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Cross Country Trip USA

Hi everyone! I'm looking to do a cross-country road trip across the USA and am researching the best travel guidebook to use for planning. Right now I'm seeing Road Trip USA by Jaime Jensen as a popular guide of choice but I'm curious what my fellow Rick Steve followers recommend.

We're open to any and all of the US, hoping to start in New York and end up in San Francisco. Any tips are appreciated!! :)

Posted by
6488 posts

When are you traveling (season), how long will you have, ages of travelers, what are your interests? The US is a big big country with innumerable places to see and things to do. You need to narrow down your question a bit to get good answers. I do have the Road Trip USA book and have used it a bit, but I do most of my research online and with a good old fashioned paper map. When I have narrowed down the area I want to travel in, I use the AAA book/s for that region. If you're young and/or on a slim budget the Let's Go USA could work for you. Most of the usual guidebooks (Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc) are by region, not the whole US in one book.

Posted by
4 posts

Thank you Nancy! It would be me and my boyfriend, we're both mid-twenties and are looking to see the beautiful landscapes the country has to offer. We would probably want to make it a 2-3 week trip. Our budget can be flexible as this would be our big trip for the year but we're not looking to break the bank either.

Thank you!

Posted by
6872 posts

Lonely Planet has many books on road trips, but I believe they're organized by region or state (I have one just for CA). I recommend Lonely Planet because it clearly lays out each itinerary in terms of time required, mileage, attractions, places to eat, etc.

Posted by
21731 posts

Time of year???? Very important consideration. Nationality ????

Posted by
4 posts

We both live in New York and I think we would be looking at making the trip in Early May! :)

Posted by
6649 posts

If you are saying that you want to see natural beauty (vs major cities), you might consider planning a routing that hits major national parks along the way. You can even get a discount national park pass that would cover entry.

Posted by
2236 posts

I agree with Stan that you really can't beat the National Parks...especially with such limited time available.
Wouldn't recommend trying to drive cross-country all the way to SF (and return). Would eat up all of your time in transit.
In order to make the best use of your time, might suggest flying to Denver, picking up a rental car there and starting your journey at Rocky Mountain NP, then north up thru Grand Teton and Yellowstone, then maybe west via the terrific parks in Utah and on to SF.
Alternatively, you could just fly to SF, pick up a car there and then begin a compact circuit starting in Yosemite. The drive going north or south from SF along the California Coast would make for a great trip too. Either way you'll be ahead of (most of) the crowds if you go in May, and it should be nice Spring weather too.

Posted by
8649 posts

I like Robert's idea to fly west, get a rental car, tour the National Parks and end up in SF.

An alternate I submit for your consideration is fly to Phoenix, go north to Grand Canyon, then to Utah for Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef and then to Yosemite and into SF.

Shortest route from NY to SF is 3k miles one way. You would spend 12 days just driving.

I do not have a book to suggest, I have always enjoyed the National Parks and have planned the most efficient "loops" to fit the time I have.

If there are other (kinds of) things you want to see, you just need to map it out to see how the distances work out for your time frame

Posted by
4 posts

These are super helpful ideas! For some reason it never occurred to us to fly out there and get a rental car to save on the travel time, I think that's a great idea! Thanks everyone!

Posted by
6872 posts

I agree with all prior comments that advise you not to drive across the country and, instead, fly out to the West and finish there. Driving across the country is not as glamorous as it seems unless you have all the time in the world and can avoid the ugly, soulless highways. It would take you many days of tiring driving just to get to SF, and there are far more beautiful drives along the coast than east-west across the US. Given that you're going in early May, I would pick CA because it is a stunningly beautiful state (very long coastline) and it has the best weather on average than anywhere else. The only downside of CA is that it's not exactly budget friendly, there are less expensive places to travel, but hopefully you can fit it in your budget. You can easily spend 2-3 weeks just exploring that state (Lonely Plant Road Trips book and the California Visitors Guide has tons of itineraries already sketched out).

Alternatively, I would choose somewhere in the Southwest, again due to weather (lots of sun) and warmth. There many National and State Parks there, you just need to choose the state or regions you want to see. Utah is one of my favorite places as far as scenery goes. I can tell you that, with 12 full days, I could only visit 3 of the 5 main parks in Utah (Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands) due to distances involved (I was there to do serious hiking, not just a drive-through). So you really have to consider what's possible and how much you're willing to drive each day (it gets really tiring unless the scenery is spectacular). Two-three weeks sounds like a lot, but it's not, especially if you actually want to get out of the car and spend quality time on the ground.

Posted by
774 posts

Keep in mind that in the high country (Colorado and the like), and the national parks located near there, there will still be quite a bit of snow in early May.

Posted by
5505 posts

I have lived in Europe and SW Asia and traveled to 70 countries. Also, I have lived in the Washington, DC area, Georgia, Texas and Arizona.

I am a Southerner and usually find that visitors to the USA rarely visit my part of the country (the Southeast) unless they go to Florida.

Having lived in the West, I can say that visits to some of our many wonderful national parks should be high on a list.
For touring, in a group there are some very reasonably priced bus tours from San Francisco to some of our great parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and more.

My Daughter lives in Boston, and I recommend New England, with Boston, Newport, New Hampshire and Maine as good places to consider. Of course, NYC is high on the list.

As far as the east cost, Washington, DC should high on the list. Annapolis, MD is worth a day, as are trips to places in Northern Va. like Mt. Vernon and Charlottesville, VA.

Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA deserve consideration. The LA area is not what it used to be. Not sure that I would recommend it, unless one is big on seeing Hollywood.

San Francisco is a must.

Driving across the country will take a lot of time. Without stopping, driving five hundred miles a day would take five days.

Sorry, I can't help you on a guidebook

Posted by
2833 posts

May is a good time for a loop through the Calirornia and Utah national parks, with Nevada and Arizona on the way. Too early for Colorado and also for may of the Northwest parks (unless you want to ski!)

You could fly into Las Vegas (generally cheaper than San Francisco) and go anti-clockwise to Death Valley (really beauTiful but get there early as it gets hot, then Kings Canyon and Sequoia, Yosemite (can only enter from the west as Tioga Pass will likely be closed, then San Francisco (can't miss that), up to the Redwoods, back down through Lassen to Reno/Lake Tahoe, across Nevada to Moab for Arches and Canyonlands, then Bryce, Grand Canyon North Rim (opens May 15 and less crowded than the South Rim) and finally Zion before heading back to Las Vegas.

That is doable in 3 weeks but if you have less time, omit San Francisco, the Redwoods, and Lassen, and head up through Gold Country to Tahoe from Yosemite. Then to Reno and across Nevada to end up in Moab for the Utah parks.

Yosemite will already be nearly booked up for next May so start looking for lodging if you want to include it. Half Dome Village tent cabins may still be available but anything else inside the park requires luck. Grand Canyon North Rim could also be tight as there is only one lodge there, but there are a couple just outside the park.

Posted by
533 posts

An alternative to flying and driving would be to take the train. Amtrak can take you from coast to coast in three days (due to not having to stop to sleep or eat). And early May is an excellent time of year to take the train: Relatively long days mean more time to look out the window, but you avoid the hectic crowds and high fares of the summer season, and you miss most (but not all) of the weather problems that can disrupt train traffic.

The most scenic train is widely regarded to be the California Zephyr, which goes from Chicago to Emeryville, California (with a complimentary bus across the bay to San Francisco). The best portion of that is from Denver to Sacramento, which is about a day and a half of nonstop stunning scenery.

You'll want to get a sleeper if your budget allows. It can look expensive at first: For two people from NY to SF leaving next May 1st is around $1400, depending on the exact route you take. But when you consider that that includes coast-to-coast transportation, three nights accommodations, and three days' worth of meals (included in your sleeper fare), it's not outrageous.

Posted by
3665 posts

I disagree with most above. You can't appreciate the changes that occur traveling east/west unless you go thru them. I think one of the most interesting drives is the one across the western Midwest (or eastern TX or OK) to the Great Plains because there is such a dramatic change from farming and comparatively dense settlement to ranching, sweeping grasslands and no trees and this total shift happens in about 4 hours of driving. When a person flies around there's no continuity so little learned.

The most complete resource for USA guidebooks is the Moon Publications series, but I don't know if they have a road trip component. I've found Lonely Planet to be a poor series for the USA, except maybe a few of them. They do have an Oakland office so maybe they cover the West Coast well.

visitors to the USA rarely visit my part of the country

This is true for 98% of the USA.

Posted by
5262 posts

I agree with Tom about seeing the country from ground level. You really appreciate the diversity and scenery when you drive coast to coast. I've had the same experience watching farming become ranching going west. NY to SF will probably take about a week without much time to stop and visit places. And that's on the interstate highways, which are fine for scenery but insulate you from a lot of local color. I-80 is basically a driveway from NY to SF.

So if you want to drive coast to coast and back in 2-3 weeks you won't have time to do much else. If you want to make more stops, then the idea of flying part way west makes more sense -- assuming that you can rent a car rather than taking your own. But instead of flying to someplace like Denver, consider flying (or maybe overnight Amtrak) only to Chicago or thereabouts, then driving. You'll avoid the most congested urban driving and spend most of your time in wide open spaces.

I took an 8600-mile road trip from the Seattle area to the Maine coast and back a couple of months ago, taking five weeks with a bunch of stops to see relatives, class reunion, etc. I had a US road atlas and AAA guidebooks for various states, some acquired here and others on the road as the route clarified itself. AAA is pretty superficial, but you may not have time for the in-depth exploring our big cities and national parks deserve -- not on this trip anyway -- hopefully the first of many!

Posted by
3193 posts

I agree with geovagriffith about the South. I've been to 28 states, in most areas of the country, most western European nations, Ecuador and Guatemala and there's no place like the SC coast-Charleston and Hilton Head. Maybe you should plan a trip down the East Coast sometime?

Posted by
914 posts

Um, yeah, everyone who lives or grew up away from the coasts is wondering why you'd skip the middle. It's part of the U.S. fabric. I grew up in the Ohio Valley--a region that has one foot in the north and one in the south. Besides, I think you should see Mammoth Cave.

Honestly, mountains and west coast are perfectly beautiful, but I'm a little saddened that people think you should skip sections just to get to the western parks. I've visited 48 states and there are boring highways out there, true, but only for about a couple days. You can do it!

Posted by
3685 posts

Nmelius1210, you got some decidin' to do. And some researching will be needed to make those decisions, especially if neither of you is used to spending 8-10 hours a day driving in the car.

One question you might discuss: Is your destination, San Francisco, more important than the process of getting there?

I agree with those who say there is nothing like being on the ground and driving through the changes in terrain and weather and what you see on the road along the way. By that I mean what is being transported by semis. Not everthing is small enough to go in a container.

But if your primary reason for the trip is seeing San Francisco, then perhaps you should concentrate on that.

My husband and I drive from Tucson to the Seattle area every year in mid to late April. We drive back in late September or early October. We have taken many routes to cover that roughly 1600 miles each way. All are interesting. Yes, we do want to get to our destination, but we love the going -- even on forever roads, those that seem to stretch into infinity.

Another question might be: Do we want to do a slice of America or dig deeply into one kind of place or experience?

An example of a slice would be driving from point A to point B on one route and back to point A by a different route. An example of digging deeply would be concentrating on CA or national parks as others have suggested.

I'm a woman of the west. I spent my first 30 years in Texas. I lived in OR and WA a total of about 25 years. I've lived in AZ for 12 years. Yes, there are wide open spaces and there is lots of spectacular scenery and some incredibly beautiful cities on the left coast. Yes, there are some other cities in UT and TX and NM and AZ that are so culturally different from NY that you will think you are in a different country.

But the roughly 2 years I spent in Cincinatti and the visits I've made to the midwest and southeast and deep south and northeast taught me that there is lots to see and experience no matter where you go or how you get there. My husband and I prefer to drive, but if we don't have time to drive all the way, flying, renting a car and driving is the next best thing.

Fortunately, y'all are getting started young. You don't have to see it all in one trip. Whatever you decide to do, have a great time!

Posted by
5505 posts

Some are advocating spending an insane amount of time driving across the USA.

If you undertake to do this, you will see hours and hours of farms in the mid west then hours and hours of desert in the west.

Yes, you will take in the changes in topography, but you probably won't care after spending 10 days at 300 miles a day. Even doing 300 miles a day will take you about 5 hours, which is about half you day.

For example, driving from San Antonio, Texas to El Paso, Texas is something like 600 miles of desert. Yes, you will see some nice mountains, eventually, and some nice scenery, but is it worth spending one very long tiring day driving or split into two still busy driving days.

Even taking the train, Amtrak will not remind you of those nice European trains. If you do this, I recommend a route that is not the entire continent. Pick a portion of the route.

Time is important on any trip and you should make the most of such a trip. If you want to drive a portion of the difference, I suggest driving in the Rocky Mountains where the scenery is wonderful.

Posted by
11289 posts

If you're interested in seeing a part of the country more in-depth (vs. driving across the whole US), and how you might approach that goal, here are extremely detailed reports on four separate trips that two friends took. Two were to different regions of the south, one was to the midwest, and one focused on the mid-Atlantic. Their goal was to avoid interstates, chain restaurants and chain motels, and see local attractions they couldn't see elsewhere.

Posted by
128 posts

Go, do it, drive across the whole country and drive back! My family did just that. We drove a northern route from NY to SF; I remember rolling hills in Pennsylvania, the endless corn and wheat fields in the upper Mid-west, Mt. Rushmore, Devils Tower, Pike's Peak, Yellowstone, the Rockys, redwood trees and the SF fog; we went south through CA to LA and visited Disneyland. We took a southern-ish route back east via Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Death Valley, Monument Valley and the Petrified Forest. I remember flat, flat, flat northern Texas/southern Oklahoma, oil rigs, lots and lots of livestock, mountains in Tennessee, speed traps in Georgia and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trip was about 3 weeks, may have been 4; it was 1958 and I was 5 years old, it was the most fantastic adventure of my life. OK, I've been on all over the planet and this trip still ranks in the top 2.
Go! And stay off the interstates! PS- my parents planned the trip with the assistance of AAA maps, guidebooks and trip planning advice. Never needed AAA roadside assistance; our 1954 Plymouth (no AC) held up quite nicely.

Posted by
5262 posts

What great memories, Ann! Makes me think of our drive from New Jersey to Colorado in a 1947 Chevy when I was ten (the car was eight). Lots of memories. No interstates that I can recall. And of course I didn't have to drive. And, BTW, my parents sold the car in Denver and we flew home (another adventure) rather than endure hay fever season in the Midwest.

Posted by
271 posts

Many good suggestions with the best being that you decide what is most important to you about this trip? I am a child of the generation of road tripping across the USA. My Dad would take a month off every 4 years and we would do a big trip out west. The intervening years were trips that took less time. You can plan a northern and southern route for your way out or back. The best way to see the USA. Are you interested in seeing landmarks like the St. Louis Arch, Grand Canyon (the big ditch as my Dad called it), the Rockies (quiet stunning to see them rise in the distance the length and breadth of your view), the 4 Corners, Mammoth Cave, The Golden Gate Bridge? I could go on. I tend to find beauty in expanses of farmland or anything else I happen to see out my window. I am one of the few that I know that does not find the drive on the 401 to Toronto to be boring. I must admit though that my wife HATES when I am sightseeing while driving through the mountains. A desert may be an expanse of sand and rock but if you look carefully you will see the beauty in the landscape. See that rainstorm off in the distance? You don't get that opportunity in the city or suburbs. As you can see, I am partial to the drive across country. Good luck with whatever you decide!

Posted by
308 posts

If you have a chance, I would not miss the redwoods in Northern California. I thought they were one of the most amazing natural wonders I've ever seen.

If you are going to fly and drive I would fly out west and drive eastward to take advantage of the prevailing winds.

Posted by
87 posts

If you want to see natural beauty, go as far out of your way as necessary to drive through Yellowstone! It is unbeatable and you need a car to see it anyway. Having grown up in Utah, there are so many great parks packed in there you should seriously consider making them part of your trip!