How to Build the Perfect Road Trip

Michael Kelly & Johnna Kaplan

When vacationing in America, the road trip is synonymous with freedom and spontaneity. While those feelings are among the joys of traveling the open road, the reality is that a good road trip requires a good plan. This is true no matter why you’re interested in road tripping: whether you’re going to visit family, hoping to check a dream destination off your bucket list, or wanting to get to know a region in a way you simply can’t from an airplane.

While there are many reasons to take a road trip, there also are many ways to plan one. When you’re preparing for the trip of a lifetime (or the trip of a weekend), your road trip planning can be almost as fun as the journey itself.

Road Trip Ideas

The term “road trip” conjures up an epic, cross-country voyage—and those long, rambling trips are often the most memorable. A road trip also can be a shorter jaunt to a nearby state, a foreign vacation, or a way to explore closer to home.

Road Trip Across Town

Level: Beginner

If you’re totally new to traveling by car, or even to driving—perhaps you’re a life-long city dweller who recently moved to a more car-dependent location—this is a good way to increase your road trip confidence. Similarly, if you’re used to traveling by plane or to more exotic destinations, a mini road trip can let you experience a staycation for the first time. Here are some ideas for a mini road trip:

  • Go for a long walk and have a picnic at a nearby park or beach.
  • Tour a historic home or museum (or two) in your town.
  • Follow a local “trail” of art galleries, breweries, antique stores, or something else that interests you. If an official trail doesn’t exist, create your own.
  • Find a designated scenic route near you, or simply head to an area known for quiet roads and beautiful scenery, and explore.
  • Plan a perfect day out for tourists to your town, including meals and activities, then do it yourself.

Road Trip Out of State

Level: Intermediate

Whether it’s a day trip, a weekend getaway, or a longer out-of-state visit, a medium-length road trip is the perfect way to explore your region. Plus, it’s often the cheapest option for a trip of this distance. Traveling out of state by car isn’t difficult, but because you’ll be on the road for several hours, and probably spending at least one night away from home, it requires a bit more planning to ensure a pleasant experience. Try one or more of these out-of-state ideas:

  • Find a unique hotel one or two states over, and plan a trip around staying there for the night.
  • Identify a town or attraction in a neighboring state that you’ve heard a lot about but never been to. Research what it has to offer, then check it out.
  • Look up scenic byways near you, and pick an intriguing one in a nearby state or one that begins in your area and leads somewhere interesting.
  • If you live near a state with a reputation for being lackluster or uninspiring, challenge convention and find what’s great about it. Every place has at least a few hidden gems, and you might even discover a new favorite destination.
  • Look at a map and figure out what’s nearby that’s very different from what’s available to you at home. Maybe you live in a flat area that’s only a day’s drive from the mountains, or a landlocked state that’s within a driving distance to the beach.

Road Trip Across the Country

Level: Advanced

While anyone can do a cross-country road trip, it’s admittedly easier if you already have a few shorter multistate trips under your belt. A cross-country trip that takes a few days or weeks (or months, if you can swing it) is the ideal way to see places you’d probably otherwise never get to visit. The logistics do get a little more complex with a trip of this length and duration, so requires more research and preparation than the options above.

Keep reading for more specific cross-country road trip ideas, no matter what part of America you want to explore.

Road Trip Out of the Country

Level: Expert

An out-of-the-country road trip can mean many things:

  • quick day trip from a border state
  • longer journey from your home country through one or two neighboring countries
  • flight to a destination abroad where you pick up a rental car and start exploring

All of these require some extra planning in addition to the usual road trip prep. You’ll need to think about things like:

  • border crossings
  • currency
  • languages
  • using kilometers instead of miles
  • driving on the opposite side of the road
  • obeying different road rules and laws

Some foreign road trip adventures might be:

  • If you’re based in the U.S., just head north; Canada’s landscapes are as varied and beautiful as America’s, so the possibilities are endless.
  • Extend a European city break (say, a trip to London) with a road trip through a quieter area nearby (hello, English countryside!)
  • Follow a proven and deservedly famous driving route, like Iceland’s Ring Road or Australia’s Great Ocean Road.
  • On a return trip to any country you’re somewhat but not fully familiar with, take a break from your usual trains, buses, and subways to explore lesser-known or more remote spots by car.
  • Very experienced and ambitious travelers, who are prepared to deal with multiple challenges along the way, might decide to undertake a truly major trip like the Pan American Highway from Mexico to the Southern tip of South America. If you’re not quite up for that, remember that doing just one section of such an epic trip can be just as rewarding.

How to Budget for a Road Trip

The cost of road tripping can vary widely, depending on your route, the duration of the trip, the time of year, and so on. Even considering only those factors you can control, a road trip can be done on the cheap or turned into a luxury experience.

To budget for your road trip, list all the expenses you may incur along the way. These can include:

  • gas (For a general idea of the cost, figure out roughly how far you plan to drive each day and how many times you’ll need to fill your tank, then use a site like GasBuddy to get a sense of fuel prices where you’re heading.)
  • any preparation your vehicle might need before the trip, e.g. an oil change, new tires or battery, or simply a check by a mechanic to make sure everything’s running as it should.
  • hotels (or other accommodations, like camping)
  • food
  • tolls
  • parking
  • souvenirs and other purchases
  • entertainment (such as entry fees for parks and attractions, plus anything else you’ll be doing or seeing along the way that isn’t free)
  • emergency fund (it’s unlikely, but a flat tire or breakdown is always a possibility)
  • car rental (when renting a car for a road trip, make sure you include fees and insurance in your budget)

Once you’ve completed your list, start researching prices for these items in the areas and times of year that apply to your trip.

The Best Road Trips in the U.S.

The United States is a big country, and every corner of it is full of road trip possibilities. From established scenic routes to ones you discover yourself, you can get to some fascinating places on pretty much any of the highways and byways of America. But to start you off with some road trip planning inspiration, here are five of the best road trips to get to know the U.S.A.

First, a note for road trippers considering renting a car. All of these trips can be done entirely on paved and relatively well-traveled roads, so there’s probably no need to reserve a particular type of vehicle or worry about your tires. However, if you plan on exploring back roads in more remote areas, off-roading, or driving in very snowy conditions, look into what local officials (and experienced locals and travelers) require or recommend. You may need a high-clearance vehicle or snow tires in certain areas or at certain times. Also make sure to read your rental car agreement to avoid driving a vehicle into terrain it’s not meant for.

1. The “Four Corners” States

There are endless routes you can take to explore the vast southwestern states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Many visitors plan their trips around national parks, as this region has some of the nation’s most spectacular, like the Grand Canyon, Saguaro, White Sands, Arches, Zion, and Great Sand Dunes, just to name a few. But lovers of history, art, eclectic cities, and quirky small towns can find much to occupy them in this region where the mountains meet the desert. Climate and weather varies greatly in this massive area, and depending on the place and time of year, anything from snow to floods to extreme heat is possible. So plan your route first, then look up local weather to determine when is the most comfortable time to go.

2. The Lewis and Clark Trail

Following the Missouri River from (roughly) St. Louis, Missouri, to the Oregon coast, this route takes you through landscapes as diverse as the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, with stops in bustling cities and counties that feel as rural as they were when the Corps of Discovery passed by. Along the way, from quiet old river towns to the roar of the Pacific Ocean, the National Park Service (NPS) provides a mapped route and itinerary from which you can pick and choose, depending on your interests. This trip can be done at any time of year, but keep in mind that Lewis and Clark pretty much stayed in camp during the harsh northern winter, and you too will probably want to avoid the roads – especially mountain passes – during the colder months.

3. New England

New England is an ideal road trip location because you can see so much in a relatively short time. In just a few days, you can take advantage of big city amenities, unspoiled beaches, rural landscapes, and quintessential small towns. This region is known for congested highways, but the back roads are less-traveled treasure troves, where history, culture, and nature abound. One possible route, starting in New York City, is to head north up the coast through Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, then back south through land-locked Vermont and the Berkshires. New Englanders drive around all year, but keep in mind that fall is most popular (those spectacular leaves!) and summer is also a very safe bet. (Winter can be stunning, but also messy, and spring often means rain.)

One note for anyone who associates American road trips with vast natural areas: When traveling in smaller, more densely populated states, don’t overlook state parks for outdoor recreation; they can be just as spectacular as national parks and are often free.

4. Southern Mountains

This stunning drive is almost impossible to get wrong, and you can give it as much time as you want. It winds from northern Virginia to western North Carolina through rugged mountains and two nearly contiguous national parks. Starting at the northern entrance of the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, drive until you reach the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway, called “America’s Favorite Drive” and is completely worth the hype. Along the way, you can stop and spend time in small towns, restored historic sites, visitor centers highlighting the history and culture of the Appalachians, and numerous overlooks and trails that immerse you in the beauty of this blue and green landscape. Remember that although this is the south, that doesn’t mean it’s always hot; on the contrary, temperatures can get quite low, and winter storms can close these roadways. So to be safe, pick a warmer season to visit.

5. Great Lakes Byways

The Great Lakes Seaway Trail (through New York and Pennsylvania) and the Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail (through Ohio) are easy-to-follow routes that guide road trippers along the shores of the Great Lakes. Along the way, you can stop to explore small towns as lovely as any in the South or New England, and lighthouses of every shape and style. This is a simple, slow road trip, with frequent opportunities to stop and marvel at the magnificence of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. And of course, these scenic byways are just the beginning; if you choose, you can continue to follow the lakeshores through the upper Midwest and into Canada. To get the most out of this route, avoid traveling during the colder months, as winter cold and snow in this area can be brutal.

Road Trip Planning Tools

Narrowing down where to go might be complicated, but planning a great road trip is simple. All you need are the following basic road trip planning tools.

Paper Maps

Old-school maps are better than the online version for getting a good sense of your trip overall. They’re also very helpful to have on hand later, in case you can’t get online.

Google Maps

Google beats paper maps for helping you understand driving distances, showing potential alternate routes, and letting you zoom in on detailed views of areas that don’t make it onto paper maps. It’s also useful—and fun—to “drive” through certain bits of your trip before you get there using Street View.

A caveat:

Most guidebooks present a very limited view of the possibilities, can become outdated quickly, and often steer you toward the best-known attractions at the expense of smaller, most interesting options. And yet, they can still be the best resource out there for helping you get a handle on a large area with which you’re entirely unfamiliar. Rely on guidebooks for broad overviews, then look elsewhere for the local details.

The Internet

At the risk of stating the obvious, the internet is most people’s one-stop shop for travel research and reservations. It’s more convenient than the days when you had to send away for vacation guides – although you can still do that if you like! Here are some of the many necessities you can research and book online, and some resources you can utilize in trip-planning:

  • Car rentals
  • Hotels
  • Attractions
  • Weather forecasts and average weather statistics
  • Road conditions
  • What to wear hiking, and other travel and packing tips
  • Route-planning sites
  • Answers to travel questions. Look these up using your favorite search engine or browse websites of cities and towns you’ll be visiting, state or regional tourism departments, and review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Travel forums can also be a great resource.
  • Online travel magazines and blogs

Road Trip Apps

Before you go, you may want to download some travel apps that can help you with various aspects of planning before and during your trip. Here are just a few that are specifically useful for road trippers:

  • Google MapsWaze, or another map app: for getting driving directions, checking alternate routes, and seeing current traffic conditions
  • The Weather Channel or another weather app: for checking the current weather, future forecasts, and storm watches and warnings where you are or where you’re headed
  • AAAHONKBlink, or another roadside assistance app like this one from The Hartford: to connect you with local towing and repair services if you’re stranded (fees and membership plans vary, so look into a few apps before choosing one that’s right for your needs)
  • KAYAK or another reservation app: for comparing hotel and rental car prices and availability (if you already belong to a hotel’s loyalty program, or simply prefer a certain hotel, downloading their app can speed up the reservation process)
  • AroundMe or another location app: for finding the closest ATM, coffee shop, gas station, hospital, supermarket, etc. (many similar, more targeted apps can help you find places like the nearest restroom or highway rest stop, so it’s worth searching for ones you think you’ll use)
  • ParkMobileSpotHero, or another parking app: for finding and reserving spots and paying for parking (these apps can be helpful if you’re spending a lot of time in larger cities, but for a road trip primarily through smaller towns, they’re not necessary)

What You Need to Know Before Going on a Road Trip

Road trip planning isn’t just about deciding between the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. There are also some practical things you should know—and do—before you set out on any road trip. These tips will help you cover all the pre-trip bases.

Road Trip Realities

If you’ve read this far, you get it: We recommend a lot of preparation before a trip. But no matter how much planning you do, the unexpected will happen. Even the best map apps can occasionally lead you astray. They might attempt to send you down private roads, dirt roads your rental car can’t handle, or, in rare cases, into dangerous places like bodies of water. Plus, cell service in more remote areas can be spotty or nonexistent.

It takes longer to drive a route than the driving time suggested by your mapping app; remember that humans need bathroom breaks and meals, while apps do not. Eating behind the wheel is one of the leading causes of distracted driving and can increase your chances of getting into an accident, so if you need to eat on the road, pull over somewhere safe.

If your route crosses one or more time zones, you may need to work the time change into your plans. Even driving from one edge of a time zone to the other can mean the sun rises or sets notably earlier or later than you’re used to.

Another reality that can deflate the road trip fantasy: You won’t always encounter amazing, off-the-beaten-path finds without researching ahead of time. Some helpful resources for locating unexpected gems are local travel blogs, sites like Roadside America that catalog odd attractions, and geotags on Instagram.

There’s More to Road Trips Than Road Food

Road trips can be an excuse to eat gas station snacks and fast food, but it’s often cheaper—and always healthier—to bring as much good food with you as you can. For a shorter trip, you can pack easy-to-eat snacks and meals like apples, carrot sticks, and sandwiches; on longer trips, use apps like those mentioned above to discover local restaurants, or—even healthier and more affordable—grocery stores and farmers markets. Bring a good supply of water, too; staying hydrated and eating well will help keep you awake and alert on long drives.

How to Increase Fuel Efficiency

Don’t forget that you can save money on gas by making a few simple changes. For instance, on average, 100 pounds of cargo can reduce your fuel economy by 1 percent and a rooftop cargo container can reduce your fuel economy by 25 percent. To save on gas, limit the amount of cargo that you carry and store items in the trunk of your car instead of on the roof. And stick to the speed limit; it’s estimated that for every 5 mph you drive over 50 mph, you spend 17 cents more per gallon of gas. (It’s also a good way to avoid being pulled over by law enforcement looking for out-of-state plates.)

How to Avoid Problems

You can prevent many common travel mishaps by taking some simple precautions. Mostly, this comes down to taking the time to think through all the possibilities. For example:

  • Carry a spare key for your car
  • Check with your phone company to see if using your phone on your trip will incur extra charges.
  • Call your credit card company if you think a change in your spending habits will prompt them to freeze your account.
  • While you’re concentrating on getting out on the road, don’t forget to prepare your home for when you’re away. Before you go, take care of chores like having your mail held and arranging for someone to check on your house while you’re gone.

How to Plan a Road Trip

Now that you have all the information you need about road trip planning, how do you finally make the plan? The following steps will guide you through the process.

Have a Reason to Go

As relaxing as an aimless road trip may seem, driving long distances with no real purpose is a recipe for stress and disappointment. If you’re traveling with others, a lack of plans can lead to disagreements or a feeling of pressure to “magically” encounter interesting experiences.

If you’re road tripping alone, that sense of purpose will motivate you to keep going if you have a challenging day. So make your trip a pursuit of something, whether it’s a reunion with friends on the opposite coast or an exploration of a region that’s always fascinated you. When your reason makes sense to you, your plan will naturally begin to take on its own shape.

Determine Where You’re Going

You can base this on a specific destination (such as “Los Angeles”), a general region (“the Southwestern states”), or a defined route that you want to follow (“along the Mississippi River.”) Find a map, mark the general line or loop you want to travel, and start thinking about the best roads to take and places you could stop along the way.

Decide When to Travel

When planning a road trip, timing is very important. Factors like weather and school vacations can seriously affect your experience. Research potential winter road closures or whether the area you’re driving through has tropical downpours every summer afternoon. Find out if the attractions you want to visit will be open.

Check the websites of cities you’ll be passing through to see when their major seasonal events happen; you may want to schedule them into your trip or to avoid them. Even if you’re not ready to make reservations yet, plug some dates into hotel websites; if a city on your itinerary is booked up many months in advance, chances are a big event is scheduled for that week and could ruin your trip if you don’t anticipate it.

Decide What to See

After you’ve decided on a general route and places to stop along the way, check out the planning tools listed above and make a list of everything that sounds tempting in these locations. Your list could include restaurants, natural features, museums, or anything that grabs your attention. One reason for making this list is to avoid wasting time wondering what to do; the other is to avoid missing out on something truly special in a town you may never return to.

Remember that your list isn’t carved in stone; changing your mind is all part of the fun. But there’s a huge difference between spontaneously swapping Itinerary A for the more exciting Itinerary B and sitting around bored because you didn’t know you had options.

Research Accommodations

Often, on a road trip, there’s no need to reserve accommodations ahead of time. If you’re visiting a larger city or want to stay in a unique or popular hotel, you may want or need to book in advance.

Bookmark two or three hotel options in each location if you don’t make reservations ahead of time. When arriving in the middle of the night or are unable to do last-minute, on-the-spot research, having this information on hand will prove a huge help.

Pack Strategically

Make sure you have comfortable clothes for driving, plus appropriate outfits—including outerwear and shoes—for any activities you plan to do. One perk of traveling by car is that you can bring an extra suitcase or two. This can come in handy if you’re crossing the continent or passing through many different climates over a few weeks.

If you’ll be ditching the car for a plane or train, try to pack as light as you can.

Tip for packing lighter:

Stay at hotels with laundry facilities so you can easily wash and re-wear clothing.

Pack Emergency Supplies

Even if your car repair skills are excellent, you’ll need a reliable vehicle. Make sure it has:

  • a spare tire
  • stash extra wiper fluid
  • food
  • water
  • jumper cables
  • blankets
  • a shovel
  • scraper in the trunk

Pack chargers and batteries for any electronics, plus basic first aid supplies like painkillers, alcohol wipes, and bandages. Don’t forget sunscreen—yes, you can get a sunburn in a car! Bring extra fuel if you’ll be driving through sparsely populated places. All of this is especially true if you’re traveling solo.

You should also check your car insurance policy to ensure that you’re covered in case you need help. Towing insurance, for example, could come in handy if a mishap occurs.

Make the Commitment

Many people talk about taking a road trip, but not everyone follows through. The easiest way to make sure you go is to take one of these concrete actions:

  • book a hotel room
  • set a date to meet a friend in a nearby state – or another time zone

Good luck planning your time away. Maybe after this trip, you’ll be inspired to start traveling the country full-time in an RV, seeing the sights, following the sun, or simply chasing the next adventure.

Whether you have a ton of experience traversing the country, or just an unexplored wanderlust, we would love to hear from you! 

What are your fondest road trip planning memories? How long has it been since you set out on the open road? Do you have any upcoming road trip plans or any bucket list road trip dreams?

Please share with other readers in the comments below.