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How to plan the ultimate road trip across the USA

If you're getting ready to road trip across the great United States, make sure you have everything you need to prepare. To ensure you don't get stuck in the snow or miss out on the best pit stops, follow this guide!

There is no question that the US is a beautiful country, whether you’re more susceptible to her spacious skies, amber waves of grain, or purple mountains’ majesty. Although we can’t explore its breathtaking scenery as thoroughly as we’d like to right now, we can still start dreaming and planning a future cross-country road trip.

With more than 3 million square miles of just the mainland to discover, below, you’ll find an easy-to-use guide to the ultimate coast-to-coast adventure. 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.

Practical matters for planning a cross-country road trip

Flowers blooming in front of snowy mountain

What documents do you need?

It goes without saying that you’ll need a driver’s 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.

Which vehicle is best for a road trip?

The US interstate highway system is one of the safest, well-maintained, and most extensive road networks in the world, but you can’t use just 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.

How long is a cross-country road trip?

This depends on how much time you have and how much you want to see along the way. The shortest amount of time to drive from the West Coast to the East Coast (or vice versa) is between four to six days. This kind of road trip requires 8 to 10 hours of driving each day, leaving you little time to make pit stops. However, if you have more time, you can spend only a few hours driving per day or even stay several days in one location. A road trip of this kind can take several weeks or months to drive across the USA. Use our road trip gas calculator to see how much your road trip will cost.

Car on a cross-country road trip with its doors open on a gravel road

Where should you stay?

When people envision a classic American road trip, they might imagine sleeping in quaint little 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. That being said, you should keep in mind that roadside camping is rarely legal in the US, so check the rules before you pitch your tent.

What is the best season to drive across the country?

The US is a huge country, which means that the 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. The off-peak seasons of spring and fall tend to be the best times to drive, providing mild temperatures and perfect weather for both sight-seeing and cruising. However, to avoid pitfalls, check the weather daily during your cross-country road trip.

A word about the desert

Although the USA is the birthplace of the smartphone, its mobile networks can leave something to be desired, particularly in the deserts of the 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 your friends and family so they don’t 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

Cactus off the side of the road in the red rocks area

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.

Northern exposure

first person view into the woods from inside a camping tent

The northern US is home to some of the country’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.

Southern comfort

mangroves and trees in the swamp

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.

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

fall foliage on either side of an open road in USA

Your head is probably already spinning, but if you still have more patience (and a lot more time!) you can see even more of the US 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.  Or maybe you want to set up a theme for your road trip — like to see the most unique buildings in the US. The options are really as endless as the country is diverse, huge—and, yes, beautiful.

The bottom line

There’s no denying that planning a road trip across the US can get a bit complex at times, but rest assured that this one-of-a-kind experience is well worth it. By creating a shortlist of practical considerations and utilizing a few essential itineraries as your starting points, you can assuage much of your pre-trip anxiety, which is always half the battle. Once the research is complete and you’ve hatched your plan and packed your bags, all you have left to do is hop in the car and begin your epic journey from sea to shining sea. Safe travels! 

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