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Planning the Great American Roadtrip - Basics for the Road Trip

Updated on October 26, 2010

Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

Yellowstone National Park

Mesa Verde National Park

Recently I came back from my 6th cross country drive - and had a blast! Lots of people started asking about making a trip like that happen - and I realized I do have more than a little to share about it. My friend Suzanne in particular is planning a similar journey through the American Southwest - and asked about advice to make it smoother.

Ok - here's what I do to make decisions. Figure out first in what general direction you want to head, or if there's a #1 on your bucket list of stuff to see. Get on Google Maps (or MapQuest) and play around with an itinerary. I have a TomTom too and use them both. This will give you a mileage estimate. That's your first step.

Secondly - take a look at the places you want to see, and about how much time you might want to 'budget' for each one. The Painted Desert is mainly a drive-through place - but there are a few places to stop. I usually try to find each website and see what I might need to do. Many are free - but a few have admissions. This also keeps you from running into problems - for example we had planned on Lincoln's birthplace - and it's closed for renovations. Glad we didn't drive off track for that!

So - at this point you'll have mileage, time and attractions - which will then let you work on accommodations, and gas and food budgets. So - you know if you're going to be finding hotels, you need a rough budget for that ahead of time. Scout them out - I found would often result in a 10-15% discount over calling for rooms directly - and I tried to stay in the 'Choice' hotels chain. That's Comfort, Clarion, Roadeway, etc. Mainly because they're all over and easy to find and I know they're going to be decent. I've also done Super8's - those are clean and decent as well. If you find one with free breakfast (look for free 'hot' breakfast), then you've cut your food budget as well.

Cape Cod National Seashore

Wall Drug Store

Mitchell Corn Palace

39th Street Mama's - Kansas City

Pizza Palace - Knoxville


Now - if you go with a small RV instead of a car - you're going to have tradeoffs. Some are great - some are your preferences. An RV will drop your accommodations budget from anywhere between $60 (look to stay in smaller towns away from the big attractions like Grand Canyon) and $100 a night to about $20 for an RV park. You'll also be able to portage your food around, which is awesome in places like the National Parks where there are only a few choices, they're far between and very expensive. You'll be more flexible - want to stay extra days somewhere? Find something fun you want to go look at? No problem - just park it. I love that.

On the other hand you'll double your fuel budget, and it's harder to find diesel fuel. Farm country always has it - but you'll have to watch for red dyed fuels and stay away from that. (It's farm grade diesel only). Depending on the size of your RV, you're mileage may drop to 8-9 miles per gallon, taking your trip cost to .35 a mile. You're also much less maneuverable - a small car is fun zipping around mountain curves. A 24 ft RV can be a little hairy.

So when making the decision on which way to go - budget both options. See how much both would cost, and think about where you'll be going. You may be in a sparsely populated area like I was - as much as 100 miles between populations - so an RV might be a huge advantage. But somewhere like New England with fewer RV parks and more population and traveler services - not so much. It might be more of a pain than an advantage. For the Southwest - I might lean toward the RV myself.

What I decided would be my perfect world was a big RV towing my Miata. That way I could park the RV and go exploring in the cute little convertible. Neither of which I own - so that didn't happen. LOL!

Now - for driving time - that's 100% up to you. 600-700 miles in a day is about my limit - but that includes stopping several times to look at stuff. Not always big stuff - went to Metropolis to see the Superman exhibits and that was less than an hour. But you do want freedom to play on the trip. It's not necessarily about the destination here - it's the journey too. If I know there's something 'bigger' on the way - I allow for that. Little Bighorn and Custer's Last Stand was several hours. Yellowstone was two days and could have been a week. That's where the web comes in to play - use the research ahead of time to set yourself free when you actually get on the road. The National Park Service has great information on their sites and it's constantly updated. So check out what you want to see, try to decide how much time you'd like to spend there, then scout the area for accommodations or RV parks a little ways away from the main attraction. That will let you know your driving time for that day.

Also - I'd like to interject this - I'm HUGE on lots of preplanning. But I also have no problem with changing things in the middle. That's WHY you preplan though - if you know your budgets, your options and what's ahead, you'll be comfortable knowing it's ok to skip a place or stay longer, without getting stuck at 10pm on a mountain road with the next hotel still 3 hrs ahead of you, and that one going to cost $250 for the night. (No that didn't happen, but it could have. I had a backup plan!) Things still might go sideways once in a while - no big deal. It's a road trip - it happens. But scouting ahead is priceless - probably the best thing you can do to make the trip fun regardless of what pops up.

"The Big Catch" - Des Moines, Washington

Grand Canyon National Park

World's Largest Catsup Bottle - Collinsville, Illinois

Independence Hall - Philadelphia

Ok - my favorite part - what to see? AAAGGGHHHH!! Everything! Ha! I find stuff several ways. I'm a huge history buff - big time nerd. So I start with the Parks Services. Check out the National Parks Services Passport program - that's fun, especially if you have kiddos. Grand Tetons, Yosemite, Redwoods, Grand Canyon, Blue Ridge Parkway, Cape Cod National, Shenandoah - all on there. And the Battlefields, Forts, Homesteads and Memorials - Lincoln's Birthplace, Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Aztec Ruins, Mesa Verde, Appomattox, Valley Forge - oh yeah. Go nuts. I do.

THEN - once you know the biggies - go back to your maps. Then you can check out State Parks along the way - those will be found on their own sites under the individual states. These are often just as fab as the National Parks. Petroglyph State Park up in Montana is a great example. 4500 year old human habitation and 2200 year old cave paintings!

Now - to go off the beaten path...want to really get quirky? Check out Roadside America - they also have apps for the iPhone, Blackberry and Droid. Love this one - GPS tied and you just shake the phone (I have an iPhone) to get a list of oddities near where ever you are. That's how I found the 17 ft Superman, the statue of a Man Kissing a Fish, The Iron Skeleton Dinosaur Statue on the Plains, the World's Largest Catsup Bottle, Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, the Self Kicking Machine and the Pickled Pioneer. Some of my favorite stuff!

Another great one - if you're into food (I'm obsessed), then tie into the site for Diner's, Drive-Ins and Dives. Many travel apps and sites will work like the one from Roadside America (that one is the best - others are good, but that one rocks). DDD will ask for your current location, and then give you a map of places Guy Fieri has profiled, tied to their menus and websites. Call them first though - drove off track for Dixie Quicks in Kansas City - and they were closed only that one night for a private party. From an iPhone you can just tap the number and it'll dial through.

Museum Locator is also a good one - not terribly user friendly, but it'll let you know what's in your area, and you can then do a mobile search. Found the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky that way on my most recent trip. The Birthplaces of Amelia Earhart and The Sundance Kid are in there too. So explore some of the things you don't necessarily think of when planning a road trip. The big stuff is awesome - think of it as ice cream. But put in a couple of quirky stops (hot fudge), a good museum (sprinkles) and an amazing meal (cherry on top)!

Ok - I don't know if I actually answered your questions Suzanne - I tried to give a quick basic guide for the setup, and I could probably write as much on each of the points I made as I did in this whole note! So feel free to ask - can you tell I love this stuff? If there’s anything at all I can do to help make it easier – and more importantly – more fun – I’d be happy to help!


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    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your trip. We just returned from our first round trip across America and I recognize many of your stops and several that I do not. We visited Death Valley and the Badlands, Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada's. What a beautiful country God has blessed us with to enjoy.

    • DixieMockingbird profile imageAUTHOR

      Jan Charles 

      9 years ago from East Tennessee

      I agree! That's certainly the way to go sometimes!

    • FGual profile image


      9 years ago from USA

      Thanks for so much information. I remember 39th Street in Kansas City. If I could I'd hop on a camper van or small RV and hit the road. If I can sleep in it, will keep rolling.


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