The Ultimate American Road Trip Guide

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Get ready to shift into gear and roll across America with our in-depth guide to everything you need to know about road trips.

From sea to shining sea and through amber waves of grain, America the Beautiful has lush scenery and colorful culture just waiting to be explored. And there has never been a better time to see, do, and drive to all the best sights and cities scattered around the continental United States. Read on for the planning tips, best destinations, best routes, and essential packing advice you’ll need to hit the open road this season whether you’re buckling up for a cross country Route 66 road trip or exploring your home state.

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How to plan a road trip

Cheerful family raising hands while enjoying road trip in electric carMaskot/Getty Images

Although driving your car is likely second nature, a successful road trip is more than just shifting your vehicle to “drive.” To get the most out of your journey, you need to prepare with an eye to everything from where to go, how to get there, and what to do once you arrive, to more technical details such as the cost of fuel, what to pack, and how to prep your vehicle for a long journey. Luckily, we have all the keys you need for a great journey.

Step 1: Choose your road trip destination. Where will you head? A beach, the mountains, a national park, an iconic landmark? The whole country is at your fingertips, you just need to choose.
Step 2: Plan your route. A great road trip is more than just the destination, the journey itself is a large part of what makes it special, but to make the most of the open road it helps do some advance planning.
Step 3: Calculate the cost of your trip. It’s true that a road trip is considerably more budget-friendly than booking an airline ticket, but there are still costs involved ranging from fuel to lodging, food to parking, to keep in mind when you’re budgeting road trip costs.
Step 4: Prepare your vehicle. If there’s one thing you need to have a successful road trip, it’s a best road trip car, or at the least, a vehicle that’s in peak working condition.
Step 5: Research things to do/places to stay and eat. You’ve hit the road; now what? It’s fun to make discoveries along the way, but you still want to have some research in your back pocket for must-see spots and an ultimate destination.
Step 6: Make a packing checklist. The time you spend making a packing checklist will pay back in dividends when you hit the road and have everything you need on board for the perfect road trip.

Road trip destinations

signpost with many signs in the mojave desert, nevada, usaGary Yeowell/Getty Images

Your U.S. road trip itinerary is limited only by your willingness to spend time in your vehicle and your imagination. If you’re not sure how you or your family will fare on a long ride, start off with a series of local daytrips and then start extending your exploration circle. Once you get the hang of venturing beyond your home base, try an overnight stay, there are great weekend getaway road trip options in every state, so you can decide either by location or how many hours you’re willing to spend on the drive and see where that lands you on the map. If you’re itching to get away sooner instead of later, you can still have a great spring break road trip, too, especially if you’re traveling with a family. Wondering where to start? How about a California road trip to see the glittering Golden State? Or a grand Texas road trip adventure through the Lone Star State?

Best places to road trip

Whether you have a week or a single day, there are oceans, mountains, national parks, and historical monuments just waiting to be explored. These are some of the best road trip destinations in America:

Big Sur

California Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, near Big SurThomas Winz/Getty Images

A breathtaking drive along the California coastline. You’ll see beautiful beaches and state parks with majestic redwoods and hiking trails.

White Mountains

Franconia Notch State Park during Autumn in New Hampshire USA White Mountains National ForestCappi Thompson/Getty Images

All roads lead to scenic views and an endless outdoor playground in these breathtaking New Hampshire mountains.

Glacier National Park

Scenic view of Glacier National Park.Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

See 26 glaciers and a million acres of stunning mountains, valleys, waterfalls, meadows, and lakes.

Outer Banks

Warm light of sunrise along beach and sand dunes at Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.EJ-J/Getty Images

Travel through North Carolina along the National Scenic Byway down to Ocracoke Village for beautiful beaches, wild horses, lighthouses, birding, hiking, and more.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore monument under blue sky, South Dakota, United StatesJacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

South Dakota’s Black Hills region boasts more than famous faces carved into a cliff. Be sure to leave time to venture out also to Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and other national monuments and feats of nature all within a 40 to 90-minute drive.

San Juan Skyway

the winding road of the Million Dollar Highway, a piece of the San Juan Skyway in Colorado, with breaktaking views of the San Juan Mountains in the backgroundDifferent_Brian/Getty Images

Wind your way for 233 miles through the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico into the southwest corner of Colorado for jaw-dropping views of river valleys and alpine peaks.

National Parks Road Trip

The Watchman, Zion National Park, UtahJustin Reznick Photography/Getty Images

The mother of all national parks road trips? That would be the 14,500-mile itinerary that touches every one of the 47 national parks in the contiguous United States and takes about two months to complete. Or, you can check out some of the best national park road trips to visit one at a time.

Road trip map

Take a look at all the most popular, exciting, and iconic road trip routes across the United States.

Map of united states with various road trip routes outlined in colorful dotted linesEmma Kumer/rd.com

Best American road trip routes

Road trips are a great way to see and experience the country, especially when the journey is as enjoyable as the destination. You’ll drive through sleepy towns and bustling cities, along rushing rivers, scenic cliffsides, lush forests, and desert-scapes. Our American road trip guides reveal the best places to eat and stay, and the roadside attractions not to miss. Get ready to see our big, beautiful country in a whole new way.

Route 66

Drone view of American car driving in a straight road of the famous Route 66.Artur Debat/Getty Images

Get your kicks on America’s original road trip—this 2,448-mile journey from Chicago to Santa Monica is a trip down the memory lane of our nation.

The Appalachian Trail

Forested hills rolling landscapeCharles Johnson/500px/Getty Images

Cruise the Eastern seaboard along the 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, along parks, waterfalls, theme parks, and stunning fall foliage.

The Great Northern Road Trip

Cars driving on road in Acadia National Park, Maine, USA. One car holds a canoe on its roof.Allard1/Getty Images

For an adventure you’ll never forget, head west on this 3,600-mile adventure from Maine to Washington on U.S. Highway 2.

Oregon Trail

covered wagon in a field at Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska along the Oregon Trailzrfphoto/Getty Images

Follow in the wagon wheel tracks of the pioneers who blazed a trail from Cape Cod all the way to Columbia Gorge.

The Great River Road

St. Louis Gateway Arch and LakeDavel5957/Getty Images

Follow along the mighty Mississippi for the 3,000-mile journey from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico to behold points of cultural and historical interest and spectacular scenic viewing areas, not to mention sensational regional cuisine.

Border-to-Border Road Trip

Scenic View Of Lake And Snowcapped Mountains Against SkyHarald Goebl/EyeEm/Getty Images

On this trip from the Great White North to the Wild West, you’ll go across borders, through college towns and big cities, up mountains and down into the valleys, past dormant volcanoes, art installations, lakeshores, majestic national parks, and historic sites.

Atlantic Coast Road Trip

Acorn Street BostonSean Pavone/Getty Images

The 1,900 miles of I-95 along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida takes you through quaint coastal towns, beautiful beaches, historic attractions, and some of America’s most iconic cities.

Route planning

close up of hands examing a map in the carImage Source/Getty Images

The first steps in planning a road trip are to think about where you want to go, how long you want to be traveling, who you want to travel with, and what you want to do once you get to your destination. After you pick your destination, it’s time to figure out your route. Remember, with a road trip, getting there truly is half the fun, so you may want to try an itinerary where the roads offer an adrenaline rush that you normally only get at a theme park, like the Tail of the Dragon, a hold-your-breath serpentine stretch along the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee that crosses the North Carolina Border. Or try the Million Dollar Highway traversing the rugged beauty between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado; a narrow, twisty road considered both one of the most scenic and dangerous roads in America, practically guaranteed to elicit gasps of fear and awe. Or take it a little easier and simply enjoy the scenery on the Atlantic Coast road trip; a 1,900-mile route along I-95 that touches down in some of the most historic, scenic, and iconic spots in America from Maine to Florida. Whatever you choose, be sure to have a plan for where to spend the night, even if it’s just one or two prearranged spots at the beginning of your trip while you get your road legs. Of course, as you head out on the road, you’ll have the opportunity to try out some truly unusual overnight stays worth a special detour just to check them out.

Road trip planners

road trip appsvia apps.apple.com (4)

After you decide where to go, the next order of business is to plan your route so you know how you’re getting there. Unlike simply entering an address into a map to get from point A to point B, a road trip is just as much about the journey as the destination, so you’ll want to think about what you’re going to see along the way. There are many free road trip apps that can help you plan, the RoadTrippers app is a good one to add to your travel folder to help find nearby attractions. And don’t rule out tried and true options; for example, Google Maps’ special features include finding nearby food or events, booking tickets, sharing your location with friends and family, and more. Crowdsourced navigation tool Waze can help you find everything from a parking spot to a gas station in addition to mapping your trip. While you’re downloading apps and planning your trip, add a few to your road trip folder to save money on gas and tolls and it’s always a good idea to check the road trip weather with an app such as Weather.com for your destination; that way you can be prepared so you don’t get stuck in a thunderstorm, ice or snow—and have to put driving tips for scary situations into action.

Finding food and hotels along your route

Low angle view of breakfast sign on diner, San Francisco, California, USAOwen Smith/Getty Images

You don’t need to break the bank to have a comfortable road trip, but you do need to fuel up, whether that’s with gas for your car or food to have an enjoyable trip. Consider these easy-to-pack road trip snacks or pick up some of these best gas station snacks during your next pit stop. If you’re not traveling by RV, you’re going to need safe and comfortable places to stay that won’t eat up all of your travel budget. Luckily, there are myriad ways to find cheap accommodations while traveling ranging from rustic camping and cabins to surprisingly perk-filled hostels to chain motels and hotels with a range of amenities. To find last-minute places to stay, try using apps such as HotelTonight for discounted hotels or websites like PitchUp for budget campgrounds and cabins.

For food and groceries along the way, utilize Google Maps’ special features that help locate nearby restaurants and markets, and Yelp is a treasure trove of local restaurant recommendations.

Google Maps and Waze (which is powered by Google) can also help pinpoint nearby gas stations, and the TripTik app from AAA can point you to gas stations as well as giving you available fuel grades and the latest per-gallon gas price.

Road trip budget

piggy bank sitting on the dashboard of a car on a road tripdeepblue4you/Getty Images

Road trips not only let you slow down, see the scenery, and explore new areas, but they also offer a respite from pricey airline tickets and all the costs associated with a flying vacation, including car rentals, airport shuttles, and long term parking. However, you do need to plan ahead to calculate the cost of your trip and create a road trip budget.

Some things to keep in mind include calculating fuel prices, vacation rentals, RV and camping site fees, food costs, and admission tickets. At the bottom end of the cost spectrum is free camping, but there are other affordable road trip accommodations to try out across the country. To keep admission prices low, consider purchasing a national parks pass that allows you to enter every park and historic site in the national parks system for one low annual price.

Infographic explaining how to calculate how much you will have to pay for gas on a road tripEmma Kumer/rd.com

Cross-country travel preparation

Although it’s tempting to simply jump in your car and take off, the optimal type of transportation for your road trip might need further thought depending on the trip type, destination, how many people will be, and what your budget is. If your vehicle is big enough to hold your crew, you can stick with that, but make sure to visit a mechanic and have your car inspected a week or two before you go on your trip. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to address any issues and assure the car was serviced properly. Make sure the oil has been changed, the windshield wipers are up to snuff and the fluid is filled. Don’t have a big enough car to comfortably transport your whole posse cross country? You may want to consider renting an SUV, van, or an RV, see below.

Brothers squishing each other in the carChris Stein/Getty Images

Renting a car vs driving your own

There are myriad reasons you may want to rent a car for your road trip. If you lease your car and have a set mileage, it could actually be less expensive to use a rental for a cross-country adventure than to pay the fee if you go over your mileage. If your car might not be up to a long haul, extreme itinerary, renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle may be the way to go. And if you have a vehicle that isn’t reliable, the middle of the desert might not be the time or place to test how just how temperamental that engine is. And of course, if you’re flying to your starting point, then you’ll need a car to get around or back home (but beware that having different pick-up and drop points can add considerably to your rental cost). These are the best cars to rent for a road trip.

RV Road Trips

rv on the road among a beautiful landscape with mountains in the backgroundYinYang/Getty Images

Vacations can be expensive. Hotel rooms and eating out can seriously eat into your budget. There is another way, though: Bring your room with you on the road in a recreational vehicle! Pack the fridge with your own favorite foods and you won’t be at the mercy of pricey restaurants along your route, plus you only have to unpack your suitcase once. Before you jump behind the wheel though, take some time to explore what the best type of recreational vehicle or travel trailer is for you. After you choose what type of RV is the best fit for your group size, itinerary, and bottom line, consider if you want to buy, rent, or even try a peer-to-peer RV rental company (kind of like an Airbnb) such as Outdoorsy. Once you have your RV, be sure to either ask about recent maintenance or schedule a checkup for your car. Remember that you need somewhere to park your RV, so consult our list of free overnight parking.

Things to do on a road trip

couple love romantic towns cannon beach oregon ice creamFatCamera/Getty Images

When you’re on the road for a long time, as the driver you’ll be focusing on the drive, although a great playlist, podcast, or audiobook can all be great additions. Traveling with your partner to one of these romantic weekend getaways? Pass the time by asking each other these 36 questions that lead to love.

But what about if you’re with your family and young children en route to exploring one of these best cities for history buffs? This may be a good time to relax digital device rules and stock phones and iPads with some educational games or perhaps even movies if you’re not totally opposed to screen time.

Oregon DinosaurCourtesy Gregor Halenda

A leisurely road trip can also be a good time to indulge your passions for shopping, by keeping an eye out for the best souvenir in every state or for foodies to forget about calorie count and create an epic food road trip; everything from a barbecue crawl in the Texas Hill Country to a lobster roll through Maine can be on the road trip menu.

Not unlike traveling with kids, taking your dog on a road trip offers ample rewards, but requires additional planning for their safety and comfort, and for your sanity as well. Plan for extra stops for pet relief, which will give you a chance to check out the local area, too, a perfect time to check out the strangest roadside attraction in every state. Dogs don’t need a lot of in-car entertainment other than looking out the window but pack a few balls to play fetch at your pit stops along with a car safety harness, collapsible bowls, and waste bags.

Things to do in the car

Best podcasts for road trips

collection of podcast coversvia itunes

From history podcasts to spine-tingling stories, podcasts will keep you riveted through episodic entertainment that will make the drive speed by in a flash.

Best audiobooks for road trips

White headphones with stack of books on blue background. Audio books or modern education conceptTShum/Getty Images

If you’d prefer a longer story to immerse yourself into, audiobooks can be the perfect road trip companion.

Road trip games

road trip gamesvia amazon.com (3)

Sure, you can play I Spy and 20 questions until the cows literally come home, but keep things interesting with some new options like “Do You Really Know Your Family?” or “I Should Have Known That” trivia game.

Road trip playlist

Close up of senior man changing radio station while sitting in his car.dusanpetkovic/Getty Images

What would a road trip be without music? Theme it out to the season, destination, oldies, new hits, whatever keeps you grooving. This might be a good time to try out streaming services such as Spotify to help you create a list from an endless source of songs or tune into one of its ready-made road trip playlists.

What to pack for a road trip

Family loading luggage into car top box before road tripThomas Barwick/Getty Images

We know, you’re driving and not flying, and therefore it seems like you can take everything with you! There are no weight limits, or liquid restrictions, or anyone X-raying your bags. But don’t get too carried away. Yes, it’s good to have everything you need with you, but no, it’s not great to have your rearview window blocked by bags, the doors dangerously crowded with toys, or the trunk jammed to bursting. Life will feel much less stressful if you follow packing tips such as making a list of everything you want to bring, which will both keep you organized and help you find room to pack your suitcase with budget-saving extras like laundry detergent.

road trip snacksvia amazon.com (3)

Don’t forget the road trip snacks! Selecting good road trip munchies is half the fun. We’ve found the best options are individually wrapped, extra portable, easy to eat, and that won’t leave a slew of crumbs across your back seat.

Portable espresso maker for your car? A multi-port charger? A portable car vacuum? How about a plug-in iceless cooler? These helpful car travel accessories will seriously up your road trip style. Or, if you’d rather DIY your car style, try these travel hacks for a great road trip (we’re obsessed with the bubble wrap seat cushion; give it a try!)

Road trip packing list

Pack these road trip essentials to keep safe, comfortable, entertained, and ready for just about anything on your next outdoor adventure.

Bring in the glove box: The owner’s manual (this would be an ideal time to read it—or at least skim it—if you haven’t already), a spare phone charger with cable, a basic first-aid kit, a fully-operating flashlight, paper maps since phone and GPS reception might be sketchy depending on where you are, and a multi-type tool for safety scenarios. Here are a few more tools you should have in your car.

Driver Opening Glovebox CompartmentAndreyPopov/Getty Images

Store under the seat: A few extra items to store under the seat of your car include paper products like paper towels and toilet paper, a silver survivor blanket that folds up neatly, and money (in case your credit cards don’t work for whatever reason and you’re far from an ATM).

Put in your wallet: your license or other forms of ID so you can be identified, registration/insurance card, any medical information like current medications or conditions, and a list of emergency contacts.

Keep in the console: If you’re spending the day on the road driving miles and miles to your destination, make sure your technology is all charged up and bring along a portable charger for emergencies. (Check its charge periodically.) A personal hotspot is also helpful for logging onto the internet if your car doesn’t have built-in WiFi.

Dog with his head out the window of a carChalabala/Getty Images

Your sense of adventure! Road trips are fun times with family, friends—or even yourself!—and it’s important to release any expectations and be open to change. As any traveler knows, let go of any prior thoughts of what a trip is supposed to look like and instead let the trip take you where you need to go. In other words: Enjoy the ride!

Melissa Klurman
Melissa Klurman is a freelance travel writer and editor with more than 27 years experience who reports on travel trends around the planet for Reader's Digest. Winner of a Lowell Thomas Gold Award for excellence in travel writing, she started her career as an editor at both Frommer’s and Fodor’s travel guides, then went on to write about travel for many publications including Family Traveller, Parents, and Working Mother magazines. More recently she has been a contributing editor at Saveur, Islands, and Caribbean Travel and Life and a senior contributor at Travelocity. A New Jersey native, ice cream addict, and a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Klurman lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, son, and rescue dog.