Road Trip 101: How to Plan a Road Trip

February 18, 2020

Is the open road calling your name? Do you want to plan a road trip but just don’t know where to start? While there is something to be said for spontaneity, good road trips don’t just happen.

At least not cross country, high mileage road trips. You might be able to leave some things unplanned, but some advance preparation is necessary to complete a successful, fun road trip. Here’s a few tips and things to get you started.

Pick Your Road Trip Theme

We don’t all like the same things and that’s good. Otherwise we would all end up at the same place all the time. By the same token, there are different kinds of road trips too. There’s no rule that says you can only do a certain kind if road trip.

For me, road trips include nature. Think National Parks, camping and s’mores. That might not be your thing and that’s perfectly okay. That doesn’t mean you can’t road trip.

Maybe you prefer cities as your theme. You can absolutely do a cities road trip. Find a couple of cities in close proximity that you would like to visit, add in accommodations, make a few stops along the way and there you have the makings of a great road trip.

Like quirky road side attractions? Then do some research and plan a road trip around a few of those sites. Are you into sports? I have several friends that include sporting venues and stadiums on their road trips.

Whatever you interests are, you can include them. There’s really no right or wrong way to road trip but having an idea or theme of what you want to do and see makes more sense for planning.

 Figure Out How Much Time You Have

Wouldn’t we all just love to drive off into the sunset with no set time limit? Just drive until you’re ready to come back home. Realistically, not many people can do that. So before you decide where you want to go on your road trip, you need to figure out how much time you have.

From experience I can tell you, it’s no fun to be across the country, driving, and realize you severely underestimated the time you needed to get somewhere or see something you really wanted to see. That can take the fun out and make the trip feel very stressful and rushed. Right the opposite of what a vacation should be.

For example I want to see all the National Parks sites. It wouldn’t be feasible for me to decide to drive to Yosemite in California from Georgia if I only have a week. However, a trip to the National Parks in Florida would be way more practicable.

Idaho Hwy 32
On the road in Idaho

How to Plan Your Time Wisely

Planning how much you can see on a road trip is kind of like the advice about packing. Many experts advise packing what you think you need, then taking half out.

It’s the same with road trips. Plan everything you’d like to do, then take a few things away. I always have a list of absolute must do’s and then plan b list. You can always add activities back into your schedule if you have the time.

Another tip is to actually look at the miles between destinations and estimate how long it will take to drive your route. A destination may look close on a map but the actual route to get there might be a small two lane road that requires more time and patience. Or it could also be in an area known for wildlife. That most definitely slows you down and affects evening and night driving.

Finally, if you just aren’t used to driving for long periods of time, ask yourself how much are you comfortable driving in one day? Or in a week? If it’s not something you are used to, start slow. Try a weekend or a long weekend trip closer to your home first.

Realistic, sensible time planning is key. Don’t plan so much that you are rushing without time for a few extra stops and photos opportunities. You’ll forever be thinking about the place where you didn’t have time to stop.

Plan Your Road Trip Budget

Ah the dreaded budget. Whether you have one or not, the good news is a road trip is one of the most affordable ways to travel. Even someone with the tightest budget can road trip.

Fuel

Since fuel is a big chunk of your expenses, start your budget with it. There are some great websites that will help you estimate the fuel you’ll need for the trip. You can always pad your budget a little for things you add on. The US government has a fuel calculator and the popular app, Gas Buddy does too. Download Gas Buddy on your phone and it will also help you locate the cheapest gas in the area.

Lodging

Once you have estimated your fuel expenditures, you can begin to figure your accommodations. Checking hotel websites can help you get a price for rooms in the area in which you will be staying. Camping is another way to save a lot of money on lodging.

Even if you’ve never done it before or don’t have all the camping equipment you need, many items can be purchased for less than it might cost for one or two nights in a hotel. Campsites in National Parks or State Parks are very affordable. Did you know there are even places that you can camp for free? Use the Allstays website for affordable options.

Food

After you have estimated fuel and lodging, you can begin to budget for food per day or week. There are many ways to save money on food. We frequently carry food or at the least, snacks so we aren’t tempted to spend on over priced items at convenience stores or gas stations.

Activities

All that’s left to budget for now, is your activities. You can find plenty of road side attractions and things to do for free. Many museums have free days or some, in smaller cities, ask only for minimal donations. If your road trip includes National Parks like mine usually does, you can purchase an America the Beautiful pass that allows access to over 2000 interagency sites for one low price.

One thing that keeps us on track is having that one big ticket, splurge item we know we want to do. It makes those roadside turkey sandwiches worth it.

To stay on budget and plan ahead of time Google Sheets is a great resource for free spreadsheets. There are some premade budget templates or your can create your own that can be easily shared with others going on your road trip.

Road to Devil's Tower, WY
The road to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming

Plan Where to Sleep on Your Road Trip

For me, the most difficult thing about planning a road trip is where to sleep. As I mentioned, I end up camping a lot. But even if you plan on staying in a hotel, deciding the location of that hotel can be tricky.

The problem is that you are moving around a lot. If you reserve a room or a campsite, then you are locked into staying there, unless you want to lose your money. That means you need to get to that location.

What if you find something interesting to do on the way? What if you just don’t want to move on? Because of wanting more time at a destination, there have been plenty of times that I simply did not want to go on to the next place on my itinerary.

Your first thought might be to just not make any reservations and just wing it. However, this too can be is risky too especially if you are traveling in a popular location or at a busy time. Everything could be full, even campgrounds.

So How Do You Plan Where to Sleep?

When I planned my first cross country road trip, I booked a campsite every night at the busy parks we were visiting. To give some flexibility, I left some nights on the initial drive across Interstate 40 and between the parks open. That way I could drive as much as I wanted on the interstate. It was safe, so I could drive later at night. We had our secure nights at the more popular destinations and we could build around those. We could stay longer if we wanted, or we could move on.

Now that I’ve planned several more road trips, I’m somewhat more comfortable leaving more nights open if I have a loose idea of what area I’m planning on being in when it’s time to sleep. It’s important you have some knowledge of the area you will be traveling to.

Google Maps should become your best friend when you plan your road trip. Sometimes I study the area like I’m going to be tested on it. That way I have familiarized myself with the location and I know what kind of lodging and camping is available. I don’t have to sit on the side of the road late at night and search. Then, I usually have about three backup plans if the first one doesn’t work out.

The more you road trip, the more skilled you will become at figuring out the sleeping part. And honestly, if you are just going from point a to point b and know exactly where you are going to be and what you want to do, then the lodging part shouldn’t be a problem.

Southerner Says: for hotel rooms, use an app like Hotwire.com to look for last minute deals on hotel rooms. A word of caution about those last minute apps; if it’s after midnight it will book a room for the next night. Make sure you look at the dates carefully.

The Little Montana Truck Stop in Grass Range Montana
Where I spent the night in the middle of no where Montana

 Pick the Best Vehicle for Your Road Trip

This probably sounds like a no brainer. You own a vehicle and that’s what you’re planning to drive on your road trip. Great. But if your plans include a cross country or a high mileage trip, you might want to ask yourself if the vehicle you own is the best option for the kind of trip you are planning.

If your vehicle is a larger SUV that consumes a lot of fuel, it’s possible that renting a smaller more economical car could be more practical and money saving in the long run. Planning on a cold weather destination? Then an all wheel drive or a four wheel drive might be the best bet.

Other factors that might affect what vehicle you take on your road trip is: how many people are going? Do you have room for everyone and their luggage? Obviously, if you are camping, you need more room for your basic supplies like a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pads, etc.

In some cases, a rental might be a better plan or at least one to consider.

SouthernerSays: If you do plan to take your vehicle, make sure you have done a proper vehicle inspection before heading out.

Websites to Help You Plan

Sounds like all you have to do now is plan your route and go. Will you stick to interstates and freeways or decide to be more adventurous and take the back roads? That’s the beauty of a road trip! It’s all yours to plan out.

The actual planning can be really fun too.You can use articles like this and other blog posts to get inspiration to help plan your road trip. There are also plenty of websites and apps to help as well. Some of my favorites for routes planning are Roadtrippers.com and MyScenicDrives.com.

RoadsideAmerica.com is another great resource for finding quirky, unique attractions on your route.

One more thing: don’t forget your music! Music can make a long road trip so much more pleasurable. I made a playlist to get me in the mood for a road trip and I’m sharing it with you.

Road tripping is, in my opinion, one of the best ways there is to travel. It’s a great way to see the country and spend some time with a favorite person or your family. Where will the open road take you?

2 Comments

  1. Ferny

    Thank you very much for the wonderful advice, go that you are an expert on Road Trips.
    I would love to do one of several days this year.

  2. Southerner Says

    Thank you so much! I hope you get to! I would love to spend about 6 months road tripping Mexico! Happy travels!

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