The coast-to-coast road trip that my brother and I completed was a special one because of many reasons. It was the first road trip for both of us that covered the entire span of the country from the West Coast to the East Coast. It was the first road trip where the journey and the route we took was the star attraction in itself. And for my brother, this trip marked a closure of the California chapter in his life and the start of his second New York City chapter (not long after this trip he ended up meeting his wife, purchasing a home, and now expecting a child — so pretty much settling down as a New Yorker now).
Looking back at the trip to complete this blog series, I have some thoughts that came to mind. On planning for such an epic trip, here are some things to consider:
- Transportation Options: Many people would do a coast-to-coast or other long distance trip like this as part of relocating from one place to another. In such cases, the transportation option is given (e.g., using one’s own private vehicle). Otherwise, you need to consider either driving round trip (double the distance to cover), or perhaps driving one way and then flying the other way (in which case you need to think of what to do with the car for the road trip part). In our case, since my brother was going to sell his car in CA before leaving and he was relocating, we decided to fly to LA from our respective city, meet there, and rent a car one way.
- Drop-off Fee: Beware of the fine prints when looking for rental car options. Some rental car companies institute a ‘drop-off fee’ when you plan to pick up the car in one city and returning it in another city in a state that is not adjacent to the pick-up place. The drop-off fee would be calculated by distance traveled, and it was about 25-40 cents per mile at the time of our travel. Not a big deal if you travel short distance, but when you go for more than 2,000 miles like us, that drop-off fee ends up being even more expensive than the quote for the rental car itself. We ended up using Hertz, which had slightly higher rental cost but no drop-off charge.
- Theme for the Trip: To make the trip memorable, think of a theme for the trip and plan the places to visit along the way based on the theme. That would allow you to come up with a nice story about the journey rather than simply a long drive from one place to another with rest stops in between. In our case, the theme was obvious once we selected the particular route, Route 66. To make it even more fun, we decided to also do a ‘scavenger hunt’ and locate the places that inspired the animated movie Cars.
- Time Management: When planning the trip itinerary, my tendency is to try fitting in as many activities as I can to make the best use of my limited travel time. When planning for a long road trip, you need to take account several factors. Consider the drive for each segment of the trip. That would consume part of your available time that otherwise you could use for sightseeing. If you choose to be more efficient and start the day early and/or end it late so you can cover longer distance and do more things, but keep safety in mind and ensure that you do not drive when fatigue sets in. Make sure whoever is driving has enough rest (or stop if you need some). Also consider allocating some buffer time for traffic if you go through major metropolitan area especially during the rush hours. Lastly, consider time zone change if you are traveling across time zone boundaries. If you go east bound, you will gain an hour every time you pass a time zone boundary, and conversely you will lose an hour if you travel east bound.
- Places to Stay: When you are doing a multi-day road trip, you need to consider places where you stop, get some rest, freshen up, or even visit as a destination. The options can range from stopping at a rest stop or parking lot and sleeping in your own car, camping at a camp ground, staying at a budget motel, staying at a boutique hotel / bed & breakfast, staying at a luxury resort hotel, or if you happen to know someone along the route, staying at their place. Consider your budget (time and money), how important is the place itself as a destination or part of the experience of your trip, and also how easy or difficult it is to make reservation. In our case, we ended up staying at budget motels because we wanted to drive as far as we could on the first couple of days and only needed a place to rest and freshen up. And then for one night we stayed at my brother’s friends’ home, and on the last night, we stopped at my home.
On the road trip itself, here are some thoughts from reflecting about it:
- Authentic Americana: When we started with the idea of going through this route, I was wondering exactly what kind of experience we would have as we seem to be going through mostly small town and rural areas of the US that on my previous trips I would drive past as fast as I could to get to the destinations of my trip. The perspective changed once we looked at these places as the ‘star’ of the trip; these are places that authentically represent the American culture, especially in the rural areas. The people were not pretentious, and many of them had been living in the same place for a long time that they represent the culture and heritage of the place.
- Local Cuisine: You can find fast food chain restaurants along the way, but you can also enhance your experience by eating your meals at local restaurants that focus on regional cuisines that also highlight the ingredients grown locally. Within our route, we could find fish tacos in CA, prickly pear salad in AZ, Mexican food with red and green chile sauce in NM, steak and barbecue in TX and OK, snoots in MO, and red hots (Chicago-style hot dogs) in IL.
- Story Behind a Place: When you visit a place, try to find out the story behind it: the history how it came about, the people associated to the place past and present, and how it impacts the culture both locally and beyond. We learned some interesting history about a ghost town that was founded after a gold rush, a hotel built as a home away from home for Hollywood stars coming to shoot western movies, and the place that claimed to be the origin of a food/snack that is now popular around the country.
- Route 66 Characters: Along the journey on Route 66, you can also learn and meet some people play an important role in keeping the Route 66 story as an important part of the American culture. The folks treasure the history and culture that was shaped by the existence of the Mother Road and they work tirelessly in promoting and preserving the history for future generations, and we have them to thank for.
- Enjoy the Journey: In the end, the most valuable lesson about life I was reminded of by this trip was to enjoy the life journey and not just focus on the destination. While getting to the destination or goal is important, the majority of time spent is in the journey to get there. It makes life richer and rewarding if we can also enjoy the moments and the steps along the way.
The photo below was taken in Santa Monica, CA, at the beginning of our trip. This is the official marker of the West end of Route 66 (traditionally people would travel the route from East to West). We took this photo to mark the beginning of our journey. Unfortunately we could not find a similar marker in Chicago, IL, at the East end of Route 66, but we did get another photo taken to mark the end of our journey in New York City.