How to Plan a Road Trip Across America

Cross-Country Road Trip Planner

When you plan a road trip across the United States, there’s a lot to consider. This is, after all, the pinnacle of all road trips – a chance to see many different parts of the U.S., a country that offers everything from deserts to mountains to plains, starting at one ocean’s shore and ending at another. Great cities are bustling with commerce, cookie-cutter suburbs, and small sleepy towns that haven’t changed in years – all of them fascinating to explore.

To top it off, every state and region has its flavor – it’s hard to decide where to route your trip, how long it should be, and what are must-sees along the way. Let’s face it; this country is enormous! What will amaze you on this road trip is how enormous and diverse the United States is.

The question of a return trip is an important one. If you’re planning a road trip going one way using a car you can leave like a rental, you can do it in three and a half to four weeks and have a blast, but if you’re planning a return trip, don’t do it in less than two months if you want it to be an even slightly pleasant experience.

Family Road Trip

What do I mean? There is little in the world of vacations that are less pleasant than spending all day every day behind the wheel – my hat is off to all those truckers out there. If you want to plan a road trip that is fun (it’s a vacation, right?), and you want to get a feel for the country, plan on no more than 5 hours a day behind the wheel. I’ve heard quotes of 10 hours a day, and all I can do is wince. Whether you’re the driver or a passenger, that would be the ride from hell.

If you’re getting off of the highway and taking some back roads (which I highly recommend), take the slower mph into account when planning your trip. What are you doing when you’re not driving? You’ll want to get a reasonable start in the morning – think 9 or 10 in the morning – and then stop a lot to see sights, check out small towns and large cities, eat at funky diners and beautiful restaurants, have picnics at scenic overlooks, and anything else that appeals.

So, what are the steps you’ll need to take to plan a road trip across America?

Plan How Much Time

The first thing to figure out isn’t where you’ll start and end, and it’s how much time you have for this trip. If you have only two weeks, you’ll want to start somewhere closer to your destination (for example, starting from Maine and ending in San Diego won’t be do-able). Fly to where you’ll be starting your trip and rent a car to drive from there. This is not a cheap way to cross the country, but if you’re pressed for time, it’s a good option. Alternatively, you can make your destination somewhere closer to your start-point.

If you have the time, you can work in all kinds of side trips to your route or not even plan a road trip that involves driving the most direct way, but instead route your trip to hug the coasts of the U.S. If you do this, make sure to take at least a little time to head inland and see the mountains and the deserts, particularly in the West (Colorado, Arizona, and Utah are all wonderful).

As you’ll be crossing the country, try to make sure that your route to your destination and your return trip are different from one another. Your return trip should be just as exciting and entertaining – the whole trip needs to be considered to make it a truly great vacation.

Map your route

Once you’ve figured out how much time you’ll have. If you use a tool like Google Maps, you can find out the miles you’ll need to travel and then divide that number by the mph you’ll be traveling.

If you’re sticking to highways, Google will tell you exactly how long it will take and the shortest route. Then figure out where you’ll be stopping along the way to check out sights, etc. and factor in the time it will take to visit those places and how far out of your way you’ll be going to see them. Check out the article Road Trip Map Routing for more tips on how to plot your route in a way that will make your road trip as enjoyable as possible.

Plan a “state stop” in every state where you will either see a sight or attraction that the state is famous for or eat in a well-known restaurant that offers the food of the region. Considering that you will be hitting many states, you don’t want any of them flying by without giving them their due – every state has something to offer.

Book Your Lodging

Book your lodgings and campgrounds and print out all online reservation information to take with you. It may sound like fun to wing it, but it’s not so fun when you’re exhausted and can’t find a room. Printing your reservation information and bringing it is a must-do. If the hotel or campground has lost your reservation, you’ll have evidence of it and be in the position to demand a room if they’re booked solid.

This happened to me in the worst possible place, Hana, Maui. The Road to Hana is treacherous and exhausting, and it was late in the day when we arrived. There are very few hotels in Hana, but we had reservations in the one of our choice, so we were all set. Or were we? They had no record at all of the bookings, and they were booked solid. It was only by showing them my printed confirmation that we were able to get a room. There wasn’t anywhere else to stay, and we didn’t have camping gear so that written confirmation was a lifesaver.

Get Car Serviced (fully)

If you will be driving your car (and not a rental), be sure to get a complete checkup and oil change. You’ll want to avoid trouble on the road, and the only way to prevent it is to get your car ready. Let your mechanic know you’re planning a road trip across the U.S. so he or she will know to be extra-thorough.

Also, make sure to have a AAA membership for roadside assistance, a cell phone to call them should you end up stuck somewhere, as well as a roadside emergency kit, a flashlight, a blanket, and some food and water you’ll keep in your car just in case (don’t dip into this stash – it’s there for a reason, and that reason isn’t that you feel like having a snack – pack food for your trip if you’re a snacker or want to have a roadside picnic).

Packing for the Trip

Packing for a cross-country road trip is different than packing for any other road trip. You’ll be gone a lot longer, so you’ll need to plan accordingly. Don’t bother trying to pack outfits for every day. Instead, find some essential “ingredients” in your wardrobe that you can mix and match during your trip. The best way to mix and match is to use neutrals like black, gray, white, and khaki.

A gentle detergent like Woolite will be indispensable. Wash your dirty clothes every night if you can, and dry them over the curtain rod in the bathroom of your hotel. Why not hand wash in large batches? Because you will run out of space to hang your drying clothes.

Even better, book rooms in hotels that have a laundry area where you can do your wash in large batches, and then you can skip hand-washing. Another thing to think about is buying some clothes that are quick-drying and wrinkle resistant. This will save you a lot of inconveniences, and you’ll always look reasonably put together.

Get a GPS

When you plan a road trip across the U.S., think seriously about getting a GPS if your car doesn’t have one. It’s hard to always rely on paper maps, and they don’t have all of the great bells-and-whistles that GPS systems have – like where to find a local pizzeria or if there’s a nearby pharmacy.

Pack Snacks

Pack plenty of snacks and beverages for the ride when you plan a road trip across the U.S. You’ll want to have something for those snack-attacks and when you get thirsty. Don’t feel like you have to bring it all – we always stop at grocery stores along the way to stock up. I don’t recommend convenience stores as their prices are usually higher. For more packing tips, see our packing lists and packing tips.

More Planning

If you’re looking for more help, look no further than this cross country road trip plan that covers the northern portion of the U.S. as well as this southern cross country road trip plan. Both are relatively direct routes that hit all the “biggies” and must-sees along the way, ensuring your cross country road trip will be action-packed with the minimum of driving.

With these tips, you’re ready to roll! Have an awesome cross-country road trip!

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