How To Plan A Cross-Country Road Trip

by Lissy Klatchko on March 5, 2019


When I pitched an impromptu coast to coast road trip to my friends as ‘the adventure of a lifetime’, I had no idea what that meant or what we were in for. I just knew I needed a road trip buddy for the 40 hour adventure from Maryland to Los Angeles, CA—I was moving my entire life over to the West Coast for a new job. It takes just about a full work week (40 hours) to drive coast to coast in the United States. The first cross country trip I did was relatively rushed and I was white-knuckling the steering wheel for a good portion of the time (a mix of excitement about the adventure and anxiety about the drastic decision I had just made), but the idea of new places, fresh faces and the next step waiting for me was worth every scary moment. A trip of this length can be done spontaneously and be great, but with some time to plan, it can truly be the road trip of your dreams.

Below I’ve laid out some tips and tricks that I learned on my adventures to help you plan your own once in a lifetime cross country road trip!

Identify your start and end point

Pull up Google Maps to get an idea of how long your journey will take.

My journey was a solid 36 hours of driving each time. That number can either thrill you or intimidate you depending on how you feel about driving, but have no fear! The next few steps will help you make a plan that works for you.

Factor in any time constraints

Do you need to be across the country in a week to start a new job? Or do you have four vacation days that have been burning a hole in your pocket? Can you only drive about three hours before you start to go stir crazy, fall asleep or get car sick? If so, maybe take a few extra days to pace yourself! Once you know what time parameters you’re working with, you can move forward with the rest of your planning. To start, divide the hours of the trip by how much driving you want to do per day and you have your official “Days of Driving Count”!

Pro tip – Try non-drowsy dramamine or weighted wrist bands if you suffer from motion sickness.

Pick your dates

Now that you have your start point, end point and time constraints, you can pick your dates! This will help you jump into the following steps of finding a road trip buddy who’s available, making reservations and figuring out what seasonal activities are going on in the destinations of your choice.

Pro tip – Allot extra time for the spots or activities you’re most excited about, such as a Grand Canyon camping trip!

Find a road trip buddy

A road trip partner isn’t a necessity, however, not only does the right friend make the voyage more fun, but there is safety in numbers.

As beautiful as even the highway can be going through the mountains of Colorado and the miles of rocky red clay in New Mexico, it can also seem endless at times. It doesn’t hurt to have someone who can keep you awake if you start to drift off after seeing your tenth tumbleweed and help out and take a driving shift.

Decide on your absolute must-see’s

Now that we’ve put in some work, we can get to the fun stuff. Have you been dying to camp at Yellowstone National Park? Or roam Beale Street? See the upcoming country stars sing at Nashville bars? Climb the capitol of the United States? See the giant faces on Mount Rushmore? Do you want to hike the Colorado Rockies? Take a picture with the Hollywood sign? Test your luck in Vegas? For me, it was visiting the Grand Canyon.

Combine you and your road trip buddy’s must-see’s and figure out what you can fit into your time constraints. This will ultimately help you form your route. I typically did things within several miles of the main highway (I-70 and the historic route 66) because I was on a time crunch. Although, I did make a special exception for a detour trip to Nashville—so worth it.

Pro tip – Do your research to make sure your destinations are available to you in your time constraints and dates. For example, certain parts of the Grand Canyon are closed to the public during the winter as inclement weather can pose a dangerous threat to travelers.

Confirm your mode of transportation

Are you taking your mom’s old van? Your friend’s new jeep? Do you need to rent a car? Confirm your mode of transportation ASAP so you can begin to make necessary arrangements like tickets or a car inspection at a garage you trust. Don’t forget to fill up on windshield wiper fluid!

Tips if you are driving:

Call Triple A and get coverage for your journey. They can provide road side assistance in case of an emergency.

Get an inspection before you go. Make sure your car is in tip top shape and the oil has been changed recently enough to be in good condition to slap on about 2,600 miles in the span of a few days.

Have a spare tire and know how to change a flat tire.

Keep necessary and emergency supplies on hand.

  • First aid kit
  • Chargers
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Blankets/proper clothes for inclement weather
  • A gallon of water per person per day of traveling in the car
  • Non-perishable snacks
  • Jumper cables
  • Shovel
  • Bonus: If you want to go the extra mile, have a can of gas in your car if you find yourself cruising towards empty and without a gas station for fifty miles (it happens, and then you end up paying $6 a gallon at a gas station in the middle of a California desert).

Budget

A road trip budget can typically be broken down into the following categories: food, accommodations, gas, and fun.

Food: Unless you plan to grocery shop, have a cooler and prepare your own food, you may find yourself eating out a lot. A good rule of thumb for eating out is to plan $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch, and $20 for dinner totaling in at about $35-40 per day. One of my favorite parts about a road trip is finding fun, unique restaurants to visit in every state.

Pro tip – Plenty of hotels and AirBnb’s offer refrigerators and sometimes even full kitchens if you’re on a budget and want to prepare your own food.

Accommodations: Find your price range for accommodations, figure out the number of nights of your road trip and search for places in each city in that price range. A good way to reduce the cost of accommodations is to find friends and family who you can stay with along the way, camp, or stay in hostels. Avoid sticky situations by doing your research to find safe spots to stay each night.

Gas: Here is a quick formula I use to estimate gas expenses.

  1. Take the average MPG (miles per gallon) your car gets Then, multiply your average MPG by how many gallons your tank holds. This equals how many miles you get per tank of gas.
  2. Next, take the total miles of the trip (for me this was about 2,600) and divide by the number we got at the end of step one, MPT (miles per tank). This is an estimate of how many times you may fill up on the road trip (fill-ups per trip).
  3. Multiply the average cost it takes for you to fill up your tank ($35 can usually fill up my humble Toyota Corolla) by the number you get in step 2 (fill-ups per trip) and this will be your gas cost estimate.

Keep in mind this number will vary depending on how many extra miles you venture around, if you drive more on the highway or in the city, and how much the price of gas varies per city you are in.

Fun: How much do you want to spend on souvenirs? What activities are you doing in these cities? Price these activities out to come up with a realistic budget of what you will be spending.

Add food + accommodations + gas + fun = road trip budget

Book your accommodations

Once you’ve confirmed your dates and road trip buddy (or buddies), it’s time to start reserving those stays! The best way to pick the overnight spots is by either your ‘must list’ or by cities that fall along your main route. I used google maps to pick cities that were around six to eight hour increments away from one other.

Don’t forget the tunes

Make mix tapes on Spotify or your music app of choice to keep the good vibes flowing. Make sure to include upbeat music to keep you awake if you end up driving late at night.

Document your trip

GoPros, disposable cameras, professional cameras, snapchat…whatever it is, document the many sights you see and memories along the way. Happy adventuring!

Road trip layout samples

The following road trip samples mostly stay along the main highways (I-70 and I-40) and vary from 6-9 hour days of driving.

4 Days, 3 Nights

Start: Martinsburg, WV

Stop 1: Indianapolis, IN → Stop 2 : Edmond, OK → Stop 3: Albuquerque, NM

End: Los Angeles, CA

5 Days, 4 Nights

Start: Los Angeles, CA

Stop 1: Kanab, UT → Stop 2: Boulder, CO → Stop 3: Oskaloosa, KS → Stop 4: Nashville, TN

End: Gaithersburg, MD

6 Days, 5 Nights

Start: Frederick, MD

Stop 1: Asheville, NC → Stop 2: Memphis, TN → Stop 3: Oklahoma City, OK → Stop 4: Albuquerque, NM → Stop 5: Flagstaff, AZ

End: Los Angeles, CA

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