map for road trip planning

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with road trips. In my opinion road tripping is the best way to see a destination. But coordinating and planning a road trip can be challenging. Especially cross-country road trips with limited time. Believe me – I’ve been there. To make it easier, I have a system I use for road trip planning and it works really well for beginners. Here’s a few tips and a step by step guide on how to plan a road trip.

How to Plan a Road Trip Successfully

The difference between a road trip and a successful road trip is good planning.

I know it sounds like a lot of fun to grab a bag and ride off into the sunset but in reality, it isn’t very practical. Especially when you have limited vacation time. If you aren’t prepared, you can waste time, drive around needlessly and miss special things.

So, before you start serious road trip planning there are a couple of things to ask yourself: 1. do you actually have enough time to get to where you want to go and 2. how much can you comfortable drive in a day?

These two questions will have a big impact on how successful your road trip is. Here’s why.

Step 1 – How Much Time Do You Have for a Road Trip?

Prior to deciding where you’re going on your road trip, it’s important to consider if you actually have enough time to get there. Remember, road trips should be fun. This is your vacation after all.

More than just a way to get from point a to b, one of the best things about road trips is all the fun stuff and surprises you find along the way. A good road trip plan should allow time for some of those unexpected things your run across.

Feeling rushed and pressured is the complete opposite of fun. So when you start to plan your road trip – be realistic about how much you can do. Don’t over plan. Make sure you have time for driving to your destination and sufficient time for both planned and unplanned things.

Step 2 – How Many Miles Can You Comfortably Drive?

The next step on our how to plan a road trip guide is figuring out how much you are comfortable driving. It might not sound like it’s a big deal but if you are someone that doesn’t drive much in your day to day life and have only taken short road trips, then a long or a cross-country road trip might be tiring and even a little stressful.

To prepare, it’s best to do some practice runs. Try a long weekend road trip and monitor how long and how many miles you’re comfortable driving in a day. Experts recommend driving no more than eight hours a day and stopping every two to three hours to stretch your legs and take a break. This helps break up the monotony and revitalizes you physically and mentally.

Of course, some people might not want to stop that often and others may want to stop more. What’s important is what works for you. It might take a couple of road trips to find your sweet spot but you’ll get there.

Once you decide to bite the bullet and take a longer or cross-country road trip, then you can always 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 exhausted because they’re the only driver.

the road out the windshield in Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is great for a road trip

Step 3 – Choosing a Road Trip Destination

Now that you have an idea about the timeframe and how much you are comfortable driving – it’s time to pick your destinations.

Most people probably already have an idea of where they want to go when they start planning a road trip. Some people – like me – keep lists of places they want to see – a bucket list or wish list. If you already have something in mind, again, just make sure it fits into your time frame.

However, if you are still unsure of where you want to go and need some inspiration, it’s time to pull out the map or look at your favorite social media or blog of choice for ideas.

And if you still need help – think about your interests and hobbies. Do you enjoy nature? Then plan a national or state park road trip. Do you like quirky stops and art? Maybe a Route 66 road trip is a good one for you.

Anything 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.

Step 4- Plan Your Road Trip Route

Since you’ve got your destination nailed down – 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 how to plan a road trip itinerary is with Google Maps. All you have to do is enter your destination – or multiple destinations – from your home or starting point in the directions and browse the routes that Google suggests.

Google Maps will generally populate with several different options to choose from. From there, you can filter the results to your liking – avoiding highways and toll roads.

Also handy is the multiple layer feature in Google Maps. This is especially convenient because you can save route directions in one layer and attractions or things you want to do in another layer. Google allows you to add up to ten layers in a map.

a Google Maps screenshot of a cross country trip from Georgia to California
Screenshot Courtesy of Google Maps

As you learn how to plan a road trip route, anther tip is to look at the actual miles between destinations and the type of road you’ll be driving on. A destination might look close and doable on the map but the route could be a small two lane road that requires more time and patience.

Keep in mind that in many states, rural and some times even interstate – driving means wildlife. That can slow you down substantially if you plan on evening or night driving. Take this into consideration when choosing your route.

When I first started planning road trips, there weren’t that many apps available. Now you can easily find an app to plan a road trip. They are all different and some are more techy and have better features. Besides Google Maps, here are some other practical road trip apps I like.

  • AAA – great for route planning and road trip maps and even downloadable pdf’s about a destination.
  • – for routes and saving stops you want to make on your road trip.
  • – helps you plan the best route for your road trip with helpful info.
a painting that says Route 66 on the pavement of a road on how to plan a road trip
Route 66 in California

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Step 5 – Planning Where to Sleep on Your Road Trip

The most difficult part of how to plan a road trip is figuring out where to stop for the night and sleep. Of course, if you are road tripping to one location and know exactly where you’re going, then it’s not so much a problem. But if you have more of an open ended itinerary without knowing your exact stops, then it’s harder to plan.

When you are road tripping and have your accommodations booked in advance, the pressure is on to get there. What happens if, along the way you find something you want to do or a place you want to spend a little extra time?

To avoid that scenario, you might be tempted to not make any reservations and just wing it. Unfortunately, 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.

One thing I’ve found helpful is breaking the road trip up into small segments 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’re going and where you’re 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 stay or Airbnb stay every few days so that you will have laundry access and a real bed.

Step 6- Planning Fun Road Trip Stops

Besides the necessary stops like fuel stops and bathroom breaks, you want to plan some fun stops for your road trip too. There are some helpful websites to help with interesting stops.

RoadsideAmerica is useful for odd, quirky stops. They also have a convenient mobile app where you can make your own list of stops.

Atlas Obscura is another good website and app for finding unusual attractions along the way. Additionally, has an interactive map of national park sites across the country and allows you to build a trip now.

As you find things that interest you – make a list. For a specific road trip, I usually have two lists. One is for the things I absolutely want to do on my road trip. Then, I have a “b” list. This is a list of things I’d like to do – if I have time. Those stops can also be saved to Google Maps.

Besides planned stops, some of the best road trip memories are the places you just happen to discover along the way. Yet another reason to have plenty of time. If you see something that is interesting and you don’t have time to stop, I promise, those places will haunt you forever. I’m still trying to find a gas station I missed on Route 66 way back in 2014.

a rural road in Idaho
On the road in Idaho

 Step 7 – Choosing the Best Vehicle For Your Road Trip

One of the last things to consider in how to plan a road trip is the vehicle you plan to drive. That might sound odd since you probably already own a vehicle and are thinking you will drive it 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.

With higher gas prices, 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? Based on your answers, in some cases, a rental might be the better option.

Ultimately, 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. I also highly recommend investing in a roadside assistance plan like AAA.

Step 8 – Putting Your Road Trip Together

Once you’ve gotten this far with your road trip plans, I recommend using either a digital calendar or a spreadsheet for all your plans. That way you can put it all together and look it over. Personally, I like to print a calendar and write on it. Either way, it’s entirely up to you.

A calendar is useful because it can help with daily plans. It’s simple to 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, look at 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.

the road with Devil's Tower in the distance
On the Road to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

Step 9 – Music + Podcasts on a Road Trip

Whew! You’re almost done planning your road trip. The last piece of how to plan a road trip is not really necessary but can make the road trip much more fun. I’m talking about road trip music. You simply cannot 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 or plan your own road trip soundtrack.

Most recently, I’ve started listening to more podcasts too. Some of my favorites are Office Ladies, Smartless and 90 Miles From Needles.

Final Thoughts on How to Plan a Road Trip

You might already have your own way of how to plan a road trip but hopefully you’ll be able to use some of these tips for your own planning. Road tripping really is one of the best ways to travel to see a destination or several destinations.

The freedom to do whatever you want, see whatever you want to and spend some time with a favorite person, your family or even solo is priceless. Are you ready to plan a road trip now?

See you on the road!

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  1. 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.

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

  2. What a great article Lori! These tips are very important especially if you’re new to road tripping.

    This summer (assuming we all can explore our backyards again), we already picked a few places to visit. And we found out that there are some dirt roads that our crossover might not be capable of getting through. So picking the right vehicle is very important.

    1. Thank you Jane. I hope you had a lot of dirt roads in your summer travels and I hope to see you some day in Canada! Happy trails!

  3. Luke Zappo says:

    Hello Lori, and thanks for the very informative article! It was well written and I used many of your tips during my last trip to the Baja in Mexico. One other tool I used was the free trip planner from Geovea to create and share my trip, and estimate my trip budget. You can also take your itinerary with you on your phone for navigation. I really appreciate all of the great travel guides and already planning my next trip 🙂

    1. Thanks for the kind words Luke. I have wanted to road trip the entire Baja Peninsula for a while now. How awesome you had the opportunity. I will look into the Geovea website. Thanks for sharing. Safe travels!

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