The car is packed and you’re headed on a long-awaited road trip. Whether you’re taking your own vehicle coast-to-coast, or you’re renting a car to make a U.S. road trip part of your international adventure, a little planning goes a long way.
With 20 years of traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard, plus car trips to Chicago, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, I’ve picked up a few handy tips to share for taking a road trip in the United States. I hope that these helpful tips help you plan your US road trip!
Having a broad idea of your major stops, must-see tourist attractions, and areas where you want to spend several days or even a week helps give your vacation structure. It ensures you’ll experience what matters the most to you in each state, whether that’s theme parks, shopping, or the best gourmet restaurants.
Each summer, my family takes a three-week road trip from New York to Florida. We plan two major stops along the way, spending two or three days in spots like Washington, D.C., or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I save money by booking hotel rooms and attractions for these places in advance.
On a related note, do not go too crazy planning your trip and underestimate how large the United States is. Many first-time road trippers in the United States assume that you can go coast-to-coast in a short time and often cram in too much. Although the driving may not take as long as you might expect, you’ll probably want to explore cities, national parks, and major tourist attractions along the way. Give yourself enough time to stop off beyond a quick pit-stop!
Connect with Locals for the Best Tips
Talk to locals, join Facebook groups for people traveling to given areas, and visit the tourist and visitor’s bureau website for each city you plan to visit. Also pay attention to insider travel guides like the ones on WanderlustingK to discover the secret hotspots only the locals know about.
Search Groupon for Deals – and Ideas
You can find some great attractions (at a low price) by browsing Groupon for things to do in the places you want to visit. Sometimes, you’ll discover an activity you hadn’t planned, like a local escape room or a helicopter ride across a city.
Leave Room for Spontaneity
While we keep a broad idea of our journey and major stops in mind, we also take time to explore interesting restaurants, fun stores like that we don’t have near us (like Cabela’s), or even just a hotel with a pool off I-95 if we’re getting tired.
Some of our greatest road trip memories happened by accident. Our kids still talk about the time we decided to stop and visit the world-famous South of the Border between the Carolinas. It was incredibly kitschy (like all of SOTB), overpriced, hilarious, yet terrifying at the same time. We won’t do it again, but we’re glad we did it once.
Purchase Toll Passes for Areas Where You’ll Be Traveling
Pre-paid toll booth transponders make it easy for U.S. travelers to skip the toll booth lines and avoid carrying cash for tolls. The problem? Not all passes are accepted in all states.
But there’s good news for East Coast travelers. In August 2018, Florida began accepting E-Z Pass. That’s the transponder used across the Northeast, as far south as North Carolina, and in some Midwestern states. If your trip includes Georgia, you’ll need to purchase a Peach Pass, also good in North Carolina and Florida. South Carolina only has two tolls roads, but a Palmetto Pass makes it easier to cross them.
You can buy your E-Z Pass within any state that offers it, either online or through AAA. To save the most money, purchase the pass from the state where you plan to spend the most time because you’ll get some discounts on those tolls.
If your travels will take you all the way to California, it’s wise to invest in a FasTrak, too. If you’re renting a car for your trip, ask if you can get a toll pass directly from the rental car company.
Understand U.S. Rental Car Rules
Car rental tips, rules, and regulations could fill a whole blog post. Some rental companies require customers to be 25 or older. Other companies, including Alamo and Enterprise, rent cars to drivers 21+, but additional surcharges and requirements may apply. Hertz rents to drivers as young as 20, with an additional fee. The minimum age to rent a car in New York and Michigan is 18.
Some companies require you to have a valid credit card, while others accept a debit card for the rental. In either case, expect a hold to be placed on your account until you return the car. You generally are expected to bring a car rental back to the same location where the car was rented. Not doing so will result in extra fees, so one-way trips may be more expensive than you realize!
Inspect the car carefully and take photos with your phone before you drive away so you won’t be held responsible for pre-existing damage.
Educate Yourself About Rental Car Insurance
Rental car insurance can add another $10 to $30 per day to your bill. Do you need it? The answer is: It depends.
If you don’t have your own car insurance, you’ll want to pay for liability insurance, at a minimum. This protects you against having to pay out-of-pocket if you cause an accident and hurt someone else or damage their vehicle.
If you’re paying with a credit card, you might be able to skip Collison Damage Waiver (CDW) insurance, which covers theft or damage to the rental car. Read the fine print on your credit card statement, because most credit cards offer this perk.
Join AAA if traveling on your own
AAA stands for the American Automobile Association. This organization which advocates for travelers has offices where you can often pick up maps and other handy essentials.
Karen’s husband Jacob swears by the premium membership at AAA, which is a yearly cost. However, the roadside assistance has been a lifesaver in many rural places of the US during breakdowns after numerous breakdowns in rural West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and numerous other states.
Depending on your membership tier, you can get a certain number of tows up to a specific number of miles. Their services include delivering fuel to you if you run of gas, roadside assistance with a tow, vehicle lockout service, flat tire service, and battery starting assistance. It’s less than $150 to join for the year with the premium tier of membership (2019), so consider stopping by your local AAA office (or checking online!) to join.
Know the Difference Between a Rest Stop and a Truck Stop
Once you’re on the road, you’re going to have to stop at some point. You check the GPS and notice there’s a rest stop up ahead. Now, you’re looking forward to that Starbucks Cloud Macchiato.
If you began your journey in the Northeast, you might be used to the “rest stops” dotting the New Jersey Turnpike every 10 miles or so. Big box-style buildings, each with a giant food court, convenience store, and a gas station. You can buy everything from sunglasses to phone chargers. But I wouldn’t recommend it because you’ll pay less at Wal-mart or Target.
Maryland, Virginia, and Connecticut also have robust, state-funded rest stops worth visiting. However, rest stops across most of the country are not like that. You’ll find a few vending machines, bathrooms, and a place to walk dogs. But you won’t find shopping, a gas station, or much of anything else.
To find some unique pit stops to break up the route, Karen loves buying (and reading out loud in the car!) the Weird America books for inspiring and wacky rest stops! You can also get state-focused guides for road trips within only one state.
When you’re craving a latte and you need to fill up, you need a truck stop. Truck stops combine gas stations, restaurants, and convenience stores, plus amenities like showers for truckers and free WiFi. We like Flying J and Pilot because they’re clean and always have a variety of merchandise in the stores to browse as you stretch your legs. Fun fact: Iowa 80 in Walcott, Iowa, even has a movie theater.
Buy Your Snacks at Walmart or Local Grocery Stores to Save Money
While truck stops are great for that spur-of-the-moment fast food craving, you can save tons of money on your trip by stocking up at snacks from Wal-mart or a local grocery store in the area you’re visiting.
Eat Even Healthier by Stopping at Farm Stands
Pack a second cooler and stop at local farm stands or food co-ops for fresh produce for the trip. A few pints of strawberries and a bag of string beans keep me and the kids satisfied until we reach the next Cracker Barrel – a must-stop meal for us on every family road trip.
Find the Best Hotel Prices Online
Ready to stop for the night but haven’t reached your first pre-planned destination? Tap into free WiFi at the next truck stop to find the best prices for hotels on sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Booking, and Hotels.com. It’s smart to stick with one service, as prices don’t vary much, and you’ll earn rewards each time you book to save more money. (Karen usually uses the Booking.com app for last-minute bookings!)
Book your hotel about 20 minutes before you plan to arrive to be sure your reservation made it into the system. You can book a hotel from the parking lot of the hotel, but it might take a bit more time for the front desk to find your reservation.
Call the Hotel for Discounts
In my experience, I find the best hotel prices booking online. But it always pays to call the hotel and see if they will match that price. When you’re negotiating a rate, make sure you’re accounting for any added taxes and fees. A rate that looks lower online before you book might actually be higher than the hotel’s rate once you get the final price with taxes and fees. Also, be sure to check whether you will need to pay in cash or can pay in person by card.
Be sure to ask about AARP or AAA discounts, if you’re a member of either organization. You can’t use these discounts online, but the discount might just beat the online price.
Likewise, if you’re visiting a local or major regional tourist attraction, the hotel might offer a discount to the attraction or a discounted hotel room if you show your attraction ticket.
Account for Security Deposits
When you book a hotel or rental car, the company is likely to bill a security deposit on your credit card. The deposit covers incidentals – such as room charges – or damage to the room.
After some unfortunate incidents, editor Karen swears by paying extra to bring the deducible of your rental car down to zero in case of something happening. The longer your trip, the more likely you’ll be happy that you paid for it!
Make sure you leave enough room on your card to cover this charge, with the knowledge that it may not be returned until seven to 10 days after your stay. Check your statement to make sure the hotel refunded the charge.
Keep a Smaller Bag Handy for Overnight Stays
No doubt, your trunk or overhead carrier is piled high with suitcases for your journey. If you’re planning multiple overnight pit stops, keep a separate bag with just the necessities. A larger backpack should work well enough although an inexpensive overnight bag will work too!
Useful items for your overnight bag:
- Bathing Suit
- Towel (hotel pools never have enough!)
- One change of clothes
- Wall charger for your phone plus USB cord
- Your adult beverage of choice for relaxing in the hotel room at night* (Note: some states require stopping off at a state-run liquor or wine/liquor store to purchase said beverages while others sell adult beverages in the gas station.)
When you’re ready for an overnight stop, you’ll have just one small bag to carry, which also means less chance of leaving anything in the hotel room.
When you leave, put your dirty clothes in a reusable plastic bag – or do a load of laundry in the hotel room – and re-pack the overnight bag for your next stop. (Karen uses a cute yet light foldable world map laundry bag that she’s had for years.)
Take Advantage of Local WiFi
Tap into free WiFi at hotels, truck stops, fast food restaurants, and coffee houses to conserve your data for when you really need it. If you have Verizon FIOS or Cablevision service at home, you might be able to use HotSpots for WiFi.
Make Sure You Have Plenty of Data
Of course, you can’t tap into a WiFi network doing 70 mph down the highway. (At least, not yet.) Consider increasing your phone’s data plan before you start your journey. Even if you don’t have passengers streaming Netflix throughout the trip (I’m looking directly into the backseat at my kids!) – you’ll need it for the GPS. (If you’re looking for some entertaining games that work offline, click for 15+ fun travel-friendly apps perfect for a road trip!)
Use Waze to Avoid Traffic Snarls
Apple Maps or Google Maps? The answer, for us, is neither. Waze not only has the most up-to-date traffic information, but you can find out why traffic slowed to a halt on the Belt Parkway. Oh wait, it’s the Belt. Of course, traffic stopped.
An insider New Yorker tip: Avoid the Belt Parkway, a series of three parkways that go from Brooklyn to Queens, if at all possible. (Also avoid the Cross Bronx Parkway, which is terrible most of the time!) It’s often faster to get into New York City via Staten Island or the Lincoln Tunnel via New Jersey.)
Time Your Travel to Save Travel Time
Google Maps usually generates the time to a destination at the moment that you check on your app. If you’re checking when it’s not rush hour, be sure to add extra time into your time calculations if you’re traveling close to or during rush hour.
Native New Yorkers traveling through the Tri-state area know that you want to get through the city before rush hour. For us, this means leaving between 10 AM and 2 PM.
Wherever you travel, it’s best to time the trip so you’re navigating big cities (think: D.C., Boston, Nashville, Chicago, Jacksonville, etc.) either late at night or early in the morning. If you’re not stopping in the city, you can also look for ways to loop around it.
If you do happen to get stuck in a big city at rush hour, don’t fight it. Stop for dinner and do some shopping until 7 PM when traffic should be clear.
Keep a Stash of Paper Maps
Sometimes, there’s just no avoiding traffic. Or a cell phone dead zone. That’s when paper maps help. You can usually pick up maps at rest stops and at AAA offices although well-prepared travelers can purchase regional maps online. (Karen recommends Rand McNally for US maps, which is the gold standard for US road maps.)
We traveled to Anderson, South Carolina to see the solar eclipse of 2017. On the way back home, we got caught in eclipse traffic (who imagined that would be a thing!?) in North Carolina.
While hundreds of travelers followed their GPS, which took us through a residential neighborhood with traffic at a standstill, my husband pulled out a paper map and circumvented the crowd. We took a scenic route in the pouring rain through Batcave, North Carolina – which is just as creepy and cool as it sounds. It’s a travel moment we won’t forget.
Let Your Bank Know You’re Traveling
Right before our trip, my son fell in love with a pair of sneakers while we were school clothes shopping, but they didn’t have his size and I couldn’t find them online. Browsing the outlet stores in Asheville, North Carolina, he spotted them – at a shoe store chain that we don’t have on Long Island.
He was bouncing with excitement as I pulled out my Chase debit card – only to have it declined. I checked my balance online and saw I had plenty of money in the account.
Why was my card declined? The bank’s fraud protection department flagged several transactions outside my home state as “unusual activity.” I called the bank and within five minutes, had my account reactivated to buy the sneakers.
As a veteran traveler, I should know better. Learn from my mistake and call your bank and credit card companies to let them know your trip itinerary. Then you can rest easy knowing you have access to all your funds during your road trip adventure – plus all these handy tips in mind to ensure a smooth journey.