Tips for Planning an RV Cross Country Road Trip

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So, you think it might be cool to pack up the fam and drive clear across the country and back for vacation? You are right! A good old fashioned RV road trip across this amazing country is an incredible experience! It is also time consuming, requires a lot of pre-planning, and requires a bit of a budget. With a bit of planning, some money saving, and putting the tips below into play, you too can plan a kick butt road trip. Check out our ideas below as you start planning your own Great American Road Trip!

planning a road trip

Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip

We have several cross country road trips under our belt by now. Some of them took place years ago, before we owned our travel trailer. Since adding our camper to our travel options, we have logged tens of thousands of miles driving across the USA.

The most memorable road trip that we took in our camper was, without a doubt, a summertime cross country trek from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park and back. In just over 2 weeks we managed cover more than 5500 miles and saw and did so much! We covered so many awesome spots, just to name a few: Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, Lake Michigan, and Battle of Little Bighorn (Montana).

As you might imagine, this trip had a LOT of components. We were making so many stops, needing so many different campsite stays… our planning was the biggest thing that made our trip a big success.

Building Your Itinerary

The very first thing that we do when planning a new trip: settle on a destination. 

Your destination is the end point or, the farthest point from home that you will drive before turning around to begin the return trip. We have taken many road trips, but I will use our Yellowstone as a reference point throughout this post. That is because it was the most involved, detailed, cohesive travel plan that we have worked on to figure out the logistics for a huge road trip.

Once we settled on our destination (Yellowstone), we went to the maps.

We played around with different routes and looked at the states and towns that we would potentially drive through. Using this info, we constructed our first rough itinerary. (This ended up changing around a bit by the time all was finalized!)

Best View of Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone

Always Underestimate Your Drive Time

Only you know how long you can safely and comfortably drive your rig before you need to stop for the day.  Remember that towing a camper ALWAYS adds time to whatever total Google Maps (or any map app) gives you. You can typically plan for a drive to take anywhere from 1-2 more hours than a map estimate. When you are towing a trailer, you will most likely drive slower than the speed limit. The gps and map programs use speed limits and current traffic flow to calculate estimated arrival times.

If you prefer to be on the road for 10 hours or less each day, aim for a route that is no more than 8-9 hours, per map estimate. That extra 1-2 hours will help you account for slower speeds, more frequent stops for gas, etc.

We learned this lesson the hard way during our Yellowstone trip. While we broke up our drive TO Yellowstone by making lots of stops at various tourist attractions, the return trip was driven straight through. The maps estimated 10 hour days for 3 days and we ended up driving 3 days straight for 12+ hours each day. It was exhausting, monotonous, and not the best way to end a long trip!

Consider the Season and Potential Weather

When I first started writing this post, this topic was actually further down on the list of tips. However I think it is one of the most important things to consider before you book a single campsite on your road trip.

It is imperative that you look at average weather conditions and temperatures for your destination during the time of year you plan to travel. For example, you might want to think twice about planning a big road trip to Maine in the middle of the winter. While winter road conditions are probably the most obvious weather anomaly you will want to avoid, other possible deterrents: hurricane season, monsoon/rainy season, extreme temperatures (cold OR hot). Camping off season in the north can also be tricky because many campgrounds close for the winter months.

Another thing to consider regarding timing: are the attractions you want to visit open year round? Many theme parks in the northeast close up after the summer season. Various museums and other attractions across (at least the northern portion of the country) close or drop to limited hours during the winter season. This time of year is typically slower for foot traffic in many locations, as kids are back in school and not as many families are traveling.

Castaways RV Resort Beach

Picked Your Final Destination? BOOK IT. NOW.

I will touch on tips for booking places to stay along your drive below. When it comes to your final destination (remember – the furthest point from home and possibly where you might spend more than a night), BOOK IT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

Stumped on where to go? Deciding on a trip destination is part of the fun! To narrow your search: ask friends, listen to travel podcasts, find travel related YouTube channels, or take the old fashioned route… visit your local library and grab some travel guides and books.

Campgrounds, especially those in highly sought after destinations, book FAST. In fact, some campgrounds and camping resorts accept reservations more than a year in advance! Campgrounds in or close to National Parks, theme parks, beaches, and other popular locales should be booked as SOON as you settle on travel dates. If you try to book and the campground isn’t allowing reservations for your date yet, find out when the booking window will open. Make a note of it on your calendar and call when that day arrives.

We booked Fishing Bridge RV Resort in Yellowstone 1 full year before our trip. Disney’s Fort Wilderness allows you to reserve campsites 499 days prior to check-in!

National Parks and Beyond

Whether it is your end destination or simply a stop along your trail, many road trip itineraries include at least one National Park. The US National Parks system boasts more than 400 different park sites that cover more than 84 million acres. (Grab our printable National Park activity planner and National Park scavenger hunt for kids if you’re planning to head to one!)

The National Parks include forests, mountain chains, seashores, places of historical significance (including battlefields) and so many more amazing views and places to hike and explore. I wholeheartedly recommend trying to include a park or two (or more!) on your road trip route.

If you happen to have a 4th grader in the family, he/she can score free National Park pass which gives the whole family free admission for the year. (Read more below about reserving park passes for certain parks and attractions below.)

Public Beach Access KOA Bar Harbor

Roadside Attractions in America

The biggest ball of twine?

The house of mud?

Of course, if you have ever seen a National Lampoon’s Vacation movie, you might have heard the main character, Clark Griswold, refer to some of these attractions.

Roadside attractions have been popular stops for centuries. Though when we think of trips by car and the early days of highway travel, we often think of the historic Route-66. Route 66 was the way to get from Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier in California. Quirky, fun places to stop dotted the highway and travelers would find shops, unique motels, and little diners to visit and enjoy.

Whether you find yourself along what is left of Route 66, or just about any other spot in this country, there are fun places to stop and stretch your legs.

Some of our favorite pit stops over the years (some were planned, some were spur-of-the-moment):

Leave us a comment and tell us about YOUR favorite road trip pit stops!

route 66 sign

Study the Highway and Road List

It is really important to consider possible limitations, extra costs, etc. that you might encounter on your route.

Here are some specifics to consider:

  • Tolls: will the highways you travel on require payment, such as a turnpike, bridge or tunnel? Make sure you have enough cash on hand to cover these tolls. We have an EZ-Pass which comes in handy when we are on the Pennsylvania turnpike and up and down I-95.
  • Underpasses: Make sure you can fit under anything you might have to drive under/through. Always know the height of your rig!
  • Tunnel propane restrictions: This one really surprised us. A few years ago we were planning our first drive to Florida with our travel trailer. A friend mentioned that we couldn’t drive the RV through the Fort McHenry tunnel or the Baltimore Harbor tunnel (both are on I-95). This restriction is due to the propane tanks on the camper. You can check out these Maryland propane tunnel restrictions and then plan an alternate route. We took the Francis Scott Key Bridge instead.
  • Look at the terrain of the route. There is a huge difference in driving an RV down an 8 lane highway outside of a city and crawling around a treacherous mountain pass with steep downgrades.  Make sure your truck is capable of pulling your load before you end up in a precarious situation. We have never had a white knuckle drive quite like our descent from Bighorn National Forest. This was when we learned that our truck was barely powerful enough to pull our camper. Not a great experience.

Keep in mind: the map will likely show you the fastest route. It won’t take the fact that you are towing a trailer into consideration. You need to take some time to study your road trip route and make sure your rig is capable of doing so safely. Google Earth is a great tool for studying roads and terrain.


Booking Campgrounds Along the Route

Honestly, this one can be a little tricky. On a longer road trip when you are just doing your best to estimate long days on the road, choosing campgrounds to bunk at for the night can be a bit of a crapshoot. On several trips, we have booked KOA campgrounds along our drive. We like KOA campgrounds because except for rare occasions, they tend to have clean sites and nice amenities. They are not as cheap as some of the smaller, non-franchised options, but they are pretty consistent in quality.

We don’t have any real secrets to divulge when it comes to these overnight stay spots. We simply look at our map, pick a town that we will aim for after a day of driving, and then search to see what campgrounds are nearby.

Whenever possible, we choose campgrounds that are located very close to whatever highway we are traveling along. This makes for quick on and off at night and the next morning when we are resuming our journey.

It is not a bad idea to book these campgrounds in advance. You should ask each campground what its cancellation policy is. This is helpful info in case you get held up on your drive or make such good time that you decide to drive further.

Bar Harbor KOA Office

Non-Campground Options for Overnight Stays

Another option for parking your camper overnight to catch some shuteye is to look at travel centers that allow RVs to boondock. Some highway rest stops and travel plazas actually offer RV hookups! Most of these are offered first come, first served though.

Pilot Flying J has a bunch of locations that allow RV overnight parking. There are a handful of Love’s that offer RV hookups.

Walmart typically allows RVers to camp overnight in their parking lots. Keep in mind, you will be boondocking and not have any kind of hookups. It is typically up to individual stores to permit/not permit RV parking, so it’s recommended that you ask the store manager before unhitching.

RV parking sign

Prepping for a Cross Country Adventure

After you have: settled on a destination, plotted your route and booked your campgrounds, you can really start to get excited.  Your trip is really coming together! In the months that lead up to your departure, there is still lots of planning that you can do.

You can plan out your meals, think about what groceries you will need and look up restaurants you might like to try.

Consider purchasing tickets to various attractions you want to visit, especially if you want to attend an event with timed or limited entry.

It is also important that you make sure your tow vehicle and camper are up to date on basic maintenance items.

Meal Planning for an RV Trip

Make a meal plan that lists all of the meals you plan to make while on the road. We typically keep breakfast and lunch super simple and then plan some dinner ideas. Grab our RV meal planner printable and start putting your ideas to paper. Complete your grocery list after you have planned out your meals.

I recommend leaving your grocery shopping until the very last minute to ensure that your perishable groceries are as fresh as possible. If you will be on the road for longer than 1 week, you might want to consider a mid-vacation grocery trip to restock things like fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy.

cooking bacon on electric griddle

Pre-Purchasing Tickets for Attractions and Events

If you will be traveling to a festival, concert, or any kind of event that requires tickets and is likely to sell out, buy them ahead of time. From rodeos and balloon festivals to food fests or white water rafting down the Colorado River – these events and activities draw big crowds. Rather than arrive at your destination and be disappointed when you are denied entry, purchase whatever you can in advance of your trip.

Many National Parks require admission passes and certain events require timed entry tickets. As the National Parks try to alleviate some of the crowds at its more popular park attractions, they now use for most of these bookings. Parks are now experiencing unprecedented popularity – to the point of becoming so full, it is frustrating. Do your research ahead of time and learn what kind of crowds you can expect. Some of the biggest parks, including Yellowstone, Acadia, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion and Glacier National Park become overrun by tourists every year (particularly in the summer months). Reserve as much as you can ahead of time: lodging, dining, tours, etc.

We traveled to Acadia last summer and used that website to book our passes for Cadillac Mountain sunrise viewing. I was so glad that a friend had tipped us off and I knew to jump on the site and buy the (very limited) tickets before we ever left home!

Cadillac Mountain Sunrise Tickets

Registration and Inspection

Depending on what state you live in, you may be required to have your tow vehicle and/or RV inspected on an annual basis. You might also need to renew the registration on the license plates. Before you leave home on your big trip, make sure that these items are taken care of and that everything is up-to-date. The last thing that you need while embarking on a vacation is getting pulled over for expired tags.

Basic Maintenance

It is a good idea to attend to some basic maintenance on your rig BEFORE hitting the road. How many miles will you be driving? An oil change before a cross country trek is smart (and, if you drive thousands of miles, you might need another oil change as soon as you get home!).

Here are some of the basic things you will want to check before any journey:

  • Oil change
  • Fluid levels
  • Battery
  • Tire pressure
  • Working lights and turn signals
  • Tire condition
  • Wiper blades
  • Spare tire packed?
  • Jack and lug wrench packed?

Checking Tire Pressure

Emergency Supplies

Anything can happen on the road. While you can’t necessarily plan and prepare for every last scenario, you can plan for a lot. Whether you’re heading to the next town over, or taking a cross country trip, be prepared. Here are some emergency essentials that we always make sure to pack:

  • Jumper cables
  • Basic tool kit
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency roadside kit
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Flashlight (with batteries!)
  • Bottle water and non-perishable snacks
  • Fuses that match your vehicle
  • Extra blankets

Jumping Car Battery

I hope these tips are helpful as you plan out your own USA road trip! Have you taken an incredible road trip before? Leave us a comment and tell us about it! Are you planning your own dream trip? We would love to hear about it! 


rv road trip tips

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