First Things First: Part 9 – Planning Your First Transcontinental Trip

Welcome to First Things First! This series will help you prepare for a range of life changes. Think of each installment as an instruction guide that will either give you time to locate a safe landing spot or help you hit the ground running. Each article will contain a handy checklist you can reference so you can remain calm, cool, and in control of whatever life hands you..

Your First Transcontinental Trip

The good thing about adulting is that you can occasionally take time off from work for a vacation, and we’re big fans of hitting the road to see all our great country can offer. The bad thing about adulting is that, when you decide to hit the highway, the rest of the country (all of North America, in fact) is a whole LOT bigger than Texas. And Texas is pretty big.

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Let’s hit the open road!

There’s a LOT of incredible history, culture, music, food, and nature across the continent, but you can’t see it all in just 1 measly week. So, you need to decide where to go, where and how long to stay, how much to spend, and most distracting of all — the route. There’s LOTS to see!

We want to help you with a general direction and suggest some destinations for your first transcontinental trip. You’ll need to decide on the time of year, choose your route, set your travel budget, and set aside trunk space for souvenirs.

Destination Decisions 

For the sake of convenience, we’ll divide the country into five regions and showcase just a few of the attractions in each.

Northeast 

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Philadelphia is PACKED with so much American history.

Visit Philadelphia — Home of Independence Hall, the Museum of Art, and Center of the Cheese Steak Universe. Choose which is better – Pat’s or Geno’s – but choose wisely. Head across “Joisy” north to New York City for Broadway, Manhattan’s skyscrapers, and the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States, the Bronx Zoo. Then it’s on to Boston for some revolutionary sites, a stroll across Harvard Yard, and a pint in Beacon Hill at Cheers.

Old South

Heading south of the Mason-Dixon Line takes us to Baltimore, home of Edgar Allen Poe and the city’s famed Inner Harbor area. A short hop down I-95 is Washington, DC, with its stunning plethora of museums, national monuments, and places of government. Retrace the campaigns of Civil War armies by visiting nearby Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Follow Grant’s 1864 advance from the Wilderness southwards to Richmond.

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As is Colonial Williamsburg.

Further afield, check out Colonial Williamsburg and then drift southwards to the lair of pirates on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Motor further inland to scenic Charlotte and Rosedale Plantation with its extravagant Federalist period 4,600 square-foot home before heading west to explore the Great Smokey Mountains. From here, you can choose to meander onto Memphis and Nashville or push down to Atlanta for the Taste of Atlanta or any of it’s other festival weekends and concerts.

Midwest

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Forget the cliches about the “Windy City” – Chicago bustles with great museums, music, and food.

There’s more than corn and beans in the Midwest. Explore the architecture of Chicago, shop and dine on the Loop. Wander up I-90 into the heart of America’s Dairyland for craft beer, brats, and cheese before working it all off rock climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park. Strike out for Minneapolis to tour Prince’s Paisley Park.

Now the choice’s get harder — head west to the Black Hills and the Badlands, go north into the walleye-fishing lake country, OR wander south across Iowa to Hannibal, MO to see Mark Twain’s mighty Mississippi.

Southwest

Begin at the foot of the Rocky Mountains at Denver and climb through the Arapaho national Forest to Grand Junction. Turn south for stunning Black Canyon of the Gunnison and mountain-wrapped Ouray, then onto the scenic stream trains at Durango in the south.

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The American Southwest is replete with vistas of stark beauty.

Strike out westward for the incredible Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and across the Navajo Nation Reservation to the Grand Canyon National Park. From there, it’s on to sparkling Las Vegas and the glamorous glow of Los Angeles.

Northwest

Start your trip to the northwest in San Francisco with stops at lonely Alcatraz, yummy Fisherman’s Wharf, and the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument. Then it’s a few quick tastes at the Napa Valley Wineries or up along the awesome US Highway 101.

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The Oregon Coast might be one of the more unheralded parts of the American landscape.

Crossing into Oregon, check out the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Lewis and Clark’s Fort Clatsop, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. Crossing the Columbia River into Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, drive through the Quinault and Hoh Rain Forests , and linger at the Sol Duc Hot Springs on your way north to Seattle, home of Boeing Aircraft, Pacific seafood, and northwest special brews.

I’m Spending How Much?

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You want to have a good time during and AFTER your trip? Set a budget and stick to it. Trust us.

The cost of your transcontinental trip is going to be a major factor in deciding what you do (and don’t do). Apart from food and gas, lodging will eat a big chunk of your travel money. But trying to organize your expenses can be a little bewildering, especially since costs can pile up quickly. Fortunately, there’s some websites that do that for you. Practical Money Skills has its basic Travel Budget Tool while Budget Worksheets offers something more exhaustively detailed. Getting your travel budget and arrangements in hand before you leave will not only reduce travel headaches, it will also save you money.

How Do We Get There?

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Yes, yes – you have technology on your phone that can plan your trip and ensure you stay on the right highways, but few things beat the romance of looking at an actual map.

Driving cross-country means you’ll probably be relying on the interstate highway system. Now, while it often may seem that the best and fastest routes are the most direct, the reality isn’t always the case. Certain regions are prone to backups and bottlenecking.

For example, beach traffic on I-95 between Washington, DC, and Richmond, VA, on Friday and Sunday nights can last for 10 to 20 miles or more across three lanes of traffic in one direction. One famed bottleneck is at Breezewood, PA where there is no interstate interchange for the PA Turnpike (I-76) and I-70, forcing travelers to drive down a mile-long commercial strip. Other routes may seem faster, but when you add in traffic density, tolls, as well as higher gas and hotel rates, a slightly different route that’s 20 minutes longer becomes more than you bargained for.

Fortunately, travel conditions and construction projects on the interstates are covered on Department of Transportation website for each state you visit and the federal DOT website, as well as many commercial sites for individual Interstate highways. Using these to help plan the route for your transcontinental trip in advance could save you hours of headache on the road.

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About 

Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.