After staying home for practically the first half of 2020, road tripping is a great way to ease back into vacations. You have control over practically everything. You may be thinking, I don’t know how to plan a road trip. No worries! I’ve got you covered. I’m sharing the method I always use when I plan a road trip. Especially a long haul road trip. Don’t worry. We’ll have you on the road in no time!
Pre-planning Your Road Trip
Before you get down to the nitty gritty of where to go and how to get there, there are a few things to consider. These things will make a road trip go smoother in the long run. If your road trip is a short one, you can always modify the steps and the arrangement of the steps but you should consider these three things before doing any serious planning:
- How much time do you have?
- How much are you comfortable driving?
- What kind of road trip are you planning?
How Much Time Do You Have?
Before you even consider where you are going, it’s best to know exactly how much time you have for your road trip. Since most people are probably using vacation days from work or school, you know many time you have. Now you just have to figure out if the destination you are thinking about traveling to fits into that time.
It’s no fun to be across the country and realize you severely underestimated the time needed to do everything you planned. At that point you’ll have to rush, which, causes a lot of stress or you might even have to pass something up, which, causes a lot of disappointment. Especially if you have children with you. Ether way, it’s not the fun road trip you planned on having.
Time management is crucial for a good road trip. So be realistic about it. Don’t plan a cross country trip in five days. Don’t try and visit seven national parks in a week. Can it be done? Probably. Should it be? Not in my opinion.
SouthernerSays: don’t plan activities up until midnight before you have be back to work. Give yourself a little leeway so that you aren’t rushed getting home and on a deadline. Not a fun way to end a good road trip.
How Much Can You Drive?
In the pre planning stage, you should also ask yourself how much you’re comfortable driving in a day. If long haul driving is not something you’re used to, then start slow. Try a weekend or a long weekend trip closer to your home first and see what works best for you. It might take a couple of trips to find your sweet spot but you’ll get there.
Road trips can be tiring if you push yourself beyond what you are used to and feel like you’re driving driving driving all the time. That defeats the purpose of a vacation. So be realistic and come up with a good driving vs. stop ratio.
What kind of road trip do you want to take?
There’s all kinds of road trips you can plan. For me, road trips include nature, national parks and camping. But I know some people wouldn’t be caught dead in a tent. And that’s okay.
Your road trip can be whatever you want it to be. However, it’s helpful to have a common theme. It’s kind of important for packing too. Knowing what type of activities you’ll be doing means you won’t end up with a lot of unnecessary stuff and you can pack exactly what you need.
For example, if I’m planning a national park camping trip, I’m probably not going to plan on going to see a Broadway show or something that requires me to dress up. This would mean packing dressy clothes, high heels, hair dryers. Things I’m not going to be packing for a camping road trip.
Where Do You Want to Go
Now comes the fun part; picking where to go on your road trip. If you already know, great. Just make sure it fits in your timetable. If your still not sure where you are going, it’s time to pull out the map or if you have a list of places you want to see, look at it see if one of those places is a fits your criteria.
Some other things to consider when picking a destination are: is it open? Is it a good time to go? How’s the weather there? Has it been affected by the pandemic. Verify and then check again before you go. Things are subject to change quickly right now.
Plan Your Road Trip Route
Now that you know your destination, let’s plan the route Will you stick to the freeways? Take the back roads? Or maybe a little of both?
Google maps is a good way to start with planning. Enter you destination and starting point in the directions and browse the routes they suggest. Google will usually populate with several different routes to choose from. You can filter the results to avoid highways and tolls if you like.
There are way more apps than Google to help you plan your route. Some of my other favorites are AAA, Roadtrippers.com and MyScenicDrives.com. If you are a AAA member, which I highly recommend you being, one of the many benefits is ordering paper maps from them.
As you are plan your route, it’s good practice to look at the actual miles between destinations and the type of road to get there. A place might look close on the map but the route to get to it could be a small two lane road that requires more time and patience. Rural driving means wildlife in many places. That can slow you down, especially if you planned on evening or night driving.
Stops Along the Way
One of the best things about road tripping, is all the exploring you get to do so plan accordingly.
Some stops can’t be avoided. Things like food, gas and bathroom breaks are a necessary part of a road trip. If you can minimize the amount of times you stop and combine all of those things into the same one, you’ll be surprised how much time it will save overall.
Also, if you are traveling on a major interstate, stopping at less crowded exit will save a lot of time. Getting caught in traffic or construction is a real mood buster.
You’ll want to plan some fun stops too. Use RoadsideAmerica and Atlas Obscura for quirky stops to make. You can also visit Recreation.gov for an interactive map of national park sites across the country.
Once you find things to do, then make a list. I actually make two. One list is for the things I’m absolutely going to do. Then I make a “b” list. This is a list of things I’d like to do but I’m willing to pass up if it’s necessary or if I just need more time for my main list.
If you aren’t a list maker, use Pinterest to make road trip board or some other app to keep track of the things you want to do. This not only helps you stay on schedule but it also helps you not forget anything.
Southerner Says: don’t forget to verify the places are actually open on the day you want to go.
Some of the best road trip memories are the places you discover along the way. So definitely include extra time in your schedule for exploring. Even just having extra time to stop somewhere and take pictures is a lot of fun. If you don’t have time to stop, those places will haunt you forever. I’m still looking for a gas station on Route 66 that I wanted to stop at in 2014 and didn’t.
Where to Sleep on Your Road Trip
One of most complicated parts of road trip planning is knowing where to stop and spend to the night. Of course, if you are road tripping to one location and know exactly where you want to stop, then it’s not so much a problem.
But if you have more of an open ended itinerary and are making multiple stops along the way, then it’s much harder to plan for. If you book accommodations in advance and it’s too much driving to get there, you’ll end up tired and cranky and not wanting to get driving the next day. Plan something too close together and stopping too soon might make you feel like you wasted time.
To avoid either scenario, you might be tempted to NOT make any reservations and just wing it. However, this can also be risky. Hotels and even campgrounds in popular locations or at busy times of the year, fill up quickly. You might end up having to sleep in the car. Ask me how I know.
making a Sleep Plan
What has worked for me, is breaking the road trip into smaller sections within the bigger road trip plan.
For example, let’s say I’m driving to California from Georgia and I’m planning on stopping at the Grand Canyon four days from now. I know the Grand Canyon is a popular crowed national park so I will book my room or campsite at the Grand Canyon. I feel safe knowing I at least have my plans for that portion of the road trip.
Now I’ve got four days to do whatever. I can decide exactly where I want to be every night before I get to the Grand Canyon and make a reservation or I can decide as I go. Pull out your list of stops and see what’s around. Again, some of the best places I’ve stopped or camped, have been totally spontaneous.
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, 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.
Putting it All Together
Once you’ve gotten this far with your road trip plans, I recommend using a calendar to put it all together. Use a digital or paper calendar. Whatever you like best. Personally, I like printing a calendar out. That way I can fill in the dates, write on it and make changes. Trust me, there will there be changes.
A calendar helps you make a daily plan. You can even divide up the morning and afternoon. Usually I write the stops I want to make or if there is a firm final destination, I’ll put that on the calendar and work backwards.
Taking into consideration how many miles I want to drive in a day, I can figure out about where I should be on certain dates. Then I can plan what I want to see in that area and decide if I want to spend the night there.
Once you’ve put everything on your calendar, study it closely. If you think you’ve got too much planned, then you probably do. Move some things to your “b” list, remembering you can always add it back if you have time.
Pick the Best Vehicle
Another really important part of planning a road trip is the vehicle. What are you going to drive? I know that sounds that might sound silly, especially if you own a car but If you are planning a cross country or a high mileage trip, you might want to consider if the vehicle you own is the best option for the kind of road 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? How much equipment do you need? In some cases, a rental might be the better option.
Make a Budget
A budget is the least favorite thing to talk about when planning a road trip. Whether you have one or not, the good news is a road trip is one of the most affordable ways to travel. With gas at the lowest it’s been in years, even someone with the smallest budget can road trip. Here’s a few things to budget for.
Since fuel is absolutely necessary and one of the biggest expenses, it’s best to start your budget with it. There are some of the great websites available that will help estimate the fuel consumption. I also suggest padding your budget a little in case you add some stops. The US government has a fuel calculator on their website and the ever 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.
Hotel rooms can be costly and take a chunk out of your budget. Checking hotel websites help you get an overview of prices for rooms in the areas you are traveling to.
Camping is another way to save a lot of money on lodging. If a tent isn’t your thing, campgrounds like KOA, offer cabins. They may cost a little more than a tent site but they are still affordable, especially for a family.
Even if you’ve never tent camped before or don’t have all the camping equipment you need, many items can be purchased for less than what it would cost for one or two nights for a family in a hotel.
Campsites in National Parks or State Parks are very reasonably priced. Did you know there are even places that you can camp for free? Use the website Allstays for affordable camping options.
After you have estimated fuel and lodging, you might want to set a budget for food per day or week. There are a lot of ways to save money on food. One of the best ways is to carry food or at least, snacks. That way I’m not tempted to spend money on over priced items at convenience stores or gas stations.Also, If you have the room, buying your food in your home city is cheaper than waiting till you get to a touristy destination.
Activities are expensive! How do you stay on budget? All across the country, there are plenty of road side attractions and things to do for free. Many museums have free days or some, in smaller cities, ask 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 me on track is with planning is having that one big ticket, splurge item I want to do. Maybe I want to raft the Snake River or snowmobile in Iceland. Planning for those things makes the homemade roadside turkey sandwiches worth it.
Southerner Says: Google Sheets is a great resource and tool for free spreadsheets. There are some premade templates for budgets or your can create your own. Creating them in Google means they can be shared with other people going on your road trip easily too.
Road Trip Music
Whew! You’re almost done planning your road trip. The last piece of planning is the music. You can’t road trip without it! For instance, music has a way of making a long boring stretch of road so much more enjoyable. And never underestimate the memories that can be made with a road trip playlist. I even made a playlist to get me in the mood for a road trip.
In my opinion, road tripping one of the best ways there is to travel. You have the freedom to do whatever you want, see what you want to see and spend some time with a favorite person or your family. What could be better?
Where will the open road take you this year?