Monday, January 25, 2010

New Year -- more road trip travel tips

Hope you are having a good start to the new year! While some of you have been digging yourselves out of the snow, I have been digging myself out of my way-overdue correspondence -- so without further delay, here are some more replies to your worldwide requests for Road Trip USA travel help.

Across the Country with Three Generations

Hi Jamie,

I haven't read your book yet but have been exploring your site and it is impressive in the routes you've charted and the sites you suggest.

My question: my daughter, her children(ages 5, 4, and 2 and a half) and I plan to drive cross country in summer of 2010. We plan to rent a Winnebago and spend about a month traveling from the East coast to the West coast and back. Do you have any suggestions for renting a smaller Winnebago; when is best to travel--June or July; any pitfalls to avoid in renting the Winnebago?

Thanks in advance for your reply!

Vicki in VA


Dear Vicki in Virginia --

Thank you for writing in to Road Trip USA -- and sorry it took me so long to reply.

Your RV road trip sounds exciting and brave -- traveling across the country with three generations will surely be an unforgettable experience. Just make sure you take lots of pictures, and videos, and make notes and keep journals as you go, because otherwise it can all end up as an overwhelming blur (and this I know from painful experience). Good friends of mine (Mom, Dad & 5 kids, ages 5 to 18!) did a massive 6+-week round the country tour last summer, and in their living room they now have a huge wall map on which they've stuck stickers to remind them of major events along the way (binoculars for the best sights, bandages for cuts, scrapes and tummy aches, etc).


You ask about the "best time" for the trip -- thinking practically, as you will have very young (pre-serious-school age) kids along, I would suggest hitting the road as soon as the weather warms up (by late May if you can, or June), because once schools let out for summer vacation all the attractions (big and little) will get that much more crowded.

I don't have much expert knowledge of RV rental, but feel you're right to think of smaller ones: I have what must be the smallest vehicle Winnebago ever put their name on, a converted VW Eurovan, which seats 4-6 (but sleeps 4 max). The smaller size is great -- while a large one is undeniably great for sleeping, comfort and having access to gear, the smaller ones give much greater mobility -- and much better fuel economy as well. An RV is especially great to have out west, where motels etc are fewer and far between, but I have also found RVs sometimes isolating -- being self-contained has many advantages (esp when little ones need a nap), but the downsides (such as the hassle of finding big enough places to park!) can keep you from coming into contact with people and places, which is sort of the point of travel.

As with most things in life, it's all about getting the balance right. Not exactly _useful_ advice, perhaps, but good to keep in mind. (?)

Please write me again when your plans start taking shape -- and in the meantime I hope you'll continue to enjoy my website, and have a look at my book (which has a ton more info and pictures and ideas than we've put on the website).

Happy Trails,

Jamie Jensen


Las Vegas Road Trip


We'd really appreciate your advice after reading your fantastic website.

We're (my boyfriend and I) planning a trip to visit family in New York early June next year (we live in the U.K) and keen to experience a real American road trip whilst over there. We are happy to fly internally to start the road trip so where exactly doesn't matter, we'd love to stop off in Las Vegas to visit friends during the drive and want to see a variety of the weird, wonderful and beautiful America that we've heard so much about. We have allowed approx 2 weeks for the road trip itself after 5 days in New York. We would really appreciate any advice that you have.

Hope you can help!!


Laura and Ian

x x x

Dear Laura and Ian --

Thank you for writing in to Road Trip USA.

Your trip sounds fun -- and Las Vegas is as good a place as any to kick off an all-American road trip. Its casinos and general craziness are unlike anywhere else, and once you tire of all the glitz and glam you can cruise around some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet: nearby Utah is basically one big national park, full of red-rock canyons and photogenic outcrops, while the "Four Corners" area of neighboring Colorado and New Mexico have stunning scenery and a lot of unexpected culture -- ancient cliff palaces of Mesa Verde, Native Americana and Spanish colonial heritage around Santa Fe. Then you can cruise west on legendary Route 66 across northern Arizona, pausing to gape at the Grand Canyon (or "Sleep in a Teepee" at my fave oddball motel, the classic Wigwam Village in Holbrook Arizona) .

That's a good week's tour -- then for the following week you can head west to California, to see the sights of Hollywood, cruise the gorgeous coastline of Santa Barbara and Big Sur, indulge yourself in gourmet delights of San Francisco and the Napa Valley before heading back to Sin City via the waterfalls of Yosemite and the eery deserts of Death Valley.

You could also spend your two weeks driving from NYC to Las Vegas and back again -- another great trip, with just about unlimited possibilies for seeing the "variety of weird, wonderful and beautiful Americana" you're looking for. That said, this Las Vegas - Southwest- California loop is packed with great stuff, and to my mind is one of the greatest road trips on the planet -- and I cover Route 66 and the Pacific Coast in new "mini-books" as well as in my big (fully illustrated 900 page, 40,000 mile...) Road Trip USA book, all of which can point you toward some great stops along the way.

You could stop or start the trip I outlined just about anywhere on the route(like LA, or San Francisco), but Las Vegas sometimes has exceptional good deals on flights & car hire / rental rates.

Please feel free to write me again when your plans start taking shape -- and in the meantime I hope you enjoy my website, and my books.

And have a blast on the trip itself, of course!

Happy Trails,

Jamie Jensen


All American Road Trip, from Down Under

Hello Jamie,

I'm from Australia and planning to do an American road trip possibly Northern Hemisphere Autumn/Summer 2010. I will have about a month to six weeks. Out of the 10 trips on the site and in your book, which one would give the best experience of American scenery, history. people & culture? A must is New York City

I would be travelling with my wife, both of us in our early fifties fit and healthy, we like to camp with the odd motel thrown in now and then.

Any info would be appreciated.

Peter from Australia

Dear Peter --

Your trip sounds great -- a month should be -almost- enough time to get to know America, which is a huge and very varied place (even by Australian standards, I believe!).

Rather than chose one single road trip all around the country, which would entail some 8,000 miles or more, I would prefer to suggest that you do a combination of discreet shorter road trips, adding some internal / domestic flights and rental cars to make the most of your trip (and save you from having to do too many hurried, long-distance drives along unlovely Interstate freeways!)

You say you want scenery / history / people / culture -- well, that covers a pretty fair swath, so I'll highlight a few very special road trips in different regions, and leave it to you to choose what suits you the best.

One great, and often overlooked, part of the USA for visitors is the Deep South -- from Elvis Presley's haunts in musical Memphis Tennessee, down the Great River Road via "Cajun Country" to New Orleans, is a classic American drive, full of culture and great hospitality. And in late summer / early autumn, the area comes alive with cultural festivals (esp ones celebrating Delta Blues music and food -- great stuff!)

Not too far away, you can appreciate a very different aspect of America by driving the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway along the crest of the Appalachian mountains, or amble along the history-rich coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, by way of two lovely small cities, Savannah and Charleston (Rhett Butler's home town).

These places are all covered in three of my routes: the Great River Road, the Appalachian Trail, and the Atlantic Coast, which are covered (in much greater detail than the website conveys...) in my "big book" (900 page Road Trip USA), and also in 3 different new "mini-books", each covering a different route.

These mini-books (cleverly entitled "Great River Road", "Appalachian Trail", and "Atlantic Coast" respectively!) were fully updated by yours truly late last year, and are due out soon (March / April 2010), so I hope you'll check them out.

Memphis, New Orleans or even Atlanta all make good fly/drive start/stop points for exploring the Deep South region -- and these cities are 2 hours from NYC by plane (versus 2 days each way by car!)

Other areas of the USA to consider include the Midwest, starting in the great city of Chicago, and maybe cruising west via legendary Route 66 to St Louis, or heading north around the Great Lakes and North Woods of Michigan and Minnesota.

The wide open spaces of the Rocky Mountains and the desert Southwest are also full of diversions -- flying into Denver or Salt Lake City, you can do a quick loop thru the amazing sights of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, or starting in Las Vegas or Phoenix you can tour the Native American cultures and red-rock landscapes of Arizona and Utah.

The western areas are especially good for camping out under the stars -- most of the land is public property, protected within hundreds of national and state-run parks, many of which also have grand older lodges and rustic hotels as well as truly "wild" backcountry escapes.

There's also California (which could fill a month-long trip in itself!), and the lush mountains, forests and coastline of the Pacific Northwest, via Seattle and/or Portland. And of course from New York City you might want to explore the gorgeous (and not so distant) lands of New England, or even the Empire State itself.

So, I guess that's a long way of saying there's no shortage of things to see and enjoy -- I have filled nearly a thousand pages in my books, and that's only including the very best drives. Please feel free to write me again when your plans start taking shape -- and in the meantime I hope you enjoy my website, and my books.

Happy Trails,

Jamie Jensen

International Road Trip -- Africa to America

Dear Jamie,

I came across your website as i started up my research for my family's (4 of us in total) first ever US road trip. We are actually from South Africa and have no idea what to expect. I have visited New York and that's the sum total of our knowledge. We want to do it 'US style' and hire an RV and hopefully (this is the basic idea) travel from NY to New Orleans, we don't want to rush and want to take in the towns a long the way, off the beaten track to get a real sense of things.

I definitely plan to buy your book, for the town, sights and route info, but we need a first timers (idiots) guide for this sort of thing. We have no idea how much distance we can cover in a day, or basic RV practical info (like stops, and if you have this big camper is there even parking in the small towns for it?). Do you cover these basics in your book or is there some other resource you would recommend i should also purchase?

Any other advice would be greatly appreciated.

Kind regards,


Dear Nadia --

Thank you for writing in to Road Trip USA -- your big trip sounds great, and I'll do what I can to make it memorable (in a good way!)

I hope you don't have too much trouble finding my Road Trip USA book -- international distribution is sometimes patchy, though I am always pleased to hear from overseas visitors, who I think sometimes have a better sense of adventure about traveling around the USA more than my fellow Americans do. In fact I got into travel writing working for the UK-based Rough Guides - if you want an "Idiot's Guide" to the country, the Rough Guide: USA is not a bad one (I haven't worked for them for years, but I assume they're still pretty good.... my Road Trip USA is tons better, though, and a lot more fun! :-)

To answer your main question: RV rental can be a great way for families to travel -- but because they're big (and self-contained) it can also isolate you from the places you're traveling though. Especially outside the big cities, hotel/motel rooms in teh USA are generally big and comfortable, and aren't all that expensive (US$80 a night for mid-range comfort), and getting out of the vehicle can cut down on "cabin fever" feelings.

RVs are perfect for traveling around the national parks in the wide open western USA, but between New York and New Orleans they are not always the ideal way to get around -- they can be cumbersome to drive (and park!) in smaller towns and along smaller roads. Also, keep in mind that contrary to some people's expectations you can't simply park your RV along the road and go to sleep -- RVers usually need to find a campground (which can cost $30 a night), or if money's tight you can take advantage of the parking lot in front of America's biggest retail stores: WalMart, where RVers are welcome to stay overnight for free.

(Not scenic, but definitely a money saver, and a good way to meet fellow travelers!)

There are quite a lot of RV camping guide books available, listing all the various campgrounds around the country. (All US bookshops, or etc online, will have latest editions available, or you can get one of these guides for free if you join or are affiliated with the "AAA" -- the American Automobile Association -- which also offers roadside assistance all across the USA. Worth looking into, for sure).

To answer your other big question, I think it's reasonable to travel 250-350 miles a day on average -- more miles some days, fewer on others, but making sure you spend enough time out of your vehicle every day so you can stretch your legs and absorb the American experience. I recommend planning at least a short stop-over every 2 hours or so -- especially if you have your children along for the ride.

(I have twin boys, 11 yrs old, and we all get restless if we're locked down for more than a couple of hours at a stretch...)

OK, I am sorry for being so slow to reply, but hope you are still planning to make the trip. You didn't mention when you wanted to go, but please feel free to write me again when your plans start taking shape. In the meantime I hope you enjoy my website, and my book.

Happy Trails,

Jamie Jensen


Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Road Trips

Hi Jamie-

I'm finishing my contract job in Feb 2010 (this is a good thing!). Rather than join the surging ranks of the unemployed, my plan is to take 4-5 months and motorcycle across the country.

My point of origin will be Los Angeles. Because I will be leaving in Feb-March I thought I would take a southern / warmer route first. Once into spring I would head north? Possibly into Canada to Alaska and back to California at some point (or maybe not). Literally this trip is a blank canvas. I plan on camping most of the time and staying in cheap motels the rest.

I want the complete American experience....2 lanes & diners all the way!

What would be your initial suggestion -- again I'm just looking for a way out.

Thank you,


Dear John --

Sorry it took me until now to reply -- I hope you are still planning to make the trip, which sounds like a blast! As far as an "escape from LA" route, I would recommend a classic: Route 66, kicking off from Santa Monica then winding north (from Fontana, blue collar birthplace of the Hell's Angels biker gangs, if that's of any interest...) over Cajon Pass and dropping into the deserts. (By the time you set off, I hope the recent snows and winds and rains will have stopped...)

The "old road" still survives in long lengths across the Mojave Desert -- an especially nice long stretch winds south of I-40 between the flyspeck "towns" of Ludlow and Essex, pausing briefly at the photogenic old "Roy's" truck stop in Amboy (northern gateway to Joshua Tree Nat'l Park.)

If you like playing Lawrence of Arabia, there are many even lonelier roads out here, but Route 66 is a pretty good bet.

Further east, I agree with your plan to take a southern / warmer route -- there was 2 feet of snow piling up along I-40 across Arizona this week, and the altitude of many Southwest desert places can be deceiving (Flagstaff is at nearly 7000 feet, for example). So from Needles ( a great dusty, rusty desert town), I would recommend one last stretch of Route 66, climbing up from the blue Colorado River to the ghostly town of Oatman, before heading south along the Colorado River thru Lake Havasu (past London Bridge!) down to Yuma, another crusty old place (with one great roadside landmark: Lutes Casino in the well-preserved historic downtown district).
From Yuma it's a long haul across the desert, but if you feel the need for some deep blue sea, loop south toward Mexico, where the cold beer and fresh fish tacos straight out of the Sea of Cortez can be enjoyed in Puerto Penasco (known by gringos as "Rocky point"), less than an hour's ride from the border (and the gorgeous Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument), across some of the wildest and most spectacular desert scenery. I cover all this in my "big book" Road Trip USA, and there's more details in a smaller local book I did years ago, on the Southwest and California. (I've seen them on Ebay for around $5...)

(You can also get to the Sea of Cortez via Mexican Hwy-2, which runs across the amazing Pinacate desert from Mexicali -- though when I was last there Mexican Hwy-2 was barely a one-lane road in width, with lots of trucks and no shoulders -- not fun on a motorbike...)

Whether or not you head south of the border, the next big city heading east is Tucson, which I like a lot. (Though I think they've lost their Spring Training baseball season, which is a shame if you happened to be around in March...) Best thing about Tucson is the range of escape routes, best of which heads via Saguaro National Park toward Tombstone and the mining town-cum-artists colony of Bisbee, on a lovely old two-lane road, US-80.

By Bisbee you're well on your way, so "Vaya con Dios, buena suerte" and all that.

(Btw, because you'll be on a bike I wouldn't recommend heading north until April or May -- try the Gulf Coast instead, but be very careful along the southern Rio Grande, this is drug-war central..!).

It all sounds like a great adventure -- please feel write again when your plans start taking shape -- or once you're on the road -- and in the meantime I hope you enjoy my website, and my books.

Happy Trails,

Jamie Jensen

Road Trip USA


Tttthhat's all for now, ffolks! More to come, soon.

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