King and Queen of the Road
January 27, 2010 5:34 AM   Subscribe

Planning a move from Brooklyn to Seattle by car in late February/early March, and need advice. My husband and I are cheapskates in our mid-20s who have never driven cross-country before and want to make an excursion out of this move.

The current plan is to transport ourselves and whatever earthly belongings we can fit in a large rental car, shipping everything else. Our timeframe is flexible. Our priorities are cheapness, fun, and as little stress as possible (recognizing that moving sucks at the best of times). We don’t want to rush, but we don’t want to pay for too many days of car rental. How much driving should we expect to be comfortable doing in a day?

Our rough itinerary, anchored by places we want to see and places we can stay overnight for free, is here in Google Maps and below:
Brooklyn to Niagara Falls- 7 hours
Niagara Falls to Ann Arbor (free lodging)-5 hours
Ann Arbor to Chicago (free lodging)- 4 hours
Chicago to Madison, WI- 3 hours
Madison to Mt. Rushmore- 13 hours
Mt. Rushmore to Coeur d'Alene, ID (free lodging)- 14 hours
Coeur d'Alene, ID to Seattle- 5 hours

Where else should we stop? We want a good mix of classic U.S. tourist attractions (Niagara Falls, Mt. Rushmore) and weird cheap fun stuff. We will also break for really remarkable food. What should we add that’s worth the time? Is anything we’re considering that isn’t worth it? Is the weather in early March going to make this route impossible?

Other cross-country move suggestions gladly accepted.
posted by doift to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
THE HOUSE ON THE ROCK!!!! Not too far from Madison. If at all possible, avoid looking it up or otherwise finding out anything about it. Just be sure you arrive early, because you will need hours. HOURS. I went on a similar cross-country move/drive, because a somewhat spacey friend of mine said, "You should go to The House On the Rock if you go past there. They have a really interesting glass collection." Oh yes. Yes they do.

Also, the Frank Lloyd Wright house at Taliesin.

Chicago is a wonderful city, be sure to book enough time there because the museums are fantastic!
posted by Erasmouse at 5:48 AM on January 27, 2010

Badlands National Park, South Dakota. You'll go right by it on your way. Must see.

Also, if you have time, there isn't a drive much more exciting than the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana.
posted by netbros at 6:12 AM on January 27, 2010

Best answer: Several comments:
1) You will probably encounter bad weather and road closures. I-90 in Wyoming and Montana will shut down entirely if there's snow, and I imagine there are other roads that are similar. In fact, your entire route takes you through some of the snowiest parts of the country--upstate New York is no stranger to 3-foot lake effect dumps in March. You should keep in mind that if it's snowing, your days will become very long, frustrating, and dangerous. You might want to consider a more southern route.

2) If you choose a southern route, let me put in a plug for going through Nashville, Memphis, Texas, and the Southwest, then coming up the West Coast. It's more indirect, but given the weather, far more pleasant. And if you guys ever drive back from Seattle to Brooklyn (in summer), you can hit the things you want to see in the north.

3) If you stick with the northern route, don't plan on driving 13-14 hours in a day. You may be able to do it, but again, weather. If time is a factor, don't do this route. And if you do it, make sure you're driving a solid car, have a GPS, bring chains, and realize that you're in Mother Nature's hands one way or another.

Road tripping across this country is a ton of should be mandatory, IMO. Have fun, whichever route you choose!
posted by j1950 at 6:19 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, might as well get some Dinosaur Barbecue in Syracuse or Rochester, NY.
posted by j1950 at 6:21 AM on January 27, 2010

On the weird cheap fun stuff end of the spectrum, I got zillions (literally! Zillions!) of great suggestions here, which eventually resulted in this.
posted by ook at 6:22 AM on January 27, 2010

Best answer: I did the cross-country move seven years ago (from Seattle to Orlando). It was a great experience and I highly recommend it, although I did it in the summer so there was no snow to deal with.

I have two comments on your itinerary:
1. I found Mount Rushmore to be underwhelming, but mostly because we stopped at the Crazy Horse monument first ( and thought it was absolutely amazing. So by all means, do go to Rushmore but go see Crazy Horse as well. It is very close, and well worth the side trip.

2. The other place we stopped in that general area was at Devil's Tower (, and we loved it. It was a spur of the moment thing, we drove a little farther the night before so that we could take a half day at the tower. There are a couple of walking trails that go around the tower, and it is a beautiful sight.
posted by Lokheed at 6:41 AM on January 27, 2010

If you're interested in visiting unusual or just downright weird and memorable places, be sure to check out this site. It has put us onto some attractions that we would otherwise have missed.
posted by DrGail at 6:51 AM on January 27, 2010

Best answer: Similar to what j1950 says, adjust driving times for the season. In the summer, you can crank out 14 hours at 70mph, no problem, day after day. In the winter, even if the weather is great that would mean driving in the dark both in the morning and evening which is a lot more tiring. And if the weather is even slightly not-great, you won't be maintaining anywhere near the same average speed as you would in the summer. The weather is completely unpredictable -- I've driven cross-country in the winter, and not had anything worse than a couple of snow flurries, and other times I've had to deal with road closures and traffic accidents that shut down the freeway for hours and one time for days.

As a safety issue, I'd suggest not letting your gas tank get below the 1/2 mark -- that way if you get stuck in a multi-hour traffic jam because a tractor trailer jackknifed under a bridge, you'll at least be able to run the engine intermittently for heat without worrying that you will be stranded. Equally, keep food, water, and warm clothes in the car.

To (legally) cross the mountain passes in the west, depending on the weather you may be required to not only carry but use your tire chains (or have 4wd with "traction tires," but even then you have to be carrying chains). When those rules kick in, they are not joking, so you will want to discuss tire chains, etc, with your rental company, or allow for the possibility of driving from Spokane to Seattle via the Columbia Gorge if the weather is nasty. (Here is the Washington DOT winter driving page, with links to pass conditions and the rules; the faq clarifies things nicely. All of the western states have similar websites and 800 numbers; you would be very smart to check them a day or so out, in case rerouting becomes a better option.)

The southern route suggested above is much nicer in the winter, but you can still get nailed with bad weather down there, and none of the southern states have the snowplowing capacity of states in the snowbelt. So a small storm there will snarl things up worse than a big storm in the north. It's a gamble either way; you are balancing a longer trip against weather concerns, basically.
posted by Forktine at 6:51 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The going to the sun road, while amazing, doesn't open until april [or mid-june?] and closes in mid-september.

Definitely go back and drive it another time. It's worth seeing.
posted by Acari at 7:11 AM on January 27, 2010

What everyone is saying about the weather is really true. When I drove across the country last May there was still snow on the ground in Wyoming and a few scenic back roads that I wanted to take were still closed due to snow cover. The Going to the Sun road will definitely not be an option. I have spent hours parked on the interstate and days trapped in tiny little towns due to weather and weather-related accidents. It is not a big deal, just be sure that you have plenty of time to reach your destination; enough food, water, and blankets that you could be comfortable sitting in your car in the cold for several hours; enough extra money that you can stay at a motel for a few nights. Also carry chains and a shovel.

Don't be scared out of doing it, you will see incredible things. Just be safe and don't expect easy 14 hour drives. I would seriously consider splitting the drive between Mt. Rushmore and Coeur d'Alene into two days.

Check out for interesting and good food options. I also love my copy of The Next Exit. Really helpful if you have a gas station credit card or want to avoid McDonald's.
posted by gembackwards at 7:16 AM on January 27, 2010

Bring along a set of chains. You are going to likely have very tough going in the mountains this time of year. Leave your schedule open so that you can wait out a storm for a few days if one comes along. If I were you I would be getting my kicks on Route 66 (well perhaps not that far south).
posted by caddis at 7:37 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check out this section of the Road Trip USA web site. Granted, he's organized it going from west-to-east, but it's still a pretty damn exhaustive resource; I used the print version of the "Road Trip USA" book when I drove from NYC to Vegas nine years ago, and it covered a lot of ground (the towns that had weird roadside kitsch, the radio stations, even "this stretch is mostly just strip malls so you can just blow right through").

For the NYC-to-Chicago part, you can check out this section.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:45 AM on January 27, 2010

Gembackwards is wise regarding splitting the Rushmore-Couer d'Alene trip in two. Mrs. Augustus and I, on a similar route to Seattle, tried to cross Montana in a day. We succeeded, but (1) it was summer and (2) the late-night drive into Couer d'Alene was nothing short of harrowing. Twisty, mountainy, woodsy (thus minimal visibility around corners), and two lanes (thus lots of semi trucks bearing down on you from the other side). Were I to do the trip again, and I might, I would go out of my way to avoid coming into Couer d'Alene at night, whatever the season.
posted by AugieAugustus at 7:47 AM on January 27, 2010

This blog (I've mentioned it before here) will give you some good ideas. The photos of the Badlands are beautiful.
posted by jgirl at 7:52 AM on January 27, 2010

Response by poster: Excellent info so far, thanks all!

We definitely don't want to do 14 hour drives- part of my original draft included the question "where should we stop between Madison to Mt. Rushmore, and then Mt. Rushmore and Coeur d'Alene?" but I guess I edited it out in an attempt at brevity. Is planning 6-7 hours of driving in a day reasonable, allowing for the possibility that we may get stalled?

We would greatly prefer a northern route, because of the things we want to see and the family we want to visit, but the weather is a serious concern. Perhaps, because we have quite a bit of flexibility, we'll chart an alternate southern route and decide which one we're actually taking based on weather and road predictions in the week before we leave. So more suggestions for a southerly itinerary are welcome!

It seems like eliminating Niagara Falls completely will help somewhat, so we can approach Michigan and Chicago from the south and avoid the dreaded upstate NY.

Erasmouse- House on the Rock is the reason for the stop in Madison.
posted by doift at 7:57 AM on January 27, 2010

Best answer: I did 6-7 hours a day myself on my drive, and was mostly okay with that -- although, give yourself a couple extra days' wiggle room, in case you get caught up seeing something that's totally cool or in case you just get worn out and want to take it easy one day (I had a mild meltdown after getting hopelessly lost in Kansas, and resolved that the next day was going to be a half day of driving so I could just get to a hotel and sit by a pool and do nothing). The fact that there are two of you, so you can take shifts, can also help with that a lot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:02 AM on January 27, 2010

If you do end up coming upstate, I can give you a few suggestions on food, especially in the Buffalo area.

I really like the drive from Buffalo through Canada to Michigan. You can drive fast and there's little traffic. One thing you could consider although a little out of the way is stopping in Toronto. Once you get over the border, it's about an hour, and it's one of my favorite cities.
posted by hazyspring at 8:28 AM on January 27, 2010

Best answer: I've done that trip - three times now. Twice by myself, with 10 hour days. That was a little much, but not terrible. When I did it with Mr. M., we thought at 13 hour day would be fine - we were just trying to get from point a to point b, we had a cat in the car, there were no excursions - and it was just too much at the end.

Badlands National Park - I wish I'd had a full day there. The silence was just incredible.

I wish I had gone to the Laura Ingalls Wilder birthplace instead of the Corn Palace.

Austin, Minnesota is the home to the Spam Museum. It is worth a stop.

Mt. Rushmore is free to visit but parking was like $8. You can see it just fine for free from the road to Crazy Horse - which I echo is an awesome thing to see. Spend the time there.

I was not impressed by the Black Hills, and wish I'd gone to Devils' Tower instead (I had to make a choice between one or the other).

I feel like Roadside America has gone downhill in the past few years and have never been impressed with Roadtrip USA, the admin on that site interferes too much with discussion - I get it, you've written a book, you're an expert. Roadfood, however, *is* a good site for local dives and the like. It's amazing how many hotel clerks will answer 'Where's a good local place to eat' with directions to chili's or Red Robin (and even 'no, where do YOU go to eat' is met with the same answer).
posted by micawber at 9:21 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you are going up through Montana from South Dakota, you can stay in Billings ("big city") or Bozeman. Bozeman is home to Montana State University and there's a great museum called Museum of the Rockies. Lots of dinosaurs have been found in Montana, so you'll see some of that at the museum. In Bozeman, I recommend the C'mon Inn. It is quite a nice hotel for the rocky mountain area; the decor is neat and there are 4 hottubs in the atrium. (Get a cheaper rate on AAA.)

Yes, do try to go into Coeur d'Alene in the daylight. It is mountainous and there are passes that won't be pleasant if the weather is bad. But the city itself is in a beautiful area. It sounds like you have friends there already, so they can take you out. There's a beautiful view from the resort hotel over Lake Coeur d'Alene and lots of good restaurants along Sherman Ave. Do not miss the candy store!!! CDA is getting quite Bobo and you should try to spend an evening out eating, drinking, shooting pool, and listening to live bands. If it is nice enough out, walk on the floating dock for a good view of the lake.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:30 AM on January 27, 2010

Read Ian Frazier's Great Plains before you go.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:04 AM on January 27, 2010

If you take I-90
I did not get the full tour as it was closed on Mondays, but they have an interesting gift shop:
The Spam Museum
A quick photo op nearby and just off the highway:
The Green Giant
posted by DougFromDover at 8:44 PM on January 27, 2010

One last word about weather - try to time your arrival in Seattle for daylight hours. The pass (Snoqualmie, on I-90) can be treacherous with 'black ice' (ice that isn't apparent - looks like wet pavement until - woopsie!). If it's raining (good chance) there is nothing darker and blacker than a rainy night in Seattle (or anywhere on this side of the Cascades); the rain seems to soak up all available light, and make things like road signs and road markings nearly disappear. Coer d'Alene to Seattle is fairly easy in a day, but start early, in case weather is nasty.
posted by dbmcd at 12:58 PM on January 29, 2010

I did this exact move (Carroll Gardens to Queen Anne) in mid-September. I would not recommend it in winter, due to the insanity of weather up in the Dakotas and beyond. A friend of mine traveling a couple weeks behind got snowbound in the middle of the country and faced multi-day delays. Think Oregon Trail. But if you gotta do it, you gotta do it.

I took I-94 instead of I-90 from Madison to Montana. I-94 is BORING. Looks like you're planning on I-90. I would not diverge from this plan, unless it was to go further south in hopes of better road conditions. (The one bright spot IMO is St Paul.)

Butte is one really cool place en route -- it's an extremely bizarre city and fun just to explore.

I did it in five nine-hour days, with a detour to Cincinnati to visit friends pushing days 1 and 2 closer to 12-13 hours. It wasn't too tough (I benefitted from clear skies every single day), although the long stretches across Montana at high speed can wear on your nerves if you're not comfortable in your car. Coeur d'Alene itself is quite lovely. There is nothing to do between Coeur d'Alene and Seattle (sorry, Spokane) -- NOTHING. There isn't even anything to look at unless you drive up on Route 2, which is a bad idea in winter. That home stretch is a killer, be ready. Arriving in daylight is a good idea, too (2nding dbmcd) -- the mountain pass at night is VERY unpleasant.

Shipping tip: Ship books, clothes, etc. via Amtrak. Dirt cheap. I shipped 400 lbs of books and stuff for $232 out of Newark. It arrived two days after I did. Fantastic, and surprisingly easy.

Also, bear in mind a one-way rental across the country will not be cheap. They tack "one-way fees" on that make the economics of the thing horrible. I ended up buying a car instead for less money. Not kidding.
posted by zvs at 2:31 PM on February 3, 2010

Oh, I'm late on this post. Feel free to MeFiMail me if you want more info on this move...
posted by zvs at 2:38 PM on February 3, 2010

Do you have to drive? We did Portland OR to Michigan on Amtrak, except not only did we ship the stuff by train, we also rode it ourselves. It was the least expensive way to get ourselves and our things across the country at the time. We didn't really have furniture (recent college grads). We checked and carried on as much luggage as possible and Amtrak-shipped the rest in boxes. It's a long way and it was nice to be on the train and thus able to walk around, have a cocktail, read, socialize, or sleep, rather than paying attention as we would have had to driving. If you haven't tried it, the coach seats in Amtrak are huge and recline with leg and foot rests that make it pretty comfortable.
posted by SandiBeech at 7:31 PM on February 6, 2010

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