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How To Plan A USA Road Trip

Until mid-2022 I’d only done a couple of small road trips, but my travel wish list had always included an American Road Trip. Following a change of circumstances after the pandemic started settling down, I had the opportunity to spend a few months travelling before re-joining the ‘real world’.

From the initial idea through to daily life on the road, here’s how I planned the ultimate USA road trip. I drove more than 22,000 miles through 48 states, for what was probably the most amazing travel experience of my life.

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1. The Basic Goal

Start with the basic goal. This could be a 3 day road trip around a particular state, driving Route 66, or a road trip on a cross country move. What are your start and end points, when will you go and how much time do you have to travel?

My goal was to visit all 48 continental US states. The criteria for ticking them off my list was buying a coffee at a local cafe (I drank plenty of Starbucks as well, but Starbucks doesn’t tick the state off the list), which also helped me work out how much time I would spend in any given place.

It was obviously a much bigger trip than most people are able to do, but hopefully my lessons learned will help out anyone else planning any type of road trip. 

2. Be realistic about distances

If you’ve never driven there before – everything in the US is very. far. apart. Google maps is pretty good at estimating drive times, so make sure you use it, adding on time for rest stops etc. 

If you only have 2 weeks available, don’t expect to be able to visit 10 states. Even if it is technically possible, it won’t be enjoyable and you wouldn’t have time to actually stop and see anything. Pick a region that interests you, and do some research to see what is feasible. 

How much driving are you willing to do in a day? I wasn’t driving every day, but most driving days were at least 4 hours, with some closer to 8. If you only want to drive a maximum of 3 hours a day, plan accordingly and make sure you don’t overestimate how big an area you can visit. 

It is VERY important to get this right. Driving across Texas at its widest point is at least 12 hours, just driving time. You don’t want to make plans based on driving 4 hours a day and then realise you will have to do a 10 drive to get back to the airport in time for your flight home. 

If you want to see amazing geological formations try Utah and Arizona. For history and autumn forests check out New England. For southern charm visit the Carolinas and Georgia. Different parts of the US have vastly different landscapes and cultures – but unless you have months to spare you will have to choose wisely. 

3. Who is going with you?

If it is just you, or a small group you can be much more flexible about your plans. Depending on the make up of your group, some trips just won’t work out well.

My 48 state road trip was alone – I didn’t have to accommodate what anyone else wanted or plan stops to let kids run around for a while. Your road trip companions will affect where you go. A journey through beautiful but very empty and isolated stretches of North Dakota might not be ideal with a toddler who needs entertaining. A romantic getaway with your partner ideally won’t be spent sitting in a hot car in traffic outside of Dallas. You get the idea. 

4. Research the weather

The climate in the US varies dramatically from the North to the South. There is a Scandinavian  saying – ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’. While this might be true, I would still say it’s better to take the climate and seasons into account when planning your route. Trust me, it’s an important factor.

As a very pale, easily-burnt English-Irish person, the humid summer in the south was extremely unappealing. A big part of my route planning involving avoiding very cold and very hot weather.

In the end, I did a sort of loop around the country so I was in the northern states during the summer, and arrived in the southern states in autumn. I had great weather for almost the entire trip, and avoided all the extremes that I knew would make me grumpy. 

5. Experience the road, or use the road?

I loved the driving experience, and most of the time I avoided the interstates and chose longer drives on smaller roads. An interstate is an interstate. They aren’t interesting. You can’t see much from most of them. 

That’s fine if the road just serves to get you from A to B, but if you want to enjoy the actual drive, stray a little further from the beaten, tarmacked track. 

Having said that, smaller roads will inevitable increase your drive times, and you also need to be more aware of where you can get fuel, snacks and access toilets. You don’t want to find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere on a small road that hardly anyone uses because you forgot to get fuel before you left that morning. The smaller roads are often well worth it, but need a bit more thought. 

6. The Details

Now that you have your timeframe and a rough region to cover, it’s time to pick the exact route. I would always leave some margin for adjustments so you can have extra time if you find somewhere you love. Over months of travelling I very rarely booked accommodation more than 2 days in advance.

I never had trouble finding somewhere to stay, and it meant that I could make adjustments as needed. On a few occasions I had planned to visit a particular city but was advised by locals a few days before that there was a much better option nearby.

When I only realised on the day of my planned visit to a particular National Park that I had to pre-book a slot the day before, it wasn’t a problem. I just stayed an extra day and booked a ticket. 

Pick your absolute must dos, and plan around them. Pin them on google maps and check the driving times. When it comes to National Parks, make sure you check driving times against the park entrances, otherwise google may measure the distance to the overall land that the park covers and not the extra 40 miles it would take to actually get to a park entrance. 

Try and avoid rush hour traffic in major cities. My worst driving experience was in Chicago (although Miami was a close second). It was the weekend of Lollapalooza, no speed cameras meant that everyone was driving at least 15mph over the limit, and drivers left far too little distance between cars. There were exits every minute and no one wanted to let me change lanes.

Eventually I just forced my way off the road at any exit I could access and let my sat nav re-route me once I was in the city. I’m a Londoner so am no stranger to city rush hour traffic, but the big American cities are another level. 

National Park pro tips – make sure you check the National Park service website for each park you want to visit. 

Many of them require pre-booking, especially in peak season. Rocky Mountain NP was particularly difficult to get a ticket for. Some have partial closures in winter and most of them are subject to short notice closures at the whim of the weather.

Also, if you are visiting more than 3, get an annual pass to save money.

7. Keeping track

I wrote a post about useful travel apps HERE. My best recommendation is TripIt. The free version is excellent – you dob’t need to upgrade. Forward your flight and accommodation bookings to your TripIt account and it will create your itinerary on the app with all your dates, addresses and booking references. I am a huge fan of TripIt for travel planning and have been using it for years. 

Another useful, but paid app recommendation. If it’s a small road trip this isn’t really necessary, but for something major I found the Roadtripper app very helpful. You pick the places you want to visit and it automatically creates the most efficient route.

The most efficient will certainly be based on interstates, but it can still be a very useful tool if you are planning on a big trip that isn’t just a linear journey like Route 66. You can try it out with a few destinations to see what you think of the free version, but you would have to upgrade for anything more complicated, and I would only recommend it for a longer trip.

The map also shows points of interest you otherwise wouldn’t have known about, so you can also use the free version for inspiration. 

If you do decide to get a Roadtrippers subscription, here is a link to get a discount. It is a yearly subscription so don’t forget to cancel it if you only need it to plan a road trip as a one off. The app also covers Canada, Australia and New Zealand if any of those countries are in your road trip future. 

Pacific Coast Highway. One of the items on my must do road trip list.
Badlands National Park

For some road trip inspiration check out my favourite drives from my US road trip.

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