7 Steps to Taking the Best U.S. Winter Road Trip Ever

See recent posts by Lara Grant

When I think of road trips, I imagine cruising down the highway with the sun on my face and wind in my hair; along with camping and barbecuing, road-tripping is a quintessential summer activity (albeit one that takes a bit longer than throwing a few burgers on the grill). But after being convinced to take one last winter (and having it end up being amazing), I can honestly say that not only can itbe done once temperatures drop, but it should beBy traveling in the frosty months, you'll be able to avoid the warm-weather crowds and see landscapes in an atypical, but equally beautiful, way. So download your books on tape, fill your thermos with hot chocolate, and read on to learn the seven steps you need to take to enjoy a totally awesome cross-country road trip this winter.

Hotels in this story

Step 1: Pick a Southern Route

While the northern part of the country has incredible scenery and sites, winter is not the ideal time to see them. Icy and snowy roads will limit your mobility and make traveling more dangerous, while fewer daylight hours will restrict how much you can see in one day. Fortunately, a large portion of the southern U.S. is perfectly safe for driving during winter. I traveled from Nashville to San Diego, but as long as you choose a route that keeps you below the latitude that marks the southern border of Kansas, you should be just fine.

Step 2: Make an Outline of Dates and Must-See Sights

Fatigue, roadside stops, and unforeseen events will unavoidably occur, and they may alter your schedule. Still, try to make a general (and realistic) outline of which city you want to sleep in each night. Professional truck drivers have limits on how many hours they can drive straight, so be sure to set some for yourself to ensure your safety. My road trip buddy and I had a flexible limit of six hours per day, and allowed for a little more if we switched off. Some days we hauled through (sorry, Arkansas) in order to spend more time in other cities (looking at you, Santa Fe). Be sure to get out and stretch and if you get tired, call it a night and head to a hotel. Safety first!

Take a look at must-see U.S. landmarks across the country.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in San Diego

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in San Diego

There are likely a few sites along the way that have already made your list of must-visit locations, so prioritize those. Then research other noteworthy or unique places to stop by on your drive. Sites like TripAdvisor and Roadtrippers.com are great resources for finding landmarks, restaurants, and activities that are actually worth your time and money.

For inspiration: We had downtown Nashville, Beale Street in Memphis, Hot Springs, Arkansas, Ten Thousand Waves Spa in Santa Fe, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, and Coronado Island on our have-to-see list. 

Step 3: Find Accommodations

We booked a room at Hotel Santa Fe using HotelTonight.

We booked a room at Hotel Santa Fe using HotelTonight.

Among friends’ apartments, hotels, and Airbnb properties, there are quite a few options for overnight accommodations. And of course, there’s always camping, though that’ll depend on your desired comfort level. During my road trip, we used most options: a cozy hotel in Santa Fe, found using the HotelTonight app; my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Dallas; a cheap motel in Little Rock; and a girl’s artist-chic house in Nashville through couchsurfing.com. There’s no right option, but take your budget and travel style into account. We also chose not to book anything too far in advance to account for unforeseen travel delays.

Step 4: Take Prep Seriously & Get Packing

First and foremost, make sure your car is in tip-top shape for a cross-country excursion. Get a car inspection, and pack a spare tire (and know how to put one on!), jumper cables, and a car safety kit. You’ll also want to bring a first-aid kit, blankets, water jugs, and energy bars. 

There are hundreds of road trip packing lists on the internet for reference; download one that best suits your needs or create your own. Take into account the different climates you’re going to encounter and know that layering is your friend. On our two-week excursion, it was rainy in Nashville, snowy and freezing in Arizona, and sunny and warm in San Diego. Fortunately, with a car you can pack more than you can squeeze into a carry-on.  

Step 5: Get on the Road

Self-explanatory. Load up the car, plug your first destination into GPS or Google maps, and get on your way. Car chargers are clutch if you’re using your phone for navigation. For entertainment, download books from Audible, listen to podcasts on Radiolab, or build an epic iTunes playlist.

Step 6: Talk to Locals

The surest way to get the inside scoop on a city, and be pointed in the right direction for restaurants and activities, is to talk to locals. Whether that’s the hotel concierge or random customers at a coffee shop, introduce yourself and ask for advice. People love talking about their city and are guaranteed to know a spot or two that weren’t on your radar. Who knows, you may hit it off and have your own personal tour guide for the day. Couchsurfing.com also has a feature where you can search people in a location who want to meet up and show tourists around. Our couchsurfing host suggested we have a family-style brunch at Monell’s At the Manor in Nashville and it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

Step 7: Have Fun and Leave Room for Spontaneity!

Lastly, have fun and be open to experiences that may not have been on your original itinerary. The best part of a road trip is that your car can take you almost wherever you want to go. Meet new people, see amazing places, and fill your camera’s memory card. 

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