Friday, June 16, 2017

Q & A: Back Roads Cross-Country Travel

Have you ever wanted to jump in the car and drive across the country?  Last year, we did just that, and we're here today to share answers to some of the questions people commonly ask us about this crazy trip.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel Loneliest Highway Nevada US 50

If you missed last week's photo tour of our 22,000 mile cross country road trip, start there before reading this post.

How did you plan it?
The answer might shock you: we did very little planning.  Over the course of two or three weeks, we wrote down a list of things we would probably need to take with us and thought about places we'd like to visit.  Then one day we packed our suitcases, tossed them in the car, and left - about two hours later than planned, because we kept thinking of last-minute things we needed to take care of or grab.

We documented the moment of departure with a car selfie in our garage

Did you have a specific route?  
We started with a blank map of the US like you might have been handed in geography class for a quiz on labeling the states.  Starting from home in South Carolina, we mapped out a plan by drawing a line through the approximate areas we wanted to pass through in each state.  We knew we would break the journey down into a 3-week trip followed by an 8-week trip after a week at home for previously planned commitments.  We didn't really refer back to our drawing much after sketching it but roughly followed the original path we created.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel route map

How did you know which roads to take?
The short answer is, we just picked roads that went from where we were to where we wanted to be.  Sometimes this was a direct route, and other times it wasn't (usually on purpose; a few times by accident).  Sometimes we planned out our route in advance, and other times we just drove in the direction we wanted to go - West out of San Antonio, North out of Detroit, East out of Seattle, etc.

We both enjoyed looking at our big atlas and checking routes on the phone as we planned our days.

Driving toward Death Valley

What about hotel reservations?
For simplicity, most of our nights were at somewhat inexpensive chain hotels that included a free breakfast and a refrigerator in the room - and earned us points toward free nights.  Like with our routes, sometimes we planned our hotels out a few days in advance; other times we'd make a reservation while at lunch or dinner - or even as we rolled into town.  When you're staying in a different hotel night after night, your standards can drop some, and we didn't necessarily seek out the nicest hotels for most nights.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel Betsy's B&B - Bed & Breakfast Montpelier, Vermont
Betsy's B & B in Montpelier, Vermont was among our favorite hotels.

Checking reviews on websites is helpful in making sure you're not headed to a no-tell motel.  We chose hotels that were rated at least 3 out of 5 stars on various websites (usually Choice Hotels, but sometimes IHG or Priceline) and found that they were pretty consistent with their ratings.  Nice hotels are best when you have time to settle in and enjoy the place you're paying so much for, and a trip where seeing the country is the object, you don't have a lot of time to chill in a fancy hotel room.  We splurged some:  a Marriott on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, a Holiday Inn Express two blocks from Hollywood Blvd (which doesn't seem like it should fall into the 'splurge' category, but in LA the prices are insane; throw in parking fees and you've reached about 25% of your monthly mortgage for one night in the city!), and Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.  On occasion, we found great prices at local inns and bed & breakfasts, and on those occasions we enjoyed the change of pace from a chain hotel.

How did you pack for a three-month long trip?

When it was time for this trip, we packed our suitcases, threw them in the car, and pulled out of the driveway.  That sounds much easier than it was, though.  We tried to strike a balance between having everything we needed and packing our entire house into the back of our SUV.  There were certainly things we took that never made it out of the car (so many books and magazines, some clothes and shoes) and others that we couldn't have made the trip without (laundry supplies, snack stash, road atlas, rain boots, rain jacket, umbrellas (there's a theme developing here), etc.).  We had to do laundry in hotels several times, which is certainly different from doing it at home but certainly better than walking around in disgusting, smelly clothes for weeks on end.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - laundry in a hotel - Michigan
We somehow managed not to take a picture of all our luggage, 
so here's a shot of our most interesting hotel laundry experience.

How did you know where to eat?
We didn't!  Further complicating our decision-making process was the fact that we chose to avoid restaurants we could find at home.  To explain our reasoning, let me take you back to SAT prep for a minute.

Back Roads : Interstates :: Local Restaurants : National Chains

Do you remember how to read an analogy?  It goes like this:  back roads are to interstates as local restaurants are to national chains.  Just as a back road allows you to see the unique characteristics of individual cities, counties, states, and regions across the country more clearly, a local family-owned restaurant is often going to provide greater service, tastier food, and an overall better experience than the chain restaurant on the corner.  

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - Mi Tierra in Historic Market Square, El Mercado - San Antonio, Texas
Mi Tierra - San Antonio, Texas

There are also chain restaurants like Potbelly, In-N-Out, and Shake Shack that we love to visit when we find them since their closest locations are hundreds of miles from our home.  They are not the same as those local family-run places, but they still provide a unique opportunity to try something different instead of the same old meal you can get any day at home.  It's usually no more expensive to eat local than it is to eat familiar, so we recommend giving it a shot!

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - In-N-Out Los Angeles, California
In-N-Out employees cut potatoes into fries before dropping
them into the deep fryers, so you know you're getting fresh food!

If I haven't convinced you yet to avoid the chains while traveling, then I probably won't be able to, but I'll give it one more shot.  We shared our methods for finding great local restaurants, regardless of the size of the town in a post on our favorite road trip restaurants.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - Home of the ho-made pies at Thunderbird Restaurant near Zion and Bryce National Parks in Mt. Carmel, Utah
Thuderbird Restaurant - Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah

Breakfast was taken care of at most hotels, and we tried to keep it healthy (as in, we resisted the Belgian waffles, biscuits, grits, and donuts most days).  At home, I cook most nights, so shifting to eating at restaurants daily concerned me, but I found that while traveling, having a good breakfast similar to what I would eat at home prevented stomach problems that could arise from a such a sudden and prolonged change in diet.  When we weren't eating at local restaurants for lunch, we (I) spread up the road trip staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and occasional stops at grocery stores for yogurt and fruit provided better options than potato chips most days (though fruit doesn't keep well in a hot car or on ice in a cooler so it must be bought in small quantities and consumed pretty quickly).

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - soda fountain and restaurant in Goolrick's Pharmacy, Fredericksburg, Virginia
Goolrick's Pharmacy - Fredericksburg, Virginia

What about your house, pets, jobs, bills, etc.?

We are very lucky to have family members who love our dogs almost as much as we do and were willing to keep them for us so they didn't have to go to the kennel for three months.  We thought about taking them with us but couldn't quite figure how that would work - they wouldn't be able to go with us to lots of places (museums, national parks, etc.), and while some restaurants will allow animals on their patios, we don't think they'd want ours.  They're loud and excitable, and just not a good fit for an extended trip.  Nick's sister and her dog were able to 'move in' to our house for the majority of our trip and hang out with our dogs, taking care of the two biggest question marks of our trip.  She was also able to glance through our mail for anything that seemed important, which was incredibly helpful.  Jobs were easy; the company Nick worked for had sold, and we planned this trip during the four-month break he took before starting a new one.  I went part-time at my job a few years ago and was able to cover my commitments during our travels.  Bills were mostly set to auto-draft, and I created reminders in my phone to handle the ones that weren't.

Arriving home after being gone from these two sweet pups
for such a long time was a very joyful occasion for all.

But what do you do in the car for all that time?
See the world!  Or, see a lot of one country.  The point of being in the car on a back road is not to find something to DO; it's about observing your surroundings, regardless of whether it's a long cross-country trip or an afternoon drive not far from home.  Whether it's some bizarre roadside attraction that grabs your attention or comparing different styles of barns across the country, there's always something to see.  Even in Kansas, whose reputation of being a long, flat prairie precedes it, there are sights to see.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - Historic Route 66 Cars on the Route - Galena, Kansas
On Route 66 in Galena, Kansas, you'll find the truck that's said to be the inspiration for Tow-Mater.

Here's our advice for passing the time on the road:  We (I think Americans especially) live in a society where there's always something to be done - or we're sharing with the world our thoughts on this or that or a photo of what we just did or ate - and we don't take much time to slow down and enjoy the present as we should.  Forget about staying busy.  Just sit - without staring at your phone.  Look up; it's better for your neck, anyway.  Turn on music or an audiobook.  Take pictures of the scenery or that weird roadside statue.  Look for license tags from different states.  Chat.  Or just stare out the window in (companionable) silence.  Be present where you are.  Pictures can be shared later, but you can't get back the moment you're in.  Check out more tips for enjoying a road trip here.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - strange roadside attraction - Big Boy statue in Wyoming
Speaking of weird roadside attractions:  How about a Big Boy statue in 
the middle of the wilderness near Yellowstone National Park?  
I googled it for you so you can add it to your itinerary

How are you still married after that much time in the car together?  
Our answer to that is...why wouldn't we be?  We happen to like each other (often a precursor to the whole marriage thing), we have a lot of shared interests, and it just worked.  It probably helped that Nick's previous job was fairly demanding on his time, so our first 8 years of marriage were different than most people's - we never fell into a normal daily routine like most of our friends did, and on this trip we were able to share time together without an unpredictable schedule and phone calls at all hours.

We got pretty used to seeing only one side of each other's faces.

Can you really travel the country without taking the interstate?  
Yes.  It it absolutely possible to visit all 48 states without using an interstate highway.  There are some sections of the country where you have to get a little bit creative to do this, though, most notably in the West where roads are more spread out than in other areas.  Between Salt Lake City and San Francisco, for example, we jumped on I-80 for about 120 miles because we wanted to visit the Great Salt Lake, which is west of SLC.  Because there are fewer road options in western Utah, the most sensible back roads route would have required us to backtrack too much to meet my brother on time at the airport in San Francisco, where he joined us for a few days.  We decided that leaving him to hang out at the airport all afternoon waiting for us so we could stick to the back roads was probably not a great start to his weekend. 

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - Bonneville Salt Flats Utah
Some good did come out of this stretch of interstate, though.  
At the only rest stop for miles, you can access the 
Bonneville Salt Flats, which was an awesome surprise for us.

Another example is the stretch between Las Vegas and Zion National Park.  There are limited options for routes other than the interstate if you're choosing to travel between these two places, and both routes add about three hours to the trip.  We wanted to spend a few hours in Zion the day we arrived, so we chose to cheat that day.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - Utah
This is one of the stunning views we had from I-15 on the drive from Vegas to Zion.  
We know we missed some awesome back roads driving but enjoyed our afternoon exploring Zion.

The most common place where cheating occurred was when crossing bodies of water.  Many bridges over large rivers or lakes are interstate highway bridges.  Lucky for us, in many places, the interstate has technically merged with a 'back road' US highway, so it was technically not cheating. :-)

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - US 1 Washington, DC - Virginia
For example: Crossing into Washington, DC from Virginia on the I-395 bridge, there is a designated US 1 lane.  
If you look into the next lane, you can see the painted logos for both US 1 and I-395.
Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - Mackinaw Bridge - Mackinaw City to St. Ignace, Michigan
On the other hand, there are no anti-cheating lanes on the Mackinaw Bridge between 
Michigan's 'Mitten' and Upper Peninsula; I-75 is the only option.

The final place where cheating occurred was within large cities, especially Los Angeles.  Sometimes it was easier to avoid traffic backups off the interstate, but other times the stoplights would cause such a slowdown that being on the interstate was better.  Luckily, it's not only on bridges over water that a US Highway and interstate highway can merge with each other, so again it wasn't always technically cheating.

Back Roads Cross Country Road Trip travel - Los Angeles Friday afternoon traffic
There's no good time to arrive in LA, but Friday afternoon has certainly got to be the worst.
At that point, the quickest route was the best route.

You should now have a better understanding of what our No Interstate road trip was all about, but there's more to tell!  We plan to share tips on navigating back roads in the coming weeks so you'll know what to expect on your own back roads road trip!  Plus, you can follow along as we continue to share bits and pieces of our big, amazing No Interstates road trip!

Do you have more questions about back roads travel?  Comment below, and we'll do our best to answer them.  You can find a more detailed answers to these questions and more in our series on planning a back roads road trip.

Thanks for joining us today!

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  1. LOVE that you did this! We're taking a drive around Lake Superior this fall so we're going to hit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

    1. I hope you'll find some helpful info on our blog as you prepare for your trip!! Lake Superior was the one Great Lake we didn't see on our trip; we stayed on US 2 along Lake Michigan on the southern side of the UP, but if it's like the others, it'll be a beautiful drive - especially with fall leaves!

  2. Wow, I would have guessed that you would have needed to plan everything in advance, so really interesting to read how you did this amazing trip. I would love to be able to do a trip like this but I think I would need to do more detailed planning. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    1. Prior to this trip, I was right there with you. Historically, we've been pretty big planners and put all of our reservations and plans into a 3-ring binder to take with us, but this trip changed things for us. We do still plan some trips with pretty detailed itineraries, but it's quite freeing to just drive with no destination and no feeling that you 'have' to be somewhere!

  3. I like impromptu travel arrangements and they have worked successfully for me during long term travel. It is very difficult to plan when you are exploring and I have found that pre-planning gets completely changed.

    1. Why spend time planning every minute of every trip when it's likely that it will just change anyway? Glad to find some like-minded folks out there. :-)

  4. You seem as crazy as my husband and I are. Just hop in the car and go! We just drove from Germany down allll around the Balkans as far as the Black Sea in Bulgaria and back home. Road trips are the best way to see so much! We were go go go for two weeks almost a new hotel every day or every other day for 2 weeks. Now a 3 month trip would be fun! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. It is a little nuts! Wow, we'd love to do a big European road trip one day, too! We've driven from Paris to Normandy on back roads and it was quite an experience. It can get old moving from hotel to hotel after a few days, but it certainly forces you to pack only the essentials!

  5. So many food choices that are not chain restaurants! Totally the way to go. I love your answers to these questions, especially the one about still being married after so much time in the car. Corinne and I love the time we spend with each other on road trips. If you can't handle several hours alone together it might be time to rethink things! Thanks for linking up with #wkendtravelinspiration!

    1. Thanks, Jim! It seems like a necessity to me to be able to (and actually enjoy!) hanging out with your spouse; to us, a road trip is the perfect opportunity to do just that. Glad to hear there are others out there with the same opinion!

  6. We've done several long road trips - South Carolina to the Grand Canyon, all over California and a circle loop around 8 western states but never any as ambitious as yours. I love finding out of the way places like you do - I usually use Roadside America to help me find quirky and ecccentric places. Love the Bonneville Salt Flats surprise you found!

    1. 'Shorter' trips like those are certainly more do-able. Being on the road for so long can get a little old, no matter how much fun you're having!! I like checking Roadside America, too!! We've also found several goofy stops that way.

  7. Loved this am I'm closing in quickly on my own big road trip! I'm bringing my dog along, so it will be interesting..she's pretty chill, though! I love your restaurant approach, great idea! (I'm planning lots of PB&J, too!)

    1. Good luck traveling with your dog, Leigh! It would have been fun to have a canine companion on the road. Enjoy those PBJs!!!

  8. I really enjoyed following your trip and seeing the "behind the scenes" is just as fascinating. Great tips for anyone thinking of trying out a road trip and you guys absolutely smashed it! I would travel in exactly the same way - avoiding chain restaurants, taking back roads and having loads of PB&J sandwiches!! Thanks for sharing

  9. Laughing about your LA on Friday afternoon pic. Yep, that looks about right.

  10. This seems like one of the greatest adventures ever! I do admire the plan-as-you-go approach; sometimes it's the only way to really take the time you want in the places you want, but it can be hard to venture forth without the safety net of reservations. Your experience is a great reminder that it's do-able! And we can't let the photo of Big Boy out in the field go without comment. We LOVE that! Just so quirky... Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard!

  11. Sound's like our sort of trip! Well done guys. My hubby and I did the same sort of thing when we backed the car, connected the fishing boat and camped our way around Australia. We just decided where we were going on the day... or if we were going at all! Awesome time!

    1. Wow! I don't know if I'd have the guts to camp my way across the country, but it sounds awesome. Australia is a place we would love to visit one day!

  12. What a great road trip and so jealous of the In n' Out photo! I can not buy those juicy hamburgers here. Love your plan as you go approach to your journey across country. Also great tips for the journey along the way. Thanks for sharing :-) #feetdotravel

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. We unfortunately can't get those yummy burgers here, either! I read an article somewhere that they will only open locations within a few hundred miles of their distribution center to ensure fresh food. Just another reason to travel to the Western US!

  13. You guys are nuts!! I love it!! I have to do this!! Thanks for the great info.