Most of us have gone on road trips, and not always as the drivers. Since 2011, my wife and I have gone on an ambitious annual road trip in the American West. We put about 4,000 miles on our New York City-based car per year. But on these Western road trips we don’t take the car we own but instead, we fly to our starting destination and put over 2,000 miles on a rental while meandering to our final destination. It took just one trip for us to get hooked on this.
This is a guide about next-level road tripping. This is the art of the remote road trip, well outside your home region. This isn’t about renting a camper, either (I might do that someday driving across Australia). This is about seeing your great country, where too many people fly over the best stuff it has. What would you want to see on an American road trip? Would you want to see cities and towns that look like your own, or would you want to see what Teddy Roosevelt once called “big things”? Wouldn’t you like to go big?
The American West has the attractions you didn’t know you wanted to see. From mountain ranges and canyons, to ghost towns and colorful Mexican cemeteries, to Indian reservations and native American tribes we should all educate ourselves about, to boneyards, and missile bases, to massive national parks and monuments that you and I own, the West has the goods. Look at this map of our national parks. If you live east of the Mississippi, how would you explore the great American West in any reasonable amount of time? You could join a tour group. But you love to drive. No, you are a driver.
There is a cool way to explore the West without a tour group or an RV. It can be expensive, but it's worth it. You can fly to one city, take a week driving to a final city, and fly home from there. That’s 7 days, over 1,000 miles (or 2,000), and many photos and memories. This is the one-way American West road trip.
A quick note about timing: Summer is the traditional time to do road trips but it is also when a whole lot of other people do them. Some of our incredible national parks and monuments have traffic jams during the summer. The best way to avoid this? Go after Labor Day. I want to present my guide for you Jalopers to get inspired to go out there to see your great nation. Every part of it has something interesting, but my example is the West, since that’s where you can clock the most miles and see the most diverse things in a week.
A big reason to do a one-way rental road trip is time. Like me, you probably can’t disappear from your day job for more than a week at a time. So you only have 8 nights away from home. A one-way road trip gives you the opportunity to cover a single region in a week. Renting a car one-way usually comes with a hefty fee. But we’re in a golden age of internet price research. Even some of the biggest rental companies reduce their one-way fees for certain locations with high inventory, like Las Vegas or Phoenix. Once you know your starting and ending airports, you can do reverse searches on flights and car rentals to help decide which travel direction will cost you the least (either in time or money).
Everyone needs at least one partner for a road trip. I have my wife, my “navigatrix.” I recommend you don’t go it alone. That’s reserved for people who seriously need time to themselves. But you, fellow driving enthusiast, you need a partner to navigate you and help you chose what to see each day and where to sleep each night. Which brings us to preparation, and some rules. A road trip is not a race. I consider myself a boring, safe driver. However, I have been warned about my speed by small town cops on two different trips. You’re not an endurance or cannonball driver, either. You need to take this slow. A typical road trip day goes like this: you wake up, find a place for coffee and breakfast, and then drive to the next site on your itinerary. You should have an idea of where you’re getting fuel, as well as lunch and dinner, and you know where you are resting your head after sundown.
I got hooked on faraway road trips the first time I did it. But like a lot of first times doing anything, it was the least planned, as we had no experience. We did it in early November, which is too late for a trip in the Southwest. And, we only gave ourselves 3 full days as we weren’t sure that this would be enjoyable. We ended up seeing too much in too short a time. Here’s the route we took on day 1:
On that single day, we drove from the Vegas strip, to the O’Callaghan-Tillman bridge observation deck, to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (the serious way to see it), and then through a corner of Navajo Nation to Flagstaff for dinner, and finally our hotel in (Take it Easy) Winslow, Arizona. That was nearly 450 miles in over 15 hours on the road. Oh, and we were met by thundersnow in Flagstaff.
On the following 2 cold days, we crammed in 5 more major attractions, including, amazingly, Monument Valley, before arriving late in Albuquerque for our last hotel stay and flight home. Along the way, we caught a glimpse of Shiprock, a beacon for future trips. Since then we have been far better paced. Here’s what you need do to become a pro at this:
- Find your flights and car combination. You can choose Midland (Texas), Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or smaller airports as start and end points. Play around with flight and car rental itineraries. Does it cost less to start or end the trip in one of your two cities? And with the car, skip the supplemental insurance from the rental company and buy a separate insurance policy.
- You can rent a good car. I’ve rented respectable Infinitis, Fords, Volkswagens, and Chevys on these trips. There are some decent, comfortable cars to rent. It just requires research and sometimes a little persistence at the counter. If you do a full week trip, you could be spending over 50 hours in those car seats, so keep that in mind. Lately any Ford Escape EcoBoost has won out for me. The seats are right and it’s pleasantly zippy.
- Plan your visits and stops. Research what you would like to see along your route. Then figure out your exact route so you can come up with a daily list of sites you want to visit. Start with National Parks and National Monuments, and then find things that interest you. It can be museums, cultural sites, cars, planes, or even joints featured on Guy Fieri’s TV show (I can’t be the only one who watches that). Note closing times of the places you want to visit. When is that Spaceport tour? What time does that restaurant open or close? What is the latest time you can get stamped at the park visitor’s center? Is that ghost town accessible year round, or only on certain days? Figure out with your navigator which stops are priority and what could be considered bonus objectives if you have time. You’re going to be keeping track of what you hit and what you can come back and visit on a future trip. And as you do this, plan out where you’ll sleep. Thanks to airbnb and VRBO, hotels and campgrounds are not the only options.
- The distance between your start and end airports is not as important as limiting how many miles you cover each day. 200-300 miles per day is ideal. You want to do all your sightseeing in daylight. We’ve done Las Vegas to Albuquerque, Albuquerque to Denver, Midland to Albuquerque, Minneapolis to Las Vegas, Midland to Phoenix, Tucson to San Diego, and we have Albuquerque to Austin at the end of this summer. In all my trips, my navigator and I have chosen the overnight stops, and using Google Maps (or your preferred map site), we plot an exact route and watch the daily mileage total carefully.
- Produce a travel binder. Remember Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women?” Well you are going to need a single binder full of trip information, in chronological order. Grab a binder and hole puncher (find a hole puncher where you work). Start with your flight reservations. Then your car and insurance documents. Print out your hotel reservations. Then for each day, you will insert printouts on where you’re going. Print out driving directions, as mobile phone coverage in the West is sparse. In fact, make sure you print out the address or GPS coordinates of every place you plan to visit. Also take a GPS device as a backup to your phone.
- Learn to like Wal-Mart. I know. That’s a tall order for a leftie New Yorker. But in some small towns, Wal-Mart is the only source for beverages and snacks. Buy a styrofoam cooler, put ice in it at your hotels, and you have a mobile fridge.
The rest is up to you. If you love to drive, you ought to try it. Take a week off to see this amazing country and maybe you too will get hooked. When you are ready for the next level, there’s Canada and Australia to explore. Then you’ll know three nations with ‘wild wests’ and near-empty roads to drive. Just don’t speed. Local and tribal police know when big city people are headed their way.