Road trip guide

Planning your road trip: The optimum route

With a country the size of the USA, planning a route for your road trip can seem overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you:

  1. Think about how long you want to, are able to, and can afford to go for. This will determine how ambitious and expansive your trip can be! Remember the maximum stay for Brits on the visa waiver (ESTA) is 90 days. If you want to stay for longer you will have to apply for a 6-month tourist visa, but this can be risky, time-consuming and expensive. We were also warned by a friend who knows a lot about visa and immigration affairs that there is a chance you might be rejected for the 6-month visa as apparently “wanting more time” is not a good enough reason to apply, and this can then result in you also being rejected for the ESTA, which means you wouldn’t be allowed in the country at all! So it seems safest to stick to a range somewhere within the 90-day limit.
  2. A loop or a line? Most people don’t have the time to do a loop, but if you do, I highly recommend it! Doing a loop not only saves you money on flights and car rental fees, but there is also something very satisfying about arriving back in the same place you started, knowing you completed an epic journey. (Obviously, for certain types of road trips a loop doesn’t work, e.g. if you’re doing a West Coast road trip, or a road trip trying to follow the path of the old Route 66.)
  3. Think about weather – what time of year do you want to visit? This can help you plan when you want to be where. Remember the northern states can get extremely cold and get a lot of snow in winter (between October and May depending on how far north you go) and the southern states are usually sweltering hot in the summer months (May to September). That’s why we opted to do our road trip in the spring to try avoiding the worst of the winter weather in the northern states, but pre-empting the summer heatwave in the south (and also avoiding the hurricanes, as it turned out). This makes sense if you’re planning to do an extensive trip covering a lot of different regions like we did, but if you’re going to just one region you can plan your trip more specifically around when the weather is most likely to be optimal for your needs. Ultimately weather was one of our deciding factors for where to start the trip – we were starting in March, so we wanted to be somewhere southerly where it would be warm, which was one of our reasons for starting in Texas and not New York as originally planned!
  4. Once you know how long you’re going for, and preferably once you have flights booked so you can be certain of arrival and departure dates and times, you should think about what you can manage with the time you have. Is it more important to you to see a little bit of a lot of places (what we opted for) or to see a lot of just a few places? We needed the full 90 days because we were attempting a very ambitious trip encompassing most of the country (37 states in total), and we wanted to see most of the major cities, plus a few small towns and a good smattering of National and State Parks. But if you’re going for a shorter trip of just a few weeks, you’ll probably need to think about what it is you’re going for and pick a theme for your trip, e.g. you might want to focus on just one region (e.g. a classic road trip choice like the Four Corners region or the West coast, or something more obscure like the Deep South or New England), or your theme might be going to one city or town in every state (or a certain number of states if your trip isn’t long enough to manage every state). Are you more interested in going to lots of big cities (e.g. New York, San Francisco, Chicago), or would you prefer small towns to get a glimpse of “authentic” American life? Or do you want to avoid inhabited areas completely and just go to the National Parks and wilderness areas? Or maybe your theme could be something more abstract like music (e.g. visiting towns or cities that were significant for music or where famous musicians you admire grew up or lived).
  5. Think about where you know people – this could determine where you go! Sometimes it might bring you to a whole new place that you wouldn’t have considered going to before, or it might convince you to stay somewhere longer than you would have otherwise. You might know someone who lives at a convenient stopping point that could break up a long drive for you. And if you’re lucky enough to know someone who lives somewhere you wanted to go anyway, so much the better – they might let you stay with them, saving you money on accommodation, plus you’ll get a local’s perspective and they can take you to all the cool places without you having to do the research yourself! 😉
  6. Once you know where you want to go (I simply made a list of all the places I wanted to visit), look at a map! Work out distances between your chosen destinations and which order it makes the most sense to visit them in (so you’re not going back on yourself, etc.). Are you happy to haul ass for three days to get to your next desired destination, or would you rather plan a route with shorter drives and stop in more places along the way? (It’s a good idea to plan routes with stuff to see/do along the way for long drives anyway though, I’d say, even if you don’t stop overnight). You might find that some places are just too out of the way and would take too long to get to to make it worth your while going there, and you might have to cut them out when you get to this stage (we did this with Tennessee, for example – sorry, Tennessee). Or you might find that some of your planned drives are a bit too long to manage in one day (e.g. our plan to drive from Glacier National Park in the US to Vancouver in Canada), but you might find there is somewhere that looks interesting along the way that you can stop overnight in, or that you know people along the way to stay with (like we got lucky with Jenn’s relatives!)
  7. For a trip of this length and size, we found it helpful to make a spreadsheet with our destinations, addresses of where we were staying, and other information.Spreadsheet
    If this all sounds like too much planning for you, and you’d rather leave a little bit more to chance, that’s all well and good, but bear in mind the camping spots in the National Parks book up months in advance, and if you don’t know where you’re going and are just going where the road takes you, you might end up in a lot of boring random-ass towns, while missing something really amazing and worth seeing that’s nearby because you didn’t know about it! So I’d say make sure you have the main places you want to go to sorted (accommodation booked, etc.), but leave a bit of spontaneity in between if that’s your style.
  8. A road trip is such an individual thing, and it has to be tailored to what you want and how you envision it – are you a planner or do you like spontaneity? Do you like long drives with lots of time on the road, or just want to crack on to your next must-see destination without bothering to stop overnight too often, or would you prefer short drives with stops in more obscure places along the way? Are you a city or a nature person? Are you trying to see a lot of a little or a little of a lot? What is it about the USA that entices and fascinates you? Make this the focus of your road trip.

I hope you have as much fun planning your road trip as we had planning ours!

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