How to Plan the Ultimate Road Trip Across the USA
Updated on August 10th, 2020
Taking a road trip across the USA is on the bucket list of so many and for good reason! Whether you’re an American yourself or from somewhere far away. Taking this trip is a huge bucket list item to tick off. At almost 10 million square km’s, there is so much to explore, an immense range of scenic diversity, local food varieties to taste and amazing people to meet.
I set off on this cross country trip with one of my best friends and spent five weeks full of laughter exploring this huge country. We racked up almost 12,000 miles!
One of my favourite parts was how you could drive for a few hours and the scenery changed so drastically. In Australia, you can drive all day and everything still looks the same. So what are you waiting for, get my tips for planning a road trip across the USA.
First things first, how long do you have?
Although we all wish we had infinite time to travel that’s not the case for the majority of us. The first step in planning your ultimate road trip is to determine how long you have. One week, two weeks, a month or have you got a few months to play with? Knowing how long you have will allow you to plan the best and most realistic route.
I recommend leaving at least three weeks to get from one side to the other. This will give you a couple of nights in most major stops if taking the Southern route. I spent five weeks. Three weeks from west to east, one week south to north, then rushed back over a week. Even in this amount of time, we missed some places we wanted to see.
Next, what’s your budget?
Let’s now determine how much money you have to spend over the length of the trip. What I like to do is deduct any mandatory expenses that will be paid prior to the trip.
This can include flights, travel insurance, any clothing or luggage essentials, visas and at home expenses that you may have like phone bills and car repayments. Once this has all been calculated you know how much money you have for your trip, or have an idea what you need to be saving.
How long do you have before you leave? Now is a great time to start saving. Cut out unnecessary daily expenses. Do you really need that cup of coffee out every day? Bad example, as you can see from my coffee guides coffee is a necessity for me, but maybe not for you.
Cut back on buying food out, nights out, no new clothing, ladies – no nails and expensive hair appointments. A good idea is to tell your friends and family you are trying to save or your trip. This way they will be more understanding of why you are turning down nights out. Or you could even ask them not to invite you to remove the temptation and FOMO. Remember, it’s horrible now, but those shopping sprees back home will not leave you with the same memories that your road trip across the USA will.
What type of accommodation is right for you
So what are your options?
- Are you travelling solo, with one other person, or in a group?
- Are you trying to meet other travellers to hang out within each location? Do you want to meet locals and not necessarily do all the touristy things? Or are you fine in your own group?
- Do you want to be in the city within walking distance to attractions? Do you mind driving in each day?
Once you have answered these questions, you can decide which type of accommodation works best for you and your budget.
Best accommodation for solo travellers or a couple of friends
Hostels are great for meeting other travellers and are usually centrally located. If you’re in major towns or cities and looking to see the main attractions these are your best bet.
Tip – Read reviews to see if they are a party hostel or more of a quieter one. This can really make or break a place depending on what you are after. The average price for a shared dorm is around $30 USD/night. Although expect to pay much higher prices in cities like NYC and San Francisco.
If you want to live like a local try Airbnb or Couchsurfing. These are great options if you are going to stay a few days in one place. I am a massive Couchsurfing advocate and highly recommend this for travellers. Just remember to be safe and stay with hosts with positive reviews.
Best accommodation for couples or groups
Motels and hotels are everywhere. They’re great if you’re travelling in a group as splitting a room works out to be very affordable. The quality and cost range from one extreme to the other. Motel 6’s are a very cheap place to sleep and are located alongside most freeways. If you want high-quality rooms I’d suggest you find somewhere else.
Airbnb’s are also great for groups as you get to rent out an entire house or apartment.
Best accommodation for budget travellers and getting off the beaten path
Lastly, you can camp along your trip. This is ideal for more remote locations like national parks and smaller towns and almost always the cheapest option. Having access to a tent when I drove around Northen California opened up so more possibilities to where I could stay as a budget traveller.
Now, how to decide where you want to go?
Ok, firstly let’s choose a start and end destination. If you’ll be driving the entire US, the usual starting locations will be either on the west or east coast. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami or New York City are great starting points because they have large airports and are easy to get to.
After you have decided where you will begin, ask yourself if you want to do a roundtrip or one way?
A good thing to remember is car rental companies usually throw on an extra $400+ to return at a different location. Tip: Search around for coupons or deals where this fee is waivered.
Next is the fun part. Have you always dreamed of casino hopping in Las Vegas and winning big at roulette? What about hitting Rainey Street in Austin? Shopping in the city that never sleeps or star spotting down Hollywood Boulevard? Or maybe your dreams involve hiking rim to rim through the Grand Canyon or skiing in Lake Tahoe? Spotting a bear in the Smokey Mountains?
Print out a map of the United States and dot down everywhere you want to go. Next, see if you can join the dots and create a route.
Try to leave dates open, don’t book everything unless you know it’s a holiday weekend. This will give you some flexibility to go off the main track. Maybe you’ll meet a local who has given you an insiders tip of where you must go.
The USA is an easy place for a road trip. You don’t need to worry about not finding somewhere to sleep. Plus, worst-case scenario, pull over and sleep in the car. It’s an easy way to bring the average nightly cost down. We slept in the car a few nights on our trip, great for those long stretches.
Add in gigs and sporting events
A few really great sites for seeing who’s playing and when are Songkick and Music Festival Wizard. On Songkick, you can track your favourite bands as well as check out different cities to see who will be playing while you’re in town.
I never realised how many festivals were on until I discovered Music Festival Wizard. You should definitely try to incorporate a festival or two into your road trip. Especially if it’s over the summertime. One year I managed to attend the Wanderlust Yoga Festival, CMA and High Sierra.
Make sure to learn all about Hoodoo in New Orleans.
My hot tips for an ultimate road trip across the USA
- The best places to sleep in your car are Macdonalds and Walmart car parks or at truck stops. You have access to bathrooms, toilets and food, plus they’re in a public area so quite safe. Truck stops have showers you can pay to use.
- When you arrive at each new town visit the information centre. Here you can speak to the representative who will give you the best ideas for the amount of time you have. They also have lots of pamphlets to get some inspiration.
- If you plan to visit a few National Parks buy an annual pass. You can see how much each park costs on the NPS website to see what will be more cost-efficient for you.
- Keep costs low by purchasing an esky (cooler bag) and some ice blocks at the beginning of your trip. This way you can travel with food. We loved combining a walk through a park with our lunches to break up drives.
- Google maps will allow you to save maps to view offline. Another great use of Macdonalds is their free wifi, so preload any GPS directions you need and you won’t need data.
- Have the best time and make amazing lasting memories.
Have you been on a road trip across the USA? What are your best tips for planning? Where was your favourite destination?