So You Want To Drive Cross Country?

Cross Country Trip 2009

Sure you do.  I firmly believe that every American should do it at least once, especially if you have kids.  Our family has done it five times to date.  We’re talking East Coast to West Coast and back again, not some day trip to the Catskills or weekend getaway to Tahoe.

It’s not as hard as you think and you don’t need a huge RV or a year to do it.  Our trips have been done in everything from a rented Chevy Cavalier (no kids) to our own Toyota Sienna (3 kids) and we generally take about three weeks.  One week for New York to California, a week or so in California and a week back.

How does one even get started you ask?  Well it helps to have a time line that involves an anchor date or two.  That way you can structure how far you need to go each day and you can balance it all out so you’re not driving non-stop for 2 days playing catch up.  Our first trip was almost completely unplanned except for the anchor date and it wasn’t pretty.  We spent many a late night searching for a motel room in the middle of nowhere with a barking dog.  This usually resulted in a late to bed late to rise pattern that had us showing up at friends’ and relatives’ houses in the middle of the night.  After that experience I vowed that the next time would be more carefully planned.

When you start looking for information on driving cross-country you’ll find a lot of books and web sites about it, but they all seem to think you have unlimited time to casually roll around the country seeing everything there is to see.  While that might be a nice thing to do when you retire, it’s not practical if you only have a limited amount of time.  The other option you hear is, ‘why don’t you drive all night?’  Well because we view these trips as a journey.  Our goal is to get out and SEE the country and you can’t do that in the dark.  In fact one of my general rules is no driving at night.

So you’ve chosen your anchor event and date, now what?  You need to know how many miles it is to get there and how many days you have to get there.  For this I use Google Maps: simply plug in your starting point and your destination and see how far it is then divide that by the number of days you have to get there.  This will give you an average number of miles to drive each day.  Once you’ve figured out the big picture you can start working your way backwards and go into more detail.

Using one of our trips as an example: New York City to Reno Nevada is about 2,800 miles and with a week to get there that’s 400 miles a day.  400 miles at an average of 60MPH is about 6 and a half hours of driving a day which is pretty easy to do.  If you hit the road by 8:00 AM you’re stopping by 3:00 or so…ahh but it doesn’t get dark until 8:00 you say.  This is where the wiggle room comes in.

I like to get most of the basic stops set I know where we’re generally headed.  Going from NY to CA usually means you’re traveling on Interstate 80 a lot.  Now you’re saying what can you see from the Interstate?  Remember this is somewhere between 3 days of non stop highway driving and roaming the countryside on back roads.  How much between will depend on your schedule.

Sit down with Google Maps, a calculator and a pad of paper and plot out 400 mile intervals then sit back and take a look at what you’ve got.  You may see that if you take 70 instead of 80 that you’re driving close to the Columbus Zoo.  Back to Google maps…recalculating…NYC to Columbus is 575 miles…but it will be dark when you get there.  Since you’ve already gone 175 miles over your daily average on day one you’re technically ahead of schedule.  Drive to Columbus, grab a motel for the night and go to the Zoo in the morning.  The Zoo closes at 5:00 so if you can swing another three hours of driving after you leave you’re right back on schedule.  It takes a little getting used to, but soon you’ll be a pro at recalculating your route to account for stops.

I have a plan A, B and maybe C and sit down with the family to see what they want to do.  If no one wants to go to the Zoo then we just keep on driving in the morning.  What’s a few hours West of Columbus…Indianapolis Motor Speedway…recalculating.  You just keep doing this until every day and hour of that day is more or less accounted for.  It may sound strict, but trust me when you stick to it and you get to see all the things and more importantly all the people you want to see you’ll be a lot happier.  On our first trip we’d show up to see family at 3:00AM then spend most of the next day sleeping and wind up having to leave and feeling bad.  Unconditional love is great, but even family would rather you visit at a reasonable hour.

Having friends and family to stay with is nice, but sometimes you just want to get out of the car, eat, sleep and get back in the car.  We find it easy to choose one motel chain and make all our reservations at once from their site.  They usually let you search by state so you can see where the next available motel is along your route.  Sometimes you have to stop a little earlier or later depending on locations, but it’s not usually a big deal.  If worse comes to worse and you’re behind or ahead of schedule you can always call and cancel or rebook your room.

On our trips we almost exclusively chose Motel 6.  Are the rooms luxurious…no (though a few were surprisingly nice), but we’re just crashing for the night anyway.  We travel without GPS, without a laptop and without an iPhone…I know I know, how barbaric.  How do we find our way?  With a US Road Atlas and a folder of printed maps of our destinations.  As we approach the motel we tell the kids to start looking for the sign and we start scouting out a place to eat.  Sometimes I’ve done this ahead of time but more often that not we wind up eating at a chain near the motel.  If the motel has a pool we try to get there a little early so the kids can take a quick dip before or after dinner.

Like the trip itself, this will have to be broken down into a few sections so we’ll pull over here and take a quick nap before moving on…if you have any questions now is the time to ask them; I’ll do my best to answer them in part two.

To Be Continued…

2009 Trip Slideshow:


About J

I am a happily married Father of three living in Westchester County New York.
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13 Responses to So You Want To Drive Cross Country?

  1. Sourkraut says:

    Words of wisdom. Some of my fondest memories of a kid are from our family’s cross country trip (especially the bit where we got a picture of my older brother and me trying to throw our little brother into the Grand Canyon) and we did it a lot like you guys do. In fact, your 2009 route is eerily similar to the path we took. Makes me wonder if you’re stalking me…

  2. Posky says:

    Having traveled extensively, there is some good advice here. However, there is also something weirdly thrilling about just going without a plan. I can’t recommend this if you take children, old people or friends who you would consider “whiners.”

  3. Desmond says:

    But the real question is, did you ever make it to Walley World???

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention So You Want To Drive Cross Country? | Kisco Dad --

  5. JennKB1 says:

    We did it last summer and couchsurfed most nights. It makes for a more authenic experience. See: and our trip blog at

    Happy Trails.

  6. ryoko861 says:

    Great advice for anyone who likes doing this.

    “recalculating”…you sound like my Garmin.

  7. Casey says:

    Yay! Glad to see that a good ole fashioned family will stay at a Motel 6. If you ever stop near St. Louis give us a try!

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