There is no doubt that America is beautiful, whether you’re more susceptible to her spacious skies, amber waves of grain, or purple mountains’ majesty. She’s also massive (the mainland alone occupies more than 3 million square miles!) which means that if you want to complete a cross-country road trip in a set amount of time, you’ve got to do some picking and choosing.
Below, you’ll find an easy-to-use guide to the ultimate U.S. road trip. From tips on the practical aspects of driving cross-country to some specific (and awesome!) itinerary ideas, America the beautiful has never been more approachable.
It goes without saying that you’ll need a driver license to take a cross-country road trip, but this becomes a slightly more complicated matter if you’re not American. For example, some states accept licenses from most countries, while others require an international driving permit. In all cases, you’ll need insurance for your vehicle, which you can purchase through the car rental company. Of course, you’ll need to be in the country legally with a valid passport and, for some nationalities, a visa.
Choosing the Right Vehicle
The U.S. interstate highway system is one of the safest, best-maintained and most extensive road networks in the world, but you can’t use any vehicle for any itinerary. For example, while your convertible sports car might be a great choice for cruising along the California Coast, mountain roads in Wyoming and Colorado might test the limits of its front-wheel drive. Likewise, you should pick a car, truck or SUV that has enough space to comfortably accommodate all passengers and luggage.
Where to Stay
When many people envision a classic American road trip, they imagine sleeping in cute roadside motels, but this is not always the most affordable or sensible option. Road trippers who stop in cities might find Airbnb apartments or boutique hotels a more comfortable option, while camping will allow you to experience state and national parks in a more authentic way. With this being said, you should keep in mind that roadside camping is rarely legal in the U.S., so check the rules before you pitch your tent.
Seasonal Driving Conditions
America is a huge country, which means that weather can vary considerably and in all seasons. For example, while roads in Hawaii and Arizona will be free of ice in December, you’ll need to drive with more caution in New York or Idaho. On the other hand, heavy summer rains can make driving along the Gulf Coast treacherous, while spring snow can fall as far south as Denver. To avoid pitfalls, check the weather daily during your cross-country road trip.
A Word About the Desert
Although the U.S. is the birthplace of the smartphone, American mobile networks leave something to be desired, particularly in the desert southwest. It’s not uncommon to lose reception for hours or even days when driving through states like New Mexico and Utah, so take practical precautions before and during your cross-country road trip. Notify friends and family not to worry if you’re temporarily unreachable, and consider renting a GPS navigation system as a backup for a mobile device that might not work.
Cross-Country Road Trip Itineraries
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
The most famous stretch of road in the United States is Route 66, and while the highway is now defunct, you can still drive portions of the proverbial Mother Road. Driving between landmarks of the route, including London Bridge (yes, the original London Bridge!) in Arizona, the “Cadillac Ranch” art installation in Texas, and Oklahoma’s Will Rogers Memorial, you will follow a route that, more or less, shadows Route 66, whether you go the entire distance between Los Angeles and Chicago or just part of it.
Another advantage of using Route 66 as a primer for your cross-country road trip is all the bucket-list attractions that sit in close proximity to it, including the Grand Canyon, White Sands National Monument, and the St. Louis Arch, to name just a few.
The northern U.S. is home to some of America’s most beautiful landscapes and cities, which makes it the ideal latitude for a cross-country road trip. The most basic variant of this itinerary would see you drive between Seattle and New York or vice-versa, sticking mostly to interstate highways as you visit cities like Minneapolis and natural wonders such as the Great Lakes.
Veering a little off the beaten path greatly expands your possibilities on this trip, which takes approximately 42 hours end-to-end without stopping, whether you camp in Glacier National Park, make an excursion to the resurgent “Motor City” of Detroit or spend some time in the Dakotas to gain an appreciation for Native American culture.
It’s no secret that the South is home to some of America’s best food and most legendary hospitality, from classic dishes like Jambalaya in Louisiana and “Hot Chicken” in Tennessee, to the warm welcome you can be sure to receive in cities like Savannah and Charleston. Portions and hugs aren’t the only big things south of the Mason-Dixon line, however, so plan your road trip accordingly.
If you’ve only got a short while, you might consider starting and ending in hub-of-the-south Atlanta. You can make a counter-clockwise loop that takes you south to Savannah (or even Miami!) and north to Charleston, before heading westward through North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains to Nashville. Here you can dine on the aforementioned spicy bird, before heading back down I-24 to I-75 and then to the ATL.
Longer itineraries can add states like Florida and cities like New Orleans to the mix, or even include the mansions of Mississippi or Alabama’s important Civil Rights Trail.
A Little Bit of Everything
Your head is probably already spinning, but if you still have more patience (and a lot more time!) you can see even more of America on a cross-country road trip. The first way to do this would be to combine one (or more) of the above itineraries. Drive Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago, then continue east to Boston, or further still along the gorgeous coast of Maine.
Alternatively, you could circumnavigate the country, starting in Miami and driving north along the east coast to New York, before heading west to Seattle or Portland, then down the West Coast to San Diego before taking I-10 through Phoenix, El Paso and Houston to Jacksonville, Florida. The options are really as endless as America is diverse, huge— and, yes, beautiful.
The Bottom Line
The complexity of planning a cross-country road trip is as difficult to downplay as the majesty of America is to deny. On the other hand, by keeping in mind a short list of practical considerations and by using a few classic itineraries as a starting point, you can assuage much of your pre-trip anxiety– even if you undertake the monumental task of driving from sea to shining sea. Need a flight or two to complement your USA road trip? Start your search below 👇