The Five Golden Rules of Cross Country Road Trip Planning

A cross country road trip is like no other road trip! For most road trippers, it’s the Holy Grail of trips. For you, it may just be a long desired vacation or chance to visit family. No matter what your reason, you’ll need some tips in order to prepare that are very unique to a cross country road trip. These five Golden Rules of Cross Country Road Trip Planning will ensure that your trip is a success!

Golden Rule #1

Recognize that this country is HUGE. Looking at a map may give you the illusion that you can cross it in a couple of weeks. There is no way you can do that, no matter what any mapping site says. Day after day spent entirely behind the wheel is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and you certainly don’t want to suffer through it. A typical enjoyable cross-country road trip can last anywhere from a month to two months depending on whether it’s round trip or not.

  • Map It – Whether your cross country trip is round trip (from home and back) or one way (a rental or another car you can drop off and fly back), get on a mapping website that will estimate the number of hours it will take you to drive to your destination (and back if that applies). There are tons out there including Google Maps and MapQuest.
  • Get Real – If you think you can drive for 8 hours a day, you’ve got another thing coming. For a fun (I hope this isn’t some method of self-torture) road trip, you’re going to want to spend no more than four hours behind the wheel a day. That will allow plenty of breaks and sightseeing along the way, and you’ll need both on your vacation. To make your trip even more pleasant, plan a day “off” from driving occasionally during your vacation. Plan that day to be at a destination where there will be enough to see and do to entertain you for a full day.
  • Consider Your Destination – Wherever you’re going, it’s probably somewhere you’re very interested in, or you wouldn’t be crossing the country, right? Plan at least a few days there to really soak it up before heading back home, no matter whether you’re flying back home or driving back.

Golden Rule #2

Spend some time planning out the sights you’ll see along the way as well as your time at your destination. Winging it with this can lead to some very boring breaks along your route. Most great things just aren’t visible from the highway. Great resources for planning your stops/sightseeing are:

  • Guidebooks on each state you’ll pass through.
  • Travel forums – especially ones that address specific areas/states and cities.
  • Websites that specialize in a state/area you’ll be passing through or in road tripping attractions (like mine).

Golden Rule #3

One common question I get is whether to book all the hotels/campgrounds/other lodging and plan each day or just to “wing it” and hope for the best. The answer: you can do either, but there are rules specific to each. For the planner, it’s easy – plan! Booking ahead will usually ensure cheaper lodging and will guarantee that you’ll have a place to lay your head at the end of each day (winging it can be more dangerous, but there are tricks to make it less so).

If you want to “wing it”, you’ll still need to do some planning. At the very least, book your lodging in the areas you’ll be visiting along the way that are popular destinations. Trying to get last minute reservations near a place like Yellowstone Park in the summer is insanity. It won’t happen. Consider the time of year also – New York City in the month of December is a crazy time. Plan accordingly.

Otherwise, “wing it” people can either use their GPS and really fly by the seat of their pants, or they can protect themselves from trouble by doing the following.

Before You Go – Research areas along the way and at your destination that may – or may not – be places you’ll want to stay. Make a list of 3-5 lodging choices for each and take down the address information and the phone number. Put it somewhere safe and accessible for your trip (I use a folder).

On the Road – Every morning, make the decision. Where do you want to go that day? Select your evening destination and make calls to your listed lodging choices. Don’t put this off until later in the day if you want to guarantee a place for the night. What vacancies exist in the morning will probably be snapped up by the afternoon. Now you can follow your whims every day and still have the security of a reservation each evening.

Golden Rule #4

You’ll need to really baby your car before taking a cross-country road trip – more so than for any other road trip. You’re about to push it to its limits! Here’s a checklist of things to have addressed by your mechanic before you hit the road:

  • Read your manual and have all maintenance that’s due taken care of now. Timing belts, tune-ups, system flushes, etc. all fall into this category.
  • Get an oil change unless it was literally just changed.
  • Have your mechanic check the following: hoses, spark plugs, belts, air filter, and all fluids. Also, if there’s any problem/weird noise or smell that you’ve been noticing with your car, deal with it.
  • Tires are vitally important. If they’re old, they won’t be able to handle heating up as they roll on the road and will probably blow. Replace them now if warranted. Get your tires rotated and alignment checked

Be sure to pack a roadside emergency kit (jumper cables, flares, tire patching kit, jack, spare tire), make sure you renew or get a roadside service membership, and pack extra water, a blanket, a flashlight with fresh batteries, and some emergency snacks.

Golden Rule #5

Packing for a cross-country road trip is all about streamlining. Unlike other vacations, this is not one where you’ll want to pack an outfit for every day. The best plan is to have 5-7 pants/skirts/jeans and 7-9 tops/shirts that coordinate well (as well as shoes, underwear, socks.

Stick with neutrals (kaki, white, gray, black, navy, blue jeans) for easier mixing and matching. Add 3-4 sweaters and jackets (more layers if the weather will be colder) that also are in neutral colors. Bring a gentle detergent for hand-washing (or using a machine when your lodging offers it) to make these outfits last as many weeks as your trip lasts. Don’t worry about your travel companions growing bored with your wardrobe – most people don’t care about your clothes as much as you do!

When it comes to other items, be sure to bring enough of the things you can’t easily get on the road (prescriptions for instance). For everything else (drugstore shampoos, soap, shaving cream, etc) just bring what’s easy to pack and get more as needed on the road. You don’t need to bring everything – you’re not going into the wilderness!


If you obey these five golden rules of cross country road trip planning, you’ll be well-prepared to experience an outstanding road trip odyssey across the U.S.!