DOs and DON’Ts on a Great American Road Trip

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I think just about every American teenager (and probably plenty from abroad, as well) has dreamt about driving across the country in an epic Great American Road Trip. There's something just so inherently “cool” about the idea of tearing down a highway in the middle of nowhere, windows down, and music blasting as the miles slip by.

Plus, the U.S. is a really big place — there's no denying it. And even though I've lived here my whole life, 20+ years in Ohio really isn’t the best representation of everything that America has to offer. From deserts to mountains to incredibly flat plains, “the rest” of the country is so diverse that a road trip always seemed like the ideal way to get to know it better.

RELATED: 25 Awesome Photos of the United States

So, in the summer of 2011, my sister and I finally made the dream a reality, packing up a car and hitting the road in what would become a 6,500-mile journey from Ohio to Las Vegas and back again.

Along with seeing and experiencing a ton of what the U.S. has to offer, we also learned a lot along the way about road tripping. If you’re considering your own Great American Road Trip in the future, here are some of the DOs and DON’Ts we picked up along the way.

US road trip tips

Planning

The average road trip dream probably consists of just throwing a few things into the trunk of a car and hitting the road. But the reality is that a good deal of planning is necessary if you want to have a successful, stress-free journey.

DO have a rough itinerary. I’m by no means suggesting that you should plot out anything strict or rigid, but rough itinerary of some sort will definitely help. You should have a good idea of what you’d like to do/see along the way, and perhaps even what stops you’d like to make. Not only will this help you figure out how much time you’ll need, but it will also help you budget accordingly. My sister and I figured out which city we’d spend each night in on our 20-day trip, but left most of the days relatively open to use as we wished.

RELATED: Road Trip '11: My 10 Favorite Road Trip Stops

DON'T get too caught up in said itinerary. Plan too much, and you won't be able to make detours or stop randomly at roadside attractions, parks, or Native American-themed souvenir shops that you see advertised on the side of the highway along the way. Whatever itinerary you come up with before your road trip, be sure to factor in some flexibility to allow for spontaneity, too.

Santa Claus, Indiana
We had planned to drive through Indiana, but never planned on make a stop in Santa Claus!

DON'T wait until the last minute to do your research. For those who hate planning, listen up. Especially if you’re going to be road tripping in the summer months, doing a bit of homework before you leave is essential whether you like it or not. During the summer, many popular national parks and attractions are very busy and crowded, and you may need to book things ahead of time. For example, if you want to camp or take a mule ride at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, you’ll have to make bookings months in advance. Similarly, if you’re traveling in the winter, it will be useful to know which roads through the Rockies usually close due to snow.

DO invest in maps. I’m not just talking about a Google Maps or MapQuest app on your iPhone — I’m talking about physical, fold-out maps. Old school. Even though cell coverage is generally good within the U.S., you may still find yourself at times in areas where you won’t get signal at all. In these instances, having real maps on hand is smart. My sister and I bought a Rand McNally road atlas that includes every state in the U.S., which was fantastic to have in the passenger seat, just in case.


DON'T forget your smartphone. Not only will a phone keep you occupied on those long, boring stretches of road (because yes, there are plenty of them), but there are also some fantastic apps you can download that are great for road trippers. Some my sister and I used frequently included Google Maps, GasBuddy, and Urban Spoon.

DO stop at quirky roadside attractions. When you’re roadtripping across America, it's okay to be a tourist. In fact, I’d say it should be encouraged! Especially if you’ll be driving along old Route 66 at some point, there will be no shortage of quirky roadside attractions on offer. These are often what makes the journey fun. Some of my favorites included the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, and random “Indian trading posts” in Oklahoma.

Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas
The Cadillac Ranch, where vandalism is encouraged!

DON'T drive during rush-hour if you can help it. Especially when you're arriving in/leaving major cities, do your best to avoid rush-hour traffic at all costs. Not only will it increase your drive time exponentially, but it will likely cause you some unecessary stress and frustration, too. My sister and I made the mistake of leaving Chicago during rush hour, and subsequently spent nearly 2 hours traversing less than 30 miles on I-90.

DO visit national parks. The U.S. national park system is fantastic, and has worked for decades to preserve some of the best and most unique landscapes America has to offer. Yes, places like the Grand Canyon are often crowded, but they are popular for a very, very good reason. If you’re worried about crowds at some of these sites, plan to go early in the morning or late in the evening, or research some alternatives (for example, only 10% of visitors go to the secluded North Rim of the Grand Canyon).

DON'T travel with someone you can't stand to be with 24/7. There's no escape when you're in a car together for days or weeks on end, so make sure your travel buddy is one you can get along with. Bonus points if you share a similar taste in music and can make small-talk easily.

Moustaches
Thank goodness we have a similar sense of humor.

Budgeting

Budgeting goes hand-in-hand with planning, really, but I figured it warranted its own section here, as the budget is probably the most important part of any road trip.

DO plan to spend more than you budgeted. I won’t lie to you — the U.S. is definitely not a cheap place to travel. While it IS usually cheaper to travel via car than plane in America, road tripping can go against this grain, since gas, food, and accommodation can all be expensive. Set a budget for yourself, and then bring a little extra. My sister and I decided we would each leave Ohio with $1,500 (a total of $3,000 between us for our 3-week trip), but I made sure to bring about $500 extra, and we did end up tapping into that near the end of our trip. Even if personal finance isn't your thing, work out a budget — and then add to it.

DO decide beforehand how you will divide up costs. Will you take turns paying for gas? Will you just pool all your money together and pay for everything out of that? How will you split meals? Figuring all of this out before you leave will save you headaches on the road.

DON'T be too cheap. Even though you don’t want to go crazy, don’t skip out on great experiences just because of a price tag. Life is too short for that. After all, you may never get the chance to visit some of these places again. If you want to go whitewater rafting in Colorado, on a hot air balloon ride in Monument Valley, or to every museum you pass, do it. I’m sure your roadtripping dreams never included ending your adventure with regrets.

White Water Rafting
Worth. Every. Penny.

DO buy a National Parks Pass. If you plan to visit a lot of America’s national parks on your trip, definitely pick up a National Parks Pass. This pass costs $80, and then is good for a carload of people for a year. You can visit as many national parks as you want in that year without paying the entrance fees. $80 may seem like a lot, but when you realize that many popular parks charge as much as $25-30 per car to enter, it can all add up quickly.

DO sign up for AAA. If you’re an American, signing up for AAA may be a good idea. Not only will this auto club come to your rescue if you break down or get a flat, but being a AAA member can also score you discounts on everything from hotels to restaurants.

Accommodation

Speaking of hotels, here are some tips on finding accommodation on the road.

DO consider alternatives to pricey hotels. While the U.S. is not as hostel-friendly as Europe and Australia, there are still plenty of budget-friendly accommodation options to be found here. The cheapest would be to bring a tent with you and plan to camp along the way (and pick up this guide to affordable campsites). However, you can’t simply pitch a tent on the side of any road in most U.S. states — you still have to pay for campsites. Another alternative is to consider motels and budget hotels, which is what my sister and I did. We tried to stick to the Choice Hotels brand as much as possible, and paid about $80 per night on average for a decent place to stay (which is about $40 per person per night, which really isn’t much more than you’d pay at a hostel here in the U.S.). You can also check out apartment rental sites like Airbnb, which are increasingly popular options.

Some of our favorite (budget-friendly) hotels on this trip included:

  • Aloft in Tulsa, Oklahoma — A clean, modern new hotel chain that's easy on the budget.
  • Silver Saddle Motel in Santa Fe, New Mexico — Quirky and delightfully tacky is how I would describe this throw-back motel.
  • Best Western View of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona — A great base in Page with a cool pool view.
  • Stratosphere Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada — It's on the Strip, but way down at the end; we paid $45 a night (TOTAL) for a very nice, newly refurbished room.
  • River Run Condos in Keystone, Colorado — Not the cheapest place we stayed, but it was great value for what we got for staying at a popular ski resort during the summer.
Keystone, Colorado
The nicest place we stayed? This condo in Keystone, Colorado.

DON’T assume you can just drive into town and find a room. This goes along with the “don’t wait until the last minute” tip in the planning section. While most cities you’ll visit will be large enough to have vacancies on any given night, others will not. If you’re planning to visit a small city that’s a big tourist hot-spot at the time of year you’ll be visiting, definitely book ahead. My sister and I made the mistake of waiting too long to book a motel room in Page, Arizona (which is close to both Antelope Canyon and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area), and ended up paying more than $160 per night for a dingy room at a Rodeway Inn. I was NOT happy about that.

Food

DO take a cooler with you. Not only will a cooler ensure that you always have enough water to keep yourself hydrated, but having a cooler can also be a great way to cut down on food costs — keep snacks or sandwich-making materials inside, and you won’t have to pay for as many meals.

DON'T expect to eat healthy. Even with a cooler in the trunk, chances are you’ll still be eating out a lot. If you travel like my sister and I did, with never more than 2 nights in one city, cooking for yourself will probably be the last thing you’ll want to do after a long day of driving. Plus, it’s often difficult to say no to the delicious regional foods you’ll find along the way, regardless of how fattening they are.

Navajo Taco
Navajo Taco in Monument Valley

Safety

Staying safe on the road is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when considering a road trip, but it’s so important. Here are a few essential safety tips.

DO get your car checked out beforehand. This might be trickier if you’re renting a car, but if you’re taking your own or borrowing one from someone you know, do yourself a favor and get a tune-up before you leave. Get your tires, oil, and fluids checked, and make sure everything is running as it should. This of course doesn’t guarantee that you won’t break down, but it helps. Also, be sure to keep an eye on things like tire pressure as you’re traveling, as it can help you get better gas mileage.

DO learn how to change a tire. You may not need the knowledge (and you may have AAA to bail you out), but it’s always a good idea to know how to change a tire if your only mode of transport for weeks is going to be a car.

DON'T forget your travel insurance. For any major trip (and especially one where you're going to be driving through unfamiliar territory), I always recommend purchasing travel insurance. If you rent a car (or drive your own), your car should be covered in case of an accident. But what about all the other things that could potentially happen to YOU? I recommend World Nomads for basic (and really affordable) travel insurance – because you just never know!

Road Trip
Be nice to your ride!

DON'T forget the extra water. Dehydration is not a joke, and can be a very real threat if you’re traveling out West during the summer. Always have extra water (in that cooler!), because you never know when you might break down, or decide that you want to go on a long hike.

DO let someone know where you plan to be every night. This might be more applicable for females road tripping together, but is a good idea for everyone. If possible, let someone back home know your basic route, and check in with them whenever possible. This way, if something happens, the chances of you being featured on that “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” show will be much less!

DON'T pick up questionable hitchhikers. Hitchhiking isn’t as popular in the U.S. as it is in some other countries, but people do still do it. If you’re comfortable giving people a ride, fine, but just keep your wits about you. My sister and I were reminded of this when, while driving through Oklahoma, we kept seeing signs warning us not to stop for hitchers since the highway was very close to a correctional facility…

Miscellaneous

DO be aware of the impact you're having on the environment and the places you visit. Basically, don’t be a jerk. If you’re camping, clean up after yourself. If you’re visiting a site that asks you not to walk on something, respect that request. And bear in mind that, even though all Americans share the same citizenship, that doesn’t mean that we all share the same beliefs, values, or way of life.

And lastly…

DO have a blast! Road trips are one of the best ways to really get to know a country, and this is exceptionally true when it comes to America.

Monument Valley, Uath

What to Pack

The clothing and other odds and ends you pack for your road trip will of course depend on where you're going at at what time of year. But there are definitely a handful of things I highly recommend bringing:

  • Physical maps, like the Rand McNally Road Atlas – because there definitely will be times when your smartphone won't get any signal!
  • A book like The Next Exit, which shows you amenities (like gas, toilets, and food) available at every exit on every major highway in the US.
  • A cooler so you can stock up on cold water and snacks.
  • Something to use as a trash can to keep your car tidy.
  • A guide book (or two) that you can flip through along the way.
  • A guide to campgrounds across America.
  • An emergency kit to keep in your car – just in case.
  • A power bank so you can easily charge electronics while you're in the car.
  • A sun hat and other forms of sun protection, because you'll definitely need it!
  • Bug spray (or insect repellant wipes) for those humid parts of the country.
  • A quick-dry towel in case you decide on a quick swim or get caught in a rain storm.

Have you ever road tripped across America? If not, is it something you plan to do someday?

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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183 Comments on “DOs and DON’Ts on a Great American Road Trip

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  1. Perfect timing!!! Really awesome post, Amanda–enjoyed this and definitely brought up a few things I hadn’t thought about 🙂

      I told you the other day that it was funny that you were asking me for road trip tips! Glad you found this helpful!

    Great post!!! All good points…look forward to using them. Thanks!

    I LOVE road tripping. A great way to see the scenery and interact with some of the more quirky elements! Some great tips here.

      I’m definitely in love with it now, too! I really feel like it’s the best way to travel America, without a doubt!

    First x-country road trip I took back in the 1970s in my Vega which I camped in. I know, I’m dating myself and you’ve probably never even heard of a Vega. It was still the most memorable journey of my life, right next to a South Africa road trip. Very good advice, especially about the North Rim–I am biased–and taking real paper maps and lots of water. Makes me want to pack the truck and hit the highway.

      I’m SO glad my sister and I made this trip happen. It’s definitely one of my favorite trips to date, and I’m so proud that we did it all completely on our own.

      (And never you fear — I do indeed know what a Chevy Vega is! 😉 )

    Super tips…agree with all of them! The cooler is a must…first thing I do on a road trip…hit the supermarket and get one of those cheap coolers! And maps…yes indeed…I hate using a GPS (and have a post coming out about it soon)…maps are the old school, best way to go….great pics, looks like you had a wild time on that huge road trip!

      We DID have a wild time — and it was fantastic. One of my favorite trips ever, I think!

      I love how the coolers and paper maps seem to be something that most road trippers agree on! I love paper maps, because you don’t have to rely on technology to read them. Plus, it’s fun to flip through an atlas and see what’s coming up!

    This is great and got me even more excited for our three month summer road trip (starting in May!)

    Great post! Very important tips, looks like an amazing trip!

      Thanks, Tash! And yes, it was definitely an amazing and unforgettable trip!

    Great list. The physical map tip is definitely a must – my cell phone lasts MAYBE a day when I’m not using it all day for navigation. I’m lucky if I get half a day out of it on road trips, so an in-car charger and hard copy maps are musts for my road trips.

      That’s a good point! I have an awesome MapQuest app on my phone that even does turn-by-turn directions aloud like a GPS does, but it drains the battery like crazy!! What my sister and I did was actually print out directions before we left home, then used the hard-copy maps and our phones as back-up. That, and I just liked to page through the atlas while my sister was driving… lol.

    Oh my god, that taco. Makes me want to plan a road trip just to find it!

      Haha, it was indeed delicious! You really can’t beat blue corn Navajo frybread! YUM!

    I love that line…. basically, don’t be a jerk! lol nice! Some really great tips and sound advice.

      Lol, now if only more people would heed that “don’t be a jerk” advice! Just the other day I saw someone throw fast food trash out their window while driving on a highway. It made me SO MAD!

    I’d also recommend using Yelp on a road trip – they have a solid app, and it helps you find great places to eat wherever you are. We discovered some of our fav restaurants and diners via Yelp, and in Seattle we even found a few great recommendations for where to get a view of the city/space needle for a cool photo. Yelp is awesome!!

      Good tip! I just happened to download Urban Spoon first, but you’re right — Yelp has great reviews for all sorts of things, not just restaurants!

    Great post, I agree with nearly every point. Especially having AAA! I had no idea there was a Santa Claus in Indiana – I’m definitely putting that on my list of weird attractions to check out!

      It’s not even just “a” Santa Claus — it’s a whole town!! Look up Santa Claus, Indiana on Wikipedia!! My sister and I were driving along and saw one of those signs that shows how many miles you have to go before you reach certain destinations. One sign said “Santa Claus 45” and we immediately knew we had to stop.

    Really good tips! We’ve done many weekend road trips and somehow I have never considered actually getting a cooler despite having to drink warm water way too many times. It’s on the list now 🙂

    These are great tips. I would mention, along with remembering to bring extra water, how important it is to drink it. I had a situation several years ago with a friend from Austria who had come to visit me in Phoenix. She was not accustomed to how dry the Southwest is, and I didn’t recognize she was not drinking nearly enough water. While we were driving to Las Vegas, she became acutely sick from dehydration. Some water brought her back to normal relatively quickly, but it was quite a scare. All the water in the world is no help if you’re not drinking it.

      Very good point, Curt! And it’s worth noting that you should drink even MORE water up in the higher elevations out West.

    Ah, the classic American road trip. I did one around California and I can safely say it was one of my all time favourite holidays. There’s just something so iconic about cruising past classic American sights, listening to some tunes on the radio, and pretending you’re reliving some classic road trip movie. Great post as always 😀

      I want California/the West Coast to be my next big road trip! PCH, here I come.

        Have you taken your pnw roadtrip yet? I’m curious to know how the la grande Or. Area is .

          I just did a road trip in Oregon, but I’m afraid I did not go as far east as La Grande!

    AAA is also a great place to pick up road maps. I know I always stock up there for more then I’ll need before any road trip. Check out your countries Auto Club before you leave. Lots of international clubs have agreements with AAA, so you are a member, no matter what country you are in. (I used my AAA for membership in New Zealand’s auto club and got a free 6 month membership the first time I used them.)
    Also, when picking a hotel, factor in places with free breakfasts! You’ll save a meal and stock up on items (a-hem, milk and bread) that might expire after a day, but you’ll save (in your cooler!) for the day. Like making sandwiches at lunch:-)

      Yes, finding a hotel with free breakfast is definitely smart!! That’s what we did most of the time — if it offered free breakfast and wifi, it was the place for us!

      And good call about AAA being a good place to get free maps. Also, if you’re a member, you can have them print out all sorts of directions for you, which they’ll put in a nice little booklet. I know my mom and grandma used to use that service all the time.

    Great tips, Amanda! Best advice you gave: DON’T expect to eat healthy. We went on a month-long road trip last summer and a three-week road trip the year before, and both times we found it really hard to find healthy food, especially in the South. The cooler is definitely a great idea – especially now that we’re planning another road trip through the Northwest this summer 🙂

    P.S. Referring to the comment above – we also thought that choosing hotels/motels with free breakfast would be a great way to save money but in the end we couldn’t stand the unhealthy breakfast with watery coffee and sugary juice in these places anymore and stopped taking advantage of it, unless we could find some fruit (mostly, however, we couldn’t). Will you be road tripping to Keystone in June?

      America certainly is not home to the healthiest food on earth… and trying to eat healthy while road tripping across the country and keeping an eye on your budget? GOOD LUCK! Glad we weren’t the only ones to take notice of this.

      And I won’t be road tripping to Keystone this summer — but I WILL be flying there. 🙂

    Great stuff here Amanda…I don’t take as many road trips as an adult as it seemed we did as a kid, but there is still something appealing about being out on the open road. We have tossed around renting a small motorhome and driving west, but I doubt that I could ever be trusted with a home on wheels:)

      Haha, I know I certainly wouldn’t trust myself driving anything much bigger than my little Civic! 😉 But that would be a great way to see the country.

    Very good points for anyone travelling to the US.
    All important things like Budget, Maps, etc are nicely covered.
    Have a lovely week ahead Amanda:)

      Thanks, Arti. I think a lot of these tips could be applied to road tripping elsewhere in the world, too!

    Great resource! I’m planning for a road trip in the USA on my own bike. I’ll ship it by boat and then go on a 3 month tour of the country. The rough itenary is there, now fill in the blanks and gather some $$$

      Awesome! By “bike,” I assume you mean motorcycle? Or will you actually be biking around the country? Either way, it sounds like an awesome adventure! Hopefully you can use some of these tips.

    Some good amusing advice in ere. Enjoyed that. Deffo learn’t the plan ahead lesson in Yosemite in our Van. 😀

      Sorry you had to learn it the hard way! You wouldn’t be the first, though. I think most people assume they don’t need to plan ahead to visit national parks, but of course the reality is often the exact opposite!

        well we knew we should have, an it was the height of summer, so no campsite for us. It ended up well enough as we did the same again when heading to the coast, but this ended well as because I stayed with an Old school friend in Palo Alto.

    Great tips, Amanda. I love road trips, but it’s been since I was a kid that I took one as long as you did last summer. I really enjoyed following along on that trip.