How to Plan the Ultimate Cross-Country Road Trip

From sea to shining sea, without blowing all your money.

Unsplash/Dino Reichmuth
Unsplash/Dino Reichmuth
Unsplash/Dino Reichmuth

When my partner and I packed up and left New York City for a cross-country road trip, I knew it was going to be, at the very least, fun. At the very best, it would be the trip of a lifetime.

Four months later, we’ve only just reached California. And with zero urgency to stop anytime soon, it’s safe to say this extended road trip has turned into, well, a lifestyle.

Road trips have always been part of America’s DNA, but with international travel caught in a tangle for the forseeable, there’s never been a better time to see just what “sea to shining sea” is all about. For many of us, remote work has left the door wide open for new methods (and longer timelines) of exploration.

Whether by RV, camper van, rental car, or whatever trusted chariot you’ve got sitting out in the driveway, pulling off a cross-country road trip is incredibly rewarding-but it takes work. Get a little help from those who’ve blazed the trail before you: From trip planning to money-saving, here are some tips I’ve picked up along the open road.

Planning the route: north, south, or a little of both

Arguably the most important part of planning a cross-country roadtrip is deciding how to get from coast to coast. You’ll hear people talk about the “north” route, I-90 from Boston to Seattle, or the “south” route, I-10 from Jacksonville to Los Angeles. Personally I don’t like having to choose, so our road trip route incorporated a little bit of both.

The most important thing is to design the road trip around what inspires you. For me, that meant Badlands National Park, Glacier National Park, the Colorado Rockies, and the Southwest-which dictated that we drive the northern route until northwestern Montana, and then pivot straight south through Wyoming and Colorado before turning west again and taking the southern route.

Start by making a list in Google Maps of all the places you want to see. You may be surprised at how naturally a route forms. You also may be surprised at how little time it actually takes to get from one place to the next. Did you know it’s only a 10-hour drive from New York to Detroit?

A great resource is the book Road Trip USA, which highlights the country’s most scenic two-lane highways. Sometimes following an itinerary that is already crafted for you takes a lot of the guesswork out, which many people prefer. Everyone’s tolerance for driving is different, too; you’ll need to gauge your threshold. Don’t plan to cross the country in six days if you can only handle four hours of driving at a time.

Plan ahead for national parks

Part of the adventure of a cross-country road trip is leaving room for improvisation. We don’t book our hotels until the day of, which is great because we can be on our own timetable. But this can become an issue around the national parks, where hotels can often be booked months in advance.

National parks are the destinations du jour for 2021 – understandably. But as badly as you want to see Yellowstone and Zion, well…so does everyone else in America. It’s vitally important to plan ahead and know what each park’s entry restrictions are. (Pro tip: Get the $80 annual pass, which provides access to all the national parks as many times as you want in a 12-month period).Don’t make the mistake we made and miss out on great parks like Rocky Mountain because we forgot to get reservations. Since summer is now over, you may get lucky-many parks, like Yosemite, do away with the reservation system after September 30. On the flip side, other parks, like Glacier National Park or the Grand Canyon North Rim, close their scenic drives in the colder months when snow is expected. It pays to do your research.

Beat the crowds by going in the off-season-fall is an especially great time to visit-or opt for less-visited national parks that everyone seems to forget about. Get creative: The country is full of gobsmackingly gorgeous state parks, national forests, monuments, roadside attractions, and much more.

Don’t blow all your budget on hotels

Probably the second most important factor of the Great American Road Trip is actually being able to fund it. While you’re certainly saving money on flights, road trips are not exactly cheap. Knowing your budget-and sticking to it-key.

Accommodations are where we look to save the most money. We aren’t paying rent these days, so we gave ourselves a budget of $2,000 a month to spend on accommodation. That may seem like a lot of money, but when you break it down it works out to roughly $66 per night. What can you get on Airbnb these days for $66 a night? Take a look. I’ll wait.So how do you stay within that budget without resigning yourself to camping every night or sleeping in Walmart parking lots? We discovered Trusted Housesitters, a network of verified homeowners who are going out of town and need housesitters to come watch their pets. You go through a background check and the membership is $119 for the year, but you get to stay for F-R-E-E, sometimes for as long as two weeks. And yes, this is a worldwide service.

In between houseits, we use the app You collect stamps for every night booked with them; after 10 nights you earn a free reward night that is equal to the average of the 10 nights. If we can’t find a hotel in our budget for $66 a night, then we rely on Kampgrounds of America. A membership costs $33 and you can score 10% discounts on campsites or cabin bookings.

A few more ways to save money on a road trip

We love using GasBuddy, which maps out the gas prices in the area, allowing you to score the cheaper gas. We’ve found price differences for as much as $1 a gallon, which really does add up over time. Also, driving the speed limit will help you stretch your gas – not to mention, it’s kind of the law. Speeding can lower your fuel economy by as much as 40%. When you get up to places like Montana, where the speed limit is 80 mph, you’ll see how quickly your tank drains.

Turning off toll roads has been another money saver. It never adds that much extra time and you can score substantial savings. Driving from New York to Washington, D.C., for example, can be as much as $35 in tolls – each way.

Dining out can be one of the biggest money sucks. It may seem like sacrilege to not be seeking out “the best thing to eat in [insert town]” but whittling your list down to the absolute “can’t miss” spots will be lighter on your wallet.

Instead, invest in a cooler. We keep ours stocked with sandwich fixings, protein bars, and water. If we’re feeling fancy we’ll get a whole selection of meats and cheese and make charcuterie boards to-go. Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t be a little bougie.

What to pack

Packing up the car is a delicate dance. You want to be prepared for everything, but you also don’t want to weigh yourself down. When it comes to a wardrobe, less is always more. We may not always be Instagram-ready, but having one carry-on each is a time saver when we are checking in and out of motels every 24 hours.

Car essentials include a first aid kit, dash cam (very useful in case of a car accident that isn’t your fault), portable cell phone batteries, extra USB cables, jumper cables, a spare tire, sheets, a pillow, and even an air mattress designed to fit in our trunk when you lay the backseats flat. Hey, you never know. Our trunk comes with a cover for when we leave things unattended in the car, but if yours does not you may want to get a sheet to cover up your belongings.

You may also want to consider a Wi-Fi hotspot – just in case you need to get work done from the road. I’ve filed more articles from the passenger seat this year than ever because the car has become my office-on-wheels.

Before you hit the road…

Make sure everything on the car is in working order. This means checking the lights and the car features to make sure they work. Check your oil life – and make sure you keep checking it as you drive, especially on a long trip. We’ve had to change our oil twice in four months. Other things to stay on top of: air filter, windshield wipers, spark plugs, coolant.

Keep a spare key in the glove box, along with your registration and copies of your driver’s license and insurance information. If you are renting a car, make sure that you have one with unlimited mileage, and splurge on the top auto insurance they offer (or make sure you’ve covered via your credit card). Nothing ends a road trip faster than having to stomach a massive incident bill from a car rental agency.

Be prepared for things you didn’t prepare for

Even with the most detailed and extensive planning, shit happens. But being open and flexible to mishaps is how to not let it ruin your day. If and when something goes wrong, remember to not panic. Trust that you’ve prepared yourself as best as possible, and that you will get back on track.

Inconveniences are also exacerbated by exhaustion-remember to take care of yourself on the road. Eat plenty of healthy food, drink water, and get a good night’s sleep before a long driving day. Leave the windows open for airflow, especially if you’re feeling sleepy. If you need to take a power nap, find a well-lit, safe area. This should not be a chore. Driving at your best is going to make the trip infinitely better.

For all the drama that Americans are going through right now, and no matter where you fall in your beliefs, we can all agree that this is one vast, gorgeous, fascinating country. So fire up your best road trip playlist or podcast (we’ve been bingeing on “Lore”-10/10 would recommend). Enjoy the ride.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Meagan Drillinger is a travel writer formerly living in NYC. She like tacos, music and making lists. But travel is her life.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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