10 Tips for Planning a Cross-country Road Trip

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus
Father and son load car
Road trips are an iconic part of the American experience.
Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Road trips are an American institution. With a country as vast as the United States, residents have long found it romantic and alluring to pile in the car and spend a week or two exploring their homeland. National parks are a major draw, as are amusement parks, roadside attractions and scenic drives.

Before you climb behind the wheel, here are some main preparations you'll want to make.


10: Know Your Travel Style

Whether you're traveling with your own family or good friends, every person has a certain travel style. Some prefer a detailed itinerary so they know just what to expect, while others like to make decisions along the way. One person might want to stop at every boutique shop that looks appealing, while another might be keeping his eyes peeled for barbecue joints. Mom and Dad may hope to take pictures at every scenic overlook, while the kids want to race past them all so they can reach the next lake or amusement park [source: Road Trip America].If you know a friend's travel style will drive you bonkers, keep in mind that the close confines of a car will only make things worse. Plan a shorter trip with that person instead. For family members, negotiate ahead of time. For example, maybe you won't alter certain plans, such as the time you hit the road each morning, a few key attractions you'll see and your nightly pit stop. But everything you do in between can be spur-of-the-moment decisions.


9: Create and Map Out Your Itinerary

fingers pointing to locations on a map
Even if you don't plan every little stop on your cross-country trek, you need a general idea of where you're going and how you'll get there.
Polka Dot/Thinkstock

Step one: Figure out how many days you have for travel and where you want to go, but don't simply plot out the fastest route from point A to point B. While major highways and interstates quickly whiz you from city to city and state to state, scenic byways and county roads afford the best sights and out-of-the-way attractions. So make sure your route occasionally deviates to include some of them. Check out the federal government's America's Byways Web site for ideas.

Step two: Don't set an overly ambitious agenda. The trip won't be any fun if you're driving 10 hours a day and don't stop to see anything along the way. Plan on a maximum of five or six hours per day behind the wheel [source: Planning Fun Road Trips].


Finally, take along a current map, in addition to any online directions or GPS systems. Each is a good backup to the other, as none is foolproof.

8: Make Lodging Reservations In Advance

Cross-country trips are tiring, and you'll be anxious to hit the sack every night; so, it's a good idea to have lodging reservations in place well before you leave home. Hotels, motels and even campgrounds fill up fast in popular tourist areas, especially during prime vacation season, and some places sell out months in advance. Once you've targeted the places you want to stop each night, make reservations.

A few days before you leave home, call each place where you'll be staying to confirm your reservations, and bring your confirmation information with you, too. That way, if the hotel loses your reservation and is full, you have proof with which to demand a room. (And they almost always have extra rooms.) If they truly don't have space, hotel staff should find you a spot elsewhere because they've erred.


7: Research Attractions Along the Way

giant statue of Paul Bunyan
Driving through California wine country? This giant statue of Paul Bunyan certainly merits a detour. He stands guard at a forest mobile home park in the town of Guerneville in Sonoma County.
George Rose/Getty Images

With your route set, fill in your stops. Why not stop in every state you pass through at least once to see a famous attraction or eat in a popular restaurant offering local cuisine? And don't overlook more smartphone apps are all good resources for finding things that pique your interest.

The Web site RoadsideAmerica.com (which also has an app) can help you find those quirky destinations -- for instance, if you're near Woodruff, Wis., check out the Forest of Chainsaw Totem Poles! Going to the Grand Canyon? Take a detour to Yucca, Ariz., to see the Golf Ball House.


6: Create a Realistic Budget

coins in a jar labeled "vacation fund"
Make sure you have a budget for your road trip. You don't want to have to forego all those fun attractions you're counting on seeing.

Don't ruin your trip by stressing over money -- or running out of it. That means a little work on the front end. Know how much your lodging costs, as well as admission fees for attractions you plan to see. Use Internet mapping sites to calculate your driving distance, then determine your approximate gas bill (add an extra tank or two for getting lost or choosing to deviate from your planned route). Don't forget to include the cost of any tollways you know you'll pass through.

Food costs can be a little trickier to figure. Decide ahead of time which meals you'll be eating in restaurants, then set price limits. Or give yourself a total daily food budget.


Finally, throw in a little extra money for emergencies, souvenirs and stumbling upon some can't-be-missed sights.

5: Plan Ahead for Pets

Although Fluffy and Fido generally make good travel companions, bringing them with you does take advance planning, plus extra thought once en route. In addition to the usual stuff like food, a pet bed and a leash, be sure you:

  • Bring an appropriately sized carrier or restraint system since your pet will be in the car so much.
  • Make lodging reservations at places that accept animals.
  • Bring along your pet's medical records in case of an emergency.
  • Stop every two or three hours so your furry friend can walk around and stretch.
  • Give your pet water as soon as you stop, not right before you get back in the vehicle, or he could throw up once you start driving.
  • Never leave your pet alone in your vehicle.

[source: Road Trip America]


4: Pack Judiciously

woman trying to close an overpacked suitcase
You'll be travelling to a different place every day, so there's no shame in wearing the same outfit a few times during your trip. No one you meet will be the wiser!

Yes, you're in a car, and not in a plane with tiny overhead compartments and minimal under-seat storage space. But that doesn't mean you should pack everything you could possibly need. Why take away precious leg and elbow room in your car when you'll be inside it for hours every day?

Minimize your load by packing clothing in basic colors (black, gray, white, red) that you can mix and match. Consider clothing made of lightweight, wicking fabric that can be washed quickly and dried in your hotel room if necessary. If you'll be on the road for a few weeks and will need access to a washer and dryer, make reservations at a hotel with laundry facilities or find a Laundromat when you get to town.


Check out packing lists and tips on trip-planning Web sites such as Planning-Fun-Road-Trips.com, which has lists for specific types of trips, including camping, couples-only and beach [source: Waechter].

3: Trick Out Your Vehicle's Interior

Even if you limit your driving to five or six hours a day, that's still an awful lot of time in the car over a week (or two or three weeks), so think about your comfort. Bring your favorite tunes and some audio books, and a small pillow or blanket can help you snooze. Tuck in a notebook and pen for journaling, doodling, games or jotting down directions, and slip-on shoes will ensure happy feet.

To keep things tidy in your rolling home, pack hand wipes and plastic grocery sacks that can be used for anything from garbage bags to in-a-pinch tote bags and keeping wet and dry clothes separate.


2: Pack a Cooler

cooler with food and drinks
A cooler is essential travel gear for any road trip. Stop at grocery stores to replenish your snack stash along your route instead of convenience stores -- it's cheaper!

Start with water and other drinks in there, plus some snacks. When you're driving cross-country, you can easily drive dozens or more miles between cities and come across closed rest areas and tiny towns without restaurants. It's ultra-convenient to just reach behind you in the car to grab a nibble and a sip.

Once en route, coolers also help save money on dining costs. Stop at local grocery stores to get muffins, fruit and orange juice for breakfast on the go, and sandwich fixings and chips for an easy lunch at a roadside stop. If you're more ambitious, toss a spatula, tongs, matches and charcoal into your car. Then you can buy hamburgers and hot dogs (and whatever else you like to barbecue) on the road to cook out at public grills in parks and rest stops.


When you do find a supermarket, grab healthy snacks like fruit, nuts, low-fat string cheese and yogurt. It's not always easy to healthfully on the road, but fast food quickly gets old -- and it can do a number on your tummy while in the car.

1: Have Your Vehicle Serviced

The whole point of a road trip is the driving, right? There's nothing worse than starting a much-awaited (and well-planned) drive, only to have the car break down. This happens more often than you'd think, and you can lose entire days stuck in a small town, waiting for parts to come in so your car can be fixed. Ward against this possibility -- and ensure your safety -- by having your vehicle checked before you head out. The appointment should include an oil change, plus safety checks on:

  • Battery
  • Brakes
  • Tire tread and pressure
  • Windshield wipers
  • Headlights and brake lights
  • Fluid levels
  • Belts and hoses
  • Spare tire and jack

[source: Waechter]

Create your own car emergency kit by filling a waterproof container with:

  • Jumper cables
  • Flashlight and batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Flares
  • Blanket
  • Bottled water and nonperishable snacks

And, make sure someone else on the trip carries a second set of keys in case the driver's set gets lost or locked in the car.

Now that you have these helpful tips for planning your cross-country drive, you just have one thing to do -- hit the road, Jack!

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • American Automobile Association. "AAA Emergency Road Service." (June 30, 2011) http://www.aaasouth.com/Automotive/auto_ers.aspxs
  • America's Byways. (June 23, 2011) http://www.byways.org/
  • Brown, Angela. "How to Plan a Road Trip Vacation." USA Today. (June 17, 2011) http://traveltips.usatoday.com/plan-road-trip-vacation-12786.html
  • Historic 66. "Route 66 Quiz." (June 17, 2011) http://www.historic66.com/quiz/
  • Federal Highway Administration. "Interstate System." (June 17, 2011) http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/history.htm
  • Federal Highway Administration. "National Traffic and Road Closure information." (June 17, 2011) http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo
  • Greenberg, Peter. "Traveling Cross-Country." AARP. March 23, 2009. (June 20, 2011) http://www.aarp.org/travel/travel-tips/info-06-2009/greenberg_usa_trip.html
  • Legends of America. "Legendary Route 66: Facts & Trivia of the Mother Road." (June 17, 2011) http://www.legendsofamerica.com/66-facts.html
  • Roadside America. (June 30, 2011) http://www.roadsideamerica.com/
  • Road Trip America. "How to Plan a Great Road Trip." (June 17, 2011) http://www.roadtripamerica.com/tips/How-To-Plan-A-Great-Road-Trip.htm
  • Road Trip America. "Road Trips with Rover & Felix: Tips for Traveling with Pets." (June 17, 2011) http://www.roadtripamerica.com/Pets/Road-Trips-With-Pets.htm
  • Road Trip America. "Using the Web to Find Best-Kept RoadTrip Secrets." May 30, 2004. (June 17, 2011) http://www.roadtripamerica.com/GettingOutThere/Best-Kept-Road-Trip-Secrets.htm
  • Road Trip U.S.A. "The Routes." (June 20, 2011) http://www.roadtripusa.com/
  • Waechter, Tara. "How to Plan a Road Trip Across the U.S. That Rocks!" Planning Fun Road Trips. (June 17, 2011) http://www.planning-fun-road-trips.com/plan-a-road-trip.html
  • Waechter, Tara. "Road Trip Planning - Map Your Trip." Planning Fun Road Trips. (June 17, 2011) http://www.planning-fun-road-trips.com/road-trip-planning-map.html
  • Waechter, Tara. "Road Trip Planning 101: Getting Your Car Ready for the Road (and Not the Side of the Road). Planning Fun Road Trips. (June 17, 2011) http://www.planning-fun-road-trips.com/road-trip-planning-car.html
  • Waechter, Tara. "Travel Packing Tips, Tricks and Lists." Planning Fun Road Trips. (June 17, 2011) http://www.planning-fun-road-trips.com/travel-packing-tips.html