In the United States, our claim to fame has always been our thirst for adventure. This country was forged by fearless dreamers who believed anything is possible—as long as you’re willing to go the distance. America’s highways, byways, and back roads are stitched together with that mindset, linking from Alaska’s untouched wilderness all the way to the neon-splashed streets of New York City.
AAA partners with the world’s biggest names in travel to deliver unforgettable experiences by land, sea, and air. But our true passion is helping travelers discover America the way early trailblazers intended: from the driver’s seat.
As a leader in car travel for more than 100 years, AAA is counted on for advice and expertise that goes far beyond what’s Google-able—everything from ASE-certified car maintenance tips to secret, hyperlocal spots for the best dining and shopping.
In creating this guidebook, we relied on extensive AAA travel research, as well as insight from experienced AAA travel professionals and outside experts. As you explore, look for these icons, which contain at-a-glance info to pique your curiosity and boost your confidence as you plan for your next Great American Road Trip.
FIND YOUR ROAD TRIP STYLE: IT’S PERSONALAssembling Your Precious Cargo
Choosing a Quick Jaunt vs. Epic Expedition
Everything You Need to Book in Advance
ASE-Certified Mechanic Car Maintenance Tips
Ultimate Guide to Car Travel Products
6 Navigation Tools that Go Beyond Basic
HIT THE OPEN ROAD: AMERICA’S HIDDEN GEMSGetting Lost In the Great Outdoors
Foodie Paradise on a Budget
Summer Celebrations of History & Culture
FIND YOUR ROAD TRIP STYLE: IT’S PERSONAL
So, you’ve decided to plan a road trip. Terrific choice! Traveling by car is the perfect way to control your itinerary while saving money and spending quality time with the people who matter most. But just like any getaway, the perfect road trip starts with basic details—the who, what, when, where, and why—of your one-of-a-kind journey.
ASSEMBLING YOUR PRECIOUS CARGO
Long car rides are a rare chance for deep conversations, full-belly laughs, and incredible experiences that take you beyond your day-to-day routine. For that reason, your first step as voyage captain will be choosing the perfect passengers to share these moments. Will you…
Take your kids on a once-in-a-lifetime trek across Arizona’s Painted Desert? Enlist fellow alumni for a cross-country reunion at your beloved alma mater? Give colleagues or clients a unique look at a prospective office site? Plan a whirlwind marriage proposal in your sweetheart’s favorite city? Spend quality time alone to reflect and unwind?
These are all perfect reasons to plan a road trip, and here are some important factors to consider for each group:
- Age. Older adults, children, and teenagers will all have different energy and enthusiasm levels for, say, an all-day jaunt along Kansas City’s historic museum trails.
- Activity and ability. That 10-mile Appalachian hike might not pose a problem for you, but it could be challenging for someone with a physical imparity or disability.
- Spending power. Can everyone in your group afford to throw in on gas, lodging, food, and attractions, or will you cover or subsidize those costs?
- Food and drink preferences. If your group includes non-drinkers or those with severe food allergies, you may need to rethink that decadent New Orleans food and wine tour.
- Free time. Summer break is of course the most popular travel window for families, but others may have busy summer work schedules that don’t allow for a long getaway.
CHOOSING A QUICK JAUNT VS. EPIC EXPEDITION
The average U.S. road trip lasts 7 – 10 days, but your ideal journey may be much shorter—or even longer—depending on how much you want to see and do. Here’s a helpful hint: Start at your endpoint and work backwards, asking yourself:
1. What is my ultimate destination? Be as specific as possible here. For example, instead of “California’s Pacific Coast Highway,” you might specify “Paso Robles winery tour.” That way, you can backfill your itinerary with stops at Big Sur, Monterey, and other popular surrounding areas.
2. What are my most important stops? Start by listing everything you want to see and do. Then, categorize each item as: must-have (e.g., weddings and other time-sensitive events); nice-to-have (e.g., festivals and multi-night performances); and negotiable (e.g., historical landmarks and other relatively permanent places and fixtures).
Are you open to other modes of transport? Keep in mind, it’s still a road trip, even if parts of your journey aren’t by car. Many travelers opt to expedite portions of their journey based on needs and time constraints. Train ride from point B to C? Still a road trip. Sailing from D to E? The water is your road. Flying home from your final endpoint? Yep, that’s a road trip, too!
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO BOOK IN ADVANCE
Advance planning is critical as your itinerary begins to take shape. Because when it comes to booking hotel rooms, dinner and tour reservations, and must-see concerts and events, the old adage rings truer than ever: The early bird gets the worm.
Here’s how to prioritize advance bookings for your road trip:
Priority #1: Picking the perfect road trip ride. Unless you plan to drive your personal vehicle, ask yourself these important questions before renting a car, SUV, or RV for your unique trip:
Priority #2: Booking unforgettable accommodations. After a long day of driving, you may be tempted to crash on the first available pillow. And while there’s nothing wrong staying at your reliable go-to chain, it’s worth exploring these ultra-memorable overnight options.
- Not-So-Humdrum Hotels. Choose from hundreds of offerings that range from quirky to downright peculiar. Find 70s-esque shag carpet, underwater rooms, snowy lodges, and heliport check-in options on Thrillist’s list of “Coolest Hotels in Every U.S. State.”
- Down-low Locales. No matter how popular a place gets, there will always be fairy-tale inns, secluded beach resorts, and hidden campgrounds that only the locals know about. Start your hidden-gem search with this roundup of “Best Hidden Vacation Spots.”
- Stargazing Sleepers. Traveling Lifestyle’s list of “Top Outdoor U.S. Destinations ” features Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resort, a family-friendly riverside fun factory that puts a nostalgic spin on eco-tourism. We can almost smell the campfire s’mores!
Priority #3: Accessing pre-sale and sold-out tickets. What your road trip crew really craves are experiences—a chance to try something new, laugh out loud, and make lasting memories in the process. Here are three ways you can make that road trip magic happen with tickets from AAA:
Take a Silver Screen break with advance-purchase tickets for new releases at local and regional movie theaters nationwide.
Throw your hands in the air (because you really, really care) with tickets to must-see concerts, sporting events, and onstage performances.
Make memories to last a lifetime by surprising your crew with discounted tickets to world-class theme parks, museums, and other attractions.
PREP LIKE A PRO: MAX CAR COMFORT + SAFETY
You’ve plotted your course, assembled your dream team, and booked all the necessary stays and events. Now it’s time to prepare your vehicle and crew for a seamless and safe trip from point A to point B, as you enjoy all the best of what’s in between.
ASE-CERTIFIED MECHANIC CAR MAINTENANCE TIPS
These four simple tips from ASE-certified master technicians will ensure you and your vehicle are up for any challenge the road may have in store.
Tip 1: Start by checking under the hood. Before you hit the road, have a trusted mechanic check your engine compartment, tires, battery, belts, hoses, wipers, and fluids to make sure everything’s in tip-top shape and there are no pre-existing issues to interrupt your journey.
Tip 2: Maintain visibility before your trip and throughout your journey:
Keep clutter off front and rear dash, passenger seat, and other lines of sight.
Test headlamps, brake lights, turn signals, and all other interior/exterior lighting.
Keep prescription lenses on your face or in a case where you can easily reach them.
Tip 3: Don’t leave home without car safety essentials. Stash these items in your trunk, in case of unexpected road conditions, flat tires, and other car emergencies:
- Spare tire kit
- Tire gauge and small pump
- Jumper cables
- Blankets, gloves, and warm clothing
- First-aid kit
- Road flares
- Ice scraper/brush
- Tire shovel and sand or kitty litter (for digging out of snow or mud)
It also never hurts to keep a small amount of food and water in the event you become stuck and need to wait for assistance.
Tip 4: Give your tires extra TLC. Long-distance driving depletes tire pressure, which can exacerbate wear and tear and lead to poor overall vehicle performance. Have tires rotated before your trip, and check pressure visually or with a gauge should you notice performance issues.
ULTIMATE GUIDE TO CAR TRAVEL PRODUCTS
Safety, comfort, and organization are the keys to road trip success, and they’re as easy as 1-2-3 with these top car product recommendations from the AAA experts.
1. These safety essentials save lives in unlikely emergencies.
The 64-piece Lifeline AAA Traveler Road Kit features 10' jumper cables, first aid kit, reflective traffic triangle, LED flashlight, and other tools to navigate the scene of an accident.
The HD/DVR SCOSCHE Dash Cam attaches firmly to any surface to capture visual evidence of accidents or other altercations to aid investigations by police or insurance.
2. These creature comforts keep body soreness and frazzled nerves at bay.
These compression socks harness anti-inflammatory copper to promote circulation and prevent leg soreness and cramping.
This trendy 3-in-1 travel wrap can be used as a scarf, shawl, or blanket to allow passengers to enjoy the ride according to their own temperature preferences.
The memory foam travel pillow aligns pressure points to work with the contours of a car seat—not against them—when it’s time to catch some shut-eye.
3. These next-level organizers keep your cabin clean and backseat passengers happy.
Used tissues and fast food waste are no match for this clutter-busting seat back organizer and trash station .
Losing small items to the floorboard abyss is a thing of the past with this car seat gap protector and wedge pocket.
This tantrum-eliminating lap tray and tablet holder keeps kiddos busy snacking, playing, or creating so you can relax and focus on the road.
6 NAVIGATION TOOLS THAT GO BEYOND BASIC
Need a shortcut around L.A. traffic jams or directions to a jam-packed music fest? Essentials like Google Maps and Waze will get you there fast, but these lesser-known apps put the “fun” in functionality with unique takes on the road tripping experience.
Planning Ahead: Up first (for good reason!) is AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner. Point-to-point precision made TripTik a household name, but its constantly evolving lead-gen interface makes it the go-to tool for finding everything from cheap fuel to quirky roadside attractions.
Pulling Off: Roadside America is still only available for iOS, but what it lacks in accessibility it makes up for with 15,000+ offbeat and unforgettable road trip destinations.
Winding Down: Since “star-studded” is in the eye of the beholder, outdoorsy types can check The Dyrt for last-minute tents, RVs, cabins, camping, and glamping sites.
HIT THE OPEN ROAD: AMERICA’S HIDDEN GEMS
Your meticulous planning paid off, and now it’s time to embark on your Great American Road Trip! And since you’re a professional road trip planner now, you know it’s all about the detours.
As you explore some of our favorite pitstops and detours in this section, we hope you’ll be inspired to take the path least traveled and discover outdoor beauty, regional cuisine, and local history—in other words, the stuff of unforgettable road trips. Happy road tripping to you and your crew from the travel-loving motorists at AAA!
GETTING LOST IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS
There’s something about feeling the breeze on your neck at an MLB game, paddling down a river corridor, or watching hawks high atop the tree line on a humid afternoon. It’s all part of our signature American need to be outside, and you can find it at iconic sports arenas, breathtaking national parks, and in millions of lesser-known outdoor places all across the U.S.
Just Outside the In-Crowd
Yosemite and Yellowstone make for exciting headlines, but Travel + Leisure’s least visited U.S. National Parks could hold a special place in your outdoor-loving heart. Click here to learn why popular doesn’t always mean better—and why you should consider having majestic places like the Gates of the Artic in Alaska or Texas’s Guadalupe Mountains all to yourself this year.
Up Close & Personal in Yellowstone
No road trip to-do list would be complete without wildlife spotting at iconic U.S. National Parks. Yellowstone, for just one example in this roundup from World Animal Protection, offers the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. If sitting on a soothing hot-springs perch while watching bison and river otters play strikes your fancy, this is the detour for you.
Must-See American Ballparks
The U.S. Midwest is baseball country, and with schedules heating up just in time for summer road trips, the seven stadiums highlighted in Itinerant Fan’s guide to ballpark road trip planning should top every fan’s list. Just to up the ante, here’s a fun fact for each:
Busch Stadium in St. Louis boasts one of the best skyline views of any U.S. ballpark. The scoreboard at Chicago’s Wrigley Field dates back to 1937. American Family Field in Milwaukee occupies a staggering 25 acres. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Target Field is the MLB’s smallest at just 8.5 acres. Ken Griffey Jr. had the first hit—a double—at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Parts of Cleveland’s Progressive Field pay homage to the since-demolished League Park. Seating is capped at 38,496 for an ultra-intimate fan experience at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.
FOODIE PARADISE ON A BUDGET
America is known as a Melting Pot of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and customs that intertwine to create some of the world’s most innovative cuisine. But what makes our food unique is its accessibility. The best American dishes are infused with down-home comfort that lets visitors taste the essence of a place—without breaking the bank.
Food & a Whole Lot More
Drive-thru chains aren’t the only way—and far from the best way—to grab a cheap bite on the go. When the first tummy starts rumbling, skip the golden arches in favor of one of these far more satisfying American dining destinations.
Not to be confused with any run-of-the-mill tourist trap, places like Wall Drug near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota host millions of visitors each year. Families flock to places like these for affordable dining, as well as kid-friendly activities, unique gifts, and helpful visitor info. Pro tip: Leave room for Wall Drug’s impossibly fresh homemade donuts.
Low-Key Delish BBQ Joints.
Part truck stop, part butcher shop, part café, the Neon Pig in Memphis pays homage to all things southern barbecue. This unassuming spot won Thrillist’s “2015 Best Burger In the Nation” and has been climbing national foodie indices ever since. Pro tip: Order the “Smash Burger,” a combination of locally sourced aged filet, sirloin, ribeye, and bacon cured in house.
America’s Best Food Truck Scenes.
Food trucks are as American as apple pie, as exemplified by our four favorite Western cities serving up the most innovative concoctions on four wheels:
Austin, Texas. It’s been said that Austin isn’t just home base for food trucks—this city serves up entire food truck courts. For the uninitiated, we recommend sampling from the local cuisine with classic Texas BBQ and tacos first. Then, sit and people watch before moving on to course #2.
Los Angeles, California. L.A.’s year-round sunshine makes it an outdoor eating nirvana, with a vast array of food trucks serving every culinary style and preference. If you’re feeling intimidated, start with the ever-growing number of celebrity chefs who have gotten into the L.A. food truck scene. You might even get a reality show cameo out of it!
Portland, Oregon. If it’s an Instagram food trend, you’ll find it in Portland, whose vibrant food truck—or as the locals call them, “food carts”—scene is second to none. The predominant focus is on fresh, vegan, and gluten-free fare, so you can’t go wrong starting with Mediterranean and Thai, then working your way to Latin sections.
Seattle, Washington. Seattle’s food truck scene is an all-hands affair—even local legislators are working behind the scenes to make it successful, so you know it’s legit. Take a cue from the locals and sample authentic, bite-sized cuisine that hails from Spain, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and other international points. You’ll find myriad options to satisfy the most specific dietary restrictions and personal preferences.
USA STREET FOOD GLOWS UP
The Philly Cheesesteak is one great example of American street food that deftly blends history, culture, and pride of place, in a convenient mouthful. Here are just a few other region-specific street food creations to sample along your road trip route:
Tijuana Dog. Where hot dog, sausage, bacon, and heaps of cheese meet on a toasted bun topped with cool chives and kicky hot sauce.
Wisconsin Kringle. The state’s official pastry, featuring flaky butter crust filled with fruit and nuts and covered in sweet icing.
Mission Tacos. From the San Francisco neighborhood of the same name, filled with Latin-spiced carne asada and served with fresh lime and radish slices.
New England Clam Cake. A deep-fried combination of chopped clams, puffy flour-based batter, fried a golden crispy brown, and paired with clam chowder for dipping.
Read on for more of the “50 Most Popular American Street Foods” from Taste Atlas.
SUMMER CELEBRATIONS OF HISTORY + CULTURE
Each year across America’s cities and small towns, millions of people observe cultural holidays and important celebrations with community festivals, special museum and art exhibits, and heritage site tours.
Many host ongoing events and tours to highlight the history and contributions of African Americans. In this article, Travel + Leisure details a self-guided tour from Atlanta to Little Rock that begins at the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a journey through California’s wine country, with premier Black-owned vineyards and restaurants showcased along the way.
If your ideal road trip is about discovering new cultures and places, this section will introduce you to summertime opportunities that enrich the cultural experience through food, music, art, and shared history.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month, and the celebrations hosted by the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art are second to none. Their May lineup features permanent and traveling exhibits, emerging documentaries, speaker series, and other educational events highlighting the Jewish experience and its profound impact on American life.
June marks LGBTQ+ Pride Month, coinciding with the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City that officially launched the LGBTQ+ movement in the United States. In celebration of this milestone observance, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission offers Pride: Celebrating LGBTQ+ Landmarks, an interactive story map highlighting the movement’s most influential people and organizations through narrative text, photos, maps, and multimedia content.
Beginning in late June, road trippers can celebrate American Independence Day with a star-studded parade along Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. On July 4th, attendees can settle in for “A Capitol Fourth” concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building, featuring big-name acts and a prime viewing spot for one of the country’s largest fireworks displays. Click here for details.
August 9th is International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, and the U.S. National Parks Service offers a multitude of ways to observe, no matter where your road trip takes you. Listen to Native legends around a campfire, take a Jeep ride through the high mountain desert, watch the colorful swirl of dancers at a powwow, or explore other opportunities by visiting the NPS online.
Each fall, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, organizers in East Chicago, Indiana, host El Festival de la Monarca. This festival honors the monarch butterfly’s annual sojourn to Mexico, while raising awareness for the endangered species and uniting the surrounding community through educational activities, music, art, and dance.