How to Plan a Road Trip Out West

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Last Updated on May 19, 2024 by Grant

Despite the fact that Grant and I live just outside Atlanta, GA, we have done MANY road trips out West. Some of those have been relatively short (1-2 weeks), while others have been a month or longer. So, let’s talk about how we plan a road trip out West (or anywhere else) and give you tips on how you can plan a similar adventure of your own.

We’ve done road trips both with and without our RV. Many aspects of planning an RV road trip are the same as a road trip with just a normal passenger vehicle. But there are some logistics that you should consider if road-tripping with an RV.

I’ll use our 2017 RV road trip that took us all the way to California as my example. This particular trip was about seven weeks long. Yours may be longer or shorter, but the planning stages are the same, regardless of the amount of time spent on the road.

Taking our new RV home.
We love road-tripping with our travel trailer and F-150.

Planning any trip can feel overwhelming, at least in the beginning. Even I get nervous when I start thinking about planning a trip and I’ve planned many trips and generally enjoy doing it.

The key to planning your road trip is to take it one step at a time. Do what you can, when you can and don’t stress about the details until the time comes to think about the details. You can’t figure out what hotel or campground you’re staying at if you don’t know where you’re going. Start with big ideas and then narrow things down from there.

(Disclaimer: When we link to places where you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes that earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

Choosing Your Road Trip Itinerary

When choosing your itinerary, choose a few big stops that really fuel your passion and get you excited. Then add additional stops in nearby places along the way.

This 2017 itinerary had us on the road for 50 days. That beat our previous “longest road trip to date” by a whopping 12 days. Since then, we’ve typically spent about 6-7 weeks on the road every summer. Yes, both of us being teachers has its advantages when it comes to travel!

We chose this itinerary for several different reasons. Traveling West is truly one of our favorite directions to go. Almost all of our long-term trips have taken us west of the Mississippi River.

The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.
The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.

In 2016, we forced ourselves to New England for a new adventure. While we loved it, we quickly realized it had been three years since we explored the western frontier in the summer. Quite simply, we were ready to return to our “happy place.”

In planning our itinerary, we considered just about all destinations “out West,” focusing on the West Coast. We considered California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah… You get the idea. Ultimately, we had to narrow things down so that we wouldn’t be moving too much! We decided our main two stops would be Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.

We chose Yosemite because we had not traveled to California together. Not only did we get to add another state to our list, but we got to add one of the most amazing national parks as well. Who wouldn’t be excited about that?

Among the bison in Yellowstone National Park - one of our favorite road trip stops.
A calf among the bison in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife viewing is one of many reasons why we love Yellowstone.

We chose to return to Yellowstone because it is truly one of our favorite destinations in the world. This was our fourth trip there together and we were still very excited. We always love seeing geysers, canyons, wildlife and so much more! It truly never gets old.

Wherever you decide to go, make sure it is something that you are really excited about!

Determining Your Road Trip Route & Details

Once we made the decision on the big stops, it was time to fill in the details and find additional sites to visit. National Park sites fuel many of our road trip routes. We try to string together several sites to make an interesting route, both on the way out and on the way back.

Suggestions for planning your route:

  • Use Pinterest to search for interesting ideas.
  • Ask coworkers and friends for suggestions.
  • Visit family or friends in the area.
  • Retrace the steps of a memorable childhood vacation.
The RoadTripper app makes planning your road trip a breeze.
The RoadTrippers app is one of my favorite road trip planning apps. You can see a visual of your route and it will estimate your drive time and gas costs.

Our first real stop after leaving our home in Woodstock, GA was in the Flagstaff, AZ area (after three days of driving). A work colleague told us about Meteor Crater and, with a few Google searches, we were sold!

There are several National Park sites nearby as well, which is always a plus for us. We, of course, also spent some time “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” while we were in the area.

Another big stop, after Yosemite, was Great Basin National Park. We had considered Great Basin for a few years. Since it is more-or-less between Yosemite and Yellowstone, this worked out perfectly for this trip!

National parks books and maps help us plan our road trip.
We use these books and the map of the National Parks System to do a lot of road trip planning.

After a trip I took with my dad and sister many years ago, I knew driving the Extraterrestrial Highway across Nevada would be interesting. My research with Google and Pinterest searches also brought up information about Cathedral Gorge State Park. And, just like that, we had an interesting route across Nevada from Yosemite to Great Basin!

Another big stop was western Colorado. It was “on the way back” and allowed us to visit several National Park sites we haven’t seen and see some family.

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Campground or Hotel Reservations

Once you have the route mapped out, it is time to start making reservations. We sometimes struggle with how detailed we should plan things out. When we were tent camping, we could be a bit more spontaneous and wait until the last minute for campgrounds or hotels. We have found we are not comfortable doing that with the trailer and, especially when our cat, Alee, traveled with us.

First, we simply had to find a place with hookups so we could leave Alee during the day. Second, when pulling a trailer, hotels are pretty much off-limits unless they have ample parking. Even if we could park, many hotels do not accept pets, much less cats.

Sadly, we lost Alee, our camping kitty to a tumor in 2019. We miss having her with us at home and on the road.

Alee, the camping kitty, hanging out in the camper. We love that she can now travel with us on long road trips.
Alee, the camping kitty, hanging out in the camper. We love that she can now travel with us on long road trips.

So, we used to find ourselves planning the details a bit more rigidly than we might really want to. Now that we are traveling without a cat, we do have a little more flexibility. Still, with the rise in popularity of RVing and camping, we often find ourselves making reservations fairly far in advance.

I typically use campground reviews on RV Life, along with Tripadvisor and Campendium to research campgrounds and find us the best place to stay. I also created this document to help me compare campgrounds and pick the right one.

For hotels, we prefer the Hilton chain, where we love earning and redeeming Hilton Honors points. If there isn’t a Hilton hotel in a particular area, we use Tripadvisor to find hotels.

Once I start making campground reservations, I keep a record of everything using my Campground Reservation sheet. This allows me to know exactly what I booked and all the pertinent information of the reservation. This is especially useful for campgrounds, which are less likely to send an email confirmation than a hotel.

National Park or Other Attraction Reservations

Even when visiting national parks these days, you do have to think about timed-entry reservations. There are a few parks, like Arches NP, Rocky Mountain NP and Glacier NP that require reservations to enter some of all areas of the park. Many other sites require reservations for house tours, cave tours or other types of guided tours.

Even some museums and other attractions have begun requiring timed-entry reservations.

Back up trying to get into Arches National Park
The road into Arches National Park in the early afternoon backed up despite the Timed Entry System

As you begin planning your road trip, be sure to check the website of each park or attraction to find out if you need to make advance reservations. Finding out early on that you missed your opportunity to get tickets for a specific park or tour could affect your entire trip.

When it comes to national park reservations, it is important to note that many times only a fraction of tickets are released initially, which is often several months in advance. Additional tickets are often released 1-2 days prior. We had to rely on these “last minute tickets” when visiting Arches in 2022 after the historic flooding forced us to completely cancel our entire summer trip to Yellowstone.

Read my full guide on national parks trip planning here.

When to Make Reservations

If you have more flexibility, you could certainly wait and make at least some of these decisions on the road. How much you plan in advance is totally up to you, your travel style and where you are visiting.

On that note, some places fill up quickly. Do your research and know if you need to book in advance. Yosemite is very popular in the summer, so I made those reservations in December. Others weren’t made until April.

We stayed at one of the Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds on Council Grove Lake... One of the best campgrounds we have ever been to.
While we love tent camping, sleeping on an air mattress gets really old after four weeks.

Every destination is different, so do your homework early and know what to expect. And, if you aren’t making reservations in advance, be ready to not have as many choices or possibly even miss a desired stop because there is no availability.

That actually happened to us on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago when we were tent camping. We didn’t have a reservation. We visited several campgrounds and hotels and found no vacancies. Cell phone coverage was basically non-existent, so we couldn’t call or do much research.

Canyons of the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument
Canyons of the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument

We ended up driving all the way to the other side of Denver and skipping Rocky Mountain altogether. That is always a risk when you don’t have a reservation.

On the flip side, we once had a three-night reservation at a state park in southwest Montana. Bad conditions, along with the remoteness of the campground, led us to leave early. We ended up moving on after just one night and forfeiting our payment for the other two nights.

That’s one of the fun things about travel: you never know what will happen!

Grant-Kohrs Ranch
Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site is one of our favorite spots in Montana and ended up being our destination after leaving a campground early.

Budget

A big consideration for any road trip is the budget. Your budget will often dictate, or at least influence, where you go, how long you are gone, where you stay and much more.

Hopefully, you think about your budget before you start planning. Grant wrote an in-depth article on travel finance, which covers many aspects of budgeting for travel. If you have questions on budgeting, start at Travel Finance 101.

Budgeting for a long road trip can seem overwhelming. But there is one benefit to a long trip that is sometimes easier to deal with than on a shorter trip: You are able to use your “normal” monthly budget.

A screenshot of Mint on the phone
Mint is a great tool for giving you the big picture of your finances.

Of course, you have fixed bills at home which have to be paid even when you’re away.  Mortgage, car insurance, and electric bills are still due, even when traveling. Sure, you could turn off your cable or internet if you’re gone for a while, but that may not be worth it if you’re just gone a few weeks.

What you can use is your food, gas and entertainment budgets. Those are costs you don’t have to worry about too much (assuming your income is still consistent) since you would be spending money on them anyway. You may even find food or gas costs are lower on the road.

Grilling up some dinner during a visit to the South Florida national parks.
Grant grilling dinner, including chicken breasts, green beans and red potatoes.

Traveling in a trailer allows us to keep food in a refrigerator and cook meals “at home” even when on the road. This allows us to save money by not having to eat out every meal.

If you want to compare costs on different travel styles, check out this article: Road Trip Styles – A Cost Breakdown. In this article, Grant compares the costs of staying in hotels, tent camping and RV camping.

Read more about how we save money on the road.

Leaving Your House

Of course, leaving your house for several weeks can be nerve-wracking. That is one reason we now live in an apartment (and, previously, a condo). We feel much more at ease when we are traveling knowing there are other people living in the building. If anything goes wrong, they can notify us easily.

If you don’t live in a condo or apartment, you just need to make sure you have a neighbor or friend set up to come by once or twice a week to check on things. How often will depend on what you might need to be done at home and if you are leaving behind any pets.

The new F-150 towing the camper.
The new F-150 towing the camper.

Even in an apartment with no pets at home, we still need someone to check the mail and just make sure nothing crazy happens. As a thank you, we generally pick up a bottle or two of a local spirit for whoever helped us out.

Complications on the Road

Of course, complications can always happen when you are traveling. That is especially true during a road trip. We’ve had several instances when our truck or camper needed service on the road. We also had to delay a trip because our truck needed service the day before our scheduled departure.

When we visited the Great Lakes region in 2019, we had to cut our trip short because the camper needed substantial repairs. Unfortunately, the same issue caused us problems again in 2021 when in Salt Lake City. Both of those were frustrating, but we handled it.

Using Lynx Levelers to change a tire.
Changing out the tire on the camper, again, with Lynx Levelers. You just have to be prepared for things to go wrong.

As mentioned previously, we also had to replan an entire summer trip on the road in 2022. We had made it halfway to Yellowstone when the historic flood of 2022 happened. The park was still closed to all visitors the day we were supposed to arrive for our month-long stay at Fishing Bridge RV Park. Sadly, we had to scrap the entire trip and come up with a new itinerary.

Most recently, our engine had difficulty as we approached Shreveport, LA while returning from a road trip to New Mexico. The good news is that we found a service center to squeeze us in for diagnostics the next morning. The bad news is that we had to leave the truck in Shreveport and rent a car to get us home. On top of that, we had to reschedule a planned trip to Chicago so that we could drive back to pick up the truck.

Complications while road-tripping can always happen. It’s all part of the adventure. You just have to roll with it and make the best of a difficult situation.

Need Help Planning Your RV Road Trip?

If this sounds overwhelming, consider ordering our upcoming book: Moon USA RV Adventures. That’s right! We wrote our first book and it will help simplify this entire planning process!

Moon USA RV Adventures include 25 RV routes all over the country. The itineraries range from less than a week to more than a month and include stops at many of our country’s best national parks, landmarks and other attractions.

Each route includes step-by-step driving directions along with what you should see and do along the way. We provide campground suggestions and reviews, restaurants, grocery stores and more!

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Final Thoughts on Planning a Road Trip

We always love a good road trip. But there’s truly something special about a road trip out west. The wide open spaces that you find when you get west of the Mississippi River just aren’t the same on the east coast.

Forrest Gump Hill
Selfie on Forrest Gump Hill near Monument Valley

Yes, planning a road trip can be difficult. But it is absolutely worth it.

Not only can you see and do a lot on a road trip, but the drive itself is a huge part of the adventure. We never tire of watching the scenery change as we make our way across the country.


Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

11 thoughts on “How to Plan a Road Trip Out West”

  1. Great article! I have now done 13 big cross-country summer road trips with my family and you covered the planning process very well.

    Did you like Great Basin? We stopped there a couple years ago and loved it. The pure silence away from the usual sounds of civilization was simply amazing.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! To say we loved Great Basin NP is an understatement. Baker is a neat town to visit and hiking the trails was something to behold. We went out to the nearby archeological site one night to watch the stars come out. WOW! That’s something we just don’t see in the east.

      Reply
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    Reply
  3. I actually had some complications of earlier cars and trucks from Enterprise rent an automobile provider, however lately, together with James assisting me with my own reservation I’ve received everything I desired. Amicable and prepared to support. That’s exactly what I can say regarding their employees. Many thanks and keep on being successful!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Myrah! I have used Enterprise and Hertz in the past for rental cars. In the past, at least, Enterprise has had a restriction on crossing too many state borders, which would not work for our longer trips. That said, both companies are great in terms of service from my experience.

      Reply
  4. Excited finding your blog on long road-trips! My husband and I will leave for our first 35 day trip next week and are planning a possible 3 mo trip next summer. We’ve motorhomed for 12 day and less trips but just curious what you’re experience has been moving often. Our upcoming trip has several 3 night stops mixed in but also many harvest host one nighters and lots of 2 nighters. Concerned about how it will feel moving that much. Any thoughts from your experience?

    Reply
    • Hi Dina,

      From our experience, the longer we stay in one location, the more we enjoy it. That said, crossing the country means one night stays. We would just say to make sure you build in rest time after long driving days and overnight stops.

      Reply

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