Help me plan the best road trip ever
July 3, 2015 10:45 AM   Subscribe

One woman. One old-ass Prius. 157,724 miles of highway. Help me plan a summer road trip that (a) maximizes awesomeness, and (b) minimizes horrible death?

Okay, so here are some things that I have:

- The summer off

- A 2005 Toyota Prius with ~85,000 miles on it

- A mighty desire to finally embark upon the apocryphal Great American Road Trip and see everything I can in this huge and strange country of ours

But mefites, I am a solo road trip newbie who has escaped but rarely from my DC metro area fish bowl. And I could use some of your wisdom to plan this thing.

1. First of all, what route should I take? I got a copy of Road Trip USA and am now overwhelmed with all the possible routes. I would be leaving from/returning to Northern Virginia, probably mid-July. Particularly interested in roadside attractions and strange Americana, museums, regional food, great national parks of the southwest and west, seeing the Grand Canyon and some big damn redwoods, driving at least some of the California coast (and maybe up into Oregon and Washington?). I have family in Salisbury, NC that it would be nice to visit, although that doesn't have to happen on this trip.

2. What should I do about sleeping arrangements? I have never taken a trip without having accomodations booked in advance, but in reading previous posts on this topic, commenters tend to advocate just winging it so you can be spontaneous about your itinerary. But since I'd be traveling during the busy summer season, how likely is it that I'd be able to find a place to sleep each night, especially if I were going some place popular? Thoughts on motels vs buying a tent and car camping vs AirBnB or couchsurfing? Particularly interested in hearing from people who've just winged it - what's your system? And from female solo travelers - what are your thoughts on safety? Cheaper is better, but not if it's unsafe.

3. What should I be doing to prepare and take care of my car on such a long trip? My car is 10 years old and normally drives short trips on the highway or in semi-urban areas. Since I'm not a car-knowledgeable person, the idea of driving so much in widely variable conditions is both thrilling and anxiety-producing. Do I need to be so worried?

4. What should I take with me? I don't want to bring a ton of stuff, but I want to pack smart. What are the most essential items? The most unexpectedly useful things a person might not typically consider?

5. Tech stuff on the road. Did you rely on your smartphone a lot? How did you handle connectivity and coverage on the road, or was that not a big concern? Do you recommend getting a GPS unit for my car?

6. Must-sees. What are some favorite spots, places you would absolutely go if you were making the trip yourself?

If you stuck with my question this far, thanks! I appreciate your fortitude, and will especially appreciate any advice you might have for any or all of my questions.
posted by the thought-fox to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know a ton about Americana roadtrip planning, and I'm a guy, but I drove cross-country in an old Toyota in 2007 (and have taken shorter road trips since then) so I can speak to a few of your questions:

1) Can't really help you here. Going west from MD to AZ in July I started in MD and did 70-68-70-44-40-17-10, which was good for a straight-through drive and kept me out of the deep southier parts of the deep south, but skips a lot of interesting things further north and south, if your goal is tourism. I suggest you make a list of things you want to see and then sort out your plan from there.

2) When I did my cross-country trip, I stopped at J. Random Hotel when I got tired of driving. I wanted to make sure I had wifi access so this meant Super 8s and nicer (in 2007, the situation's probably MUCH better now). I've done car camping too, and that's likely to require more advance planning, assuming you want to stop at "real" campgrounds, rather than roughing it on BLM land -- campgrounds do tend to fill up in the summer. I took a trip through Crater Lake and the Redwoods in 2012, and I remember my options were relatively limited, booking 3-4 weeks in advance, and I had to schedule the trip around days when I could get the camping slots I wanted. If you wanted less-touristy spots, you'd probably have better luck. During that trip, I was able to also stop at random hotels in and around the Oregon and California coasts with no pre-planning -- I never hit a town where there was nothing available.

3) 85k miles is basically nothing for a Toyota. In 2007, I drove a 1990 Camry with about 120k miles from Maryland to Phoenix, AZ in 2.5 days with zero problems. Make sure you check all your fluids (brake fluid, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, engine coolant/antifreeze, wiper fluid). Can't hurt to get your brakes checked, and an oil change. Beyond that, if it's running OK now, it'll probably still be running OK later. I can't speak to the hybrid drivetrain on a Prius specifically, but I hear it's pretty solid. Do make sure you check (and inflate!) your spare tire -- spare doesn't do you any good if it's dry-rotted or flat.

4) Make sure you have a little toolkit, and a first-aid kit. Water bottles. Sunglasses. I had books to read in the hotel at night, but I was mainly focused on getting from Point A to Point B, so you may do better trying to work out outings in advance.

5) I did my cross-country trip before the wide availability of smart phones. In my 2007 cross-country trip, I had voice access more or less everywhere, except possibly in the far-out desert southwest. In my 2012 trip through coastal California, I had voice/data almost everywhere except deep in valleys in national/state parks. I'm not sure it's worth paying for a GPS, since you already have a smart phone. Might not hurt to pick up a road atlas, or paper maps, to keep on hand as a backup, should all else fail. Do get a car charger. Try not to leave anything in your car overnight that's valuable (laptop, etc) -- bring it into your hotel with you! Especially do not leave valuables visible in the car! I know several different people who've had cars burglarized at hotels, though I've never experienced this personally. Of note, the people who were burglarized had valuable-looking things visible (bikes not locked to a bike rack, in one case; a really expensive-looking printer in another case).

6) For me: Luray Caverns, though if you're in VA, that might be something you've already seen. Skyline Drive, also in VA. Oak Creek Canyon, between Flagstaff and Phoenix, in Arizona. The Grand Canyon (well, duh) and Hoover Dam. If you're further south into AZ, there's a fun tour of Biosphere 2 available, and also a bunch of historical sites. Crater Lake, in Oregon, is beautiful. So are the Oregon and northern California Redwoods (and you can check out the redwoods without necessarily going into a park). The PCH north of Los Angeles. I know people have really enjoyed Colorado's parks, too, and Yosemite / Joshua Tree.
posted by Alterscape at 11:05 AM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and AAA is really good for peace of mind. I know it's overpriced in some ways, but I carry the $100/yr "premium" service, which includes 200-mile tow service. I've only needed a tow twice (and only once for a broken-down car, which was not the aforementioned Camry -- other issue involved erroneously canceled registration which I only discovered far from home) but it was really nice to have the peace-of-mind of not paying market rate for a tow! They'll also change tires for you and jump-start you, which I've heard is great if you're not super-handy already.
posted by Alterscape at 11:09 AM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

So, I haven't done one of these solo (yet!), but we did road trips every year growing up (think driving from Canada to Mexico across the entire US kind of trip). So a few random points:

1. Try not to get too hung up on your route. Make a list of must-sees (Grand Canyon, redwoods, and Cali coast is a good place to start!) and print off a map of the US. Take a marker and put a dot everywhere you want to go, and see if something naturally takes shape. Try to avoid routes with nothing for 100s of miles - especially given your plan to drive through the desert. You aren't going to see everything, but once you have a preliminary route through your 'big stuff', you can try to find all those weird road side attractions that you'd drive say an hour out of your way to visit. I like to plot up based on "must eats" food stops.

Side note - for the Cali coast, drive from the north to the south - you won't have a lane of traffic blocking your view that way. :)

2. We ALWAYS just rolled into Super 8s or whatever motel was on our route. Don't roll in when you're dead tired - have another hour of driving in you in case the first one is full. If you have somewhere super specific that only has one motel in sight - then yeah, book a place beforehand. If you're desperate, Wal-Mart lets you park and sleep the night there in your car (though those parking lots are lit to high heaven, so bring an eyemask.)

3. No idea about the car, but only take it if it's reliable, and for sure do any preventative maintenance beforehand. Make sure you have AAA, and know how to do a flat-tire swap before you leave.

5. GPS...probably a good idea? I did most of these before smartphones and GPS, so I was daddy's little navigator buddy making sure we stayed on course with a map. I would definitely splurge the extra $30 for a good paper road map that can't run out of batteries and has the entire country 'loaded' in in case of major screw ups.

I remember these trips fondly, so definitely go out on this limb and do it! I still remember our trip to Mexico when we went do the Grand Canyon (I'm a geologist now, so it was a little formative), had Real Steak (TM), had the Mexican border patrol freak out at our Super Soakers and wonder what state Ontario was, and had friendly guerrillas wave at us from a pick up while driving in the Mexican jungle, had the best damn tortilla soup of my life at the tender age of 8 from a weird little hotel on a beach at sunset...

Yeah, need to do a road trip sometime.
posted by aggyface at 11:11 AM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Many years ago (like, almost 13 years) my now-husband and I went on a 5 week roadtrip across Canada, zig-zagged around the US, and returned home to Canada. It was THE BEST. It is literally one of the very best experiences I've ever had and, all things willing, we'll do it again when the kids have all left home!

I can't help you with route planning - we had a primary destination in mind and kind of winged (wung?) it every morning when we hit the road. I have heard that CAA (and AAA) do trip planning for free in some cases, so it might be worth getting in touch with them. But my advice is to do some research about what you want to see and.. go for it! Plus, don't be afraid to follow random signs while you're driving - if a roadside attraction sounds good, head down that direction.

Sleeping arrangements - hotels, motels, camping, couch surfing. They're all good. There's a fine line between "cheap motel" and "holy crap we're going to die here" motel and you will discover that line yourself at some point. We're not fancy people, so sleeping in a motel that didn't have all of the fancy amenities was fine for us - we were only there to sleep, for the most part.

Get your car checked out ahead of time - thoroughly inspected. Make sure YOU know how to check and add oil and washer fluid. We had CAA with us (which also works in the US) and didn't need it - but it was a nice bit of peace of mind to have, still. Make sure you also know how many miles you can get on a tank of gas - and track it - so you know when to fill it and when you can let it go 'til the next town rolls up.

In terms of what to take with you, it depends in part on the sort of person you are. We're jeans-n-t-shirts sorts of people, so we packed those with some shorts. Good shoes plus flipflops or sandals. A hoodie or two. Swimsuit. Lots of clean socks and underpants. We did laundry along the way at various places, but we wore jeans/shirts more than once, definitely. Think about what can be purchased easily along the way and what things you're really fussy about being 'right'. For example, if you need your favourite pillow in order to sleep well, bring it!

Bring extra plastic grocery bags. A cooler that you can fill with ice from gas stations is lovely for holding drinks and snacks when you're driving for a while and don't want to stop. Paper and pens. Spare sunglasses. A good flashlight. At the same time, remember that you can easily swing by a Walmart in pretty much any town and pick up something you've forgotten - just pack things that you might need immediately.

Tech stuff - we used our phones, brought a laptop, and didn't use a GPS. (This was a while ago). If we were going again today, I'd bring the same - and use my phone's GPS along with a paper map. Bring car chargers for everything. Bring an extension cord/power bar - nothing is worse than having to choose which devices to charge because the motel doesn't have enough outlets! Take loads and loads of digital photos. Be aware of roaming charges on your phone ahead of time. We had a blog that we updated most evenings - it was a good way to keep track of where we were, what we were doing, post photos, and share with friends.

We had a particular budget for our trip and we used it - but there was also a credit card with a significant limit that we didn't touch. It was for emergency purposes only (if the car broke down, for example) which was a nice bit of comfort that we, thankfully, didn't need to use.

BEST fun EVER. I'm super jealous you're doing this!!
posted by VioletU at 11:27 AM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hi fellow 2005 Prius driver! Mine has 130K and is going strong. I'd recommend a thorough review of the car with special attention paid to things that are known to fail around 90-100K. If I remember correctly, I replaced my water pump at 100K because that's when they often die. I prefer to do that stuff before I'm stuck somewhere on the side of the road. Otherwise, our car is a little tank and lasts forever. Have a great trip!
posted by quince at 11:38 AM on July 3, 2015

I'm a woman who's driven across this great country of ours at least three times all by my onesie, and about four more times with other people, since 1997 when I got my first divorce. What? I'm afraid of flying. Sue me. Anyway, I've also driven up an down each coast solo and with others. I am a road trip queen. I've driven in older cars, newer cars. Just four years ago, I drove from Mississippi to Arizona and back in a 1975 El Dorado motor home with just the cat.. My daughter (now 25) drove from Mississippi to Washington state in a car older than yours not too long ago with just her and a friend. She's also driven up and down the East Coast several times. We are a road tripping family. And I have some tips for you

Just go. Don't overthink things. Take the state roads instead of the highways if you're really adventurous because the small towns are really great and they do have a lot to offer travelers. Truck stops are awesome and have a lot of food for a little price (two meals for the price of one if you're like me and don't eat a lot). Stop at tourist traps, they're fun. And definitely take in our National Parks -- many of which have hotels nearby, by the way, or camping if you're into that. I'm not, I like hotels. Most chain hotels (Holiday Inn, Quality Inn, etc...) are safe to sleep in, so don't be timid. Also, state highways don't often have rest areas, but they will have picnic areas, which are awesome in their own right. As for winging it. Most hotels have a night clerk, and they'll rent you a room at any hour of the night. So drive until you're tired and drop on in. Bam! room. Check out is at 10am, so... plan accordingly.

I've slept in my car during the day and at night a couple of times. If I had to nap in my car, I usually did it in a busy place like a Walmart parking lot, a busy truck stop, or a rest area in a major town. But it's not the safest option. Neither is falling asleep at the wheel, but... A hotel is the best bet. Stick with the major chains if safety is your concern. I've never couchsurfed because the idea of sleeping in a stranger's house makes me shudder just to think about it.

You do have tools in your car to fix a flat tire, right? Also, a roadside emergency kit? Just in case?

Pack enough clothes for five days and stop at laundry mats on the way or partake of any hotel laundry facilities. Pack enough toiletries for two days (toothpaste etc...) and buy as needed. Most hotels have these for you. Buy snacks on the road. Seriously, if it's just you going, you'll find that what you thought you'd eat on the road you'll crave something different.
Tech stuff? Since I started road tripping in the Nineties, we didn't have that stuff back then, but I do admit to using some of it nowadays. It's handy to find a nearby hotel, or a nearby park, and it's cool to have music and something to read... but I don't depend on it.

But seriously... don't overthink it. Pick a beginning spot, an ending spot, things you'd LIKE to see on the way and just... go. Just go. Throw your stuff in the car and go. Those are the best road trips ever. Go. Be free. There's a lot out there to see, and it's waiting for you.
posted by patheral at 12:14 PM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

AAA also has free maps/guidebooks and discounts at hotel chains, restaurants and attractions.
posted by brujita at 12:22 PM on July 3, 2015

At this time of year, I'd stick to the northern half of the country. I wilt pretty easily so the heat makes things much less fun for me. It's hot there, too, of course, but there's some more national forest-y type places that give a break from the heat.

Glacier National Park is one of my must-see-again places. So beautiful. And yes to the Redwoods. I finally saw them a couple of years ago. I still have to look at the pictures of our dually pickup with giant camper next to a redwood to believe just how gigantic they really are.

I looked through my travel bookmarks to see what I'd stumbled across. I don't know if you like to bake but I'd totally go to the KitchenAid Experience Center in Greenville, Ohio. There's a factory and museum.

I don't have any idea of the legitmacy of the history but the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas looks interesting to me. It's probably a little colonial and Hollywood romanticized but I love the whole Out of Africa atmosphere and clothing and decor so I'd stop in there if I were passing through.

It may be touristy and more geared towards kids but I'd like to go to Wessels Living History Farm in York, Nebraska. I love all the old farming equipment and homestead stuff so it's looks like fun. YMMV.

If I were going though Philadelphia, I'd make an appointment to get pin-up photos done by Celeste Guiliano. She does beautiful portraits of women of all shapes and sizes (that aren't all over the top pouty fish lips). You may not be into that at all but it seems like it might be a cool way to commemorate a solo woman's summer road trip.

Ginger Blossom in Richmond, Illinois has long been on my list of places to check out, too. "...ethnic and traditional crafts, rugs, furniture, sweaters, antiques and more from all over the world, and practice fair trade...."

Here's a map of farmers markets across the US.

It's from Fox News so take it for what it's worth but a list of 10 coolest small towns in the US.

Deadwood was a little touristy but fun. You could check out Silver City, Idaho. Except for the blight that is Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills are beautiful. As is Custer State Park. We stayed in a great little cabin there when we went to Sturgis several years a back. Seeing herds of buffalo and wild burros was fun. If you do go to popular national parks, be very aware that many people are very stupid about not respecting wildlife. We saw some mind-bogglingly foolish behavior like a whole crowd of people standing in circle around a bear cub! (I still can't believe the mom didn't come over and tear their fool heads off.)

Buy a book of postcard stamps. Send yourself a postcard from everywhere you stop. Family members, too, of course, if you so desire. Then you can hang them up at home as a reminder.

For safety issues:
-yes, yes, yes to AAA. We were hit by a car on a motorcycle trip a few years back and they were lifesavers. Excellent service. The towing company they dispatched were great. Worth every penny.
-give someone your itinerary and let him/her know if it changes. Have someone you can check in with periodically to make sure you are okay and send help if needed. Leave copies of your important info - insurance, drivers license, credit card numbers, etc., with that person.
-put a paper phone list in your wallet and glove box - for EMS: emergency contact info in case you are injured/incapacitated; for you: bank/credit card/friends in case you lose your wallet/phone
-get your car tuned up beforehand. Let the mechanic know you are taking a long road trip. Make sure you can change a tire. Have a basic tool kit so you can tighten bolts/screws, change a windshield wiper, change the battery, jumper cables (can you jump start a Prius?)
-plan on freak weather occurrences and pack a range of clothing. We saw hail the size of golf balls in August at Sturgis.
-with bedbugs being an issue, personally, I'd stay away from cheaper motels. But I'm pretty risk-averse. I think I'd at least suss out a some options ahead of time - if for no other reason than to not spend an hour each day looking for a place to spend the night. Maybe make a plan for every third night? At least know areas of cities you should avoid. If winging it becomes too difficult, you can always spend a couple of hours one day making reservations for the rest of your trip.
-I apologize if this is patronizing. That is not my intention. But trust your instinct. If someone seems weird or a situation just doesn't feel right, trust that feeling. You are not being critical or mean-spirited or whatever. You are keeping yourself safe to continue your fabulous trip.

I'm not sure I helped you narrow things down. Have a safe and delightful trip!
posted by Beti at 12:43 PM on July 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

There are many shades of grey between booking accommodation for every night of a long trip before you leave and driving until you feel like stopping somewhere. Personally I like to check if there are any festivals or things that will make it difficult in a particular location because you may need more lead time then and otherwise I just arrange something for the next few days as I go. Solo travelling female with great fondness for road trips.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:56 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't miss the redwoods. They brought tears to my eyes.
Take a couple of all-cotton sheets to throw over the slimy polyester ones most motels have.
And yes: AAA.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:06 PM on July 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

A friend and I drove the (very) northern route x-country in 2010. There were lots of places without cell service, and though things have probably changed since then I'd still bring both a GPS and paper maps. We brought AAA tour books and each morning decided where we were likely to sleep that night, picked a motel or hotel in that area from the AAA book, called and booked a room for that night. This worked pretty well everywhere except heading west across Route 2 in Montana (not what I would have predicted) where one night we had to drive all the way to Kalispell, where we arrived well past midnight and got what may have been the last available hotel room in the city.

Yes to: AAA (we didn't use it, but good for peace of mind), Badlands, and Glacier National Park. Eastern Montana (we went to Fort Peck) was pretty glorious too. But these places are pretty far from the areas you seem to be considering.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 1:28 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Read this for a map to the shortest path for a road trip passing through all 48 states and all major tourist attractions in them.

Just hook up with the trail where you are and follow it around and back.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:33 PM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another solo travelling female here. My best advice about winging it with regards to hotel/motel accommodations is to decide that you're going to stop by 6:00 PM (or so) every night. That way you're not looking for a hotel after dark. It also allows you to check in, get something to eat, and get to bed early enough to get a good start (before 7:00 or 8:00 AM) in the morning.

As for finding a place, while you can luck out with roadside motels in the middle of nowhere, you can't count on finding those. Your best bet will be somewhere close to or in a large city. I'm not taking major metropolis, but the closest big city with bold print on you paper map that you'll hit around that 6:00 PM cut-off time. Usually there will be cheaper hotels/motels on the outskirts of that city that should be suitable.

The good thing about driving through the US (versus Canada) is the sheer amount of billboard advertisements. Believe me, you will know when there is a Best Western or a Motel 6 25 miles ahead at exit 3. Pay attention to those.

Personally I try to pick slightly more expensive places chains than cheaper ones (say paying $100 per night instead of $29.99), but as stated above, you'll have to find your own comfort zone. If you can get places that give you points, even better, but pick a place solely because of the points.

Keep in mind, this procedure doesn't always work, and sometimes you'll have to drive further to find something that isn't booked up or too sketchy, but that's okay. You've got time built into your schedule.

If you've never done a lot of long-distance driving, especially as the solo person in the car, then don't push it too hard. Driving can be hard and tiring. Take frequent breaks, just to get out and stretch your legs and clear your head. And if you've had enough and just can't go further, don't. Take an extra day or half a day and hit the local outlet mall, or tacky tourist trap. It's much better than getting into an avoidable accident.
posted by sardonyx at 1:55 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Missed the edit window "but don't pick a place solely because of the points."
posted by sardonyx at 2:01 PM on July 3, 2015

In the plains and the desert, things are a lot further apart. Therefore, I urge you to put enough drinking water for the day plus another gallon stashed in the trunk. In my family it's a time-honored tradition to have a box of snacks for lunch under a friendly shade tree whenever you want to take a break. Such things as crackers, wrapped snacks, cheese sticks, canned tuna and SPAM (because that's why they made it) M&M's, fruit from stands along the road. no chocolate that can melt.

Why not adopt a quest? Finding the best fruit pie in roadside diners, or places where you can see the exotic jackalope? You might want to try to include some of old Route 66 part of your journey. Find quirky museums. Or try to find motels that were included in The negro Motorist's Green Book as a point of education for these times.
posted by halhurst at 2:18 PM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

You're going to have such a great time!

Nthing the advice to get AAA, have extra water, etc.

I've done a couple of long road trips and just used to wing the overnight accomodations whenever I felt tired. Then, I once ended up having to drive an extra 400 miles at the end of an already-long driving day because I unknowingly wound up in Wisconsin during the busiest summer weekend ever (end of July) and literally every single hotel/motel/campsite/Bates Motel was booked between Chicago and Rochester.

So my advice is to at least kind of plan where you want to end up a day or two in advance and book a room. You can always take a side trip on the way to that room if something interesting crops up, but damn, is it nice to actually know you'll have a place at the end of the day.
posted by TwoStride at 2:31 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just getting back to my computer, and am blown away by the thoughtful and detailed responses, especially from MoonOrb. Wow! Thank you so much to everyone who responded, you have given me a lot to think about.

Does anyone have thoughts about taking the Oregon Trail out west? I was reading my Road Trip USA book this afternoon, and it seems like it might be interesting to take 20/25/26 all the way out to Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and then beyond to Portland and Cannon Beach. At that point I could decide to go north to Seattle, or south to get onto 101 and cruise to San Francisco. And then...maybe incorporate some of MoonOrb's ideas in reserve? San Fran --> Yosemite --> Death Valley --> Grand Canyon, and then...??? Start heading east, maybe trying to stick with 50 at least through Colorado, then either straight home or swooping through NC and up the coast?
posted by the thought-fox at 5:04 PM on July 3, 2015

Does anyone have thoughts about taking the Oregon Trail out west?

Speaking only to the Oregon portion of that drive, you will be passing through some incredibly beautiful country. (Also rugged, and in the summer hot -- bring some extra water in case of a breakdown.) Anything that gets you off of the interstate is going to make for a more interesting drive.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:41 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: *pulls up chair and sits down*

ROAD TRIP USA was my manual for my first solo road trip, during which I in fact largely used the Oregon Trail. Can't help you on the car maintenance too much, but my other comments:

* with all due respect, Moon Orb is TOTALLY wrong about taking the interstates, if you are trying to seek out kitschy Americana. Especially in the middle of the country. I saw the Grand Canyon and it was awesome, yeah, but it wasn't kitschy the way Boot Hill in Dodge, Kansas was. Or Meramec Caverns, or the Worlds' Biggest Hand Dug Well - all of which were things off the interstates and in Missouri and Kansas. Actually, one enormous kitsch fest is the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Missouri.

* staying on the back roads will also increase the odds of your being able to roll into a hotel in a small town and having it have vacancies. They may not be luxurious, but they will be cheap and available.

* I'm actually on a trip now, and there was a road-trip element for the first couple days - and when the car I borrowed from friends (who were out of the state on their own vacation) started doing something weird, I called my Dad, who was more than happy to diagnose over the phone. Don't underestimate the willingness of your father, or some other relative, to do a similar "Car Talk" kind of thing if need be.

* people in small towns really want to help. I got totally lost somewhere in Kansas and stopped to get my bearings in this chicken restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and ended up having a panic attack and ran to the lobby and had a meltdown over the pay phone to a friend. And when I hung up, two waitresses and a trucker were looking at me with concern and they asked, "ya need directions'r'somethin', hon?" And that just made me lose it again - but that only made all three of them gather around and give me directions to Witchita and a pep talk and hugs. It was wonderfully sweet, and I still have the map one of the waitresses drew on the back of a page from her order pad.

* small town newspapers are awesome. Play a game with yourself to find the Best Small Town Newspaper Headline (my own was "Tractor Accident Sends Local Man To Witchita").

* be willing to just stop at whatever the hell you want to stop at. I pulled over somewhere in Indiana to get a picture of a cool barn.

* my trip was 15 years ago, and thus was pre-smartphone. And I did just fine.

* give yourself permission to stop somewhere for a half day and just lay around a hotel pool doing nothing. Driving is surprisingly taxing if you're the only driver. Also, accept the fact that you will, at some point on your trip, sort of lose it for a couple hours and desperately want to stop and go home or call your mom to come get you or something. That's probably when you should do the hotel pool day. You'll get through that with a good night's sleep and you'll be good to go the next day, and that may also end up being one of your best stories.

* another fun book to track down is "The Bad Girl's Guide To the Open Road". It's a goof of a book that is meant to encourage women to do road trips; there is some useful info about car maintenance, but there is also rollicking fun stuff like "how to pick an alias" or "alternate uses for panty liners" or "how to pee by the side of the road."

I may come back with more advice later.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:45 PM on July 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh - and find chances to quote Hunter S. Thompson to yourself whenever possible. John Cusack said in a recent interview that he's a big road trip fan too, and he said that whenever he's someplace and finds himself thinking of the line "the urge to flee came suddenly", that's when he knows it's time to go.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:48 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Parking can be an issue at the south rim in summer. Consider catching the free shuttle in tusayan. Also if you do several national parks you should buy the national pass.
posted by notned at 6:22 PM on July 3, 2015

Response by poster: Woo! More responses, awesome.

EmpressCallipygos, thanks for the input. If you feel like adding more, I'd love to hear it :o)
posted by the thought-fox at 7:34 PM on July 3, 2015

When I've done the cross-country trip, Motel6 has been a lifesaver. Ubiquitous, cheap, clean and easily accessible from the freeway.
posted by bendy at 7:47 PM on July 3, 2015

I've done my share of road tripping, and concur with the Empress. State roads (aka "blue hiways") are the best for a genuine experience of Americana.
For your car, have extra fluids, especially oil and water. A car can't go very far without either. A basic road safety kit with flares and such is also a good idea. And AAA, which saved our bacon 50 miles from Lordsburg, NM when we ran out of gas. Trust me, 50 miles out of Lordsburg we were lucky to get cell reception!
Because it is HOT throughout the west right now, and will stay that way, consider taking a northern route west, then down the west coast and off into the desert southwest, saving the best for last.
The entire Colorado plateau is magical (hurry though, because they are fracking the hell out of parts of it). This includes the area from the Grand Canyon all the way up to western Colorado (parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado). A personal favorite is the Colorado National Monument, outside Grand Junction.
Speaking of which, National Monuments (vs National Parks) tend to be cheaper and less crowded than the Parks.
Regarding the Grand Canyon, whichever rim you choose, that is the one place you might want to consider booking lodging ahead of time; the South Rim gets especially busy in summer. I prefer the North Rim because it's harder to get to, higher altitude (so cooler in temp), and therefore less crowded.
I had the best breakfast in my life in a diner in Indiana. We'd seen billboards for it for miles, and it was in the self-proclaimed "Pork Capital of the World". The ham steak with my eggs was a 1/2" thick and almost covered the plate. May you have many fine breakfasts on your trip!
(Sorry for the lack of links, but they are hard on this device.)
posted by dbmcd at 8:35 PM on July 3, 2015

I agree with staying off the interstates and on the U.S. Highways as much as possible. I followed the northern-most cross country route from Road Trip USA and it was amazing, and the book was super duper helpful. Giant turtle made of tire rims? Oh yeah.

Don't stress too much about taking every single thing you think you might need with you - you aren't going to a third world country. There will be about 1 million walmarts on your route I'm sure! I just bought stuff as I needed it.

If you arrive in the day late at a motel, I found generally you get the price down a further $10-30+ by asking if they have any better rates after they give you the initial price. Also a lot of motels have a AAA rate.

I'm in the camp of "don't book accommodation too far ahead." You really loose that flexibility. If you are going to be in a very popular tourist area or city, then maybe. Otherwise it can be stressful thinking "Ahh I need to be in X tonight but I'm having so much fun in y and want to go see z on the way ack!"

Mainly I agree with the "just do it" sentiments other posters have expressed!
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 10:52 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I drive to San Diego every year to see my daughter, and I like to get off the interstate and onto the parts of old Route 66 that still exist. (It comes and goes, and at one point, ends abruptly in some pylons... but it's always well-marked, and you can get back on the main highway pretty easily.)

Here's a national park service website with a map and more info--

You can see that from Illinois all the way into Arizona, it's near interstates (the interstates were built right alongside). But what's fun is that many towns still have the old 50s style roadside attractions-- elaborate neon signs, huge ridiculous sculptures, murals on the sides of buildings. And in between towns, you can see the ghosts of old service stations and motels. It's total Americana. My favorite stop is Tucumcari, NM, a dusty old town with one street (Rt 66, that is) of motels and drive-ins right out of the 50s. You have to see it to understand, but do take a camera.

Supposedly you can get from Chicago to LA much of it on Rt 66. There are a few places where you'll have to get on the interstate. Well, there are probably more than a few! But it's always easy to get on and off, and you won't get lost. This is really going to give you an idea of what it was like to drive through the west in the pre-WWII period. But you'll have air conditioning in your car! Much nicer now
posted by pippin at 11:27 PM on July 3, 2015

Oh, and something you might consider is a way to keep food cold. Big truckstops will usually have aisle after aisle of kitchen equipment that can be plugged into your car's cigarette lighter (I know that has another name now), and while I doubt I'd ever use the waffle iron, I would like to get the little mini-fridge. Until then, I use a freezer bag or cooler, and a few icepacks. Every two days, I try to find a motel with a fridge/freezer and refreeze the icepack. (Often if they don't have fridges in the room, the front desk clerk will freeze it in their little kitchenette.)

This cooling system is useful for snacks, but also when you're in the Midwest and stop for lunch and your BLT is big enough to feed a football team. You can wrap up the BLT (bring ziploc bags!) and keep it cold (and safe) to be eaten later.
The truckstops also will have ac/dc adapters so that you can recharge your electronics in the cigarette lighter as you drive.

Have a great time! I wish I could go too!
posted by pippin at 11:37 PM on July 3, 2015

Best answer: Some people here are disparaging that great center part of the country between the two big mountain ranges. But you know, you have to drive through them. And there are some great pleasures. Take US 40 (The National Road) and get on I-70 (runs alongside) when you want a faster drive. One fun trip is a river trip. (The Midwest has great rivers.) Start in Cincinnati or Louisville and go on the Ohio River Scenic Byway. Or take US 40 to the Indiana/Illinois state line and go south on 41 along the Wabash River. Stop in New Harmony (started as a commune in the 1820s! Very cute), and then cross into Illinois. There's a town there-- can't remember the name, starts with an S-- which had to be moved away from the river because of flooding, and the old town is still there on the river with about 30 holdouts who refused to move. Shawneetown! That's the name. The old town is a real study in stubborness!
Then go into Springfield and see all the Lincoln sites! The graveyard where he's buried is quite poignant. Go south and pick up the Ohio River Byway (the Ohio is a beautiful river) and take it to Cairo, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. Cairo is a derelict town, once immensely wealthy (100 years ago) so many stately homes, and everything else falling down. The people there are so brave dealing with the loss of jobs and business, it's heartbreaking. Keep going west of town to the national site of the confluence-- the meeting of the rivers, which is spectacular. Go a bit farther and you'll be in St. Louis. I think on the Illinois side, north of St. Louis, around Granite City, is where Lewis and Clark wintered before rowing up the Missouri. There's a rather sparse and elegant monument there. All these monuments and sites, btw, are minimally promoted. These aren't big tourist attractions, so you won't battle the crowds.
From St, Louis you could go to Hannibal where Mark Twain grew up-- a great river town.

The Midwest is all about the rivers, and those are worth a few stops, certainly. The towns are often poor -- the cracks in the sidewalk type of place-- but that provides its own interest. And most towns have diners where you can chat with the waitress, who will usually be able to tell you all sorts of scandalous things about the town. The rivers are beautiful-- curving away into the distance, very mysterious.
posted by pippin at 12:04 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wait, I think I was wrong about the Oregon Trail. I think what I did was:

* Oregon Trail from New York to Ohio
* an interstate to cut from Cleveland to Cincinnatti
* Route 50 from Cincinnatti to St. Louis
* Route 66 across Missouri
* Fucked if I know across Kansas to Dodge City (I got lost and was following the directions of a trucker in that chicken restaurant)
* Route 50 from Dodge City to Moab, Utah
* an interstate to Las Vegas (my final stop)

But that's not a bad model, sort of taking bits and pieces of the ROAD TRIP USA routes as they connect and cross each other to plan your own route, and cheating and using the interstate in places where they don't intersect and you want to hop from one to the other.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:34 AM on July 4, 2015

I have done many roadtrips and am very envious. Some things I might add:

The interstates are more boring, but state roads have a LOT of variable posted speeds. We did a trip once following the old Lincoln Highway (Route 30, first cross country highway) but found it tricky to stay within the speed limit across the great plains. We learned that the county cops in Iowa give out a baseball card with their 'stats' along with a ticket. If you are a lead foot like me, watch your speed.

I like to wing it with hotels and will make a pit stop and assess the situation when I've got about and hour or two I am willing to drive. I usually call and ask for a best rate. If places are full when you call direct to the hotel, the clerk can often give you an idea of where to find lodging. It's a question they'll answer all evening. I once thought I was staying in Jamestown ND but found out the state wrestling championship was there, they knew a place next town over that was available. But I am not picky.

I've gotten in the habit of bringing a bike along, mostly because I travel with teenagers that sleep later than me and I get up way too early. I'll get out and take a ride around town seeing the sights. Even without teenagers I think I will continue this. It's great to get the exercise and I have many memories of towns in the early morning. I look for whatever historical marker the area claims. Everyplace has something.

A paper driving atlas is important. Nice big one.

posted by readery at 7:20 AM on July 4, 2015

If you're driving solo, you only need one seat in your car. You can take out the passenger seat and the back seat squab, engineer a timber frame out of 1x2s to support an L shaped plywood base that fits around the driver's seat, cut a piece of high density foam to fit on top and presto: sleeper compartment. For increased comfort, tip the back of the driver's seat as far forward as it will go and wedge something soft like a pack full of clothes into the gap behind it.

I'm a six foot fat man and I've done this in a Leyland Mini (the original small one, not the new BMW thing). You can do it in a Prius.

You also don't need to keep food cold if you carry dried peas, root vegetables, powdered milk and a tiny alcohol-burning camp stove.
posted by flabdablet at 12:21 PM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks again for all the responses. You all have been immeasurably helpful, and I'm going to sit down this weekend and try to hammer out logistics. Do you think that mefites might be interested in meeting up along the way, like if I just posted impromptu-ly from the road?
posted by the thought-fox at 2:29 PM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've been away from browsing/commenting on metafilter for a while (absolutely buried by work and life stuff), but now that I have some breathing space, I wanted to pop back in and say thank you SO MUCH to all the wonderful mefites who commented with so much thoughtful, helpful, reassuring advice. I DID go on my cross country trip, and had the most exhausting, exhilarating time of my life! 8,019.2 solo miles in 32 days on the road...and I can't wait to do more traveling this summer!

Thank you again, truly, for helping this internet stranger to achieve something that has been on my bucket list for a long time. It means a lot.
posted by the thought-fox at 3:23 PM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

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