How to drive from NY to LA in 5 days

betty ming liu Money, Travel 30 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.

**Tolls not included. 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 super-modern, 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, while I checked out 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

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

Comments 30

  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!

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      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

      1. My name is Gia I’m in Long Island New york. I want to make the trip to Riverside California. I have to rent an RV because I have seven cats to take with me and I don’t want to put them in the luggage area in a plane. I also have to strap a U-Haul on the back to hold my property. You can private message me for any other details but I was hoping to get some advice from you. I’ll be traveling alone I’m wondering if you could answer a few questions.

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          Gia, wow! Seven cats is a lot. I’m not sure what useful advice I can offer. It’s been more than five years since I made the trip to LA. A very different time in this country. All I can say is that I felt pretty safe on that trip because we stuck to the big highways. I explain more about that in the 2/15/21 comment to Yuet. One other thought: Have you talked to your vet? I asked a vet about this once and she mentioned meds as a way to ease the trip for both cats and humans. And I definitely think it’s important to ask a bunch of people you trust for their opinions. It might help you to sort through your options.

  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.

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      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?

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      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

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      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.

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      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.

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  7. Hi Betty! I’m planning on driving out to Los Angeles from New York in about a month with my mother because I’m relocating. I’m interested in how you and your daughter were able to create such a concrete route, and I was hoping you could provide some resources for me in terms of how you found lodging and which routes you took. Even just the names of the cities you stopped in could be a real big help in mapping out how to get from point to point and figuring out where we can rest for a night.

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      Hi Danielle, I left the planning to my daughter. She picked the route. It’s direct and lacks charm. But we got there. The names of the cities we stayed at are in this post. Ann Arbor MI isn’t the most direct place to stop in the Midwest but I wanted to visit friends there. Apart from that, once we picked the cities, we used Airbnb to find lodgings in each destination. We used Yelp and Google to find places to eat. Good luck!

  8. Hello Betty, this is a great post! My husband, kids and I have traveled from LA up to New Orleans, but next month we are stretching our trip all the way to NY!!! This time we will use the I-80 and will make a stop in Des Moines to visit family and spend the night.
    Wondering if you used the same route to go back (I-80) or if you can give me more info on your experience going back and which cities you went trough?
    Our trip will only consist of 4 days max due to time limitations and an event in NY.
    (Will also read the link you posted above)

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  9. Interesting read, so thank you. Curious if you booked all your stops for the night before the trip started, or while you were driving?

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  10. $265 for gas is pretty impressive – I thought we did well spending only $100 in a Prius C we rented for a road trip from LA to Seattle.. What type of car were you driving?

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  11. I am so thinking about doing this in August, with my girlfriend, my cousin and daughter. I will be doing it from central NJ to Moreno Valley, CA, staying for two days and then driving back. Do you think that is realistic?

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  12. Hi Betty! t’s 2020 and right in the pandemic and I have found your story. Thanks so much, I have to drive roundtrip L.A to NY in Sept. (solo) and I really appreciate you and your daughters journey and tips/hints. Take care, Fergus.

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  13. Hi Betty, I just came across your blog as I searched route for driving from NY to CA. I will be making this trip w my husband and small dog. Given the state of our country and w the pandemic, would you and ur daughter still take the same drive if you were to do it again today? Were the places you stopped at relatively safe? And why did you choose to stay in Airbnb as opposed to national hotel chains. We are thinking of making this drive sometime in March, so weather can be a factor for us. Thanks so much for ur insite given our country’s current condition.

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      Hi Yuet! It’s hard to believe we made that drive so many years ago. If I was to go cross country again this summer, I would definitely take the same route for one reason: We stuck to the big highways. Big roads. More people, more resources and hopefully more help and safety. Of course, sharing highways with gigantic trucks is scary. If you drive next to one of them, you can feel yourself caught in a wind tunnel. So I would try to pass them as quickly as possible.

      As for Airbnb vs hotels, I haven’t tried either during the pandemic (yet). In the past, I preferred Airbnbs because they were more interesting and better priced than hotels. If I was booking tomorrow, I would still consider Airbnb. But I would carefully read the customer reviews for the rental. I would only want a rental that has really strong, really recent reviews for cleanliness and safety. High-speed internet would also be a must. Hope this helps!

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