A good, long road trip can be a transformative experience. It can open your eyes to the beauty of your own country, and it may be one of the memories you bore your grandkids with 50 years from now. Alternatively, it can induce major panic attacks. Planning these affairs can be a beast, and staring down that barrel can be incredibly daunting. Fear not, friends. I’m here to help.
Who am I? I’m a journalist who’s been living on the road for the last four years, zig-zagging around the U.S. and Canada. In that time, I’ve developed a number of strategies that will minimize your planning anxiety and maximize your odds for an epic trip—one you’ll be talking about for decades to come.
Budgeting time means knowing thyself
For the majority of people planning a road trip, we can assume a few things.
- You will be starting from somewhere (Point A)
- You probably have a finite amount of time in which you can travel
- You will be ending somewhere (Point B)
Now, it may be that you’re doing a loop or an out-and-back, ending your trip where you began. That’s totally fine. The point is that you want to get from Point A to Point B in X amount of time. Don’t fear the math, it’s good to have parameters! These points are a great place to start because they will give you a sense of what is actually possible given your constraints. Narrowing the focus can make this feel less overwhelming.
Before you start picking the places you want to visit, take a moment to do some honest self-examination: How do you want to travel? Yes you, specifically. Here are some questions you need to ask yourself.
How much time do you want to spend in the car each day? This involves taking stock of how your body and mind work. Maybe you know that driving more than six hours a day causes intense pain in your back. Maybe you’re the type who wants to power through a 10-hour stretch, but then take a day or two off to just be in one place. Maybe your body is okay, but you know that you start losing focus and the ability to pay attention to the road after three hours.
There’s no wrong answer here! Each of us is unique. The important thing is that you’re honest with yourself. You’re (probably) not trying to set a new world record, you’re trying to have fun. You may find that you’re good for 90 minutes of driving, then you need to stop, stretch, walk around, and clear your mind before getting back to it. Maybe you can do four of those intervals a day, or maybe two, or six. This insight is going to be helpful when plotting realistic daily distances.
Prioritize your top places
Ask yourself, what are you taking this road trip for? Is it to visit grandma? If so, her location is a top place. Is it to explore the parks out west? Start with the ones you know you want to hit, like Yosemite or Death Valley. If you have some vague knowledge of the lands in between you and some of your top destinations, add in a couple of other spots you’d like to hit.
As you continue to plan, you may add spots that you can’t believe you didn’t think of in your initial brainstorm. You will likely also end up cutting some that didn’t end up being realistic given your constraints (time, vehicle’s durability, etc.). That’s okay! There will be other trips. The goal here isn’t to see everything you’ve ever wanted, but to see as much as you can in a healthy and enjoyable way.
Use Roadtrippers (I know, I know)
Look, I know how this looks, but I’m not just trying to suck up to my editors. Here’s the truth: I was a Roadtrippers user for years before I was a Roadtrippers writer (and yes, I can prove it). The Plan Your Trip feature has been integral in planning the longer legs of my trip from the very beginning. It enables you to just type in a bunch of destinations (like the ones you just identified in the step above) and it will find the most efficient route between them. From there, you have a wide-view of your whole trip, drawn onto a map, with the mileage and drive times between each stop. And if you’re looking for a little trip inspiration, try the “Let’s Get Lost” map feature. This will take your starting point, driving direction (north, east, south, west, or some combination of the four), and driving time, and automatically populate a long list of amazing places to visit.
But here’s some advice that I hope you will heed: Always, always, always add extra time. If it says it’s going to take you six hours, plan for eight. This takes into account stopping for food, gas, bathroom breaks, stretching your legs, and—perhaps most importantly—seeing something cool that you weren’t expecting. That’s one of the best parts of roadtripping. When you’re traveling by plane, you can’t ask the pilot to stop so you can check something out for a bit. Some of the best memories from your trip will be the random gems you didn’t expect to find along the way.
Diversify your stops
A road trip is your invitation to think outside of the box. This can be applied to the macro (the big destinations you choose) and the micro (the quicker stops in between those big destinations). For example, maybe you’re looking to visit some historical sites, so you put those into your map. Now, take a look at your route. Do you have any old friends or family members who live near your line of travel, and who it might be fun to catch up with? Facebook lets you search for “Friends who live in X city,” which may turn up a friend from high school who you’d forgotten had moved there.
Personally, I’m extremely food-motivated. When people asked me what I hoped to do in New Orleans, my answer was: “Gumbo, jambalaya, blackened catfish, crawdad etouffee, and a sazerac.” Everything else was secondary. But when I reached out to friends who lived there for suggestions about what else I should do (in addition to where I should eat said items), I was led to unforgettable conversations in the 9th Ward, incredible jazz at a wine bar called Bacchanal, and breath-taking Spanish moss-covered trees in New Orleans City Park.
So, it’s good to have primary motivations, but be open to other experiences—be it sights, adventures, oddities, food, or specific people. Lean on your friends and trusted internet sites to guide you.
Grab a buddy
While I love a good, long solo trip, it’s nice to have friends. Taking a buddy with you has a lot of advantages. For starters, you can usually cover more ground because you can take turns driving and resting. There’s also someone to safely pass you snacks, read important messages, and do research about places you may want to stop while you’re driving.
Of course, having a friend (or a few) with you requires some adjusting. You may have to alter your dream route to accommodate things they want to see. You may have to compromise on the music you play. It may mean stopping more frequently than you like. Life is full of trade-offs. At the same time, you may end up finding some incredible places that you would have otherwise missed, and you’ll have a shared experience that you can look back on, both together and separately.
In the last four years, I don’t think I have ever once set a long route and not veered from it once I was in motion. You may fall in love with a place and decide you want to spend an extra day or two (weeks) there to fully experience it. You may decide “Enough already!” with the heatwave you’ve been stuck in for the last week and forgo more desert scenery for something cooler up north. Don’t look at this as a plan ruined. The reason you’re taking a long road trip isn’t because you wanted to see how faithfully you could stick to a plan, but to enjoy yourself. The things you miss will likely still be there next year.
How do you know when it’s time to stray from the plan? I would encourage you, above all else, to listen to your gut. If it’s telling you that a spot on your list is sketchy, skip it. If it’s pulling you to go explore a national park, do it. Do your homework, and do a good job at it, but know that the landscape ahead of you is ever-changing. Plan on changing to meet it, and you’ll be ready for the road in all its many twists and turns.