So you want to plan a USA road trip? Here are the first things to consider before you hit the road:
What kind of trip?
The USA is vast and has pretty much every kind of landscape you can imagine. Do you want beaches? Mountains? Desert? Cultural cities? Jawdroppingly beautiful national parks? It’s all there.
Do you want to live in a campervan or use a car to hop between hotels? The idea of roughing it in a van might sound adventurous, but will you still enjoy it after 3 weeks, not being able to shower everyday and cooking your own food? Equally this might be your idea of heaven! It was for us!
How long are you going for? Knowing how long your trip will last will help you decide what to budget and how much you can fit in.
Plan your Route!
You don’t need to decide on the absolute day to day minutia, but figuring out the most efficient route between destinations will save you a lot of time and money – unnecessary back tracking will eat up your fuel and waste hours of your trip.
Make a list of all of the must see destinations on your trip and then see where they are on a map in relation to each other. This means you can plan a rough itinerary in a logical order, without having to double back anywhere. One important thing to remember is that you can’t do everything. There are so many exciting things to do in the States, and it can be so tempting when something really cool is only a few hours drive away, but you need to decide whether it is worth the extra mileage or not. The USA is huge and constantly driving for hours on a roundtrip to see something way off your route will be time consuming, exhausting, and expensive with regards to fuel consumption. Make your list and be brutal about what makes the cut.
However, don’t plan things too much! Leave yourself some wiggle time in your days so that you can spontaneously do a side trip or two. Some of the best times on roadtrips are when you stumble upon a really quirky roadside museum, or a market, or even a beautiful viewpoint, and you want to have time to be impulsive. Also, things will go wrong. Traffic happens. You might miss an exit or get lost, and you don’t want your itinerary to be so rigid and strict that you can’t stop anywhere and panic if you get delayed.
Depending on where you are travelling and at what time of year, it is a good idea to decide where you will be sleeping each night. In summer/high season a lot of campgrounds will be booked up far in advance, and you don’t want to drive all that way only to find nowhere to sleep. Read our blog here about booking National Park campgrounds, as these often get snapped up 6 months in advance. Booking yourself into an established campground also means you know when you’re getting a shower, and sometimes a laundrette.
Some US counties don’t allow sleeping on the street in a vehicle, which means you need a designated camp spot. Other states are more laisez faire and you can be a bit more casual with where you end up at the end of each day. Some places are just horrible for campers, like Monterey and Los Angeles California – Monterey had a city ordinance that forbade street camping, and their RV parks are very expensive, and all the campgrounds around LA would have meant 90 minutes of LA traffic everyday plus paying for parking. In LA, it was cheaper for us to book a motel right behind the Hollywood Walk of Fame that had a car park, where we could leave the camper for the night and enjoy a room with a bath and a TV, that was walking distance to the main sights! We wish we’d done this in Monterey too, the RV park we used was overpriced (the priciest on the whole trip!) and not nice. We found Arizona much easier to be flexible in – plenty of Walmarts, Cracker Barrels and overnight street parking that all mean free camping!
What time of year?
Considering when you are going to travel can make or break your trip – we were going to take our roadtrip in July to coincide with our anniversary, but then realised that by travelling in June instead we could save £1000s on flights and van rental by avoiding the peak school holidays. Other parts of the US have different high seasons, for example the Florida Keys are extremely busy over the Christmas/January period when people travel south for the sunshine and warm beaches.
If you decide to travel over winter, you will have much shorter days. Is it worth planning a trip up the scenic Californian Pacific Coastal Highway if you will only have daylight until 6pm and you can’t see the ocean? Travelling in spring/summer months will allow you to stretch your travelling time into the evening and make for a much leisurely day. Equally some roads at higher altitude might close over winter, such as the Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, and popular hiking trails such as Angels Landing in Zion National Park or the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park.
In summer, popular tourist attractions and cities will be much busier and prices could be higher. Desert destinations such as Joshua Tree National Park in Utah and Death Valley in California are dangerously hot in summer. Some campervan rental companies don’t even permit their vehicles to go into Death Valley in summer months.
By far the biggest expense of your roadtrip will be fuel. There’s no getting around it, if you’re covering a lot of miles you will need to fill up regularly. By planning your route efficiently you will save unnecessary extra mileage, but there are also ways to save money on fuel.
Certain states are far more expensive to fuel up in than others. There’s nothing you can do to change this but foreknowledge will help you budget accordingly. We found California to be twice as expensive as Arizona for example, so factored that into our budget plan!
Fuel stations away from main highways are much cheaper than those on the big roads, so try to fill up in smaller towns before you hit the interstate!
Use Gas Buddy! It’s a brilliant app that lets you search for fuel prices in your area – it’s updated in real time so you can always fin the cheapest. We’ve found big differences in price just half a mile apart, so it’s well worth checking before stopping at the first place you see.
Avoid driving in rush hour. Not only will this waste SO much time, but crawling in traffic jams will eat your fuel in no time.
Also consider HOW you’re driving. Slow down and enjoy the journey: knocking 10mph off your speed will save you so much fuel! And do you really need the AC on for the whole trip? It’s another gas guzzler, so if you can cope without and treat yourself occasionally, like when you first get into the car, you will save a lot of fuel.
Another big expense on your trip will be food. Obviously you have to eat, but it doesn’t need to be big bucks. If you have a stove in your vehicle you can save A LOT of money by being self sufficient – buy your groceries at a big chain supermarket like Walmart and make yourself packed lunches, plus you can cook your own breakfasts and dinners, saving a ton compared to eating out every day. That’s not to say you can’t treat yourself to a diner brekkie or a nice restaurant in a city, but it means your pennies will stretch a lot further and enable you to budget for more treats! See our blog here for our favourite camping recipies and more tips for eating on the road.
One thing you defininately shouldn’t scrimp on is travel insurance. Medical aid in the USA is REALLY expensive!! Really really expensive! If you get into a car accident or hurt yourself hiking you will be so glad that you got insurance. You can get 2 weeks cover for less than £30 that will give you £15 MILLION in medical cover, and recent surveys show that the average hospital stay in the US costs around $10,000… so yeah…
That’s the basics covered. You can find more Vanlife hacks here.