America is vast – in the fifty states there are nearly 4 million miles of road, 316 million people, at least 17,500 museums, 58 national parks, countless restaurants and diners – if you’re thinking of planning a trip to the USA there is an awful lot you could do! So, to us, careful planning is essential in making sure you see (and taste, feel and hear) the right amount for the time you’re away.
We thought we’d share our tips on how we plan our roadtrips, the resources we use and why we think this makes our trips so fantastic. We really hope this helps but if you have any advice for us or questions we haven’t quite answered please do add a comment below. We love talking about our roadtrips almost as much as we love going on them!
Considerations before you book anything:
You’ve decided you fancy an American roadtrip: great idea; you are going to have a wonderful time. Seriously it’s going to be a blast! But where to start? We recommend thinking about the following:
Time: Our roadtrips tend to last around 2 weeks but you might only have a few days or plan on traveling for months at a time. In two weeks we tend to cover around 3,000 miles (which is rather hefty and we readily admit most people would find this to be too many miles per day) and spend 1 night in most places with a few stops where we have 2 or 3 nights on any given trip. This is partly because we’re on this mission to visit all Fifty States so we are running around at great speed visiting as many places as possible; but how long you’ll spend will depend on your motivation and constraints. Two nights in most mid-sized towns and cities is a good enough amount of time to get a flavour for the place, and enough time to work out whether you’ll want to come back! Obviously, the more time you have the more distance you can cover or the longer you can linger in each place.
Money: As with so much in life, money is crucial. Work out your budget and prioritise what you want to spend money on: nice hotels, good meals, nights out, shopping? Unless you’re Warren Buffet it will be very hard to maintain a limitless budget where you can spend whatever you fancy without worrying. We budget around £130 a night for a hotel, £140 for petrol/gas and $150-200 spending per day (depending on whether you’re in an expensive city or a tiny town). We feel this is a fairly luxurious way of travelling and we stay in a nice mix of old motels, B&Bs, boutique and standard hotels. Other blogs we follow detail how to get by during American roadtrips on a shoestring- gather tips where you can if this is how you plan to travel. Tipping is expensive in America but meals are generally great value. Most B&Bs and some hotels offer free parking, others can charge as much as $20 a day or more.
Big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago are pricey to stay in, and National Parks can have limited rooms. Airbnb can help keep accommodation costs down and there are websites like Hotwire that give you “lucky dip” hotel rooms at good prices. Flights to America vary massively depending on where you going to and coming from and whether there are sales. In pretty much every town or city there will be things you can do for free – museums, galleries, parks – and other attractions that take a big dent out of your budget. We always make sure we know how much these attractions are likely to cost (and double check their opening hours – quite a lot of places are closed Mondays for example) before we go so that there are no nasty surprises when we turn up.
Mode of Transport: We always drive on our trips around America as, outside of certain cities, we find public transport fairly limited and love the freedom and choice that having a car provides. Whether you fly between places in America, use the bus or train or drive will have a big impact on what you can do reasonably whilst you’re away. If you’re planning on hiring a car are you going to fly in and out of one airport and then drive in a loop? Picking up the car at one airport and dropping it off at another is often do-able but can add about $100 or more to the cost of the car-hire.
What you like: This year we’ll be going on our sixth USA roadtrip in as many years and needless to say we’ve fallen in love with America. There is so much to see and do and we honestly believe there’s something for everyone. Here’s a very rough guide to the USA based on our experiences so far:
New England: beautiful coast and beaches, incredible seafood, lots of history, great cities like New York, Boston and Baltimore, art and culture.
Deep South and Texas: the best for blues, country, rock and roll, incredible barbecue and soul cooking, fascinating civil rights history, friendly people. Places like Memphis, New Orleans, Nashville and Clarksdale can get under your skin and into your soul.
West Coast: stunning national parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Arches and Yellowstone, diverse and fine food, good wine in California, great beer in Oregon and Washington, fun-filled destinations like Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.
Great Plains: this year we’ll be headed out to the Mid-West and we’ve been struck by the volume of quirky roadside and outsider art and the gorgeous looking mid-sized cities like Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. The hearty food and cracking beer look fantastic. Chicago has incredible architecture and a great array of delicious food, Detroit is getting back on its feet and is worth a stop – both have great musical heritage.
We’re yet to visit Hawaii or Alaska but both look bursting with natural beauty and wonder.
Once you’ve figured out how far you can be away, how much you have to spend and how you’ll get around it should be very easy to find a trip (or several) that would suit you perfectly. Be realistic about the kind of traveller you are – do you like to get up every day at the crack of dawn (that’d be us) or have a leisurely brunch? Do you like to spend a while in one place or change your base often? How long could you spend travelling every day or week without getting tired or bored? Do you like late nights and dive bars (that would be us again – burning the candles at both ends!) or relaxing suppers and the theatre? Do you prefer cities or small towns, forests, plains or beaches? There can be roadtrips where you can sample all of this very easily! And don’t forget the time zones – especially if you’re travelling back to catch a flight!
Great websites and online resources:
Discover America has great overviews of each state and their attractions.
New York Times 36 Hours – Where to go when you’ve got only a weekend to get to know a city.
Similarly, the Independent’s 48 Hours In series can be great.
Trip Advisor – we love this website. An exhaustive overview of the hotels, attractions and restaurants for (seemingly) everywhere in the world; we take reviews with a pinch of salt and check the reason why the reviewer is giving such a high or low score to make sure it’s reasonable.
Atlas Obscura – Definitive guidebook and friendly tour-guide to the world’s most wondrous places. Travel tips, articles, strange facts and unique events.
Roadside America – an online guide to offbeat tourist attractions.
RoadFood.Com – your guide to authentic regional eats.
Retro Roadmap – Vintage Motels, Historic Hotels, Vintage Campers n Trailers, fun vintage travel destinations and a bit of history. If you want to travel back in time, these are the places you’ll love.
Instagram – More and more we’re using instagram to see real-life, real-time pictures of the destinations we’re planning on visiting. This shows some of the up-to-the-minute places where people are eating, drinking or hanging out that might not have made it into the guidebooks.
Google maps – sounds silly but sometimes just looking at your route on a map will throw up the odd thing three or four miles from your route that you might otherwise have missed. It can take time, but tracing your 3,000 mile route closely on Google Maps can reap rewards!
ESPN Sports Calendar – this website is quite good for telling you what sports are on and where.
Also ask questions on twitter or to bloggers who may be able to help. People are usually delighted to help out. Blogs we love include: Two for the Road, Drawn the Road Again, Less Beaten Path, Backpacks and Bunkbeds and This Belongs in a Museum.
The Thorntree Forum on Lonely Planet is populated with a weirdly high proportion of tetchy people but can be useful.
Why Planning works:
You might want to buy a one-way ticket to the States, a fistful of dollars and hit the open road without a care in the world to wait and see what happens. This sounds awesome but very different from the way we travel. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it, we’re just sharing with you the way we like to approach our roadtrips.
We’ve found that with every trip we’ve got better at knowing the way we like to travel- how early we can get up, how late we can stay out, how many miles we can cover in a day without feeling tired, the kind of places we like to eat and so on. We have one roadtrip a year and it’s a massive deal for us – so we like to make sure we cram as much in (whilst still having fun) and don’t come home only to realise that we missed out on seeing something amazing that was one block away from our hotel because we didn’t know it was there. We make detailed plans about what we’ll do each day (and book gigs tickets, tickets for sport events – Stubhub is good for this – and entry to popular attractions in advance so we don’t miss out or waste time in a queue) but we are happy to change our minds if we see something that looks better or drop things if we want a quieter day than we’d originally planned.
When it comes to roadtrips and travelling you will never be able to see everything. Places come and go. New joints open, old joints close. There are only so many hours in a day. Tailor the roadtrip to your needs and desires. If you like lazing around on a beach with a pina colada then that is what you should do. If you want to visit each and every Presidential Library (there are currently 13) then make this your goal. The more we go there the more we want to go there – and the more we realise that America has something for everyone.