A road trip across the USA is on many people’s bucket lists, but it’s something that takes a great deal of planning if you’re going to pull it off. Road trips aren’t for everyone, and the US is a big place. If you just want to spend time in specific cities, you’re better off flying there direct, or getting an internal flight if, for instance, you just want to visit New York and San Francisco. But driving across the USA is such an iconic experience, hardwired into our brains by countless books and movies, that for many people the dream of the open highway is simply irresistible.
Planning vs spontaneity
Part of the mythology of this kind of trip is the idea of ultimate freedom: just setting off and seeing where the wind blows you. But in real life in the modern age, this often leads to disappointment. A fair bit of planning is absolutely essential if you want to get where you’re going and not find it’s long-since fully booked up by the time you get there.
At the same time, do leave some room in your schedule, both for spontaneity and for unexpected events, both good and bad. Breakdowns, diversions, traffic jams and illness can all lead to delays, or you may just decide to spend a bit longer in one particular spot. Factor in a few hours buffer time on each day where that’s possible. If you can, add one or two “flexible days” to your schedule as well.
Time and money
Two questions to consider are how much time you have for your trip and your budget. Pretty much everything else will depend on your answers to those questions. Tailor your trip to the amount of time you have, and be realistic about what it will cost. Use travel hacks to save money here and there.
Another issue is deciding who you will be travelling with. Are you going with friends, family, your partner, or going it alone? Planning a road trip with children will be very different to planning one with a group of mates. Consider everyone’s needs and expectations, and how the costs will be shared out.
If travelling with friends, choose carefully. Someone you get on with really well down the pub may not necessarily be someone you’ll be happy to be cooped up with in a car for hours and days on end. Good humour, a relaxed temperament and a willingness to help out and pay their way are the bare minimum of characteristics you should be looking for.
If you’re going abroad for a considerable length of time it doesn’t make sense to be paying rent on an empty flat in the meantime. You can free up some budget by giving up your tenancy and putting your things in storage for the duration. Make sure your passport is up to date and you have an appropriate visa, as well as all immunisation jabs you need. Travel insurance is essential and of course a clean driving licence that will let you hire and drive a car in the US.
Choosing your destinations
There are many classic US road trips that you can look up online, but it can be more fun to plan your own. Think of a few key destinations you really want to see, then use Google Maps to see how feasible it is to travel between them all in the time you have. You can also look at what else is close to the major destinations on your route.
The next stage is planning, and in some cases booking, where you’re going to stay, eat, etc. Depending on the time of year and where you’re going, many hotels and even campsites get booked up well in advance. Consider Air B&B for a funky, cost-effective alternative to hotels, and remember that in National Parks it’s illegal to sleep in your car if you’re not at an official campsite.
Have all your important documents as both digital and hard copies, and pack a physical road map as there may be times you can’t get a signal for GPS and Google. Make sure you’ve got a first aid kit, a tool kit, battery chargers for your phones, blankets and pillows, and are always well-stocked with food and water. Initially, however, try to travel light. The golden rule is to bring more money and less stuff, as the US has plenty of shops to buy all you need once you get there.
A US road trip is the holiday of a lifetime and it’s worth planning properly to make sure you get the absolute most out of it. With full preparation it will be a trip you’ll never forget.