Since my husband and I recently drove the entire length of Route 66 westbound from Chicago to LA (and can now call ourselves experts) it is my newfound responsibility to give sage advice to future Route 66 travelers. So then, here’s my Top 5 List:
1) Do it!
The trip was far more interesting and rewarding than I anticipated. We saw parts of the country we never would’ve seen otherwise, and gained an unexpected real-time education about American history, culture, geography and science. We found certain sections we yearn to revisit for further exploration, and we would absolutely consider doing the whole thing again. I was disappointed when I heard that Route 66 road trips are far more popular among foreigners than Americans. Anyone, especially an American, who loves a good road trip AND a good story unfolding before their eyes, should drive Route 66 at least once in their life!
2) Give yourself plenty of time
Once you decide to do a Route 66 road trip, you should determine how long you are able and/or willing to spend on it, and that will dictate your itinerary. I didn’t quite appreciate this before our trip, but I can now unequivocally state that one could literally spend weeks or even months on Route 66 — if one stopped and explored all sights and side trips along the way (like the Palo Duro or Grand Canyons). At a minimum, however, you should allocate at least two weeks (one-way), which still means a fairly aggressive timetable with minimal stops and side trips, but allowing for a reasonable daily pace. We discovered that, due to the road conditions, we couldn’t go more than about 150 – 180 miles (or 6-7 hours) per day. Plus, we made a daily stop for lunch (a highlight!) and never drove at night. If you are not able to devote two weeks, consider doing a smaller section of Route 66, giving yourself ample time to enjoy it.
3) Decide how purist you want to be
Contrary to popular belief, Route 66 no longer technically exists. Even in its heyday, it was a patchwork of roads and highways that were designated as Route 66, and the route was constantly evolving as new roads and interstates were built and older sections replaced. The entire Route 66 was decommissioned in the 1980s. Today it is not a well-defined or well-marked route, which is both fun and challenging.
So, when planning a Route 66 road trip, there are many choices of alternate routes and you should realistically assess your style, preferences and patience. One can follow the older versions of Route 66 (some parts of which are now dirt or gravel roads or completely disappeared) or the latest versions (which include stretches of modern Interstates) or some combination. There are guidebooks and maps available (see below) that will help you find these routes. Don’t leave home without them! We chose to mostly follow the older versions (unless it was really rough or nonexistent or there was something we wanted to see along a newer stretch), which took us through small towns and scenic countryside unfettered by traffic, but it also meant slower going and more stamina required.
4) Don’t over-plan….and be adventurous!
We did not leave home with a detailed pre-planned itinerary for our trip. We knew when we needed to be back home, and had a rough itinerary (which got us home with plenty of time to spare) sketched out, but left the exact timing and route flexible. Once we got on the road, we quickly discovered we couldn’t go as far as we anticipated each day, so our original schedule was out the door. We basically planned each night how far we would go the next day, where we would stop for lunch, and any special sights or side trips. We also left time to explore along the way, which gave us plenty of leeway to meander without pressure to be anywhere at a certain time. It was a very liberating way to travel!
We stopped for lunch (and often dinner) at older cafes and diners in small towns that gave us a flavor for the fare served on old Route 66. We learned much about regional food, and about the people and history from the townsfolk we met in these eateries. We found these restaurants through our Route 66 guidebooks (and then double-checked TripAdvisor to weed out the dogs). Some of the places looked dicey from the outside but, with few exceptions, they proved to be enjoyable, typically inexpensive, memorable and, almost always, tasty experiences for us. The restaurants truly appreciated our patronage (many small towns rely on Route 66 tourism for survival) and the proprietors and workers went out of their way to make us feel welcome and provide any assistance we needed.
In addition to our restaurant adventures, some of our best memories stemmed from impromptu stops or side trips that completely surprised and delighted us. Like the stop at a restored schoolhouse in an abandoned California town in the Mojave Desert where we were met at the door by the gentleman and his wife who had labored to restore the building and who gave us a personal 45-minute tour of the property. Or the visit to “Blue Hole” a natural spring in New Mexico, where we watched teenagers gleefully jumping in off the surrounding rocks. There were countless visits to Route 66 ghost towns that were both intriguing and eerie to explore.
When it came to hotels, however, we were guilty of being less than adventurous. I originally intended to stay at some of the “vintage” motels along the way. We heard that the European Route 66 road trippers love these old motels. But we found that after a long day of driving and navigating the Route 66 maps and guidebooks, we preferred a comfortable modern hotel (not Ritz Carlton but Hampton or Holiday Inn) with amenities (like a hot tub) and we learned that AAA consistently offered the best rates. Although there were some nice exceptions, most of the “historic” or “vintage” motels were more like “seedy” to me. (I admit – after many years of business travel, I’m a hotel snob.)
The bottom line is — be open to adventures to get the most out of your trip, but accept your limits and be comfortable in your journey. Nobody is going to mark you down if you occassionally drive an Interstate, or eat at a Morton’s Steakhouse, or stay at a Hilton.
5) Do your research and use the great tools available!
Since Route 66 is fairly complicated to follow, you must do some advance research, unless you enjoy getting lost. And even then, prepare to get lost. There are some excellent Route 66 guidebooks and maps that will save time and make your journey much easier. Our Bible was the “EZ66 Guide for Travelers” by Jerry McClanahan (we even stopped in Chandler, OK to meet him and he signed our book). It gives detailed turn-by-turn instructions for following Route 66 (and its various incarnations) and lists interesting sights along the way. When we talked to Jerry, he mentioned that his book has reportedly saved countless marriages. My husband also found “The Route 66 Map Series” by Jerry McClanahan and Jim Ross, which is a set of eight foldout maps showing the route through the 8 states through which Route 66 runs. We brought the “Route 66 Adventure Handbook” by Drew Knowles, which describes offbeat roadside attractions, vintage motels and cafes, and which we used for color commentary along the way. For finding restaurants (and theoretically lodging) we consulted “The Route 66 Dining and Lodging Guide” published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation. Pre-trip I visited the local AAA office and picked up 2 bags of maps and guidebooks, covering every state that we would be visiting. And since my husband hates to get lost, he went the extra step of using the “EZ66 Guide” to program the route for the next day into our Garmin GPS. Even so, we did lose our way a few times, but never hopelessly, and after a few days under our belt we really mastered our navigation techniques which worked like a charm. I really can’t imagine trying to follow Route 66 without the help of these maps and books.
In short, Route 66 may seem like a daunting proposition, but with a little thought and preparation, it can be the trip of a lifetime…and you t0o will be hooked!