How to Plan A Road Trip Across the USA for Beginners

  • JOSH
  • LAST UPDATED: SEPTEMBER 20, 2021

Unlike a 4-day hike along the Inca Trail where reaching the top of Machu Picchu is the ultimate goal, a road trip’s highlight lies in relishing every step of the journey and not necessarily in taking pride in arriving at the destination. Sometimes, the adventure of a lifetime comes in the form of a full gas tank and a good friend. Whether you are into catching sunsets on highways with Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams blasting through the speakers as you sing along with a friend, cruising along scenic byways as the winds caress your cheeks, or spending the majority of your day hopping from one national park to another, a road trip lets you channel your inner Thelma & Louise while at the same time unveiling different parts of yourself you never know you have. If this happens to be your first time planning a road trip, a stellar journey awaits you after inhaling and following the information we provide in this article. 

3 essentials of planning a road trip across the USA

It does not matter if you are a history buff who sets to relive blasts from the past, a lover who wants to savor the seemingly endless views of the Pacific Ocean, or an outdoor junkie who cannot wait venturing into the Great Northern adventure; every state, corner and nook of the USA graces the eyes with its own charms. 

  • Picking the ideal route

Here comes the second most fun part before actually experiencing the most fun part (the road trip itself), which is planning which route to take based on your schedule and budget. With a total of 50 states dotting the country, it is safe to say that you will probably be having a hard time picking the most scenic course that packs in every activity you want to try in one go. The USA is never short of magnificent destinations, but if we could only winnow down the vast choices to only three, our top picks would be:

  • The Great Northern Route.  If you have specifically freed up your time for this road trip, a comprehensive journey of this route will include these states: Seattle, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, New Hampshire and Maine. Even better, after Michigan, you can spend a few meaningful days in Canada, which is in Ontario and Quebec, to be exact. Some highlights of this trip include enjoying the famous Going-to-the-Sun-Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park and admiring the forested region of Michigan Upper Peninsula. 
  • The Midwest route. Known as one of the longest and most picturesque byways in America, the Great River Road byway is easily identifiable, well-marked and passes through 10 states. Some memorable ones consist of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, St. Louis, Memphis, Mississippi and New Orleans. If road trips were a full course meal, the perfect choice for appetizer would be stepping foot on the Itasca State Park in Minnesota and surrounding yourself with lush pine forests before devouring the cherry on top, which is ending your journey in the Big Easy (New Orleans) where every corner is rife with cultural and jazz scenes.
  • The Pacific Coast route. Arguably the most classic and famous route to take, we would refer to the Californian Pacific Coast Road as the best of both worlds. Not only are your eyes spoiled with the stunning blue views of the Pacific Ocean and your nose filled with inviting salty air, you can take in the different shades of brick red while standing atop the colorful layers of rock at Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. Looking down only makes you realize how miniscule you are in the grandness of the landscape. 

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  • Selecting the most fitting vehicle

Building an itinerary is enjoyable, but settling on the correct form of vehicle is the most essential part of a road trip since you will be spending days, if not weeks, moving from one state to another in it. The choice of vehicle usually depends on the number of persons who will be traveling. As the main means of transportation, the cost of renting a car or an RV, fuel, and propane or butane (for campervans) take up a considerable portion of your budget. While the discussions on selecting the right vehicle might as well be a full blog post on its own, it is imperative that you make yourself familiar with the rules of car rental rules in the US. Some rentals require renters to be 25 or older, but others do not mind drivers who are 21+. As for payment methods, keep in mind that particular car rentals only accept valid credit cards. We strongly recommend that you perform a careful examination on the car and take pictures of it before driving away so you will not be charged for preceding damages. You might also want to consider adding a layer of protection to the rented car by buying liability insurance if you do not possess your own car insurance. Although this insurance might add another $10 to $30 to your daily expense, nothing beats the feeling of security and relief of not having to spend your hard-earned money if you accidentally damage a person’s vehicle. 

  • Getting that beauty sleep by selecting great accommodations

Depending on your itinerary and preferences, lodgings during a road trip might vary from modern and luxurious hotels, tasteful Airbnb villas that reflect the local colors to scenic camping grounds in the wilderness. Booking online prior to the trip gives you peace of mind, and usually you can get the best prices from certain websites and other benefits such as collecting points or rewards from every book. It is perfectly fine to slip in a bit of spontaneity when it comes to booking places to stay, but remember that if you happen to visit states that are hot spots for tourists at a peak season, booking ahead is always wiser. 

How to plan a road trip: 4 basic tips

After delving deeper into the specifics of planning a road trip across the USA, going back to the fundamentals won’t hurt. Oftentimes, we are so hung up on the details that we forget the most basic yet important questions that have to be deciphered, and we are here to remind you of them.

  • Picking the right road trip partner

We are going to say this loud and clear: the right road trip partner will make your adventure ten times more worthwhile. If real estate is about location, location and location, a road trip partner is all about cooperation, cooperation and cooperation. The rule of thumb is to pick someone who is similar in character to you, but at the same time is able to provoke and bring out your fun and adventurous side. If you are someone who does not mind backpacking in Europe for a month and eating one portion of Chinese takeout for both lunch and dinner, refrain from road-tripping with a person who always has to drag their Rimowa during travels. And for some, the definition of “vacation” is lounging in a hotel, tanning and curling up with a good book, so if the objective of your road trip is to enjoy as many outdoorsy activities as possible, pick a more suitable partner whose goals align with yours.

  • Discuss the two main fundamentals: Money and Schedules

Money builds, but money also breaks. In order to avoid friendship breakups that may occur after (or even in the middle of) a road trip, you have to discuss how many days or weeks the trip will last and how you are going to split the bills. Do you agree to split them equally for every cost incurred at the end of the trip, or is it best for you to buy your own meals at every stop and take turns paying gas? Not limited to money talks, planning the full itinerary and every stop that you will be making requires a whole separate discussion because as a good and caring friend, you need to factor in your partner’s interests, the activities that they want to do and whether or not it is possible to squeeze in spur-of-the-moment things that pop up randomly in the middle of the trip.

  • You don’t have to follow the A to Z’s of the itinerary

Sure, devising a well-planned itinerary that details how you specifically divide your time in between destinations will guarantee a restful night’s sleep, but the essence of road trips lies in spontaneity and ditching the uptightness that might already haunt you on a day-to-day basis due to your full-time job. Sticking to your plan so intensely with no room for flexibility is going to kill the fun and vibes and hinders you from discovering different parts of you that have yet to unfold, because, think of how many attractive roadside attractions and breathtaking spots you will find along the way? In life, you need to be able to face things with dual approaches. In casinos, we learn when to hold and fold your cards, but on road trips, you learn when to stop and hop. 

  • Make peace with the fact that you will spend more than the budget

Let’s dive directly to the truth: the USA is not necessarily a cheap travel destination. Although we can agree that a road trip along Wisconsin is more budget friendly compared to California, the spontaneity aspect of road trips, more often than not, calls for extra expenses that are not originally in the plan. They can manifest in food, gas, tickets to unplanned attractions or other forms of entertainment. The key is to set different scenarios for budgets, ranging from the strictest to the most lenient. Our tip is to not miss out on trying out food or doing things that you know you will remember for the rest of your life, because we are pretty convinced that on that long list of places and things to cross off, regrets are not one of them. Life is long, but when we think about it, a year flashes by in a blink of an eye, and you might not know when you get to visit these places again.

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How to plan a road trip with stops: 4 important things to not leave out

Road trips are far from strawberries and champagne. If anything, they are full of rests and pit stops you need to make within a specified period of time. Being an awesome and reliable travel planner that we are, we have compiled several tips that are going to make your trip smooth and your stops more bearable.

Make sure your car is in tip-top condition

Apart from driving away in your own car or a rented one, there is a quick checklist you need to complete before gallivanting around the country. Several things on your to-do-list we can think of when it comes to cars are:

  • Making sure the car’s functions and lights are working properly
  • Inspecting the conditions of oil, water and tire
  • Bringing a spare key 
  • Always equipping yourself with a spare tire (and more importantly, learn how to change it)
  • Ensuring that the AC is working perfectly
  • Scanning through the air filters and windscreen wipers 

Make the trip a breeze by using useful apps

With multiple stops you will be making along the way, it is best to enlist the help of our trusted friend, Google Maps. You can list the many stops you are planning to make and calculate the estimated time to get from one place to another. Be sure to factor in aspects such as traffic and unexpected stops that will prolong the estimated driving time. Another useful tip would be to avoid leaving a state during rush hour (read: can you imagine being trapped in traffic in Chicago or New York?). Three other useful apps that will ease your trip of a lifetime include:

  • Spotify: because sometimes, all you need is the correct soundtrack for every moment of your life
  • AAA: standing for the American Automobile Association, this application assists you with roadside help consisting of delivering fuel, changing flat tires, lockout services as well as spotting discounted restaurants and great hotels. AAA is especially beneficial if you are traveling alone
  • GasBuddy: let’s get real, filling up your tank with gas will take up a huge portion of your time during a road trip, and nothing helps more than an app that lets you know the best deals happening near you for gas prices

Load up on en route entertainment

While a road trip can take you to experience a music video of how your life goes by all these years by looking out the car window, doing that for the rest of the trip will only send you spiraling down the abyss of nostalgia and mellow feelings. On the way to every destination, there are a series of activities to do that will fill your soul and feed your mind. For example, bringing your Kindle with you or downloading podcasts of certain topics that pique your interest is a wise move. Kill two birds with one stone, they say. En route entertainment also means surfing for activities in lesser-known spots or playing nostalgic games you used to enjoy. 

Pack must-have things during a road trip

Well, where do we start with this one? There are a lot of things to pack in your RV or car, but we managed to summarize the most essential ones:

  • Car documents: owner’s manual, car insurance and car registration
  • Personal documents: passport, driving license and visas
  • A cooler: thank us later, but you must never go on a road trip without a cooler. Not only does it keep you stay hydrated because it stores bottles of water, you can fit the much needed fruits and vegetables to make sure you are not deprived of nutrients and vitamins
  • Maps: and by ‘maps’, we do not mean Google Maps or Waze, but real, tangible and old school maps for when you are trapped in areas with no reception
  • Dash cams: as if unwanted car accidents were not enough, the worst things that can happen during them would be being falsely accused of things you did not do. This device will ward off fraud and extortion done by careless drivers
  • SPF and sun hats: because the sun is not your friend
  • Basic medications (ibuprofen, first aid kit and anti allergies) and bug sprays
  • An emergency kit for roadside breakdowns
  • A power bank (or two) and AUX music cable
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