United States

How to prepare for your US road trip

Dreaming of an epic US road trip adventure? Before hitting the open road, there are some essential preparations you need to make. Now that the formal part is over and you arranged all the required documents, it’s time to prepare for the fun part – your trip itself! The United States are a popular and expensive destination, making preparation half the battle. Discover how to prepare for your US road trip with all our tips and tricks.

Create an itinerary

Creating an itinerary is an essential step in planning a road trip. It allows you to organize your trip efficiently and ensure that you don’t miss out on any must-see destinations. Before you effectively map out an itinerary, we recommend making a bucket list. This bucket list includes places, attractions, hotels, … that you definitely don’t want to miss. After that, you can also add the things that are nice but not a must. To create the perfect itinerary is to delete and add anyway! Rome wasn’t built in a day, either. 😉

We use shared notes to write down everything that’s on our bucket list. That way, we both have access to it all the time, and the other can see what has been added. We use the default iOS Notes app for this as we are using iPhones and MacBooks. The same can be done with Google docs for instance.

One tip we experienced ourselves is that it is important to plan in advance, but not too early. We planned our road trip six months in advance. A month before we left, we found out that Sequoia National Park was closed during the time we were there. Also, some parts of Yosemite National Park were closed, too. For Yosemite National Park this wasn’t really a problem (still plenty to see there). For Sequoia National Park, however, we had already booked a non-refundable hotel for one night. We had to make some last minute changes to our itinerary to fill up that day.

Tips for planning a road trip

Map out your road trip in advance, but not too early. Six months is way too early, during that time anything can happen. Two or three months in advance is ideal, so there is less chance of changes. We recommend starting with the most important parts like your flight tickets and what car to rent. This is not (yet) the time to be making reservations for your romantic dinner date in that restaurant you always wanted to go to! We use WayAway to find the best rates for our flights. We start monitoring rates 3 to even 6 months in advance, and then create a WayAway price alert. Easy peasy!

A second tip is to look up all the national parks before you leave. This way you can find out if they are open, or if there are certain restrictions. Most websites of the national parks in the US offer very extensive information. This information ranges from what the weather will be like during your time there, to where to park and what the fees are (if any). You can even find itineraries, ranging from easy to extreme. The websites of the parks at nps.gov may not look the most fancy, but they sure are helpful!

Last but not least: we definitely recommend booking flexibly so you can still rebook or cancel your booking! As mentioned before, we were stuck with a non-refundable booking for a closed Sequoia National Park visit. This means we had to look for alternatives in the region instead of adding an extra day to another destination. Booking flexibly would have given us the chance to cancel!

Book your accommodations in advance

That last tip brings us to a really important part: booking your accommodations. We definitely recommend booking your accommodations in advance! It allows you to secure the best deals and avoid overpaying or experiencing last-minute stress. The US are a popular tourist destination, that’s why hotels and overnight stays sell out quickly. Especially if you are looking for hotels or campgrounds near national parks. It’s recommended to book your accommodations at least a few months in advance. As mentioned before, it is best to pay a little more for a flexible booking. In case your schedule changes, you can still change or cancel your booking.

It is true that this may give you the feeling that you leave less to the “unexpected” and spontaneous, but think about all the stress and time you’ll save when you’re actually there. No need to drive around looking for a hotel to stay in the middle of the night. This also means less time spent on the road without an actual purpose. Also, you won’t have to bargain with the hotel clerk for a better price in case the cost is higher than expected. And no more hopping from hotel to hotel because they’re all out of rooms.

For a large part of our reservations, we used booking.com because they have an amazing “Genius”-program. The more accommodations you book, the more discount you get on certain hotels. You become a level 1, 2 or even level 3 Genius, and in return you get 10, 15 or even 20 % discount. This is a win-win for us, since we love to travel!

If you book in advance and combine it with a refundable booking, you’ll make sure you have the best of both worlds. Your ideal accommodation at an affordable price, with the possibility of making changes to your plans if something unexpected comes up – nothing tops that. This way, you can still have the freedom to be spontaneous and adjust your itinerary as needed, while also having the peace of mind of having a confirmed place to stay.

Buy tickets for popular attractions and sightseeing tours

It’s incredible how quickly tickets sell out for popular attractions and sightseeing tours these days. On top of that, most places started working with time slots since the pandemic. This means that even if you DO get a ticket, you’ll have to be lucky to be able to choose your preferred time (think sunset, sunrise, …). With our tips, you won’t leave anything to luck as we will prepare you in the best way possible!

When preparing our road trip, we knew of some attractions and sights we definitely did not want to miss. We made a list of what things we could book in advance and when this could be booked. Therefore, it is recommended to make a list in advance of the things you definitely do not want to miss. Once the list is finished, look up when you can buy tickets or reserve time slots. This differs per attraction or museum. Some only open ticket sales just a month in advance. Others can be booked a year in advance so making a list is definitely advisable.

In general we always check if tour operators like GetYourGuide have a sale at the moment. If so we book directly through them if the price is right. Below is a list of the attractions and sightseeing tours we booked in advance, and how long in advance we booked them:

Alcatraz Day Tour

If you would like to visit Alcatraz, we recommend booking your tickets in advance. Once you arrive in San Francisco, you don’t want to be stressing about securing a visit to this island! Especially if you only have a limited number of days, booking your tickets in advance is recommended. We booked our tickets 4 months in advance because we wanted to visit Alcatraz on Kelvin’s birthday. At that time all the time slots for our preferred day were still available. 4 months in advance is waaaay too early though, we just wanted to make sure Kelvin got to spend his birthday in prison :-). Our personal tip would be to book tickets 3-4 weeks in advance if you’re traveling during the shoulder season. However, if you’re planning to make a trip during peak season be sure to book well in advance – like 2 to 3 months before your trip!

The Neon Museum Double The Glow Experience

While doing research, we stumbled upon the Neon Museum. This museum has an extensive collection of iconic Las Vegas neon signs! If you want to see the signs lit, you should book an evening tour. This seemed the coolest to us, so we booked our tickets 3 months in advance to make sure we could do an evening tour! Tickets for this museum can only be bought 3 months in advance. In April, tickets for the months April – May – June are available. We recommend booking tickets 2 weeks in advance to make sure you have your preferred time slots. Traveling during the peak season? Book your tickets 3-4 weeks in advance.

Upper Antelope Canyon Tour

The best time to visit Upper Antelope Canyon to photograph the light beams is between 11:00 AM – 1:30 PM. When we were looking for tickets (6 months in advance!), the best time slots were already sold out. 😳 We opted for the second best option, the tour between 9:50 AM and 11:20 AM, in hopes to still get a glimpse of the light beams (spoiler alert: we were 😉). If you want to visit Antelope Canyon and see the light beams at their peak, you have to book 7 – 8 months in advance. At the time of writing, every 12PM time slot between now and 6 months in the future has been sold out. If an Antelope Canyon tour is on your bucket list, you better start looking for tickets NOW.

Rooftop Cinema Club

A date night at an outdoor movie theater has been on our bucket list for years. The closest we came to a similar experience in Belgium was a drive-through cinema for Halloween. That company went bankrupt unfortunately and now are DYING for “the real deal”. You see this pass by so often in series and movies and it seems so cool to us!

It just so happens that we came across an experience like this on Instagram, Rooftop Cinema Club. They have several locations, including one in San Diego. We had quite a bit of time to spare in San Diego, so we decided to capture our date night 1 month in advance! Tickets for this specific venue are widely available. Unless you want to see a specific movie or are in town for only a couple of days, we recommend you take it easy and “go with the flow”. For us, though, it was a must we secured our seats so we booked in advance. Guess who watched the classic ‘Bruce Almighty’ at an outdoor movie theater in San Diego? 🤩

Universal Studios Hollywood + Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood

We are true film and series lovers, so a visit to Universal Studios and Warner Bros couldn’t be missed for us! You can buy tickets for Universal Studios at the Front Gate, but they can sell out. They same can be said about Warner Bros. Studios: they do offer tickets for purchase on-site, but these walk-up tickets are limited and not guaranteed. That’s why we advise you to purchase them beforehand.

You can buy the tickets through their official site, but since Thysia gets a lot of discounts through her employer we bought our tickets via GetYourGuide. We booked the combined tickets for Universal Studios and Warner Bros 4 months in advance and got some nice discount! If you are not “crazy about securing your spot”, we recommend booking tickets through their official websites and about a month in advance. During peak season or the holidays we recommend at least 6 weeks or even 2 months prior to your visit.

The Broad

Los Angeles has a lot of museums, both free and paying. The free museums usually require you to reserve a time slot via their website, so we recommend doing this as soon as possible to be sure of your visit! Being museum-geeks, The Broad was definitely on our bucket list.

The Broad is one of those museums that offers free admission. Tickets for the next month are released on the last Wednesday of the month before (at 10 AM LA time). We really wanted a ticket for Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room as well, so we made sure to reserve our time slot the Wednesday itself! This is something we recommend doing yourself, too, if you want to visit the museum’s “hotspot”. We noticed that tickets for the Infinity Mirrored Room were sold out only 24 hours after they were available! General admission (without the Infinity Mirrored Room) were still scarcely available, so trying to get your tickets a month in advance is definitely the way to go here.

Getty Center and Getty Villa Museum

Both Getty Center and Getty Villa Museum offer free admission, the only thing you have to do is book a time slot a month in advance. Again, we were the first ones on their website so we were sure to reserve our preferred time. 🤩 Tickets for the Getty Center are widely available, booking a week or two in advance is definitely okay. For the Getty Villa Museum, however, you definitely need to book your tickets the moment they become available since this is more exclusive!

LACMA

Admittedly, when were planning our trip to LA, we had never heard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). However, when we saw the entrance with its 202 street lamps (called Urban Light) we were immediately sold. We bought our tickets for LACMA a month in advance, at the time of booking just about all time slots were still available so here you definitely have plenty of time to get your tickets!

Rent a car in advance

For your road trip in the US, you will undoubtedly need to rent a car. It’s essential to plan and book your rental in advance to avoid high prices and limited availability. You don’t want to be going from rental place to rental place to check prices, availability, etc. so booking in advance is a must, in our opinion. There are some things you should take into account, like the type of vehicle you need and the pickup and drop-off location. We were lucky to receive additional discounts via Thysia’s employer (once again), but car rental platforms like rentalcars.com or getrentacar.com offer similar discounts.

If you plan to visit national parks, it’s recommended to book an SUV. Many of the parks have unpaved roads and require an SUV to access them. Another thing to keep in mind is your pickup and drop-off location. If you plan to start and end your road trip in different locations (like us), you probably will have to pay a drop-off fee. We booked an SUV 4 months in advance and managed to get a nice price! If you’re curious about exactly how much we paid, find out here.

In conclusion

By booking accommodations, attractions, and transportation in advance, you can break down the costs over a period of time, making it more manageable for your budget. Additionally, by planning ahead and taking advantage of discounts and special offers, you can save money and reduce your overall expenses. Spreading out your costs can also help you avoid last-minute stress and unexpected expenses, allowing you to fully enjoy your road trip!

Now that you know how to prepare for your US road trip, it’s time to count down to your actual trip! By following these tips and planning ahead, you can make the most out of your US road trip and create unforgettable memories. If you’re interested in learning more about the expenses of a US road trip, check out our budget breakdown for 5 weeks in the US. We also share some money-saving hacks for your US road trip, so you can explore the US without breaking the bank!

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