CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP 101: THE BEST ITINERARIES AND HOW TO PLAN FOR THE GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP

driving a cross country road trip though Grand Teton National Park

Post Summary: How to plan a cross country road trip including the best routes, tips, and resources to use so that it’s smooth sailing once you hit the open road.

A cross country road trip through America is the kind of experience every adventurer needs to try once in their life.

With extraordinary national parks, breathtaking beaches, locally inspired cuisine, and quirky roadside attractions there’s enough to keep you exploring for a lifetime. But how do you begin to plan a road trip?

The recipe for a great American road trip includes having the most current resources and tips at your disposal so you can get the most out of your time on the road.

That and a great playlist.

We embarked on our own three-month cross country trip in our renovated camper and learned a lot about how to plan a road trip across America.

We’re sharing everything we know, including the best cross country road trip routes and our own road-tested tips to help you plan an extraordinary adventure.

*We loved our USA road trip so much we knew we had to include it in our post on the essential bucket list for families. Check it out for more inspiring travel ideas in the United States.

*This Cross Country Road Trip post may contain affiliate links, which means we might earn a small commission if you purchase from them. This is at no extra cost to you. We only suggest what we think is truly awesome.

CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP GUIDE

This is an in-depth article that will cover everything you need for planning a cross country road trip. You can use the table of contents above to skip around to a section you want to read.

In this article we’ll cover:

  • How many days you’ll need
  • What kind of car you need
  • Things you need for a cross country road trip
  • Cross country road trip cost analysis
  • Cross country road trip tips
  • The best cross country road trip routes

HOW LONG DO YOU NEED FOR A CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP?

empty desert road leading to Utah National Parks

The drive from Los Angeles to New York City is 2776 miles and takes roughly 41 hours without stopping. At 8 hours a day, that would take you five days to complete.

But what about stops and you know…enjoying the ride?

Without knowing your route, it’s hard to suggest a time frame. At minimum, you’ll need a week for a cross-country road trip. Two weeks is better though. Two weeks allows you to drive for shorter distances and to take more time to enjoy the places you stop at. Three weeks is perfection!

America is the 3rd largest country in the world, so there’s a lot of ground to cover when driving cross country. It’s estimated that it takes about three months to see every state in the lower 48.

BEST CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP CAR

woman looking out of passenger side window of green SUV with steam rising up from a hot spring behind the car

If you won’t be using your own car, you’ll need to find the best cross country road trip car for your needs. If you’ll be traveling in winter or in places with rugged terrain like Southern Utah, it’s recommended to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle that can handle the rougher conditions.

The first choice is to use a car rental service. I like to use rentalcars.com to see what the best rates are for rental cars. It’s a search engine that specializes in rental cars prices across the web. In general, you can expect to pay $50-$100 a day for a rental. However, you can often get a discounted rate if you’ll be using the car for a longer period.

Also, don’t forget if you are only going one way with the car, most places will charge a one way delivery fee.

Another option is to rent a camper or RV for your big adventure. You can rent from a peer-to-peer service like RV Share and Outdoorsy or you can opt for a company like Cruise America.

If you like the idea of an RV, but want something smaller, you could also opt for a converted van that typically has a bed, a fridge, and other amenities. There aren’t many nationwide van rental places, so you can check the above sites I mentioned, RV Share and Outdoorsy, or you can do a google search for “your location and campervan rental.”

An RV or campervan rental can range from $100-$500 a day. It’s a more expensive option, but the potential for savings are better because you can cook your own meals and potentially camp for free. But don’t forget about gas prices! Which brings me to our next section..coming up with a cross country road trip budget.

TIP: An alternative option to a rental car is to try your luck at a one-way car or RV transfer services like immova and transfercar. The basic idea is that a company or person needs a car or RV moved and you pay as low as $1 a day to have a practically free vehicle. A great option if you are flexible and their travel dates work for you. You can also look at when big RV companies like El Monte RV need their RV’s moved and offer them at exceptionally low rates.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO DRIVE ACROSS THE COUNTRY?

There’s no straight answer to what a cross-country road trip costs. We averaged about $150 a day on a three-week road trip in our RV. Could we have done it for less? ABSOLUTELY. We didn’t go crazy, but we also didn’t scrimp. If you’re willing to cut corners and camp in free places, you can potentially do a road trip for $50-75 a day.

Let’s dive deeper into how to plan a road trip on a budget. I’m going to go over the five main expenses and tips for how to save money.

  1. GAS: Depending on what kind of vehicle you are driving, this will probably be one of your biggest expenses. You can use a fuel calculator to estimate what it will cost for your trip and your car type. If you are driving an RV, you can use this fuel calculator to get a rough idea of what it would cost.

    As for saving money, you can use the GasBuddy App to see the cheapest gas stations on your route. We also use our AMEX Blue Cash Preferred Credit Card, which gives us 3% cash back on gas and 6% cash back on groceries. We spent $1300 on gas, which means we earned roughly $40 back. That’s a free tank of gas. That and the $150 sign-up bonus make it a great money-saving choice. You can learn more about the card here. Disclaimer: That’s a referral link and I will earn a referral credit if you choose to get a card.

  2. LODGING: Here is where you have a lot of options for saving money. Camping is the cheapest way to travel cross country whether you choose to pitch a tent, sleep in your car, or are in an RV or campervan. You can stay in conventional campsites that range from $25 to $60 a night, or you can try to find free campsites. Free campsites are generally found on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land or parking lots (Walmart parking lots are popular) that allow you to sleep overnight – but please don’t pitch a tent in a parking lot! Only RV’s are allowed.

    The best way to find camping spots is to get the Dyrt App. It’s a camp reviewing site that is a GREAT resource for finding campsites and free sites. It’s worth upgrading to the pro version to have access to it offline.

    If camping isn’t your thing, you can look for cheap room rentals with an app like HotelTonight. HotelTonight is perfect for road trips since it searches for last-minute discounts on hotels. It’s also a tiered service so that the more you use it, the more exclusive discounts you can access. If you sign up for an account and put in my discount code CGRANCE in your Account Settings, you can get $25 off a booking.

    You can also use the sites like Booking or Expedia to see what’s available around you. Airbnb could also have cheap options, but you’ll have to plan ahead since it’s not always possible to book it the same day. In general, lodging in a budget hotel will cost you $50-$125 a night.

  3. FOOD: We spent roughly $25 a day for a family of three. Granted, we ate all of our meals in our camper and rarely got take out. That’s where having a fully functioning kitchen on wheels can go a long way to saving you money. If you aren’t traveling in an RV, you’ll want to save money by making your own meals as much as possible. Pack a cooler and eat turkey sandwiches every day if you need to. My favorite way to get fancy on the cheap is to make a charcuterie spread of summer sausage, salami, crackers, cheese, olives, almonds, and dried fruit. I even bring a wood cutting board and stemless wineglasses with silicone sleeves because it’s how I roll.

    Also, most gas stations will have microwaves. We would often buy frozen burritos from Amy’s beforehand at a grocery store and heat it at a gas station for lunch.

  4. ENTERTAINMENT: Our entertainment costs came out to about $3 a day. We spent very little since we had a primarily nature-based itinerary. Hiking is free! Plus, we opted to buy the National Parks pass that gets you into every National Park and additional federal land sites. You should definitely buy the pass if you are going to any National Parks. You can buy and learn more about the pass here.

    If you are visiting a big city, you can see if it offers a City Pass. A city pass will typically get you discounts to restaurants, museums, and popular attractions.

  5. MISCELLANEOUS – There are always little costs that come up while you travel, whether that’s souvenirs, oil for your car, payment for a toll. You should leave room in your cross country road trip budget for random things that always pop up. I would budget $5-$10 a day for miscellaneous items.

We recorded everything we paid for. You of course don’t need to do that, but if making spreadsheets is fun to you (woohoo!), then I would recommend using Excel or Numbers and using one of their pre-formatted templates for logging your costs.

TIPS FOR A CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP

mom and son in front of a 1979 camper van
A cross country RV trip with a vintage camper means you MUST get a good roadside assistance plan.

Before you head out on your big adventure, here’s some cross country road trip advice to spare you any headaches.

  • Before you leave, make sure to get an oil change and a full check-up on your car, including having your tires checked. It’s also worth investing in a roadside assistance plan, especially if you have an older vehicle. We used AAA and had to use it three times on the road. AAA is great for regular cars, and Good Sam Roadside is good for RV’s. You can check prices for AAA here and Good Sam Roadside here
  • Make sure to download your maps beforehand! You don’t want to be stuck in Utah because you have no service and no idea which road to take. Google Maps has the ability to download maps. Use it!
  • We prefer to drive five hours max. Anything more than that, and the road trip becomes unenjoyable. Find the sweet spot for you. It’s okay to do a few long 8 hour days, but remember to balance them with full days off of driving.
  • If you’re looking for a cross country road trip planner, you can use the app or website Roadtrippers to help you find interesting sights along the way. We’ve never used the app but have heard good things about it.
  • Lastly, use travel bloggers like myself, Pinterest, and Instagram for fun tips on places you will be visiting. Pinterest has a wealth of great travel information, and you’ll be able to find fun off-the-beaten-path recommendations. You can check out our Pinterest page and our Instagram page. While you’re there, give us a follow, will you?

CROSS COUNTRY ROAD TRIP PACKING LIST

We have an extensive post detailing what every person needs to have on their road trip packing list. Be sure to check it out for a detailed list of what to bring. Here’s a simple rundown of a few cross country road trip essentials.

  • Emergency Roadside Kit – Having a  roadside emergency kit with a surplus of safety devices is essential for a road trip. At the very least, make sure you have a  high-quality set of jumper cables. If you are driving in a remote area where other cars might not be able to help you out, you might want to consider a mobile battery jumper that allows you to jumpstart your car on your own.
  • First Aid Kit – A first aid kit is something you should always have in your car. Don’t forget it for your big road trip.
  • Cooler – A high-quality cooler that will keep your food cold for days is a great investment. We are die-hard fans of Yeti and love the Yeti Roadie 24 Hard Cooler for road trips. It can fit behind the passenger’s seat and is long enough to fit a bottle of wine. More economical choices are the Arctic Zone Cooler and the  Igloo Quart MaxCold Cooler.
  • Phone Chargers and Power Bank – In addition to our phone charger that goes into the cigarette lighter, we bring a splitter so multiple people can plug in their device and a solar charger power bank, so we’re never left without something to charge our devices. It’s handy when traveling with many people so everyone can have a way to charge a device.
  • Car Organizers – Having an organization system is great if you’ll be on the road for a while or are making a family cross country road trip. We like this back seat organizer with SO MANY pockets for your gadgets, notebooks, and snacks. It’s a fantastic option if you’re traveling with young kids. We particularly like that it has a tablet holder.
  • I also think this car seat gap organizer is brilliant. It sits in the gap between the console and the passenger or driver’s seat. It’s that little bit of space where you always drop your phone, and you’re like “$%^&*!” because it’s so difficult to fit your hand in there. Well, this organizer stops anything from falling in that gap while also providing extra storage. Like I said…brilliant.
  • Conversation Starters – When you hit the road, pull up our post of 160 road trip questions and road trip trivia questions. Perfect for long stretches of time where you can either get to know your travel companion even better or test out your trivia skills on each other.
  • Entertainment – Your podcasts, e-books, road trip playlists, and Netflix shows should all be already downloaded (don’t rely on your cell service). If you’re not already signed up, you can even do a trial run of Audible or Amazon Music to get free fun content for the road.
  • Cozy Everything – Being cozy on a road trip is paramount! Bring some cozy slip-on shoes, a sherpa blanket from Pendleton, and breathable clothing.

READ NEXT: If you are traveling in an RV, check out our post on the Camper Must Haves you’ll need to bring on the road.

THE BEST ROAD TRIP ROUTES IN THE US

When planning a road trip, the question “what is the best cross country road trip” is bound to come up. The sheer size of the US makes answering it a complicated task. Below, I will cover the most iconic road trip routes and a few other suggestions to spark your own creativity.

Some things to consider for yourself are how much time you have, what season you’ll be traveling in, and what kind of stops you’re interested in making. Do you want to focus on nature activities, touring big cities, tasting America’s best food, or quirky roadside attractions?

Let the following routes be an inspiration, but don’t forget it’s also possible to plan your trip as you go.

When we built our cross country road trip itinerary, we knew we needed to get from North Idaho to Maryland. It was winter, so we chose to avoid the Rocky Mountains and any hazardous winter driving conditions. We opened up a map (really, it’s more like we opened up an internet browser and looked at Google maps) and figured we should head South and plan as we go.

We knew we would visit Utah’s National Parks, but other than that, we left it open to allow for spontaneity and random side trips.

On our way traveling through Arkansas, I looked at the map and noticed we would be close to Hot Springs National Park. We had time, so we decided to make a small detour to see America’s first unofficial National Park. Those are the kind of things you want to leave time and space for.

*The maps for each road trip aren’t 100% accurate. They are there to help get you a visual for where the road trip happens.

ROUTE 66

Famous For: Kitschy roadside attractions, old fashioned motels, and its throwback Americana feel

Route 66 is the most famous American road trip that is more about the journey than the sights. You’ll travel through small towns where the most you’ll see is an old-fashioned main street and an old diner. It’s worth it to tap into an old-time Americana complete with neon lights and art deco motels. It’s also a great opportunity to see underrated cities like Albuquerque and Oklahoma City.

Map of Route 66

Begins and Ends: Downtown Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, CA

Time Needed: At 2448 Miles, Two Weeks

Highlights: Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, eating a hamburger and an ice cream float in an old fashioned diner, getting a photo op in front of a route 66 sign, Tower Station and U Drop Inn Cafe, Gateway Arch

BEFORE YOU GO: The road can be hard to navigate using GPS. The book Route 66:EZ66 Guide For Travelers is from a passionate lover of Route 66. It’s a thorough guide with descriptive maps. It’s highly recommended for anyone who wants to drive the entire route.


PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY

Famous For: Gorgeous, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

The PCH or Highway 1 is one of the most iconic drives in America. We’ve done sections of the drive, and it never disappoints. From the fecund forests of Washington to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the sunny ocean vibes of Southern California, there’s something for everyone on this beautiful coastal drive.

Begins and Ends: Seattle, WA to San Diego, CA

Time Needed: 1650 Miles, It can be done in one week, but 2 weeks is better.

Highlights: Olympic National Park, Big Sur, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Redwood National Park, Mendocino, Hearst Castle, Los Angeles, San Diego Zoo, Laguna Beach

Tip: Drive North to South so you can be closer to the water for the drive.

Recommended Reading: Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: California, Oregon & Washington (Travel Guide)


THE MIGHTY FIVE

Famous For: Out of this world red rock desert landscapes and bucket-list hikes.

A Utah National Parks road trip to explore all 5 of Utah’s National Parks (dubbed the Mighty 5) is perfect for adventurers and explorers. With mindboggling hikes, slot canyons to wade through, white water rafting, and an ocean of red desert to traverse, Southern Utah will leave an imprint on your soul.

Begins and Ends: Moab, Utah to Springdale, Utah

Time Needed: 375 Miles, Can be done at warp speed in 7 days, but 10 days is best.

Highlights: Angels Landing Hike and The Narrows in Zion, Delicate Arch in Arches, Fruit Picking in Capitol Reef, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands

READ NEXT: For all the details on making this trip check out our comprehensive guide to planning a Mighty 5 Roadtrip.


THE LONELIEST ROAD

Famous For: Large stretches of driving where you’ll see little to no signs of civilization.

Route 50 also known as “The Loneliest Road” and “The backbone of America” is a true cross country road trip. Taking you from coast to coast, you’ll pass through 11 states on this grand road trip across America. From metropolitan cities like Washington D.C to deserted ghost towns to the azure waters of Lake Tahoe, this route takes you on a diverse cross-section of the US that’s guaranteed to give you a little bit of everything.

Begins and Ends: Sacramento, CA to Ocean City, MD

Time Needed: 3000 Miles, Can be done in two weeks but three weeks is ideal.

Highlights: Great Basin National Park, Colorado National Monument, Washington D.C, Lake Tahoe, Moab

TIP: Make sure your car is in GREAT condition for this road trip.


THE GREAT NORTHERN ROAD

Famous For: The longest transcontinental highway in the US

Highway 2 or The Great Northern Road takes you coast to coast through 10 states and Canada. From the lush forests of the Idaho Panhandle to the windswept plains of North Dakota to the sophisticated allure of Montreal, this route takes you through some of America’s most beautiful spots. An epic road trip.

Begins and Ends: Seattle, WA to Acadia National Park in Maine

Time Needed: 3600 miles, Two weeks is enough but three weeks is best.

Highlights: Glacier National Park, Montreal, Duluth MN, Burlington VT, Seattle WA, Sandpoint ID

Book Recommendation: Moon guide: Road Trip USA: The Great Northern, Highway 2 


THE OREGON TRAIL

Famous For: An arduous, historical one-way trail people used in the 1800s to find better opportunities out West.

Go back in time and explore the trek that hundreds of thousands of pioneers made on their way West. While not an official road, the journey can be loosely followed along with interesting stops to learn more about the history and the pilgrims who took this path. History buffs will love learning about Lewis and Clark, city lovers will enjoy exploring Boise and Boston, and nature seekers will love seeing Yellowstone, America’s 1st National Park.

Begins and Ends: Cannon Beach, Oregon to Provincetown, MA

Time Needed: 3300 Miles, Two weeks is enough but three weeks is best.

Highlights: Yellowstone National Park, Boise, Grand Teton National Park, Mount Rushmore, Niagara Falls, Boston

Book Recommendation: Moon guide: Oregon Trail Road Trip


THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

Famous For: Stunning Fall foliage display.

The Blue Ridge Parkway takes you through the beating heart of Appalachia where you’ll pass waterfalls, lookouts, charming tunnels, small towns, and meandering rivers. If you’re driving it in Fall (the most popular time) you’ll see Fall foliage that rivals the best of New England. With a maximum speed of 45 MPH and no big trucks allowed, it’s the kind of road where you’ll want to take your time to enjoy the views while Bluegrass music plays on repeat.

Begins and Ends: Great Smoky Mountain National Park in NC to Shenandoah National Park in VA.

Time Needed: 469 Miles, 3 days is enough, 7 Days is ideal

Highlights: Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Asheville NC, Mile High Swinging Bridge, Blue Ridge Music Center, Mabry Mill, Shenandoah National Park, Roanake VA

TIP: If you want an even longer journey, you could include additional East Coast National Parks in your itinerary for even more sublime nature.

READ NEXT: Time spent in the funky mountain town of Asheville, NC is a must when driving the parkway. Learn more about Asheville with our guide to how to spend 36 Hours in Asheville.


These are tried and true cross country road trips, but you can always make up your own road trip route. You could go on a donut road trip and check out the best donuts in every state (psst-the best donuts are in Boise), or you could see as many west coast national parks as you can.

Maybe you’ll be road tripping in Spring, and you want to see the most exquisite wildflower blooms in the country or its summer, and you’ll hit up America’s best waterparks. The sky is the limit!

Happy travels and here’s to an amazing cross country road trip!


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