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Planning a road trip in the U.S.

Updated: Jan 21, 2024  | Tags: ESTA Requirements, ESTA for Tourism

America has a diverse landscape that offers visitors a variety of geographies to explore. All these are interconnected via the long roads that cross one region to another, making a road trip a good way to explore the U.S. Planning is necessary so that travelers can get the most out of their visit. However, for those that prefer making spontaneous plans, it’s important to have an idea of some of the places that you want to visit in advance.

Planning a road trip in the U.S.
Planning a road trip in the U.S.

Required U.S. Travel Authorizations

A visit to the United States requires you to obtain a visa or a visa waiver. Approval is necessary regardless of the amount of time you would like to spend in the country. For those planning to stay for less than three months, and will be flying to the United States before starting their road trip, should consider using ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Visits longer than this requires you to get a normal visa. The ninety-day duration will start immediately you set foot in the United States. Travelers should be mindful of their itinerary as the duration won’t reset if you make a detour to South America, Canada, or the Caribbean. Make it a point to get the most out of the ninety-day visit. Travelers planning on road trips longer than 90 days should consider applying for a B-2 tourist visa.

Travelers not eligible for an ESTA or wishing to stay in the U.S. longer than three months can start a B-2 tourist visa application online by submitting a DS-160. After submitting a DS-160 form, applicants will then need to schedule an interview at a nearby embassy or consulate. Travelers should ensure they have at least six months validity remaining on their passport at the time of their arrival in the United States. A B-2 tourist visa is usually issued for a period of 10 years and can be used for visits of up to six months per stay.

Properly Prepare Yourself: The United States is Large

Remember that the U.S. is a large country and you should plan on a route before your arrival. For road trippers with limited travel time, consider starting the trip by visiting the states you would like to see the most. You can also save time if you fly in between destinations when possible.

It's essential to balance driving time with exploration time. Research the highlights of each area, including national parks, historic sites, cultural attractions, and local cuisine, to ensure you don't miss any must-see locations.

To get started, create a list of states or cities you wish to visit in their geographical order. For instance, ensure that as soon as you have left the East Coast, there won’t be a need for you to visit the area again. If you don’t foresee wanting to make a stop at a city within 16 hours of driving time, consider taking a one-way flight to your desired destination instead of driving.

Crossing through borders

If you are starting your road trip in Canada, you should be aware of travel restrictions when crossing the Canadian border into the United States. You may be required to show evidence of your right to enter the United States by land, such as a passport, green card or other government accepted form of identification.

Should you buy or rent a car for your road trip?

Some road trippers may wish to purchase a car instead of dealing with a rental company. Buying a vehicle in the U.S. for your road trip comes with additional considerations and costs. Before you decide to purchase a car in the U.S., you will need to know the following:

  • Depending on the states you are driving through, legally, the car must be insured. Car insurance in the U.S. will typically cost you between $300 to $500 USD each month.
  • Any insurance company you choose will validate your nationality. If you are foreign, the insurance provider may charge you extra.
  • You will need a U.S. address, for example, a relative’s or friends.
  • You will be asked to confirm the validity of your driving license.

Buying a car requires you to consider a number of additional factors. Although renting a car is generally easier, going on a road trip with your own vehicle has its own advantages as well.

When is the best time to rent a car?

You have several options to consider when renting a car. Booking in advance is important to guarantee that you will get started on the road trip without having issues regarding car availability or desired vehicle type.

Some car insurance companies or booking websites may vary rates between 10-20% at any given time period. To avoid missing out on savings, travelers can book their rental car on a rate that offers free cancellation. If a lower rate is offered at any point afterwards, travelers can cancel their previous booking and keep the booking with the lower rate.

As you scroll through the rental websites, pay special attention to the vehicles available and their daily rates. Make inquiries to establish whether the rates are inclusive of taxes and insurance costs. Failure to do so may lead to you having to pay extra money at the end of the trip, which may cause your travel budget to balloon. So, carefully consider your car rental options to make certain that you can afford it.

How should you pack for your road trip?

Even though you will be driving for the better part of the journey, you should aim to pack lightly. Light packing improves your travel time and reduces your gas consumption as the car will be lighter. Only pack essential clothing, emergency equipment or other items as you can always buy other goods you need during your road trip.

If planning a summer road trip, pack light summer clothing. You can always buy warmer clothing if there are weather changes or lower temperatures due to seasonality.

Also, consider shopping at renowned nation-wide retailers, such as Walmart or Target. These retailers usually stock a variety of items from groceries, clothing, first-aid, automotive and other items that are essential for any road trip.

As you plan your road trip, pack items that will make the unexpected break or the long hours spent in the car fun and relaxing. For instance, consider bringing along your favorite charger and accompanying accessories. While it’s still possible to take pictures with your smartphone, having a real camera guarantees that they will turn out much better. Consider carrying an e-reader and a few good books and maps.

Preparing your vehicle

Ensuring your vehicle is in good condition is essential for a safe and enjoyable road trip. Conduct a thorough check of your car, including the engine, brakes, tires, and fluids. It's advisable to have a mechanic perform a full inspection, especially if you're planning a long journey.

Pack an emergency kit with essentials such as a first aid kit, flashlight, jumper cables, and basic tools. Also, consider bringing a spare tire, extra fluids for your vehicle, and a portable charger for your phone. Familiarize yourself with your vehicle's features and how to address common issues you might encounter on the road.

Budgeting for your trip

A crucial aspect of planning your road trip is budgeting. Your budget will influence various factors, including accommodation, food, and activities. Start by estimating the cost of fuel, which will be one of your significant expenses. Use online calculators or apps to estimate fuel costs based on your vehicle's mileage and the distance you plan to cover.

Accommodation options vary from budget-friendly motels and campgrounds to luxury hotels and vacation rentals. Booking in advance can save you money and secure better deals, especially during peak travel seasons. For meals, consider a mix of dining out and preparing your own food to balance cost and convenience.

Don't forget to set aside a portion of your budget for attractions, park fees, and unexpected expenses, such as vehicle maintenance or roadside assistance.

Navigating and staying connected

Having reliable navigation is crucial for a successful road trip. Use GPS or smartphone apps with offline maps to guide you, especially in areas with limited cell service. Bring a physical map or atlas as a backup in case of technology failures.

Stay connected with family and friends by sharing your itinerary and checking in regularly. Consider purchasing a portable Wi-Fi hotspot or ensuring your phone plan includes adequate data for the areas you'll be traveling through.

Health and safety considerations

Your health and safety are paramount during a road trip. Take regular breaks to rest and stretch, especially during long drives. Stay hydrated and eat balanced meals to maintain energy levels.

Be aware of local laws and speed limits, and practice safe driving habits. In case of emergencies, know the locations of hospitals and urgent care facilities along your route. Travel insurance can provide additional peace of mind, especially for extended trips.


Travelers wanting to experience the variety of American geographies, cultures and climate should consider taking a road trip through the country. Although road trips require additional planning and travel times, they offer travelers a richer experience and more flexibility around sight-seeing.