It’s no secret that I’m a little obsessed with road trips. In my opinion road tripping is the best way to see a destination. Not only are you in full control of everything you do and how long you spend there, road trips are the perfect way to socially distance and avoid crowds. Even though I’m currently not a full-time traveler, I’ve driven thousands of miles for work and fun and I love planning cross country road trips. I know just how overwhelming planning can seem. Especially your first time. So if your are ready to hit the road and looking for some tips on how to plan a road trip, here what works for me. Let’s go!
Road Trip Planning
The difference between a road trip and a successful road trip is good planning.
It sounds like a lot of fun and to grab a bag and ride off into the sunset but it’s not very practical. If you aren’t prepared, you might waste time. Which is precious. You might miss things. And then you will be so mad at yourself when you find out you were so close and missed something. So before you get down to deciding where you’re going on your road trip, ask yourself two things: how much time do you have and how much are you comfortable driving?
Both of those things will have a big impact on how to plan a road trip. Here’s why.
How Much Time Do You Have?
Before you decide on your road trip destination, consider if you have enough time to actually get to where you are actually planning to go. If your time frame is somewhat flexible – great. That means you’ll have plenty of time to see your destination and some time for fun stops and exploring. That’s part of what road trips are all about.
But since most people are probably using vacation days from work or school, and only have a certain amount of time, it’s important to calculate if where your end destination actually fits into your vacation time.
Trust me, It’s no fun to be road tripping and realize that you severely underestimated the time needed to do all the things you planned. Good time management is crucial for a successful road trip.
So, be realistic about your planning and how much you can do in the time you have available
That means don’t over plan. Don’t try to drive cross country – and back home – in five days. Don’t attempt to road trip and visit seven national parks in a week. Can it be done? Maybe in certain places. Should it be done? Not in my opinion.
How Much Can You Comfortably Drive
How much you are comfortable driving in a day is a huge part in how to plan a road trip.
If long haul driving is not something you’re used to or if you just plain don’t like driving, then you probably don’t want to plan a long haul or cross country road trip as a first timer. My advice is to 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.
If you do decide to take a cross country road trip, then take someone along to help with the driving. Two drivers – or even three – are best. That way you can split up the driving and no one person is
grumpy exhausted because they are the only driver.
If you’ll be cross country road tripping solo, then schedule a few stops to stretch your legs. Even if it’s just a rest area stop, taking a break makes the trip so much more enjoyable. It’s also good for your legs and body to get out of the car every few hours.
Choosing a Destination
Now you’ve determined how much time you have and how much you are comfortable driving, let’s plan the fun part! Your destination.
Most people probably already know where they want to go when they start planning a road trip. If you’ve already picked out a destination, just remember to make sure it fits into your time frame.
However, if you are unsure of your destination and need a little inspiration, it’s time to pull out the map or look at your favorite social media or blog of choice for ideas.
Some people also keep lists of places they want to see. Sort of a bucketlist or wishlist of places to visit. If you have a list, look at it and see if one of those places you’d like to see is a good fit for your road trip.
If you’re still having a hard time deciding where to go, then think about your interests and hobbies. Do you enjoy nature? How about planning a national or state park road trip? Do you like quirky stops and art? Then maybe a Route 66 road trip is a good one for you. Any interest or likes you have can be turned into a road trip. I know people who visit ball parks, lighthouses, wineries – with a designated driver of course – on road trips. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Plan Your Road Trip Route
You’ve got your destination nailed down; now what route will you take to get there? Will you stick to the freeways? Take the back roads? Or maybe a little of both?
A good way to start your initial planning is with Google Maps. You can enter your destination – or multiple destinations – and your starting point in the directions and browse the results and routes that Google suggests.
Google will usually populate with several different routes to choose from. You can filter the results to your liking, with options like avoiding highways or toll roads. You can also create a map with multiple layers. This is useful because you can save directions and attractions you want to see along the way in one layer and directions in another.
As you plan your road trip 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 that you want to see and do, make a list. I usually have two lists. One is for the things I absolutely want 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.
You can also save those places on your Google Maps.
Some of the best road trip memories are the places you discover along the way. This is one of the reasons you want to make sure you have enough time on your road trip. If you don’t have time to stop, I promise, those places you miss 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 sleep. Of course, if you are road tripping to one location and know exactly where you’re going 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 Grand Canyon National Park four days from now. I know that park is a popular, busy national park so I’ll book my room or campsite in that area. That way, I feel secure knowing that I at least have set plans and a place to sleep for the most crowded stop of the road trip. With that done, I can anticipate where I might be before I get to the Grand Canyon and either book more accommodations or wing 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 and where you are stopping, then the lodging part shouldn’t be a problem.
Southerner Says: 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 either a digital calendar or a spreadsheet, to put it all together. Whatever works best for you. Personally, I like to print a calendar. That way I can fill in the dates and write down my plans. Then I can make changes and yes there will be changes.
A calendar can help make a daily plan and even divide up the morning and afternoon. If there is a firm final destination, I’ll put that on the calendar and work backwards. Doing that, I can estimate how many miles I need to drive in a day, I can also figure out about where I should be on certain dates. Then I can fill in around those dates with activities and things I want to see in the area.
Once everything is on the 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? That might sound silly, especially if you already own a vehicle but If you are planning a cross country or a high mileage trip, you 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.
If you are driving your own vehicle, make sure to have it inspected before you go. Check the fluid levels and tires. When you hit the road, at the very least, it’s helpful to have a few small tools, a tire gauge and battery cables just in case.
Make a Road Trip Budget
Budget is probably the least fun 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. Even someone with the tightest budget can road trip. Here’s a few things to keep in mind when you are working on a road trip budget.
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 to your road trip. 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 also have 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 and tours can be expensive and take a huge bite out of your road trip budget. If you plan well, there are plenty of road side attractions and things to do for free all across the country. Many museums have free days or some, in smaller cities, 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 $80 USD. Many states also off locals discounts to state parks. so you might want to consider staying closer to home for your road trip.
One thing that keeps me on track is with budget is having one splurge thing that I want to do. If I want to raft the Snake River or snowmobile in Iceland, I’ll cut back on eating out or drinking alcohol, which can be pricey. Planning and saving for special activities makes a 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 not necessary but can make the road trip so much more fun. I’m talking about some road trip music. You can’t road trip without a great playlist! Music has a way of making a long boring stretch of road so much more enjoyable. I even made a playlist to get me in the mood for a road trip. If you subscribe to a music provider like Spotify, you can follow my playlist and many others on there.
How to Plan 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?