How to Plan the Ultimate Cross-Country Road Trip

From sea to shining sea, without blowing all your money.

When my partner and I packed up and left New York City for a cross-country road trip, I knew it was going to be, at the very least, fun. At the very best, it would be the trip of a lifetime.

Four months later, we’ve only just reached California. And with zero urgency to stop anytime soon, it’s safe to say this extended road trip has turned into, well, a lifestyle.

Road trips have always been part of America’s DNA, but with international travel caught in a tangle for the forseeable, there’s never been a better time to see just what “sea to shining sea” is all about. For many of us, remote work has left the door wide open for new methods (and longer timelines) of exploration.

Whether by RV, camper van, rental car, or whatever trusted chariot you’ve got sitting out in the driveway, pulling off a cross-country road trip is incredibly rewarding—but it takes work. Get a little help from those who’ve blazed the trail before you: From trip planning to money-saving, here are some tips I’ve picked up along the open road.

Planning the route: north, south, or a little of both

Arguably the most important part of planning a cross-country roadtrip is deciding how to get from coast to coast. You’ll hear people talk about the “north” route, I-90 from Boston to Seattle, or the “south” route, I-10 from Jacksonville to Los Angeles. Personally I don’t like having to choose, so our road trip route incorporated a little bit of both.

The most important thing is to design the road trip around what inspires you. For me, that meant Badlands National Park, Glacier National Park, the Colorado Rockies, and the Southwest—which dictated that we drive the northern route until northwestern Montana, and then pivot straight south through Wyoming and Colorado before turning west again and taking the southern route.

Start by making a list in Google Maps of all the places you want to see. You may be surprised at how naturally a route forms. You also may be surprised at how little time it actually takes to get from one place to the next. Did you know it’s only a 10-hour drive from New York to Detroit?

A great resource is the book Road Trip USA, which highlights the country’s most scenic two-lane highways. Sometimes following an itinerary that is already crafted for you takes a lot of the guesswork out, which many people prefer. Everyone's tolerance for driving is different, too; you'll need to gauge your threshold. Don't plan to cross the country in six days if you can only handle four hours of driving at a time.

Plan ahead for national parks

Part of the adventure of a cross-country road trip is leaving room for improvisation. We don't book our hotels until the day of, which is great because we can be on our own timetable. But this can become an issue around the national parks, where hotels can often be booked months in advance.

National parks are the destinations du jour for 2021 — understandably. But as badly as you want to see Yellowstone and Zion, well...so does everyone else in America. It’s vitally important to plan ahead and know what each park’s entry restrictions are. (Pro tip: Get the $80 annual pass, which provides access to all the national parks as many times as you want in a 12-month period).

Design the road trip around what inspires you.

Don't make the mistake we made and miss out on great parks like Rocky Mountain because we forgot to get reservations. Since summer is now over, you may get lucky—many parks, like Yosemite, do away with the reservation system after September 30. On the flip side, other parks, like Glacier National Park or the Grand Canyon North Rim, close their scenic drives in the colder months when snow is expected. It pays to do your research.

Beat the crowds by going in the off-season—fall is an especially great time to visit—or opt for less-visited national parks that everyone seems to forget about. Get creative: The country is full of gobsmackingly gorgeous state parks, national forests, monuments, roadside attractions, and much more.

Don’t blow all your budget on hotels

Probably the second most important factor of the Great American Road Trip is actually being able to fund it. While you’re certainly saving money on flights, road trips are not exactly cheap. Knowing your budget—and sticking to it—key.

Accommodations are where we look to save the most money. We aren’t paying rent these days, so we gave ourselves a budget of $2,000 a month to spend on accommodation. That may seem like a lot of money, but when you break it down it works out to roughly $66 per night. What can you get on Airbnb these days for $66 a night? Take a look. I’ll wait.

Everyone's tolerance for driving is different.

So how do you stay within that budget without resigning yourself to camping every night or sleeping in Walmart parking lots? We discovered Trusted Housesitters, a network of verified homeowners who are going out of town and need housesitters to come watch their pets. You go through a background check and the membership is $119 for the year, but you get to stay for F-R-E-E, sometimes for as long as two weeks. And yes, this is a worldwide service.

In between houseits, we use the app Hotels.com. You collect stamps for every night booked with them; after 10 nights you earn a free reward night that is equal to the average of the 10 nights. If we can’t find a hotel in our budget for $66 a night, then we rely on Kampgrounds of America. A membership costs $33 and you can score 10% discounts on campsites or cabin bookings.

A few more ways to save money on a road trip

We love using GasBuddy, which maps out the gas prices in the area, allowing you to score the cheaper gas. We’ve found price differences for as much as $1 a gallon, which really does add up over time. Also, driving the speed limit will help you stretch your gas — not to mention, it’s kind of the law. Speeding can lower your fuel economy by as much as 40%. When you get up to places like Montana, where the speed limit is 80 mph, you’ll see how quickly your tank drains.

Turning off toll roads has been another money saver. It never adds that much extra time and you can score substantial savings. Driving from New York to Washington, D.C., for example, can be as much as $35 in tolls — each way.

Dining out can be one of the biggest money sucks. It may seem like sacrilege to not be seeking out “the best thing to eat in [insert town]” but whittling your list down to the absolute “can’t miss” spots will be lighter on your wallet.

Instead, invest in a cooler. We keep ours stocked with sandwich fixings, protein bars, and water. If we’re feeling fancy we’ll get a whole selection of meats and cheese and make charcuterie boards to-go. Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t be a little bougie.

What to pack

Packing up the car is a delicate dance. You want to be prepared for everything, but you also don’t want to weigh yourself down. When it comes to a wardrobe, less is always more. We may not always be Instagram-ready, but having one carry-on each is a time saver when we are checking in and out of motels every 24 hours.

Car essentials include a first aid kit, dash cam (very useful in case of a car accident that isn’t your fault), portable cell phone batteries, extra USB cables, jumper cables, a spare tire, sheets, a pillow, and even an air mattress designed to fit in our trunk when you lay the backseats flat. Hey, you never know. Our trunk comes with a cover for when we leave things unattended in the car, but if yours does not you may want to get a sheet to cover up your belongings.

You may also want to consider a Wi-Fi hotspot — just in case you need to get work done from the road. I’ve filed more articles from the passenger seat this year than ever because the car has become my office-on-wheels.

Before you hit the road...

Make sure everything on the car is in working order. This means checking the lights and the car features to make sure they work. Check your oil life — and make sure you keep checking it as you drive, especially on a long trip. We've had to change our oil twice in four months. Other things to stay on top of: air filter, windshield wipers, spark plugs, coolant.

Keep a spare key in the glove box, along with your registration and copies of your driver's license and insurance information. If you are renting a car, make sure that you have one with unlimited mileage, and splurge on the top auto insurance they offer (or make sure you’ve covered via your credit card). Nothing ends a road trip faster than having to stomach a massive incident bill from a car rental agency.

Be prepared for things you didn't prepare for

Even with the most detailed and extensive planning, shit happens. But being open and flexible to mishaps is how to not let it ruin your day. If and when something goes wrong, remember to not panic. Trust that you’ve prepared yourself as best as possible, and that you will get back on track.

Inconveniences are also exacerbated by exhaustion—remember to take care of yourself on the road. Eat plenty of healthy food, drink water, and get a good night's sleep before a long driving day. Leave the windows open for airflow, especially if you’re feeling sleepy. If you need to take a power nap, find a well-lit, safe area. This should not be a chore. Driving at your best is going to make the trip infinitely better.

For all the drama that Americans are going through right now, and no matter where you fall in your beliefs, we can all agree that this is one vast, gorgeous, fascinating country. So fire up your best road trip playlist or podcast (we’ve been bingeing on “Lore”—10/10 would recommend). Enjoy the ride.

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Meagan Drillinger is a travel writer formerly living in NYC. She like tacos, music and making lists. But travel is her life.