The One With A Guide On How (Not) To Roadtrip America

Road-tripping across a decent portion of the United States in the summer following my year abroad in Ottawa was a pipe dream of mine from the start.

Bumping along a road closer to resembling a dirt track than any highway, music blaring, the windows rolled down, with Monument Valley looming on the horizon; I’m not quite sure where this image came from, but by gosh, the idea stuck. It stuck, gained roots, and grew, branching off into a whole, insane, ridiculous vision. I wanted to see not only Monument Valley, but the Grand Canyon and the Valley of the Gods. I was also desperate to visit San Francisco, which I’d heard so much about, and hike through Yosemite National Park. I also thought, as an added bonus, it might be quite lovely to take the iconic coastal road up from California to Seattle, but these, I thought, were all pretty fanciful ideas. My family,  friends, and even I doubted they’d actually happen.

Except, when dates began falling into place, and Emily and my best friend from home expressed an interest in joining me for parts of the journey, the dream gradually grew into plan. We could rent a car, stay in airbnbs and hostels, and actually do this.

In the end, my road trip comprised of two parts, over 4 weeks. The first section was an insane cross-country trek, from Colorado Springs to San Francisco, via the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Las Vegas and Yosemite. The second, after a few days recovering in San Francisco, was north up the coast – largely sticking to the famous 101 coastal road. This section of the trip took us through the famous Redwoods, past beautiful ocean overlooks, into Portland, and finally up to Seattle, which was my final stop. I kept track of the mileage counters of the three cars we travelled in, from Colorado to Seattle, and the final distance clocked in at 3,896 miles. I know. Mental.

If I’m honest, nearly one month on from the end of the trip, it still feels like a dream. I still can’t talk about it at any length without grinning from ear to ear. It was the most epic, incredible, challenging and freeing experience of my entire life, and capped off my year in a way like no other.

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Living a ‘pinch-me-this-isn’t-real’ moment

It was also an adventure that required (and certainly benefitted from) an extensive amount of planning and research. I think we were about halfway through Death Valley, having cracked into our second water gallon jug and discussing how grateful we were to have invested in them, that I started a list on my phone of roadtrip hints and tips – inspired by our good decisions, and less good ones. I thought I’d share them here, as a starting point for anyone considering their own road trip adventure, especially in the States (because honestly, I can’t recommend it enough.)

13 of Tess’ Top Roadtrip Tips

1. How to get started – it’s all in the planning.

Faced with an enormous list of things we wanted to do, an indefinite amount of time and a fairly decent budget (goodbye lifetime savings, this was what you were being saved for) – the world was our oyster. Which was terrifying. Cue roadtrippers.com, which was a fantastic way for us to start our planning. You plug in your start and end destination, and then can add things you want to see on the way as detours. Even better, once you’ve got your basic route, you can filter suggestions of other things near your route that might not have come up in your research. Our next stage of planning was one mega Google Doc, with shared editing accessibility. That way, we could add independently ideas for food, things to do, and potential accommodations. Accommodation incidentally, was decided in a very simple way; find a town, roughly every 2-3 hours of driving, unless there was an exception, and find somewhere to stay. This meant our driving wasn’t unreasonably insane each day, though we did break this rule on some occasions, to allow for a full day at the Grand Canyon and in Zion National Park. 

2. Rent a car, it really is the only way to do America. 

We couldn’t get over the freedom having a car gave us travelling across the states. We met various people on our way who’d opted for buses, trains or organised tour groups, and I didn’t for one moment envy any of them. Having a car allows you the flexibility to go where you want, when you want, and also conveniently serves as a portable bedroom, which saves you having to haul your bags into every new accommodation (most nights we just took in pjs and toothbrushes.) The drive in itself is also magnificent; we were very, very rarely bored as the landscape we drove through was so beautiful and diverse there was always something to see. Even better was being able to go off the beaten track, to views and places where the tour buses don’t fill up the car parks. In terms of rental, 21 is the minimum age for most companies (lucky for us my birthday was in May) and though there was a surcharge as we were under 25, we still managed to get a very good deal with Alamo through a website called drive-usa. Alamo served us very well, and were very good on providing us with a replacement car when our windscreen cracked on the way to Vegas. The one-way car rental for two weeks from Colorado to San Francisco, with all insurance, fees and taxes included cost £600, while the second leg of two weeks from San Francisco to Seattle cost £440. 

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Our babe Linda, who got us all the way from Colorado Springs to Las Vegas

3. Really think hard if you’re considering going on your own, and choose your company carefully.

This was a lesson I was really, really glad I didn’t have to learn from experience. My initial plan of ‘If no-one else wants to come I’ll just go on my own!’ fortunately never came to fruition as Emily and Ellie joined me for the trip, and I am in hindsight very grateful for that. A road trip is a long and quite solitary experience even with company, so think hard before making the leap to go on your own. Not only does it mean the burden of map-reading, things going wrong, potential injuries etc rest solely on your shoulders, it’s also just a bit lonely? We met a guy in the Grand Canyon travelling coast to coast on his own, and the way he was so keen to talk to us was a little bit sad; he’d clearly not had a proper conversation with anyone in days. On the company front however, don’t necessarily just settle with a casual friend – consider how travel compatible with each other.  Are you comfortable with silences? Interested in visiting the same things? Similar levels of fitness if you’re planning on any hikes? Willing to get up and get on the road at the same time? Able to deal with each other when you’re both exhausted, hangry and haven’t showered properly in a few days? Questions worth asking. 

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No way in hell I’d have managed this trip on my own

4. Have a think about entertainment in advance – aka Sort The iPod.

Honestly, I was very surprised at how little I ended up listening to the audiobooks/podcasts I’d loaded up onto my iPod, but I was very glad they were there. On a particularly dull drive day to Flagstaff when conversation was lagging, Emily and I were grateful for Harry Potter 7, and the odd Women’s Hour podcast was fun too. Music, on the other hand, was an enormous part of our trip. I’m a tad embarrassed thinking back at how much time I spent constructing our roadtrip playlist, but in the end it was definitely listened to, and I appreciated having the classic American drive tunes for the classic American sights. If you’re going with someone, consider making a collaborative playlist on Spotify; having a cheesy, singalong tune can be an amazing pick-me-up for a long afternoon drive. 

5. Water is essential, especially in summer, and especially in the middle of the desert.

We always had at least 2 gallons of water chilling in the backseat footwell so we could fill up our bottles on the go throughout the day. Water was sold for pittance at gas stations on the way, but there were certainly stretches we didn’t see gas stations for miles.  You might not use all the water you have, but it’s so much better being safe rather than sorry on the dehydration front. We went for a 15 minute walk in Death Valley in 43 degree heat, and must have downed half a gallon each on getting back in the car – make sure you have enough. If you break down in that sort of heat, it won’t be long at all until you’ve run out.

6. Have a think about food – unless roadside greasy burgers on the daily are your sort of thing.

Cooking for ourselves when we could saved time, money and the faff of finding vegetarian options. We stayed in several Airbnbs with wonderful fully equipped kitchens and fridges of food to help ourselves to. At these places, we often stocked up for the next day, making tomato and cream cheese bagels for lunch, and hard boiling eggs as a protein booster on hikes. Having a picnic also allowed us greater flexibility to not be worrying about lunch too. Eating right is I think a very important aspect to any longer road trip; if you eat shit, you’ll feel like shit. Especially if you want to hike in Yosemite/traipse around cities all day, you need to be properly fuelled, and if you don’t fancy spending a small fortune, I would recommend thinking in advance. We always had some dried fruit and nuts in the car too, which for the longer-than-anticipated-drives were good as much-needed snacks.

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Driving out of Death Valley – beautiful views are always improved with snacks

7. Compromising Structure vs Spontaneity – it’s an art, and one we’re still getting the hang of.

I am a bit of a worry warrior, so there was no way on god’s green earth I was going to set off on a day of driving and exploring without knowing where I was going to be sleeping that night. Emily, Ellie and I planned ahead every night of accommodation – a budget-focused combination of hostels, Airbnbs and the odd deal on a hotel –  and I’m very glad we did. We stayed in some wonderful Airbnbs (and I mean, truly gorgeous – read those reviews carefully and trust them!) with very generous hosts, and likewise also had the communal hostel experience, for staggeringly cheap prices (apart from in San Francisco. But then again, there’s no hope of finding any truly cheap accomodation in that city.)

Aside from planning our accommodation, we also had on our itinerary a couple of food places that we might be interested in for dinner. Most lunches we made ourselves, but with the amount of hiking we were doing a decent evening meal was essential, and being vegetarian that extra research before the fact saved us a lot of time. Finally, for each day we also had a couple of bullet-point suggestions of things we wanted to do/sights to see on the way. It wasn’t essential we did them all, but they were there as guidance, in and around spontaneous decisions/recommendations from locals. Roadtrippers.com was amazing for pointing out sights and attractions near our driving route; as you’ll quickly see if you have a look on their maps, there is just so much to do that it will save a lot of on-the-day decision-making if you’ve prioritised what you want to do earlier. You really can’t do everything, as much as it sucks to say, so make sure you at least do what you’ll regret not doing. I saw heaps, but already I know there’s so much more I want to do – but I think I made a good start, and that’s a nice feeling. 

8. If you have any interest in visiting multiple National Parks, invest in a National Parks Annual Pass.

Honestly. Don’t question me, just do it. At $80 shared between two it was so worth the money and about the best investment we made all trip. For context, the fee for a car’s entrance to the Grand Canyon is $30. Considering we visited Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes, Zion National Park, Yosemite, the Redwoods, and multiple smaller parks up the Oregon coast, it more than paid for itself. 

(An additional point on National Parks; don’t underestimate distances into and around the parks. It may only take you two hours to get to a park entrance, but another hour or so to drive into the park to the point where anything actually happens (Mesa Verde really caught us by surprise.) In other parks, you can’t drive in at all, and shuttle buses are the only way to  get to trailheads and viewpoints. Worth bearing in mind for peak seasons, as these queues can form quickly in the day.)

9. Be weather smart – consider both extremes and don’t overestimate yourself when facing either.

In the space of 24 hours we went from driving through the dust in 40 degree celsius heat, to hunched over the steering wheel trying to make out the road through blizzards of snow. Insane, but the truth of California in June. Weather actually put a big roadblock in our plan even before the trip began; snow closes the Tioga Pass (the road cutting through Yosemite) every year, and each year it opens at a different point. As it happens, 2016 was an exceptionally snowy winter, and so even when mid-June rolled around, the road remained resolutely closed. Cue an expected 6-hour detour around the north of Yosemite to get to the entrance and our accommodation. Be aware of lingering snow at high altitudes – I had friends face similar shock when they were confronted with a very frozen Lake Louise in May in British Columbia, so don’t be caught out!

On the opposite end, prepare for the heat. Packing suncream and sunglasses are an obvious, but the effects of walking at higher elevations and the bizarre rising temperates when descending into the Grand Canyon are much harder to prepare for. In terms of heat, my biggest recommendation would be to not overestimate yourself. Emily and I are keen hikers, but despite our initial fantasies of climbing to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in one day, we quickly realised this was both stupid and insanely dangerous. If you want to hike in heat, clue yourself in with all the advice from the National Park officials, and start early (and I mean 6am early) to avoid the worst of the sun.

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California. In June. Of course.

10. Remember to factor driving across time zones.

This was very weird. And slightly surreal. Definitely worth bearing in mind however, especially when calculating drive times, letting Airbnb hosts know your ETA, and even more so if there’s a flight to catch.  

11. Gas stations are your friend. Even if you don’t need gas, it might be worth stopping.

Seriously. American’s spend so much time in their cars, gas stations are something of a community staple. Far from the shitty little chocolate bars and the odd sad sausage roll you can expect to find in a British petrol station, gas stations were equipped with toilets, decent lunches and sandwiches, coffee machines and just about every roadtrip supply you could think of in some cases. The squeegee cleaners by each pump were an essential for getting rid of the dust on our days in the desert, and the cheap gas was a plus too (apart from California. Rude.)  

12. Seriously think about investing in a tourist SIM card for your phone. And not just so you can post Instas. 

If you’re going longer than 3 weeks, I wouldn’t just recommend this; I’d say it’s a necessity. Having Google Maps to work out the fastest routes to our next Airbnb was beyond useful, and we mapped and screenshotted the directions each day to save us faffing with the map (though we did have one on hand as a back up.) Data to hand (when we had signal that is) was a wonder on the occasion we got lost, and our Airbnb hosts really appreciated the communication of an approximate ETA time via text. Bear in mind a portable charger is a good investment to counter the battery-draining effect of maps on most iPhones. You can also save local maps and access them offline too to avoid using data, which Ellie only discovered for us in our last couple of days in Seattle.

13. Be prepared for things to go wrong. And I do mean very wrong.

Expensive-cameras-falling-off-of-rooves-in-the-middle-of-the-desert-wrong. Foot-long-cracks-in-the-car-windscreen-wrong. Running-out-of-petrol-in-the-middle-of-the-Redwoods-wrong. Shit happens, and if you’re travelling for any decent length of time, the likelihood of at least something drastically awful happening only increases. We had our fair share of issues – debit cards being blocked for ‘suspicious usage’, a phone screen smashing etc, but nothing that ultimately we couldn’t deal with. Having a backup credit card to just spend as needed is a reassurance; you can always claim off insurance later. A working American SIM also was of great help in sorting out our car trouble and swapping the broken-windscreen-one for a shiny new model in the middle of Vegas. Remind yourself that unless someone actually loses a limb or dies – it could have been worse. The accidents and mishaps are part of the experience, and ultimately add to the story of the roadtrip. Sometimes, things not going to plan can even work out in your favour. We were disappointed to find Antelope Canyon swarming with so many tourists we could barely breathe, and called off our trip there. Instead however, we made a spontaneous decision to head down a road to Lake Powell, and ended up spending a gorgeous few hours jumping off the rocks into the water to cool off. 

These mistakes, the accidents, the little dramas, are all part of what made the roadtrip so memorable however. It was, without a doubt the most incredible experience I’ve ever had, and I’m already thinking ahead to the next opportunity I can take to head out onto the road. America is an incredibly beautiful country, and there’s so much to explore a roadtrip is a fantastic way to start – pick your ‘must-sees’, draw the dots, and go for it.

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A spontaneous climb down a steep hill on the Oregon coast – well worth the detour

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