Ahh, the Great American Road Trip. There’s nothing quite like it — the exhilarating freedom of the open road, the small towns that pack a tremendous punch (I’m lookin’ at you, Big Sky), the quirky roadside diners, the off-key singalongs, the endless snacks.
Road trips certainly aren’t new, but they are more popular than ever. Many people feel that driving is the safest, most social-distancing-friendly method of travel (they’re not wrong). As a result, road trips have become the vacation of 2021. And probably 2022 and ’23… Not only are people road-tripping more often; they’re road-tripping further from home. In an August 2020 study, a whopping 35% of people said they visited three or more states on a road trip, not including their home state.
For all their many benefits, road trips do require extra planning and preparation. That’s especially true of multi-state journeys. I asked 25 pros — other travel writers, full-time #vanlife-ers, and some especially adventurous road warriors — for their top cross country road trip tips. You’ll find everything from advice on how to save money on a road trip and what to wear to must-have road trip essentials and ways to keep yourself safe.
This post contains affiliate links. I may receive a small commission — at no cost to you — if you click or make a purchase through any of them. For more information, read my disclosure statement. I appreciate you!
Cross country road trip tips and tricks
Maybe you’re a veteran road tripper, or perhaps you’re a first-timer. Either way, you’re sure to find at least a few of these cross country road trip tips useful.
Cross country road trip planning tips
1. Be smart about planning your road trip route
Cross country road trip tip from Julia, The Cure for Curiosity
As you start preparing for your road trip, pin all locations of interest to a Google map or Maps.me map. They aren’t tangible products, but I consider these types of apps to be crucial road trip essentials!
Whether it’s a handful of places or dozens, you’ll easily be able to see where the sights of interest are located, and you can map out your most efficient driving route accordingly. This helps prevent backtracking or accidentally bypassing somewhere important to you.
Favorite road trip route: Denver to Glacier National Park in the Summer
2. Know how to effectively use your maps app
Tip from Stéphanie, Bey Of Travel
Google Maps is an amazing tool to plan and plot your road trip itinerary — but only if you know how to use it properly. You can create customized maps for each area you want to visit by simply adding all your possible destinations. You can even color-code the attractions to keep them categorized.
To plot the itinerary, open Google Maps, then save your starting point. Use the ‘direction’ option to get from road A to B. Repeat these spots to keep adding all the places you want to visit on your road trip.
One of the great things about using Google Maps is that you can check traffic and if the attractions you want to visit are open or not.
3. Get the Roadtrippers app
Piggybacking on the previous tip, check out the Roadtrippers app! Roadtrippers is a robust travel planning app that really shines when it comes to discovering off-the-beaten-path, quirky attractions along your route. In fact, one of the categories is “Weird Guides!” You definitely discover places you wouldn’t have even known about thanks to the app.
One of my favorite features is that you can quickly toggle a stop off if you decide to skip it, and Roadtrippers automatically re-calculates your route. You can also add notes and dates to each stop, which is handy for keeping track of confirmation numbers. And if you’re on a particularly boring stretch of highway and just need a break, the app allows you to search nearby while you’re on the road.
The free version of the app is excellent, but I’m honestly in love with the paid/premium version of Roadtrippers. For $29 a year, you get offline maps, live traffic updates, and even discounts with some of Roadtrippers’ travel partners. It’s become one of my most prized road trip essentials!
Try the free version, but don’t be surprised if you quickly want to upgrade! And when you do, sign up through my Roadtrippers link to get $5 off!
4. Consider Google Maps alternatives
Road trip tip from Nellie, Third Culture Nellie
One of my favorite cross country road trip tips is to use Waze, a community-driven GPS navigation app. Waze detects traffic jams in live time and helps you find alternate routes to avoid heavy backups. The app is very handy for helping you avoid getting stuck and sitting in traffic for long periods of time on your road trip. Waze users also report things like potholes, road construction, and police. Waze even shows the cheapest gas stations in some countries (like the US)!
You can use Waze anywhere. However, for the maps and traffic updates to be the most accurate, the app needs local users to provide up-to-date information. Keep this in mind, especially for your more off-the-beaten-path trips.
Follow Nellie on Instagram for more travel tips!
5. Don’t rely entirely on technology for navigation
Road trip tip from Christina, Live A Wilder Life
One of the most important road trip packing tips is to include paper maps, in addition to having your maps downloaded on your phone. Yes, GPS is easier and faster. But it’s not foolproof and can get you into dicey situations when you’re in remote areas where signal strength is questionable.
You do not want to be stuck in the backroads of Utah at night wondering which way to go. Think of it as an insurance policy — nobody likes paying for it, but you’re always happy you have it when you need it!
Favorite road trip: Idaho hot springs
6. Familiarize yourself with local driving laws
Cross country road trip tip from Jackie & Justin, Life of Doing
If you’re taking a road trip abroad, the driving rules may be different from your home country. Heck, driving rules can differ dramatically from state to state! Before your trip, make sure to study the country’s driving laws, like which side vehicles drive on and parking rules. Also study up on road signage and obtain an International Driving Permit (if needed).
To learn about local driving laws, contact a car rental agency in the country you’re traveling to for resources. The agency will know the basics regarding speed limits, what to expect in terms of traffic, and/or practice tests and videos.
Favorite road trip: Driving through New Zealand’s South Island in one week in February
7. Avoid visiting popular attractions on busy days
Tip from Daria, The Discovery Nut
For the best road trip experience, avoid visiting national parks and other popular attractions on weekends, big school breaks, and major holidays. This is the busiest time at many national parks, when campgrounds are full, trails are packed, and parking spots are hard to come by. This is especially true if you’re planning your visit during summer — the high season at many national parks.
As an alternative, head to state parks or better yet, national monuments, where you will see only a small fraction of the visitors who flock to national parks. For example, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument are great alternatives to crowded national parks like Zion or Arches in Utah.
Don’t forget your National Parks Annual Pass!
8. Make a great road trip playlist
Road trip tip from Cortney, Tin Can Living
Everybody loves a good cross country road trip, but nobody likes to stare out the window in complete silence. All road trips need a great music playlist. In fact, I consider it one of my road trip essentials! It doesn’t matter what type of music you listen to, hit the road and belt out your favorite songs.
The best way to make a great road trip playlist is to vary the music styles in order to drown out the monotony of the road. Have upbeat songs for staying awake, meaningful songs for introspection, and singalongs to get in vacation mode. I prefer Spotify because you can download your playlists to listen to even when you don’t have cell reception, but all the music streaming services make it easy to create the perfect soundtrack for your adventure on the open road.
For more cross country road trip tips, check out Cortney’s article on RVing in Florida’s Treasure Coast!
9. Keep your devices charged
Road trip tip from Kat, Endless Wonder
Another of the most important cross country road trip tips is making sure your camera and device batteries are always charged up and ready to go! Capturing moments from your road trip is important so that your memories last forever and you can share your adventure with friends and family back home.
One way to ensure you keep those batteries charged is to bring a portable charger or backup batteries. The last thing you want is to spot an incredible view or a super rare sighting, just to find out your camera is dead and you have no backups!
Most epic road trip: Banff to Jasper, AB on the Icefields Parkway
Cross country road trip packing tips
10. Bring extra water
Tip from Dymphe, Dymabroad
One of my favorite cross country road trip tips is to bring extra bottles of water with you. It’s always possible to encounter problems with your car while driving and you could get stranded. While waiting for help, you may get thirsty and need water. You’ll be very happy when you find spare bottles of water in your car that you can drink — they’re the ultimate road trip essentials!
Follow Dymabroad on Instagram for more travel inspiration!
11. Pack toilet paper and disinfecting wipes
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finally found a restroom after a long stretch on the road, only to run inside and find that there is no toilet paper. Or, almost just as worse, to find that the bathroom or toilet is absolutely disgusting. That’s why one of my top cross country road trip tips is to bring your own toilet paper (BYOTP!) and disinfecting wipes.
12. Get a portable jump starter
Cross country road trip tip from Erica, Tripscholars
One of the top road trip essentials is a portable jump starter for your vehicle. Road trips are full of surprises, and when hit with the unpleasant kind, a portable jump starter can prevent an annoyance from becoming an emergency.
For around $50, you can keep this pre-charged pack at the ready to help on road trips. More than once while camping, our kids accidentally left a car door ajar and we woke up to a dead battery. We’ve also given others an easy, quick jump when we were far from services. Plus, the jump starter comes in handy to charge phones and other devices, keeping everyone connected while on the road. Some models have additional features, like the ability to air up bicycle tires.
Follow Tripscholars on Facebook for more travel tips!
13. Bring insulated water bottles
Staying hydrated on the road is extremely important. You’ll quickly learn, though, that all those gas station stops for water and snacks add up. High-quality reusable water bottles are some of my top road trip essentials for this reason. I’m a huge fan of the Contigo AutoSeal Chill bottles and the Hydro Cell water bottles on Amazon.
Parks, attractions, campgrounds, and many stores have water fountains where you can fill up your bottles for free. Fill two or three at a time so you have plenty of water between stops. You can also buy a couple of gallons of water as backups. These tend to be significantly cheaper than single-use bottles, plus they’re far more environmentally friendly.
14. Pack a cooler
Tip from Roxy, Wild About BC
Taking a cooler or cooler bag is essential for every road trip. I would personally recommend a cooler bag, as you can fold it down for easy storage when you aren’t using it. Perhaps you’re looking to go off-grid for a couple of days and want to store fresh food or maybe you just want to enjoy some ice-cold beers while watching the sunset. Either way, having a cooler filled with ice is one of our best cross country road trip tips.
Follow Wild About BC on Instagram for more adventure and road trip tips!
15. Invest in a portable power inverter
Cross country road trip tip from MacKenzie, Rainbow Travel Life
Piggybacking onto the tip above, if you use a lot of batteries, consider purchasing a portable power inverter. It will quickly become one of your go-to road trip essentials!
With a power inverter, you can power everything from camera batteries and laptops to fans and lights. Not only will it save money on needing to stop at cafes and hotels to very literally recharge, but it’ll also keep you charged and ready for emergency photo ops. Power inverters are also perfect for camping in remote places, such as two days in Joshua Tree National Park. If you don’t need a 110V outlet, consider a splitter to charge more than one phone.
Favorite road trip route: Long Beach, CA, through several southern states to North Carolina from January to March
16. Repackage everything
In almost all cases, original packaging is bulky and takes up a substantial amount of room. This is true of everything from food (picture a box of granola bars) to toiletries (a bottle of aspirin). One of my top road trip packing tips is to take items out of their containers and put them into simple bags. You can, of course, use basic Ziplocs, but I prefer to use eco-friendly reusable options like these Stasher bags. The “snack” size is perfect for storing bobby pins, medications, and even condiments.
17. Be choosy about the food you pack
Road trip tip from Rachel, Average Lives
We all know that food is one of the top road trip essentials. However, it’s important to bring food that keeps well and offers high caloric value. If space isn’t a tremendous concern, pack vegetables (fresh is best, when possible), pasta, rice, canned beans, and tomatoes. Remember to repackage bulky items!
With these staple ingredients, you’ll have a wide range of substantial meals you can cook on the road using a simple camp stove. Use your creativity to combine these easy but healthy ingredients to stay satisfied — even on long drives.
Most epic road trip route: New Zealand South Island Loop
18. Opt for no-fuss foods
One of the best cross country road trip tips I can offer is to keep food as simple as possible. You don’t want to deal with jars and several packages as you drive down the road! Try to prep ahead of time by making sandwiches, cutting fruits and vegetables, and opening sealed packages — even if you have to do it in a parking lot.
Along the same lines, consider buying pre-cut and individually packaged snacks, like hummus and pretzel cups, individual servings of peanut butter, and single cheese and meat packs. They’re not the most economical foods, but sometimes they’re worth it for the convenience.
19. Use packing cubes
Tip from Suzanne, Meandering Wild
When road tripping, it’s easy to lose track of what you packed, especially if you have limited storage space. Packing cubes, some of the most useful road trip essentials, solve that problem.
Buying each person a different colored set of packing cubes increases the chances of keeping your own clothes organized, especially if the cubes are bright primary colors. Packing cubes also make loading and unloading easy! They can be stored in crates to keep them dry and make storage easy, or tucked into difficult corners and around other items that need a little protection.
Favorite road trip route: Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way in summer
20. Keep things organized with packing cubes
Taking the previous tip a step further, designate one packing cube for each person to be easily accessible. Store frequently-used road trip essentials in this cube, like your toothbrush, glasses, and toilet paper. I also recommend stashing “just in case” items here, including a packable rain jacket, clean undies, extra socks, and a First-Aid kit. Keep this packing cube somewhere that you can easily access it so you won’t need to rummage!
21. Keep it clean
Road trip tip from Lotte, Gezond Weekmenu
One of the best road trip packing tips ever is to pack a dustpan and brush. A campervan, car, or tent is only a small space and the floor gets dirty very quickly, especially if you’re into outdoor activities or if you’re traveling with little kids. How do they manage to get sand everywhere, even when they haven’t been anywhere near a sandbox?!
A small brush and dustpan will keep your vehicle or tent nice and tidy. They’re easy to store and I find myself using them at least once a day on road trips. Don’t forget to bring a couple of plastic bags! We usually hang one from the headrest of the passenger seat.
Cross country road trip tips for staying safe
22. Prioritize rest
Cross country road trip tip from Elisa, France Bucket List
One of our key cross country road trip tips is to sleep and rest well before hitting the road. In a matter of seconds, drivers who feel tired can lose control of the car with terrible consequences.
After so many road trips in France (where we live), our best piece of advice is to make frequent stops, especially when you feel tired. Highways have many rest areas or even pullouts for a quick nap, and pulling over when you really need to can save lives. During long road trips, rotate drivers every two hours or so when possible, so everybody can rest.
Best road trip route: French Riviera road trip, from Nice to Cannes in spring
23. Stretch it out
Tip from Džangir Kolar, Dr Jam Travels
This road trip tip elaborates on the previous one. In addition to pulling over or switching drivers when you get tired, it’s also important to get out of the car and do some basic stretching of the arms, back, and legs. It may not seem like driving is physically demanding, but it actually can be! Sitting in a confined space for long periods of time is especially strenuous on your back. Stopping and stretching often enables relaxed multiday cross country road trips.
Most epic road trip route: Ljubljana, Slovenia, to London, Istanbul, and Barcelona
24. Research instances of prejudice or hate crimes on your route
Road trip tip from Kay, The Awkward Traveller
Unfortunately, there are some not-so-fun aspects of planning a road trip: the uncertainty around your physical safety due to racial, gender, or sexuality profiling. As a Black woman, I have encountered numerous instances of discrimination and harassment due to someone else’s prejudice against my skin.
Even when traveling as a racially ambiguous person, you may be subjected to racism while on the road. This completely ruins an otherwise beautiful moment. Along the same lines, many places around the world — even some where same-sex marriage is legal! — are still violently intolerant toward the LGBTQ+ community.
As an LBGTQA2S+ person or a non-white individual, it can be helpful to research any small towns on your road trip route for reported hate crimes. Avoid stopping for gas late at night and frequent Black, Indigenous, and POC-owned establishments wherever possible.
Cross country road trip tips to have the best experience
25. Invest in a rooftop cargo carrier
Regardless of what type of vehicle you’re driving, one of the best cross country road trip tips is to invest in a rooftop cargo carrier like the Thule Sidekick. They come in all shapes and sizes, and even a small one will free up precious real estate inside your vehicle.
Rooftop cargo carriers generally have a universal fit to be compatible with any vehicle that has roof rails. However, there are actually several soft-sided rooftop cargo carriers that can be used without them! We’ve used the Rightline Gear Sport 2 on several trips between Phoenix and southern California, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although it’s compatible with roof rails or racks, it also works very well on vehicles without them — it has specialized clips that go into the doors.
There’s no question that rooftop cargo carriers are must-have road trip essentials, but there is one caveat: pack yours strategically. Store things inside it that you won’t need frequently, so you don’t have to constantly get in and out of it.
26. Skip the fancy footwear
Tip from Olivia, Girl With Blue Sails travel blog
One of my ultimate cross country road trip tips is to wear slip-on shoes. It seems simple, but is so easy to forget!
When sitting in the car for long periods of time, it’s natural to want to get comfortable and take off your shoes. However, when stopping at a gas station or quick photo stop, it becomes a pain to mess with shoelaces or straps. So the simpler solution is to wear shoes that can slip on easily.
I recommend some simple ladies’ flats or Vans slip-ons, which are great for all ages and genders.
Favorite road trip route: California’s coast from San Diego to San Francisco
27. Keep an open mind about where you stay
Road trip tip from Sydney, A World in Reach
One of my favorite tips for how to save money on a road trip is booking mystery hotel deals like Hotwire Hot Rate Hotels or Priceline Express Deals along the way. You can score highly discounted rooms with a catch: you don’t know the hotel until after you’ve booked it!
This might seem stressful, but you are able to see the general location of the hotel and its star rating. These deals are lifesavers on road trips, especially when your route isn’t set in stone. You can book a last-minute hotel whenever you need to stop without having to try to make it all the way to your next destination.
28. Camp along the way
Cross country road trip tip from Victoria, Guide Your Travel
Road trips are a fantastic way to see as much as possible and have unique experiences. If you’re also traveling on a budget, then camping along your route is definitely the way to go.
Not only can you experience unique campsites, but you’ll also be close to nature and saving money to boot. There are tons of ways to plan your camping trip; you could rent a campervan or a rooftop tent, or just pitch a good old-fashioned tent, which is the most affordable option. Camping is often most fun in warmer countries, but totally possible in colder climates with the proper cold-weather camping gear.
Follow Victoria on Instagram for more budget travel tips!
29. Take the road less traveled — literally
Road trip tip from Deb, World Adventurists
The best part of a road trip is the freedom to stop and go as you please. One of my favorite cross country road trip tips is to embrace that flexibility and the ability to be spontaneous!
If you see a sign for an attraction that you haven’t heard of, take the detour to find out what it’s all about. Don’t feel like you must always travel on the highway; that’s how you miss all the literal hidden gems! By getting off the highway, you will meet the locals, find all the quirky stops, and get a real taste of what each destination has to offer.
Most epic road trip: The Icefields Parkway in Alberta, where you can walk on the Athabasca Glacier
30. Bring bicycles along
If at all possible, bring your bike on your road trip! Exploring a new area on a bicycle is an excellent way to find those off-the-beaten-path hidden gems. It’s also environmentally friendly and it can save you money on parking fees (not to mention the stress and time involved trying to find a space!). Note: many national parks charge bicyclists significantly less than visitors in cars.
You can get a trunk mount bike rack or a roof mount bike rack really affordably, and most have a universal fit for a wide range of vehicles. If you’re road tripping in a rental vehicle, however, be sure to find out what the company’s policy is on bike racks — or any other external equipment, for that matter.
31. Shop (really) small and local
Tip from Chris, Punta Cana Travel Blog
Along those same lines, one of my best cross country road trip tips is to always be prepared to stop at street vendors for local delicacies. This is just one example, but here in the Dominican Republic, each region has its special street food treats. For example, fresh coconuts in Samaná, fresh cheese along the north coast, cashews around Azua, corn cake in Jarabacoa, Mangos in Baní, or Caribbean strawberries in Constanza. Make sure to have small change available when stopping at these roadside stalls.
Favorite road trip: 1-week trip through the Dominican Republic
32. Slow down and enjoy the journey
Road trip tip from Sarah, In Search of Sarah
One of the biggest cross country road trip tips is to not have such rigid, hard-set plans. Some of the best memories are often made on detours or spontaneous stops.
Loose plans are necessary, but it’s stressful having to keep a set pace to get from A to B. Have a (rough) guideline of when and where you need to be every day, but allow yourself time to pull over when you see something interesting, wander through an interesting town, or stop for coffee at a cute cafe. Road trips are all about lasting moments — slow down and enjoy them!
Follow Sarah on Instagram for more travel and road trip tips!
33. Upgrade your road trip with a campervan
Take your road trip to the next level by opting for a campervan instead of a car. Having a campervan allows you to easily “boondock,” also often called “wild camping” in other countries.
This essentially means staying on public land overnight, in places not registered as campsites. They can be anything from open fields to beaches to mountain clearings to parking lots. It’s legal in most countries and a great way to tackle accommodation and transportation at once. Plus, boondocking is generally totally free!
Road tripping in a campervan also allows you to experience some of the most breathtaking locations in an entirely new way! During our 6-week wild camping trip in Scotland, we woke up in a beautiful forest one day and at a charming lake the next.
There are several excellent campervan rental companies today, so it’s easy and convenient to hit the road in style. Look into RVshare for a tremendous variety!
Follow Dream Big Travel Far on Instagram for more cross country road trip tips!
Cross country road trips for traveling with kids
34. Bring a portable toilet
This tip isn’t exactly glamorous, but it is one of the most valuable cross country road trip tips I’ve ever heard! Young kids are notorious for having to go to the bathroom at the most inopportune times. Like when you just passed a rest area five minutes ago and the next one is at least an hour away, for example.
A portable toilet solves this problem. They assemble quickly and use simple plastic bags for the “bowl,” so you can create a pop-up bathroom literally anywhere. When you’re finished, cleanup is easy and the portable toilet folds up nearly flat. They also offer a great solution for those times when a rest stop bathroom is too disgusting to use!
35. Play family road trip games
Tip from Monica, Champagne on Deck
Long road trips can take a toll on our littlest travelers. Tablets are great to entertain them, but like most parents, I worry about too much screen time.
One of my best cross country road trip tips to lessen the “Are we there yet?” moans are family travel games. Two of our favorites are Travel Bingo and this license plate game. Images on the travel bingo cards make it so that even the non-readers in the car can participate. The license plate game book provides a map, and players must locate the states to place their sticker.
For more family outdoor and travel tips, follow Monica on Instagram!
36. Pack surprise bags for kiddos
Cross country road trip tip from Cynthia, Sharing the Wander
We never leave on a road trip without a bag of surprises! When the kids start to get bored or grumpy (or start whining or annoying each other), a surprise bag allows you to quickly pull something out and change the mood in the car! I pack a mix of activities and special snacks — these are must-have road trip essentials!
I usually check the local dollar store and the Target dollar bins for inexpensive items. Some ideas for what to include are:
- coloring books
- activity books (word search or crossword puzzles for older kids)
- gel window stickers
- sticker packs (re-stickable vinyl for toddlers)
- mini cookie cup
- pack of M&Ms (ideally a flavor they haven’t tried)
- fruit snacks in the shape of a favorite character
- twisty crayons
- small toys in some sort of mystery pack
You can also pack books (either new or from the library) from a favorite series. Anything your children don’t know you have becomes a fun (and importantly, distracting!) surprise! Traveling with kids can be stressful — check out 20+ Tips to Survive and Thrive on a Road Trip with Kids and Toddlers!
Check out Sharing the Wander on Facebook for more family-friendly travel tips!
Whew, there you have it — the ultimate list of cross country road trip tips! Which one is your favorite? Are there any we missed? Let me know in the comments below! And be sure to pin this post for later, so it’s handy when you’re ready to plan your own road trip. Safe travels!