Make sure that both the heating and air conditioning systems are working properly, unless these are not important to you.
- Have a check-up performed by a mechanic. Make sure all fluids are topped off and have the mechanic check that the tires, brakes, transmission and battery are in fair enough condition to make the entire trip.
THE NIGHT BEFORE LEAVING
- Make sure to pay your bills or schedule all your bills to be paid prior to leaving. Trust us-you don’t want to have to think about your bills while you are on vacation.
- Make sure you have enough cash and change. You may want to bring enough cash for your entire trip in order to avoid hefty ATM fees.
- Hide a spare key to your house in case you need someone to be able to get into your house while you are gone. Or you can just give a spare key to someone that you trust.
- Make sure you have all the guidebooks, maps, and other information that you will need for the trip.
- Review your road trip packing checklist one last time and make sure you have everything that you need.
- As long as there isn't a strong risk of your car getting broken into, pack your car the night before. This will allow you time to pack (and re-pack, if necessary) in the most efficient way possible. The idea is to make sure that everything fits (it may not, and you should allow ample time for that possibility).
- Re-confirm that your pets will be properly taken care of.
- Set your work voice-mail and email to "out of office" mode.
SAVING MONEY ON A ROAD TRIP
There are lots of ways you can reduce the cost of your road trip:
- Bring a propane or mixed-gas portable grill with lots of food, and cook out at picnic areas to avoid eating out. There are many different brands of portable grills, and you can buy them at sporting goods stores, discount superstores, etc.
- Camp whenever possible, preferably in a state park, national forest, or national park campground where campsites are generally the cheapest. Privately-owned campgrounds (such as KOA Kampgrounds) are usually more expensive (although they do usually have more amenities, such as swimming pools, showers, small retail stores, cheap breakfast, etc.).
- Bring refillable water bottles and fill them up at campgrounds or hotels, or grab water from the soda machines commonly found in most fast food restaurants. See if you can take your entire trip without ever paying for water.
- Get a KOA Kampgrounds "Value Card" if you plan on staying at more than a few of their campgrounds. It will save you 10% on all reservations.
- Take ice from hotels using your own freezer-style Ziploc bags.
- Avoid hotels in major cities since they are often quite expensive; try looking 5-10+ miles outside of cities for much better deals.
- Use Hotels.com or other websites to compare hotels and find the best hotel deals.
- Make use of truck-stop showers (instead of paying for a hotel or campground that has a shower).
- Ask hotels, campground offices, state welcome centers, and/or tourist offices for discount tickets/coupons for hotels and attractions.
- Invite more people to join your road trip (more people per vehicle = less cost per person)
- Get a federal "Annual Pass" if you plan on visiting many national parks, national monuments, national forests, etc.
- Consider choosing a small cabin over a hotel room (cabins are generally cheaper)
- Download and use the GasBuddy app on your smartphone to find the cheapest gas along your route.
- Bring enough cash so that you never have to go to an ATM. If you run out of cash, get cash back when you use your debit card at a retailer or grocery store. Banks are evil and ATM fees are usually absurd.
- Travel in the offseason. Avoid holidays, school vacation weeks, and if you, weekends.
- Take a gas-efficient vehicle over an inefficient one.
SHARING COSTS ON A ROAD TRIP
There are several different ways that you can split the costs/expenses of a road trip with others, including:
- IDEAL/FAVORITE OPTION - Estimate the total costs of the trip (excluding any personal costs, such as restaurants and souvenirs) and have everyone pay the trip leader upfront for that amount (or perhaps 10-25% extra to cover any potential cost overruns)
MOST RISKY OPTION - Have one person pay for all costs incurred during the trip (excluding any personal costs, such as restaurants and souvenirs)
- Any amount leftover after the trip is concluded would be returned by the trip leader.
- Any amount due after the trip is concluded would have to be collected by the trip leader.
- This is probably the ideal option.
MOST PRACTICAL OPTION - People take turns paying for all costs incurred during the trip (excluding any personal costs, such as restaurants and souvenirs)
- At the end of the trip, all other travelers would reimburse that person for their portion of the costs.
- The idea is that everyone would pay an equal share (or whatever share was agreed upon either before, during, or after the trip).
- If using this method, it is advised to use a separate credit card so that personal purchases do not get intermingled.
- This is probably the most risky option.
- A log sheet would need to be kept to ensure that everyone has paid their fair share.
- This is probably the most practical option.
STAYING ENTERTAINED WHILE DRIVING
You’ll likely be driving quite a bit on your road trip. Here are some tips and tricks for you and/or your passengers to avoid getting tired or burnt out:
- Play the 20 questions game. Look it up if you don’t know what it is.
- Play the 50 states license plate game
- Play a license plate bingo game (download a template online or make your own in Microsoft Excel)
- Play road trip bingo (download a template online or make your own in Microsoft Excel; a typical template has things like: a construction sign, a horse, a stop sign, a deer crossing sign, a police officer, a farm, etc.)
- Play smartphone/tablet apps / games
- Write in a journal (some folks may get carsick from doing this)
- Play hand-held gaming devices
- Sing songs together
- Make bracelets, necklaces, key chains, etc.
- Play the harmonica, flute, other small instruments, etc.
- Write and mail postcards.
- Research places to go / things to see / places to eat
- Find roadside attractions using the Atlas Obscura website and/or the Roadside America website or their iPhone app
Travel well by avoiding these common road trip pitfalls, many of which we have made ourselves over the years:
- Don’t just focus on getting to the final destination – enjoy the scenery and attractions along the way.
- Trying to "get from point A to point B" is far and away the #1 pitfall that people make. Avoid the temptation to "just get there"!
- Don’t drive a significant amount at night– you’ll miss too much of the scenery and the attractions.
- Make sure you take a suitable and/or appropriate vehicle.
- Don’t be overambitious in the amount of places to see or things to do. It's usually to visit fewer places more thoroughly than blast through many places.
- Make sure you don’t take the wrong companion(s) with you. Think long and hard before inviting each companion.
- Don’t skimp on your travel research – otherwise you’ll drive right past some of the most amazing and/or memorable places in America.
- Don’t just drive along the U.S. interstate highway system – take some of the state highways and other backroads.
- Make sure you stop for unplanned things that pique your interest. Fight the “eh, we already passed it” mentality—turn that vehicle around!
- Be willing to try the local foods/restaurants. You probably won’t like all of them, but you'll find some amazing food out there. Keep an open mind.
- Make sure that you factor in enough rest or low-intensity days into your road trip.
- Avoid staying in only chain hotels; there are so many excellent motels, cabins, cottages, home rentals, and other fine places to stay in America that aren’t chains.
- Be careful about assuming you can just show up anywhere and there will be lodging/hotel/campground readily available for you (especially on popular weekends and holidays).
- Make sure to pack/organize your vehicle in an organized manner.
- Try to keep your vehicle clean and organized; this can help keep your sanity intact throughout the trip.
- Be prepared for a variety of weather conditions on the roads and trails.
- Know which destinations should probably be avoided on specific days, months or seasons of the year.
- Always review a road trip packing checklist before leaving (if you don’t use a checklist, you will almost certainly forget at least a few important items).
Travel anxiety is a real thing, and an increasing number of people seem to suffer quite a bit from it. There are some things that people have an unjustifiable amount of anxiety about when it comes to road trips. You really don't need to worry about any of the following:
- Being attacked by bears or other animals.
- Wild animal attacks are incredibly rare – you are more likely to be attacked by your neighbors’ pet (or your own).
- Being attacked by other people.
- You shouldn’t feel the need to bring guns or weapons on your trip for self-protection (unless you plan on walking city streets at 2:00am in the morning). However, pepper spray/mace is commonly brought on trips, if only for peace of mind.
- Getting really lost while on the road.
- It’s nearly impossible to get lost for more than a short period of time so long as you have a map and know how to read it.
- Not finding a place to sleep.
- There are almost always options available – you may just have to drive a little bit further if your primary destination is booked solid. The only possible exception to this is holidays and school vacation weeks, along with wildly popular destinations (e.g. national parks).
HOW TO CONVINCE OTHERS TO JOIN YOU ON A ROAD TRIP
It can be very difficult to convince people to join you on a road trip. There are many reasons why people will be hesitant to join you, even if you are absolutely positive that they would enjoy it.
- The reasons why people are often hesitant to take a road trip include:
- Money/financial issues.
- General and/or travel anxiety.
- Medical/health issues.
- Unable or unwilling to take enough time off work.
- Unable or unwilling to leave their children.
- Unable or unwilling to leave their pets.
- Unable or unwilling to leave their family members.
- Fear of safety.
- Believe they would rather do a less intense form of travel.
- Afraid of getting homesick.
- They aren't convinced that traveling with you in such close quarters for such a long time is a good idea.
- There are creative tricks you can use to help win people over to join you on your road trip. You may or may not be willing to do many of these; it all depends on how badly you want others to join you:
- Offer to pay for a portion or the entire trip for them.
- Offer them a discount (example: make an offer that you will pay for 2/3 of the trip)
- Offer to let them borrow some money for the trip.
- Let them borrow some of the gear they don’t have so that they don't have to buy it (i.e. camping gear).
- Involve them in the planning process; have them pick some or many of the destinations.
- Figure out some of the places they have always wanted to travel to, and add those as destinations for your road trip.
- Give them priority sleeping quarters (i.e. you take the floor or couch)
- Plan activities that you know they will enjoy (i.e. hiking, 4WD-ing, golfing, etc.)
- Find concerts, events or festivals that you know that they will enjoy.
- Offer to visit some of their friends and family members along the way.
- Offer to bring along one or more of their friends and/or family members.
- Many people either do not want to be, or simply cannot be, away from home for too long. Here are some solutions to deal with that:
- Have them fly home after doing a portion of the road trip with you (i.e. 1 week, first ½ of the trip, etc.)
- Have them fly into a destination and do a portion of the road trip with you (i.e. 1 week, second ½ of the trip, etc.)
The United States is one of the safest countries in the world to travel in. Millions of people take road trips each year with absolutely no threats to their safety. However, the following notes on safety should be read and understood by all US travelers:
- Specific sections of most major American cities can be dangerous (especially at night), but there are almost always one or more city districts that are normally considered to be completely safe for visitors and tourists (both day and night).
- Many American small towns may appear to be run-down, especially those found in the American Southwest, but that does not at all imply that they are actually dangerous.
- Some American travelers will carry Mace/Pepper Spray, but this may violate some state laws and park rules (and odds are, you aren't going to need it anyway).
- As of January 2016, there is a bit of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. If you are Muslim, your safety is not likely in jeopardy; however, you will likely receive some "looks" and perhaps even some substandard service or attitude.
- You can read online reviews of campgrounds and hotels if you want a sense of whether or not the area in which these places are located is generally regarded as safe.
- You can also use Google Maps to zoom to the “street-level” so judge for yourself the safety of the neighborhood that surrounds a hotel or campground.
FLYING INTO AN AIRPORT TO START A ROAD TRIP
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Sometimes it makes sense to fly into an airport and rent a car instead of driving your own vehicle. Here are some tips if your road trip involves one or more flights:
- Wear sandals onto the plane. Most people find them much more comfortable than shoes, plus they make it easier/faster to get through security.
- Never ‘check’ essential items; always carry essential items onto the plane in either your carry-on bag, or in your ‘personal item’ bag.
- Don’t forget your headphones.
- Order an alcoholic drink if you need to calm your flying anxiety.
- Download movies to your smartphone or tablet ahead of time and watch them on the plane.
- Bring a book to read.
- Consider choosing an airline that has TVs integrated into the back of chairs (i.e. Virgin, JetBlue).
- Keep all charges, cords and electronics in one clear Ziploc bag.
- Wear comfortable clothes on the plane (jeans = not comfortable).
- If you bring toiletries on the planet, make sure they are TSA compliant.
- Bring an empty water bottle through security check and then fill up with free water once inside the terminal (either at a fountain or at a soda machine).
- Bring snacks into the terminal and onto the plane (they are allowed per TSA regulations).
- Only small amount of liquid food is allowed to be carried-on (check these instead).
- Get tags for car seat and stroller if checking them at gate.
- There is typically no charge for this service.
- You will need to retrieve the stroller and car seat and get new tags for each “stop” that you have.
- No baby lotions should be carried-onto the phone (check these instead).
- If you can rent a car with leather seats you will be able to clean up baby stains much more easily (especially if you use the trunk or back seat to change diapers).