10 Tips for an American Road Trip

America is enormous and there is no better way to experience it than with a road trip. Having some experience in this delightful All-American experience, I’d like to share some tips I learned along the way. In addition, if you are looking to be inspired to go on a trip yourself, here is a photo recap of my most recent 2,200 mile solo trip across the western US. I digress:

 

1) Bring a Map

Map of Koyasan

I am well aware of how good Google Maps is these days. Trust me, it fails. In Utah, it insisted that I ‘go straight’ into a private airfield with a gate blocking my path. When I rerouted to go around, it further insisted I ‘turn left’ where there was clearly no more road left. While I am not insinuating that a map is superior to our technological counterparts, it is definitely complimentary.

Pro Tip: Get the app OsmAnd (droid only) – It is like an offline Google Maps where you can download entire countries. It can also give you directions using your GPS signal, which requires no data usage at all. The free version allows for 5 countries to get you started, but personally, I found the paid version worth every penny.

 

2) Take the Scenic Routes

Many people consider the drive from LA to San Francisco to be very boring along i-5. Yes, it is, take Pacific Coast Highway and prepare to have your mind blown. America is filled with just a shit ton quite a number of scenic routes that compliment main roads. Sometimes, they were built initially and were replaced by a more direct highway (like route 66 vs i-40) and other times, they were made just for fun. Nonetheless, unless you are in a hurry, the scenic route is almost always worth the delay.

Pro Tip: A ‘Road Atlas‘ from Target maps out scenic routes as well as rest stops in every US state and Canadian province. It is my go-to and have bought one before every trip. The link provided is for a laminated version, but the paper one is about $8. 

 

3) Bring Cash AND Credit

You might want to pose as you carry those benjamins
You might want to pose as you carry those benjamins

Should you bring cash or credit? I am going to say both. On Lone Rock, Arizona, there was no option to pay with cash and no sign of civilization for miles. In Zion NP however, paying for a camp site is by cash only. Unless you want to be hunting for an ATM in the middle of nowhere, you are much safer just bringing both.

Pro Tip: I recommend the Barclay Card. It is initially free (1 yr) and comes with 40,000 travel points. That is straight-up $400 USD in free money plus 2% cash back on every purchase. Read the conditions, but definitely worth it to me.

 

4) Make Sure You Have Enough Gas

I cannot say this enough, America is REALLY FUCKEN BIG a particularly large country! Because of this and the remoteness of some areas, gas stations are not always a couple of blocks from each other like they are in big cities. In once instance in Utah (why is it always Utah!!!), the gas light came on at the same time a sign saying “next gas 60 miles” raced passed us. We did make it, but it was bit too close for comfort. The last thing you want is to be out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

Pro Tip: For some reason i-70 is notorious for not having gas between long stretches of up to 100 miles. Plan accordingly.

 

5) Check out Native American Reservations

Teepee

Despite what you may have read about America, the history of this wonderful country did not start with Jamestown in 1607. Hundreds of Native American tribes thrived from coast to coast, each with a unique culture, set of customs, and distinct languages. 566 Native American Tribes are currently recognized by the US and from the ones I have visited, I highly recommend them. Something as simple as driving through Navajo lands or staying the night in a Piute Teepee can be a very enriching experience.

Pro Tip: Many of the US’s top attractions are on native American land, which means you don’t have to change plans to experience them. For example, most of the southern rim of the Grand Canyon still belongs to the natives and is administered by them.

Pro Tip 2: Know nothing about Native Americans? Check out Project 562.

 

6) Stop By The Welcome Center

America, as you might know, is a bureaucratic mess of ‘states’ which all have slightly different laws in an ever continuous attempt to confuse and annoy you. However, this also means that every state wants to show visitors why it is the best! As you cross the border to a new state, there is almost always a ‘Welcome Center’ where staff is ready to guide you to the best things their state has to offer. Seriously, these guys are travel gurus! If you are looking for ideas, just pop in and they will help sort you out. When I finally decided to try my own state’s welcome center, I was amazed at the places I didn’t even know existed.

Pro Tip: Welcome Centers also have some of the most pristine toilets. One in Texas is the nicest one I have seen in my life, and I am somewhat of a restroom connoisseur.

 

7) Be Prepared to Make Changes

This unscheduled detour into Lubbock gave me the opportunity to check out a relative unknown at the time. This was Michael Crabtree's second game in his breakout season with Texas Tech.
This unscheduled detour into Lubbock gave me the opportunity to check out a relative unknown at the time. This was Michael Crabtree’s second game in his breakout season with Texas Tech.

Attractions are closed, places are further (or closer) than you predicted, or you simply might find something cooler to do. Don’t be so rigid on your American road trip. One of the best things about this country is how easily you can shift gears while on the road (no pun intended). While you might want to have a general frame, don’t be afraid to chuck that checklist to the back seat and go with the flow.

 

8) Check Out the ‘View Points’

As you drive along, you come across many places which state ‘viewpoint, turn out here.’ Very few people bother, but the views are usually magnificent. They are made just to make the ride more enjoyable, give you a break, and on occasion, give you background to where you are. One I clearly remember in Colorado had a great bird-eye view of an island surrounded by a lake and snow covered mountains. It was just amazing and a shame more people don’t stop.

 

9) Forget the Cities

Seattle

While I do find some American cities interesting, they are hardly the highlight of the US. Don’t think of a road trip in the US as a ‘connect the dots’ between major cities. I too made that mistake early on and unfortunately, missed out on America’s natural and small town beauty. While there is nothing wrong with visiting unique places like Las Vegas, feel free to skip LA, New York, or any other major city if your time frame doesn’t allow for it. They aren’t bad, but everything in between those two is so much better.

Pro Tip: If you absolutely must visit some cities, my personal favorites are Seattle, Oklahoma City, and San Francisco, in that order.

 

10) Be Prepared for All Possible Weather

While this really depends on where you are going in the US, it is still a good precaution. My favorite example of this happened on my most recent road trip. I was not done recovering from sunburn in Chaco Canyon  where I got hit by a snowstorm heading into Bryce Canyon. Despite the two being only a few hundred miles from each other, the elevation differences make for very distinct weather. At the very least, check out the climate in the regions you are visiting to plan accordingly.

Pro Tip: Chaco Canyon is one of the least visited places in the US. If you like off the beaten path places, this is it.

I you have any more useful tips, I would be delighted to hear them!

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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6 thoughts on “10 Tips for an American Road Trip

  • October 28, 2014 at 10:14 am
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    I would also add there is no such thing as a boring National Park. All 59 of them are exceptional. There are also 22 World Heritage Sites and 110 National Monuments in the US, I have yet to be dissapointed.

    Reply
    • October 28, 2014 at 11:42 am
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      That is very true! Most are way better than most of what I have seen abroad to be honest. I am thinking of tracking my visiting of NPs too since I love them so much. I think I’ve been to 10. What is your favorite?

      Reply
      • October 28, 2014 at 4:39 pm
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        I’ve visited 17 National Parks. Some of my favorites are Redwoods, Yosemite, Grand Canyon (North Rim), and the Everglades. Canyon de Chelly, Wuptaki, and Carrizo Plain National Monuments are also exceptional and well off the beaten path.

        Reply
        • October 28, 2014 at 10:14 pm
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          Wow, awesome. I am ashamed to say that despite being from California, I’ve never been to Yosemite! I tried this last spring but Yosemite had a snow storm. My favorites are Channel Islands and Arches. The Everglades and Yellowstone were amazing too though. I just went down the list, I’ve been to 11. I gotta check out more national monuments though. I didn’t realize that what they were until recently.

          Reply
          • October 29, 2014 at 11:02 am
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            Let me know if you ever want some extra info/suggestions on Yosemite. I’ve visited the park 3 times. Just don’t spend all your time in Yosemite Valley! (2 days, minimum) The back portion of the park and Glacier Point Rd are stunning.

            I’ve been to 25 National Monuments, many of them are as exceptional (or nearly so) as their larger National Park counterparts.

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