A USA road trip is one of the best ways to see the country. Like we mentioned in our last article, the US is designed around the car, so once you get outside major cities it’s hard to get around without one.
This trip was our longest and farthest. It was a 3-week drive across the country that started in Ohio and went all the way to California.
Heading west is a totally different experience from heading east. Rather than small states with a lot to see in a small area, the landscape is huge and varies dramatically. The Midwest has lots of long stretches of flat land and as you go west it rises into enormous mountains.
With all of these diverse landscapes, we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t… at least for us.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Plan in advance… kind of
Part of what makes a road trip exciting is the spontaneity. Go where you want, stop when you want, and travel in your own style. Sometimes, you may not know how much you’ll like a place until you actually see it in person. By not planning too much it’s easy to stay longer when a place is even better than expected.
If you don’t have a general idea of where you want to go and how much time you want to spend in each place, you can easily miss a lot of what you want to see.
What we’ve found works best is to do a combination of planning and spontaneity. Create a fairly comprehensive plan of what to see and do, but leave a day open each week.
This allows you to spend more or less time in a location that’s even better (or worse) than expected.
2. Book the first few nights… or every night
Finding a place to stay at the last minute can be a hassle. When it works out, you can get a great price at a great hotel. But, when it doesn’t, you end paying too much for a not-so-great hotel in a bad location.
Airbnb, which we use the most, is especially challenging to book last minute. There are a growing number of places available for instant booking, but on the whole, we’ve found that waiting too long really limits your options.
On a long trip, we try to either find a central Airbnb for a week and then use it as a base for trips around the region or book a place for a few nights in a couple of different locations in advance and leave a day open in the middle.
3. Sleeping in rest areas works… sometimes
The availability and level of risk vary depending on where you are, but in some parts of the country, rest stops can be great for getting a little sleep.
First off, you should use caution and be aware there is some risk involved if you sleep in a rest area. We never had issues, but some people worry about them.
Second, be aware that many rest areas have time limits so you can’t necessarily stay there all night.
Third, always stay in places that are official rest stops and make sure to stay in well-lit areas. You can cover your eyes with a blanket or sleep mask to block the light.
So, this probably isn’t for everyone, but during long stretches between destinations, we’ve found that stopping to sleep at a rest area can be very helpful.
4. You can camp without a tent or an RV
This will depend on you and your car, of course, but an unexpected mishap with our camping equipment made us realize that there are other options. Car camping is a great way to reduce the stuff we have to carry while still letting us spend time in nature.
Campgrounds in more populated areas usually have bathrooms and laundry facilities which make them great for road trips that involve staying in many types of places. Or, as another option if hotels are full.
5. Pack as light as you can
This goes along with the last lesson, but more space in the car is going to make your trip more comfortable. Just because you can bring more than a suitcase, doesn’t mean you should pack your car with as much as possible.
Having space to recline your seat back can be nice. Not to mention that you may be staying in some places where you don’t want to leave your car parked with all your stuff in it overnight. That means you’ll have to bring everything inside and then repack the car. Not fun on those one-night stays.
6. Brings snacks… like these
Here’s the thing about the USA…
Food options are extremely limited in a large portion of the country. Your only options will be gas stations and fast food. If that sounds great to you then feel free to ignore this, but if not, come prepared.
If you bring a cooler with you then there are even more options. Whenever we’re in cities we stock up on our favorite foods so we’re prepared during those long stretches with limited options.
We like to go with snacks that are healthy, but not too light… That way we can make them into a little meal if we want to. We like a mix of fruits and veggies, along with some heartier things like nuts, cheese, beef jerky, or similar snacks.
Much better than gas station potato chips…
7. Bring quarters and cash
This may seem like an odd one, but quarters can really come in handy. You may find yourself in need of quarters for a parking meter that doesn’t take credit cards.
You’ll also probably need to do laundry at some point. It may be in a laundromat, but may not be. For example, we’ve stayed in apartments that have self-service laundry machines in the building. This is convenient, but also means that you’ll need a large number of quarters.
Of course, you can go to nearby stores to by something and ask for a bunch of quarters… They may or may not give them to you.
Also, consider toll roads. This varies a lot depending on which route you take, but you’re likely to encounter tolls at some point. There are usually three payment options: EZ pass, cash, or license plate.
If you have your own car, it’s best to get an EZ pass in advance. If you’re renting a car, they will offer you one with the car, but it’s a terrible deal. It will have a daily rental fee, plus the cost of tolls at the highest rate, rather than the discounted rate that the passes usually get.
Also, be aware that a growing number of toll roads are totally automated. If you don’t have a pass, it will read the cars license plate and send a bill for the toll in the mail. With a rental car, the bill will go to the rental company, which will then charge you for the toll, plus an extra fee.
8. How to survive long drives during your USA road trip
While solo road trips are awesome, having someone with you is even better. Conversation, navigation assistance, and a second perspective really helps. Joshua has done a number of road trips alone and while he loved doing his own thing it’s been great having someone else.
But, again, solo trips are still awesome and totally doable. Who knows, you may prefer it.
This may be obvious, but beyond finding people to go with, you should bring plenty of music.
If you’ve become addicted to your smartphone and stream music, remember that there may be long stretches of time with no cellular service. Many rental cars have satellite radio, but it’s not always as great as you expect.
And if you’re used to either your own music or streaming music don’t underestimate how many annoying commercials are on radio stations…
Podcasts and audiobooks are also great. We love to switch between the two and learn something along the way.
(And don’t forget to stop and stretch. Unless you’re on a really strict schedule, we find it’s better to stop regularly and move a little bit).
The west is an amazing place for a road trip
We focused mostly on the lessons learned about road tripping, but that’s because this trip was so unique. Wide open spaces and natural beauty created a whole different set of circumstances. So there will be some variation in what works for you, but hopefully, these tips will help you make your own USA road trip that’s even better than you imagine.
Wherever you go, a USA road trip is a great way to see the country.