How to Road Trip North America: 6 Things to Know Before You Go

Cars and Trucks, Group Travel, North America, Planning, Road Trips — By on November 25, 2010 at 6:00 am

The sun was setting over Lake Michigan, and I dug my feet deep into the sand as Jen and April tried to slide down the dune we were on.  The faint outline of Chicago on the other side of the water was the only clue that this was indeed a lake and not the ocean. Never in my wildest dreams did I think there were dunes like these in the states.  But then again, America is full of surprises.

Like most “foreigners” my initial idea of the USA was a collage of pop culture and fast food. Fortunately Hollywood’s depiction wasn’t entirely accurate, and after working with Americans in Europe I realized that there was more to it than Bambi and Big Macs.  I got excited about the idea of a US/Canadian road trip, and lucky for me I had two American friends who liked getting excited too.  The three of us set out in a Dodge Durango with no itinerary and no expectations.  Only one thing was certain about every day: there would be coffee.

Our journey took us through through 11 states of the USA and Canada, every night in a different town.  We ate bear meat, cruised Montreal in a Mustang convertible, saw the Niagara falls, went Alpine sliding and kept an eye out for Steve Carrell in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Apart from staying in some beautiful homes (hot tub included), we also stayed in a cabin on a tree farm, a tent and the parking lot of Tim Hortons somewhere in Quebec.  Our road trip exceeded our expectations in every way, so if you’re keen on doing your own all-American adventure, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1) Take some friends
I think it goes without saying that road trips are way better with friends (you’ll agree if you ever saw “Into the Wild”).  Friends help share the driving, planning, in-car sandwich making and of course the gas bill.  They are also great for writing down the stupid things you say and posting them on Facebook at a later date.  Three’s a good number, any more and you’ll find it harder to squeeze into the car, or someone’s guest room.

Traveling with local friends made the trip a million times easier.  We didn’t have to rent a car, we had a map, GPS, toll road gadget and loads of family and friends to stay with along the way.

2) Pick a region or route to focus on
North America is huge.  That means you have to narrow your trip down! Whether it’s Seattle to San Fran on the legendary West Coast drive, or a taste of the South from Florida to Las Vegas, you can find a great range of suggested itineraries on most travel brochures for free.  I whittled down my initial  two month American dream to something more manageable (and affordable) by making a map of where my friends lived and finding out what spots to see on the way.

Jen and April met me in Pennsylvania, Jen wanted to see Vermont, I wanted to see Montreal, and April had to get dropped off in Chicago, so we had a rough area to work with.  Although we had a general idea of the beginning, middle and end of our journey, we left our day-to-day calendars wide open for adventure.  Sometimes we had to shuffle things around depending on what was most convenient for our hosts. This leads me to my next point…

3) Stay with locals
If you’re used to staying in backpackers, you might have to rethink your strategy.  In comparison to Europe and Asia, youth hostels are few and far between and bedbugs seem to be an issue. That’s why planning your trip around any contacts you have is definitely the best way to go.  Not only do you get to catch up with friends but you get to see a glimpse of real life in every place you visit. Between the three of us we knew enough people to cover the whole trip, we only stayed at a campsite one night because we wanted to use the tent!

Each place we stayed gave a unique glimpse into daily life, and that was worth more to me than any sightseeing trip.  We met a family who built their dream home with their own hands on a Treefarm, a francophone teacher in a chic Montreal apartment, and a Chilean family in the heart of farmland Pennsylvania.  If you don’t know many people that you can stay with, try couch surfing.  It’s best to send out multiple requests early in advance to make sure you have somewhere to stay!

4) Explore the food!
I made sure I satisfied my culinary curiosity while Stateside as I knew would have  plenty of time to save money and calories on dinner when I got home. My initial excitement about IHOP and Taco Bell was met by frowns of disapproval from some locals, but these eateries were B-grade celebs in my eyes!  Also, since it was the start of fall, everything was pumpkin flavored.  I was converted into a great fan of all things pumpkin; pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin donuts, pumpkin coffee, even pumpkin flavored chocolate.

Make an effort to discover regional specialties, like Chicago deep-dish pizza, Canadian Beavertails, Philadelphia cheese steak, California’s In-n-Out burgers and Southern fried chicken, boiled peanuts and corn bread.  For a true taste of the USA, make sure your trip coincides with the most gluttonous of all holidays: Thanksgiving!

5) Make “plan” a four letter word
Our official road trip slogan was “why not?”, and it served us well.  Would you like to join a Haitian family dinner?  Would you like to take a ride through the forest on a swamp-crossing Mario Cart? Would you like to have fresh duck eggs for breakfast?  We shouted a resounding “hells yea” to all of these questions.

Take Vermont as an example.  We thought we would spend our time in Vermont huddled around a kerosene lamp in a cabin in the woods,  instead we got invited to crash a birthday party at an Adventure Park, followed by pizza at a place called Goodman’s American Pie in Ludlow, VT.  They have seats made out of ski lifts, their counter is an old VW Van and they share facilities with an indoor skate park and climbing wall.  Oh yeah, and their pizza is amazing!  The next day we got invited by our incredible hosts to breakfast (I call them hosts but we weren’t even staying in their house!), a forest hike, lunch (that’s where the bear meat came in) and an impromptu dip in a breathtaking gorge.  Good thing we didn’t have a plan!

6) And finally, don’t leave home without…

A Bed:
It’s a very wise idea to bring a warm sleeping bag, pillows and a tent.  You never know when you’re going to need a night in a campsite or your car, its good to make sure you have a place to sleep no matter where you are.

A GPS: Even with a GPS, we managed to take a whole load of wrong turns.  Not only does a GPS save on travel time, it lets you wow your hosts with your uncanny ability to predict exactly when you’re due to arrive at their place.

A Guide book: If it wasn’t for my Lonely Planet USA we wouldn’t have found the tallest filing cabinet in the world, it pays to act like a tourist sometimes!

Food: OK I know I already mentioned food but its definitely a good idea to keep some snacks in the car, it will save you time and money, and we also found it really helpful to have some cutlery, paper towels and a cool box.  (Hey, we had a Dodge Durango, why NOT bring a cool box?)

Here is our itinerary:

  • Day 1: Meet up in Pennsylvania
  • Day 2: Drive to Manchester, NH (stop in Scranton, we love the Office!)
  • Day 3: Drive to Vermont (stop in Brattleboro on the way)
  • Day 4: Drive to Montreal (see the Queechee gorge,  find the tallest filing cabinet in the world in Burlington, VT)
  • Day 5: Drive through the night from Montreal to Niagara (it’s only 7 hours but we had a dinner invitation in Montreal and were meeting friends in Niagara)
  • Day 6: Niagara (Ride the 5c carousel.  Twice)
  • Day 7: Drive to Detroit after seeing the falls (dinner at Greek Town, stayed the night in Novi)
  • Day 8: Drive to Indiana Dunes.  (Realise we won’t make it in time.  Stay at Warren State Dune Parks in Michigan instead)
  • Day 9: Drive to Chicago.  (Stop at Indiana Dunes on the way.)
  • Day 10: Drive to Indianapolis after a day in Chicago.
  • Day 11: Drive to Columbus, Ohio
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  • Hannah says:

    Great tips! I’m working on putting together a road trip through the U.S. I’ll definitely come back here to grab some advice on the road 🙂

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    I was scouting for offbeat destinations in the US today, and at the end of it realized that the best among them was a road trip on Highway 50, nicknamed as the ‘loneliest road in America!’ Have you set foot (or tyre)there?

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