How To Plan a Great Road Trip

See the sights, avoid flea bag hotels, stay sane, and make the most of your road trip

There really is nothing like a road trip. The freedom, the adventure, the unknown. Just getting in your car and going. It’s a classic American adventure, and despite rising gas prices, it never gets old.

Part of the beauty of a road trip is spontaneity. Not having a plan gives you so much more freedom to do what you want, change your mind, stay longer here and skip that as you go. While I encourage you go keep a loose plan on your road trip, there are some things I’d recommend, based on our experiences:

how to plan a great road trip
Self portrait on the road, 2002

1. Set a budget.

Running out of money sucks. You’ll want to get a good estimate of how much your road trip will cost, starting with the cost of gas. A couple great resources for this are the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator http://fuelgaugereport.aaa.com/fuelcostcalculator/ and Gas Buddy Fuel Calculator http://www.gasbuddy.com/Trip_Calculator.aspx. The Gas Buddy Calculator has a broader range of cities and I like that one a bit better. Calculate the cost of gas between all of your stops, add it up, and then add a couple hundred dollars on to that. After that, set a daily budget for lodging and meals, and souvenirs and entertainment. Research prices on hotels and campgrounds that you know you want to stay at, and admission fees to any specific things you want to do. Always over-estimate.

Monument Valley, UT/AZ
Monument Valley, UT/AZ
Vegas Vic The Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas
The Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas

2. Get an atlas.

Call us old school, but we like to know and visualize our routes on a large scale. GPS and smart phones are a helpful resource, but don’t expect to have cell or internet service in the middle of nowhere. Atlases show all the highways and junctions, freeway exit numbers and often even topgraphical data and mountain range elevations. Plus, the maps are much bigger than your phone or tablet screen, and easy to pick up and read without searching and typing.

3. Be realistic about driving times.

Sure, you can drive 16 hours in one day, but trust me–you won’t want to. Google Maps is a great resource for mapping out how long it takes to drive from Point A to Point B. Remember to account for traffic through cities, possible highway construction, bathroom and meal breaks. Our limit is 6-8 hours of driving in one day, and we try not to do 8 hour long days more than twice in a trip. It’s a grueling experience, and towards the end your back and knees will be aching.

Northern Nevada highway
Northern Nevada

4. Be sure to plan enough days of not driving, or days with only short drives.

It’s tempting to want to see as much as you can and drive as far as you can, but spending the whole trip in the car is not going to be fun. I remember a family vacation when I was 14 where my parents decided to drive down around the Oregon Coast for the week, and we spent at least every other day on long car rides. We saw a lot, but the result was tired, cranky people snapping at each other the entire week. As much as you might want to see it all, you will have more fun if there are plenty of days where you get to wake up and leisurely enjoy where you are.

Redwoods National Park road trip
Paddy on our very first vacation together, Redwoods National Park 2003
colorful houses Haight-Ashbury San Francisco
San Francisco, CA
Horses on the road Taos, New Mexico
Horses freely wandering along the road in Taos, New Mexico

5. Do a little research.

Get a guidebook, check out your atlas, and figure out all the top cities, national parks, and other destinations you want to visit on your road trip. Once you have your priorities, research three hotels or campgrounds in the area that fit your budget and have good reviews. Tripadvisor is our favorite resource for finding hotels. If you are going in the summer or peak season for your location and are visiting a touristy destination, you might want to just make a reservation. If you have your heart set on a specific city or hotel, it’s better to go ahead and book than to be disappointed. If you’d rather be spontaneous, that’s fun too. Just have some ideas in mind that fit your budget and don’t have terrible reviews, so you don’t end up in hotel hell.

Also, check out what restaurants the town you’re stopping at has to offer and find out if the town has any local favorites that it is known for.  Tripadvisor and Yelp are always good resources, as well as travel guidebooks. You don’t want to miss out on the best mom-and-pop local spot and end up somewhere touristy and disappointing.

The Peppermill Reno
Completely over-the-top seafood restaurant at The Peppermill hotel in Reno

6. Find out where the weird stuff is on your route.

Haven’t you always wanted to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine? If you’re on a road trip around good old USA, there is lots of kitsch and Americana to behold. A great resource for finding what weird, funky sights are near you is RoadsideAmerica.com. There is also a line of books about weird stuff in different states put out by the Weird US website. We bought the one about Nevada for our Nevada Road Trip and it did not disappoint. There is a lot of weird shit in Nevada. We definitely found it.

The Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada
The Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada
Sculpture park in Rhyolite Ghost Town, Nevada
Sculpture park in Rhyolite Ghost Town, Nevada
Alien jerky Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada
Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada

7. Get your car checked out before you go.

Before you leave, be sure to get your battery checked, your fluids checked, get your oil changed, and make sure your tires have good tread. Also make sure you have a spare tire and all numbers to call in case of a roadside breakdown or other minor issue (locking your keys in the car). If you don’t have AAA, you might consider it. We have roadside assistance plans with our insurance company, but when my friend and I went on a three week road trip around the southwest states in 2004, we got AAA for extra protection. AAA also gets you discounts at hotels, usually 10% for the ones that participate.

Other things to remember: First aid kit, windshield sun visor, flashlight, warm clothes, emergency water, a cooler for food and cold beverages, car manual, insurance card, tire iron. If you’re going through mountain passes, show chains are always a good idea, especially October through April.

Death Valley National Park road trip
Death Valley National Park, CA

8. Make sure you have a full gas tank if you’re headed on a long stretch of highway with no towns.

The western half of the United States is much more spread out than the eastern half. Check your gas tank and fill up before heading on a sparsely populated stretch of desert highway. There might be a gas station–but there might not be, and you don’t want to get stranded. While driving through Death Valley, we encountered one gas station in the visitor’s center with gas priced at $6.00 a gallon. Fortunately, we filled up beforehand so we didn’t need it. The Extraterrestrial Highway 375 in Nevada has no gas stations at all, not even in the tiny town of Rachel. The owner of the diner there said people still get stranded and she keeps gas in a can for sale at a hefty price. If you see a sign warning you that there are no gas stations for miles, you’d best top off the tank just in case.

Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada road trip
Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada

9. If you are visiting multiple national parks in the United States, consider getting an annual National Parks Pass.

When my friend Cass and I went on our three week road trip around the American Southwest back in 2004, we got the annual National Park Pass and it saved us a bit of money. Back then it was $50.00, now it goes for $80.00. The Grand Canyon regular fee alone was $25.00 per vehicle, and we went to five or 6 parks total. You can visit as many parks as you want as many times as you want for a whole year.

Added bonus: Some parks give you special treatment for buying a pass. The Grand Canyon was the busiest, with a line of cars for a ways down the road. There was an entrance lane and kiosk just for annual pass holders, and we zoomed right to the front.

Arches National Park road trip
Arches National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park road trip
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Saguaro National Park, AZ road trip
Saguaro National Park, AZ

 

10. Build some good driving playlists on your ipod or phone.

Music keeps you going. Upbeat music keeps you alert, old hits inspire sing-alongs, and a good playlist of your own will get you through those stretches of road with no radio reception (or only tear-in-your-beer country music).

Paddy’s favorite road trip albums:

Physical Graffiti by Led Zepplin

Highway to Hell by AC/DC

Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones

Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age

Whitney’s favorite road trip albums:

Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits

Whitechocolatespaceegg by Liz Phair

Out of Time by REM

Odelay by Beck

Also in my favorite road trip album list are several movie soundtracks:

Almost Famous soundtrack

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas soundtrack

Natural Born Killers soundtrack

Road trips are awesome. Have fun and be safe. Be sure to get off the beaten path a little.

cannon beach oregon coast road trip
The Oregon Coast

6 thoughts on “How To Plan a Great Road Trip”

  1. 11. Learn your personal mileage per day comfort zone. We also love road trips and try to do one every year. My personal ‘miles per day’ comfort zone is around 250. Any more than that and I feel like it’s more work than play. Most people will drive more miles per day. We take it very easy, ‘the journey is the destination’, and stop often to appreciate the beauty around us or check out anything that catches our eye.

    1. i’m about to order foam mattress topper to lay out for sleeping in the back of my honda fit. do you guys have any tips or stories about sleeping in cars?

      1. Hi Tony! When Cassandra and I went on our 3 week southwest road trip back in 2004, we did a lot of sleeping in the back of my Ford Ranger that had a canopy. It was a tight squeeze. We had a thick plywood board on the truck bed to create a flat surface, and then just piled old sleeping bags on top of each other to make a mattress. It worked okay, but we were also 22 back then. I think my comfort level standards have risen with age….

        Are you going by yourself or trying to fit two people in the car to sleep?

        1. Admittedly we’re in our 60’s and don’t do discomfort very well, but we wouldn’t go anywhere without our air mattress. They come in many sizes, although it may be tricky with a car. With the cost of gas what it is, we’ve switched vehicles from my van to Betsy’s Subaru Outback. We simply invested in a tent (many styles of great tents under $100), and continue to use our air mattress.

        2. ha, well, i guess i’m making up for lost time in my pursuit of a little bit of misery with my travels.

          this will be primarily for solo camping. depending how nice i can get my setup, maybe the wife will join me, or maybe i’ll take one of the kids. when it’s the whole fam, we always do a big tent.

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