In front of the Michigan Central Station in Detroit
In front of the Michigan Central Station in Detroit

The last week or so I have been on the road– moving from Michigan to California.

Instead of just taking the easy route (flying) we decided to partake in an adventure– to travel the US by car.

I wanted to write this article to share some of my personal experiences through this road trip– and hopefully it can give you some insight to plan your own road trip across America (while taking some photos too).

Why go on a road trip?

Arizona, 2013. Photo by Cindy Nguyen
Arizona, 2013. Photo by Cindy Nguyen

One of the first questions you should perhaps ask yourself before you decide going on a road rip yourself is “why should I go on a road trip?”

Here are some reasons why I recommend going on a road trip across America:

1. You get a chance to see the landscape of America (both the urban and rural)

Alabama, 2013. Photograph by Cindy Nguyen
Alabama, 2013. Photograph by Cindy Nguyen

Traveling the US by car is probably the most practical way to see many interesting things, while having ultimate freedom at the same time. Sure you can take rail, but it is limited to what cities you can visit. Flying is convenient, but once you arrive at your destination, you need a car anyways to get around.

2. You can partake in an adventure

Driving on the freeway. Photo by Cindy Nguyen
Driving on the freeway. Photo by Cindy Nguyen

Going on this 10-day or so long road trip has certainly been quite the adventure for me and Cindy. It was quite challenging physically (driving 8+ hours a day) but it was also quite exciting when we arrived at a new city or location and was able to explore.

Being born and raised in California for most of my life– I had no idea what the rest of America really looked like– in terms of the food, culture, and people. Therefore visiting places outside of my comfort zone or what I was accustomed to gave me the chance to see America in a new light.

3. You will get closer to the other person you are going with

Me and Cindy (Cindy shooting with the Ricoh GRD V)
Me and Cindy (Cindy shooting with the Ricoh GRD V)

I recommend going on a road trip with at least one other person. Why? You will share in the experiences of the road trip together, and you will also have someone who can share in the driving responsibilities (and splitting motel fees together).

Embarking on the road trip was certainly a way to get closer to Cindy– and now that the road trip is over it is great to reminisce with her over the memories we made together.

4. You can take photos along the way

Taking a portrait of two ladies I met in Arizona at a 7-11 (both schoolteachers). Photo by Cindy Nguyen
Taking a portrait of two ladies I met in Arizona at a 7-11 (both schoolteachers). Photo by Cindy Nguyen

When you are going on a long road trip, there are a lot of interesting photos to be taken– both in terms of the urban landscape, the people you meet, and the things that you see.

In one road trip you certainly won’t take the most mind-blowing photos of your entire life, but it is certainly an opportunity to create unique images.

5. It is fun

Eating some bomb BBQ at Salt Lick in Austin, Texas with my buddy Bill Reeves and friends. Thanks again Bill! :)
Eating some bomb BBQ at Salt Lick in Austin, Texas with my buddy Bill Reeves and friends. Thanks again Bill! :)

The last and probably the most important reason of why you should go on a road trip is because it is fun. This is one of the most important things to take into consideration. Why do something if it isn’t enjoyable and interesting?

Sure there will be stretches of the trip that are quite boring (driving through the deserts of Texas and Arizona is pretty monotonous–and a lot longer than you expect) but all in all, the experience will be a rich, colorful, and enjoyable one.

My itinerary

1x1.trans American Road Trip Itinerary 2013

The purpose of my trip was first practically to move from Michigan to California. Below was our route:

  • Start: East Lansing, Michigan
  • Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Louisville, Kentucky
  • Nashville, Tennessee
  • Birmingham, Alabama
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Houston, Texas
  • Austin, Texas
  • Fort Worth, Texas
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • End: Southern California (before we head up to Berkeley)

Google map of our itinerary here.

We initially were going to take the famous “Route 66” from Michigan to California, but we decided to take a longer route (by heading down to New Orleans, then heading west). This was the better choice for us because New Orleans was a place that I have always wanted to visit (and certainly had an amazing time there with our host Kenneth Pape), while visiting some close family-friends in Texas (Houston and Fort Worth).

Thanks for showing me and Cindy a great time Kenneth! :)
Thanks for showing me and Cindy a great time Kenneth! :)

I enjoyed all of the cities I visited and the amazing people I met along the way– but I would have to say that New Orleans was my favorite city. I loved the fusion of the French and the American culture there as well as the architecture and vibe of the city. The heat and humidity was a bit tough, but nothing a little air conditioning and sugar-coated beignets and coffee couldn’t cure.

Famous "French" beignet and coffee in New Orleans. I had a small (but delicious) heart attack after eating it. Thanks Kenneth!
Famous “French” beignet and coffee in New Orleans. I had a small (but delicious) heart attack after eating it.

Preparation

If you are interested in embarking on your American road trip, there are several things you will need to prepare. Below I will try my best to condense the most important things from the trip (based on my personal experience):

1. A car

2014 Ford Fiesta parked in Detroit
2014 Ford Fiesta parked in Detroit

This is obviously the most important piece in the puzzle.

I was fortunate enough that Ford lent me a 2014 Fiesta for 8 months for the “fiestamovement” advertising campaign (with gas and insurance included) which aligned with our travel schedules. So I was lucky to be given a brand-new car that was comfortable and reliable. For those of you who are curious, the car is pretty badass (not getting paid to say this). Good on gas, comfortable (going over bumps), quiet inside, and good-looking (the front grille looks like an Aston Martin). I have never been a fan of any American cars (Ford, GM, etc) and an Asian-car fanboy (but now their new cars are really stepping it up).

In choosing your vehicle, I would recommend taking a car on the trip on something that is efficient on gas. A car that gets around 30mpg is ideal (probably a small compact car). Cindy and I have also found having a hatchback as advantageous (because we can fit more stuff in the trunk).

It is also important to have a reliable car. You certainly don’t want a car that will break on you during your trip. I highly recommend getting an oil change (and tune up) before embarking on your journey, and even asking the mechanic to make sure your car is in tip-top shape before you embark.

2. Clothes

Sunglasses are technically not clothes-- but probably the most important thing for a road trip. Oh yeah, and makes sure they are polarized too (to reduce glare).
Sunglasses are technically not clothes– but probably the most important thing for a road trip. Oh yeah, and makes sure they are polarized too (to reduce glare).

In terms of timing for a road trip, I recommend to take it during a time when it isn’t too cold (anytime but Winter). This is also beneficial because it means you won’t have to pack many clothes.

For my trip, I ended up over-packing. I brought several T-shirts, jeans, hiking pants, hiking boots, etc which have never left my bag.

What I have worn for the majority of my trip includes the following:

  • Uniqlo “Airism” v-neck shirt (x2): Super-lightweight, and washes easily in the sink with shampoo. Lay it over a towel on the ground, roll it up, stomp on it– and hang it up to dry. Dry by the next morning. I also recommend the ExOfficio Quick-Dry V-Neck.
  • Ex-Officio Boxer Briefs (x2): These are the best pair of boxer briefs I have ever owned. They are quick-dry, comfortable, and wash easily overnight as well (like the t-shirt above). Highly recommended.
  • Shorts (x2): Once again, wash shorts at night similarly to the shirt.
  • Flip flops: Easy to drive with and also means you don’t have to wash socks at night.
  • Polarized sunglasses: I cannot emphasize how important it is to own a pair of polarized sunglasses for a road trip. Staring at the road (and sun) for 8+ hours in a day can be painful. Having polarized lenses kills glare and reflection, and makes it a lot easier on your eyes. I bought some cheap clip-on sunglasses on Amazon (because I wear glasses) for the trip. For those of you who don’t want to look like an old fart like me, you can pick up some Polarized Ray-Ban’s.

3. Camera equipment

My Contax T3 and Kodak Portra 400 film. Also brought my Leica MP as a backup
My Contax T3 and Kodak Portra 400 film. Also brought my Leica MP as a backup

Of course if you plan on taking photos during your road trip, you will need a camera and some accessories.

My experience is that you will end up taking a lot less photos than you expect during your road trip. The majority of my photos were taken during rest stops (at gas stations, restaurants, and walking around briefly at the cities I stopped by).

For my entire trip (around 9 days) I only ended up shooting an average of half a roll a day (18 photos a day). So I probably only ended up shooting 5 rolls of film during my trip (180 photos).

The equipment I brought for my trip includes:

Initially I was going to shoot the entire thing on my Contax T3, and shot most of it with it. However when I made it out to Austin, Texas– I discovered that the front element’s protection blades actually jammed. So I have been shooting the rest of the trip with my Leica.

I think a huge lesson I learned is the importance of having at least 2 cameras during your trip (in case one breaks, like it did in my case).

Also the smaller and more compact and easier to carry, the better in my opinion. An ideal kit might include a main camera (DSLR, Fuji, Leica, Micro 4/3rds, etc) with a point-and-shoot camera as a backup (to keep weight down).

I would also recommend not going overboard with bringing crazy amounts of lenses. I would just bring one prime (I found the 35mm focal length to be ideal– good enough for taking photos of people and of urban landscapes). Leave the zooms and telephotos at home.

4. A buddy

Cindy, the best road trip buddy a guy can ask for :)
Cindy, the best road trip buddy a guy can ask for :)

I would highly recommend not going on a road trip by yourself. Why? Driving is pretty long and monotonous, and having someone else engage in conversation with you while you are driving (or even drive as well) is a lot more fun and exciting. Not only that, but you can share in the experiences together– eat together– and even split the cost of motels along the way.

5. Audiobooks (and music)

Filling up at a pit stop! Photo by Cindy Nguyen
Filling up at a pit stop! Photo by Cindy Nguyen

One idea that Cindy had for our road trip was to load up on audiobooks. This was quite possibly one of the best ideas ever.

I never realized how fun and engaging audiobooks could be (listen to fiction, not non-fiction– as non-fiction could put you to sleep) and convenient while driving.

You can find a lot of audiobooks available on Audible. Cindy and I personally listened to Ender’s game (highly recommended) while also listening to some music we downloaded via Spotify to keep us entertained.

6. Plan a route

Arizona, 2013. Photo by Cindy Nguyen
Arizona, 2013. Photo by Cindy Nguyen

Cindy was able to use Google Maps to plot out a map for our trip. Based on my personal experiences, I am comfortable driving 300-600 miles in a day (around 5-8 hours). Anything more than that is definitely possible, but pretty exhausting.

I would say try to aim to sleep in more popular cities at night– which will give you the time and opportunity to walk around at night, visit some of the restaurants and bars, and to take some photos.

Along the way (to use the restroom or to eat lunch) I enjoyed visiting smaller towns, taking photos of the urban landscape, and even taking photos of people inside restaurants (and even gas stations).

I took many photos of couples at restaurants that I thought were interesting (some with permission and some without) as well as some photos of even people filling up at the gas station (I took a photo of a sergeant in uniform filling up his car).

The trip

I am sure I’m missing certain points of things you need to bring– but those are the essentials.

To move on, you are now packed and ready to go on your trip. Some other pieces of advice:

1. Don’t rush it

Don't forget to relax and drink some coffee along the way
Don’t forget to relax and drink some coffee along the way

One of the first pieces of advice I have when embarking on your own road trip is not to rush it. Remember, it is a road trip, not a road sprint. Trying to get to your final destination is pointless, as you won’t be able to check out more places along the way and enjoy the drive.

When also planning logistics of your trip, know that nothing ever goes according to plan. The trip will take longer than you expected (Cindy and my trip took about 2 days longer than we expected). As an analogy, planes always arrive late (and never early).

2. Meet people along the way

Instax photo of some new friends we met in Indianapolis
Instax photo of some new friends we met in Indianapolis

Personally my favorite part of the road trip was less the sights and food we experienced along the way– but more about the people that we met.

Cindy and I was fortunate enough to also have hosts that let us crash in their spare bedroom or couch, some of them include our buddies Steve Brokaw, Matthew McCord, Kenneth Pape, Leslie C, and Kaywon Chang.

Thanks to our hosts Matthew and Emma in Alabama for good fun, company, and Waffle House!
Thanks to our hosts Matthew and Emma in Alabama for good fun, company, and Waffle House!

The great thing about staying with local hosts is that they were able to show us around, let us know more about each city’s history, and the places that only locals knew about. Certainly a lot better than just visiting Tripadvisor (although Tripadvisor is also a good way to figure out things to do in a city, as well as good restaurants to eat along the way).

Even if you don’t have a host to stay along with during the way, I highly recommend trying to reach out to local street photographers to meet up. On the “Start Here” part of my blog, I made several street photography Facebook groups in some big cities. You can try reaching out there to find people to meet up. Or you can tweet me for people to stay with, and I will try to RT your requests.

3. Experience the food

Salt lick, a carnivore's paradise. In Austin, Texas
Salt lick, a carnivore’s paradise. In Austin, Texas

I feel one of the best ways to explore a certain city or region is through the food.

For example, the food from Michigan, to New Orleans, and Texas is certainly different (and shows a lot of the culture through the food).

To find good local places to eat, I recommend looking on Tripadvsior or even better, Yelp. Having a smartphone is also very convenient to find good local places to eat.

Lordsburg, New Mexico
Lordsburg, New Mexico

Generally I find the best places to eat are the places that have a large # of reviews. For example, I found restaurants with 800 reviews with 3.5 stars over restaurants with 20 reviews with 4.5 stars to be better to eat at.

When you are at the restaurant, ask your servers what their personal favorite foods are or what the restaurant is famous for. Even though the food may be different and unfamiliar– I beckon you to be adventurous and try something new!

4. Stay at cheap motels

Texas, 2013. Photograph by Cindy Nguyen
Texas, 2013. Photograph by Cindy Nguyen

I don’t recommend staying at fancy hotels or anything like that along the way. It generally tends to be a waste of money– and that money can be better used towards gas or food.

Cindy and I used hotels.com to find good local places to stay, and try to read some reviews of each place to make sure it isn’t too run-down.

For most nights, we were able to book a room for around $50 a night (on the days we didn’t stay with hosts).

I also recommend if you are tired from driving and the road trip– sleep in. Even though driving is only sitting on your ass, holding your steering wheel (relatively straight), and pushing the gas it can be pretty exhausting. Rest up during your days in-between and make sure to also load up on protein and veggies (keep carbs to a minimum) to be fueled up for your trip.

5. Be flexible

Remember rest is important: sleeping in can be a good thing. Photo sneakily taken by Cindy when I was catching some ZZZ's
Remember rest is important: sleeping in can be a good thing. Photo sneakily taken by Cindy when I was catching some ZZZ’s

Plans never go according to plan, so make sure to keep your travel schedule flexible. You might arrive at a small town that you find absolutely fascinating– and might want to spend an extra day or two there. Or you might go into a city that you expected to be really fun (and planned to stay there for 2 days) but in actuality you found it to be quite boring.

The secret is to have optionality and flexibility. I would recommend not to book hotels until the day-of. This helps you be flexible. Even though it is a tad more expensive to book on the day-of (instead of beforehand) trust me, having flexibility is worth it.

Budgeting

Filling up
Fortunately gas isn’t as expensive in America compared to other countries (or most of the mid-west).

To go on a road trip is certainly not cheap, but cheaper than you might expect.

Here is a rough outline of a budget for a road trip:

Per day:

  • $50 a night motel (only $25/night if you split it with someone else)
  • $35 for ~300 miles (for a compact relatively fuel-efficient compact car). Gas in America at the time of writing is around ~$4 a gallon.
  • $15 a meal (if you eat at good local places, you will probably spend around this much for both lunch and dinner. You can probably skip breakfast during the trip). Of course you can eat Subway the entire trip and save money, but I have found spending extra money on iconic meals to be much more rewarding.
  • (Add money for car rentals, if you need to rent one. Plus if you are coming from overseas, the price of a plane ticket)

Assuming that you have a friend, own your own car (that is decent on gas mileage), and stay at relatively cheap motels– you will only spend less than $100 a day for this trip.

So assuming that your road trip takes around 10 days (I think a comfortable pace to go across America) it will cost you ~$1000 (about the price of an international flight, and less the price of a new camera). This is certainly not cheap, but not as expensive as you might think. And as I have written in the past, invest in experiences over material objects (gear)– as it will be something you will never forget and lose (you can lose material objects, but memories stay with you forever).

The photography

Thanks to Servando Gomez for this awesome "Self Portrait" book by Lee Friedlander!
Thanks to Servando Gomez for this awesome “Self Portrait” book by Lee Friedlander!

Like I mentioned about my own personal experiences– I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I had expected to. Perhaps it is because I didn’t focus enough time and energy into shooting– but it was a good lesson for me: keep your ambitions with your photography modest.

Unless you are going to spend the next 2 years on the road shooting your “America” project (like Robert Frank’s “The Americans“) your photography is probably going to fall a little bit short.

But don’t let this disclaimer discourage you from your photography plans. Also remember that the joy of the road trip isn’t just the photography, but the experiences, journey, and sense of adventure along the way.

Things which I photographed during my road trip:

1. Portraits

Philadelphia, 2013
Philadelphia, 2013

During the trip I didn’t shoot many candid shots. I was still fascinated by some people I met during rest stops at either big cities, inside small town restaurants, or even of people filling up at the gas station.

Whenever I saw someone I was interested in, I was both interested in taking their photograph and hearing their life story. Therefore when I saw someone I wanted to photograph (although I was a bit nervous/hesitant) I would quickly approach that person and say something along the lines of:

“Excuse me, my name is Eric and I am a photographer from Michigan taking a road trip to California and I am doing a road trip photography project, photographing interesting people I meet along the way. I was wondering if you would mind it if I took your photograph?”

Some people were a bit hesitant (they were a bit concerned that I might be using their photo for some weird reason) in which I would reassure them by giving them my contact information (name, email, website) and saying that I would send them the photo after (which they could use for their Facebook profile picture or something).

What I was looking for were people of diversity in different cities. For example some examples of people I photographed along the way (which I can remember off the top of my head):

  • Young African-American couple (rugged Urban style with tattoos) at a Taco Shop.
  • Middle-aged white couple eating brunch at a Steak House.
  • African-American lieutenant pumping gas near Tucson, Arizona.

I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I wanted to in Indiana, Kentucky, New Orleans, or New Mexico. Hopefully when I visit again– I will try to photograph more.

One photographer that really came to mind when I did these types of portraits was Alec Soth, a fine-art/documentary photographer from Magnum Photos.

2. Urban landscapes

New York City, 2013
New York City, 2013

Another subject I photographed a lot was the “Urban Landscape” of places I visited. This included pictures of signs, interesting murals, gas stations with character, and cityscapes.

I felt this was crucial to photograph as it gave a flavor of the places in which I visited.

Some photographers that inspired this type of photography included Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, and Joel Sternfeld.

3. Mundane objects

New York City, 2013
New York City, 2013

The last main type of subject I photographed mostly during my road trip included mundane objects– similar to what Martin Parr would have photographed. This includes food, little ornaments in restaurants or stores, or even things I found on the ground.

Conclusion

1072083_10102469886205066_47268718_o

This road trip has been an extremely valuable experience both to get closer to Cindy, to explore more of America, as well as meet some incredible people along the way.

I certainly didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked (and I doubt that they are any good either). However the experiences are what matter the most– and I have enjoyed every minute of it.

I am sure I am also missing information in this article. I hopefully plan to add more to it in the near future.

If you have any other questions or comments leave them below! Also for those who have embarked on similar road trips, please share your tips/advice below too!