Looking to hit the road this year for a good old-fashioned road trip? We’ve got all the information you need to plan a road trip including what tools you should pick up ahead of time, how to pick the best destination, and what to pack. The planning process should be part of the fun, so grab some snacks and a notebook or computer and start prepping for your excellent adventure.
Don’t forget your copy of Adventures From Scratch!
Adventures from Scratch books are interactive and chock-full of activity ideas! Each activity is hidden beneath a coating, just waiting to be uncovered. A handy key will help you choose your next adventure, and you’ll love the surprise waiting for you. They make great travel companions and, with over 50 suggestions per book, you won’t run out of things to do for a while!
Tools for Planning a Road Trip
In order to start the planning process, there are a few things you should gather ahead of time to make the process easier and ensure you have all the necessary information. These recommendations are a good place to start, but you may have some resources of your own up your sleeves as well.
Maps are critical to road trip planning. You might want to be a little spontaneous, but you don’t want to end up lost or accidentally at the country’s border.
Most people prefer to utilize an online map, like Google Maps or Apple Maps. These options allow you to punch in destinations and stopping points and get an instant time estimate and traffic information. You can drag and drop the route around on the page, trying combinations as much as you’d like.
If you want to plan your trip offline around the table, you can also pick up large paper maps. Tourism boards will often mail them to you for free. Atlases and map books are available at most bookstores as well. Looking at a full map of the region you want to explore can help you spot places you might not be aware of like state parks or national forests. It’s best to use something that has a good key if you’re using a paper map so you can spot these items easily.
WIth paper, you’ll want pencils or highlighters to circle things and mark routes along the way as well. We mention pencils because you can easily erase them if you change your mind on something (which is likely to happen a few times during the planning process.)
Guide Books and Travel Blogs
Another great way to source inspiration and discover new places to explore is by reading about the travels of other people. Thanks to the internet, there are now thousands of travel blogs available in addition to the incredible travel guide books that have been published and updated for years.
When you begin searching for resources, it’s good to find a variety of options. Tripadvisor and Yelp are great to read multiple reviews about one place, but I also recommend finding people that publish itinerary ideas and write full pieces about a city or region. These can be more helpful when you’re brainstorming a list of possible stops along your route.
A great resource to locate many of these blogs is Pinterest. You can just search for your destination or approximate road trip route and it will find you matches of websites that have covered that information. We have also shared some great trip ideas on our blog here, including a list of the best summer family destinations.
Ask the family for some ideas when you’re starting the planning process. If you’re able to include them, it can help get everyone as excited for the trip as you are. Your kids might have heard about a vacation that their friends have taken or something they’ve seen on TV. It might change the direction you were thinking for your road trip.
Set up a special family dinner where everyone can throw some ideas out on the table for discussion. You don’t want everyone having a say in every minor detail and decision, but you can update them throughout the planning process and offer some places for feedback.
Road Trip Planner Apps and Websites
Travel apps have come a long way! Roadtrippers is one example of an online tool that can help you plan any kind of road trip. Some tools are web-based and others are simply apps on your phone. The nice thing about this technology is that it can take some of the heavy lifting off your shoulders and you’ll probably get some ideas you would have never thought of.
The tough thing about using these apps is that they can be a little overwhelming with so many options because people are constantly adding new places and giving feedback. We would recommend plugging in your initial thoughts to one of these tools to see what you think of the format and user experience.
Android and Apple have some great apps available to make the trip a little easier once you get on the road. HearHere has a collection of stories and information that are shared when you hit certain GPS points which is great when you’re on the road and wanting to learn more about the places you’re driving through. Let’s Roam has a collection of scavenger hunts in cities all over the country to help you explore destinations on foot. Download a few of these ahead of time as well to assist you during your trip.
Budget and Costs
Setting a budget is a smart move before you get on the road. You want to have some idea of how much money you plan to spend and get a few of the big items booked ahead of time. There are four major groups that you should make a plan for, so we’ll give you a few tips to help you out.
Vehicle and Fuel
Road trips require driving, so gas will definitely be a cost (unless you’re cruising in a Tesla or electric vehicle). Gasbuddy is an app that keeps up-to-date information on the prices at gas stations all over the place. You can plug in the route and it will help you price out your gas and give you suggestions on where to stop. Remember to plan for tolls if you’re going somewhere that has tolls.
You may also need to pay for items for your vehicle to make it road trip ready. Do you need to get an oil change before you go? Will you need to pick up some snow tires or chains to safely drive where you are going? These costs can sneak up on you, so try and be proactive as much as possible ahead of time.
Many people opt out of using their daily vehicles for big road trips. If you want to rent something larger and more spacious, or maybe even just something newer, you’ll need to figure in car rental costs as well. The same goes if you are flying somewhere and then road tripping, it’s important to consider all costs associated with transportation.
The largest chunk of your budget is usually accommodations. Hotels are a common option with a huge range of prices. You’ll have access to beds, a bathroom, and many times, a free breakfast. You can find great deals using hotel search engines like hotels.com, to book in advance or narrow down the list of options. If you are going to be more spontaneous along your route, try last-minute booking sites to land the best deals.
There are some non-hotel options as well. Airbnbs and vacation rentals are wonderful options if you need a little more space than a hotel room offers. These are great especially if you spend more than one night because you can unpack a little and feel like you have a home away from home. Most come with kitchens or at least a wet bar area, so you can cook and prepare your own food.
Last, but not least, you can pitch a tent. Camping options are plentiful in many parts of the country. It requires a bit more work to set up camp (unless you’re road tripping in an RV), but it’s the most budget-friendly and allows you to experience the natural settings you’re traveling through.
Even if you don’t book your stays while you’re planning, you can get an idea of the price and see what fits into your budget to narrow down the options and make things easier once you hit the road.
Activities and Attractions
Something that often gets overlooked is a budget for activities during the trip. If your road trip is heading to Disneyworld, you know that you’re going to purchase admission to the amusement parks. Many road trips don’t have a huge theme park as the endgame, so it’s important to consider what attractions and activities you might want to add to your itinerary.
Think about museums, historical spots, parks, and anything else that might cost money. Consider including some extras, like a slush fund, so that you can stop at places that pop up unexpectedly along the way. You never know if you’ll come across a strange museum or a billboard that draws your children’s attention.
Part of the fun of a road trip is the ability to pull over when there’s a beautiful view or a place you want to explore. Plan for any of the big attractions you know will be stops on your journey and include a few extras for those spontaneous adventures.
Food and Beverages
The last major category is food and drinks for the family. The easiest way to think about this is to split each day into three meals and consider what the average your family will spend to eat out is. Make sure to add in desserts and snacks along the way, as well. It’s not a road trip without some snacks in the car!
This is also a great category to cut some costs. Eating out at restaurants for all of your meals can add up quickly. Consider packing a cooler or two ahead of time with sandwiches, fruits, veggies, and granola bars. Another cooler can have an assortment of drinks, like juice boxes, water, and sodas. Cutting down on purchasing one-offs at gas stations and rest stop vending machines can be a big money saver.
You can also make stops at grocery stores along the way and choose from deli items and ready-to-eat options that are usually a healthier alternative to fast food and cheaper than a sit-down restaurant.
With your budget all squared away and set, you can start coming up with a list of places that fit within that range. Some areas of the country, like Hawaii and Alaska, are more expensive and require a plane to even kick off your road trip. It’s also good to consider gas prices because some states always average higher than others.
Starting Point and Duration
Are you starting your drive at home? That’s usually the only option, but some people do travel via airplane first if they want to explore somewhere further away by car, but want to avoid the distance between or cut it shorter.
In addition to the spot you’ll start, it’s always important to determine the length of your trip. Unless you are retired or have an incredible amount of time off, you probably already know how many days your vacation can be. Knowing this will help you figure out how far away you can go on your road trip.
Most people don’t want to spend 12 hours a day in the car every day they’re on vacation. Figure out what amount of drive time is acceptable and then divide that length by two. That’s how far your trip should be each way—there and back.
If you plan a trip 10 hours away for a week, you could split it up to drive five hours two days in a row, have some time to hang out at your destination, and then have the same schedule coming home. Just make sure to add in some fluff time and don’t schedule every second of your trip.
Consider what kind of weather you want on your vacation. If you’re traveling in the summer, maybe you want a break from the heat and you should head north. In the winter, you might want to do the opposite. Just take a look at the average temperatures and precipitation for the regions you’re considering. It’s not a perfect science, but you’re likely to have fewer surprises this way.
Popular Road Trip Ideas
Once you have all of the above figured out, it’s time to think through your options. Here are a few ideas that are incredibly popular within the United States.
California Coast Road Trip
Take the Pacific Coast Highway from the Redwoods near San Francisco, through Monterey and Big Sur to Los Angeles and the beaches of Southern California near San Diego. You can easily make it a loop by heading back north through Death Valley National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite National Park. You can even head further north to Oregon to start as well.
Drive Over the Ocean to the Florida Keys
Highway 1 travels over a series of bridges connecting the islands of the Florida Keys. Leave from Miami and spend your trip stopping for kayaking trips and snorkeling.
Take a National Park Road Trip Through the Rocky Mountains
Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana are home to many of the most beautiful national parks. Yellowstone is the perfect place to experience some wildlife and incredibly natural features. Utah has five national parks that can easily be looped together with enough time. Choose any mountain routes and enjoy views and vistas along with great small towns to explore.
Visit Historical Sites in New England
Starting in Boston, you can spend at least a week exploring sites from the time of the American Revolution. New England is also filled with towns and beautiful parks to explore as well to mix it up a bit.
We mentioned above that you’ll need to budget for transportation. If you are using your own car, just make sure maintenance is up to date before your trip comes up. For rental vehicles, start shopping early. These can fill up quickly and you want to make sure you get the right size for your family.
If you are looking to rent an RV or a campervan, you’ll want to do some browsing and make sure that you find something that you are comfortable driving and parking. Some require special licenses and insurance, so if you are renting something extra large, make sure you have all the appropriate safety training and information.
Also, consider the things you are hoping to pack and bring with you on the trip. If you are doing some biking, camping, boating, or other activities, you’ll want to make sure you have the room to bring it along. Bike racks and roof racks can be helpful to save some space in the car and cart along the fun items you need.
Your Road Trip Itinerary
Once you’ve got all the big details locked in, it’s time to dive into the details and the fun stuff. Setting up your itinerary will be the most fun. We will give you some ideas on how to gather spots you want to visit and begin to customize a rough idea for your fun getaway. Remember, you don’t need a completely scheduled out day to day itinerary, but you can outline ideas and fly completely blind.
1. Map out a road trip route.
You’ve taken out the paper maps and drawn all over them. You’ve figured out the best routes and driving times that Google Maps offers. Now, you’ll want to dive deeper and start to locate points of interest that catch your eye. Google has a great feature that allows you to flag locations with different icons. As you are doing your research, you can mark the places that look like fun and might be possible stops on your vacation. By marking them ahead of time, you’ll be able to pull up your live map while on the road when you’re ready to stretch your legs and see what’s close to your current location.
It’s also a great tool when you get recommendations from people or specific places. You have the option to add a note to each of the flags, so you can note if someone recommended a specific menu item or hiking trail and you’ll have all the information right at your fingertips.
This is also a good time to check and see which smaller two-lane highways are available to take instead of the interstate. Get off the beaten path for part of your trip if possible because it allows you to see more of the local life and some of the incredible small towns in this country that you might fly by on a large highway.
2. Incorporate major attractions.
Most major attractions require a bit more planning and purchasing tickets and reservations in advance. Many theme parks and popular attractions will sell out in advance, so for those experiences, it’s good to plan the dates you will be there and secure your tickets.
National parks are another major attraction you’ll want to plan ahead. If you’re visiting during the high season, some of the popular scenic drives or busier entrances require a reservation and those can fill up pretty far in advance. For example, the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park now requires a reservation for specific entrance times. If you have anything like that on your list, just make sure to check their websites for the most current information on what is required to visit.
3. Book your stays.
Once you’ve got your route, it’s time to lock in any accommodations that you might need to book ahead of time. Airbnb and vacation rentals in popular destinations tend to fill up. Many of them are run by individuals that may not respond instantly when you request to book, so it’s not always the best option if you are doing it while on the road.
Even if you do some of the stops in a spontaneous fashion, it’s a good idea to have somewhat of a plan. Many of the sites for booking hotels will allow you to cancel with a certain amount of notice and receive a full refund, so you can always book ahead of time and give yourself a backup plan.
With an RV or camping set up, you can always book last-minute campgrounds or camp on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and national forests in the west. It’s a little easier to find a place to sleep if everything is contained within your vehicle.
4. Pack the essentials.
Finding the right balance between underpacking and overpacking can be difficult. You want to make sure that you have everything you need, but you don’t want to fit your entire closet into your trunk. These few things can help you remember items you might have forgotten when packing to make the process a little easier.
5. Bring offline backups!
If you are traveling to some of the more remote parts of the country, you might be stuck in a spot where you don’t have service and need to access the route and directions. Road trip maps on google and other apps are available in offline mode, so you can see all the information even when you don’t have a cell phone signal. Be sure to download them ahead of time so that you have access to them even when you’re out of service.
6. Include activities and supplies.
Once you have your trip planned, you’ll know if there are any activities that you’re planning on doing. Make sure to pack any of the supplies you need. If you are camping, you’ll need some tents and sleeping bags. For water activities, make sure you have swimming suits, towels, and any water toys you want. Bug spray and sunscreen are also good to have for any outdoor adventures.
7. Plan road trip snacks and games.
Arguably, the most important part of a good road trip is the snacks. Pack some fun treats that you might not enjoy in your daily routine. Grab something salty, something sweet, and maybe even a few healthy snacks. You can also have some fun finding local treats in the place you’re visiting and have a taste test in the car. Have fun with it.
Games are another great way to pass the time in the car. Check out our list of road trip games for travelers of all ages!
8. Hit the open road!
Plan your trip, pack your car, and make some memories with your family. No matter where you end up going, you’ll be able to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
Frequently Asked Questions
For some great vacation memories with the family, plan a road trip for your next vacation. Explore a national park or see places that aren’t on everyone’s radar.
If you are beginning to plan a road trip, be sure to choose a mapping solution, decide on a few dependable travel apps, and get input from your family on things they would like to see and do.