How to drive from NY to LA in 5 days

betty ming liu Money, Travel 11 Comments

We were two women on our first cross-country road trip. We did it — we logged nearly 3,000 miles, just my daughter Gabi and me. The whole adventure felt so wildly American, spontaneous and independent. So here I am, with a blog post on how to drive from NY to LA in 5 days.

Gabi mapped out a simple, direct route for our journey, which we made in July. We stuck to major highways, surrounded by big rigs hauling all kinds of stuff from one end of America to the other.

How to drive from NY to LA in 5 days

Tractor trailers loomed over our 12-year-old Toyota. All of us chugged past fields filled with cows, corn and electricity-generating wind turbines. We saw mountains, sandy landscapes and every type of highway rest stop — including some with washer/dryers and showers.

We also learned that driving fast is legal, with speed limits ranging up to 80 mph. The whole trip cost us a little over $1,000, including gas, lodgings and meals.

Our itinerary from New York took us to Interstate-80 in New Jersey. I-80 is the country’s second-longest interstate highway, running coast-to-coast. That’s why it’s so popular with commercial truckers. We traveled with them through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah.

Once we hit Salt Lake City, we exited onto Interstate-15 for Nevada and Arizona. The last part of the journey was the toughest. I actually got a little scared in the blistering, 107-degree heat of California’s windy, endless Mojave desert. Never seen anything like it. Wow.

How to drive from NY to LA in 5 days

How to drive from NY to LA in 5 days

According to Google Maps, it’s possible to make this entire trek in 41 hours straight. But we wanted our sanity and sleep. We made the first and last day our longest drives, 10 hours straight per day; adrenalin kept us going.

Here’s where we stopped overnight, including our miles, hours and lodging expenses:

New York –> Ann Arbor, MI. — 10 hours, 630 miles

Ann Arbor –> Des Moines, Iowa   8 hours, 557 miles

Des Moines –> Cheyenne, WY. — 9 hours, 629 miles

Cheyenne –> Salt Lake City, Utah. — 7 hours, 441 miles

Salt Lake City –> Los Angeles, CA. — 10 hours, 688 miles

Breakout of our costs 

As for our expenses:

  • $265.07 for gas
  • $346.43 for three one-night Airbnb stays* + one night at a hotel (Marriott Courtyard, $123.43)
  • $385.55 for meals
  • miscellaneous tolls**

** Airbnb per-night charges were $73 in Iowaa, $89 in Wyoming and $56 in Utah).

*I have no idea about our tools. All we know is that our EZ Pass worked in many states. We never paid any tolls with coins or bills.

Our tips for newbies

Car care is critical. If you’re driving your own car, have it thoroughly check-out and serviced before heading out. This leads to a few more tips:

  • Thank goodness we had the car manual handy. When unfamiliar icons lit up the dashboard, we looked them up to assess if we were in trouble. (We weren’t.)
  • Many parts of the country do not have gas stations with mechanics. Out west, it seems that gas stations only sell gas and junk food. When we needed an oil change in Salt Lake City, we realized we needed to go to a Jiffy Lube.

Bring a GPS. Unless you like reading paper maps or have unlimited cellular data, a GPS is a must. We bought a $119 Garmin for at Best Buy that served us well. When we passed through stretches of farm country with no cell service, we were really happy to have our GPS.

Gas is the top priority. Prices for regular unleaded were all over the map, from $2.05 in Idaho to $3.79 in California. For most of our highway driving, rest stops were plentiful — except in the Mojave Desert. Here’s what to do if you drive through that relentless sandscape:

  • Always have at least a quarter tank of gas. Rest stations can be scarce.
  • At least twice, we passed signs saying “rest stop ahead.” But they lied. The stops were either demolished or closed.
  • Stay on the highway. Once, when we googled for gas stations, the search took us off the highway onto a dirt road to nowhere.

Rest stops vary widely. Pennsylvania rest stops are small and dull and only worth visiting if you’re desperate for a toilet. On the other hand, Ohio’s modern rest stops look like space ships packed with gift shops, fast food options and even Panera Bread. In between, was everything else — from dank and dirty, to trucker-friendly places with couches, washer/dryers and free showers.

Eat good food. Given the unpredictable nature of rest stops, I was glad we packed our own snacks — nuts, chips, crackers, water, etc. For meals, Gabi searched for restaurants on Google Maps and TripAdvisor.com, while I checked out Yelp.com. We ate well. Favorite meals included home-made pretzels, artisanal sandwiches, pho and vegan avocado toast.

Audio books make good company. I wasn’t sure my daughter would enjoy listening to a book. But even though we found “The Help” annoying, it’s a long novel that passed the time and gave us much to talk about. Our second book was “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.” It was only two CDs-long. We played it a couple of times when we were bored and found it inspiring.

What next

I’m so proud that we know how to drive from NY to LA in 5 days. Personally, the trip took me to the next level as an independent woman and explorer. Road trips are fun. I can’t wait to do another one. (P.S. — If you want to know how to make this overland journey in 3.5,  7 or 14 days, check out this July 2017 post on Thrillest.com.)

Any questions, memories or advice on road trips? Would love to hear from you.

Comments 11

  1. What a great trip and bonding experience with your daughter. She’s lucky to have such a great mom. Would love to hear more!

    1. Post
      Author

      Mary, it was so fabulous. I’m lucky to have a great daughter! Two things were key.

      1) We played to our strengths. Since Gabi likes planning trips and enjoys online research, she mapped out the route, found all the Airbnbs, and chose all of our restaurants. My strength was stocking up and packing snacks, tons of water and the audio books.

      2) For me, I really needed to see that we could do this as women. So much road trip out there is by guys and for guys. I wrote this post for everyone who dreams of road tripping but has no idea of where to start.

      Thanks for asking! xo

  2. Oh Christ, you went through Nebraska. Nothing but corn n’ cattle along I-80, right? I promise you the terrain is more interesting if you get off the interstate.

    1. Post
      Author

      Haha! You’re right, Dougie. Corn fields, wind turbines. We had limited time and wanted to stay focused. And actually, I was fascinated by the trucking culture. Neither of us had ever seen it up close before. Those guys work really, really hard. It’s a tough life. But now that we’ve seen it, next time, we will set aside more days, and wander more. :)

  3. Betty: I hitch-hiked to California back in 1970. It took me 3 months to get there and I must say, I met some really incredible people along the way – kind, generous and hospitable. It taught me not to write off the folks in the “fly-over states” as we North Eastern intellectual types are sometimes prone to do. It was a learning experience. Today though, I wouldn’t do the sort of trip you have just accomplished. I’d be afraid of breaking down at night, in the middle of no place and ending up in a ghost town besieged by zombies. You didn’t see any zombies, did you?

    1. Post
      Author

      Toby, I think I draw the line at hitch-hiking. I’ll never be able to do that! But what an adventure that must’ve been for you. Clearly, the power of it stays with you to this day. I was really humbled by my experience. Those of us who live on the coasts can be very snotty. Seeing people as people makes a difference.

      And of course, I worried about the zombies, heheh. After this post went up on my Fb page (which is pretty public @bettymliu), it started a discussion on this very point. A friend asked me if we ever felt unsafe as two women of color traveling alone. Here’s what I replied:

      I started out terrified, esp when we saw a giant “Trump” sign draped over a barn roof. But after a while, I felt like it was one of those animal moments. You know when they smell our fear, they’ll growl? Well, it was really important for us to get over our stereotypes about parts of the country we’d never seen before. There were many moments when it felt like we were the only people of color on the highway! But I just enjoyed getting out. It was important to get over the fear. That’s what’s wrong with the country — we’re polarized because we don’t know anything about each other’s lives. Granted, we were on the move, and conversational levels were totally superficial. And after we had early dinners, we basically collapsed in bed, we were never out at night. Ask me again when I’m on a more leisurely trip! The interactions might be different. You know what else surprised me? Asians everywhere. The gas stations — run by South Asians. Asian restaurants in Cheyenne, WY, Salt Lake City…I was amazed.

  4. Thanks for sharing! Wish I had known you were doing this. Number one should be Eat Good Food – fruits and vegies!!!

    Also I’ve done it both ways coming back via Canada. Spectacular – not the same as USA at all.
    Trans-Canada Highway Road Trip & Vacation Planner
    https://www.transcanadahighway.com

    1. Post
      Author

      Peg, you’re welcome and…thank YOU.The thought of road tripping never occurred to me. And it’s so close! I’m glad you put this on everyone’s radar here. With a link too! Thanks again. This is great. :)

  5. We drove 1200 miles in Alaska on our honeymoon. We managed to see the Homer Spit as well as Anchorage and Seward and Denali in late May before all the locals return for the summer and the huge mosquitoes come out to suck your blood. Back in 1997, we rented a car and took a small tent to do some camping when we weren’t staying at B&Bs and a motel in Anchorage. The best stay was a few days in Homer at Willie and Brigitte’s Bed and Breakfast where we got to see twin moose calves and drank her homemade rose wine. We also got a license and went clamming for razor clams which were huge and Willie showed us how to clean them. We also rented bikes in Anchorage and did the Tony Knowles Trail which is 20 miles round trip I believe.

    We have rented a truck with a camper on it twice now and driven all over Alaska as well. Our last one and most recent was the Skagway Haines loop and back and a ferry ride. We are looking forward to driving an RV in Iceland and a rental car in Norway next Sept. You just can’t beat those road trips taken together. Alaska is definitely a place worth exploring more than once and since he gets seasick, we don’t take cruises on the water which I’ve heard are fantastic as well.

    1. Post
      Author

      Sandy, what lovely experiences you had exploring nature. I’ve heard so many raves about Alaska, usually from friends who’ve done cruises. It’s supposedly just beautiful. An RV in Iceland is gonna be quite an adventure, too. Iceland’s getting a lot of press attention these days. The Miami weekend cruise I did with my daughter was fun and not the least bit stomach-churning.

  6. Pingback: What I learned from a year of celibacy - betty ming liu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *