What’s the best way to see the United States? Driving, of course!!!


Monument Valley, AZ/UT

As an immigrant from South Korea, I was always in awe of the sheer size of the United States.  I couldn’t put my mind around how big this country is, especially coming from a small country like South Korea, which is roughly the size of Kentucky, maybe slightly smaller than Kentucky.

I was too young (age 9) when my family moved to the United States, so I barely got farther than the capital city region of Seoul.  When I went back to visit South Korea in my twenties, I did get to drive all the way south to Busan from Seoul, which gave me a pretty good idea of the size of the country.

That drive, took roughly 5 hours with some traffic along the way.  It almost reminded me of driving from New York City to Washington D.C.  

Driving in South Korea is one thing, but nothing is quite like driving on the gigantic landmass that is the United States.  Nothing really prepares you for it.  Even when we drove in Europe to explore Germany and Austria, which was going from one country to another, the drive wasn’t that bad.  My wife and I actually enjoyed being able to drive to another country(!) only a few hours from the city of Heidelberg.

European Union, as big as it is, is still only about half the size of the United States.  We could theoretically drive from Spain to Finland, a distance of about 2,500 miles within 2 days, if we don’t sleep, take no breaks and we only fill up on fuel.  That drive would be epic for sure, but at 2,500 miles, that would take me only from Maine to Utah, if driving on the continental U.S.

I would still have to drive further to cover Nevada then finally to California.  It’s just mind boggling how big this continent is…

I was so enamored of this country that I had always wanted to see this country the best way possible, which is driving it.  Doing a cross country road trip is on most American’s bucket list.  It is one of those things that you must do, at least once, to properly explore this great country.

Because of those reasons above, my wife and I went on many epic road trips during our 20+ years of our marriage.  They were:

  1. Trips to Canada on multiple occasions to visit great cities like Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa 
  2. Cross country trip going from New York City to Colorado 
  3. Trip to New Orleans with stops at Knoxville and Memphis
  4. Trip to Florida to visit iconic places like Key West, Key Largo, Orlando, Miami with stops at Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island, and Savanna 

The longest duration among those trips we took was roughly 3 weeks (and over 8000 miles) to go from New York City to Colorado, and back.  We made frequent stops along the way to visit these places:

  • Cleveland (Ohio): to visit Rock & Rock Hall of Fame and to walk around the city
  • Chicago (Illinois):  to visit the John Hancock Building, the Navy Pier, and other attractions 
  • Minneapolis (Minnesota):  to visit the Mall of America and to see downtown Minneapolis, the stomping grounds of Prince, the iconic musical artist
  • Sioux Falls (South Dakota): to visit Sioux Falls (there’s actually a waterfall with the same name!), and to see downtown 
  • Rapid City (South Dakota):  to visit the Badlands and Mount Rushmore 
  • Snowmass Village, Aspen, Vail (Colorado):  we were into skiing at the time and we had to visit these iconic places
  • Denver (Colorado):  to visit the downtown 
  • St. Louis (Missouri):  to visit the Gateway Arch National Park and downtown 
  • Cincinnati (Ohio):  to try local chili from Skyline Chili, and to see downtown 
  • Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania):  to visit downtown 

At that time, we thought doing a 3 week long trip was an insane idea especially at our age (early 30’s).  What made the trip possible was that we were preparing to move to Hawaii from New York City that same year.  We were in the process of selling our apartment (and selling or donating most of our stuff), and I felt the time was right to do this.

My motto in life is this: take a chance; don’t wait for the perfect time, as you may wait forever…

As epic as that trip was 20 years ago, nothing was quite like the last one we took last November.  We spent 2+ months to go from North Carolina to Southern California with multiple stops along the way.  Some of the highlights of that trip were:

  • Biloxi (Mississippi):  stayed at the Beau Rivage, visited Gulf Islands National Seashore, and saw other attractions 
  • New Orleans (Louisiana):  our second visit there together; had delicious Cajun/Creole food and walked around the city
  • Texas: visited Houston, Galveston, San Antonio and saw attractions like the River Walk, the Alamo,  tried delicious foods at local favorite Buc-ee’s
  • Multiple National Parks:  visited White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, Glen Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Smoky Mountains
  • Albuquerque (New Mexico):  visited Petroglyphs National Monument, saw Old Town, and Sandia Crest 
  • Arizona:  visited cities of Page, Flagstaff, Bullhead City, Lake Havasu and saw the famous Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend
  • Utah:  saw all 5 of the Utah Big 5 national parks including Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion
  • Nevada:  stayed at some of the most iconic casino resorts including Bellagio, Delano, and Aria; visited Laughlin
  • California:  visited San Diego, Pauma Valley, and Death Valley National Park 
We drove close to 12,000 miles and spent around $10,000.  Was it worth it?  Hell yes!!!  I would do it again in a heartbeat!  Despite the incredible amount of driving we did, we would still do it again.  In fact, we still long for the otherworldly scenery we encountered along the way, and it’s only been a year…

These below are some of the best reasons why everyone should see this country, the best way possible, which is by driving:  
  • Country is so vast with so many treasures to explore that you really need to drive to see them
I know many people have visited these places listed above by flying there, then renting a car there.  On a typical one week/two week vacation, you only have so much time.  So, I understand.  We did similar things while we worked.

Because of the vast driving distances even within a single state like Texas or California, it’s just better to travel by car.  If you had unlimited funds to be able to fly everywhere then rent a car, that’s one thing.  But if you’re like most people, you’ll want to stick to your budget.  Driving is cheaper by far vs flying somewhere then renting a car.  

Renting a car these days is no longer cheap like it used to be prior to COVID-19.  Whereas we used to rent cars in Las Vegas for roughly $35 per day, these days, it’s closer to $60 per day for a standard sized car like a Chevy Cruze or similar.  

If we use Las Vegas as our destination, adding the price of a flight for two people (let’s say roughly $800 for two people) and the price of a rental car for a week (7 nights times $60=$420), they come out to over $1200 for a week long trip.  Just during our recent cross country trip, we traveled to perhaps over 20 different destinations!

Just think how much that would cost on a 10 week long trip if we were flying/renting car at each of these 20+ destinations! Cost of flight for just 20 destinations would be $16,000 and the price of rentals cars would be $4,200.  That’s over $20,000!  Don’t forget about costs for lodging, food, attractions, and fuel for rental cars.  

By driving, we spent little over $10,000 for our 10 week long trip vs what would’ve been easily over $30,000 had we flown then rented cars at the airport.  Winner:  driving!
  • You miss so much of this great country when you fly over it at over 30,000 feet 
Sure, I used to fly when I only had a week or a 2 week vacation.  Flying though, is no longer the glamorous and exciting thing it used to be when I was younger.  Most flights nickel and dime you with charges for everything these days except maybe for water and for soft drinks.  

Transcontinental flights used to give you free lunch or dinner years ago, pre-9/11, but no longer.  Flying is just a major pain in the ass sitting inside a flying tuna can for hours with all kinds of people.  Some of those people don’t shower, while some of those people complain about everything.  

Even when I worked, I always wished I could drive to most places if I could.  With plenty of time on my hands since early retirement, that is finally a reality!

When flying, we tend to miss everything about what’s below.  Sure, we may see a distant mountain range, green farmlands, or the oceans, but the rest are hard to discern.  

By driving, we can appreciate the undulating roads that open up to reveal beautiful vistas of snow capped mountains miles away, or we can appreciate the quickly passing colorful wild flowers that dot the road.  Watching road signs and billboards on highways is what makes things interesting.  

Driving into city limits right before sunset is magical, with excitement jolting our senses of what adventures may lay ahead, as we look to settle down for the night at our newly arrived destination.  The following morning gives us that sense of peace and joy that come from enjoying the little things while we’re driving from one town to another…

We can’t do that flying way up there…
  • There are so many little nooks and crannies everywhere that’s easy to miss when we only travel for a week, always in a hurry 
When we vacationed for a week at a time, our schedules were so packed that we barely had time to really see places like Zion National Park.  We took a day trip from Las Vegas to Zion, so that meant we barely scratched the surface.  

We took the Zion shuttle bus to drive around the park and we ate at the Zion Lodge, but that’s about it.  We didn’t get to hike any of the trails as we only had like 2-3 hours at the park.  

We did similar things at other destinations always missing out on so many great things due to lack of time.  A week long vacation always seemed to go by so fast: there are the travel days that eat up 2 days (going there/coming home) which means we really had 5 full days to explore.  Like I said, that was never enough.

Way we traveled over last winter with having plenty of time on our hands, meant we could really take our time exploring the lesser-known trails to hike, or the out of the way scenic overlook that is out of this world.  In Albuquerque (New Mexico) for example, we drove up to Sandia Crest, a scenic spot at around 11,000 feet in elevation with views of the surrounding valleys below.  It was incredible…

Driving, affords that opportunity to see them. 
  • Give yourself at least 3-4 weeks to really see one or two particular regions of this country 
Due to the sheer size of this country, you should devote at least 3-4 weeks to explore this country by regions.  For example, we saw South Central (Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas), Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah), and West (California) during our cross country trip, and that trip took over 10 weeks.

I consider 3-4 weeks the absolute minimum time needed to see a region.  If your thing is national parks, then you should consider West Coast (California), or the Southwest region as there are so many iconic parks out there.  

Depending on where you live, you can probably drive to Southwest within 2 days from most places, including New York City, or Philadelphia.  If you have another driver with you, then driving isn’t a bad idea, especially if you consider the cost to fly then renting a car at the airport.  Having 3-4 weeks gives you options.

We met so many fellow travelers, mostly retired with time on their hands, enjoying the leisurely pace of travel.  We certainly agree!  During our last trip, we were never in a hurry, worrying about the impending end to our always short week long vacation, like we always did while we worked.
  • Driving on the great American highway system is a treat, like nothing else in the world…
Thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Americans like us, are thankful to be able to travel on the great interstate system.  Outside of the incredibly congested Northeast where tolls to cross bridges and tunnels are exorbitantly high, the most of the country can be driven without tolls in most states.  

Driving on the American South/Southwest/West was an absolute treat as we barely paid a toll going from North Carolina to California and back.  Selecting Google Maps function to avoid tolls probably helped, but in places like New York City, that just isn’t possible with so much traffic.

The interstate highway system is one of the best things about living in the United States.  Road signs are really easy to navigate with plenty of hotels/motels to rest up for the night, to fuel up on gasoline, or to fill up our stomachs almost everywhere we drive on.  

We absolutely love passing one state to another, with their welcome signs greeting us, and we love the quirky little advertisements on billboards selling everything from drugs, foods, and to fireworks, with everything in between.  These are what keeps us awake on dull, monotonous, straight-as-a-line roads across certain parts of the country like in Kansas, Nevada, Texas, or Oklahoma.  

We really got a kick out of seeing countless billboards advertising Wall Drug in South Dakota, then finally stopping there to get some food and to pick up some souvenirs.  We also got a kick out of seeing the faint, barely there glow of a distant city, like Albuquerque, as we were driving northwest from Carlsbad (New Mexico).

Some of these indelible images will live with me forever, and it’s a testament to the beauty and functionality of the American interstate highway system!  Thank you President Eisenhower!
  • As great as the American interstate highway system is, sometimes the smaller roads less-traveled really makes driving memorable…
Some of my favorite memories during our cross country trip were on small country roads that sometimes felt like we were the only survivors from a cataclysmic event that killed everyone on Earth.  Roads felt desolate with no sign of human civilization.  Add in falling snow, and it really made for a tense, exciting, but really memorable trip going from Capitol Reef National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park.  

Driving through northwest part of Arizona seeing rock cliffs with colors of vibrant reds and oranges, made the drive incredibly rewarding.  We were in awe just looking at those finest works by nature.  We felt small driving next to 100-200 foot tall rock walls with colors a master artist might’ve painted with pride…

It’s these and many other memories on sometimes lonely but usually memorable drives on country roads that make traveling by car so rewarding.  

In conclusion:

I’m a huge advocate for exploring this great country by driving.  Yes I’m biased because I personally love to drive, but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong!

With time on our hands since early retirement, driving by far, is the best way to see this country for us these days.  For anyone else though, with proper planning and hopefully with at least 3 weeks to spare, a road trip should be the way to go!  There is absolutely no substitute for seeing this great country one mile at a time…

We love a road trip so much, we’re planning another one, this time to the South (Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi tentatively) this winter.  I get goose bumps thinking about it!

Thank you for reading and happy trails!  Get out there on the great American road to really see this country.


Wandering Money Pig 

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