Over the last 30 years, I've driven many times from the Midwest to Florida, half the time making the trip in one day. Because of this experience, I've had friends and family ask me about my best approach. I'll define "best" as driving from Chicago to Tampa defensively and being efficient with your travel time. It's not easy, but it is doable if you plan it right and follow certain guidelines. This article will focus on that drive, frequently occurring from mid to late March.
It’s about 1,240 miles from Chicago to Tampa (actually, Libertyville, IL, to Clearwater Beach, FL). If you want to achieve in 24 hours, there are essentially only two routes starting from the Midwest, one that goes through Indiana and the other through Illinois. I've taken both routes several times: in Indiana, the speed limit is 65 mph for semi trucks and generally 70 mph for cars. This means that if you're traveling through Indiana with many semi-trucks, try to avoid them, as it sometimes takes 5 minutes for them to pass while they may adhere to the actual speed limit. Driving through Illinois is a little bumpy and less busy, but it may take an extra 15 minutes to travel on I-57. The route is mostly farmland until you hit Southern Illinois, where the last quarter of driving in the Land of Lincoln has rolling hills and some picturesque scenery.
A few logistics: if you want to do this in one day to Florida, my recommendation is to leave between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. The first driver is critical at this point -- choose someone who doesn’t mind driving the first four hours in the dark while the other partner is asleep. I've found that taking a long nap in the early evening allows me to handle the first leg of the drive. With over 90% of the roads on this trip will be freeways, I can drive several hours in the dark. Once dawn appears, we typically make the switch at a rest stop, so it's my turn to rest while my wife drives. You can repeat this approach for the rest of the drive.
If you leave VEM (Very Early Morning) in late March, I’d recommend Indiana (I-65 South), even though their rest stops are pitiful, and bring your toilet tissue (and masks) as they’re not up to the standards of rest stops in the rest of the Midwest. As mentioned earlier, it's just a little faster than through Illinois, and to travel through this state so early in the day means you'll avoid many slowdowns with an absence of semi-trucks.
If you can sneak through Indiana early in the morning, Kentucky roads will welcome travelers to predominately three lanes on Interstate 65. That's a positive thing, as the majority of Indiana is only two lanes. As you cross the Ohio River into Kentucky, you're confronted with a toll bridge.
We have not yet been ticketed, so I believe the Illinois Fast Pass may work to pay that bridge toll driving in and out of Louisville.
I have driven this trip several times, beginning at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., and you can be successful leaving at either time. However, if you go at six, your last six to seven hours of driving will be in the dark, and I’ve found that it’s easier to drive in the dark during the first part of the trip. Suppose the weather doesn't cooperate when leaving at six. In that case, you can add another hour to two, which may ultimately become a backbreaker (we've had several situations of lousy traffic and rainy weather in Georgia, which forced us to find a hotel room south of Atlanta).
Logistically, if you leave at 2 a.m. from Chicago (3 a.m. ET in Florida), the actual driving may take you between 18 and 19 hours (that's the ideal situation). FYI, the sun doesn't set in the Atlanta area until 7:30ish, which means it won't be completely dark until after 8 p.m. Leaving this early may mean you'd arrive in the Tampa area at about ten or so (a maximum of two to three hours in darkness). If we're trying to make good time, we only spend a maximum of five minutes at a rest stop. We also save time by choosing a convenient exit for both petro and food to go.
Driving from Chicago to Tampa, I’ve driven this trip many times over the last three decades, and the potential hot spot was always Atlanta. That hasn’t changed with traffic issues, and accidents are commonplace all around Atlanta (and I can't figure out why except for how recklessly they drive). However, if you find a traffic issue, Waze or Google Maps might help you find an alternate route. With many bypasses through the metro area, flexibility and quick thinking can get you out of a jam for some issues. However, there will be situations where traffic is omnipresent in Atlanta, which means deep breathing and patience are essential for success.
Over the last several years, I’ve also found driving through Chattanooga from Nashville to be as great of a challenge as through Atlanta. First, you deal with mountains, tons of semi-trucks, curvy lanes, and a two-lane Interstate. It just seems too often a bottleneck around this area, and it's not too hard to see why. Hand-held technology may assist in Tennessee, but besides sometimes spotty cell coverage amid the mountains, few alternates are available. Driving through on a Sunday probably mitigates a swath of semi-drivers.
There are some tips to use to help you maximize your energy and attention to the road. I’ve found that minimal eating helps me drive more attentively. With just caffeine, my body is not focused on digesting food, so that energy has been transferred to my focus on the road, mile after mile. Even though I may sometimes lean close to dehydration, I still pay close attention to my bodily needs as the trip progresses. Some travelers need to eat to survive and function, but I found a limited fast for about 20 hours is something my body can handle. Indeed, my dietary approach during a cross-country drive doesn’t work for everyone. Therefore, my goal several years ago was to be inclusive towards my guests in the car. Just because I’m not hungry doesn’t mean we can’t get a Toasted Frontega Chicken or a Turkey Melt (to go) at the Panera for our passengers.
Even though I eat and drink very little, there are always situations where the long trip becomes a grind. While driving, if I’m struggling, I may watch the mileage signs on the side of the road, seeing the distance shrink from 12.5 to 12.4 to 12.3. If it takes focusing on different elements, that is something that the driver may be called to do. There were some trips where I'd take pretzel rods with me to snack on. About halfway through the trip, I tried to commit to only eating one rod every five miles, which sometimes helped to pass the time.
Based on my experience, breathing exercises help too (for example, inhale for 8 seconds, hold for 16, and exhale for 4, or some other similar combinations), especially if you’re a little tired and your body may need oxygenation. If done for at least five to ten minutes, one should find an energy bolt.
To be transparent, safety is a critical part of driving, whether it takes one or more days to accomplish. Through my auto insurance carrier (Amica Insurance), I often enroll in defensive driving courses to improve my skills as a driver. On such a long trip, you need to be defensive and anticipate what other drivers may do. My goal is to be focused when driving such a long distance -- if I'm emotionally or physically tired, it's foolish to continue. If both drivers are exhausted, the prudent approach is to rest or nap at a rest stop.
Flexibility with this trip of driving from Chicago to Tampa is critical as you have to factor in accidents, traffic, and weather issues. If you’re focused on leaving on a Saturday but rain is forecasted for half the trip, could you leave a day earlier or later? Being agile when you embark can be very helpful in the long run. Steady rain, heavy traffic, and sometimes downpours through the Smoky Mountains and navigating the entire state of Georgia can make it seem like the trip will never end.
One Final Note:
It's quite a challenge to do this trip in a 24-hour period. However, what are the alternatives? If you've traveled this route many times, there are virtually no tourist sites that we haven't seen. My wife and I have experienced securing a hotel during the trip, but it's not always efficient or pleasant. You may be "amped up" from driving, so if you get a hotel at 9 p.m., sleep isn't necessarily around the corner. How much luggage do you schlep into the hotel? Where's a good place to get a pizza? We don't always sleep well in a hotel and invariably may not get on the road until 9 a.m. Again, taking two days may be necessary but may interfere with the flow of the driving trip.
One Final, Final Note:
Based on my experience, try to avoid leaving Florida at the end of the month in March or April. That's when many snowbirds are headed back north for the spring. It's not just the additional traffic you need to contend with; it's also pickup trucks carrying campers or boats, or you'll also find RVs towing a car behind. The last thing you want to do leaving Florida is contend with additional traffic, even if you leave the Tampa area at 2 a.m.