by Samantha Adler
The American road trip is so romantic, rebellious and even a bit intimidating. But most great adventures are, right?
With a chunk of time and pair of keys, the possibilities are endless. So many choices, so little time. I had a month to get from NYC to San Diego, where I was helping a friend move into his new apartment. I was excited to see what lay outside my NYC bubble. I hit a few bumps in the road, ran into the unexpected, and had the experience of a lifetime.
I returned equipped with some road trip planning tips and a hunger-lust for biscuits and gravy.
1. Pick Your Route
This is the simplest and hardest part. With a certain amount of time, you have to choose the best/most interesting/smartest/most awe-inspiring/tastiest way to get to your destination. It sounds easy, but how to do you choose between Texas BBQ and camping at Yellowstone?
If you’re an indecisive freak like me, I have a few tricks to ease your anxiety.
Start off by making a list of several places you CANNOT miss. Then route the trip accordingly on a map…no matter how outrageous. This will help visualize the general direction of your road trip. You’ll have to make sacrifices based on driving time, but you'll find some cool new places to stop.
You might come up with a few possible routes. To narrow it down, it’s helpful to think about what you want out of your trip and make a list of each what possible route has to offer. The big decision when traveling across country really boils down to whether to go north or south. Both have so much to offer but you can usually only go one way (unless you’re lucky enough to turn right back around). Below is a simplified version of the lists I made when I was planning my trip from NYC to San Diego, weighing both options:
- More national parks – Glacier, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon
- Midwestern food – cheese curds, Chicago-style hot dogs
- More hiking
- More scenic driving
- Mostly camping, few cheap hotels
- Tasty BBQ and comfort food
- More cities – museums, nightlife, lots of live music
- Grand Canyon
- More frequent stops
- A mix of Airbnb, cheap hotels, and camping
Any route you choose will be the right one if you keep in mind what’s important to you and what the key locations are that you can’t go without seeing. Also, it’s totally ok to base the trip around food….totally ok. I did.
Furkot: Furkot will help you map out your itinerary. It calculates driving time on an easy-to-use map that creates a visual list of your stops and driving time. It also suggests when you should plan on pulling over for some rest and provides tips on food, hiking and hotels. This app was my personal roadtripping assistant.
2. Budget it Out
When you’re cruising on the open road you’ll feel wild, bold, and FREE…Unfortunately most things along your journey are not. Creating a budget before taking off will help you plan and keep your bank account from going into the negative.
An affordable road trip is completely doable! Make sure to factor in gas, food, lodging, activities and souvenirs (it’s a strong soul who can walk away from Graceland without an Elvis mug). You also want to make sure you have a cushion for any emergency situations.
If you’re traveling with a buddy, talk about how you’re going to split costs upfront. Keeping track might be a buzzkill on the trip. A way to avoid that is to divide costs by the type of expense. For example, you’ll get gas and your buddy will pay for food.
3. Remember it’s an Adventure
Plan your trip with room for exploration and last minute detours. When you’re creating your itinerary, leave extra travel time in-between major destinations. The journey is as important as the destination. It's important to have time to wander and explore. A road trip is an adventure, you will want to see where that little side road goes or be able to pursue your fixation with finding the world’s largest Ketchup bottle.
Book the major stops in advance, but wing the rest. You don’t want to be limited by a schedule you made before you got on the road. You’ll want time to explore and the freedom to stop driving when you’re tired. There are loads of cheap hotels, hostels and campsites available to travelers.
Bookings.com: Bookings will tell you where last minute hotel deals are around you. This is perfect for booking something in a pinch. I recommend signing up to receive notifications about deals in your area.
4. Pack for a Month & a Day
You’ll need to bring a bit for your longer road trip. However, it goes without saying…PACK LIGHT. You are living in a car for an extended period of time, you want room to breath. But do make sure you’re bringing:
- Gear for camping
- Clothes for all the climates you’re driving through (and an outfit for city exploring)
- A few snacks (salty snacks and sweets that won’t melt in the car!)
- Maps/ travel books
This can all be hard to sift through without creating a mess in your home on wheels. The solution? Pack a day bag. Mine was a weathered old backpack that always had:
- Water bottle
5. Get your Groove On
You’re going to be spending LOTS of time in the car. You might forget you two existed apart at one point. For those long hauls and highway stretches, download music, podcasts and games.
Music is a great way to dive into the places you’re driving through. The US is rich in music history with many highways, towns, and crossroads marking the birthplace of blues, jazz, rock n roll, country, folk…you name it. Download playlists that bring you on that journey (I’ll share my personal playlists with you soon :)). You can also tune into FM radio stations to get a feel for the local flavor.
6. Talk to People!
Park rangers, visitor center receptionists, bartenders, Airbnb hosts and locals will serve you better than any website or guidebook. Be smart and respectful, and remember that most people are looking to help and show you a side of their home that most don’t get to see.
Airbnb: Airbnb provides a comfortable stay with locals, in neighborhoods where you would live. Most hosts are warm, friendly and eager to show you around. As always, be safe and read reviews of your host before booking.
And you’re off! The next time you have some time, somewhere to be, or an uncontrollable wanderlust I hope you choose the great American roadtrip!