Cross-country Road Trip in January
January 6, 2015 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm moving from NYC to Seattle this weekend. My brother will join me and we'll be driving a big SUV. Leaving Friday night and hoping to arrive Monday afternoon. I need mapping advice.

Is there a good mapping resource that takes into account weather conditions at the time we'll arrive at each place? Google Maps takes traffic into account, but I don't think it worries about weather. The Weather Service tells me the weather along a route that I choose, but it doesn't tell me what the best route will be.

In the alternative, can any of you lend suggestions on what might be the quickest, safest route? I'd like to avoid snow and ice as much as possible, but also don't want to have to dip too far down south.
posted by soonertbone to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you planning on stopping?
posted by k8t at 7:01 AM on January 6, 2015

This is a highly unrealistic timeline, for one thing. Maybe you could do that in summer, if you didn't stop to sleep, and you guys are young, and you drink a lot of Red Bull. But not in winter. Please rethink your timeline for your own safety and that of others sharing the road with you.

I have never heard of such a map, and I think the reason is that weather is just too unpredictable, especially in the plains states. When I lived in Montana, it was not uncommon to shut the interstate down for weather reasons. Then you are just stuck wherever you are because there is no other way to get through the mountains. But you are not going to know that the day before, when you've already set out in that direction. You need to build more time into your schedule.

I can recommend this app, which is marketed towards truckers but will be useful to you because it contains a lot of information on where to stop and highway conditions. Please, please call ahead to each state's highway conditions hotline.

I'd be very leery of doing this trip on I-90 or I-94 especially because you don't seem experienced. I-80 is the farthest north I'd go. As I write this, southern Wyoming and Idaho are right about at freezing temps.
posted by desjardins at 7:19 AM on January 6, 2015 [10 favorites]

At this time of year I'd take ice and snow as a given, and focus on avoiding high-elevation mountain passes.
posted by jon1270 at 7:29 AM on January 6, 2015

i made a trip from oregon to texas in march and got caught for two days in wyoming because of excessive fog caused by winter weather. we planned our time and route specifically to miss lingering winter stuff. i agree that your timeline is unrealistic.
posted by nadawi at 7:30 AM on January 6, 2015

Additionally, make sure you both have warm winter gear with you in case of bad weather - you could get stuck on the interstate or have to push your car back on the road.
posted by maryr at 7:37 AM on January 6, 2015

My brother made a very similar cross-country trip to Seattle earlier this year; his starting point was further south, but the overall distance was identical. It took him five days. In summer, in perfect weather. He was exhausted at the end of it.

I strongly urge you to reconsider your timeframe.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:52 AM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have done this drive three times and even in summer and pushing it (1100 miles in a day)... it took us four days at the fastest. Nthing the advice to reconsider your timeframe, particularly given the uncertain weather.

I also agree that you'll want to avoid the 94 and the 90. In addition, please make sure that the SUV is equipped for the weather--in addition to winter gear for yourselves, some stretches of the highway may require everyone to have chains for their tires. It won't hurt to throw some emergency blankets, food, and water in the truck, too.
posted by TwoStride at 7:59 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wunderground's Wundermap feature allows you to plan a trip including weather.

I echo the other sentiments that this is an unreasonable timeline for this time of year.
posted by Runes at 8:03 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

The timeline isn't important, but thanks everybody for the advice. We'll budget more time. I'm just looking for a map that aggregates road conditions and suggests the best route.
posted by soonertbone at 8:14 AM on January 6, 2015

Most of the country you'll be driving through if you take the most direct route have currently posted severe weather warnings.
posted by Runes at 8:15 AM on January 6, 2015

This is going to sound wacky, but given the weather next week, do this:

New York to Charlotte, NC,

Turn right on I-40 and keep going until you connect with I-5 in California, then head north.

It's 4200 miles and 67 hours give or take. BUT (and this is huge) it's populous and covers a lot of different landscapes. So if you're planning on long days of driving, it won't all be miles and miles of miles and miles. Also, while it may be cold, gray and rainy, it won't be snowing and icy.

Lots of options for stopping that aren't truck stops. If you want to throw sightseeing into the bargain, you'll pass through the Painted Desert/Petrified Forrest, which is just awesome. You'll have some choices in regional cooking, Southern cooking in Tennessee and KY, Western/BBQ through OK, Mexican in NM and AZ. Once you switch over to I-5, it's kind of drab, but you can stop at Pea Soup Andersen's, so there's that. Basically, save yourself from nasty grab-n-go crap.

It may look longer, but it may take less time and be a LOT better trip.

Good luck to you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:38 AM on January 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Oh! I used Weather and Mapquest.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:40 AM on January 6, 2015

Nth-ing all the recs to take it slow, safe, and get enough rest to drive as alertly as possible. I've driven to in-laws in S. Dakota in the winter - you can hit life-threatening conditions anywhere between NYC and just east of Seattle, and conditions can get bad very fast, even on interstates. In much of the Great Plains and the Rockies, dangerous conditions are the expected norm this time of year, and we easterners tend not to realize how much bigger states are in the west and how much longer it takes to drive across them (S. Dakota alone takes 6+ hours on a clear day with no food/rest breaks).

There are some "511" tools for individual states that show driving conditions, but aggravatingly they are not an integrated national tool, and some of the sites are 1990s web-app quality. A couple examples to look at might be the ones for PA, Ohio (kind of crappy), IA. Some have mobile versions but not all... :-( I use the NY and PA sites to plan trips locally in the winter (or more often to postpone or cancel a planned trip because of particularly bad conditions in some part of NY or PA on my route).

I've unfortunately never seen an integrated tool, nor one that actually makes google-maps-like recommendations for the safest drive taking conditions into account. That would in fact be an amazing thing if it did exist - I would consider subscribing to it as a service if it was usable and reliable. (Yeah, dream on...)

In any event, good luck and be safe.
posted by aught at 8:40 AM on January 6, 2015

If I had to do this, I'd probably do I-70 through Denver. Adds a few hours but keeps you out of the worst cold weather. You still have to contend with the mountain passes through Denver.

If I had more time, I'd do what Ruthless Bunny recommended and take I-40. You still risk some crazy weather through New Mexico and Arizona. (But, tacos)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:41 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've not done cross-country trips in January, but I've done several in late December. These trips have been on most east-west interstates from I-90 down to I-20. You need to be prepared to adjust your route on the fly due to weather. We've had to do this to the tune of hundreds of miles.

If you're doing I-70 or north, make sure you have tire chains, but you should probably stay south of 70.
posted by disaster77 at 9:13 AM on January 6, 2015

I did Chicago to SF on 80 in mid-May and ran into weather problems in Rockies. If time is not critical, head a little south through Denver.

I subscribe to the Twitter feed for the NYS Thruway. It gives up to the minute weather issues and accident reports. I would bet there are similar things for the states along the route. That would be the most timely info although not alternative suggestions.
posted by 724A at 9:29 AM on January 6, 2015

I did Chicago to SF in late February 2014 in 3 days, last day was in Reno and a 3 hour drive. It obviously isn't the same year or month but going north through 80 instead of further south saved me as I skirted a huge storm. Point being that your route can change on the fly and going further south, while generally better might not be the best case as you find. What I did was listen to news radio for the area, watched google maps for traffic when fueling and kept an eye on the weather radar. I don't know how to tell you the best route as thats gonna change day to day, I can say that it's a looong drive from I-5 in CA up to Seattle if that's the route you take. May end up being worth it of course but just be aware.
posted by Carillon at 9:35 AM on January 6, 2015

I agree that the best is to be looking one day ahead and adjust north or south as needed. With two drivers and good weather your schedule is fine, but not if the weather is even medium bad.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:40 AM on January 6, 2015

If there is any remote chance of snow/wind, I would avoid 80 just south of Lake Michigan. I just drove from Vermont to Chicago, and it was relatively easy going this past weekend except for that last hour and a half or two hour stretch.

If you have the time, Ruthless Bunny's plan sounds really fun.
posted by papayaninja at 11:15 AM on January 6, 2015

I would follow Ruthless Bunny's suggestion about going south. It will definitely take more time, but the only weather problem you might have is in the Sierras. It's a lot easier to plan for more time than navigating around closed roads and passes. I've had friends who attempted to go through Denver this time of year, and eventually got diverted down to 40 anyhow.
posted by Gneisskate at 11:23 AM on January 6, 2015

I live in NW Indiana just south of I80-90 and 80-94. Another thing to consider is even if you're a great winter driver with snow tires/snow chains, the interstate was closed this morning because of several jackknifed semis. So even if the roads are good for you, maybe not so much for the semis you have to share the road with.

Should you travel through The Crossroads of America, as Indiana is called, here is INDOT's TrafficWise. You'll need to zoom in and find the road you want to travel. Gray is good, blue is fair, purple is hazardous. It also posts closings, crashes, and warnings.
posted by IndigoRain at 4:17 PM on January 6, 2015

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