By Jess Goulart
Additional contributor: Tanya Silverman
“Before you vote, you should be required to drive across the country and see the variety of people and places,” wrote Jamie Jensen, author of Road Trip USA, now in its seventh edition.
It’s true that the cross-country road trip is pretty much an American rite of passage. This country is a veritable patchwork of contrasting geography and people, and whether you’re just visiting or you call it home, the only way to really conceptualize the stark cultural differences across each of our 50 states is to witness them in person.
From breathtaking sights like New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, to the ice caves of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, to the glistening sea and cliff accompaniment along California’s Highway 1, America truly is “the beautiful.”
But (even better than that) the USA also boasts a certain knack for elevating kitsch to an art form. In what other nation, we ask you, can you find a beer can house (Texas), a Stonehenge replication made of cars (Nebraska), or the world’s largest ball of twine (Kansas)?
The stakes are high and you don’t want to miss out! Use this ultimate guide for making the most out of your USA road trip, courtesy of BTR’s travel experts.
Strike a balance
Road trippers often fall into one of two categories: either they can’t wait to get to the final destination, or they couldn’t care less about it. Try your best to strike a balance between these two extremes–the journey and the destination are equally as important, because they each make the other taste sweeter.
We know it’s not the most fun you’ll ever have, but clean your car before, during, and after your trip. Even for people with a high mess tolerance, a few days in a gross car will wear on your nerves.
Guess how many fast food wrappers wind up on the floor if you don’t have a designated in-car trash bag? All of them.
We suggest throwing trash out at every gas station stop, plus keeping a bottle of bleach wipes in your dash–the lemon scented kind that can cut through the stench of two-day-old milkshake.
Pack some non-perishable foods and keep them separated from the rest of your luggage. Expect to go through long stretches where your only option is a gas station and a convenience store that sell all the same products. Nut butter is great (unless you’re allergic) to keep handy when you want to stop your stomach from growling through two states straight.
As for non-food related packing, bungee cords are useful for condensing your items or attaching them to the outside of your vehicle, so consider buying a bunch of them. It’s not like they take up much space if you don’t end up using them.
Back roads or bust
American interstates are often boring and repetitive, plus packed with daunting trucks that block your vision of any pleasant scenery. If you have extra time to take an alternative route, use it. For instance, when driving from New York to Philadelphia, you can avoid the unpleasant artery of the Eastern Seaboard known as I-95. You can even avoid the entire state of New Jersey if you’re feeling like a random adventure. Heading upstate, then curving down into Pennsylvania along the Delaware River, on rural roads, up hills, and through little-known towns is a much more intimate travel experience than sitting in the bleak, traffic-laden lanes of a mainstream route.
To boost your confidence in going off the grid, we suggest purchasing a good ol’ paper map. They might not be as easy to use as a GPS, but they also won’t lose service and become completely useless.
Watch your gas gauge
No, but seriously though, running out of gas will ruin your day. There are stretches in the USA with no service stations for a hundred miles, like highway I-70 in Utah from Salina to Green River. Do not ever let that needle fall below a quarter of a tank.
Cross your “t’s” and dot your “i’s”
In road trip lingo that means having all your documents in order, a clean record, and all auto-essentials, like a spare tire, oil, windshield wiper fluid, coolant, and a AAA subscription. Don’t even mess around with your safety, travel knowing that if something unexpected happens you’re covered, that way you can have some fun.
See the sights the locals love
Plan on some designated sites but stay open minded about other opportunities that you’ll find along the way. Check out local cafes and neighborhood parks to chat with residents about what they’d recommend, or read local blogs if you know roughly where you’re headed in advance.
For more details on suggested pit stops, check out our article on roadside attractions.
Remember, “there’s nothing wrong that a hundred bucks and a full tank of gas can’t fix,” wrote Andrew McCarthy for The Guardian, so grab your keys and hit that highway.