There are few travel experiences more rewarding than driving across America. (Photo by Jo Piazza. Design by Erik Mace for Yahoo Travel.)
Tell people you are setting off across the country by car, and you will most certainly be barraged with all sorts of “helpful” advice. Everyone has an opinion on the great American road trip, whether it is what route you should take, where you should sleep, or what you should see. All of this advice is incredibly helpful. Setting off on the open road can be a daunting and sometimes challenging experience. It can also be the best trip of your life. My advice is to take all of the advice thrown at you, pare it down, and use it to your advantage.
I just completed an eight-day, 13-state road trip across the country in a very small Fiat Pop with a very large dog and a dear friend. Now I am full of wisdom of my own. Having just gotten off the road, I’m offering 17 essential rules to ensure an epic cross-country road trip.
1. Never say no to a full tank of gas. There’s a sign along Interstate 90 in South Dakota that says, “Better to fill up the tank and not the can.” It is great advice. If you live in a city or even in the suburbs, you are used to being able to fill up the tank at a moment’s notice. That’s not possible in most of the country. Even if you aren’t close to empty, fill up the tank every time you pull off at a rest stop. You don’t want to find yourself stranded on that 100-mile stretch of highway that doesn’t have roadside services. Trust me. This country is full of them.
Fill up the tank or risk the consequences. Also stop in the gas station casino. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
2. Be nimble. Pick one or two must-sees and limit everything else to chance. When we hit the road we knew that we wanted to stop in a few key places along the way. We wanted to see Mount Rushmore and the Tetons. We wanted to stop in Park City, Utah, and De Smet, South Dakota. But we were flexible on just about everything else. That allowed us the time and the energy to discover things that weren’t on our list such as the Badlands of South Dakota and the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming.
A deviation from our plan led to a glorious day in the South Dakota Badlands National Park. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
3. Always take a respite. We didn’t know we needed a break until the perfect place to take one came along. We were only supposed to stay at the Paradise Guest Ranch outside of Buffalo, Wyoming, for one night. We loved it so much that we stayed for three and left refreshed and revived.
Three days of horseback riding and fishing at the Paradise Guest Ranch in Wyoming prepared us to take on the second half of the country. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
4. Take all of the pictures. You can never take too many pictures on a road trip. It is always easier to delete than to regret. Take the pictures on your phone. Buy some old Polaroid film. Bring along a super fancy camera and a GoPro. You may use up all the memory on your phone (delete some apps), but it will be well worth it when you are recounting your adventure to friends and family back home.
You only regret the pictures you didn’t take. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
5. Get off the Interstate. Back roads are where you truly discover America. Make sure you know where you are going before you veer off the highway, and then let yourself enjoy getting off the beaten path.
These are the roads where memories are made. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
6. Eat locally. Avoid fast food at all costs. It won’t do anything good for your mind or your body. Healthy food can be a little harder to find, but that local diner with its delicious bison burgers and just-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies is waiting for you right around the next bend.
7. Pay attention to what the truck drivers do in bad weather. The truck drivers know what they are doing. If they start pulling over in a big storm, that is probably an excellent sign that you should pull over as well.
Do you see a funnel? We thought we saw a funnel. But this truck driver on the Interstate in Indiana seemed wholly unconcerned. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
8. Find the right partner. Find a like-minded travel partner. This person isn’t always your best friend or your spouse. This person is someone you can spend 10 days in a car with. Make sure you have similar personalities when it comes to sleep schedules, how messy you both are, how much Taylor Swift you can tolerate, and how comfortable you are deviating from a plan.
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9. Pay attention to all the local signage. Roadside billboards are this country’s original Twitter. Want to know where to go in a brand-new city or town? Just pay attention to the billboards. Without keeping an eye on those I never would have discovered that you can hand-feed prairie dogs right off of Interstate 90 in South Dakota. Keeping your eyes open can go a long way.
Pay attention on the road and you might just make a new friend. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
10. Have an excellent and varied soundtrack. Local radio is great. It will also fail you 50 percent of the time. Make sure you have downloaded all of your playlists and audiobooks ahead of time. Mix it up. We may have listened to Taylor Swift’s 1989 album 17 times. But we also downloaded a bunch of Moth and This American Life podcasts and the audiobook of “Go Set a Watchman.” Your brain wants variety on the road.
11. Have a good story to tell the locals. We inherently had a good story. We were driving across the country to San Francisco so that I could move in with my fiancé right before our wedding. If you tell a good story, the locals will tell you a good story.
12. Don’t overpack. You don’t need half of what is in your suitcase. This is a good rule of thumb for any trip, but particularly for the cross-country road trip, where every little bit of space is precious. Look at everything you packed and then take half of it away. You will wear one pair of jeans this whole trip. I promise.
13. Go grocery shopping. Healthy food isn’t always an option on the road. That is why you have to make it one. Stop at a grocery store every couple of days to stock up on fruit, yogurt, nuts, and chopped veggies. It will keep your energy high on the road and keep you from making an “emergency” run on the local McDonald’s.
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14. Buy a map. A real map. Google Maps is not always your friend, and phone service on the road can be nonexistent. Get yourself a good old-fashioned road map, or even better an atlas.
The Internet isn’t always all it is cracked up to be. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
15. Trust your instincts. When it comes to finding a place to stay for the night, always trust your instincts. If you arrive in a town after dark, shell out the extra 20 bucks to stay in a motel on the main drag instead of one that is a little bit cheaper but a little bit darker and off the beaten path. If it feels dodgy, it probably is dodgy.
16. Know your limits. One night toward the end of our trip, we had our hearts set on arriving in Salt Lake City before we went to bed. But by the time we reached Evanston, Wyoming, about an hour from SLC, we could hardly keep our eyes open. Know your limits and don’t be afraid to adjust your schedule accordingly.
17. Savor your destination. The road trip is about the journey, but make sure to enjoy your destination. Take a full day at least to soak it all in. Be a tourist. Walk around. Bike around. Move your body after spending all of that time in the car. We arrived in San Francisco well after midnight on a Saturday night but spent a full day biking through Golden Gate Park and across the Golden Gate Bridge the next day. Giving your trip a glorious bookend creates a beautiful narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end for the entire experience.
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”