Do you feel that? That energy gathering inside of you? That sensation where you can’t stand still? The feeling that you’re going to spring through the ceiling because you’re so wound up? Sounds like you’re getting excited…
Because it’s road trip season, baby! The open country is calling our names, and we must go because it’s been a rough week at work and things are always better out there in the world.
But knowing what to include in your road trip packing list can be a little daunting. You may have a hard time deciding how many clothes you really need to bring. You might not know what it takes to pack an effective kitchen with you.
Enter our road trip checklist. We’ve condensed all our experience into this one mega-post to make sure you know what to bring on your next adventure.
We’ll talk about some mandatory items, like a First Aid Kit, as well as some fun road trip essentials, like this amazing book, to help pass the time.
Afterward, we’ll share with you some road trip packing tips and tricks to help you maximize space and make your trip as stress-free as possible.
We’re also including a printable road trip packing list for your convenience. This way you can go over all of your gear and double check if everything is set.
With all of that in mind, let’s get to it!
Table of Contents
- Road Trip Essentials
- Roadtrip Checklist for Car Care
- Hygienic Things to Pack on a Road Trip
- Which Clothing to Bring on a Road Trip
- Car Camping Essentials
- Road Trip Packing List – Kitchen Edition
- Keeping Your Car Clean and Tidy
- What Food to Bring on a Road Trip
- Food Storage for Road Trip Packing List
- What to Pack for a Road Trip involving Hiking
- What to Pack for a Road Trip with Digital Nomads
- Fun Road Trip Essentials
- Road Trip Packing Tips and Tricks
- Final Road Trip Thoughts
Road Trip Essentials
These are the most important things to bring on a long journey – the absolute essentials that you shouldn’t ever leave the house without. These tools will bail you out of a sticky situation and are practically mandatory to start an epic road trip. Whatever you do, don’t leave without these top 10 road trip essentials!
Even if you don’t plan on doing anything extreme on your trip, like hiking, climbing, or other extreme sports, you never know what could happen. You could cut yourself while cooking, smash a finger in a car door, or burn yourself on a hot radiator. A first aid kit will be able to handle most of these minor situations.
Unless you know the region you’re driving in very well or intend on just asking for directions, a map is absolutely necessary. You may settle for just using digital apps, like Google Maps or Maps.me, but having a physical map will always be best.
3. Aux Cord
One of the only things to do on a long car ride by yourself is to listen to music or a podcast. Since most people use their phones as an MP3 player these days, an Aux cord is crucial to preserving your sanity. If there is no auxiliary port in your car, buy a radio transceiver or use a portable speaker.
4. Phone mount
It’ very dangerous to be looking down at your phone while driving. If you need to have access to your phone, for maps and what-not, buy a mount for it. This way, you can keep your eyes on the road and your phone won’t be far from your field of view.
Just like you never know what could happen to yourself, one never knows what can happen to their car. A vehicle can mysteriously fail, break, run into a ditch; all that and then some. Make sure you have an emergency kit for your car – most include a pair of jumper cables, a tow rope, a set of essential tools, and ties.
6. Driver’s License
Obviously, you shouldn’t even be driving without one. If you happen to be pulled over without a license, you could face a heavy fine. If you’re on an epic road trip abroad, be sure to check and see which countries require an International Driver’s Permit.
7. Roadside Assistance
Unless you plan on including an auto shop’s worth of tools in your road trip packing list, you can’t be prepared for every disaster. If your car suffers catastrophic damage, you’re going to need roadside assistance for towing and repair. A lot of travel insurances offer roadside assistance.
8. Spare Keys
Take it from someone who’s been in this situation – if you lose your keys in the middle of nowhere, you could be screwed royally. You’ll have to get a special locksmith to come out there or even have your car towed.
If it’s a rental, the fees for either of these could be enormous. Have a spare set, just in case.
9. Registration or Rental Agreement:
These documents should be in your car at all times, regardless if you’re packing for a last minute road trip or just going to the grocery store. Make sure they’re there before you leave.
10. Water bottle
You’re going to be drinking a lot of water on your journey. If you’re just buying plastic bottles, not only will you be wasting money, but you will also be creating clutter in your car. Invest in a good quality water bottle and fill it periodically.
Roadtrip Checklist for Car Care
Your car itself needs to be given just as much attention as yourself or your road trip packing list. To help maintain your vehicle and to fix minor problems, like a flat tire, consider packing these items.
- Spare Tire: One of the most common issues on the road is a flat tire. Most cars, especially rentals, have a spare hidden in the floor of the trunk, just in case such a situation arises. Check to see if you have one and buy one if you don’t.
- Car Jack and Lug Wrench: To change that flat tire, you’re going to need the proper tools. A car jack and lug wrench are all that is required to do this. Be sure to brush up on how to change a tire, yourself.
- Tire Repair Kit: If you’re up to it, you can not only change that flat but fix it as well. It’ll take a couple of extra tools and some resins, but it can be done. When you’re finished, you can rejoice at your own handiness.
- Extra fluids: Running out of fluids like coolant and oil could lead to disaster – trust me, you don’t want your car running with a lack of either. Keep a bottle or two of these tucked away in the trunk. Maybe have some extra windshield wiper fluid as well.
- Gas Can: If for some reason you run out of gas, you’ll need a spare gas can to run and grab more. This is one of the most important things to bring on long rides into the middle of nowhere because you never know where the next gas station may be.
- Sunshade: Nothing sucks more than getting into a car after it’s been baking in the sun. If you sit on a leather seat after it’s been cooking, it can feel like 2nd-degree burns. Keep your car cool with one of these.
- Cable ties: These are good to have around in case something needs arresting, like a loose bumper. Also handy when tying down stuff on the roof or in the bed of a truck.
Winter Road Trip Essentials
- Chains: Regular tires cannot handle snowy conditions – they do not have enough tread and often spin out on ice or snow. Chains provide traction and can handle snowy conditions. Always have a pair if snow is a possibility. Note that there are different sized chains for different sized wheels.
- Ice Scraper: Speaking of swerving, you need to be able to see to drive. Before starting up your car, use a scraper to clear the ice from the windshield and make sure the defroster is on. If you don’t have a scraper, a credit card can work to (but you may destroy it).
- Shovel: If it dumped snow and your car is buried, you’re going to have to dig it out. A lightweight, portable snow shovel is obviously the best way to go about this. If you’re in a really hairy situation, you can use this winter road trip essential for digging a snow cave as well.
Hygienic Things to Pack on a Road Trip
Unless you want to return home looking like you just came from a weeklong music festival (then again maybe you are actually doing this…) you have to take care of your hygiene while on a road trip. Forget one of these and you’ll never miss it so much.
- Toiletries: Gotta keep those teeth and hair healthy, people! Admittedly, I almost always forget to pack these things on a long trip and immediately regret not having them. Nothing feels better than having a fresh mouth after a night of camping.
- Deodorant: No one likes your brand of BO, especially when they’re stuck in a car with you. Wear some deodorant for the sake of everyone else. Feel free to do the old fart trap though – that never fails to get a laugh.
- Comb/Brush: Hair gets nappy, especially when you’re on a wild road trip and doing all kinds of cool things. Don’t forget to take care of your luscious locks. Otherwise, your hairdresser is going to throw a shit fit when they try to unravel all of those dreadlocks.
- Tote Bag: Unless you wanna deal with a dozen objects haphazardly rolling around in the car, you need to have a bag for them. A tote bag is one of those items that will help you stay organized and improve your life 100% while on a road trip.
- Hand sanitizer: You may have just used a disgusting rest stop bathroom, you may have gotten your hands dirty while camping; either way a bottle of hand sanitizer is extremely convenient and cheap to buy.
- Tissues: Good for blowing your nose, drying your hands, killing bugs in the car, and a whole lot more. These are a family road trip essential to help clean up the kids.
Skin Care on a Road Trip
Lotion: Car heaters can raise the aridity of the cab over time, which, in turn, causes dry and cracked skin. Have some lotion with you in case your skin begins to dry out and become uncomfortable. You can also use lotion as your lip balm.
Sunscreen: If you’re planning on being outdoors a lot while on this road trip, you definitely need sunscreen. On another note, if you’re the type who likes to drive long hours with the window open, you can even get burned and have an increased risk of skin cancer.
Wet wipes: Ever heard of the wet wipe shower? It’s possible and it’s actually pretty effective. If you’ve been driving non-stop and haven’t had the chance to stay in a proper hotel with a shower, a quick wet-wipe-rinse-off is great for freshening up.
Which Clothing to Bring on a Road Trip
Don’t overlook what you kind of clothing you’re going to bring on your road trip – you’re about to be limited to whatever you pack. On the other hand, don’t bring your entire closet with you because you need space for other road trip essentials.
Choose your clothing wisely and make sure to bring these key pieces:
- Sunglasses: Driving into the sun and being blinded by it is never fun or particularly safe. Keep a pair of good glasses in your car at all times and have a second pair for walking around.
- Sandals: Wearing sandals feels SO good after you’ve been driving or hiking all day. Taking my shoes off and letting my toes breath as I slip them into my sandals is one of the greatest highlights of my day. They’re small and flexible too, which means they aren’t hard to pack.
- Shoes: Obviously, you’re going to have to wear shoes at some point. Since you may be stuck in them for hours at a time, you need to make sure they’re extra comfy. Bring the right pair and don’t just settle for some old pair of Converses.
- Hat: I prefer a good bucket hat because they keep my ears protected and can take quite a beating. Any kind of hat will be fine though – just so long it gets the job done and looks good.
- Kaffiyeh: A kaffiyeh is one of the most useful things to bring on a road trip. They’re warm, easy, tough, and, most importantly, can serve multiple purposes. When I’m not using mine as a scarf, I’m using it as a blanket, a pack, a headscarf, and a whole lot more.
Winter Road Trip Essential Clothing
- Beanie: They’re cheap, effective, small, and sometimes stylish. I’d take one even if I was packing for a summer road trip because they’re just so damn easy and convenient to have.
- Rain jackets: Rain can quickly ruin your day if you aren’t ready for it. While most First Aid or Emergency Kits have an emergency poncho included, you should still pack your rain jacket.
- Warm Coat: Down jackets are very lightweight and can sometimes take up next to no room. They can be a bit expensive though. Fleece jackets are quite good at keeping out the cold but you’ll have to layer up if you intend on road tripping in the winter or in the mountains.
Car Camping Essentials
Maybe you intend on sleeping in only hotels and Airbnb apartments on your cross country road trip. Regardless, I highly recommend packing some camping gear. You’ll get to enjoy the outdoors and save a lot of money in the process.
- Air mattress: I personally can’t sleep without having something padded underneath me. Luckily there are some very comfortable and compact sleeping pads out there that are great for camping. If you have a truck, you can also invest in a BIG inflatable mattress and then stick it in the bed of the truck for ultimate comfort.
- Tent: It always pays to have a tent wherever you go. With a tent, you can sleep just about anywhere and cheaply too! If you have a rugged 4×4 vehicle, you can also pimp it out and put a tent on top of it, much like these rooftop tents.
- Sleeping bag: They’re warm, light, come in all shapes and sizes, and are relatively durable. I take a sleeping bag with me whenever I travel and have even gotten to the point where I use it even when there’s a blanket on hand. Check out our favorite sleeping bags.
- Blanket: A blanket is not only useful for staying warm at night, but for keeping an area relatively clean. If I want to avoid getting dirty, I lay one of these on the ground and then use it as a rug. I also use blankets to conceal valuables from curious, would be car thieves.
- Pillows: One of the things I miss the most when I’m backpacking in the wilderness is a good pillow. So when I’m car camping and have the means to pack such luxuries, I always take advantage of it. Nothing is better than a fluffy bag full of goose-down feathers.
- Headlamp: You can invest in a good flashlight if you like, but headlamps are much more useful. They’re hands-free, which then allows you to cook, set up camp, whatever in the dark. You can opt for a good flashlight if you want, but, honestly, I could never go back to one.
Road Trip Packing List – Kitchen Edition
Unless you plan on eating out every night in greasy spoons or snacking the entire way, you’re going to have to cook eventually. Why not invest in a proper kitchen for yourself so you can cook your own food? You can get creative with your cooking and even involve (here’s a road trip idea) the kids.
- Camping stove: You can invest in a monster stove, like this bad boy, if you feel so inclined. Or you could get by just fine with a portable backpacking stove.
- Pots and pans: We’re not saying you have to bring the latest and greatest Teflon with you, but you gotta have something. Having one of each should accommodate most of your cooking needs. If you can manage it, cast iron works really well outdoors and adds a lot of flavors.
- Cutlery: I eat with my hands all of the time but my guests may not be so keen on this method.
- Plates: They don’t have to be anything special – just a couple plates and/or bowls. You can buy some collapsible ones, which are very useful when you’re backpacking.
- A good knife: Not only is one of these essential for preparing food but it’s also quite handy for small tasks, like cutting rope, twigs, tape, etc. It’s one of the most useful tools in human history and an equally useful thing to bring with you on a road trip.
- Cooking utensils: You’re going to need a) a spatula b) a set of tongs and c) a large spoon. I generally stick to plastic or silicone when cooking – wood tends to get grimy after a while and metal can ruin Teflon.
- Coffee press: One thing that adults tend to do on road trips is wake up early – either because they need to get the car ready or to rouse their kids awake. It’s moments like this, when perhaps you had a bit too much to drink around the fire, that having some fresh coffee really pays.
- Camping mugs: These are good for holding everything from coffee to water to wine to whiskey. Invest in a good titanium one and it will last a while for you.
Keeping Your Car Clean and Tidy
You’re about to live in a car for the next several days, weeks, or possibly months. If you want to keep it organized and clean, you’re going to need some special items.
- Collapsible bins: By now, we’ve featured a lot on this road trip packing list (there’s more to come). Collapsible bins are one of the best items for keeping all that stuff orderly in your trunk. They’re light, flexible, and an essential road trip item once you use them.
- Compression sacks: These are great for dirty clothes and for packing objects tightly. If you plan on going wilderness backpacking, these are also useful for keeping stuff neat in your backpack.
- Campsuds: this is easily one of my favorite things to pack on a road trip. Campsuds can be used for everything: dishes, upholstery, your body, hair, whatever. It’s also biodegradable and smells pretty damn good.
- Towel: We don’t just mean any kind of towel – we mean you need to get a microfiber one. They absorb more liquid, dry quicker, and are way more portable than cotton ones. All important features when packing for a road trip.
- Garbage bin: Whether you actually have a dedicated bin or just use a regular old garbage bag, you gotta have something for the litter. While on a road trip, you’ll have to be much better about cleaning up, unless you want to be swimming in trash.
- Air freshener: Being cooped up with the same dirty equipment and same smelly friend is going to make the air a bit stagnant at times. Do yourselves a favor and spray some Febreeze every once in a while.
What Food to Bring on a Road Trip
You’ll probably end up buying a lot of your food as you drive around, but it always pays to have a good pantry in the car. Make sure you pack these essential food items for your road trip and you shouldn’t go hungry.
- Nuts: These are a good source of protein and fat. Peanuts are the classic road trip snack but I’ll splurge and get some cashews every once in a while. Avoid sunflower seeds and other nuts with pods as they just make a mess.
- Dried fruit: Raisins are obviously the most popular dry fruit and are practically married to peanuts. You can get just about any fruit dehydrated these days though, including kiwis, mangos, and strawberries. Avoid fruits with too much sugar and banana chips fried in palm oil.
- Jerky: Jerky is pretty expensive and sometimes coated in salt, but it’s a great source of protein. Avoid “fake” jerky, like Slim Jims, and get the natural stuff. Jerky should only have spices, water, salt, and one or two preservatives – stay away from anything with more.
- Canned goods: These can actually be really healthy and delicious if you buy the right ones. Canned tomatoes, vegetables, fruits, and beans are great examples. Preserved meats work in a pinch (love SPAM) but often contain an unhealthy amount of salt.
- Grains: Rice, flour, wheat, cereals, and muesli all have a long shelf life and are great foods to bring on a road trip. Just be sure you keep them in well-sealed bags because they can be a real mess.
- Candied-coated sweets: No road trip packing list is really complete without some sort of candy. Try to avoid raw chocolates, like bars or truffles, as they’ll melt easily. Stick to candy-coated items like M&Ms or fruit snacks.
Food Storage for Road Trip Packing List
- Cooler: You may end up buying some fresh meat, some dairy products, or just want to keep your beers cold; either way you need to have a cooler in case of these situations. When it’s not occupied by perishables, you can also use the cooler as a storage unit.
- Tupperware or plastic bags: Use these for packing leftover food or random bits in pieces in your car.
- Water Jug: This is actually one of the most important items on your road trip checklist because you should ALWAYS have water with you. Keep this in the back and fill it up regularly. Make sure it’s a big one too because you’ll end up going through more water than you expect.
What to Pack for a Road Trip involving Hiking
One of the best things to do on a road trip cross country is to spend a few days in the wilderness. I always organize my road trip packing lists around this activity and have my own ideas on what to bring.
- Wheel lock: Being away from your car for days at a time increases the chances of someone coming along and jacking the whole shebang. While it may seem like overkill to use on these, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Backpack: If you are planning on going on a multi-day backpacking trip, you’re going to need a good hiking backpack. If you’re just making little day hikes, maybe consider a smaller day pack instead.
- Hiking boots: While you may enjoy wearing a pair of sandals in the car or some trainers in the cities, you need hiking boots for the adventurous stuff. Make sure they’re sturdy and broken in before using them.
- Trekking poles: If you have bad knees, trekking poles will make your life so much easier. They can also be used to prop up a tarp-style tent or to poke people in the back seat.
- Steripen: Great for when you want to drink from a stream and don’t trust the quality of the water. Also great when you’re staying in a city with questionable water sanitation facilities.
- Hiking Essentials: A lot of these essentials have already be spoken about in this road trip checklist, but make sure you have them for hiking as well.
- Dry bag: If you’re going to participating in some sort of water sport on your road trip, you should consider investing in a dry bag. These are designed to keep gear safe from water, but NOTE that they are not totally waterproof.
- Mosquito spray: Fuck mosquitoes.
What to Pack for a Road Trip with Digital Nomads
Some people may actually live and work in their car as a way of life i.e. digital nomads. These people need to be both mobile and efficient, which demands a special road trip packing list. Make sure you have all of the following items so you can work and then play.
- Laptop: Just because you’re mobile, doesn’t mean you can’t get shit done. Today’s best laptops are extremely powerful and can do just about anything you could ask for. Bring yours with you to work remotely.
- Camera: You should never travel without a camera! It doesn’t matter if it’s a professional DSLR or disposable point-and-shoot – having one is always useful. Try out one of these fancy travel cameras or consider something more fun, like an Instax.
- Camera accessories: If you’re serious about photography, don’t forget the proper camera accessories either.
- Power inverter: Use one of these docks to charge different devices in your car. They plug into the cigarette lighter and behave just like a regular outlet. A great item to pack for a long drive or if your laptop is about to die on the road.
- Portable Battery: These work really well in a pinch or if your power inverter seems to be on the fritz. When you need to leave your car for an extended period of time – like hiking – these are often good for a couple of days.
- Hard drive: I put all of my essential digital files on a hard drive e.g. movies, photos, etc. Considering how small these are, they shouldn’t take up too much space and make for useful road trip accessories.
- Multi-cord: USB, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt; who can keep up with the different types of cords these days. Buy an all-in-one package and save yourself the clutter.
Fun Road Trip Essentials
What’s a road trip checklist without some entertainment?! Pack these items for those long, quiet rides and for when you’re ready to have some fun.
- Hammock: What’s the first thing you do after a long car ride? If you said “set kick back and procrastinate for as long as possible,” then you are correct! Set up your hammock, which is actually quite easy, grab a beer, and just watch the world go by.
- Notebook: Some people like to keep a journal, some like a day planner for itineraries, and others just like somewhere to take notes. Either way, a notebook can keep you busy for quite a while.
- Deck of cards: No matter what I do, I ALWAYS bring a set of cards with me. Even if I’m packing for a last minute road trip and have time to grab one thing, I’ll take these over spare underwear. With a deck, I can happily play of my favorite road trip games, like cribbage, rummy, and bullshit.
- Kindle: While it’s hard to replace a physical book with actual pages (yes, we love the smell too), Kindles are just too convenient. These devices can literally store thousands of books and weigh no more 12 ounces. Because of their small size, these are one of my favorite road trip packing hacks.
- Road trip book: Boredom can be disastrous on a long ride and can really sour the mood. To avoid these situations, be sure to pack one some sort of special road trip game book. These provide lots of entertainment and are one of the best things for long road trips with kids.
- Portable speaker: I almost always grab one of these when packing for a weekend trip to the lake. Then, we’ll have good drinks, good company, and good tunes. If your car doesn’t support your MP3 player either, you can use this speaker instead.
Road Trip Packing Tips and Tricks
Check out these additional road trip packing hacks and take your game to the next level!
- Make sure you get a system in place FIRST. Trying to reorganize the car halfway through a trip is a nightmare and probably going to be a huge ordeal.
- Use every little piece of space that you can. If a cooler is empty, fill it with something. Use those coat hangers in your car (if they still exist). Check underneath the floorboards for additional space as well.
- Use a road trip planning app like Viamichelin. Not only will it list all nearby gas stations and their current prices, but it will also alert you of upcoming tolls and bridges. The app even provides rough estimates for the cost of whole road trips.
- Check relocation services, like immova or Cruise America, to see if someone needs a car moved near you. If you’re lucky, you can actually get paid to take the car on a cross country road trip.
- If you have a truck, seriously consider turning the bed into your sleeping space. I know several friends who do this and swear it’s the most comfortable way of car camping. Just make sure you have a plan B for rain.
- If you’re car camping, master the wet wipe shower. Trust us, you’ll be devoid a real shower more often than naught.
- Take your car to the shop and have it checked before going anywhere. You don’t want to be halfway through your road trip and have your car break. That could potentially ruin your hard-earned vacation.
- Overnight oats are my favorite road trip breakfast because they’re super easy to make and delicious. If you don’t have milk, a dehydrated mix or some condensed milk will do just fine.
Review of Our Favorite Items to Take on a Road Trip
|Small First Aid Kit
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|Phone Dashboard Mount
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|Emergency Car Kit
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|Collapsible Car Storage
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|Steering Wheel Lock
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Road Trip FAQ
What are some things to do on a long car ride by yourself?
That’s tough because you have to dedicate most of your attention to the road. Aside from contemplating your navel or singing along to music, try listening to an audiobook or a podcast.
What are some family road trip ideas when kids are involved?
Try and limit your time in the car as kids get antsy very quick. Have lots of activities planned and limit drive times. Distract them with mobile games (or even packable travel games) or have everyone listen to that audiobook together.
How much will a road trip cost?
Road trip expenses add up very quickly, especially if you spend frivolously. It’s possible to spend less $100/day, but you need to have extremely strict habits. This means doing things like camping out as much as possible, being fuel-efficient, and cooking your own food.
Is it legal to sleep in parking lots?
While it’s technically illegal in most states, camping in certain public areas – like parking lots – is not always enforced. Wal-Marts are a well-known secret among transients as overnight parking is usually allowed at these.
How often should I take a break?
Taking a breather is one thing you should always do on long drives. The official Highway Code recommends taking a 15-minute break every two hours and I completely agree. Step out the car, do some stretching, whatever you like.
What are the best places to visit on a USA road trip?
There are too many! The Oregon Coast is one of my favorites as is a trip through Wyoming and Montana. There isn’t much time to speak here, but if you look at the “Inspiration” section at the end of this post, you’ll see some of our top choices.
Final Road Trip Thoughts
There it is, folks: our comprehensive road trip checklist. We hope it works well for y’all!
Did we miss anything, like any family road trip essentials, in this list? Please leave a comment if you feel like we missed anything or want to add to this guide!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Whatever you do, don’t hit the road without travel insurance. I’ve claimed my travel insurance three times. If I hadn’t had insurance, I would have been fucked.
Check out this post for plenty of intel on staying safe whilst traveling.
I recommend getting your travel insurance through World Nomads, but any of these travel insurances would be great as well.
To find out why we recommend World Nomads, check out our World Nomads Insurance review.
Yay for transparency! The links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you buy anything, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.
Need More Inspiration?
- West Coast Road Trip Guide
- Colorado Road Trip Guide
- New England Road Trip Guide
- California Road Trip Guide
- Oregon Road Trip Guide
- East Coast Road Trip Guide
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