Note: I completed this road trip in the summer of 2020, so Section 5: Expenses will vary based on when you read this. Even if some of the details are subject to change, this post is a fantastic template for you when you decide to take the trip of a lifetime!
This post will be your handy guide if you plan on driving cross country one day. Below, I discuss everything from mindset to preparation, to details of the drive itself.
What’s in a Road Trip?
- 17 sun-drenched days, 17 starry-skied nights (with a few gnarly storms here and there)
- 8,462 total miles driven (sorry, not sorry, Enterprise!)
- 120+ hours of fun, laughs, audiobooks, music, and podcasts in the car (estimated)
- 22 gas pumps (and lots of hand sanitizer)
- 16 States (PA, OH, IN, IL, IA, NE, CO, UT, AZ, NV, CA, NM, TX, OK, MO, WV)
- 11 State Capitals (Des Moines, Lincoln, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Oklahoma City, Springfield, Indianapolis, Columbus, Harrisburg)
- Plains, mountains, forests, deserts, oceans, lots of cows, horses, elk, coyotes, roadrunners and tumbleweeds
- Temperatures ranging between 36° in the Rocky Mountains and 108° in southern Arizona
- Elevations ranging between 0’ at Redondo Beach, CA and 13,478’ in Rocky Mountain National Park
- 3+ large (1000+ acre) forest fires
- 10,000+ dead bugs on the front of the car
- 1 pull-over by Border Patrol in Southern New Mexico
- Coral pink sand, red dirt, and inches of white salt in our shoes and tires (all from Utah)
- Countless unexpected diversions that will make driving cross country truly unforgettable
And it’s crazy to think that we haven’t even scratched the surface of America…
Over the past week I’ve recapped the 17 days of my road trip that that took me and my girlfriend from the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania through the arid northern Arizona desert, to the Pacific Ocean and back. If you want to check out some pictures or need a little motivation to get out and take the trip of your lifetime, I recommend checking out Part I and Part II.
My goal with this post is not just to show and tell my experiences, but primarily to set proper expectations and to show you exactly how to get up off the couch, out of your cubicle, out of bed, away from the TV, and into a car (fuel efficient if possible) that will take you on a trip that you will never forget.
The following is based solely on my own experiences, so I cannot promise that it will optimize for your specific needs. What it will do is give you a framework from which to build your own plan.
Layers of the Onion
Planning an extended road trip is a lot like peeling the layers of an onion. Driving cross country, during normal times, has layers and layers of decisions that could effect each subsequent layer of decisions:
- Choosing between an driving an RV, your own car, and a rental.
- Selecting your destination and which cities and towns to stop in.
- Navigation—which routes will get you to where you want to go within the parameters of your goals.
- Deciding how much time you have and how much you want to cram into the trip.
- Accounting for the difference between how much money you are willing/able to spend, and how much it will actually cost.
- Identifying all expenses and hidden costs that will make up your total expenditure: gas, food, rentals, parks passes, insurance, lodging, etc.
- How to stay sane in the car for hours on end.
- Technology—how to communicate, or even navigate in areas with absolutely no cell phone service.
These are just some of the complexities you would expect in normal times. But these are no normal times. COVID-19 and recent inflation have added new layers of complexity to driving long distances, while simultaneously removing others. Many of things have changed dramatically over the last two years, including public health and financial considerations, so keep those in mind as you read this article.
If you have never done an extended road trip, all of this might seem intimidating and overwhelming to the point where it might not even feel worth doing such a trip. But I have good news: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just use my experience as a guide and shape it to fit your own aspirations for the perfect road trip.
Part 1: Decide and Commit
Like building a business or any large undertaking, dreams of driving cross-country can vanish before they ever materialize. And almost always, our indecision and inaction is the culprit. There are a million and one reasons to delay or put it off. Don’t. Decide what you want and make an irreversible decision, a forcing function, to keep you from talking yourself out of it.
Like many of my adventures, I didn’t plan this road trip with a lot of lead time (started planning 5/25, left on 6/5). Sure, anticipation is half the fun, but it is also the source of all second-guessing. To eliminate that possibility, my girlfriend and I set a goal to drive from the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to Page, AZ. I made a simple spreadsheet with the dates that we felt comfortable with and made the most sense. More on this in the next step.
Page, AZ is a town that we have previously visited and enjoyed it enough that we decided to make it a primary destination. It served as a strategic base, as it is accessible to many of the Southwest’s best national parks and destinations. So I booked a place in Page for nine days. You will soon see how quickly plans change.
Part 2: Prioritize Structure So You’re Free to Play
Do not over plan. It will take the fun, the serendipity, and the wonder out of the whole experience. What you want to do is build constraints or safety nets that will allow you the freedom to do what you want while ensuring that you don’t overextend yourself. As you can see in the tables below, due to unforeseen circumstances, our original plan and our actual outcome differ drastically.
While in Page, we decided that we might as well go all the way to the coast. Why commit to driving cross-country without seeing the Pacific Ocean?? That forced us to sacrifice the last two nights in Page (lodging costs in Part 5), and book places in new cities. Personal experience had taught me not to book everything from the original plan, as I knew things were bound to change.
Imagine if we planned everything down to the smallest detail and booked every hotel! It would be a logistical mess, or at the very least, a duller road trip.
Create a structure that will give you an idea of what you have to work with. Timeframe, distance, destinations. Knowing these will give you a sufficient framework and the freedom to adjust on the fly.
Part 3: Preparations
- Rent a car. If you don’t have an RV or don’t plan on driving your own car, rent a fuel-efficient car from Enterprise (I have no financial stake in that recommendation!). The reason I recommend Enterprise is that they do not charge petty fees for out of state driving or for mileage like most of the other “cheaper” rental companies. You can drive 10 miles, or 10,000 miles and you will still be charged the same. Go to a small town rental location, as they will probably have cheaper options, and more availability.
- Be mindful of your thirst for adventure. You don’t want to be driving off-road on rocks and sand, or up steep mountains in a smart car. But you also don’t want to break the bank with the rental or at the gas pump. Find the right balance for your needs.
- Insurance: this decision comes down to your toleration of risk. You typically don’t have to take the rental company’s insurance if you are covered under your own plan. But some form of insurance is required for a rental.
- Pack only what you need. It is tempting to take everything you own for a three-week trip, but you will feel much freer by travelling lighter. Odds are you will only use half of what you bring anyway. Like how a messy desk creates feelings of anxiety and disorganization at work, a messy car will create the same for you on the road.
- Unfortunately for us, we were already coming from a rental property in the Poconos, so in addition to our clothes and food, I had my kettlebell and pullup bar and other random bags taking up space. Not ideal for being stopped by border patrol, but we made it work.
- Searching for towns/lodging. This is totally subjective, as people range from minimalist campers to those who need every comfort and accommodation. We mainly kept it to Airbnb and simple hotel searches. In many cases these days, hotels are becoming cheaper than Airbnb on average. Other than for Page, we didn’t book anything further out than three days. In busier times, that might have to change. But we valued flexibility over all else.
- Location depended largely on our interests, and our stomach for longer drives. A rule of thumb for a cross country trip would be to take your total distance and divide it by how many days you plan on driving. From that you will have an average daily distance, which will give you an idea of where to stay each night. For us, we literally did a 24-hour cross country drive on the first night (2pm in Pennsylvania to 12 noon the next day in Boulder, Colorado), which allowed for more time in the western part of the country. On the way back, I simply divided 2800 miles by 4 days, which gave us 700 miles each day. We then chose our return stops based on that. We had a consistent average of 65-70mph on the highways, so we braced for four consecutive 10+ hour days on the back end of the trip. (Not as bad as it sounds, but very tiring once you arrive home.)
- Again, what we did may not exactly work for you. This is simply a framework and an example.
- Planning Meals. We didn’t really plan meals other than a stop at In-n-Out Burger in Las Vegas and a stop at the Page, AZ Safeway. On the trip to Boulder, we packed meals which were able to save us a decent amount of money.
- National Parks. If you plan on visiting more than two national parks, it will be in your best interest to purchase an annual National Parks Pass. It will save you a lot of money in the big picture.
- Car Entertainment. Plan tons of audiobooks, podcast episodes, music and other car activities. We spent well over 120 hours in the car, for some perspective. My girlfriend and I have different musical tastes, so we would mainly leave it up to whoever was driving. I also listened to Audible (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Working by Robert Caro), podcasts like Joe Rogan and Tim Ferriss, and we had a free trial for Sirius XM.
- Make sure you have an auxiliary audio cable, because not all cars and not all phones work well together.
- In later stretches of long drives, trivia helped keep me alert and focused. Don’t hope that you won’t get tired behind the wheel, expect that you will and prepare accordingly.
- Plan for life without cell phone service. In certain parts of the country, there is no service available for calls and/or navigation. You do not want to get stuck in the middle of a desert with no idea where you are. More on this in the next section.
Tools you can use to map out your trip similar to mine above: google.com/mymaps and maps.roadtrippers.com
Part 4: The Drive
The purpose of the road trip is to enjoy the process. The journey IS the destination.
If you treat driving on a road trip like a job, you will be miserable. Like looking forward to payday or the weekend, if you are only looking forward to the destination of a road trip, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment. You might as well take a plane.
As mentioned above, we left our place in the Poconos at 2pm on the 5th and arrived in Boulder at 12pm on the 6th. A 24-hour mission like this is not for the faint of heart, but it certainly helps to have someone else in the car who can take over driving duties.
Both times we passed through the Midwest, the attractions tended to be in the sky rather than on the ground (in the form of intense thunderstorms in the vicinity of our route). Be prepared for nasty storms or even tornadoes.
Once you get to the Rocky Mountains, there will be large patches of territory with no cell service. I use an app called maps.me to download maps you can use offline. You can also do that through Google Maps. If you want to go old school, opt for a paper map and a marker. Having a plan when you are totally off the grid is a necessary step in preparation.
You will notice many more (or a higher ratio of) 18-wheel semi-trailer trucks on the road in the west. Be extra cautious when driving near them. On more than one occasion we witnessed a trucker swerve violently. Another truck totally blew out its tire right in front of us. While they can be dangerous (and slow), 99% of them were no problem at all for us. You’ll notice on steep uphills in the western states that one-lane roads turn to two lanes. This is for slower trucks to stay on the right side.
Also plan to run into your fair share of road work. Speed limits are strictly enforced, and you do not want to be liable for a ticket on the other end. I would estimate that 25-30% of our routes has some sort of road work, so play it safe. Otherwise, most highways have 75-80 mph speed limits.
Borderlands. When you find yourself driving within 100 miles of international borders in the U.S., prepare for stops at immigration checkpoints and/or roving law enforcement pullovers. Unfortunately, we had a run-in with the latter. With bags piled in the trunk and the back seat, I was wary of a possible search. The first thing the agent did was tap on our trunk to check for any signs of human trafficking. Needless to say, we’re not into that kind of stuff, and luckily, the agent was very nice and cordial. He only asked a few basic questions and we were back on our way.
The key, if ever pulled over by law enforcement in border zones, is to just relax, be honest, and be calm. Within the innocent questions they ask, if they sense any sign of unease or unnatural interaction, it could be cause for a search of your car. And whether it’s just wasted time or the confiscation of your recreational substances that you are worried about, searches are not ideal.
While it is important to avoid over-planning, it is essential that you prepare yourself for less-than-optimal situations. Learn how to replace a flat tire, or just get a AAA membership. There are many more situations than what I have listed, so do your research and be prepared.
Part 5: Expenses – in 2020 dollars (subject to change with inflation)
- Car/Insurance: I originally envisioned driving my Jeep Wrangler out west, which would have exposed me to a lot more risk and a higher gas expenditure. But in a crazy turn of events, just three days before leaving, my Jeep was hit by another car on the side and sustained minor damage that was sufficient to keep it off the road for a while. In a way, this may have been the best scenario, as I was able to get a rental car, the cost of which was fully covered by insurance. For the purposes of accuracy, I will still include the cost of the car in the total. We rented a 2019 Nissan Sentra, which got on average about 40 mpg. As stated earlier, find the balance between cost and your thirst for adventure. While mine is pretty high, we had already experienced our fair share of off-roading on previous trips to the west, so we decided to play it safer on this trip.
Total Cost: $26/day x 18 days +tax/fees = $531 (again, things have changed dramatically in the last couple years. Update your own cost calculations)
- Gas: A side-effect of COVID-19 had been lighter traffic on the roads. And with less traffic on the roads, there was less demand for gas. Which made it a perfect opportunity to save even more money on a roadtrip! The car we rented (40 mpg) was much better on gas than my Jeep would have been (20 mpg), so this worked out well in our favor.
Total Cost: 22 gas stops x $2/gallon on average x 10 gallons each fill = $440
- Hotels/Stays: Another benefit of a pandemic road trip was that finding a place to stay was almost too easy. With prices lower and availability at all-time highs, options in each town were wide-ranging. Our average nightly cost ranged from $80-$100 at Airbnbs and $60-$80 at hotels.
Total Cost: 15 nights x $80 average/night = $1200 + 160 (final two nights sacrificed in Page)
- Attractions/National Parks: I have an annual National Parks Pass, which allows you to visit any and all NATIONAL parks in the country for one flat yearly fee. Beware that some parks are state-run, like Pike’s Peak south of Denver. I got my pass last summer for $85. If you do not have a pass, be prepared to pay at least $30-$40 per national park per car.
- COVID definitely had an impact on our plans, whether it was a flat-out closure (White Sands in New Mexico) or a time-limited reservation (Rocky Mountain National Park). We went to Rocky Mountain National Park on our rest day in Boulder, and in order to get in, we had to register on the Recreation.Gov app, which charges you a $2.50 admin fee to make a reservation. Not a huge problem, but just another example of how COVID impacted the NPS.
Total Cost: $87.50 (Pass + RMNP Reservation fee)
- Food: I did not track food costs to the dollar, but I estimate it to average out to about $20 per day. Keep in mind, this is for two people, during Covid, pre-inflation, with limited restaurant availability, and the ability to buy groceries for an extended stay in Page, AZ. It helps having a kitchen wherever you stay if you plan on cooking, which is why Airbnbs, although a bit more expensive at this time, might be your best bet.
Total Cost: $360 (estimated)
- Tolls: This is another unclear total, as some states operate on a different system from EZPass, and most toll areas told us to keep moving as they would bill us later. Ironically, the less interesting states (for purposes of this trip, no offense!) like Pennsylvania ($19.60), Ohio ($12.25), Indiana ($9.00), and Illinois ($0.55) charged us the bulk of the tolls. Of course, it all depends on where you are driving from and which roads you prefer to take.
Total Cost: $50+ (estimated)
- Emergency Fund: In any aspect of life, it is ideal to have a rainy-day fund. If anything ever comes up while driving cross country, like a flat tire, additional costs for any number of random things you might want to purchase, or extended stays in a particular location due to weather concerns, you want to have at least a few hundred dollars of wiggle room. This is totally subjective as different people have different needs and means.
Total Cost: $500+
TOTAL COST for an 8000+ mile cross country drive = Estimated $2828.50 + $500 emergency fund (again, 2020 prices)
- Don’t be scared off by the price tag. We did not make an effort to pinch pennies, but if we did, we could have easily brought this cost down. If you have 2 or more people in the car, you will have a much smoother trip, you can split the costs, and you can ride in the HOV lane in LA’s traffic.
- Don’t over plan. But do your research and set proper expectations. Flexibility is worth more than you think during a long drive cross country.
- Find the balance between your means and your ends. You don’t want to prioritize your ends and overextend yourself. You don’t want to prioritize your means and limit or deny yourself of an amazing experience.
- Treat the drive as the treat, not a chore. You will open your senses to the most amazing sights America has to offer.
- Take a lot of pictures. Bring an actual DSLR camera if you can, but a smartphone will suffice. There will be plenty of jaw-dropping scenes that you will want to capture, including a view of the Milky Way at night in the desert.
- Above all, DO IT. In 40 years, what will you remember more, the Netflix show you binge-watched or the once-in-a-lifetime cross country drive?
Although this post is not meant to be comprehensive, I’m sure there are probably important details I mistakenly left out over the course of this review. If you have any unanswered questions, comments, or road trip experiences of your own, please leave a comment below or you can DM me on Twitter.
Thank you for reading. Get out and go for a drive. You never know where it will take you. You might even drive cross country.
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