When I moved to the US in 2016, driving across the country was at the top of my bucket list. Just before leaving Google and switching to LinkedIn, I decided to use all my vacation days at Google, rent a car and drive coast to coast, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Here’s all the research I did for the trip. Hope this helps!
Best time for cross country trip
Life happens, we all are busy. I always had excuses. From work and promotion to weather, financial and personal reasons, I always had an excuse to do it later. The day I received an offer from LinkedIn, I knew that if I don’t do a cross country trip now, I’d probably never do. I immediately made Google Docs of all the airline miles, hotel rewards and credit card points and began planning.
The northern route gets covered with snow, so summer is the only time to do this trip via North. Also I wanted to go to
- Places I hadn’t been before
- Places that are far from major airports (basically avoiding major cities) as I could visit them easily on weekends.
This was the route we took. The route appears to be 3500 miles but the actual driving we did was more than 5000 miles as driving within National Parks adds up pretty quick.
Hotels v/s Campsites
Campsites would be way more fun, however I only had 2 weeks to do the trip, which meant driving per day would be higher, so I decided to go ahead with hotels for a good night sleep. I stayed with Marriott throughout the trip. I applied for the Bonvoy Amex credit card before the trip, giving 100,000 points as signup bonus and Gold Elite status, which was enough to cover most of the trip cost.
I used to work on Travel back then, so I was eligible for their Travel Agent rates, which made the prices for all Marriotts on my trip cheaper than most motels. Even without a travel agent, hotels have
50 minutes can save you 50% or more with car rental companies!
Again, RV would be more fun but 5000 miles in 2 weeks is tough in an RV, so we rented a car from Hertz. I’ve been renting very regularly with National but all their rates included a one way fee making the cost of rental >$2000. With Hertz we got a Sedan (Camry) for $800 for 3 weeks. I used Chase Sapphire for this as it provides primary insurance coverage on the rental. Also we found CDP codes which waived off the one way rental fee, dropping the price from $1700 for 2 weeks to $800 for 3 weeks.
- Rate codes: You can be eligible for multiple CDP rate codes, although you cannot combine these discounts, each of these come with very different pricing structures. Some codes offered a lower daily rate but had a mileage restrictions, for a one way cross country trip, one way drop off fees add up really fast, so I picked a rate code that had no mileage limit and no one way drop fee, even though it had a slightly higher daily rate
- Airport or Non-Airport: The daily rate for dropping car at an airport location v/s a non location were very different. Avoid picking and dropping at airports for long rentals
- Day of pickup: If you’re keeping a car for 2-3 weeks, one extra day won’t make much of a difference on the price. Most rental cars are picked up starting Fridays, so picking up on a Thursday would give more options
- Sedan v/s SUV: While SUVs are more comfortable, I picked up a Sedan as luggage in SUV trunks can be visible, making them prone to theft when carrying a lot of luggage.
- Different locations in New York: Changing the dropoff from Newark to Brooklyn changed the price of a 3 week rental from ~$1200 to ~$800. I’m not sure how these rates work, but changing from NY to NJ or changing to a different borough in New York changes the daily rate.
It was a one way drive, for the return flight, we used the United Club card to book flights to get 2 + 2 checked in bags for free (even on basic economy). The card with annual fee of $450 comes with waived fee for 1st year. (great if you are within 5/24 rule or can travel with someone who is).
Fri, 28 June
This was the Friday before the long weekend, so most of the evening was being stuck in the bay area traffic. The highlight was the dinner at midtowneatsreno@ in Reno. Their cocktails and burgers were outstanding. The only plan for the day was to get away from bay area traffic to get a head start for the weekend.
Hotel: Fairfield Reno sparks
Loneliest road in America
Sat, 29 June
Drive from Reno to Elko on US50, called the Loneliest Road in America. Barely any gas stations. People lived here during the mining days of gold rush, but now there are just ghost towns all along.
Here’s the reason why US50 is called the loneliest road in America. We hardly saw other cars throughout our day
During the gold rush of 1849, people from all over the world tried to reach California. Crossing this stretch of Nevada was the most difficult part for people coming via land. These remains of their wagons and belongings show their stories
Niagara of the West
Before I started planning this trip, I had no expectations from Twin Falls, or Idaho in general. I assumed Idaho would be a drive-by state but boy I was wrong. If there’s one place on my trip where I wish I had more time, it has to be Idaho. Twin falls.
Shoshone falls, called the Niagara of the west was an absolute delight. We went to see the falls after a stop at a hot spring. There are dozens of hot springs in the area, we picked one with the minimum detour on the drive from Elko to Twin Falls.
Kayaking here was truly unique as you can kayak as close to the falls as you feel safe. We kayaked till the Perrine Bridge, which is a popular base jumping site known all over the world. It is the only man-made structure in the United States where base jumping is allowed year-round without a permit. Unfortunately we could not see any base jumpers that day, but the bridge is a popular spot for watching base jumpers.
Grand Teyton National Park
Mon, 1 July
Very well known for hiking and the untouched Nature, we spent a day in Grand Teyton. Taking a boat to Jenny lake, we hiked up to the inspiration point from there.
Yellowstone National Park
Tue, 2 July, Wed, 3 July
One full day of geysers and another full day of wildlife. 4 million people visit Yellowstone every year, so avoid going on a weekend. We went on Tuesday and Wednesday just before the 4th of July and the park was not crowded at all.
The geysers eruptions are predictable with varying degrees of accuracy for different geysers. It’s a complex optimization problem trying to figure out the best way to see most geysers erupt in a day. NPS updates their website daily with predicted eruption times for the next day. Make sure to take a screenshot of that before entering the park as internet connection doesn’t work in most parts of the park.
4th July in the least populated state of the US: Wyoming
Thu, July 4
One thing I was really enjoying was the ease of finding parking and no traffic anywhere on the trip so far, even on the 4th of July week.
The city of San Francisco is not even 50sq mi. My hometown of Vadodara is larger in size, and much much larger than SF in population. The ENTIRE state of Wyoming has a much smaller population than the city of San Francisco. Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and South Dakota combined have population smaller than the bay area where I live.
We were staying at the Fairfield Inn in Gillette, WY. We reached our hotel early and discovered there was a waterpark at the hotel with slides and lazy river (not a bad deal as we paid around $40 for 4 people with breakfast). We had no idea about the waterpark until we checked in, so we immediately dropped our luggage and ran to the park like kids running to ice cream trucks. It’s funny how little things and surprises become the best memories and we still laugh at how we ran when we saw the slides.
Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower
Fri, July 5
I’m a big big fan of National Park Services. One of the reasons NPS is awesome is because of their rangers. At Rushmore we attended a ranger talk. The talk was about Theodore Roosevelt and his contributions to preserving nature. He created the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. He goes camping with John Muir in the grandeur of the American West and turned Yosemite into federal land. Whoa!
We also wanted to visit the Windcave National Park but unfortunately the elevators were broken that week. We returned to the hotel early and enjoy beers at the hotel talking about bears we saw earlier. (please bear with me, this is the last one, I promise beary much).
Badlands National Park and Wall Drug Store
Sat, July 6
After a well rested Friday, there was lot of driving for next 2 days. We tried to be in National Parks and famous places on weekdays to avoid the crowds which meant weekends involved a lot of driving. On our drive to Badlands National Park, our first stop was a drug store.
Wait, a drug store? Yes
What is it? A drug store
Really? See above
The city of Wall is in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota. 80 years ago, this drug store started offering free iced water and 5c coffee to visitors. With time this became really popular as a thriving oasis. Today this town has grown to 800 residents, but attracts more than 2 million visitors.
Here’s a picture of me with their 5c coffee:
Badlands National Park
If you have time to do just one thing in the park, it has to be the Notch Trail.
If you have time for two, then also check out the fossil lab. Even today, visitors find a lot of fossils in the park. The park has paleontologists (not Ross, actual ones) who work on those fossils and are very happy to talk more about the fossils they find and study.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site was established in 1999 to illustrate the history and significance of the Cold War, the arms race, and intercontinental ballistic missile development. This National Historic Site preserves the last remaining Minuteman II ICBM system in the United States.
From the NPS Website: Hidden in plain sight, for thirty years 1,000 missiles were kept on constant alert; hundreds remain today. The Minuteman Missile remains an iconic weapon in the American nuclear arsenal. It holds the power to destroy civilization, but is meant as a nuclear deterrent to maintain peace and prevent war.
World’s only corn palace
Everything inside this building is made of corn. They change the theme every year. While it seems to have lots of good reviews, we decided to skip their tour, partly because we were tired and partly we didn’t find it too interesting for our interests.
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
Sun, July 7
The next morning we got up early as it was a day of long drive. We started at Sioux Falls and our stay for the next night was in Iowa. By the time we reached Omaha we were pretty hungry as we had already done a few hours of driving after waking up. We stopped at Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob where they had amazing falafel wraps and fries.
If there’s one (two) name(s) I’ll remember from this trip, it will be Lewis & Clark. Now everyone has heard of Omaha as the city where Warren Buffet lives but the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center is also in Omaha. We watched a short film at the NPS visitor center that commemorates the Lewis & Clark Expedition that traveled, camped, hinted and fished, met with the Native people and held council with Indian Cheifs in this area.
Just outside the visitor center is a walking bridge that starts in Nebraska and ends in Iowa. There are rental bikes available under the bridge.
After all these days of traveling and trying a lot of good food, we did began to miss the Indian food of bay area. However after Omaha we headed to Iowa and stayed with a friend who is a great chef! From home baked cinnamon rolls and chicken tikka to biryani and homemade honey lemon ice cream, everything was homemade from scratch, even the spices, and we stuffed ourselves with more food than we thought we could ever eat, enough to not miss Indian food for another few days, or weeks.
After the heavy dinner, we headed to Van Allen Observatory at University of Iowa, and tried to learn how to operate this huge reflective telescope. Even though I’m a Software Engineer, I was awestruck when my friend booted the computer and clicked a few buttons that opened the observatory dome. Instead of a ceiling we had stars over our head now, just because he clicked a few buttons, isn’t that cool?
Maquoketa State Park
Mon, July 8
Since our stop in Iowa was also about visiting a friend, we were spending another day in this non touristy city. All we did on a lazy Monday was taking a short drive to Maquoketa State Park which boasts of some beautiful caves. Only some of the caves are big enough to enter without fully laying down and crawling. Artifacts such as pottery, as well as tools and projectile points made of stone have been found in the caves and surrounding area.
At the end of the day, we did a short drive to Chicago and stayed there for the night.
Indiana Dunes National Park and Breweries in Ann Arbor
Tue, July 9
An early morning drive from Chicago took us to Indiana Dunes National Park, the newest (61st) National Park in the US. It was too hot for a long hike but we did a small trail before heading to Ann Arbor.
The downtown / university area is great for an evening walk with lots of restaurants and breweries. We walked around and started looking for places to eat as we were hungry after all the walking.
After reading reviews, we picked HopCat as the reviews mentioned they had a great collection of beers. I fell in love with some of the local Michican beers, specially Oro De Calabaza. These were the ones I liked (in order):
- Oro De Calabaza (the one I’m having in the picture)
- District 16
- Dragon’s Milk
Henry Ford, River Raisin and Cuyahoga National Park
Wed, July 9
Henry Ford Museum
A visit to Michigan is incomplete without visiting Pictured Rocks and Detroit. While we left Pictured Rocks for another trip due to time constraints, we did stop in Michican to check out the Ford Museum. My favorite part of the museum was learning about Ford Model T, the first mass produced car. Every day at the Henry Ford Museum, this Model T is disassembled so that visitors to the museum can assemble a peice through the day
And here is a finished Model T
Another part of the museum has a line up of cars from all eras, my favorite of those was the 1962 MUSTANG 1. This is the very first piece ever made.
Yet another section of the museum also has all the presidential cars.
River Raisin National Battlefield Park
All the NPS sites I’ve seen are very well maintained. After visiting the Ford Museum we were driving to Cuyahoga National Park but on the way we saw signs for River Raisin National Battlefield Park, and with most NPS sites there are friendly rangers to share stories and answer questions, so we decided to take the detour and stopped at the battlefield where the war of 1812 was fought. This war is considered one of the worst defeats of the US. This war was fought in snow, thus the catapult has a sled underneath it. This sled was a characteristic of the war. The visitor center had a gift shop where we bought souvenirs and continued our drive.
Cuyahoga National Park
This is a National Park close to Cleveland. We had only a few hours so instead of rushing through a lot of things decided to sit and enjoy the two most known falls: the Blue Hen Falls and Brandywine Falls.
After sunset, we drove to Pittsburgh where we were staying for the night.
Pittsburgh and Flight93 Memorial
Thu, July 9
Pittsburgh – Home of the Pirates. We started the day walking around the stadium as it was right across our hotel.
Very soon the weather started to get cloudy
And in no time it started to rain so we headed to a Fort Pitt Museum.
The best spot for getting views of the city.
Flight 93 National Memorial
The Flight 93 National Memorial is located at the site of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked in the September 11 attacks. It is heartbreaking to hear the recordings and stories of the passengers on the flight.
Tower of Voices
Chocolates and rides at the Hershey Park
Fri, July 9
A fun filled day of rides and chocolates.
Local beers at Appalachian Brewing Company
The Atlantic: New York
Sat, July 9
Final day of the trip. After all the hikes and beers and adventure, we were ready to skip everything touristy in New York and just head to the airport as we had been to New York many times. The trip with 5300+ miles of driving via 14 states and 5 National Parks came to an end with nothing but the best memories for a lifetime.
I was told I might temporarily get bored of driving after this trip, but if anything has happened, it has increased my love for driving and road trips. After having so much fun and visiting so many places, I cannot wait to go on my next road trip.
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