Advice on driving cross-country and back?
March 4, 2008 12:17 PM   Subscribe

How long will it take, and how much will it cost, to drive cross-country and back?

Hi all. I'm planning a road trip for this summer, and I'm looking for some idea of what to expect.

The plan is to drive from Providence, RI to Seattle, WA via a northern route (through Chicago and etc). From there, we'll go down the West Coast through Portland, San Francisco, and LA - stopping in each major city - and then drive back via a southern route, preferably through Las Vegas, parts of Texas, and New Orleans. Eventually we'll want to end up back in Providence. I'm open to suggestions of cities to make sure to stop in, as long as they're compelling.

We're tentatively budgeting to make the initial drive out to Seattle in a week, spend a week on the West Coast, and then drive back in a week. Is that realistic, or should we count on it taking longer? We don't really need to see the tourist-y spots, but it'd be nice to spend at least part of a night in each place we stop.

Assuming we can stay for free with friends in cities across the country, what is a reasonable amount of money to allocate for this trip? We'll have 4 people in the car (gas/4). While we'll be low on funds, we'd like to realistically estimate the amount of money we'll need for gas, food, etc., assuming we travel modestly.

Any advice, anecdotes, etc. would be very helpful. Thanks!
posted by lunit to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
How long it will take is up to you, of course. My recommendation is that you take as long as you can. I drove CT-Seattle and then to SF along much of where you are planning over 3 weeks, and my only lament is not taking longer. That said, you can make it coast to coast in a week easily (it's about 4 days of full-day but not balls-out driving each way), but at the expense of a lot of the beauty of roadtripping.

With a course in mind it shouldn't be that difficult to project your gas needs (I'd take your est miles and $4/gallon, it won't be that high all over but that's a good margin for error I think) and you can certainly find ways to eat consistently for $6-10/person/meal, if not much less. You've got gas and food ballparked, and if there are no lodging costs, there's your minimum.

As far as places I would recommend, the two that come to mind immediately are Badlands and the Crazy Horse monument. Badlands was nothing like what I expected and has to be the most underrated natural beauty in America, and the Crazy Horse monument will blow your mind for its scale alone.
posted by andifsohow at 12:32 PM on March 4, 2008

It's about 55 hours of driving from RI to Seattle. You can break that up however you want (and within the bounds of safety, of course) -- you can make it across in 4 or 5 days if you get up in the morning, drive all day except for breaks, eating, and so on, and repeat the next day, no time for sightseeing or visiting friends. So add to that however much you want to see things -- and remember that driving in and out of a city, navigating, dealing with traffic, meeting friends, always takes a lot more time than you anticipate. The amount of time you have given is ok -- not too rushed -- but leaves very little time for seeing things, deviating off your route to check something out, etc.

You can't estimate gas costs without knowing your average highway mpg in your car -- this number will be strikingly different if you are driving a Honda Civic than if you are in a Suburban, for example. Your big circle will probably be something like 8 or 9 thousand miles at a guess, maybe more, so just take your average mpg and divide into the total miles you will cover, then multiply by whatever the national average gas cost is (and remember to allow for whether your car needs premium or regular gas). That's enough miles that your car will probably need an oil change somewhere along the way, plus perhaps sundry other maintenance items (flat tire repair, new wiper blades, more wiper fluid, etc), so budget for that, too.

Food is really cheap if you buy raw materials at grocery stores and have a little campstove for reststop cooking; it is a lot more expensive if you eat at nice restaurants in every town, drink lots of microbrew, etc. Again, we can't really generalize from what you have told us here.
posted by Forktine at 12:33 PM on March 4, 2008

We did Providence - Seattle in less than a week about 10 years ago, and it was a nice pace with only 2 drivers. With 4 people, I would leave a little extra time in Seattle and LA (or wherever) so that the group can split up for a day or two and get away from each other before getting back on the road. YMMV

How much gas costs will depend on how the mileage is in your car. Figure out what your mileage is for highway driving (the web might have a guess about this, given the model and year), then figure it out using the average cost of gas, and the approximate mileage of your route (again, web).

How much food costs will vary depending on how much you eat out. If you mainly eat food you buy in grocery stores (not restaurants, not convenience stores), it will be less expensive. Think about what's a realistic per-day per-person cost for food while you're on the road (maybe $20?), and when you're in a city where you want to eat out or go to bars (maybe $40-80 depending?). Then do the math.

You'll want to have enough cash/credit to get yourselves out of tough spots (eg unexpected car repairs or "I can't take it anymore and I have to fly home"). It probably makes sense to get AAA with long towing for a trip like this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:37 PM on March 4, 2008

We did a similar trip way back - NY to the west coast via the southern route, then up route 1 from SF to Mid-Oregon, then back east through the north. I think for Seattle to LA you might want to budget more than a week or turn back east a bit sooner. As long as you have at least 2 good long-distance drivers among those four people, you should have no problem with the timeframe. If you start getting low on time, you can do a big jump from New Orleans back to RI with few stops, and save those east coast destinations for another trip.

We did a lot of camping in National Parks/on BLM land to keep costs down. If you are not going to camp, you can still save a bunch on food costs by bringing a camp stove and cooking some simple meals. However, I encourage you to eat regionally as much as you can afford (and often this will be inexpensive).

The Badlands, Jackson Hole WY, Grand Tetons NP WY, San Francisco, San Louis Obispo CA, Grand Canyon, Painted Desert -- you have plenty of fantastic destinations to choose from.
posted by mikepop at 12:41 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

About ten years ago, I went on a month-long road trip from Michigan, down to San Antonio, out to San Diego, up to Portland and back to Ann Arbor.

It cost $800.

Just last year, I drove from Michigan to LA in three days. It sucked.

So, what I can distill my advice into is this—First off, plan as much as possible. Figure out your expected MPG and use that to come up with a gas budget. Gas will be the most expensive part of your trip—when I went, it was 89¢ for a gallon throughout most of the country. If you figure that gas is going to be about 60% of your costs, you can plot out whether this is feasible or not (remember to either figure for a fully-loaded car, or shave 10% off the efficiency). Two suggestions for budgeting—food is much cheaper at grocery stores than at restaurants, even fast food. Learn to love pb&j, then buy a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter (one that doesn't have to be refrigerated) and a jar of jelly. That should get you roughly ten meals for about $9. Then stay with friends as much as possible. Knowing people in each city that you stop in is another great way to keep down costs. Otherwise, you're going to have to be tighter with campground reservations (as hotels aren't worth the money hardly ever).

At (rough guess) 8000 miles, assuming an average mpg of 20 and an average gas price of about 3.50, you're going to need $1400 in gas money alone (350 per person). You're probably going to want to take a little more time to enjoy yourselves, so I'd bump the trip to four weeks. If you can eat for about eight a day on average, that's another $225 in food money. Add to that a bit of walking around and emergency money (my tires blew in the middle of Arizona), and you're looking at about $800 per (you've got four folks to split the gas with, and I only had one) or about 2400 total.
posted by klangklangston at 12:41 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah - I forgot to add in incidentals like parking costs in cities, cab fare/subway if you're drinking etc, laundromats, camping fees, a trip to the emergency room for bandages when one of you gets a cut while hiking, etc.

My food cost estimates will be on the low side, probably. Think realistically about what your group will do, and acknowledge that stuff in Chicago or LA will be more expensive than Providence.

Seconding the suggestion that you go to Badlands and leave time to really explore it. Badlands/Mt Rushmore/Crazy Horse/Black Hills are all very close by each other. Dry Falls in eastern WA and Glacier NP in Montana were amazing; someone here mentioned that due to recent wildfires the area is more barren than before, though.

The desert is great, plan to spend at least some time outside the car in some desert location. LV is totally surrounded by desert, so it should be easy to arrange this.

The redwoods in northern CA are amazing, wish I had left more time to wander among them.

The countryside outside SF/Palo Alto is really beautiful; ask around about good beaches on that drive.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:45 PM on March 4, 2008

My food cost estimates will be on the low side, probably if you are spending most of that eating at restaurants, even fast food. Camping or eating cereal at your hosts' houses will cut it down.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:50 PM on March 4, 2008

Response by poster: Not sure on the route yet, so it's hard to do the equations, but I'll keep them in mind. Will likely be driving a mid-90s Honda Accord, although that may change.

All the suggestions about incidental costs to consider are especially helpful. We're definitely gonna go the grocerystore/campingstove/reallycheapfood route.

Thank you all so much for the helpful advice!
posted by lunit at 12:57 PM on March 4, 2008

Response by poster: Err. Sorry - a 1998 Honda Accord, actually.
posted by lunit at 12:57 PM on March 4, 2008

Why on earth would you want to minimize your total travel time? Go slow: repeatedly spending 10-12 hours a day in a car with people is a great way to guarantee you'll hate them afterward. (Granted, I did my cross-country trip solo, so I directed all my ire at Bill Bryson's cringe-inducing book-on-CD voice.) Four weeks minimum.

The one place I cannot recommend enough from my trip is Big Bend National Park in Texas. It's off the beaten track, but it's a sight and well worth it. (And if you time it right, you can stop by the McDonald Observatory at night and see amazing things.)
posted by kittyprecious at 1:09 PM on March 4, 2008

I drove from Indianapolis to LA in 3.5 days each way in 2006 ("3.5 days" = 3 ~10-hour days + 1 ~6-hour day), so coast-to-coast in a week is certainly doable. The Vegas-to-New Orleans leg will probably take you through Albuquerque, where the Old Town is worth a stop, especially if it's around lunch or dinner time.

If you haven't already found it, you should definitely check out the Road Trip America website.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2008

I drove from Portland OR to Maryland and back in the WINTER of 2002 ALONE (I'm female) in a Ford expedition. Total cost of gas then was $650. It took me 3.5 days to get there, and 4 days to get back. I spent each night in an econolodge/motel 6 and spent $250 on lodging. I made sure to take lots of snacks, bottled water, books on cds, sodas, wetwipes, etc. I also tried to avoid the truck stops and rather replenished my snack supplies from a supermarket in any large town. It was one of the best experiences i've ever had...just me and the open road (although i did get caught in a blizzard in Idaho).
posted by ramix at 2:08 PM on March 4, 2008

I drove from DC to Seattle in 3.5 days as well. Granted, I didn't stop and do a whole lot of stuff along the way, it was mostly get up at noon, drive until 11 PM, repeat. I came back with a friend, much slower, going down the Pacific Coast, through Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon and ending up in Baton Rouge before heading north. The way back took about 3 weeks and it really wasn't enough time. So, at least a month, maybe two if you can spare the time.
posted by electroboy at 2:10 PM on March 4, 2008

Unless you plan to travel hard for a fews days and then rest at a destination, I would suggest stretching your trip out as long as you possibly can. I think four weeks is the bare minimum and I would suggest something more like eight weeks. My rule about vacations is to never spend more than six hours in a car unless it is absolutely necessary. Even six hours everyday for a week would totally kill me.

I would suggest car camping along the way as the supplies only require a minimum of investment ($200) and campsites can be either cheap or free. A good sleeping pad, sleeping bag, a few tarps, rope, and cheap four person tent will go along way. Splurge on the sleeping pad and skimp on the sleeping bag for the best comfort. As mentioned before, a cooler, camp stove, and mess kit / picnic kit will end up saving you a good deal on food costs. A lot of this stuff can be found used for dirt cheap. Since you are driving an Accord with four people in it I would suggest getting a car-top carrier as the amount of kit the trip requires will quickly over-flow the trunk. I would also stop by AAA before you leave and getting a pile of maps and the tour books they offer. Since you may be without the internet while driving the tour books can help you find cheap eats and places to crash.

If you camp along the way I would budget about $25/day person. That should cover camp fees, food, the occasional cheap hotel, beer money, maybe a few sights. Gas would be over and above this.

I would suggest the following for destinations (they may or may not make the most travel sense):

Providence to Chicago via Ontario (Toronto) and Michigan's Upper Peninsula (I know this is out of the way, but I am biased).

Chicago to Seattle - via Badlands, Crazy Horse, Mitchell S.D., Wall Drug, Yellow Stone N.P. , Beartooth Highway(Wyoming), Bozeman MT, Missoula MT, and Spokane WA .

Seattle to LA: I would take Highway One for a good portion of the trip from San Francisco to LA.

I would suggest seeing Tucson AZ, Savannah GA, Asheville NC / Smokey Mountains, Washington DC, and Philly on your way back up and around.
posted by kscottz at 2:14 PM on March 4, 2008

Not a direct answer to your question, but: in addition to Road Trip America, you must check out Roadside America. You should take some time to explore the site yourself but I can personally recommend these sites in LA, this in upstate New York, this crazy thing in PA...and approximately one million more I'd visit if I had the summer free.

Also useful:
posted by Mender at 2:33 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're in New Mexico and have a day, I wholeheartedly recommend driving the backroad from Santa Fe, NM to Pecos (then continuing on towards wherever in Texas you want to go). It's slower than the interstate, but the scenery is great--desert driving--and you will truly appreciate what it means to be alone in the desert. You'll also be able to see Carlsbad Caverns and Roswell, and there are a couple of good wineries along the way.

Get gas before you leave Santa Fe though...between SF and Roswell are maybe 1 or 2 gas stations.
posted by j1950 at 2:58 PM on March 4, 2008

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