Top Five Things You Need to Know Before Driving Across The United States

On March 10th I flew one-way from Portland, Oregon to Charlotte, North Carolina to pick up my ’97 Honda Civic and drive it 3700 miles back across America. My girlfriend Jennie accompanied me for half of the trip back to Lincoln, Nebraska where she had to pit stop to hustle up on getting her graduate degree at UNL.

Welcome To Oregon

Now safely back in Portland and reflecting on the experience, I have realized there are some immutable facts one must know before taking on the open road.

Top Five Things You Need to Know Before Driving Across America.

01. Maintain at least a half-tank of gas at all times.
America is BIG, very big, and there are huge empty pockets of nothingness with signs that announce ‘No Services’ at what might misleading seem like a safe pull-off from the interstate to re-fuel.

If you do not maintain at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times, you are asking for pain.

02. Check the Weather and Road Closures Report Daily.
Depending on the time of year you are traveling, the weather can change dramatically within a few hundred miles. On the morning I left Lincoln, NE heading west on I-80 I hit a road closure just past the Wyoming border that forced me to take a 300 mile detour south into Colorado and into a blizzard that almost stranded me atop the Rocky Mountains. While I’m usually all about the unexpected adventure, in this case I had a plane to catch in 48 hours back in Portland and was still 1500 miles away from the airport!

03. Plan your destinations in advance.
I used to be of the school “we’ll figure it out when we get there” then I arrived in St. Louis and spent over two hours looking for a room that was less than $200 a night. Get a listing of hotels/motels/hostels that are in your price range and print out a map of their locations to bring with you. While it might seem tedious, the 20 minutes you spend now before you leave will save you hours of searching when you arrive in a city exhausted from having just driven hundreds of miles to get there.

04. Decide what you really want to see and what you can pass on.
It is impossible to get any real impression of a city by just staying the night there and getting coffee the next morning before you hit the road again. You’ll think you’ll have all this energy to explore, but trust me after you drive 5 hours to get there and have been on the road for a few days your ambition to explore wanes in favor of a drink and a hot shower. If you want to see a city and remember something about it, plan to stay at least one full day there by booking two nights of lodging before you leave town. We did exactly this in St. Louis and had a blast.

05. Pack a survival kit.
Again, this might seem overkill, but if you break down in a blizzard at 9,000 ft you’ll be happy to have a few extra blankets to keep you company until help arrives. Also don’t rely solely on AAA as I found that there were plenty of pockets along my drive where I didn’t have cell-phone service (thanks to Sprint) so I wouldn’t have been able to call them if needed.

The Essential Cross-Country Road Trip Survival Kit

  • Spare tire, jack, and tire iron to take off lug nuts
  • Road flares (available at most auto part stores for a dollar or so each)
  • A flashlight in case you breakdown at night
  • A real road atlas, not a $3.99 map of the US from 7-11
  • Sunglasses!
  • Snow chains that you’ve tested to fit your car.
  • A credit card that earns you points for gasoline purchases
  • $200 in emergency cash for the mechanic in Wyoming who doesn’t take Amex.
  • A fifth of Jack Daniels (for the hotel room)
  • And a digital camera to remember it all.

xCountry Trip 2008

Bonus: Expense Recap of Entire Trip

  • One-Way Plane Ticket from Portland, OR – Charlotte, NC : $149
  • Cost to totally tune-up the car for the drive : $614
  • Gasoline (14 fill-ups) : $340
  • Hotel/Motel/Hostel Accommodations (total 4 nights) : $370
    The rest of the time we stayed w/ family and friends
  • Restaurants and Supermarkets : $590
  • Alcohol / Bars : $100
  • Random Fun, Misc Crap, etc.. $270

Total length of trip : 3 Weeks / 3700 Miles
Total cost of the whole sha-bang : $2433

Happy Travels!

  • Dave Whittington

    Another tip for the days involving long drives is ensure you have one other adult awake alongside the driver at all times. just monitoring each other keeps things safe for the trip.

  • Anne Latulippe

    Hey Matt, Did you do it? Sounds like a lot to cover in a month! We ( me, husband, 10 and 12 yr old boys) are currently planning a trip from Vermont across the country and back and we are taking three months….We are gong on a dime, so mostly camping along the way. We are planning a lot, but keeping flexible. We’d love to hear about your experience.

  • Tom Seleck’s Ulcer

    You got raked for the tune up! Do it yourself next time!

    You ate at wayyyyy too many overpriced restaurants.
    You missed 93% of the good bars along the way.
    Random fun/crap should have been tripled!

    I’ve driven across the US about 8 or 9 times.
    No breakdowns, no stolen cars, no accidents, no vehicle with under 130K on it!

    Being able to stop in a podunk town and become a local for a day is great.
    Get a feel for the real town not the touristy parts.
    Volunteer to pick cotton in the South.
    Do a comedy stand-up in a town you’ll never return to.
    Challenge a 340lb guy in a bar to an arm wrestle – winner gets a beer!
    Ask to be the “bad guy” for police dog training (make sure it’s not a hot day!)
    Enter a hot dog eating contest…if for nothing but a free meal!

    • Marcus

      aboslutely amazing ideas! :) i have my flight booked from Heathrow, UK to land in Dulles airport. 3 weeks travelling around the US in a rental. your post has inspired me a lot!

      • Tom Seleck’s Ulcer

        If its JUST YOU doing the travel trip, try to file all your essentials to one backpack/duffelbag. Something you can strap to your back and nothing more. You want to be very mobile.

        The less you bring, the more you utilize WHAT you bring. Clothes can be purchased along the way for situations that arise.
        Anything else can be found for free or cheap on Craigslist.
        Most stuff you wont be taking back home anyway so bring and tote only what you NEED.

        Another idea: buy a car.
        Something basic and cheap. In most states, when you buy a car the registration and plates come with the vehicle. All you have to do is get insurance ($50 a month was mine).
        Now you have mobility, access to destinations that busses and trains dont reach and your own schedule.
        Hatchbacks are best. Fold the backseats down and you have overnight accodations at HOTEL HONDA. Thats 25 bucks you just saved from a hostel stay. 25 towards gas!
        Sleep at truck pit stop, not pullover spots.
        Flying J, Love’s, T&A, Pedro’s….they have 24 hour access to bathrooms. Lots of cars there. Safety in public. Truckers sleep in their rigs there.

        If youre going to a set destination, you can pick up a rider to share gas. Dont pick random people. Know them from a hostel ideally. If the car goes kapoot, you can continue on foot! Thats why you backpack it! Call a wrecker, sell the car as junk for 200 and keep on keeping on. THIS IS WORST CASE FOR THE CAR. but even a crappy honda is still a honda. Theyre great.

        My job starts in june. Til then, im tripping the US myself. See things, stay places, odd jobs and even odder people.
        Yup, my hatchback seats are folded and im ready to roll!

        • Marcus

          Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to me! :)
          yes, it is only me, i wanted to do it with a friend, but then i looked at the bigger picture.. and understand that after three weeks.. i dont think we would of been friends anymore haha! so its something i want to do by myself :)
          I count myself very lucky, as i have managed to get flights through British Airways for £400 return ($670 roiughly) and a free rental car/insurance for three weeks! so i dont need to worry about that.

          The plan is to see as much as i can! seriously.. I will be spending 6/7 hours a day on the road, stopping where i want to, see as much of america, and then when i come back next year, i want to focus on the places i want to see more of.
          the main things i want to do is see the true america, so i’ll be driving from Dulles airport, through texas and on to grand canyon, then through to yosemite/lake tahoe and reno, through to yellowstone and sioux falls.. and over the top into canada for niagara falls. back down to new york and ocean city. yes its 7000 miles plus. but i’m used to doing long ass drives without too much trouble. and its only 3 weeks.. its all good :)
          thanks for the tips on saving money and using the car as a bed! brilliant idea that i never thought of.
          any places/things to keep clear of though? btw, i will only be using hotels/motels.. not hostels.

          thanks again!

          • Marcus

            just to let you know.. i ended up doing 8240 miles. and had such an amazing time. i cant describe how beautiful each and every state i saw was.
            i met so many nice people, friends for life. friends i will be seeing again next year.

  • Richard Jacques

    Two Words – Phantom Ranch !!! Just did it and it is amazing, and cheap.

  • Charlie Nelsen

    My kids and I are taking a very similar trip. We are travelling Route 66 from Chicago to LA…in a rented ’57 Chevy! How was your trip? What was good? What should I avoid? Do you have any suggestions of “can’t miss” attractions?

  • Natalia

    My boyfriend and I are relocating from Portland, OR to Miami, FL and are doing this exact road trip (except we go south from Savannah) in 2 weeks. I’m not sure when you guys drove across the country, but we are doing this in the middle of tornado season it appears and was wondering how safe it is!

  • Amanda Morgan

    wow 340 for the whole trip to fill up a tank! I miss those Honda civic days! thanks for sharing

  • mike


  • wayo

    hi Holly,
    I’m posting this 2 years later. How did the trip go with your boyfriend? and just in gasoline, how much was it?
    I’m moving out to college in NY. I live in LA. How long do you think I’d need to get there?
    Thank you!

    • Bigandtalawa

      Holly is no longer on Discus

  • Vincent Jenkins

    I’m loving this thread! Great article and great comments to follow. I will be making a long trek myself! Unfortunately, I’m short on cash like 2500$ from this point until my trip begins in early October. Also, I’m driving a small car a little 2 seater convertible and the trip is going to be made with my dog (lab). Car needs: oil change, new tires, possibly new brakes. These are things I know as of right now. I have the trip mapped out and have a few stops along the way! Start: Charleston, SC-st Louis, mo-denver, co-phoenix, az. I have friends in St Louis and Denver that I will be staying with for a few days so that’s one expense possibly waived. I figure each day ranges from 12-16 hours of total driving and I expect to simply pull over for a quick power nap at choice rest stops each day of driving. I understand it won’t be a comfortable trip for my dog or myself but I haven’t found any alternative options. So, I’ve pre-determined that the best and easiest choice is to just drive through the pain and enjoy the few days off from driving at the friends houses. Total drive time from mapquest is 40 hours but I’m expecting that to soar up around 50-55 roughly with all stops included.

    Please give me your thoughts and feedback on my situation. I love criticism so please be honest and don’t sugarcoat any possible concerns!

    Also my dog loves riding in the car and does well with the top down most the time.