Driving Across The US – The Best American Road Trips
“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’d all come to look for America” – Simon & Garfunkel
For a traveler in search of adventure, there are few notions as romantic as that of the great American road-trip. I for one got my first taste of wanderlust from watching films like Easy Rider as well as from reading the great American writers such as John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac who traveled through their vast country one highway and one town at a time, in search of their very own vision of America. Ever since then, I always dreamed of one day driving across the US of A myself.
These days, flights are both plentiful and affordable so most travellers to the United States may well be tempted to simply take cheap and easy domestic flights between the cities and states that make up their itinerary.
However, in my view, there is still a very special place for the great American road trip. I will tell you exactly why as we set out in our guide to driving the across and the best American road trips.
1. Classic Vehicles
Let’s face it, airports and airplanes are all pretty much the same old pain. Flying is a monotonous, soulless, sometimes stressful and wholly homogenous experience.
Only by driving across the US, you get the chance to travel by a whole range of mediums in some classic, timeless vehicles. You can rent out a Cadillac (preferably, an opened top one…) to drive along the Pacific Coast, you can grab yourself a big old Harley Davidson to take on Route 66 and even jump freight trains like the ‘down on their luck but plucky’ heroes from the books of Jack London. If jumping trains aren’t your thing, then I suppose you can always just buy a ticket and avoid arrest; classic American rail routes include the California Zephyr which spans 2,438 miles through seven states.
The Greyhound Bus service is also something of an American institution providing a modern, reliable and comfortable service at an affordable cost. I took quite a few of these myself.
You can find out about any number of these options by doing an online search or by custom building your own itinerary via a reputable United States Travel Planner – at this time I don’t have one to recommend.
2. See The Real America
Let’s be honest, if for example, you fly from New York to San Francisco, then the chances are you see nothing but the tourist hot-spots in these respective cities with the only intermission being the Starbucks and McDonald’s outlets in the respective airports. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re short on time then both New York and San Francisco do make for incredible whirlwind trips – there are simply so many things to do in NYC and SF that you could happily visit just these cities. However, this is an adventure blog, not a city blog and here, we’re all about the real adventures.
So to see the real America, you really need to stay on the ground and to pass through the little mid-western towns which hardly even appear on the map. You need to be traveling alongside the everyday, real people rather than the monied jet-set. Only by getting lost, stopping off at that little diner and finding your own favourite small town, do you get to find the real America.
3. Watch The Landscape Change
The United States feels more like an entire continent than a single country and the sheer range and diversity of its landscapes if mind-blowing. The Eastern Seaboard offers rugged coast, the Deep South tropical swamps and the West Coast is haunting deserts that turn into surfers paradises.
Whether you watch it from over the bars of a motorbike, from the passenger seat of a Caddy or from the reclining sleeper of a cross-country train, over-landing is the only way to enjoy the spectacular scenery that the US has to offer. One route that I recommend is the Kansas City to Denver train.
4. Pick up, Hitchhikers!
Hitchhiking does have something of a tarnished reputation these days. This is a real shame and in my opinion, it is totally unjustified. Hitchhiking is in all seriousness as much of a part of the authentic American culture as hamburgers and the blues and by making your own road trip you get to help keep this special tradition alive.
Hitchhikers are also travellers just like you and they may be able to show you a side and offer you a perspective on the country you would otherwise totally miss. They may even become your very own personal United State Trip Planner!
If you want some company for your ride and to share the fuel costs, then you put up an advert on Craiglist or a dedicated, regional rideshare site telling people where you are going from, where to, and when and you will be sure to find a companion.
5. It’s Green!
OK, so Cadillac’s, Harley’s and trains are all thirsty for diesel but they are still more environmentally friendly than air travel especially if you look into carpooling or fill your car with aforementioned Hitchhikers!
Whilst the States does have a long-standing love affair with petroleum, there is an ever growing environmental movement and innovative states such as California and Portland are showing the world how we can protect the environment with all kinds of initiatives.
Coming straight out of California, the Tesla Electric cars are now also widely available although their price tags may render them unfeasible for many of you.
If that still hasn’t convinced you then I can only suggest you go rent yourself a DVD copy of Easy Rider and see if your library has a dusty old copy of On The Road you can finger through. After that, well I have no doubt that you will definitely agree that you most definitely should cross America by land!
Tips For Driving Across The US
1. Renting a Car in the US
Renting a car in the US is not quite as simple as it used to be and not as straightforward as in other countries. To rent a car in the US you need a full drivers license and ideally one issued in a “Western” country. If your license was issued in a country who’s driving standards are perhaps not internationally recognized, then consider obtaining an International Licence before your trip.
Some agencies only rent to drivers over the age of 25+ whereas others charge an additional premium for under 25’s. A Credit Card is also essential and in some cases, the agency may charge you a sizeable, refundable deposit from your card.
If you do rent a car, then be very mindful of each State’s drink driving (DIU) laws which in some cases, even prohibit you from having alcohol in the car.
The major agencies are Avis, Hertz, Alamo, Budget, and National and they have offices at most airports and in most cities.
Be sure to plan and arrange the rental before your trip commences so that you have to time to mull over the additional charges that may or may not be levied such as taxes, non-essential Insurance’s and “drop-off fee’s”.
2. Renting a Motorbike in the US
Renting a motorbike in the US broadly follows the same process of renting a car. Note that Motorcycle rental agencies are much harder to come by especially if you are after a classic Harley Davidson or something. Classic Harley’s and the likes, can also be incredibly expensive.
In terms of the necessary licenses, these are not CC relative like in the UK for example. Stick to the prescribed limits of your own license, for example, if your home country license allows you to ride a 500 CC then stick to this and do not try to get a 750 CC as this could land you in serious trouble.
3. Public Transport in the US
Public transport in the US is a mixed bag. Some cities and states are amazingly well connected whereas are utterly neglected, rendering them near impossible to reach without the aid of a private vehicle.
Greyhound, Amco & Amtrack are the biggest providers in the country and you search for bus and train connections on their websites. Megabus offers a few budget routes. Most states also have their own Statewide, privately owned public transport company.
A good source for planning long & potentially complicated cross-state trips is Rome 2 Rio.
The Best American Road Trip Routes for Driving Across The US
It would probably take several lifetimes and countless gallons of gasoline (that’s petrol to you and me) to cross each and every American highway and byway. So if you are considering a great American road trip but are perhaps short on either time or money here are the very best American road trip routes to consider.
1. Route 66
Well, how could we not include this one? Whilst doing the classic “Mother Road” may now seem a little bit cliched, there are damned good reasons for its enduring popularity. The route crosses right from East to West starting at Chicago, crossing the expansive dustbowl and ending right on the Pier at Santa Monica, California. It does not get any more American than this, the definitive experience for driving across the US. This is perhaps the very best of the best American road trips
2. Big Sur
This route, popular amongst the beats and the hippies, follows the Pacific ocean from Monterey down to San Luis Obispo in Northern California. Big Sur has been immortalized in literature and song. I actually cycled down Big Sur last autumn (2017) which was the highlight of my time in the US. Big Sur is a state of mind and you may well already have it.
For the full low down on Big Sur, check out my backpacking Big Sur guide.
3. Pacific Coast on California Highway 1
If you have more time (and petrol) then why not do the entire stretch of California’s State Highway 1?
The route traces the Pacific coast between Dana Point, north of San Diego, and Leggett, in the heart of northern California’s redwood country. This popular route represents a leisurely but stunning introduction to American road culture. If you do the drive in the summer months you’ll be sun-blessed all the way. If you do it in winter then the North can get cool so head from north to south to follow the sun.
Though the route does skirt the Los Angeles area with its painful congestion, it does pass through Long Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu, Santa Barbara’s wine country, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, San Francisco and the Point Reyes National Seashore.
4. Highway 61
“Abraham said, so where d’ya want this killing done?
God said “Way out, on Highway 61” – Bob Dylan
The famous Highway 61 looms large in American music history. Bob Dylan named a seminal album after it and it is also here where blues legend (and founder) Robert Johnson met the devil and sold his soul in exchange for musical prowess
Highway 61, officially US Route 61, connects New Orleans to Wyoming in Minnesota and runs clean for 1,400 miles. It’s often nicknamed the “Blues Highway” obviously after region’s musical culture but also the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the Mississippi Delta to St Louis and Chicago between 1910 and 1970.
5. Monument Valley
The most desolate amongst the best American road trip routes, Monumental Monument Valley is monumentally freaking awesome and as such was used as the epic backdrop in numerous classic western films. It is easy to see why as the region is truly and utterly cinematic. The route commences on Highway 17 out of Phoenix Arizona, goes through the Grand Canyon and then heads up Highway 160 to the cowboy film-scape of buttes and tabletops that sit on the Arizona/Utah border. If you have an abundance of both gas and energy, then why not keep going through Nevada’s Death Valley and all the way to Reno?! That would be one hell of a trip.
6. Coast to Coast on Route 20
There are several options for going Coast to Coast but this is our pick for anybody determined to live out their Jack Kerouac-esque “On the Road” fantasy. US Route 20 is the longest road in the country running for a staggering 5000 + kilometers between Newport in Oregon and Boston, Massachutes. The route is, however, interrupted at Yellowstone National Park so you will have to go round and take a detour. Yellowstone is, of course, an amazing place to spend a few days camping, trekking and admiring “Old Faithful”, the biggest natural Geyser in the USA.
Well, that’s it for our guide to driving across the US and best American road trips. I hope to see you on the road somewhere guys!