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Just about everyone loves a road trip. However, if you really want to get the most out of your driving adventure, you’ll need to do some good planning ahead of time. Following our ten step Road Trip planning guide may just help you have that epic road trip vacation you’ve always dreamed of.
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There is nothing better for lightening your mood, getting over cabin fever, or just enjoying life than a good old-fashioned American road trip! We should know, we road trip a lot. We’ve road tripped in every single state of the USA as well as much of Canada and the rest of the world. We just can’t get enough of the road; we love it.
Taking on the planning for a road trip can be a bit daunting. There is so much to consider. Just take the steps in order and you won’t miss any of the key details needed to plan the most amazing adventure.
Step 1: Decide Where You Want to Go?
Thinking about where you want to go can be overwhelming, especially if you are just starting out with traveling by road. Take some time to contemplate how you want to travel.
- Are you interested in staying close to home or going someplace brand new?
- Do you mind flying to a starting point and picking up a rental car?
- Do you want to experience some of those famous road trips that you’ve seen on TV or read about?
- Do you want to spend all your time in the outdoors or do you want some city time too?
- Do you want to take your time on backroads or do you want to get to your stops faster and travel by Interstate?
In some cases, you can be road-tripping to a city, national park, or resort and they will be the destination, but in other road trips, the journey is the destination.
Take Route 66 for instance, to see it you need to drive and drive and drive. All the while you are sightseeing, taking photographs of the iconic landmarks, and probably blasting some tunes on your stereo.
One of our favorite road trips was going cross country on I-40, which was a necessity, but we made the most of it and planned some great stops along the way. On another of our favorite trips, we were driving to meet up with family and spent time driving north through California and Oregon on the Pacific Coast Highway.
National Parks are such a huge draw in the U.S., and we’ve done our fair share of them, although we’re far from doing them all. Some national parks we’ve visited and loved are Mount Rainier and Olympic in Washington, the Utah national parks, and of course the two biggies Yosemite and Yellowstone. We’d love to explore Big Bend National Park as well as Mammoth Caves, but we just haven’t gotten there yet.
What is Your Reason for Taking this Road Trip?
Some reasons for taking to the road:
- Easy and cheap way to get from one place to the next
- Visit family and friends that live far away
- Get to know and enjoy time with a new partner or friend
- Follow a passion or hobby, like quilting, baseball, music, etc.
- Just to drive, get away from it all
We use road trips for a variety of reasons. The most common is just to easily and cheaply get from one place to the next as we travel, but that’s not the only reason.
One reason is that we want to visit family or friends that don’t live within normal driving distance. It takes an effort to get to see them, and even with the most engaging video calls, you miss them.
Sometimes we just road trip to get in the car and get away from it all. We don’t have a real destination in mind. The act of moving, the change of scenery, just being together is the goal. Where we stop or what we do is secondary.
A road trip is also great for getting to know someone. Trapped in a moving vehicle with someone you don’t know well tells you a lot about that person. It won’t take long before the normal conversation you have is played out and you have to start looking for new topics to explore. I truly believe a road trip should be a prerequisite for getting a marriage license.
So the first thing to do is decide what you want to get out of this road trip. Is it alone time with your travel partner or partners, or is it strictly for transportation?
How Much Time Do You Have for Your Trip?
For many people, this is a huge consideration. Whether you need to take leave from your job or not is important. Are you fitting the trip into the amount of time you have, or are you taking the leave to do the trip you want?
There are many ways to help you use as little leave for your road trip as possible. To begin with, you might want to fly to the start of the road trip and rent a car. It might cost more, but you will get to your starting point faster. This is the way we start many road trips. Yes, it’s more expensive, but the real vacation part of the trip starts sooner.
Another way is to creatively take advantage of three day weekends and holidays. For example, if you have a holiday coming up, say Thanksgiving, you can just take one day of leave for a four or five day road trip instead of taking all of them as leave days on an off week.
We love taking four day road trips and only taking one day in conjunction with a three day weekend. In our experience, the best day to take off is Monday. Most people will take Fridays off, so you are often competing with less people when you ask for the Monday off. The traffic is usually better on Mondays since most people are back at work and not on the highways.
At any rate, you usually will have an idea of how many days your road trip will last. When I’m planning a road trip, it’s often for a long weekend, one week, or two weeks. We have hardly gone out longer than that. So the first thing I do is make a calendar and a list of things I’m interested in doing. (Examples and blank forms are included in our Easy Road Trip Planner.)
Finally, be sure to take into account the time of year. During the summer, the weather is most likely to be perfect for a road trip, but the roads could be jammed with other road trippers. The same may be true during major holidays, of course. If you decide to cruise the country in the winter, you might need snow tires or chains and should expect difficult driving conditions.
Famous Road Trips in the USA
Americans love to road trip, and there are plenty of places to do so. There are, however, a few iconic road trips that everyone seems to have on their list:
- Route 66
- Pacific Coast Highway
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- New England Fall Foliage
How To Find Some Inspiration To Help You Decide Where You Want to Go
There are so many places to find great inspiration on where to go. Are you interested in scenic byways, mountains, beaches, city escapes, outdoor sports? Whatever you are looking for, you can check out some great apps and websites to help you decide where your perfect road trip will be.
Jim and I love maps. Yes, we know you can’t live without the GPS or smart phone, but there’s something about holding onto a paper map, especially the kind that I can never re-fold the way it’s meant to be folded. We feel that paper maps are important for grounding us where we are at any given moment. Sometimes when only using GPS, we can’t help but let go of the bigger picture.
At the very least, we think you should have a fold out road map of the USA and a spiral road atlas. They are both really, very handy. I also have bought the USA scratch off map, because it makes me feel so satisfied when I’ve checked off another state.
If your plan is to take some time in a particular state, we recommend you buy that state’s maps as well. Make sure it’s one that shows all the scenic byways. These are roads that are designated as gorgeous drives. It’s a great way to start road tripping! You will want to get one for your state as well as your surrounding states, and here is an example of a good one.
When I’m looking for inspiration on where to go, I’m looking for gorgeous landscapes. So here are a few hashtags on Instagram that will give you beautiful landscape ideas for destinations.
And of course you can look it up by state as well. What’s great about typing in a state is that Instagram will give you some more ideas of places to check. Here are a few examples:
Facebook groups are large forums that cover just about anything, so if you are looking for road trip inspiration, you can find them by searching. You usually have to join a group and answer questions, but I think they are worth it if you find informative ones. Here’s a couple I found that I think are pretty good:
Pinterest is a great place to look for inspiration. Whenever I’m beginning to plan a trip, I will go there and just search. You can find so many good articles on the platform.
Here is another good place to start: US Road Trips. Whenever you see a great pin, click on it and save it to your own Pinterest account. After perusing this page of great things to do on a road trip, go back to the top and hit “more ideas.”
Pro Tip: When you scroll over a pin, it should tell you the website that it comes from. If it looks like a gobbely-gook address or is from a photo site, I won’t click on it. When I find something that seems like it is coming from a trustworthy site and interesting, I will click through to the article and take notes from there.
Travel Blogger Websites
Since I know how hard travel bloggers work to give you the best experience, and they really travel a lot, I trust them more than regular review sites. When I search in Google, I skip over all the commercial sites and look for website names that are obviously bloggers. I know they will give the true scoop! Usually you’ll start finding them on Page 2 of Google.
Step 2: What do You Want to See and Do?
Now that you know where you are going to go and have a general idea of the type of trip you want to take, you can start discovering all the cool things to do and see along the way.
The first part of this is just to make a list, a wish list, don’t think too hard about it at first. Get your wish list full of possibilities, then you can narrow it down later when you decide on timing and of course, budget.
If you are traveling with someone else, you will want to make sure that they either make a list as well, or you hand over your list and have them star or sticker the places they are interested in too. You might even put a minus sign or X or something if they definitely do not want to do it.
When you do travel with a partner or your family or whomever, you have to make the decision beforehand if you will all do the same things or if you can separate at times.
For example, when we were visiting Charleston, South Carolina, my sister didn’t want to go to Fort Sumter because she gets seasick and didn’t want to take the boat. Instead she and her daughter took a spa afternoon while we explored the fort. Since this was all decided before we took the trip, everyone was happy. No one felt left out or slighted.
Step 3: Where do You Want to Eat and Sleep?
Deciding on Where to Stay
Whether you want to camp or stay at luxury hotels, it’s getting to the point that you need to make reservations for your overnight stays before you go.
It used to be that you could just jump in the car and take your chances. Don’t get me wrong, I still do this occasionally. However, I have ended up once or twice having to spend the night in my car, which is by no means where I prefer to sleep. It’s just too hard to get that kink out of your neck.
After you and your travel partners decide what kinds of places you want to stay in, I would start booking them, especially if your road trip is going to take you to many places night after night. We still find Booking.com is our favorite hotel app. It’s easy to use and has so many helpful tools.
On the other hand, you can also head to one place where you’ll sleep, like an AirBnB, house or apartment rental, or even a hotel. Then you can take your road trips out to different attractions, even driving to another town, and driving back again every day.
What this does for you is let you not completely pack up each day, probably do laundry, and cook some of your meals. It can even provide a comfortable place to take a down day if you want.
Deciding on Where to Eat
I don’t know about you, but food is a major part of any vacation for me. I love sussing out those restaurants and cafes that have weathered the test of time and yet only the locals seem to know about them.
To find restaurants I’m interested in while road tripping, I do a fair amount of research ahead of time. Cities are pretty easy. You can usually find a good blog or two just on their restaurant recommendations. I find these to be somewhat helpful for finding the local favorites.
It’s important to find out what food or dish a city or state is known for that you don’t really eat anywhere else. Some iconic examples are deep dish pizza in Chicago and etouffée in Louisiana. Of course, these two aren’t the only places that have put their unique foods on the map. In fact, we collect these local dishes and when we visit those areas, we definitely want to try them.
So, let’s say we’re heading to New Orleans where I know I want to try and taste as much Cajun food as I can. First I find out what are the local dishes to try in New Orleans, like beignets, gumbo, and poor boy sandwiches.
Then we research where to find the best of each. Our first search shows us that there is a food blogger specializing in New Orleans food, so I would definitely take a look at that website. Then I find a couple of restaurants with a good number of high reviews that serve up the best examples and put them on my list of places I wish to eat.
Depending on the food, the restaurant, and how much I want to eat there, I will maybe even make reservations at least a week before. I hate to say it, but yes, we’ve missed out on some really great local restaurants because we didn’t make reservations. However, most of the time, we pretty much wing it, because we don’t really like to be tied down to days and times. While we are on a road trip, we really like to have a more natural flow.
Step 4: Make Your Map For Your Journey
I love making and using Google Maps on my trips. I’ve made at least 100 of them, no kidding. Here’s my process:
- Go to Google Maps, and hit the three lines in the top left corner.
- On the left sidebar, go down and click on Your Places (you may need to sign in to your Google account).
- Click on the Maps tab.
- Then scroll all the way to the bottom and click on “Create Map”.
- Click on “Untitled Map” to change the title and description, then click save.
- Now start adding places you are going on the map.
- Start typing a place name in the search box and then when the place pops up, click Add to map.
- Keep adding more places.
- When adding specific attractions, restaurants, hotels, I use different pin colors. Just hit the paint can to change.
- As you add places, they will be added to the bottom of your list. Just drag it to the correct position.
- At the end you will have a list of places, in order, that you are going.
- You can then share the map you’ve made with your traveling companions; just click on the Share button at the top and copy the link to send in an email.
Step 7: Create Your Road Trip Itinerary and Budget
While creating an itinerary is definitely recommended, I don’t think you should schedule out every minute of every day. Many of the best times we’ve had happened because we were willing to be spontaneous and change things up occasionally, and make a detour or an unexpected stop.
It seems no matter how much planning and research you do, it’s impossible to find everything some places have to offer. It’s such a bummer when you feel like you don’t have enough time to do it all, and you have to say to yourself that something will have to wait until next time.
However, it is important to create an itinerary and a budget, even if it is going to change.
Your Road Trip Itinerary
You guessed it, there are still more questions to answer when building your itinerary:
- How much driving do you feel comfortable with each day?
- Are you more about scenic byways than stops?
- Are you more into country driving or city driving?
- Do you mind taking Interstates, or do you want to stick to secondary highways?
- Do you want to schedule one thing to do in the morning, then one in the afternoon?
- Do you want to fill up your days with as much as you can possibly cram into them?
- Do you want to take the day to go hiking and picnicking in the mountains or kayak or run?
Sample Generic Itineraries
There are many types of road trips, but I have two main types that I usually do. I call them the circle and the star road trip itineraries.
The circle road trip is just that, a round trip itinerary starting and ending in the very same place. This could be home, or an airport that I’ve flown into. During a trip, I try not to drive the same road more than once, getting to see more views, landscapes, and attractions.
Especially in recent times, I’ve been making more star road trip itineraries. A star road trip is when I rent a place, usually on AirBnB, for a week or more. It’s my base, and from there I take short day trips to all the things I want to see and do.
There are pros and cons to both types. The circle trip allows me to cover more miles, but it also is a bit harder when making reservations for places to stay. An example of a circle trip would be to fly into Albuquerque, drive to Santa Fe, then Madrid, then back to Albuquerque to turn in my rental and fly home.
On the other hand, accommodations are one and done with the star trip, but I can’t get out and do as much. I usually do this type when there are many things to do very close by. New England is really good for this. There is so much to do in a 1-2 hour radius of the bigger cities. For example, staying in Boston and taking day trips to Cape Cod, Rockport, Newport, RI, Salem, and Plymouth.
The Budget For Your Trip
What types of items do you need to think about when budgeting for a road trip? Are you going to go cheap or splurge out on this vacation?
I think many people head out on vacation without really thinking about a budget, but travel expenses can certainly add up quicker than you think. Fuel, food, and fun things to do will all need to be factored into your budget considerations.
The biggest cost by far is your accommodations. Then if you are renting a car or camper, that will be up there as well. Attractions and activities can be pricey too. Even going to a museum can cost you $20 or so. Do a few of those and you’re really adding up your costs.
So, for budgeting, make reservations on all the high priced items like hotels and rentals beforehand. Then find your estimated fuel costs. We always use https://www.fueleconomy.gov for this. Now, add in about $50 per person per day (for food and incidentals). Soon you’ll have a really good idea of your total budget.
Don’t forget that you haven’t begun to pay for drinks, parking, or souvenirs yet. Of course, if you know that you want to go to that one expensive restaurant, you should probably include that in your budget planning as well.
Step 8: Pack and Prep For Your Trip
There are several things you want to do before you head out on your epic road trip. You will want to make sure your car is in optimal condition, and that you have everything you need to have a great time. Of course if you are renting, be sure to check out the car and the safety gear before leaving the lot.
Before heading out on the road, especially for a multi-day trip, it’s a good idea to check out your car. Make sure that everything is working correctly and that the maintenance is up to date. Here are some things you want to make sure are in good working order:
- Check your car’s paperwork to ensure your brakes, oil, tire rotation, and safety inspection are up to date. If not, I would get it in the shop before you go.
- Make sure to have your up-to-date car insurance and registration in your glove compartment, along with your owner’s manual.
- Make sure you have all of your emergency equipment, like tire changing equipment, a good first aid kit, and a fire extinguisher
- Check all lights, including signal lights
- Check all fluid levels, ie. washer fluid, brake fluid, coolant, and oil
- Check the windshield wipers for smooth cleaning
- Check and adjust the tire pressure (don’t forget to check the spare tire)
- Check the engine and under the car for leaks
Try to find out if there are any unique things you’ll need for the trip. For example, on our road trip up the Dalton Highway, we were told to bring two full size spare tires. We were sure glad we did, because we needed both of them, and there are very few places along the way to repair tires.
General Packing List for a Road Trip
There are some things you want to make sure you have in your car to make your trip fun and worry-free. Here’s what I like to take in my car:
- Water Bottles
- Coffee Mugs
- Some road trip games to play on the road
- Windex wipes or spray and paper towels
- USB cables for phones and devices to charge while in the car
Recommended Websites & Apps for Planning Your Road Trip
There are some incredible apps for your mobile device that can help with planning your trip and with managing things during the adventure. Download them, try them out, and learn to use them before you hit the road.
- AllTrails – helpful app for finding hiking, biking, and snow sports
- The Dyrt – This website has reviews and ranks for every campsite in the country
- FreeRoam – App with advice and tools for finding the best free camping areas
- Booking – Still our favorite for finding hotels, even at the last minute
- GasBuddy – Find the best price for gas along the route, save money and maybe even win free gas
- iExit – Take the guesswork out of which exit to take for the best food or lowest gas prices
- Waze – Driving directions with live up-to-date info on collisions, construction, and speed traps
- ParkMe – Find the closest and cheapest parking near your destination
- Flush Toilet Finder – Does exactly what it says; find a nearby flush toilet when you need it most
Some Additional Packing Considerations
After you’ve got the basics down, think about any other items you might need that would make your trip easier, more comfortable, or more affordable. For instance, if you’ll be staying in several different places during the trip, bring a small bag that holds your overnight items and the next day’s clothes. Leave the bigger suitcase in the car and just carry in the small one.
If you’ll be staying in AirBnBs or have a kitchenette in your hotel, pack a small cooking essentials kit. We always bring a sharp knife, small cutting board, salt and pepper, sugar, cooking oil, can opener, corkscrew (priorities!), small non-stick frying pan, and a spatula. You never know what will be available in your accommodation.
Finally, be sure and pack plenty of snacks. We like to take a few bags of trail-mix, a box of crackers, and some granola bars for those times when you just can’t find a place to stop. You don’t want anyone in the car getting hangry!
Step 9: Road Trip Tips for Safety and Fun
There are so many things to consider when taking a road trip, but these tips will get you started and help you make a memorable journey:
- Do your research and try to avoid driving during high traffic times. This might mean leaving earlier or getting in late.
- Take many breaks while driving. Driving is fun, but sometimes we get into our heads that we have to arrive someplace at a specific time and we don’t take enough breaks. It’s important to stay aware and hydrated for your and your passenger’s safety.
- As the driver, don’t fiddle with the interior of the car like the air, phone, map, directions, whatever. Take along a co-pilot to do all that menial stuff. Just pay attention to driving.
Plan your in-car entertainment before hitting the road. Does your car have screens in the back seat? Do you have a bluetooth connection for your mobile devices? Consider downloading some audio books or movies for those long stretches of highway where there might not be much to see.
Recommended Entertainment Apps for Your Road Trip
Take our word for it, data connectivity can be very spotty, especially on back roads and byways. Make sure you download before you go. Download plenty of music, audio books, or podcasts and be ready for those long stretches of road with
- Audible – Paid subscription service for audio books, podcasts, and more.
- Kindle – Sync with your Amazon Prime account for audio books, etc.
- Libby – The best library app. Connect to your local library for free audio book downloads.
- Podcasts – Download episodes of your favorites to catch up on.
- Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Pandora – Download music for the road
Step 10: Enjoy Your Trip and Make Priceless Memories
Road trips are the most memorable of all trips, because there’s always things that happen to surprise you. We hope with this article and our Easy Road Trip Planner, you’ll have a great time!
Author Bio – Corinne is an avid camper and traveler. She’s been to all 50 of the US states and has four more Canadian provinces to visit. However, she’s not stopping yet. There’s always more to see of this great continent! Corinne loves local foods, getting outdoors, landscape photography, and road trips.