Top Five Things You Need to Know Before Driving Across The United States

On March 10th I flew one-way from Portland, Oregon to Charlotte, North Carolina to pick up my ’97 Honda Civic and drive it 3700 miles back across America. My girlfriend Jennie accompanied me for half of the trip back to Lincoln, Nebraska where she had to pit stop to hustle up on getting her graduate degree at UNL.

Welcome To Oregon

Now safely back in Portland and reflecting on the experience, I have realized there are some immutable facts one must know before taking on the open road.

Top Five Things You Need to Know Before Driving Across America.

01. Maintain at least a half-tank of gas at all times.
America is BIG, very big, and there are huge empty pockets of nothingness with signs that announce ‘No Services’ at what might misleading seem like a safe pull-off from the interstate to re-fuel.

If you do not maintain at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times, you are asking for pain.

02. Check the Weather and Road Closures Report Daily.
Depending on the time of year you are traveling, the weather can change dramatically within a few hundred miles. On the morning I left Lincoln, NE heading west on I-80 I hit a road closure just past the Wyoming border that forced me to take a 300 mile detour south into Colorado and into a blizzard that almost stranded me atop the Rocky Mountains. While I’m usually all about the unexpected adventure, in this case I had a plane to catch in 48 hours back in Portland and was still 1500 miles away from the airport!

03. Plan your destinations in advance.
I used to be of the school “we’ll figure it out when we get there” then I arrived in St. Louis and spent over two hours looking for a room that was less than $200 a night. Get a listing of hotels/motels/hostels that are in your price range and print out a map of their locations to bring with you. While it might seem tedious, the 20 minutes you spend now before you leave will save you hours of searching when you arrive in a city exhausted from having just driven hundreds of miles to get there.

04. Decide what you really want to see and what you can pass on.
It is impossible to get any real impression of a city by just staying the night there and getting coffee the next morning before you hit the road again. You’ll think you’ll have all this energy to explore, but trust me after you drive 5 hours to get there and have been on the road for a few days your ambition to explore wanes in favor of a drink and a hot shower. If you want to see a city and remember something about it, plan to stay at least one full day there by booking two nights of lodging before you leave town. We did exactly this in St. Louis and had a blast.

05. Pack a survival kit.
Again, this might seem overkill, but if you break down in a blizzard at 9,000 ft you’ll be happy to have a few extra blankets to keep you company until help arrives. Also don’t rely solely on AAA as I found that there were plenty of pockets along my drive where I didn’t have cell-phone service (thanks to Sprint) so I wouldn’t have been able to call them if needed.

The Essential Cross-Country Road Trip Survival Kit

  • Spare tire, jack, and tire iron to take off lug nuts
  • Road flares (available at most auto part stores for a dollar or so each)
  • A flashlight in case you breakdown at night
  • A real road atlas, not a $3.99 map of the US from 7-11
  • Sunglasses!
  • Snow chains that you’ve tested to fit your car.
  • A credit card that earns you points for gasoline purchases
  • $200 in emergency cash for the mechanic in Wyoming who doesn’t take Amex.
  • A fifth of Jack Daniels (for the hotel room)
  • And a digital camera to remember it all.

xCountry Trip 2008

Bonus: Expense Recap of Entire Trip

  • One-Way Plane Ticket from Portland, OR – Charlotte, NC : $149
  • Cost to totally tune-up the car for the drive : $614
  • Gasoline (14 fill-ups) : $340
  • Hotel/Motel/Hostel Accommodations (total 4 nights) : $370
    The rest of the time we stayed w/ family and friends
  • Restaurants and Supermarkets : $590
  • Alcohol / Bars : $100
  • Random Fun, Misc Crap, etc.. $270

Total length of trip : 3 Weeks / 3700 Miles
Total cost of the whole sha-bang : $2433

Happy Travels!

  • Nur

    Excellent…amazing website! Thanks so much. Quick question, if you did not to see family, sightsee and did not have any weather challenges, how long to do you think it would have taken you to get to Oregon from NC? Thxs. Nur

  • Stephen Braitsch

    Give yourself at least a week. Sure you could do the trip in four days driving 12 hrs a day, but it is much worth your while to take your time and enjoy the journey.

  • Joe Richter

    Hi Stephen,

    Just a short note to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed your story! I have been pondering making a trip like this for a couple of months now, and reading about your adventure has put me one step closer to getting in my car and heading out. Thanks for sharing your experience and for all of the good advice.

    All the best,
    Joe Richter

  • Danapel

    Hi Stephen,

    I too am thinking about driving across country. I have never seen the Rocky Mtns., Grand Canyon and many other beautiful places in the US. I’d like to go now before I go back to school for nursing. Are there any good books out there to help plan my route? Any good websites that you know of to help me plan?

    Thank you.

    Danapel

  • JOHN CARROLL

    Thank you very much! I enjoy the honest feelings you bring to the telling of your trip.

    And yes, I will remember the part about keeping gas in the tank :-)

    JohnC

  • peter gorn

    Right on! I love this, nothing like hearing from someone who’s experienced it personally. I drove across Canada in 1997, I’m leaving from Oregon for Florida in a couple of days, a little nervous about such a daunting drive, this definitely helped…

  • http://jasongregoryhorn@hotmail.co.uk Jason Horn

    Well Thank you very much for your insight into your journey across the states. I am planning to drive from one side of the states to the other in August this year (2011) it’s my 40th Birthday. I am from the south of England and 6 years ago drove from Boston down to New York across the state, and then up to Niagra, then back across the mountains to Boston. I had all my family that time wife and 3 children. All I can say was the people of America were as warm and friendly as if they had been my own Family. Any how this time it will be just me and the old ball and chain, and was wondering would 2 weeks be ampul time to take in some sights and still manage the trip realistically? Alison (my wife) would like to start from Chicago and does not mind which states to take in (she wouldn’t she does not drive) but would like maybe old faithful in yellow stone and L.A. and ending in San Francisco (Alcatraz) we’ve been told to book it as there is always a long wait to see it! I have printed off all there is to know about the different States and what there is to do in them but I could spend a life time doing everything! But you who live there would you have some idea of the must sees ? We’ve done Vegas, the Hoover Dam and the champagne Breakfast at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Thanks for anyones feedback e-mail me at anytime. (jasongregoryhorn@hotmail.co.uk)

  • Mat O’Lourne

    What a great primer for cross-country driving! Thanks Stephen.

  • carol pruitt

    i am leaving thursday 4/28/11 to head out from richmond,va to washington state. we are not in a rush we have till june 18th to be there for a wedding..we are heading north up to Wis. then driving across…plans are to visit all the hot spots like mount rushmore, yellowstone, glacier national, titons and whatever else we see that we want to stop and look at.
    plan on taking videos the whole way and having them on facebook under my name. check it out! hope i have some funny ones!
    very excited about the trip after the wedding we are heading down to see the big redwoods, then lake tahoe, down to NM stopping in texas at a friends then home. hoping to take a full three months for this trip. and yes i do work just saved enough to pay all my bills for the next four months. hope to have a ball also!
    enjoyed your notes.

  • Lee

    Very cool… Funny that we moved from Cherokee, NC to Salem, OR a few years ago.. We are about to make the trek back this summer to see family (and the Fireflies!!)… Couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but Oregon, but sometimes I miss those Appalachains…

  • Mark

    Thank’s for the advice, I’m driving from VA to WA in a few days.

  • http://gonetolookforamerica.com Patrick Alan Swigart

    “Don’t forget to take a jacket.”

  • Veronica

    My husband and I are driving from the Finger Lakes in upstate New York to Nevada to go to Burning Man this August. We’ll be driving a Dodge 2500 Cummins Turbo Diesel and hauling our 30′ Coachman camper. We are so nervous! But thanks to this article and others like it, we are getting more excited each day. Wish us luck!

  • MONICA

    Thank you for the tips! My friend and I just graduated high school and plan to drive from GA to NY and possibly somewhere in the west coast… We are leaving Sep 24th! Wish us luck .

  • Robin

    thanks, my husband said a six pack and a pack of smokes but the jack daniels will do. Driving from eastern Washington state to North Carolina and back in October. Plan on making a big circle.thanks again for the website. Good luck to all fellow travelers.

  • lewis stratton

    THE WIFE AND I ARE HEALTHY SENIORS AND ARE DESIRING TO DRIVE FROM yORKTOWN, VA ON A NORTHEAST ROUTE THROUGH WEST VIRGINIA AND OHIO AND POSSIBLY THROUGH THE DACOTAS, THEN SOMEHOW DRIVE ON DOWN TO lAS VEGAS AND RETURN TO VA ON A SOUTHERLY ROUTE–WE PLAN TO BE ON THE ROAD APPROX. 30 DAYS AND ARE IN NO HURRY TO GET TO ANY PARTICULAR PLACE—WITH THAT IN MIND CAN YOU RECOMMEND SOME MUST SEE SIGHTS AND ROUTES–IN THE PAST WE HAVE ALWAYS TAKEN A GRAY LInE TOUR IN THE CITIES AND HAVE FOUND THAT IS STILL BEST FOR US AS THE DRIVER KNOWS THE ENDS AND OUTS OF THE CITY AND WE DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT PARKING, ETC. Thanking you in advance for any advice you may wish to offer. Lewis stratton

  • brett hodgson

    I will be leaving from cherry point nc, to 29 palms cali. the longest drive i have ever done myself is 6hrs. this will be new to me. i want to see the country and not wear myself out. but i want to stop home in colorado as soon as i can so i can enjoy my leave with family. that aloe is a 1900 mile drive. any tips for keeping sane when traveling by yourself for that long?

  • robert verdugo

    great advice. i liked having the half a tank of gas tip. never thought about that

  • Emma

    Some great tips on here. I live in the UK, my partner and I are planning a RTW trip starting January next year. We would love to finish it off with a road trip across America. We dont really know where to begin with it all and appreciate any advice we get. We have alot of planning to do. One thing i would like to know is are there any comparison websites for american car hire companies? as this would save a lot of time from having to visit each website filling in the details each time.

  • Stephen Braitsch

    @emma take a look at http://vroomvroomvroom.com

  • Matt Moich

    Im taking our family me wife and two kids. 5 and 3. On a long month journey from new jersey to the fla keys for a week then to new Orleans , grand canyon , San deiago ,Yosemite , San Fran , eureka ca , then back across. Were bringing all our camping gear in hopes to save as much as we can on lodging Wherever camping is available We’re leaving in late march and would like to see oragon and Yellowstone but I’m not sure mother nature will cooperate. I get off for a month every time this year due to lack of work and my son starts school this September so we figure this might be the last time we can due such a long trip as I can’t afforded to take a month off in the summer. We’re all a little nervous but I think we will have a lit of fun. All your stories replenish our confidence. Thanks all

  • Robert Miller

    I drove from Southern West Virginia to South Eastern Washington State. Took me 5 days, with one day off in Wyoming due to high winds. I think the total mileage was 2600 something, I ran about 650 miles a day, wasn’t too bad, but my experience driving OTR helped alot.

  • Gina G

    My boyfriend and I took yet another trip down the east coast to Orlando from our home in Long Island, New York for our annual pilgrimage to theme parks on April 14th. However, we didn’t enjoy ourselves nearly as much as we normally do. Needless to say, we decided that we will NOT be returning to the sunshine state or at least the Orlando area, until we have children. We did decide, however, that we want to embark upon a journey of a lifetime, one that I already know I will want to do again, and venture west! We’re taking the advice of Horace Greeley, who encouraged us to “Go west… And grow with the land!” Right now neither of us have any obligations or promises to keep, so we figured WHY THE HECK NOT!?!?

    We want to get.a wholesome and rugged experience of the land and it’s folk we’ve made a vow not to stop at any fast food joints or corporate owned.anythings!

  • Stacey Martin

    Planning to head out in 4 days. (7-10-2012) I will be driving from Nasville TN to WY! It will be myself, two teens and two smaller children! I am making the trip in just two days. I hope I do not run into any blizzards this time of year! I am not good at driving in the snow! lol

  • http://rosaburk.us.com Rosa Burk

    This is just great. Itemized expenses are neat! And the kit to travel helpful.

  • Terri

    I just read your comments and they reinforced what I had already started to plan. Great advice!

  • Holly

    Hi,
    Thanks for sharing this info. It’s really helpful! I plan to make this journey with my boyfriend in early November. We will start our drive from LA to San Fran, and then make our way across Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, all the way through to Virginia, and hoping to end up in New York if time allows. We have 20 days to do this journey. Do you think this is realistic? How long did your road trip take?
    Many thanks for any help you can provide.

  • Richard Haighton

    Hiya! Great advice! Am so excited about my forthcoming road trip – month travelling from Chicago, on Route 66, through to LA then up West coast to Seattle. Even the travel agents are excited about it! From Plymouth UK

  • http://twitter.com/dpwhitt Dave Whittington

    Another tip for the days involving long drives is ensure you have one other adult awake alongside the driver at all times. just monitoring each other keeps things safe for the trip.

  • Anne Latulippe

    Hey Matt, Did you do it? Sounds like a lot to cover in a month! We ( me, husband, 10 and 12 yr old boys) are currently planning a trip from Vermont across the country and back and we are taking three months….We are gong on a dime, so mostly camping along the way. We are planning a lot, but keeping flexible. We’d love to hear about your experience.

  • Raylan Givens

    You got raked for the tune up! Do it yourself next time!

    You ate at wayyyyy too many overpriced restaurants.
    You missed 93% of the good bars along the way.
    Random fun/crap should have been tripled!

    I’ve driven across the US about 8 or 9 times.
    No breakdowns, no stolen cars, no accidents, no vehicle with under 130K on it!

    Being able to stop in a podunk town and become a local for a day is great.
    Get a feel for the real town not the touristy parts.
    Volunteer to pick cotton in the South.
    Do a comedy stand-up in a town you’ll never return to.
    Challenge a 340lb guy in a bar to an arm wrestle – winner gets a beer!
    Ask to be the “bad guy” for police dog training (make sure it’s not a hot day!)
    Enter a hot dog eating contest…if for nothing but a free meal!

  • Richard Jacques

    Two Words – Phantom Ranch !!! Just did it and it is amazing, and cheap.

  • http://facebook.com/cusbum Marcus

    aboslutely amazing ideas! :) i have my flight booked from Heathrow, UK to land in Dulles airport. 3 weeks travelling around the US in a rental. your post has inspired me a lot!

  • Tom Seleck’s Ulcer

    If its JUST YOU doing the travel trip, try to file all your essentials to one backpack/duffelbag. Something you can strap to your back and nothing more. You want to be very mobile.

    The less you bring, the more you utilize WHAT you bring. Clothes can be purchased along the way for situations that arise.
    Anything else can be found for free or cheap on Craigslist.
    Most stuff you wont be taking back home anyway so bring and tote only what you NEED.

    Another idea: buy a car.
    Something basic and cheap. In most states, when you buy a car the registration and plates come with the vehicle. All you have to do is get insurance ($50 a month was mine).
    Now you have mobility, access to destinations that busses and trains dont reach and your own schedule.
    Hatchbacks are best. Fold the backseats down and you have overnight accodations at HOTEL HONDA. Thats 25 bucks you just saved from a hostel stay. 25 towards gas!
    Sleep at truck pit stop, not pullover spots.
    Flying J, Love’s, T&A, Pedro’s….they have 24 hour access to bathrooms. Lots of cars there. Safety in public. Truckers sleep in their rigs there.

    If youre going to a set destination, you can pick up a rider to share gas. Dont pick random people. Know them from a hostel ideally. If the car goes kapoot, you can continue on foot! Thats why you backpack it! Call a wrecker, sell the car as junk for 200 and keep on keeping on. THIS IS WORST CASE FOR THE CAR. but even a crappy honda is still a honda. Theyre great.

    My job starts in june. Til then, im tripping the US myself. See things, stay places, odd jobs and even odder people.
    Yup, my hatchback seats are folded and im ready to roll!

  • http://facebook.com/cusbum Marcus

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to me! :)
    yes, it is only me, i wanted to do it with a friend, but then i looked at the bigger picture.. and understand that after three weeks.. i dont think we would of been friends anymore haha! so its something i want to do by myself :)
    I count myself very lucky, as i have managed to get flights through British Airways for £400 return ($670 roiughly) and a free rental car/insurance for three weeks! so i dont need to worry about that.

    The plan is to see as much as i can! seriously.. I will be spending 6/7 hours a day on the road, stopping where i want to, see as much of america, and then when i come back next year, i want to focus on the places i want to see more of.
    the main things i want to do is see the true america, so i’ll be driving from Dulles airport, through texas and on to grand canyon, then through to yosemite/lake tahoe and reno, through to yellowstone and sioux falls.. and over the top into canada for niagara falls. back down to new york and ocean city. yes its 7000 miles plus. but i’m used to doing long ass drives without too much trouble. and its only 3 weeks.. its all good :)
    thanks for the tips on saving money and using the car as a bed! brilliant idea that i never thought of.
    any places/things to keep clear of though? btw, i will only be using hotels/motels.. not hostels.

    thanks again!

  • http://batman-news.com Charlie Nelsen

    My kids and I are taking a very similar trip. We are travelling Route 66 from Chicago to LA…in a rented ’57 Chevy! How was your trip? What was good? What should I avoid? Do you have any suggestions of “can’t miss” attractions?