Planning your first Cross Country Road Trip

By Hayley Braun | Travel Tips

"I want to road trip across the country with my best friend."

It's a guaranteed find on any good bucket list. Luckily, I was able to check "Cross Country Road Trip" off before I even turned 22!

While a cross country road trip isn't the easiest or most relaxing vacation, it's something I think everyone should do. Before embarking on your first cross country road trip, read below for a few tips & advice I learned along the way!

PLAN YOUR TRIP

Pick the Perfect Route

There are a few things you need to figure out before you set out on a Cross Country Road Trip. Most importantly, where are you going, and how will you get there? Here are a couple of questions to get you started:

  • How long is your ideal road trip? 
  • What's your budget?
  • Who are you be traveling with?
  • What do you hope to get out of this road-trip?
  • Where will you be sleeping every night?
  • North to South? East to West? One-way, or round trip?


When we started planning our trip, this step was easy. Maddy had a job in California with a car there for the summer, so I would fly to meet her for the drive back. The catch? We only had 6 days before classes started in Clemson. Oh, and my 21st birthday was on Day 1.

Choose your stops, and choose them wisely!

Once you have the beginning and end of your journey set, it's time to decide what to do along the way.

Our cross country road trip route.

In general, it takes around 35 hours to get from Los Angeles, California to Clemson, South Carolina. This is assuming you don't stop to eat, sleep, breathe, or spend a night in Vegas. Obviously, it wouldn't have been a very good 21st birthday road trip if we skipped the Vegas stop! So, I went to Google Maps, and plugged in our 3 known destinations: Los Angeles, Vegas, and Clemson.

I found that the best way to plan our stops was:

  • 1
    Use Google Maps to find the general route from your first to last stop. Include any must-see destinations along the way
  • 2
    Start adding stops along the way.
  • 3
    Look for interesting cities already along your route.  And keep in mind, on a 40+ hour drive, even a few hours away might be "along the route".  You can also save money by planning to stay with friends & family along the way!
  • 5
    Decide how many hours you're willing to drive each day (we stuck to 6-10 hours with two drivers). This will help you figure out if your trip fits within your ideal number-of-days.
  • 6
    Add or remove stops as necessary until you've perfected your route.
  • 7
    Leave room for mistakes, and unexpected adventures!

And just like that, Maddy and I had the perfect 21st birthday Cross Country Road Trip planned. I flew to Los Angeles, and after a quick visit we headed back to the East Coast.

PACK & PREPARE

Pack like it's your job

....because it'll start to feel like your job after you re-do it for the fifth time that week.

I'm not gonna lie, hotel-hopping every single night doesn't make for the most relaxing vacation. BUT, if you pack well and keep things organized (I always use the packing cubes below), it'll make your life so much easier!

Must Have: Packing Cubes

Packing cubes are a necessity for any multi-stop trip. I got a set of these a few years ago, and they have totally changed the game for the way I pack.

  • If you have a specific outfit you're saving for a certain day on your trip (ex. black dress for Vegas, country outfit in Nashville) this is a great way to keep it separated and out of the way of your everyday items.
  • If you're using a "shell" style suitcase or backpack, these cubes are also perfect to keep items in the middle section contained!
  • In general, on longer trips where you're packing and unpacking often, staying organized will save you a ton of time!

Getting in and out of hotels each night with two full size suitcases, all of Maddy's belonging's from the summer (including a cat) was a near extreme sport. One idea is to separate out the things you'll use every night into a more accessible bag.

That way on that days you arrive somewhere too exhausted to do anything but order a pizza, you'll have your pj's & toothbrush ready (without unpacking the whole car, again).

Prepare for a long week of travel!

While sitting in the car for hours everyday is part of the fun, it also can get boring. Here are a few tips to prepare for your time livin' life on the road:

  • Start a Cross Country Road Trip playlist.  We started the week off with some awesome playlists, but I think by the end of 41 hours, we probably listened to every Spotify playlist ever created.
  • Research some good podcasts to listen to.  We listened to the whole second season of the Serial podcast and loved it! Podcasts really help the time fly by.
  • Pack healthy, filling snacks! (And some road trip junk food, of course).  Stocking up in advance will save you time on stops later.  Packing more filling snacks (granola bars, trail mix, beef jerky) can make a great breakfast on-the-go, which also saves you more time and money.
    • If you do happen to be looking for beef jerky on the way from L.A. to Vegas... check out this alien beef jerky store we found (thanks, Erika!).

PEDAL TO THE METAL

On the road with our CATlas!

Once you've planned, packed, and prepare, you're ready for your Cross Country road-trip! There's just a couple more things to remember:

  • Be flexible, and have a back-up plan.  The reality is, no matter how much time you put into planning your road trip, things are bound to change. Whether that's because of traffic, or because an unexpected night out has you attempting a 12 hour drive on 2 hours of sleep, be ready to be flexible!
  • Keep a physical map in the car with you.  I know this is a foreign concept for my generation, but trust me, there's some part of the country that are WAY out there. (Like, giant-ball-of-yarn on the side of the highway out there). You don't want to end up stuck with no GPS signal and no clue where you're heading!
  • Always have your travel agent (read as: my mom) on speed dial.  It's great to have someone with access to a full size computer when you need last-minute bookings or recommendations and can't browse from your phone.
  • Find a way to document your trip. Trust me, even a year later I am so happy to have our videos to look back at! You can also collect ticket stubs and small souvenirs along your way. Check out our trip video below.

6 days, 11 states, and 41 hours of driving-- summarized in 1 minute! Learn how to make your own with my step-by-step guide to Creating Simple Travel Videos Using 1SE.

Have fun, and try not to kill each other!

For as long as I can remember, my parents have told me "always go on a road trip with the person you're going to marry." I guess if my mom & dad could tolerate each-other for 12 hours straight, that was a good indication they could do it another 25 years? (happy almost-25th anniversary, btw!)

In that case, after 41 hours together, Maddy and I passed the marriage test!

READ MORE:   My Bucket List Road Trips

About the Author

I'm a recent Clemson engineering grad (go tigers!) and have been traveling for as long as I can remember. I've always loved exploring new places and meeting new people. I started travel blogging to be able to do more of what I love, and get to share it with the world!

  • Akhilesh says:

    These are great tips! Well written. 😊

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