With a lot of unknowns about travel this year, one of the easiest vacations you can plan is a road trip. Road tripping is going to be a great way to ease back into normal travel because you have control over practically everything. If you’ve never planned a long, multi stop road trip before, it can seem a bit overwhelming. But it’s really pretty simple. I’m going to show the method I always use and will have you planning a road trip in no time. Let’s get started!
Prepping For Your Road Trip
Before you actually select your destination and route, there are a few pre-planning steps you’ll want to take to make things go smoother. I’ve used the following suggestions to plan every road trip I’ve ever taken and I’ve been on several cross country, long distance road trips and even a 6k mile solo road trip.
Of course if your road trip is shorter, you can modify the steps and even the arrangement of the steps. If you already have a destination in mind, you can still use this method. Many of the steps have to do with time management and can still be useful.
How Much Time Do You Have?
The first step of planning a successful road trip is to analyze how much time you have. Since most people are probably using vacation days from work or school, you know exactly what time you have available. The hard part is fitting everything you want to do, into that time frame. It’s common to over plan and over stuff your road trip with too many stops.
However, it’s not fun to be across the country and realize you severely underestimated the time you needed to do everything you want to do. At that point you’ll have to rush, which, causes a lot of stress. Or you might actually 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.
If you have unlimited time or more of a flexible schedule, then managing the time shouldn’t be so difficult. You should definitely still make sure everything you want to do fits in your schedule.
How Much Can You Drive?
In your pre-planning, it’s also best to estimate how much you are comfortable driving in a day. If long haul driving is not something you are 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.
As someone who traveled for work and has taken several long road trips, I know what kind of mileage I’m comfortable driving in a day or a week. It might take a couple of trips to find your sweet spot but you’ll get there.
Road trips can be tiring if you try and do too much or push yourself to do something you aren’t used to. Again, this defeats the purpose of a vacation. So be realistic. This will especially be important when it comes to deciding where to stop and sleep. We’ll talk about that step in a few minutes.
Where Do You Want to Go?
Now you know how much time you have, and hopefully how much you feel comfortable driving; where do you want to go?
Road trips mean different thing to different people. For me, they include nature, so most of my road trips include national parks and camping. But I know some people wouldn’t be caught dead in a tent and that’s okay. There’s no rules about road trips. Your road trip can be built around whatever interests you.
So what are your interests?
Maybe you prefer cities over nature. Then find a couple of cities in close proximity that you would like to visit, add in accommodations, make a couple of stops along the way, invest in a city pass or a museum pass and you have the makings of a great urban road trip.
Like quirky road side attractions? RoadsideAmerica.com is a great place to start your research. Pick a few sites and plan a road trip around them. 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 no right or wrong way to road trip. That being said, it can be useful to keep a common theme on road trip. That way there’s no need to pack a lot of different clothing. Deciding on the road trip theme and the activities that go with it, ahead of time, you’ll know whether you need hiking boots or high heels.
Plan Your Road Trip Route
Now that you know how much time you have and where you are going: let’s plan the route.
Some road trips can actually be planned around specific roads and scenic byways or highways. Route 66 is a great example of this. If you’re still unsure about the route you want to take, there are plenty of websites to help you plan.
Some of my favorites for route planning are AAA, Roadtrippers.com and MyScenicDrives.com. If you are a AAA member, which I highly recommend being, one of the many benefits is ordering paper maps from them.
Google maps is also a great way to plan. Simply enter you destination and starting point in the directions and browse what route they suggest. Google will usually populate with three different routes to choose from, if that many are available.
You can filter the results to avoid highways and tolls if you like. Will you stick to the freeways? Take the back roads? Or maybe a little of both? It’s entirely up to you.
As you are plan your route, look at the actual miles and the kind of road between your destinations or stops. 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 easily slow you down, especially if you planned on evening or night driving.
Plan Your Stops Along the Way
Whether you have one final destination planned at the end of your road trip or not, part of the appeal of being on the road, is the all the fun stops along the way. Look for inspiration in books, websites, blogs and even Instagram.
I suggest making a couple of lists. I usually make two. One list is for absolute must do’s. Then I have a “B” list. This list is for the things I’d like to do but I’m willing to pass up if it’s necessary or if I need more time for my main list. You can also use your “b” list for contingency plans in case of weather, crowds, closures etc.
If you aren’t a list maker, then use a digital Pinterest board or some other method to keep track of the things you want to do. This will help you stay on schedule and will help to not forget something.
Southerner Says: Don’t forget to verify the attractions you want to visit are open on the day you want to go.
Plan For the Unexpected
One of the most fun parts of a road trip is discovering places along the way. So it’s good idea to give your schedule some time for unexpected stops. Some of my best memories were places I just happened up on. And if you don’t stop, those places will haunt you forever.
There’s also those necessary food and gas breaks. Don’t forget to plan for them. If you can somehow to figure out how to combine these two things in the same stop, it will save a lot of time in the long run.
Deciding Where to Sleep on Your Road Trip
One of trickier 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 or planning a short trip, it shouldn’t be a problem. Some people feel more comfortable knowing ahead of time where they will be staying every night.
Road trips with multiple stops are harder to plan for. If you book accommodations in advance and it’s too much driving between stops, you’ll end up tired and cranky and not wanting to drive the next day. Planning something too close together and stopping too soon might make you feel like you wasted time.
And if it’s a new area for you, not knowing how long you want to stay, makes it that much harder.
To avoid either scenario, you might be tempted not to 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.
Your Sleep Plan
What works for me, is breaking the road trip into smaller sections within the bigger one.
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 we have 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. It can be digital or paper or 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 be changes.
With a calendar you can make a daily plan, even dividing the morning and afternoon. Usually I write the stops I want to make or if there is a final destination, I’ll put that on the calendar and work backwards.
Taking into consideration how much 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. That’s also helpful for deciding where to spend the night like we discussed in the last section.
Once you’ve put everything on your calendar, analyze 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 for Your Road Trip
One of the last things but highly importing when planning a road trip; is what kind of vehicle you will drive on your road trip? If you own a vehicle and know that’s what you’re planning to drive on your road trip, then great. 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.
Making a Budget
One last thing to talk about is a budget. 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 tightest budget can road trip. Here’s a few things to budget for when planning a road trip.
Since fuel is absolutely necessary and one of the biggest expenses, it’s best to start your budget here. 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.
Once you have estimated your fuel cost, move on to accommodations. Hotel rooms can be costly. 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 cost more than a tent site but 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 reasonable. 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. I usually 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. If you have the room, buying your food in your home city is cheaper than waiting till you get to a touristy destination.
All that’s left to budget for now, is your activities. 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, sometimes only 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 planning 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 those 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
When planning a road trip, don’t forget the music! What’s a road trip without it? Music can make a long boring stretch of road so much more enjoyable. 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?