I LOVE road trips but sometimes planning them can get a bit stressful and daunting.
Where to go? What vehicle? Where do you park?
Where do you pee? How much should you budget?
If you’re planning a road trip and thinking about campervanning the USA, this guide should help you sort out everything you need to know.
I’ve conquered a few road trips around my beautiful and massive country but most recently, my friend Jess and I campervanned from Vancouver, Canada all the way down to San Fransisco over 17 days. I have quite a few tips, some cost estimates for you to budget better, some dos and don’ts, and even a recommendation for a campervan!
Here’s everything I know about planning a road trip, I hope this helps anyone who’s ready for an adventure out on the open road.
Planning a Road Trip (That’s Totally F-ing Awesome)
Planning a USA road trip without over planning—that’s the goal!
There’s a fine line to walk while planning a road trip. How much do you plan? Do you plan at all? What are some important things to keep in mind? What should I bring on my road trip?
There’s so much to say here, and my post on the mistakes to avoid when planning a USA road trip will definitely help you but I’ll be breaking it down with what I found to be the best way to plan/not plan for a road trip.
What to Plan for a USA Road Trip:
- A general route – I chose to go from Vancouver, Canada to San Francisco using the inland routes. I specifically chose to avoid the coastal route as it really needs to be one or the other. Weaving back and forth wasn’t a choice.
- A bit of a “theme” – This isn’t a total must but I think it keeps you on track a bit more. There’s only THAT much you can see while road tripping the USA, so what’s most important to you? If you want everything, you’ll be left scrambling all over the states.I chose to focus on nature, taking hikes to work out those legs from sitting in a car, and I wanted to see tons of the wonderful lakes and waterfalls the PNW offers. This meant no city stops, nothing along the coast, and going a bit off the path as these spots were not along the major highways.This kept me more focused while on the trip and it allowed me to prioritize better.
- Where to stay – I’ll talk more about this below but it’s a good idea to have a few options, or at the least take my notes with you, as it’s really important you have a good and safe place to call it a night.
- Which parks you’d like to visit – This is more for budgeting reasons but some of these parks aren’t cheap. Mt. Rainier was $30 for us and we accidentally ended up here. Having a few $30+ surprises can eat into your budget so double check prices into parks.
- A list of places – having a list of places makes your day more organized. If you’re a bit too loose, you’ll be wasting daylight figuring out what to do. Make your list longer rather than shorter.
What NOT to Plan for a USA Road Trip:
Anything that’s “exact.”
Setting anything in stone while road tripping is just asking for trouble. NOTHING will go exactly as planned, trust me! So if you avoid plans that require an exact time, date, and place you’ll be much happier and less stressed.
Planning a road trip TOO much and with TOO much detail is not only daunting, terrifying, and ridiculously time-consuming, it’s so incredibly unnecessary as you’ll likely stray from the plans during your trip.
How I Planned My Road Trip:
- I researched things to do along my route (more on how below).
- I made notes on all the cool hikes that were feasible.
- I found hikes with views, lakes and pretty waterfalls.
- I made a list of cool state and national parks I wanted to see.
- I listed WAY more things to do than I knew I could fit it in our time so it gave us options. Maybe it would be overcast one day, so what would be the point in hiking to a viewpoint? Instead, I’d hike to the nearby waterfall instead… Both were on the list and in the same area, but I knew I couldn’t fit everything, I’ll choose the best for me on that day.
I put all of these things in a Google Doc to have with me on my phone and I checked it and planned my road trip in a bit more detail the night before. So each night, or every other night I’d discuss with Jess about what to do the next day depending on what we felt like and depending on what weather was in store.
Keeping it easy and flexible was a great choice. There was a day where we accidentally drove through Mt. Rainer National Park, it ended up being gorgeous but it wasn’t our plan.
The next day, the road we needed was closed and we had to miss out on 2-3 of the waterfall hikes we wanted to see. So instead we did a big driving day on a crappy road that ran parallel to the one we wanted that had nothing to see. Oh, well, it happens.
When Planning a Road Trip, This is How I Find Places to Go:
I get asked HOW I find all the cool places I get to see when I travel. This takes some work!
While this is the way I planned my road trip, I actually do this for most of my travels. This is particularly important while road tripping though as you can’t just wander around aimlessly as easy. You need SOME kind of goal destination(s) each day.
As I mentioned above, I make a list of places of things to do and places to see and I make the list much fuller so I can have options. This is how I make this list…
Step 1: I Google “things to do in X” / “hikes to do in X” / “waterfalls in X”…(X=the state, the national park, the town… however specific I need to get.) I cross check the info with Google maps to make sure the place is actually on my route before I get too excited about it. If it’s a 50 miles detour, no matter how cool it is, it’s not making it on the list!
Step 2: I also Google “things to do in X” in Google maps. This will sometimes bring up extra things not included in a top 10 list and I also get to visually see what’s along my route.
Step 3: After getting a good list of things to do, I enter and organize everything into Google maps. Remember, the number of places will be way more than I will actually get to fit in my itinerary but it’s great to see everything visually on a map and get the estimated times between different destinations. You may find there isn’t anything of interest for a good stretch of road. This day may be your long driving day and by foreseeing this, you can plan accordingly a bit better.
BONUS: By having everything mapped out in Google Maps, you can save the link, click it on the road trip, organize the exact places you want to see and BAM! You have your route set on your phone to GPS you around. This saved us so much time! (Also helpful if you don’t have good service)
Step 4: I also made some notes depending on the activity. Since we were doing hikes, I had notes and the Alltrails app downloaded to double check hiking times and difficulty levels. You don’t want to pack in survival mode for a .5 mile hike and then try to take on a 7-mile moderately difficult hike without the proper amount of water at 4 pm.
Researching this type of stuff on the road can get time-consuming and you don’t want to plan a road trip while on a road trip! Get this stuff done beforehand.
This is my method to my madness. Some may think this is too much planning but I thought it was the right amount. We wasted very little time while on the trip and had notes ahead of time to organize our days better.
Finding a Campervan Rental in the USA
So how did we get around on our USA road trip?
By campervan, not a car! Why a campervan?
- It’s your accommodation
- It’s your transportation
- It’s more fun!
OK, one of those things is an opinion but seriously, I couldn’t imagine road tripping the USA in anything but a campervan.
I’ve done two big road trips in the USA so far and they were both with a campervan. Campervanning the USA can also be cheaper and more convenient than a regular car. Let’s break it down…
Campervan the USA: Cost Comparison
Let’s talk about cost efficiency for a quick moment. When you look at the base price of a campervan, you might be a bit scared. It can cost quite a bit more than a regular car!
- Campervan cost – $60-$80+
- Can rental – $15-$70+
These are just estimates and neither includes insurance or other costs like milage etc. Of course, things like the time of the year, the length of the rental, and the type of vehicle all come into play, but generally speaking, campervans are definitely more expensive than regular cars.
However, the extra cost when you rent a vehicle comes when you need to book a hotel room. You’d be hard-pressed to consistently find a $40-$50 motel room in the USA each night of your road trip in the area you need it.
Add that to your vehicle cost, and you’d come out to almost the same total as your campervan rental IF you actually stumble upon a bargain each and every night. I can assure you, that would be quite difficult.
Campervan the USA: Convenience
However, it’s way more than the cost that you need to worry about when campervanning the USA. You need to think about convenience. Your campervan is your home that you can take with you. Which means finding it a parking spot at night is literally your only responsibility.
Rent a regular car, and you’ll need to hope to find a hotel with availability OR you’ll need to make your reservations further in advance which means you need to end your road trip at a certain place each night which leaves little room for spontaneity.
And if you ask me, being able to be spontaneous trumps everything else, particularly on a road trip.
There’s nothing worse than cutting your day short because you got to your hotel early in the day and you paid for it already… or worse, forcing yourself to drive deep into the night to make it to a hotel because you *shock horror* spent too much time at a waterfall. Shame on you for being adventurous!
Campervan the USA: Choosing a Van
Convinced? Thought so.
So which campervan does one choose to campervan the USA?
Well, if you fancy a ride around the West Coast, then you need to check out JUCY campervan rentals.
This is the van I used and… LOVED. Ever since I lived in Australia in 2016 I heard of the campervan company called JUCY. They have an unmissable look and I’d see them cruising by all the time. I was in Australia to work and not play at the time and I remember longing for an epic road trip in this cool looking van!
The company hails from New Zealand, expanded into Australia, and when I heard of their new offices in the USA and Canada, I jumped at the opportunity to get one of their campervans to road trip the USA.
Why Did I Like This Campervan?
So why did I like JUCY? Why did it make a great campervan for my USA road trip? What’s so special about it? These were the best points for me:
- It’s a regular vehicle – Sounds silly, but seriously, those massive RVs are a bit scary. This is literally a soccer mom’s van that has been decked out, so no worries on needing a special lesson on how to work this thing. It’s “just a van.”
- I didn’t have to think about anything – All the little things are taken care of. Ain’t nobody got time to sort out dishware, bring bulky towels, figure out where and how to wash dishes (there’s a sink!), etc… All of those things were in the van!
- It’s actually comfortable – Sleeping in a van sounds rough. You’re probably picturing metal things poking you if you turn the wrong way or sleeping on something hard but the bed (yes, BED) is actually comfortable and is as close to a real bed as it can get.
- There was the perfect amount of storage – Jess and I live out of our bags, literally. We travel perpetually and I had to pack for the West Coast’s fall weather, Florida and Thailand’s humid hot weather, and New Zealand’s unpredictable psychotic weather in one bag. Yeah, that’s my life and somehow this van actually had enough room for all my stuff (I thought I was going to have to spoon my backpack the entire time, I didn’t).
- It was easy – Everything was just easy. The pick and drop off, the communication when we had a few questions after we left (we had the personal cell of an employee!), and everything with the van *just made sense.*
What Does the Campervan Actually Look Like and Come With?
For your van, there is the option to keep costs down if you have a lot of equipment yourself, or if you don’t, you can add on things for convenience.
Should you want, JUCY can provide you with bedding, a full kitchen set up, subzero sleeping bags if you’re going in winter and they even have things like aux cords, playing cards, and folding chairs… they thought of everything.
Let’s show you some detailed pictures of this baby though, right?
The van has a dual battery which means you can charge devices at night without fearing your vehicle will be stranded in the morning because you drained the battery. There’s a sink in the back to wash dishes in, a mini fridge for food and beer, a storage cupboard for the kettle, pans etc, a propane stove top, and shades to cover all of the windows at night.
TIP: Don’t do any shopping before picking up the van. All of the pick up/ drop off locations have a little “free store” where other travelers have left items for the next traveler. “Shop” here first! You’ll find TONS of stuff to bring all for free! Salt and pepper, to pasta, to propane canisters, bear spray, and more.
Where Do You Go to the Bathroom When Campervanning the USA?
Well, let’s just address the awkward toilet situation already, shall we? I know you’re wondering!
The good news: You can actually pee anywhere. Nature’s toilet is great! Obviously, this is only out in the bush and ideally not at a time where an officer may be whizzing (haha, get it?) past you. At the end of the day, the saying is… “When nature calls,” right?
Also, let’s address the toilet paper situation. If you NEED it, dispose of it in a bag and throw it away later OR just drip dry, ladies! There’s NO option C where you just throw the paper in nature. This is 100% a big no-no.
Let’s also make sure we get one thing straight, the above situation is for #1. If #2 calls, get to a gas station or literally anywhere with a toilet. I’d hate to get caught out in nature having to go #2, luckily it didn’t happen. #2 was “saved” for when I had a toilet under my bum only.
SO there’s that… Which actually begs the next question…
Where Do You Shower When Campervanning the USA?
While campervanning the USA, “where do you shower and where do you go to the bathroom” were my top questions. And that’s totally understandable. Glad to know you all are clean! Me… well…
Let’s just be honest here, I showered a total of 5 times in 17 days.
I was totally fine with it. While in Iceland I showered only three times in two weeks so we can all see now that chasing waterfalls is far more important than personal hygiene to me. Glad I got that off my chest.
But seriously, where does one shower? It’s actually not that hard! I was just simply not willing to let a shower get in my way of traveling and I put it off until I NEEDED one.
Let’s also remember I went in fall, so it’s not like I was sweating very much, it was chilly out! Are you judging me any less? No?
Anyway, here’s where you can shower while road tripping…
- YMCAs – genius, huh? Some charge a minimal amount and some are free.
- Pilot’s – these truck stops have a really nice shower but they are pricey AF around $12 per person, although each location is priced differently.
- Parks – Many parks around the USA have shower facilities for cheap! I took a 3 minute and 30-second shower at Lassen National Park for $1.75. Cheap and quick, it’s all I needed. (There’s a timer, I’ve never lathered so quickly in my life)
- RV and Camper campgrounds – There are plenty of these while campervanning the USA, stop in and see how much they cost, they are often cheap, or in our case, free. We tried paying but there was no one around to take our money and no machines, so we showered and left. Hey, we tried!
- Bring your own – If you’re desperate for a shower every night, then I’d recommend buying one of these portable showers because it will be annoying to take time out of your day every day to find a shower and at the end, it may even cost you the same!
Just remember, the days you don’t get a shower, you can easily clean the important bits with baby wipes or damp paper towels in a gas station. It’s good enough (says me, the dirty hippy). If you’re campervanning the USA in the summer, you may need to shower a bit more often.
Where Do You Park When Campervanning the USA?
This is my biggest worry when planning a road trip! How do I know where to park for the night and is it safe? As we now know, the toilet situation wasn’t really an issue for me.
I realized not all nights will have a toilet nearby and that was OK. What can you do? Also, as someone with a small bladder who pees a lot, I literally don’t have a choice half of the time… Hello grass, thanks for letting me hover over you.
So after I realized a parking spot with a toilet just wasn’t going to happen every night, this opened up a lot more options.
Potential parking locations:
- State Parks, National Parks, National Forest etc… – Many offer parking, some need to be booked, some are free, some cost less than $10, some are rarely monitored… This varies greatly and you’ll need to check each park for each state/take a chance. There’s usually a sign with rules at the beginning of the entrance. I’ve paid $10 at Valley of Fire in Nevada on a previous trip and I paid nothing at Stanislaus National Park… I didn’t know until I got there because I didn’t preplan where I was staying the night before.
- Campervan Campgrounds – Some may need reservations but most will have a parking spot for you, prices vary.
- Gas stations – Not all, but some will allow parking here! I wouldn’t just park and assume you’re OK though, we called ahead since there were a few times we didn’t see anything else in the area we could stay at, and they were always nice and let us park there. It’s safe, lit, and there are bathrooms. We win!
- The side of the road – A few nights we drove, we literally were still in the middle of nowhere at sundown. We found a safe patch of dirt far enough off the road and made it our home. Creepy, super dark, but it worked. Whether or not it was allowed is another story, I’m not sure. However, it sure is safer than a tired person staying on the road.
- Pilots and rest stops – Pretty much any trucker stop has free parking.
- Campgrounds – Not just for tents! They have parking spots too. Prices vary.
- Walmart – I saved the best for last. Did you know you can spend the night in many Walmarts around the country and in Canada for FREE? They are well lit, have bathrooms, and are safe. If there was a Walmart nearby, we slept at it! Here are the Walmarts that you CAN’T sleep at.
My rule of thumb while planning a road trip: Budget $10 a night just in case. In the end, we rarely paid to park but it was nice knowing we budgeted the cash just in case.
Estimated Costs for a USA Road Trip
I won’t give you any prices for the vehicle as you can simply do that on the JUCY site yourself. It depends on what vehicle, what months you’re going, and the number of days anyway.
What I can give you is the cost of food and gas as a rough estimate to help plan your road trip budget. Keep in mind our trip was for 17 days and we tried to be as budget-friendly as possible! The totals below are for two people.
- Gas – $430 (2,300 miles)
- Food/Drink – $330
Food included mostly groceries, with a few meals out and beer and wine. We would have 1-2 drinks a night. We did get to save a lot of cash by shopping the free stuff at the JUCY stores and not buying water or daily coffees. We filled up water for free anywhere we could and simply made our own coffee in the mornings.
Remember to budget $10 a night for parking but it’s safe to say, if you use my suggestions above, you’ll hardly spend half of it. A few extra bucks here and there for toll roads, showers, and parking tickets (we got a $30 one in Canada, oops!)
And lastly, don’t forget to budget for travel insurance!
While this post mostly focuses on the USA, all of these tips were also used while we were in Canada. I hope this helped anyone planning a road trip around the USA and Canada!
So are you planning a road trip around the USA? Where to? Let us know in the comments!
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Disclaimer: Thanks, JUCY for making this road trip happen! While I did work with JUCY, remember that I am offended if anyone believes I would care about another opinion other than my own! JK… 🙂 But really, only mine matters on this blog so rest assured, there’s #NoBias #NoBS
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad and epically failing at the American Dream since 2011. Her sassy yet informative blog, Where in the World is Nina? is all about how to work abroad to live a more adventurous life. If you want to travel longer you have to work to wander.