I'm a big fan of road trips and have written fairly extensively about US road trips in the past, including road trip itineraries, road trip packing lists, and more.
But today I thought I would address another side of road trip travel and share some of the most common mistakes people make when planning a US road trip.
If you're thinking of planning a road trip in the United States this year, definitely read on to make sure you don't make any of these mistakes!
Biggest US road trip mistakes
1. Severely underestimating distances
The United States is a really big place, and both domestic and international travelers alike often forget that cities and attractions aren't always close together, even if it looks that way on a map.
Driving across Texas alone can take up to 15 hours; the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles are 8 hours apart; roads and highways won't always take you in a straight line, especially when mountains and coastlines are involved.
If you're planning a longer road trip, be sure to consult a map before you settle on your route and time frame to get an idea of how far apart things actually are. (And then allow extra time, because “beating” Google Maps estimates rarely ever happens these days.)
2. Underestimating road construction and delays
The bulk of the current US interstate highway system was built following President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. That 35-year-long project was hugely important – but many of those US highways are now aging. They were built when fewer cars were on the road, and it was left up to the states to maintain them.
It's nearly impossible to road trip within the United States these days and not run into construction slow-downs and bottlenecks (which are especially bad during the warmer months), and car crashes that can set you back hours.
Add in typical congestion and rush-hour traffic (especially around larger cities), stops for food/toilets/gas, and the likelihood of what “should” be a 5-hour drive taking 6-7 hours is high.
Be generous with your driving time estimates, and assume that you'll run into some sort of slow-down at least once a day if not more.
3. Planning too much driving
This is all to say that you want to be careful about a road trip plan that involves too much driving.
Now, what's “too much” is subjective, of course, but you probably don't want to be in the car 8+ hours every day, or be doing the bulk of your driving at night (especially in more sparsely-populated areas where wildlife becomes a real hazard after dark).
When I'm putting together a road trip itinerary, I try to make sure my average driving times each day are in the 3-4 hour range, with maybe one or two longer days if necessary, and days in between where I'm not planning to do much driving at all. Believe me, if you're over the age of 25, your bottom and joints will thank you.
4. Trying to cover too much in not enough time
And why do people pack in too much driving and underestimate distances? Because it's really, really easy to try to cover too much in too little time. The United States is huge, and it's impossible to see it all on a 2-week (or even 2-month!) road trip.
I totally understand this tendency, though; I, too, am a “cram it all in” type of traveler. But that's why, when planning road trip, I force myself to focus on one region, state, or theme for my trip to make sure it's manageable.
Within the US, this is easy to do. You could focus on one highway (like the PCH on the West Coast), one region (like the Southwest or Florida Keys), or one specific thing you want to do/see (like wineries in the Finger Lakes in New York, or roadside attractions along Old Route 66).
By narrowing down the focus of your road trip, it will make planning much easier and the drives generally less stressful.
5. Only focusing on the coasts or major cities
When you're choosing a theme or region to focus on, though, don't forget that the United States is much more than just its coasts and major cities. Sure, New York and Miami and Chicago are great, but cities are generally better for long weekend getaways rather than road trips.
And when thinking about themes, just be aware that LOTS of other people will have probably thought about visiting Utah's national parks in the summer, or going leaf-peeping in New England in the fall.
Don't forget about all the OTHER areas you could discover. For example, upper Michigan is also incredible in the fall, and you can see most of the highlights in states like West Virginia and Oregon in less than two weeks without many crowds.
6. Ignoring state parks
In the last couple of years especially, I've seen a trend towards national park road trips in the US. And this makes perfect sense, of course – we have some truly incredible national parks here, and more people than ever are wanting to get out into nature.
But just keep in mind that national parks can get very busy during high tourist seasons, and there are plenty of state and regional parks that are just as fabulous (but not nearly as crowded).
Some state parks that are similar and near famous national parks you could visit instead include:
- Snow Canyon State Park instead of Zion National Park in Utah
- Goblin Valley State Park instead of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah
- Dead Horse Point State Park instead of Canyonlands National Park in Utah
- Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park instead of Arches National Park in Utah
- Mount Mitchell State Park instead of Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina
- Lamoine State Park instead of Acadia National Park in Maine
- Bogachiel State Park instead of Olympic National Park in Washington
- Calaveras Big Trees State Park (for sequoias) instead of Yosemite National Park in California
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park instead of Joshua Tree National Park in California
- Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada instead of Death Valley National Park in California
- Golden Gate Canyon State Park instead of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
- Big Bend Ranch State Park instead of Big Bend National Park in Texas
- Custer State Park instead of Badlands National Park in South Dakota
- Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve instead of Everglades National Park in Florida
I love visiting national parks, but I like breaking up my own national park road trips with stops at lesser-known state parks, too.
7. Not doing your homework
Unlike flying to an unfamiliar city and “winging it,” you DO truly need to do some planning before taking a US road trip.
Some things you'll want to be sure to research (at least a little bit) before a road trip include:
- Road closures – whether seasonal, or due to damage or ongoing construction projects.
- Seasonal closures – For example, some parks, museums, restaurants, etc. close down in the winter or whenever the “slow” tourism season is.
- What weather to expect – You may assume you know what the weather will be like where you're going, but it never hurts to double-check. For example, it can be sunny and mild at Zion National Park but snowing in Bryce Canyon.
- Tolls – Don't get surprised by toll road fees; before you leave, find out where you might expect to pay tolls, and see if it's worth getting a toll pass device like an E-ZPass or I-PASS.
- Easy ways to save money – Three words here: National Parks Pass.
RELATED: USA Road Trip Essentials: What to Pack for a US Road Trip
8. Not booking things in advance
Another part of doing your homework is looking into what things you might need to book in advance. This is especially important in Pandemic Times, when many museums and attractions are only selling timed tickets that need to be booked ahead of your visit.
I also recommend booking any must-do or popular tours in advance (for example, if you're doing a Southwest road trip and want to visit Antelope Canyon, you probably won't be able to get on a tour unless you book ahead). I myself have nearly missed out on things I really wanted to do simply because I didn't research how far in advance tours tend to book up.
You also need to consider accommodation, too. In larger cities, you can usually book a hotel room last-minute. But in smaller towns (i.e. a lot of the places you might be visiting on a US road trip!), there are often only a couple hotel options. Meaning if you're visiting during a busy time, those rooms may sell out, or you may run into crazy marked-up prices. (This is how I ended up spending $200 per night staying at a dingy motel in Page, Arizona one time.)
Even if you're planning to camp, there are some campsites (especially ones within national parks) that require advanced reservations.
My rule of thumb is that if there's a tour I *really* want to take, or a hotel I *really* want to stay at, I book it in advance and plan the rest of my trip around it.
9. Assuming it's easy to eat healthy on the road
People who haven't traveled much within the United States are often surprised to find that the middle of the country is… well, kind of empty! Yes, the US has massive cities – but most of these are located near the coasts. The further inland you go, the more likely you are to run into deserts. Actual deserts, yes, but also food and service deserts.
Food deserts are a very real socio-economic phenomenon in the US. “Food deserts” are defined as “low-income census tracts with a substantial number or share of residents with low levels of access to retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods.” Food deserts can exist in low-income urban areas, as well as low-income and sparsely-populated rural areas.
And when local people don't have easy access to grocery stores, that means you're not likely to find restaurants serving healthy food options in those areas, either. On road trips, you're more likely to encounter rural food deserts, where fast food is often your only option.
Eating healthy on a US road trip, therefore, can be challenging. This is one reason why I always recommend traveling with your own cooler that you can fill with snacks (and healthier options) to have on hand when traveling through some of these areas.
10. Only taking major highways
When you're trying to “make good time” on a road trip, it's easy to just let Google Maps route you via major highways and toll roads. And indeed this will probably be the most direct (and sometimes safest) route to take. But don't forget that much of America is located on the two-lane roads off the major interstate highways.
I'm not saying you should exclusively avoid highways (unless that's maybe the theme of your road trip), but I would recommend looking up scenic drives and roadside attractions that might get you off the interstate every now and then.
After all, going on a road trip is truly just as much about the journey as it is the destination, cliche as that saying is.
11. Assuming Google Maps won't take you down unpaved roads
On the other end of the spectrum, definitely DO NOT trust Google Maps to only direct you down paved roads and highways. Especially in more rural areas, the default “fastest route” navigation may take you down some very interesting “roads.”
There was one time in eastern Oregon that Google Maps directed us to take an unpaved mountain pass to reach the Painted Hills, and another time in West Virginia when our GPS directions took us on a gravel “road” as a shortcut to reach a small distillery.
We were driving on dry roads during the daylight both times, and had no problem taking either of these routes – and they were both beautiful drives! But if Google Maps does this to you and the road looks dangerous or you're driving after dark, trust your gut! Don't be like Michael Scott and drive your car into a lake because your GPS told you to turn right.
12. Assuming you'll have phone (and radio) signal
Just as you might drive through food deserts and actual deserts on your road trip, you may also often find yourself in areas where you get no cell service or radio signal.
For this reason, it's always a good idea to download offline maps before you hit the road each day (it's easy to do with Google Maps; learn how to do it here), or go old-school and travel with a physical paper road atlas.
I also make sure to have music and podcast episodes downloaded on my phone so I can still listen to them even if I lose service. If you're driving an older car (like I often do), you also may want to travel with a small bluetooth speaker so you can listen to things on your phone when you lose radio signal.
13. Not stopping strategically for gas
Speaking of deserts and loss of signal, it's never a bad idea to stop for gas before you feel like you “need” to when driving through sparsely-populated parts of the country. If you're honestly not sure how far away the next town is, just stop and fill up even if your tank isn't near empty yet.
(On some of my longer US road trips through emptier states and regions, I travel with the latest version of The Next Exit, too, which lists everything you can find at every exit along major US highways.)
14. Not having contingency/emergency plans
What if you get a flat tire? What if you hit a deer while driving after dark? What if a weather event or natural disaster forces you to change your plans/route? What if you forgot to book something in advance and now it's sold out? What if you get sick (which is a very real possibility if you're traveling during COVID times)?
I'm not personally one to catastrophize, or assume everything will go wrong on a trip. But you should at least have contingency plans for the most likely scenarios (i.e. plans forced to change due to weather or sickness, or a car breakdown).
This might be as easy as signing up for an AAA membership if you don't have some other form of roadside assistance, and having a few backup activities in mind in case the weather doesn't cooperate.
And you should always, always have travel insurance. It's not always easy to find travel insurance to cover Americans traveling within the US, but it is possible. Right now, you want to look for a plan that includes trip interruption and cancelation coverage, including if it's COVID-related.
15. Planning *too* much
Lastly, I know a lot of the items on this list have been about planning, and how things can go wrong if you don't do enough of it before your road trip.
But be careful about going too far in the other direction, too. In my opinion, there IS such a thing as too much planning when it comes to road tripping.
You don't want to plan an itinerary that's so tightly packed that you have no flexibility to stop to take photos at a beautiful overlook, or spend some extra time at an interesting museum, or simply savor an especially pretty sunset.
A little bit of spontaneity will allow you to pull off the highway to visit a roadside attraction you've seen 17 signs for, or even swap plans to visit one national park for another if you realize the weather isn't going to cooperate.
When I'm planning a road trip, I plan the big, important parts first: the flights/rental car, accommodation that I know I need to book in advance, and any must-do tours or tickets. Then I roughly outline what each day of the trip might look like. But I always leave enough flexibility each day that the details could change or shift around if they need to.
Looking for US road trip ideas and itineraries? I've written several itineraries, all based on road trips I've personally taken! Check them out here:
- A Perfect 10-Day Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
- The Ultimate 7-Day Florida Keys Road Trip Itinerary
- The Perfect 12-Day Northern USA Road Trip Itinerary for Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas
- The Perfect 7-Day California Desert Road Trip Itinerary
- The Perfect 10-Day Michigan Road Trip Itinerary in Fall
- The Perfect One Week West Virginia Road Trip Itinerary for the Outdoors Lover
- The Perfect 10-Day Road Trip Itinerary for Oregon in Summer
- A Perfect Finger Lakes Road Trip Itinerary for 5 or 7 Days
Who's ready to plan a US road trip now? Have you ever made any of these mistakes?
It’s so big! Also, those long drives always sound fine on paper, but are never as enjoyable after about hour 4 in the car, especially if you feel like you’re running behind schedule.