Everyone says this is the year of the road trip. For me, every year is the year of the road trip. I’ve been road tripping all my life. While I’m not a full-time traveler, I’ve done my fair share of driving. Just last year I drove over 28k miles on road trips. So, if you are a first time road tripper and don’t know anything about how to plan a road trip, you’ve come to the right place. I’m still learning too but I’m happy to share what method has worked best for me so far.
If you decide to road trip during the pandemic, please read my How To Road Trip Responsibly in 2020 post before you go. It has some useful tips and suggestions about how to stay safe and plan wisely.
Pre-planning Your Road Trip
Anybody can road trip. But the difference between a road trip and a successful road trip is good planning. While it’s certainly sounds fun to just grab a bag and go, it’s not very practical. So before you get down to deciding where you are going and how to get there, consider these three things.
- How much time do you have?
- How much are you comfortable driving?
- What kind of road trip are you planning?
Southerner Says: 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, long haul road trip planning.
How Much Time Do You Have?
Before you plan where you are going on your road trip, you need to calculate if you have enough time. If your time frame is somewhat flexible, great. This means you’ll have time for your final destination and time for unexpected fun stops and exploring.
But since most people are probably using vacation days from work or school, and have a designated amount of time that can’t be adjusted, it’s important to figure out if the destination you want to go to, fits into that timeframe.
It’s no fun to be across the country and realize you severely underestimated the time needed to do the fun stuff you planned. 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.
How Much Can You Comfortably Drive
At this point in planning a road trip, 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 kind of mileage 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. it’s important to come up with a good driving vs. stop ratio for you. If you are traveling with family or small children, then this is even more important.
What Kind of Road Trip Do You Want to Take?
A road trip is a road trip, right? That’s somewhat true. You can get in the car and just wing it. But doing that could cause you to waste time and miss things you want to see. When you think about what kind of road trip you want to do and keep a common theme in mind, it becomes much easier to plan.
So what type of a road trip can you plan? Well, people have planned road trips around all kinds of stuff. Lighthouses, sports stadiums, donuts, beer. The list goes on an on. Your road trip can be whatever you want it to be; what you are interested it. It doesn’t have to be complicated and a theme doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else. It just helps you stay focused.
Another bonus of having a road trip theme is, it’s really helpful for packing. With good planning, you’ll know what type of things you’ll be doing. This cuts down on the need to take a bunch of unnecessary stuff. 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 dressing up much. That would mean packing dressy clothes, high heels, hair dryers, etc. Things I wouldn’t not pack if my road trip was national park or camping themed.
Where Do You Want to Go
Now, you have considered the three pre-planning steps and you have an idea of what’s involved. It’s time for the real fun part; picking where to go on your road trip. If you already know, just make sure it fits in your timetable. If you’re still not sure where you are going, it’s time to pull out the map. Some people like to keep a list of places. If that’s you, check your list and see if one of those places is a fit for the time you have available.
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 verify again before you go. Things are subject to change quickly right now.
Plan Your Road Trip Route
Now that you know where you’re going, 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 your destination and your starting point in the directions and simply browse the routes it suggest. Google will usually populate with several different routes to choose from. You can filter the results to your liking, avoiding highways or tolls. You can also create a map with different layers to help with directions and save attractions you want to see along the way.
Besides Google, there are other apps that help you plan a road trip. Some of the others I like are AAA, Roadtrippers.com and MyScenicDrives.com. If you’re a AAA member, which I highly recommend you being, one of the many benefits is you can order paper maps from them. Having a paper map is always a plus.
As you plan your route, it’s a good idea to look at the actual miles between destinations and the type of road you’ll be driving on. A destination might look close on the map but the route could be a small two lane road that requires more time and patience. In many states, rural driving also means wildlife. That can slow you down, especially if you planned on evening or night driving. Keep all this, and weather, in mind when you are choosing your route.
Stops Along the Way
One of the best things about road tripping, is all the exploring and things you happen to find along the way.
There are some stops that 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 necessary things into the same stop, you’ll be surprised how much time it will save overall.
Also, if you are traveling on a major interstate, stopping at a less crowded exit will save time as well. Getting caught in traffic or construction is a real road trip mood buster.
Besides the necessary stops, you’ll want to plan some fun stops too. Use RoadsideAmerica and Atlas Obscura for quirky attractions you can stop and see. Recreation.gov has an interactive map of national park sites across the country.
As you find things to do, make a list. I actually make two. One list is the things I’m absolutely going to do on my road trip. Then, I make a “b” list. This is a list of things I’d like to do, if I have time. If you’re not a list maker, you can use Pinterest to make road trip board or Google Docs. You can also use Google Maps, as I mentioned, 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. If you don’t have time for those stops, then you are really missing out. This is one of the reasons to make sure you have enough time. Just having the time to stop somewhere, soak in all in and take pictures is a lot of fun. If you don’t have time to stop, I promise, 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
Probably the hardest part 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 that’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 about that.
Make 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. That way, I feel safe knowing that I at least have set plans for the most touristy portion of the road trip. I can either make more reservations at the places I “think” I want to stop or I can wing it. Knowing me, I’m winging it.
The more you road trip, the more skilled you will become at figuring out the sleeping part. Really, 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.
Also if you are on a long haul road trip and plan on camping, you might want to plan a hotel or Airbnb stay every few days so that you will have laundry access and a real bed.
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 For Your Road Trip
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 Road Trip 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 tightest 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 like Booking.com 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 you’re not tempted to spend money on over priced items at convenience stores or gas stations. Also, If you have the room, buying the food you need 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 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 me on track is with planning is having one big ticket splurge on item I want to do. If I want to raft the Snake River or snowmobile in Iceland, I’m much more likely to cut back on somewhere else. Planning and saving for those activities makes the homemade roadside turkey sandwiches worth it.
Southerner Says: Google Sheets is a great resource and tool for free spreadsheets. There are some pre-made 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! 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.
I hope you’ve been inspired to try a road trip. In my opinion, it’s 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?