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.
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
- 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.
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