Planning A Route 66 USA Road Trip

We've been on many road trips in our time and must admit there is nothing like driving a minor road, off the highway, moving on from day to day, experiencing authentic historic towns and local life, especially in small-town America. I also love the planning aspect of a road trip, picking the perfect stop, family run motels and places to eat along the way. So when we decided to drive the iconic Route 66, the 'Mother Road' from Chicago to Santa Monica LA, later this year, I thought what a cool experience. 

This iconic route made famous by the song (Get Your Kicks) On Route 66 and the book The Grapes Of Wrath, by John Steinbeck has been on my bucket list for a long time and getting to drive this route with Mr W would be a great experience. However, planning this route was not the simplest task! 

Why Route 66?


Route 66 is a slice, of old school America. The historic road, one of the original highways in the US, was built in 1926 and is littered with quaint towns, old school diners, friendly people, quirky museums and roadside statutes called the Muffler Men. Route 66 served as a primary route for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and the road supported the economies of the communities through which it passed. 


However, in 1985 large sections of the route were replaced by the Interstate Highway and the road was decommissioned. This affected the businesses along the way almost overnight. Fed up with the downturn in business a number of Route 66 associations started up, with the goal to preserve this historic route and brings tourists back to the area, with some success.

The difficulty with planning


So why was planning the trip difficult you may ask? The route was hard to plan for a number of reasons but mainly due to the route not being there in its entirety any more. There are also so many places to stop along the route and a number of detours you can do as well. So many decisions to make on where to stop along the way.

It's not as easy as buying a map off the shelf and using that either. The route covers 8 states for starters and is 2448 miles in length. There isn't one map that covers the route and you can't follow the whole route on Google Maps or with a Sat Nav either.

You also need to decide how long to allocate to the trip. Two weeks is the minimum you should allocate, but this doesn't really allow you time to explore. If you want to do any detours and spend longer in any of the places along the route then three to four weeks is better. Then you still won't see it all. 


Detours along the way

Sedona Arizona

Don't forget this route starts in Chicago so you may want to spend time exploring the city known for its architecture, the home of Chicago deep pan pizza, the Art Institute of America, the Cloud Gate sculpture and finding out about Al Capone and Chicago's gangster heritage. 

Other popular detours are the Grand Canyon, the UNESCO world heritage site, with awe-inspiring scenery and Las Vegas, the adult playground with its casinos, world-class restaurants, and fantastic shows. We are also planning to spend time in Branson Missouri, Lake Havasu and Sedona Arizona, all slight detours.

Of course, LA is worth spending time exploring too. LA is a massive sprawl so if you have limited time, I recommend exploring Santa Monica. The end of Route 66 is on Santa Monica Pier and this cool city, with its beaches, shopping and hip restaurants, is worth at least a couple of days on its own. You also have the vibrant and eclectic Venice Beach not far from Santa Monica Pier which is brilliant for people watching.

So as you can see these major cities and the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon and beauty of Sedona will need extra time to explore, and this is before you visit all the cool little towns along the way, and that is the main reason for driving Route 66, the small towns. Don't forget the journey is the part of the fun, not necessarily the big stops.

Where to start and end



You can do the route East or West.  Start in Chicago and drive to Santa Monica LA or the other way around.  Both cities have signs indicating the start of Route 66 and the end of Route 66. We decided to start in Chicago.  We booked flights with Norweigan Air from London Gatwick to Chicago. When we return we are taking a flight from LA to Chicago to catch our plane home. 

Research


Before you plan the route you really need to do some research, to find out what you want to see and where you want to go. However don't get stressed if you have limited time, no one says you have to do all the route in one go, so you could always take it section by section, and come back for more at a later date.

There are a number of useful resources that I have used to plan.

A blog I particularly found invaluable is Independent Travel Cats, this blog post I linked to was excellent for helping me plan.

For an overview of the route, I recommend the Road Trip USA Route 66 book by Jamie Jensen for Moon Guides. This is a handy condensed account of the whole trip, and brilliant as an overview.

The book I was recommended, the EZ Guide to Route 66, was very detailed but complicated to use, instead, we found the Here It Is Route 66 Map Series written by the same author Jerry McClanahan in partnership with Jim Ross invaluable. This is a package of a number of maps for the route, not just one. Mr W used it to plan each part of the trip.

YouTube has a number of people that have driven the route. I highly recommend watching the videos by Adam The Woo and Nomadic Fanatic on YouTube for an insight into the quirky stops along the way.

I also recommend the comedian Billy Connolly's Route 66 show, available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon. Billy Connolly now lives in the US and I've always loved his humour and his outlook on life. Of course, if you have kids you may have seen the animated film Cars which is based on a made-up town along Route 66 called Radiator Springs, thought to be based on a real town called Peach Springs. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a watch especially after reading about the route as you will get all the references and in house jokes about Route 66.

Facebook groups have also helped my planning. Historic Route 66 is a group full of helpful people that have a real passion for Route 66. Post your itinerary there and they will give you genuinely helpful and friendly feedback. Another useful group is Route 66 Travelers. 


If you have Spotify check out Mr W's post on 66 Best Songs To Get You Started On Route 66.

Record the detail - the information



So let's get down to basics. You've done your research and you have a rough idea of how long you have and what you want to do. So make a plan. Well, more than one.

I suggest two plans - recording the detail of what you want to do, where you are staying, where you want to eat. So you have all the information in one place. Then you need to plan the driving route.

To keep track of the essential information like hotels, what to do and so on, either make a spreadsheet or use a notebook and record all the important information. I used Google Sheets. Some of the detail I recorded included the day, the town stayed in, what to do that day and where to stop off along the day, the hotel, if breakfast was included, if parking included and if not the cost of parking, ideas of where to eat, and any activities booked.

The route is known for historic 'mom and pop' motels so ensure you stay in some of these for an authentic feel.

The Boots Court Motel, Motel Safari and the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, the Wagon Wheel Motel and the WigWam motel are just some of those motels recommended to me. These motels are small places and especially in high season will need to be booked in advance. As I would rather have all the hotels booked we have already done this, to avoid disappointment and also so we can budget for the trip. Some people like to just turn up and that's fine too. 


Other hotels we are using are well-known chain hotels in the US such as Holiday Inn Express and La Quinta Inn, which we chose as a combination of good prices and the best option in that area. Some of the more luxurious independent hotels such as the Lodge of the Ozarks in Branson were chosen due to price, quality, location and uniqueness.

Record the detail - the driving


We planned the driving route using the Here It Is! Route 66 map series and Google Maps. Google Maps is helpful to work out the distance between points and to get an overall view of the route. However some parts of the route are not on Google Maps, look for US 66 which is Route 66. You need to use the Here It Is! Route 66 Map Series to stay on the route as far as you can. Of course, you can always take the Interstate Highway if you are short on time but that defeats the point of the trip if you want to do it authentically. However, no one is watching so I won't tell!

However, one thing with Google Maps is that you may not get GPS everywhere you go, so don't rely on it in real time for your route. We plotted the route on Google Maps and then will download the sections of the map to use on our phone beforehand as a Sat-Nav. You can only plot 10 points on Google Maps so you will need a number of downloads. You won't get updates, such as traffic jams if you download your route to use offline but this would only be needed in city areas such as LA which should have good mobile coverage anyway. 

There are a couple of apps that can help you such as the Route 66 Ultimate Guide which is free but I wouldn't rely on it on its own.

When looking for car hire I recommend trying a car hire comparison site first, then go to the car hire company direct to compare prices. We split the car hire in the end, firstly we are driving Chicago to Vegas with Avis and then Vegas to LA with Hertz. We split it up as we didn't want to pay for parking in Las Vegas and for the use of the car for 4 days when we wouldn't be using it. 

Regarding the type of car, an SUV is a comfortable car to drive this route, you are sitting high up to see the route, it has good air conditioning and the newer ones have all the mod-cons. You may want to drive the route on a Harley Davidson bike or in a convertible car, but don't forget either of these two options won't have any or much space for luggage. The boots in convertibles are tiny and you will also need the air conditioning in the summer when you are driving through Arizona and Nevada desert, so this defeats the object of driving with the roof down.

If you plan on visiting Vegas you can always hire a sports car or convertible for a day to get your rush of speed, as Mr W did above. 

On the journey, make sure you plan in stops for lunch and to explore the small towns along the way. This is the joy of the trip - to stop and meet the small shop owners, the cafe and restaurant owners proud of their burgers or the best pies in the county, stop and listen to their stories, and buy from their stores and cafes. This is the joy of Route 66.

Budgeting


Our budget is tight for this trip, unfortunately. We have allowed $100 a day for food and gas (petrol), and of this $30 a day is for gas and $70 a day for food. We are budgeting $120 a day for accommodation.

We have breakfast in the majority of the accommodations included. Many of the places we are stopping to eat at will be diners and American restaurants, and a few of the places we are staying have fridges so we will be reducing the cost of alcohol by buying in liquor stores and chilling wine and beer in our room.

We are also taking a credit card for the odd upmarket meal. We are hoping to eat in Gordon Ramsey's Hell's Kitchen in Las Vegas and the Turquoise room, part of the historic La Posada hotel in Winslow Arizona. 

Historic motels like Boots Court Motel and Motel Safari are coming in around $60-$80 a night. Some of the more expensive hotels like La Posada in Winslow and Inn of the Governors in Santa Fe are coming in around $150.  The most expensive place to stay is in Los Angeles where we are staying at the Inn at Venice Beach which is over $200 a night. All hotels in LA are expensive and we wanted a slightly nicer hotel at the end of the trip.

Where to eat



Route 66 is the road for diners and American comfort food, think pancakes for breakfast and burgers and steaks for dinner. In the bigger towns like Winslow, Santa Fe and Williams Arizona, there will be more choice and more upmarket places to eat like The Turquoise Room in Winslow.

Vegetarians will be catered for but vegans may have more difficulty, so if you do have special dietary needs or are vegan, do your research beforehand, stock up with appropriate snacks just to be on the safe side and visit the grocery stores along the way if you find you aren't well catered for in the restaurants.

Here are some of the recommended places to eat along the way, according to the Route 66 Facebook groups.

Lou Mitchells Chicago - a classic diner
Lucky J Steakhouse Carthage - watch rodeo as you eat
The Big Texan Steak Ranch Amarillo - home of the 72 oz steak
Midpoint Cafe Texas - known for its ugly crust pies
Delgadillo's Snow Cap Drive-In Seligman Delgadillo himself is a legend
The Road Kill Cafe In Seligman - a unique stop!
The Turquoise Room La Posada Winslow Arizona - excellent quality dining



Unmissable stops

The original London Bridge in Lake Havasu

How long to take for Route 66? You can take anything from 2 weeks to 4 weeks and still not see it all. It's a route that many come back to time and time again so don't worry, if you enjoy it, you will be back.

There are so many things to see along the way, and you need to do your own research but here are some of our top places to stop. 



The Grand Canyon - You can take a train to the Grand Canyon from Williams, or drive to one of the North or South rims. Technically it's a short detour but shh... I am not going to tell.
Meow Wolf - a modern art installation in Santa Fe.
The Gemini Giant - an original Muffler Man.

The Blue Whale Of Catoosa - one of the most recognisable attractions on Route 66. 
Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch - a forest of 200 bottles in California.
The Cadillac Ranch - a sculpture made of 10 Cadillac's that you are encouraged to write on in graffiti in Amarillo, Texas.
Winslow Arizona, - to see the statues to The Eagles and to stand on the corner in Winslow Arizona. Watch out for the flatbed Ford! 
Williams Arizona - the gateway to the Grand Canyon.
Oatman Arizona - a wild west ghost town with the wild burros (donkeys)
Lake Havasu - home to London Bridge, pictured above. Yes, that is the original London Bridge which was dismantled and reconstructed in Lake Havasu. Again another brief detour from the Mother Road, but well worth it.

Top tips


The Cadillac Ranch

1. Peak season is July and August, motels get booked up in advance, so if you have your heart set on somewhere special, especially one of the historic motels, book it in advance.

2. Think about your car. If you have lots of luggage a convertible isn't practical as it has little boot space. Specialists cars, RV's and bikes cost more. If you are doing the whole route you will have to pay a one-way drop off fee as well which can be as much as $500 and all car companies seem to charge it.

3. Gas Buddy is a great app to find gas (petrol) stations. Never let your car run down on fuel as some areas are more remote than others. This is particularly so in Arizona.

4. You will cross three time zones if you do the whole route, so remember that if you have reservations.

5. If you are driving the route over 3 or 4 weeks considering washing your clothes along the trip to save on space. Many smaller hotels and motels have laundry services, and if not there is usually a laundrette in a small town.

Our final itinerary 

pin for later

So after all that planning, here is our final itinerary. 

Day 1 and Day 2 Chicago Illinois
Day 3 Springfield Illinois
Day 4 Cuba Missouri
Day 5 and Day 6 Branson Missouri 
Day 7 Carthage Missouri
Day 8 Tulsa Oklahoma 
Day 9 Clinton Oklahoma
Day 10 Tucumcari New Mexico
Day 11 and Day 12 Santa Fe New Mexico
Day 13 Winslow Arizona
Day 14 Sedona Arizona
Day 15 and Day 16 Williams Arizona
Day 17 Lake Havasu Arizona
Day 18, Day 19, Day 20, Day 21 Las Vegas Nevada
Day 22 and Day 23 Los Angeles California 

Branson, Sedona, Lake Havasu and Las Vegas are detours. We also visit two other states which are Texas and Kanas but don't stay there overnight.

So here is my post about planning a Route 66 road trip. We can't wait to drive this route in June this year. I hope this has helped you if you are planning this trip! I will be posting more Route 66 information in June and July. 



“hilarystyle

25 comments

  1. I've heard of Route 66 of course (and also Billy Connolly's take) but I must admit I had no idea just how long a road it is. Wow, I'd imagine 2 weeks is nowhere near enough! Thank you for compiling such a brilliant road trip guide :)

    Lisa | www.lisasnotebook.com

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    1. Thanks Lisa. Yes it's a long drive but worthwhile and ideally 4 weeks would be optimum but if you have 2 weeks you can just about do it.

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  2. This post is amazing, I never even knew there was so much to see and do and so many detours to take along the way. I can’t believe how many miles Route 66 covers! I’m shocked, but I bet you’ll have an absolutely amazing experience.

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  3. Wow this sounds like such an amazing trip. I'd love to do Route 66 but reckon we'll just do two small trips on either end and drive some of it as I don't think we'd be able to do a trip that long x

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    1. If you have work commitments it can be hard to do it all in one go.

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  4. Wow this is such a bucket list type trip! I like how you’ve planned out every detail, you’re going to see some amazing things! I would love to visit some of the attractions but not sure I could be on the road for so long!

    Viv @ https://www.vivsimone.com

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  5. I could read this all day long. This is a dream of mine and it's totally inspired me to go for it... when the kids are older and we'll be able to leave them with Grandparents maybe!? How long will you be there for?

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    1. We will be there for 23 days. Hopefully one day you will do it Jenna. Let me know if you need any more help.

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  6. I’d love to do Route 66 - I’ve travelled to America a lot but never done ‘route 66’. I’ve been to the end though at Santa Monica pier, it’s lovely there. They do awesome Churros on the pier too. Lots of great tips in the post.

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    1. Ah yes, I've been to Santa Monica pier. Santa Monica is a lovely city. Thanks for the tip on the Churros!

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  7. This looks sooooo cool! We did Big Sur a few years ago but Route 66 is definitely on the to do list x

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  8. I'd love to do the Route 66 road trip one day. It's a real incentive for me to learn to drive and pass my test ASAP :)

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  9. I would love to do something like this! We've just been to Florida for the first time and we hired a car and I could definitely see myself travelling around and seeing the sights.

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  10. This had never entered my mind until i saw the Disney film Cars, now I would love to do route 66

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    1. Cars is great. I only saw it recently but was blown away with the animation.

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  11. Oh wow what a fab route to be involved with. An amazing adventure for sure xx

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  12. I love the idea of road trip that takes in small American towns and opportunities to pause for food in diners. There seems to be so much to see along Route 66.

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  13. Wow, I cannot wait to read your posts about this trip as you experience it. I've often wanted to take on the Lincoln Highway (https://www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org/) - planned by local boosters all over America in 1913 to go from Times Square to San Francisco. Only short stretches of it were ever built and some of them are roads to nowhere, but the whole thing was plotted out. I think it might take as long as a year to do it but thus far I haven't been brave enough. I'm looking forward to your posts.

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    1. I haven't heard of the Lincoln highway, I will look it up!

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  14. Wow! Always been a dream of mine. I love driving holidays and this is the ultimate. So many great tips.

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  15. Now that sounds like an epic trip and logistical nightmare at the same time! Saying that, I would love to do it though x

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    1. Ha! Yes it is a little but that's part of the fun.

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  16. I'm so wanting to do this road trip with my family.

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