How To Plan An All-American Road Trip

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The great American road trip. Vast, craggy landscapes orange-soaked in desert sunbeams, two lane blacktop stretching to the horizon. The coffee, black as the hearts of men, pie spilling cherries like gut-shot cowboys. The dusty roads and gas station assignations between…

Desert Road on the way to Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California (Image public domain from Wiki Commons)

Desert Road on the way to Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California (Image public domain from Wiki Commons)

This grand continent fought for and gained its independence from us back in 1776. As the US celebrates again this July the 4th, maybe it’s time for us Brits to reflect on what we lost when the original colonists separated from the Mother country. There’s a reason there are no movies about commuting from Reading to Norwich. America is a land of limitless contrasts, from lush forest and mountains in the midwest, to snowy-peaks along the Canadian border, to the red desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

And the only way to truly experience it, is to drive through it.

This is a land conquered by the car. No wilderness has been left unscarred by road, no desert unmarked by tracks. And Seven Elevens. And Piggly Wigglies. If you want to see the USA, you should do it as God intended; in a 2.0 litre saloon. Hallelujah, brethren. But where do you start?

Getting your wheels

First things first, you’re going to need a car. Unless you want to cycle your way along Route 66, that is. The true romantic’s approach would be to buy a classic banger for a few hundred dollars, make sure that it runs and then use that to drive from East to West… While buying a vehicle shouldn’t be hard, there are so many other things to think about that your trip could swiftly turn from an American dream to a nightmare.

“In order to legally drive a car in the USA, you must have license plates from some state affixed to the car,” says Mike Leco of, “Those license plates are issued by the state bureau of motor vehicles, and prove that the car is registered in the state. In order to register the car in any state, you must have a permanent address in that state.“

So, car hire it is – but who to choose?

The big dudes, Avis and Hertz have some advantages. But the service these guys offer is generally aimed at business people needing a runaround for a few days when flying into a city. The bill could be huge.

Step down a rung or two to save money. Super cheap firms Thrifty and Dollar do standard car hire from about £10 a day – but you’ll need to add insurance on top. Budget firm Alamo specialises in car hire for road trips with all-in prices. With insurance for two drivers and breakdown cover, prices start at about £15 a day. Curiously, the fees change depending on how many State borders you cross – and even what direction you go in… LA to Chicago will cost you £15.36 a day all in. From Chicago to LA costs £25.77 a day. The moral? Travel East to West baby!

If you don’t want to leave it to chance use car hire comparison site Hotwire for ridonkulously cheap deals, paid for in advance.

There’s another option if car hire’s looking too expensive, besides stealing a 1970s Ford Camino from the side of the road. Volunteer to drive someone else’s car across the country with Auto Driveaway. You won’t get paid, but will get some expenses for gas. Problems? There are one or two… You’ll pretty much be stuck with driving from the pick-up point to the destination. And sightseeing? Forget about it.

Plan your route

How good is your US geography? We ask the question because this is going to really affect how you plan your trip. It would be lovely for us to be able to say “make a wish list of all the places you want to see” – but the United States is truly vast. If your wish list includes Sunset Boulevard, the birthplace of Kurt Cobain, Disneyland and the Niagara Falls then you’re going to end up doing a lot of driving…

Instead, it’s probably better to anchor your trip between two places you really want to visit and then plan a route between them.

That part’s easy. You can just jump onto Google Maps and plug in both destinations. Even better, try Road Trippers or The All-American Road Trip – sites designed to automatically plan routes between great American destinations. With Road Trippers, you can add waypoints to the route, with handy time calculations to create a daily itinerary. The All-American Road Trip goes a step further, inserting stopovers in for you every few hundred miles.

Both these sites have pre-planned itineraries and highlighted attractions too, from the classic Route 66 trip to journeys that will take you on a tour of the best vineyards in California, you can tour spots from famous films or just plan your own extended episode of Man vs Food.

When planning stopping points, give yourself time to see stuff. You could easily cover 300-350 miles in a day, every day – but that will leave you with little time for the sights.

And, another thing… Even if you use a website or Google Maps to plan your route, get a big map of the area and mark it out on that too. Use a chunky red felt tip and track your progress on the map. Why? A GPS can tell you where you are and it can tell you how long it will take to get from San Diego to Fresno. But only a big ass map can put your journey into a context. You’ll be able to see all the potentially interesting places around you, mark your progress as you go along and feel much more connected to your trip.

Road Trippers points out the cool, distracting stuff along your route to help you plan an American adventure.

Road Trippers points out the cool, distracting stuff along your route to help you plan an American adventure.

Packing for your trip

When packing for your trip you should travel as light as you can. Wash your smalls through when you stop over to cut down on bulk from too many clothes. Besides what you wear and your wash bag, you should have:

  • Smartphone with GPS
  • A lightweight thermal sleeping bag
  • A pop-up tent
  • External batteries to recharge devices
  • Dual port car charger
  • Potable water
  • First aid kit
  • Lighter/Matches
  • Energy bars

You may not use your tent, the emergency water or the first aid kit – but if you break down in the middle of the desert, you’ll be glad you have them. Though you shouldn’t carry too much cash, you’ll need some for toll roads and bridges. America’s full of ‘em. You can pay for everything else on cards.

Old hands recommend picking up a “gas card” – that’s a special credit card that gives you cashback and rewards for buying fuel. With a few hundred miles every day, you’ll be buying a lot of it so check out Nerd Wallet for the best offers before you go.

Top up your fuel often. Don’t let your tank drop below half full. It’ll give you a good excuse to stop and stretch your legs, change drivers and stock up on snacks. Most of your day will be spent traveling and sightseeing but make sure you eat breakfast and a hearty evening meal, every day. It won’t be hard. You’re in the obesity capital of the world.

Ready to go

You’re nearly set. The car’s been hired, your itinerary’s planned and you’ve packed your pop-up tent. All that you’ll need now is a few top tunes to play. Here’s our tip for that; use an MP3 player to cut down on bulk. You can connect most MP3 players to a car radio with an FM transmitter add on. Make yourself a playlist with about 100 of your choicest tracks on it and set it to shuffle… At the end of the week or fortnight you’ll know every song on that list inside out. Hear one of them again once you set foot in old Blighty and you’ll flash straight back to your time on the road.

While you’re on your trip, check in online at each destination. You can do that on Facebook by clicking on the “Check In” icon in the status update box. Post photos and a few words about your day. We may have gone past the days when adventurers used to write in leather bound journals, but your check-ins will make a record of your route for you to look over when you get home. It’ll also let your loved-ones know you’re doing OK.

It’s 106 miles to Chicago, you have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out and you’re wearing sunglasses.

Hit it!