Driving Route 66 is not like driving on any other road… if you think all you’ll need to do is follow some signs or turn on the navigator, you will be disappointed. If you want to travel it faithfully, the Mother Road will require much more effort than any other common road, because, unlike all the highways and interstates around the world, identifying the route is not so simple! If you are looking for a Route 66 Road Trip Planner, here you find all the necessary instructions for planning a Route 66 vacation.
- Route 66 Travel Guide: Useful Information
- Driving Route 66: Original Route
- Route 66 Travel Guides and Maps: Some Books
- Cost of gas stations on Route 66
- How Many Days to Drive Route 66?
- Best Time of Year for Route 66 Trip
- Major Cities on Route 66
- Route 66 Road Trip State by State
- Tips for Lodging On Route 66
- Where to Eat on Route 66?
- Route 66 Road Trip Cost
Route 66 Travel Guide: Useful Information
Before I get into the details of how to build an itinerary and the recommended route, I’m going to mention some basic information that may be useful to get an idea of what it’s like to travel Route 66:
Route 66 Length
How long is Route 66? It is a route of about 2500 miles; the exact figure that is usually reported is 2448 miles, however it is not an easy figure to calculate, especially if we think of the detours and changes of route that the Mother Road has undergone throughout its history.
Where Does Route 66 Start and End?
Route 66 stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica and can be traveled west to east (starting in Chicago) or east to west (starting in Santa Monica). Depending on which direction you decide to take, keep in mind that in Chicago, the Historic Route 66 Begin Sign is on Adams Street East (at the intersection with Michigan Avenue), while the Historic Route 66 End Sign is on Jackson Boulevard East, which is one block south.
As for the other end of the route, there is only one sign, the end sign, which is located at the famous Santa Monica Pier.
What States Does Route 66 Go Through?
The Mother Road will allow you to cross as many as 8 states, here they are from East to West:
- Kansas (for a very short stretch)
- New Mexico
Below, in the section of the recommended route state by state, you will find my in-depth articles about all the attractions that await you in each state, but I recommend you to read also our article on route 66 best attractions where you will find advice on the best stops.
When Was Route 66 Built?
Planning for the road began in 1924 and 2 years later, on November 11, 1926, the name Route 66 was officially approved. For more details on the history of this road and how its fame spread around the world, you should read my article on the history of Route 66.
Driving Route 66: Original Route
As we anticipated in previous articles, Route 66 no longer “officially” exists. We emphasize the word officially as it is only the old numbering system that has ceased to be, while large stretches of the old Historic Route 66 still exist and survive today and, with a few tricks, you can easily travel along them. Here’s the information you need to help you recognize where the old Route 66 used to be.
The three things to pay the most attention to are:
1. Route 66 Signage
Look for and recognize the specific signs that mark the old route. It’s a very simple tip to follow, but unfortunately, the signage is not always in place and is rather random. If you are forced or want to use the highways, pay attention to the wording on the various exits that indicates the presence of the old Route 66.
2. Parallel to the highways…
Take the modern highways as a point of reference. If you take a look at a map of the United States you will notice that Route 66 (which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles) has been replaced by five highways that are:
- I-55 (Chicago to St. Louis)
- I-44 (St. Louis to Oklahoma City)
- I-40 (Oklahoma City to Barstow)
- I-15 (from Barstow to San Bernardino)
- I-10 (San Bernardino to Santa Monica)
Once you have this reference point in mind, you need to look for side roads that run parallel to these highways, as in most cases it will just be the old Route 66.
3. Follow the Business Loop
If you are near a major city, pay special attention to the words Business Loop with the number of the relevant highway next to it. For example, Business Loop I-40 (if you are near Albuquerque, New Mexico and Amarillo, Texas) or Business Loop I-44 (if you are near Springfield, Missouri) are the “modern” markings of what used to be Route 66 near these major cities.
4. A few additional tips…
By following these three tips, you will be fairly sure to find the original Route 66. However, to be sure we will provide you with some more tips that may be useful in removing any further doubt.
- Since road construction methods were different in the 1920s and 1930s than they are today, you will notice that Route 66 did not alter the landscape it crossed. In fact, the road followed the hills and valleys. If it found an obstacle, it went around it. For this reason, Route 66 sometimes ran parallel to the railroad tracks, as in Oklahoma, for example, especially in the stretch between the towns of Sayre and Erick (learn more about the history of Route 66 here). Modern highways, on the other hand, are mostly straight and have a completely different impact on the environment they cross. In short, the more winding the route (like on the way to Oatman), the more likely you are on the right track!
- Look around you for all those signs of the times, such as small restaurants, gas stations or bridges that point directly to another era. If you come across several along your path, you are definitely on Route 66.
Route 66 Travel Guides and Maps: Some Books
Even if we are used to relying totally on our navigator, in this case we don’t recommend it. In some areas (such as deserts) the GPS signal will be poor and it will be quite an effort to set a route that does not take into account the shortest way (i.e. highways) to reach a certain place.
As you may have now realized, finding a map of the current Route 66 is not so easy, since it no longer appears on official maps. Fortunately, there are some specific published guides and road maps created specifically to reconstruct the original stretch of Route 66. Here are some guides you can refer to:
- Lonely Planet Route 66 Road Trips: an overview of the main attractions along the Mother Road
- Route 66 Adventure Handbook a detailed description of all the towns and attractions you will encounter along the way
- Route 66 EZ 66 Guide: (detailed map plus attractions and advice on how to follow the original route
Cost of gas stations on Route 66
Although this may seem like a trivial suggestion, try to fill up at gas stations near major urban centers as the further you get from “civilization”, the higher the prices will be. In many desert areas it is not uncommon to find the price of gasoline at more than twice the national average. This advice also applies to basic necessities. Take a look at the map and try to refuel in the most convenient places.
How Many Days to Drive Route 66?
If you’ve finally gotten the urge to rent a car and head out on an adventure right now, you may be wondering how long it will take to complete your journey along the Mother Road. Answering this question is not easy as it all depends on how far you want to drive each day and how many stops you plan to make, but I can say that if you intend to drive the entire stretch of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica it will be better to plan for no less than 15 days and, if you can, even 20.
If you don’t have enough days, you can give up the idea of driving along it exactly and explore it “in brief”, choosing the attractions that interest you most. Obviously, it will not be the same trip but it will allow you to see the best that this route has to offer and also save on costs. In this case it is hard to decide on a minimum number of days, but I would not plan for less than 10 days.
Best Time of Year for Route 66 Trip
The best time to travel Route 66 is in the spring and summer seasons, mainly because some businesses and attractions along the route may be closed at other times of the year. The second reason is related to climate: winters in Illinois are extremely harsh, but even in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma the cold can cause problems. Of course, in the middle of summer, it can be very hot, especially in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but you just need to be prepared.
Major Cities on Route 66
There are many cities along the route, but some will stand out for their size or their places of interest, and you may choose some of them for your overnight stays. Here are the main cities often used to draw up a standard itinerary:
- Chicago, Illinois (-> things to do in Chicago)
- Springfield, Illinois
- St. Louis, Missouri
- Springfield, Missouri
- Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- Amarillo, Texas
- Santa Fe, or Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Flagstaff, Arizona
- Kingman, Arizona
- Barstow, California
- Santa Monica, California
Often, the classic road trip itineraries on Route 66 are developed by tour operators using these cities as stopovers. I do not recommend using this method to the letter to organize an itinerary, as there are many other smaller towns, with characteristic accommodations in full Route 66 style, which are worth considering. For a complete overview, I suggest you take a look at our article on the best places to stay on Route 66, where you can find the most suitable stops along the way with several suggested hotels.
Route 66 Road Trip State by State
Let’s now look at Route 66 route in detail, state by state. In each box, we have included the main attractions worth visiting along the Mother Road from East to West, but of course, the order can be reversed as needed. Each of the boxes below is accompanied by an in-depth article that contains an interactive map: by following the indications given, you should be able to organize an itinerary on Route 66 that includes the most characteristic and iconic attractions. I can also take this opportunity to point out a post you may have missed: Why Route 66 is so popular?
Begin your journey on the Mother Road. After leaving Chicago, you can finally immerse yourself in the authentic atmosphere of Route 66. You will encounter the Gemini and Bunyon Giants – curious giants holding sandwiches and space rockets – the iconic murals of Pontiac, and the old charming service stations some of which have been abandoned. You’ll see a huge Lincoln on a carriage, a series of old cars planted in the ground like crooked trees, a sort of anticipation of Cadillac Ranch. But there are so many places that have faced their own personal challenge against the passing of time…
- All attractions on Route 66 in Illinois
The first state you come across after Illinois is Missouri, home to St. Louis. As you know, Route 66 has its surprises on the road: the world’s largest chair and, just before St. Louis, the Chain of Rocks, a romantic disused bridge right on the border with Illinois. Also on the road are vintage motels, sentimental trading posts full of knick-knacks, bra museums, natural wonders (Meramec Caverns and Fantastic Caverns), the 66 Drive-In Theater in Carthage, and who knows how many other wonders!
- All attractions on Route 66 in Missouri
Okay, it’s only a few miles, but it’s enough to become part of the legend. In Galena, you can see where the idea for Mater, the tow truck character in the movie Cars, Disney’s tribute to the world’s most famous road trip, was born. In addition to the ever-present trading posts where you can stock up on memorabilia, in Kansas you will also find an old bridge marked with the symbol of Route 66.
- All attractions on Route 66 in Kansas
This stretch of the Mother Road is a journey of Kitsch! In Catoosa you’ll meet a giant whale (with a love story to tell), visit a Totem theme park, while meanwhile you will already have run out of film to photograph the fantastically restored gas stations. Arcadia has a lot to offer: among other attractions, you’ll see a house with bizarre architecture and the famous POPS, shaped like a bottle. In addition to Oklahoma City, which has a couple of quaint neighborhoods to visit and some rather unusual museums, you can also visit a couple of ghost towns from the 1930s: some authentic, some faithfully reconstructed.
- All attractions on Route 66 in Oklahoma
This state is home to some of the most unforgettable Route 66 landmarks. First of all, I challenge you to find the right words to describe the emotion you feel before the totem cars at Cadillac Ranch. In addition to this installation, along the route you will find decadent art-deco establishments, colossal crosses, the Britten Leaning Water Tower (an unintentional Texas tribute to the Leaning Tower of Pisa), a barbed wire museum (!), the Midpoint Café (exactly halfway down the Mother Road), and, last but not least, the Big Texan Steak Ranch, which challenges you to enter its Hall of Fame by eating a legendary four-pound steak.
- All attractions on Route 66 in Texas
After so many miles, we finally make contact with the Hispanic heart of Route 66. Some of you will recognize in Albuquerque the set of Breaking Bad, others will prefer to see the ancient pueblos, but I’m sure that none of you will want to go without taking a selfie together at the sign of the legendary Blue Swallow Motel. In addition to these places of interest, I want to mention the traditional murals and historic hotels in Gallup, as well as the Route 66 Auto Museum in Santa Rosa, a must-see for those who love vintage cars.
- All attractions on Route 66 in New Mexico
In Arizona, it is not only the classic Route 66-themed attractions that will impress you, because the nature of the west will make the trip truly unforgettable. Don’t miss the apocalyptic landscapes of the Petrified Forest while the Grand Canyon (although purists will protest here, as the park is not on Route 66, but an hour away from Williams). After Mater in Kansas, Cars will return in Seligman, but the stop not to be missed is Oatman, the ghost town that refuses to die, hidden in the middle of the desert mountains cut through by Bloody Route 66, with its dusty gas stations and abandoned trading posts.
- All attractions on Route 66 in Arizona
The end of the journey approaches! Hiding in the desolate, scorching Mojave Desert are Bagdad Cafe (hence the German film) and Roy’s Cafe in Amboy, near a volcanic crater. In Calico, near Barstow, there is a reconstructed ghost town, while the road to the City of Angels is lined with bizarre attractions: a forest of bottles, almost century-old motels, Aztec-style buildings, Indian teepee camps, the first McDonald’s in history, and more. In Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Pier marks the end of this trip, as you cast your gaze over the Pacific Ocean, as endless as the American dream!
- All the attractions on Route 66 in California
Tips for Lodging On Route 66
The adventurous urge to go on a Route 66 road trip could make you decide not to book hotels in advance, choosing them during your trip and thus reserving the possibility of changing route and itinerary even at the last minute.
You will certainly have more freedom this way but, in our opinion, this is not the best solution, mainly for the following reasons:
- Especially in big cities, it is not at all convenient to book at the last moment. On the contrary, it tends to be the earlier you book, the easier it is to find a cheaper rate.
- During the many stops you will make in unknown and sometimes remote towns, which may have 1 or 2 motels with only a few rooms available, you may not be so lucky to find accommodation (or at least any decent one!).
- Booking a hotel in advance on an online portal often allows you to get very low rates, and also, in most cases, you will have the opportunity to cancel the reservation up to 24 hours before.
- Finally, there’s the fatigue aspect: it’s true that we’re talking about a road trip and that we like adventure, but after hours of driving, finding yourself having to do even more miles in the evening to find a hotel is not at all pleasant!
So: what should you do?
We suggest you book at least most of your accommodations (if not all of them!) in advance using the online portals that we often recommend on these pages (and that you can also find below). In addition, we refer you to some specific resources:
Motels dedicated to Route 66
If you want to breathe the true atmosphere of Route 66 in your choice of accommodation too, you should know that there are many evocative facilities, where you can savor the spirit of the legendary American road. These places can be historical, bizarre, or stuffed with all kinds of memorabilia. In our article on the Route 66 best motels, you will find a selection of recommended accommodations of this type.
Accommodations near big cities and parks
To search hotels in big cities or near national parks that you will come across along the way, we suggest you have a look at our section Where to stay, with specific advice on each location (e.g. neighborhoods, distance, travel etc…).
The best hotel booking portals
Here are the main sites to book hotels, motels, B&Bs, hostels, and anything else that we use to organize our trips to the USA. We highly recommend checking prices on all 3 to save money:
Where to Eat on Route 66?
Of course, our Route 66 experience wouldn’t really be complete if we didn’t stop for a snack at the typical Route 66-style diners that can be found along the route. There are so many of them, so listing them all here would not be possible. I have opted for a list that includes 1 for each state.
- Cozy Drive-In (Springfield, Illinois): This historic place is the place where you can taste the original corn dog (sausage covered with a batter of cornmeal and fried), a recipe that Virginia Waldmire made popular in Springfield in the ’40s. Upon entering, you will be struck by the decor, in full Route 66 style, while outside you cannot miss the famous logo with the 2 sausages hugging each other.
- Missouri Hick Barbeque (Cuba, Missouri): Barbecue and carpentry expert Dennis Meiser has infused all his talents into this cowboy/mountaineer-looking restaurant: from the chairs to the tables and stairs, everything here is the owner’s own work, but of course, it’s his 12-hour smoked meat that gets the applause.
- 4 Women on the Route (Galena, Kansas): Route 66 only passes through this state for a short stretch, and there are not so many places to choose from for a stop. The one listed here is actually a gas station, made famous by the fact that the truck parked outside inspired the animated film Cars. You can make the most of the opportunity here to grab a hamburger, however.
- Pops Soda Ranch (Arcadia, Oklahoma): the large soda bottle over 20 meters tall that stands in front of Pops immediately announces the house’s specialty: the considerable assortment of fizzy drinks. Next to the market area, there are also tables where you can stop and eat, with typical American cuisine, starting from the classic burger and fries to desserts involving disproportionate calories. If you do not want to stop to eat it is still worth entering to take a look at the incredible expanse of colored drinks inthe window and buy some gadgets.
- The Big Texan Steak Ranch (Amarillo, Texas): this is one of the most famous restaurants on Route 66. In Amarillo, not far from the famous Cadillac Ranch, you can take up the challenge that the Big Texan Ranch launches to all its customers: eat an entire 4-pound steak in one hour to enter the restaurant’s hall of fame and not pay the bill.
- 66 Diner (Albuquerque, New Mexico): A mission shared by many establishments on Route 66 is to preserve the so-called 50’s dining experience, the type of diner that was all the rage in the 1950s. This is the stated purpose of the 66 Diner in Albuquerque, a place sprinkled with memorabilia and great for stopping for lunch or a quick shake.
- Delgadillos Snow Cap (Seligman, Arizona): in Seligman, the town that inspired Cars, there’s another diner that has the best in terms of memorabilia and Route 66-style furnishings.
- Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe (Victorville, California): the typical road trip diner, a short distance from the Steel Truss Bridge. Emma Jean started it back in 1947, when she prepared her dishes for the citizens of Victorville and travelers passing through the area. After Emma’s death in the 1990s, the restaurant stayed in the family and passed to her son Brian and his wife Shawna.
Route 66 Road Trip Cost
We get asked this question a lot, and not only for trips on the Mother Road. It is impossible to give a certain answer: as already mentioned, a road trip on Route 66 can take from a minimum of 15 days up to 20, 25 days, depending on how long you intend to stay in the various places and the endless possible detours that can be made along the way.
Further variables are the period of the trip (high or low season), the quality level of the accommodations and your eating habits (if you eat at restaurants for lunch and dinner for example).
If you opt for a “do-it-yourself” trip with 3-star hotels, planning a Route 66 vacation of about twenty days (which I sincerely recommend), you are likely to spend between 4500$ and 5500$ per couple (considering only accommodation, rental car and meals). However, if you are not particularly demanding, you can do it for less.