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. But planning can be challenging. Especially when you have to coordinate everything to fit into your vacation time. Believe me – I’ve been there. Even though I’m not a full time traveler, I have driven thousands of miles and my Google Maps is full of road trip ideas. So, I came up with a system for road trip planning. Here’s my tips and a step by step guide on how to plan a road trip.
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How to Plan a Road Trip
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. If you aren’t somewhat prepared, you can actually waste time. We all know just how precious time is when you have a 9-5 job and a only a few days of vacation.
So, before you start the hard planning there are a couple of things to ask yourself – do you actually have enough time to get to where you’d like to go and how much are you comfortable driving?
These two thing 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?
Before you decide exactly where you are 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. They should be relaxing. This is your vacation. Road trips are more than just a a way to get from point a to point b. Road trips are about the fun stuff along the way. If you don’t have time for spontaneous fun stuff, how much will you really enjoy it?
Feeling rushed and pressured is the opposite of fun. So when you start thinking about a road trip – be realistic about the time you have. Don’t over plan. You should have enough time for driving and enough time for both planned and unplanned things you find along the way. Plus it’s helpful if you have enough time to get to your destination.
Step 2 – How Many Miles Can You Comfortably Drive?
The next step on our how to plan a road trip guide is – how much you are comfortable driving in a day. I love to drive but not everyone is like me. Some people just don’t enjoy it.
If that sounds like you or if you are someone that doesn’t drive much where you live and have only taken short road trips, then do some practice runs. Start slow. Try a long weekend closer to home and see how comfortable you are driving and 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.
Once you decide to bite the bullet and take a 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 are the only driver.
Step 3 – Choosing a Road Trip Destination
Now you know how much time you have and how much you thing 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. Some people keep lists of places they want to see – a bucket list or wish list. If you already have something in mind, remember what we talked about – just make sure it fits into your time frame.
However, if you are still unsure of where you want to go 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.
Still need help deciding where to go? Why not 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. Really 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.
Step 4- 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 road trip 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 Maps 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 in one layer and the attractions you want to see along the way in another.
As you plan your road trip route, it’s also 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.
Also, in many states, rural driving also means wildlife. That can slow you down if you planned on evening or night driving. Keep this in mind when you are choosing your route.
When I first started planning road trips, there weren’t as many apps around. Now there are a whole bunch of them out there. Some are more techy than others but there’s still some good old school standbys that have been around a long time. Besides Google Maps, here are some other road trip apps that I find helpful.
- AAA – for route planning and road trip maps and even downloadable pdf’s about a destination.
- Roadtrippers.com – for routes and stops you might want to make on your road trip.
- MyScenicDrives.com – helps you plan the best route for your road trip with helpful info.
Step 5 – Planning Where to Sleep on Your Road Trip
The most difficult part of road trip planning 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 as long as you calculate your time wisely between stops.
But if you have more of an open ended itinerary without knowing your exact route, then it’s much 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.
Planning a Road Trip Sleep Strategy
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 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 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’ll want to plan some fun stops for your road trip too. There are some really great websites to help with that. RoadsideAmerica is a good one to use for adding odd, quirky stops along the way. They also have a convenient mobile app that you can add stops to.
Atlas Obscura is another useful website and app for finding unusual attractions along the way. Additionally, Recreation.gov 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.
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 gas prices on the rise, 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.
Step 9 – Music on a Road Trip
Whew! You’re almost done planning your road trip. The last piece of planning 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.
Road Trip Planning
Hopefully, some of these tips will inspire you to plan a road trip. Road tripping really is one of the best ways to travel and see a destination – or a few 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 can be refreshing. Are you ready to plan a road trip now?