Cross-country travel is an opportunity to have a truly enriching vacation experience.
You get to take in a wider range of landscapes and engage with people during your journey which usually isn’t possible by simply flying to a destination. It’s no wonder, then, that one recent survey found that at least 90% of Americans had taken at least one road trip in the preceding year.
Nevertheless, you may still find yourself gravitating toward the same popular theme parks, chain restaurants, or luxury hotels as other tourists while on the road.
However, part of the beauty of cross-country travel is to go the extra mile so you can experience new and unusual things. It’s worth taking steps to ensure you can discover hidden gems along the way.
Discard the Itinerary
To discover hidden gems, be open to spontaneity. Consider ditching the itinerary that you might usually create for your road trips and vacations. Not having a strict schedule gives you the space to explore.
This doesn’t mean that you need to improvise your entire trip. Having a loose framework can help you keep within the necessary time frames and budgets.
Perhaps set a start date and a destination, with some towns or accommodations that you plan to reach at specific points throughout the journey. From here, you can have some space to wander and fill in the gaps each day with fresh and unusual experiences.
That said, it’s important to have access to useful knowledge when you’re traveling off-schedule.
Installing in-car Wi-Fi ensures you can connect to the internet to stay informed of traffic conditions and perform a little research on local attractions, eateries, events, and essential resources while on the road.
Many cars today can support this by having a wireless chip, though you may also need to sign up for a service with a provider. This means you can have secure and relatively fast internet without having to rely on public networks, like coffee shops.
Talk to the Locals
There’s only so much you can learn about available amenities from online events pages or by just wandering without a goal in mind. Often, your most powerful resource for uncovering hidden gems is local knowledge.
You can certainly utilize mobile applications — such as Spotted by Locals and Withlocals — that give you access to handpicked activities and recommendations. Even then, you may find that your best finds will come about simply by getting out of your car and starting conversations with residents in the area.
This may involve simply approaching people on the street and asking them for recommendations.
This could be anywhere, but preferably in a local, casual area such as diners, bars, and coffee shops. Speak both to patrons and business owners about what they find interesting about their town and what they like to do.
Not only can these discussions uncover attractions, but you can also learn about the diverse cultures present throughout your cross-country expeditions and even make new friends.
If you’re on a solo road trip, approach this tactic safely. It’s not pleasant to think about, but professing your unfamiliarity with the area and saying that you’re traveling alone can put you in a position of vulnerability.
Therefore, ensure your conversations happen in public spaces during the daytime wherever possible. Avoid conversations that focus on your solo endeavors and instead lead with your interest in learning about the local area.
Keep Your Costs Low
One of the potential challenges of seeking hidden gems is that it may result in some additional costs.
For instance, taking the time to explore the world in your vehicle might result in higher gas usage. You might also find that ignoring chain restaurants in favor of local eateries results in your food costs being a little higher.
While the experience of these hidden gems may be more than worthwhile, it’s still wise to establish ways to keep your travel budget low throughout your expedition.
You also don’t have to worry about how to save money during your road trip while missing out on potential discoveries — some approaches juggle both goals. This may involve downloading apps that highlight the best gas prices in the area so you can explore further on your trip for less.
You could also consider getting a National Park pass, which allows you to spend time exploring a wider variety of natural wonders without having to pay the highest entry fees.
Indeed, this last element can suggest other ways to save money during your cross-country trip that in themselves can boost opportunities for discovery.
Focusing on nature rather than popular tourist destinations enables you to squeeze the most value from your finances while also introducing you to unexpected experiences.
You can take camping gear so you can sleep under the stars rather than rely on hotel rooms. Not to mention that you get to take in the beauty of the diverse flora and fauna that thrives in different areas of the country.
Another important way to discover hidden gems in your cross-country expedition is to pack light.
This means you’re not weighed down by a bunch of unnecessary baggage, which can put fewer limitations on your traveling, accommodation, and exploration options. Minimizing your load means you don’t have to take a car, you can easily ride buses, take a bicycle or motorcycle, and even get last-minute domestic flights.
You can stay at lower-cost hostels or camp more spontaneously when you’re less encumbered, too.
If possible, you should consider taking the one-bag approach to travel. This involves only packing the essentials. A few sets of clothes for different types of weather and activities, your device chargers, and a few toiletries can all easily fit inside a small carry-on or backpack.
If you’re traveling for a while, you can always use laundrettes to clean your clothes — which saves on baggage space and gives you another opportunity to talk to locals about nearby experiences you should seek out.
Heading on a road trip offers opportunities for discovery, so it’s worth taking steps to lean into this aspect.
Remember, though, that this approach doesn’t have to limit you to places in the U.S. These types of cross-country strategies can be good for further-flung destinations, too.
Keeping yourself open to gems off the beaten path can help you more meaningfully engage with enriching cultural experiences.