how to plan a cross country road trip

How To Plan A Cross Country Road Trip

Planning a cross-country road trip can feel daunting, but if you take it in pieces it’s easy to do.  Start with how long you’d like your trip to be, and then select a final destination.  Put together a rough budget so you can start planning a route with attractions and accommodations.  Then it’s just a matter of saving your money and getting ready to go! 

I have amazing childhood memories of a summer spent traveling from California all the way out to the east coast and back again.  Tons of car ride games, overnights with family we’d not seen in years, late-night swims in the hotel pools, and all sorts of weird and wonderful roadside attractions.  I had always wanted to do it again as an adult.

So don’t wait!  Take our advice and start planning your cross-country road trip now. 

Decide how long you can spend on the road

A cross-country road trip will give you dreams of endless freedom and adventure, but your reality may be any number of obligations that can’t be left for infinite time.  To avoid stress on the road, be realistic about how long you can spend away from your regular life.  It takes 4-6 days to drive across the USA, but this is with 8-10 hours of driving a day.  Not really the adventure people have in mind or the safest. 

A minimum of 2-3 weeks is a more realistic time frame to have an enjoyable cross-country experience, but you will find a schedule that works for you.  

Pick an end/turn around point

Once you know how long you have to travel, you can pick a designated turning around point. This will be a place you reach, rest, and relaunch from.  This helps give your trip some direction and structure.  I recommended choosing a place you’d be happy to spend a few days in. Think loads of tourist attractions, nature reserves, or distant loved ones you never get to see. 

If you are renting a car, you may even choose to return your vehicle at this point and fly home from there.  The option is up to you!

Make a list of key stops between you and your endpoint

Now that you have a turnaround point, break out the map and start googling! Make a list of all the things you’d like to see between here and there.  Your list should have the full name of the attraction/stop as well as the phone number and address for ease of locating later.

Star things you absolutely must see, but leave things on the list that might be interesting alternative choices.  You never know what weather and road conditions will be like so it’s good to have options.

Check out our article on How to find Tourist Attractions along a Route for more advice. 

planning a cross country road trip

Map a route

Remember, you will be driving to your destination and back, so your route should come to resemble more of a circle than a straight line.  Start connecting a path between your key stops and your final destination.  Make sure you know alternative routes and always have an idea of how you could get home quickly should an emergency arise.   

Consider the time of year you will be traveling and be aware of the weather conditions in the states you will be passing through.  The USA is massive and not all states experience the seasons equally. 

There will be remote parts of the country with limited cell service.  When you are mapping your route, you will want to make a note of these areas.  Have a backup GPS system, or paper map, and be prepared to be out of touch with the wider world for a few hours, or even days!

Determine a budget

Now that you know how long you will be gone and where you will go, it’s time to start thinking budget.  You may or may not be earning money while you are on the road (depending on your job and paid holiday allowance) so it’s important to have a realistic grasp of how much money you want to spend.  We have a detailed article on How to create a Road Trip Budget, but here are some things to know upfront:

Key sections of your budget should include fuel/car service, food, accommodation, and recreational activities.

Gas prices vary across the country, and depending on the length of your trip your car may need some basic maintenance.  Know how many miles to the gallon your car gets, and approximately how many miles you will be driving, to get some rough figures.  We can show you How to Estimate the Cost of Gas here.

Budgeting for food on a road trip isn’t really any different than budgeting for food at home.  It is cheapest to cook as much of your own food as possible, so any accommodation that allows you to cook for yourself is ideal. We have some great Road Trip Food suggestions to get you started.

It’s tempting to book loads of hotels on your route, but this is the most expensive option and should be used sparingly.  Consider money-saving options like campsites, Air BnB, or even staying with friends and family who are scattered across the country.     

Still worried?  Don’t be, we’ve got more advice on how to Road Trip on a Budget.

Book popular lodgings and attractions in advance

Road trips are all about freedom, spontaneity, and getting connected with the world around you in the moment.  You want to leave room in your schedule for a little mystery, but there are some attractions and hotels that are too popular to leave to chance. 

If you are traveling in peak season, or it’s a popular destination, book in advance and consider it one of the staple stops of your road trip.    

planning a cross country road trip

Prepare your vehicle

A cross-country road trip is a lot of miles, weather, and varying terrain for any vehicle, so make sure your car is up to the task!

Get your car to a trusted mechanic for a tune-up and a little once over.  Fresh breaks, tires, fluids topped up, and any potential problems should be identified and corrected before hitting the road.  If you aren’t sure your car is up to the task (or just don’t want to put the miles on your car), then consider renting a car.  Though this will affect your budget. 

You want a car with plenty of room for both luggage and people.  Hours in the car means space is precious. Cars with tinted windows and climate control will also save you loads of discomfort on the miles ahead. 

Make a packing list

If you are road tripping across the country, you are going to be living out of your car for the next couple of weeks.  So it’s time to get organized and make a list!

You’ll want to make sure you have clothing for any weather you might encounter.  Things that don’t wrinkle, take up little room, and have multiple functions are ideal.  Think of the types of activities you have planned and start there.

Camping gear!  It is highly likely you will be spending more than a few nights at campsites along the route.  You do not want to forget the essentials: a sleeping bag, tent, and some cooking gear. 

Know what tech you need and make sure to bring your charges.  Outside of your phone, we recommend a GPS system (if your car doesn’t come with one), and possibly a portable DVD player if you are traveling with kids.

There’s a lot to think of, but don’t get overwhelmed just yet.  We have some recommended packing lists for whatever situation you’re in:

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