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Planning a Cross Country Road Trip With These Five Tips

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I love planning a cross country road trip! It’s one of my favorite ways to travel. For me the planning stage is almost as fun as the trip itself. Ok, maybe the actual trip is the best part! However, it’s only because of good planning that these come off so well (most of the time). I’ve done quite a few road trips over the last few years. From cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway, through the deserts of the Southwest, or winding along the Blue Ridge Parkway, there is a little something different about how I planned each one. So, I’ve got a pretty good feel for what goes into planning and what you need to consider before hitting the road. My five tips for planning a cross country road trip will get you setup for success. Then, you’ll be ready to hit the road in no time!

1. Start Planning a Cross Country Road Trip Early (and Take Breaks!)

One of the things I’ve found about planning a cross country road trip, is you need to plan in advance. I’m talking about months and months in advance! For those of you who are more spontaneous travelers, this might be anathema to your style but trust me it will be worth it. Each of the major road trips I’ve taken came from planning for a few months, and some even over a year! The time you take will make the difference in how prepared you feel and make the trip a whole lot smoother.

Tiny Tip: Think about using a pin board to toss up your ideas!

The first time I get an idea for a road trip, I immediately start thinking of a hundred different things I might need to do to plan it. If I’m just jumping right in and rushing, I’m bound to forget something because that’s just who I am. However, another great aspect of taking time to plan is that you can take some breaks. Putting your plans to the side for a little while can let them marinate. Then when you return to them, you can see if what you planned still makes sense. Maybe you’ve taken a vacation in-between and that can guide your prep for this big ol’ trip! It also helps stop trip planning burnout which can make the final trip more relief than an adventure.

Planning a cross country road trip well in advance also give you time to find the right season. Depending on your budget and availability, it might be right to put the trip off for a little while to go at the right time. By giving yourself time, you’ll get to make a trip that is truly yours and not one you cobbled together at the last minute looking at travel blogs like mine (though we do have some good advice!)

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone (and be flexible too!)

When we all travel, we tend to want to stay in our comfort zones. It’s honestly human nature to gravitate towards what is comfortable to us. Yet, if we stay in these comfort zones too much we lose the ability to find some adventure when out on the road. It also has a tendency to put ourselves in a box when it comes to planning because we always look for the same things. If you’re needing some inspiration, check out these travel quotes about road trips that might spur you along.

One of the best ways to get uncomfortable on a long road trip is change up your accommodations. I used to be a big hotel/motel traveler. No matter where we went, we found a bed and walls each night. Now, I’ve found some awesome hotels along the way (shout out to The Rigdon House) but I wonder what I might have missed as well. Recently, we changed our approach and started doing a whole lot more car camping. It has really made each journey even more enjoyable and unique because each stop is more unique than any hotel. As an added bonus, now I’m more apt to be flexible in planning our stays because I’ll be comfortable either way. It has also helped me save a bit of cash by planning and buying our food ahead of time using this ultimate camping food list!

Another big call out is to be willing to see places you might otherwise avoid. If you’re not one for wandering downtown streets (or small town lanes) then throw a couple into the trip. Alternatively, plan some outdoor excursions along the route if you’re normally a point to point tripper. These will do wonders for changing your experience and for the better I guarantee. This again adds some great flexibility. Stop at that road side attraction when you see it randomly, even if you didn’t plan it in advance. Take some time in that town you’re just driving through, rather than just grabbing some gas and going again.

3. Understand Your Budget (and where to cut expenses!)

The biggest stumbling block to any long road trip is the budget. Anytime I’m planning a cross country road trip, my budget is at the top of my mind. There seems to be a hundred little factors that go into the cost of a trip. Not to mention all of the little unexpected expenses that pop up along the way. By nailing down your budget in advance, you’ll be way more equipped when surprises show up on the road.

Tiny Tip: Consider how much cash you might need to bring along in case of emergencies

If you don’t already have an RV or the start/end of your tip happens to be your house, renting a car is a major expense. For two of our trips, the rental was a major expense that we had to factor into the plan. Knowing this ahead of time and the amount you have budgeted overall will help you make choices about how long you can travel and what kind of accommodations you’ll need to seek out.

The next biggest expense in any long road trip is gas. Every mile you drive ultimately has a cost, but its extremely easy to forget. When planning out a road trip, I take the estimated cost from each state and average it. The multiply that by the MPG in the car and miles per day to understand the real cost of my travel. By making sure I’ve accounted for this ahead of time, it’s another added layer of protection for the unexpected.

Where you stay (or how) each night will be another major part of the budget. This is also where you can really save some money if you’re following tip #2. Camping is vastly cheaper than a hotel and makes for a completely different experience as well. When we car camped the Blue Ridge Parkway, it helped us feel even more connected to the road on that trip. It also saved a ton of money and time as well! It’s critical to know where you feel comfortable making cuts and saving a few dollars. Knowing in advance gives the freedom of mind to just enjoy the experience more.

4. Fall in Love with Google Maps (and one really annoying limitation!)

I love Google Maps. It is the single most used tool in my arsenal when planning a cross country road trip. Actually, I use it for nearly every trip I take. It is the first thing I pull up when planning a trip. Maps is up and running the entire trip on my phone. I’ve always loved maps since I was a kid, so the sheer amount of information you can get from Google Maps is a dream to young Zack!

Tint Tip: Go crazy with the directions and locations. Google can mostly handle it

The largest amount of value you’ll get from Google Maps when planning is finding the unknown. Put in your start and end points, then spend time searching along the route. Find all the hidden parks or attractions that only show up when you zoom in. Pan around to see what’s off the beaten path that you might have missed. Search for that one-of-a-kind local shop, bar, or restaurant that is a diamond in the rough. I spend countless hours doing this when planning my trips because it unlocks a whole different level of detail you can add.

The directional functions of Google Maps are really great as well. Trips don’t have to be just A to B, but you can include C, D, E, F, G, H, and I too! This is a fantastic way to have Google do some of the hard work for you. Plus, you can even drag the route to customize! However, there is one really annoying limitation with this. Customized routes get lost when transferred away from your desktop computer. For some trips, like the Great River Road, Google can’t follow the winding path. Knowing this, I always break my days into smaller parts which helps get the exact directions I need.

5. Don’t Forget the Small Details (but don’t stress about them either!)

It’s easy to get ourselves caught up in the grandness of a road trip. The idea of being on the open road and enjoying the freedom it can bring is exhilarating at times. Yet, that also makes it pretty easy to miss out on the small details that can make a trip truly shine. I think its massively important that you find the small details that can make your trip go from good to great. For me, its the food. I want to make sure that we don’t miss an opportunity to grab a fabulous bite to eat. Whatever your small detail is, focus some of your planning time and energy on it and you’ll definitely be rewarded.

The small details can also be parts of a trip that can bring a ton of stress, so this tip has another major point. Don’t stress over them either! These are really moments where you can find some spontaneity too! Even if you make a mistake (big or small), it might turn into a wonderful experience. On our PCH road trip I booked a hotel for the wrong night. I was really stressing until I realized it was an opportunity to do stay in somewhere overlooked. Finding a spot at the Anchor Pier Lodge was a highlight of the trip, that came from me overlooking a small detail. Learn to embrace the small details, both planned and not, and you’ll have a wonderful trip no matter what.

Bonus Tip: Get a Good Playlist!

Tiny Tip: YouTube Music is an awesome tool for playlist building!

Saying you’ve got six tips for planning a cross country road trip just isn’t as catchy as five, so here is a “bonus” tip instead. No road trip is complete, in my humble opinion, without accompanying music. Every trip I plan now gets it’s own soundtrack. I find it to be a critical part of my planning because it helps connect me with the feeling of being on the road while I’m at my computer. I supplemented the adventure through the desert with an epic desert road trip playlist featuring some of my favorite bands. My trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway was full of music inspired and about those famous mountains. Regardless of if you make the playlist yourself, or borrow one you find online, it’ll certainly add that extra jam to your road trip sandwich.

Final Words on Planning a Cross Country Road Trip

No matter if you’re a seasoned pro road tripper, or heading out on your first adventure, planning is critical. Ultimately, being able to plan your trip in advance will eliminate a ton of headaches. Being spontaneous has its own advantages, I just find them more enjoyable when I have a fall back already in place. Regardless of your approach, I think having fun is most important. What that means for each person is going to be different. Find that goal with your road trip, aim for it, and appreciate the end result. At the end of the day, it’s more about the journey than the destination anyways. If you’re looking for some trips to apply these planning tips to, check out my top 23 trips for 2023!

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