There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes with traveling to new, exciting destinations. But in reality, taking the time for research and prep can make your road trip much more productive and memorable. Here’s how to plan for best road trip ever.
Why you’re going
It could be that your children and grandchildren live on the opposite coast, or that you’ve finally decided that it’s time to take that trip you’ve been putting off for years. You could be searching for the best street food or live music or following a hobby group. What matters is that your reason for traveling makes sense to you.
Why do you need a reason? Well, as relaxing as it sounds, having no plan creates a lot of pressure to find interesting sights and enjoyable events. That can lead to disagreements among traveling companions, and lone travelers might be motivated to give up on the whole trip after one bad day.
Where you’re going
Driving aimlessly can be fun for an afternoon, but a vacation based on aimless wandering can lose its appeal very quickly. Pick a final destination (e.g. “Los Angeles”), a region (e.g. “the Southwestern states”) or a route (e.g. “along the West Coast”) that you want to explore. Then find a map, mark the general line or loop you want to travel, and start thinking about places to stop along the way.
When you’re going
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. Unpredictable occurrences are part of any journey, but you can avoid many mishaps with a bit of planning.
What to see
After you’ve decided on a route, pore over guidebooks and websites as you make a list of everything that sounds tempting along the way. Your list could include restaurants, national parks, friends to visit, or anything else that grabs your attention. One reason for making this list is to avoid wasting time wondering what to do; the other is to keep yourself from 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 Plan A for the more exciting Plan B and sitting around with no plan because you didn’t research your options.
Where to stay
Often, on a road trip, there’s no need to reserve accommodations ahead of time. But if you’re visiting a larger city, a unique or popular hotel, a location that’s hosting major a event, or particular campgrounds, you might want to book in advance. There is another good reason to roughly plan out when you’ll be staying where – you can check whether your visit will coincide with a large sporting event or conference, and plan your accommodations accordingly.
Even when you don’t make reservations, bring a list of two or three hotel options (including addresses and phone numbers). If you arrive 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.
What to pack
Make sure you have comfortable clothes for the drive, plus appropriate outerwear, outfits and shoes for any activities you plan to do. If possible, check the availability of laundry facilities along the way so that you can decide how many outfits you’ll need to pack.
Though packing light is preferable in most travel situations, when you have your car for the entire trip, you can bring an extra suitcase or two if need be. This can come in handy if you’re crossing the continent or passing through many different climate regions over a few weeks. That said, if the road trip is only one part of your journey and you’ll be ditching the car for a plane or train at some point, try to pack as light as you can.
Even if your car repair skills are excellent, you’ll need a reliable vehicle. Make sure it has a spare tire and stash extra wiper fluid, food, water, jumper cables, blankets, and a shovel and scraper in the trunk. Pack chargers and batteries for any electronics, and 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.
Apps and Maps
If you live on your smartphone, there are countless apps to help you locate services and warn you of construction or bad weather along your route. Also look for city- or region-specific apps to facilitate the navigation of local neighborhoods, tourist attractions, parking garages and so on.
Pick up some road maps (yes, paper ones, as you will lose cell service at some point) and plot your itinerary in advance. Note alternate routes so that you can decide between highways and back roads based on time, weather, and your mood. If you’re planning to drive in notoriously confusing cities or on hazardous or very remote roads, give those areas extra attention before setting out.
Many people talk about taking a road trip, but not everyone follows through. The easiest way to make sure you go is to take just one step: book a rental car or set a date to meet a friend or a family member in another time zone. Once you’ve committed, you’ll find that leaving for your trip becomes easier than staying at home.
Whether you have a ton of experience traversing the country or just an unexplored wanderlust, now is the best time to make a plan and hit the road.
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