Home > pre-trip > How to Build a Cross-Country Road Trip Itinerary (Or, At Least, How *I* Did)

How to Build a Cross-Country Road Trip Itinerary (Or, At Least, How *I* Did)

Next post: how to own and operate a blog while using the words “cross-country”, “road trip”, and “itinerary” in every single post…

Anyway, I’m getting some search engine traffic to the site and am guessing folks might be interested in how the process went for me planning this trip. Here goes:

  1. Decide what the goal of the trip is. The real over-arching goal of this trip, for me, is to try and understand the country I live in a little better, prove that I can live austerely for a while, and hopefully have some fun.
  2. Figure out what kinds of things you actually want to do. This is influenced a little by #1. My favorite vacations, though, are always the ones when I’m outside and active, so that’s a top priority on the trip. There are also a lot of “checklist” things in the US that I haven’t seen before (Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, The Alamo) that I figure I should see. There are also a few things that a lot of people have recommended I check out, particular museums, geological features, or whatever.
  3. List out all the activities you’re actually interested in doing. For me, this meant going to Wikipedia and getting a list of every location that’s under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service, seeing which of those were interesting, then adding in the must-see activities from above.
  4. Plot the trip. I like maps, so this was sort of fun, although it seems like there should be some better online tools available for doing this (I’ve used AAA’s trip-tik function quite a bit, but it seems mostly useful only for creating the composite trip maps I’ve posted on this site and my other blog). Instead, though, I used a US Road Atlas (this one; spiral binding highly recommended so it’s never a fight to keep it open to the right page) and just sort of placed markers on all the locations I wanted to visit.
  5. List out the places you’re going to visit. Because I wasn’t initially sure when I might be leaving on this trip, I didn’t list any actual dates — but I think that works out fine. It gave me the opportunity to just say “two days here” and “a half day here” without feeling too calendar constrained. Also made it easy to move things around as needed. This will help give you an initial idea of how many days you’ll want to plan your trip for — although, at this stage in my planning, I was thinking 60-90, which ended up not really being the case.
  6. Once you have a list in place, start looking at driving routes. AAA and the composite maps were handy in this case. Having a map with the route drawn out on it makes it a lot easier to look at your trip and see where you might make some changes to be more efficient by avoiding backtracking, eliminating odd-looking loops, etc. Adjust your route list as necessary.
  7. Figure out when you’re going to leave. I had my roads plotted, but up until a month or two ago, I wasn’t sure when this trip was going to start, so I had two versions of it in my head — one going counter-clockwise for a spring start (to avoid being in the Deep South during July/August), and one going clockwise for a summer start (to avoid being in the Deep South during July/August). One thing was clear: I didn’t want to be in the Deep South in July/August.
  8. Once you have your departure date set, re-visit the route list and start putting your travel against actual dates. One of the key things I was looking for was avoiding being places on particularly busy days. So, for instance, I’ve worked it out so that I’ll be at my brother’s house (thanks, C!) over Labor Day Weekend rather than fighting the hordes for a campsite somewhere. During this phase, you should probably start figuring out actual mileage between points and roughly where you’re going to sleep (maybe not down to the actual hotel, but it’d be good to have the general locale in mind). Doing this, you’ll probably realize that you may want to break your days up a little differently in order to avoid, for instance, consecutive 900-mile days. Or any 900-mile days at all.
  9. With destinations scheduled out, start looking at actual activities. This is likely going to alter your itinerary a little as you realize that, while National Park X is truly beautiful, there really isn’t much to do there besides drive through it, so no sense in planning three days there. You’ll also get a sense during this stage for what kind of additional themes you might want to pursue during the trip. See a game at every MLB stadium? Hit as many of the Top 20 hamburgers in the country as possible?
  10. Depending on the timing, start making reservations. In my case, I needed to make campground reservations for being at Yosemite in July more than two months in advance. The areas that I have planned for later in the trip don’t need to be reserved yet, so I’m holding off until I absolutely have to commit.
  11. Ruminate. I’m not done refining the itinerary, actually. I keep going back through locations and looking at more things that I could do there (the road atlas is helpful here — shows a lot of out-of-the-way places to visit between locations). In my case, I’m also thinking about whether I want to start eliminating locations in order for the trip to seem more relaxing and less break-neck. At any rate, until reservations are made, there really isn’t even much of a hint of total commitment to a place or timeframe, so there’s no harm in perpetual optimizing.

Any questions about the trip or planning process, leave a comment. Dare. You. HTH.


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