Planning the Ultimate US Road Trip
Growing up with a steady diet of US television and cinema, it makes sense that I would be drawn to all things US.
My earliest travel daydreams were of someday making it to Disneyland (which I did in 2012). It has been an enduring love affair ever since
My first US road trip with a relatively modest affair: taking me from Couer d’Alene, Idaho to Portland, Oregon to American Falls, Idaho. Not the most glamorous of starts, I’ll admit.
2012 saw me making the drive along the US West Coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Along the way, we visited Yosemite and Monterey.
2015 saw me kick things up a notch with our five-week Great US Road Trip. Hitting Austin, New Orleans, Nashville, DC, Philadelphia, and more along the way, it was one for the books.
Most recently, my brothers, our partners, and I embarked on a two week Southwest US road trip. Over the course of a fortnight, we visited San Diego, Las Vegas, Flagstaff, and Joshua Tree.
As you can see, I’ve managed to build a fair resume when it comes to planning US road trips. With my imminent marriage to a US citizen, it seems fated that I’ll be making many more US road trips in the future.
I’ve picked up some handy tips and tricks along the way, so allow me to share with you my ten tips for planning a US road trip.
#10 – Get travel insurance
Healthcare in the US is expensive. Their broken healthcare system can mean you’re getting hit with a $1,000 USD fee just for walking in the door, so you don’t want to be caught with your proverbial pants down.
Ever since I broke my arm in Indonesia, I’ve been fastidious when it comes to arranging my travel insurance. The last thing you want is to fall ill or get injured and be on the hook for a hefty medical bill, trust me.
Thankfully, World Nomads travel insurance has fantastic rates for trips that include the US. They’re who I use for all of my trips, and who I recommend my friends choose when hitting the road.
Don’t let your trip be absolutely derailed by an accident. Get travel insurance, you idiot.
#9 – The cost of dining out
One of the things my brothers were super excited about when visiting the United States was the opportunity to eat all of the things.
From IHOP to colossal hamburgers to fried chicken to Mexican, they wanted to eat as much as humanly possible, much to the dismay of my waistline and my wallet.
You see, food only looks cheap in the United States. The large portion sizes and conservative prices can be very tempting, but there are two things that mean you’re not getting the deal you thought you were:
In Australia, tax is included in the menu pricing and tipping is replaced by a living wage, so it is easy to think you have found a bargain. However, once you factor in the 10-15% tax and the 18-20% for tip, you’re looking at Aussie pricing.
Saving Money on Food
Look, I get the temptation to eat out for every meal. Even at that price point, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck when eating out in the US.
Unless you’re made of money, however, you’re going to find your wallet shrinking faster than your appetite.
Far be it from me to recommend fast food, but you can avoid the tipping culture if you grab lunch at Taco Bell or Chipotle. I wouldn’t recommend it for every meal, but a $6 meal every now and then takes the sting off those $20 – $40 bills at sit down restaurants.
However, my #1 tip for eating on the cheap is a simple one: cook!
If you’re able to work a few Airbnb properties into your itinerary, you’ll likely have access to a full kitchen. Hit up a Trader Joe’s, stock up on delicious ingredients, and do a little home cooking. We did this in Flagstaff and Joshua Tree on our recent trip, mixing things up with homemade burgers, fajitas, and Thai green curry in between our meals out.
#8 – Get your visa early
If you’re from one of the 38 countries eligible for the fantastic ESTA visa waiver program, this couldn’t be easier! Simply log onto ESTA USA, fill out your application, and you’re all set!
The ESTA process often returns an answer inside an hour, but I always recommend my friends arrange this a week or two in advance to ensure there aren’t any hiccups. You don’t want to get turned away at the border!
Not Eligible for ESTA?
While not as smooth and painless as the ESTA visa waiver program, applying for a US visitor visa is still a relatively quick process.
As the visitor visa program can require interviews ahead of visa issuance, you’ll want to get a jump on these early!
#7 – National Park passes
The United States has a truly mind-blowing number of National Parks and State Parks. Just check out this list of US National Parks and you get the idea.
To my mind, the stunning National Parks that dot the US are every bit as appealing as the world-famous cities that more immediately spring to mind. Sure, I love Vegas, Austin, and New York, but I feel a similar level of excitement when you mention Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone.
If your US Road Trip is going to include more than 2-3 national parks, you’ll want to get an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. At just $80 USD for a year, this pass not only gives you access to every single national park but over 2,000 parks and recreation areas across the country!
Seriously, when parks are usually $25 USD to enter, this is a steal!
#6 – Renting a car
Unless you’re lucky enough to be traveling with a US citizen who happens to have a car handy, you’re going to want to rent a car for your US road trip.
There are so many factors to take into account when finding a car rental:
- Start and end point
- Wear and tear
My 2015 US Road Trip saw the two of us sharing a black Mustang convertible and sticking to tarmac roads, but the recent trip saw seven of us piling into a spacious Chevy Pacifica and doing a little off-roading in the Arizona desert.
As you can imagine, we had very different requirements when shopping around for the two cars.
On the 2015 trip, we were starting in San Francisco and ending in New York, which added quite a bit to our costing. If you can return to the same point as your pick-up, you’re going to get a much better deal.
The make and model of your car, number of seats, length of your rental, and pick-up/drop-off locations are all going to be a factor in pricing.
And that’s before you realize that insurance is an optional extra. Seriously, when getting pricing on your rental car, be aware you’re likely looking at it doubling once you add insurance.
Finding a Rental Car
There is no shortage of sites where you can search for rental cars and shop around.
On our recent trip, we made use of Kayak.com to compare prices before visiting individual sites to hunt for better prices. Our 2015 trip saw us finding a much better price using a Chinese search engine than a US or Australian based one, so don’t hesitate to use a VPN to hunt for the best rate.
Bonus Tip: Choosing the Right Vehicle
Does car choice matter here? Very much so. Road trips can get pretty unpredictable, so it’s best to be prepared for every situation that you may encounter while you’re on the wheel. Your vehicle should be road-trip friendly; meaning, it should be suitable for long drives.
Check your chosen car to see if they have all the necessary accessories that’ll help you out on your journey.
#5 – Conflict resolution
No matter how close you are with your companions, there’s bound to be the occasional conflict.
Whether it’s arguing with my brothers about what to have for dinner or getting heated at Hogg for being an awful wingman, no road trip is without incident.
It was the 2015 trip that prompted me to write a guide on how to be a good road trip companion. I still stand by my points in this article today.
Seriously, go read that. Your travel buddies will thank you for it.
#4 – Tours vs. Self-Guided
Accommodation, car hire, food… these things all add up!
Once you also add in the cost of a few guided tours, you’re looking at a hefty bill for your US road trip.
While it might seem that skipping tours is a great way to save money, there are going to be some occasions where a guided tour will save you a lot of time and hassle.
Case in point: visiting LA in a day is a miserable experience. Californian drivers are the worst, and LA seems to be where the worst of them gather. Why deal with that if you don’t have to?
Similarly, tours such as my Carpe DC food tour and my haunted Vegas tour offered insight that I wouldn’t have found in a guidebook or blog.
On the flip side, there are certainly places where you can do it on your own and avoid the cost. You don’t need a guide to enjoy Yosemite or Walnut Creek Canyon, for example.
My advice? Find the places where you’re willing to splurge on a guided tour, factor those in ahead of time, and do the rest on your own.
#3 – Packing for your US Road Trip
Depending on the number of people tagging along for your US road trip, there’s going to be finite space for luggage. Don’t be that jerk whose oversized suitcase forces somebody else to ride with a laptop bag twixt their thighs!
The delightful Where is Nina has a great road trip packing list, but my own personal list is below.
- 4-6 t-shirts
- 1-2 long sleeved button ups
- 1 pair of jeans/trousers
- 3-4 pairs of shorts
- 1 pair of board shorts/swimmers
- Toiletries (deodorant, body wash, razor, etc)
- 7 pairs of underpants and socks
- Comfortable walking shoes
- A comfortable travel coat
The clothing will obviously depend on the climates you’re visiting, but the above list did me fine for the warmth of California & Vegas all the way to the sub-zero temperatures of Flagstaff.
If you’re only staying in hotels, you’ll need to either pack extra or shell out for laundry, but I always mix in a few AirBnBs to give me access to a washer/dryer.
For a few less essential inclusions:
- Portable charger
- Comfortable day pack
- Kindle Paperwhite
- Fun board/card games such as God Hates Charades, Cards Against Humanity, and 4bidden Words
- A deck of playing cards
- Water bottle
- Bluetooth speakers
Lastly, here are a few must-have apps that I swear by for any road trip, US or otherwise.
And, of course, you’ll want to listen to all of the Comes with Baggage.
#2 – Finding affordable accommodation
Accommodation in the US isn’t cheap, but there are certainly ways to save money on your US road trip.
First and foremost, I will always recommend Booking.com ahead of other price comparison sites like Expedia and Agoda.
Why? Booking.com offers free cancellation on many of their properties and they include taxes and resort fees in their total. Agoda leaves these as a nasty surprise you’ll need to pay when you check-in. Not cool.
It is also worth checking out Airbnb whenever you are having trouble finding something affordable in a given city. Not only can these be cheaper, but the access to a kitchen and laundry can be invaluable on a long trip.
Register with Airbnb here for a $30 USD credit for your first stay!
#1 – Choosing the right route
The most important about planning a US road trip? The actual route!
Sites like Furkot are invaluable when it comes to mapping out a road trip. It’s more than just a map – it also suggests accommodation, rest stops, and attractions in the areas you’re driving through!
But where in the US will you go? How long do you have?
These are questions you’ll need to ask yourself ahead of your trip.
Got two weeks? I’d suggest focussing on a specific region or state. The Southwest is always a good option, covering California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. You could also focus on the Northeast (New York, DC, Philadelphia, and Boston), the South (New Orleans and its friends), or the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and Canada).
If you have more time, that is when you can get ambitious. We traveled from San Francisco to New York across five weeks, heading through the southern states, but we could just have easily cut through the middle (hitting Denver and Colorado) or the north (hitting Seattle and Montana).
Your US road trip route is a very personal decision, but it is also going to be one of compromise. Was I overjoyed to be visiting the Grand Canyon a third time on my recent trip? Not particularly, but I knew it meant a lot to the other six in my group.
I’m sure they weren’t as excited for five days in Vegas as I was…
Looking for some inspiration? Wanderlust Crew has compiled a pretty good list of US road trip routes.
A Massive Undertaking
Planning your dream US road trip can be a big task, but armed with the above tips, you’re off to a good start.
In a later post, I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite US road trip routes for you to use as a jumping off point.
In the meantime, I would love your road trip planning tips or route ideas!
Featured image courtesy of Alexandre Lazaro