Cross Country Road Trip Advice

Looking to plan the perfect road trip? Learn from my mistakes and read on for my best cross country road trip advice!

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There’s something amazing about packing the car and driving away on an adventure! I love the thrill of pulling into a new destination to explore, with all possibilities ahead of you. 

As someone who has driven cross country twice, I have definitely made my fair share of road trip mistakes. I’m here to help you learn from my mistakes before you make them! A cross country road trip is no small adventure so make sure you’re prepared for anything.

Read on for my top ten pieces of cross country road trip advice!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.

Prepare the Car

Your car is your key to a great road trip! Based on the length you’re traveling, you’ll want to make sure your vehicle is road-ready. If it’s just a weekend trip, that usually means making sure you’re up to date on oil change and you’ve got a tank full of gas when it’s time to leave. If you’re going further, such as moving from Southern California to Ohio, you want to have a professional check it out (especially if you know zero things about cars…like me). 

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Pick the right road trip buddy

Sometimes you’re married to your road trip buddy, but sometimes you’ve got a choice! Make sure you know your road trip buddy well enough to ensure limited arguments and tension. One of my road trip requirements is that stops must be as efficient as possible.

My partner learned this the hard way one time when he decided it was a good idea to order Popeye’s chicken at an extremely crowded rest stop. FORTY MINUTES into what I thought was a five-minute stop, we were on our way and I was pissed. He’s now learned that we need to go into each rest stop with a plan: who gets gas, who gets food, who walks the dog, etc. We’re way more efficient now!

Sleeping in the car to save money? Check out my list of Backpacking Essentials!

Don’t over-stretch your itinerary

You definitely want to plan your itinerary but you don’t want to OVER plan it. What does that mean? Something ALWAYS takes longer than planned on a road trip. There’s always traffic, or an emergency gas stop that takes you 10 miles off your route, or a hanger meltdown that requires a lunch stop…or else! Be smart about how long Google tells you it will take to get somewhere. My general rule of thumb is that for every 4 hours of driving, I add 30 minutes for traffic or stops.

For longer road trips where you’re driving every day for a week, it’s smart to keep some of your destinations flexible. For example, when my mum and I were driving from Nashville to Orange County, we had an idea of where we wanted to stay but would make a game-time decision usually based on how far we were able to get that day. This came in super handy when I got really terrible food poisoning and we had to turn an eight-hour driving day into a three-hour driving day. 

The sun setting on what we thought was going to be an eight-hour day in the car…with three hours left to our destination.
The sun setting on what we thought was going to be an eight-hour day in the car…with three hours left to our destination.

Leave a buffer for side trips

How much fun is it to point at a sign on the side of the road and say to your road trip buddy “Let’s see what THAT is!” If your trip is planned to the minute, you’re not going to get those fun opportunities that sometimes turn into the best memories of the trip. There are a lot of places that don’t show up on the first page of Google that are absolutely worth seeing. 

I also love getting tips from locals. If you meet someone from the area, ask them about the best place to eat, hike, or walk the dog. These are usually the best recommendations and they’re often off the beaten path. Don’t miss out because you’re planned down to the minute. 

Looking for an awesome road trip from Pittsburgh? Check out my three day Pennsylvania Wilds Itinerary!

Download! Download! Download!

Cell service is not created equal. The last thing you want when pulling into a strange place to spend the night is for your maps to die two miles away.  Google maps allow you to download offline maps (instructions here). Download them for your entire trip. This isn’t a recommendation, this is a requirement.

Don’t forget about downloading your entertainment! Even if you have an unlimited cell phone plan, downloading your podcasts and music will ensure that you’re never bored when you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Pack your own food

This is both a budget saver and a tantrum saver! By not packing your own food, you’re relying on the road to provide food you want, when you want it. I am a planner and I like to be able to eat when I am hungry! There are also certain parts of the country where everything off the highway is fast food, which starts to make me feel really gross after a day or two. 

For our cross-country move, we purchased a heavy-duty Coleman Cooler. It was expensive (and I was originally against it) but it was worth every penny. We took a seven-day road trip in the last week of August and it kept EVERYTHING cool. We often had ice that was still solid the next day and used our Airbnb nights to re-freeze our cooler packs.

If an expensive cooler isn’t in the budget for this trip, you can make do with insulated freezer bags with some frozen water bottles. I wouldn’t recommend super perishable foods like cheese or meat with this, but it can keep something like veggies cool and fresh. 

No concerns about our meat going bad in a Coleman cooler!
No concerns about our meat going bad in a Coleman cooler!

Pack the car with functionality in mind

On the first day of our OC to OH road trip, we hit traffic in Arizona. Crawl to a halt, add four hours to our already eight-hour day traffic. And I got hungry. Not like “I need some snacks” hungry, but more like “I’m going to murder someone if I don’t get food soon” hungry. My partner had mistakenly packed the cooler in the back of the car underneath a bunch of our camping stuff. We had to pull over to the side of the road to dig out the cooler in 95-degree heat so that we could eat lunch. Not smart!

Think through your needs when you’re packing. Keep your necessities close to you to minimize stops, especially if it’s something vital like medication. Remember, a cell phone charger does no one any good in the trunk!

Always pack the essentials

This is honestly my number one piece of cross country road trip advice – pack everything you need! My car always has the following items: ice scraper, toilet paper, blanket, jumper cables, first aid kit, hand-crank flashlight/radio, external phone charger, and a reusable bottle of water. In the winter, I add in an additional blanket and a shovel. In the summer, I add more water.

Think of your current climate and where you’re going on your trip. Think through what could possibly go wrong and what you would need to combat it. It’s way better to have something and not need it than to not have it when you NEED it.

Also, know yourself and your route. If you are super pale and burn easily, make sure to always have some sunscreen. If you get carsick, grab some Dramamine or sea bands. If you’re traveling in an area without cell service, make sure you have a paper map (I’d recommend this anyway). 

It would be bad news to get stuck on a dirt road without an emergency car kit!
It would be bad news to get stuck on a dirt road without an emergency car kit!

Get gas BEFORE you need it

I am a “my car does not go below a quarter tank” kind of driver. For road trips, I fill up if I am anything below half a tank and already stopping. There’s nothing worse than the gut-clenching feeling of “I haven’t seen a gas station for a while…and I’m getting pretty low…”. I’ve been there and it is not worth it.

GasGuru is a great app that can show you gas stations and prices near you. If you know you’re planning to cross state lines, look up prices. It might be way cheaper to fill up before or after you cross that border.

Make a driving schedule

Avoid the back and forth of “No, I can drive” and “Are you sure? I can drive too” by setting a general schedule before you leave. If one of your road trip buddies likes to drive more than another, give them a longer time slot. Definitely be flexible and don’t let anyone drive sleepy! This helps give everyone a much-needed break between long stretches and also allows for multiple radio DJs.

All that time in the car is worth it for campsites like this (located in Jackson, Wyoming).
All that time in the car is worth it for campsites like this (located in Jackson, Wyoming).

I love road trips and as I’m writing this, I am daydreaming all of the awesome weekend and day trips I plan to make.

Do you have any road trips planned? Got any additional road trip mistakes to avoid? What was your favorite piece of cross country road trip advice? Leave them in the comments below!

Article originally published in 2021 on MakinIshEasy.com, the author’s first blog. Article is property of the author and republished here. Updated December 24, 2023.

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