How to Plan the Perfect Road Trip

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Taking a road trip can be one of the best ways to explore a country, especially if there is just so much to see! I did a solo road trip around the South Island of New Zealand and absolutely loved it. So once I headed back home, I knew it was time to start exploring more of my own country. And what better way to see the states then with a road trip? During the couple months that I've been home this year, I've been on 3 road trips, and looking forward to my fourth soon! So let me help you plan your perfect road trip:

Decide on an Area

First things first: pick where you want to go. Now this can be a specific city, landmark, or national park. or you can even go broader with just a state or area of the country. For example, my mom and I went on a road trip 2 months ago and the main things we wanted to see were Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks. But, from LA directly there would be about a 14 hour drive. So we decided to look at a map to figure out how we could break up that drive and see other things along the way.

Map out the Itinerary

So once you decide on an area or specific thing to see, pin it on a map. I love to create Google Maps to drop pins, write notes, and get directions for all my trips, whether it's a road trip or not. (See how to create your Google map here).

Once you've placed your pins on your map of the places you for sure want to see, browse around on your map and see what other things are nearby that might seem interesting.

For example, once I dropped my pins on my Google map for Yellowstone & Grand Tetons, I was able to look on the map and realize that Capitol Reef National Park in Utah was on the way and allowed us to break up our drive in half. So I dropped a pin.

Then, I noticed how close Yellowstone was to Idaho so I researched top cities to visit in Idaho and dropped pins in all the ones that were on our way back down (or very close to our route) to LA. After that, I had about 6-7 pins and a nicely looped route for our road trip.

Things to Do in Each Place

Once you have finalized all the stops along your road trip, now you've got to do some research to see what to do in each stop. To do this, read blogs, watch youtube videos, and check different websites. Compile a list of must-do items and "if we have time" items for each stop. Make sure to also include accommodation options: hotels or campsites near the sights you want to see.

What I like to do once I have my lists is to type them in the notes on my Google Maps. That way once I'm actually on the road trip I can just click on the pin, get directions to go there, and see all the notes of what we should do on that stop. Everything in one place. Super convenient. If not, just make sure to write them in your notes on your phone or somewhere else you'll have access to on your trip.

Daily Itinerary

Now that you have the locations you want to go to AND all the things to do at that location, it's time to create a day by day itinerary. Now this doesn't have to be exact like: At 10:00am we will do this, and at 11:30am we will do that. Just group a couple of nearby things together in the same day.

For example, once I made my list of everything I wanted to see in Grand Teton National Park I realized I had 3 main areas of the park that had things to do. So I separated that into a 3 day itinerary separating the park into south, middle, and north. It didn't matter to me what order we did anything, just as long as I was able to see/do everything on my list.

Once you do this for every location, you'll have a rough idea of how many days will be needed in each place and therefore, how long your entire road trip will be.

Tips for Once You're on the Road

Use these Apps

Make sure to download these apps to make your road trip stress-free:

  • Google Maps: duh! You need to access the Google Map you created when planning your trip. It makes it so easy because you can open up the map you created with all your pins on your app, click a pin and get directions straight from there. No need to type in anything. You can also view all the notes you left yourself. This will be your savior on your road trip.

  • Gas Buddy: This is an awesome app that helps you find gas stations nearby. One of the things that can totally ruin a road trip is running out of gas. Sometimes you don't realize that there will be hours of road without a town or gas station in sight, so make sure to always check this app. My favorite part about this app is that it actually shows you all the gas prices too, so you can find the cheapest one wherever you're going. And if you record gas prices into the app you can earn points that can be redeemed for discounts on gas!

  • Fotospot Road Trip Planner: this is an awesome app that shows you insta-worthy photo spots near you! You can suggest new spots, add photos/comments, check in to existing attractions, save attractions to visit later, and more. Make sure you don't miss any amazing photo spots on your road trip!

  • Campendium: If you're planning on camping or sleeping in your car at any point during your road trip, download this app. Campendium will show you all the campsites and overnight parking places near you or an area you type in. I always filter it to only show me the free things, so most nights we do dispersed camping and don't have to pay for accommodations!

Be Flexible

The main thing I stress to anyone planning a trip (whether it's a road trip or not) is BE FLEXIBLE. Sometimes things don't go according to plan. Sometimes the weather will affect what you're able to do. Sometimes you'll realize you love a place and want to stay longer than you planned. And sometimes just crazy things happen. IT'S OKAY. Be flexible. It makes your trip a lot more enjoyable if you just go with the flow and aren't concerned about time limits or rushing to the next place to stay on your itinerary.

So my advice that coincides with this is to not book anything in advance. I know this is hard for some people, but I promise you it will make your trip a lot less stressful because you won't be rushing everywhere to make your hotel or excursion reservations. When I'm doing a road trip, I like to take everything day by day. So maybe I'll book the hotel or campsite the day before or even day of, but any earlier than that can make me feel rushed. And you never know what can affect your plans in one day, or even a couple of hours.

A couple weeks ago, my friend and I were on a road trip through Colorado. It had been 80-90 degrees nearly the whole time. Beautiful, sunny weather. And then one morning we woke up to a freak blizzard. We were supposed to make the 3 hour drive to Colorado Springs that day and go camping. After an intense driving day (roads being closed, snow coming down like crazy, and our windshield wipers blowing off in the wind), we decided to call it a day in this tiny town we had stumbled upon and grab a motel room. Yeah, that blizzard messed up our plan. Yeah, it took us longer to get to Colorado Springs and do the things on our list. And yeah, we couldn't camp for a couple days because there was too much snow, so that affected our budget. Did we freak out? No. We just went with it and realized that we were incredibly lucky to experience seeing the Rocky Mountains, Garden of the Gods, and so many other incredible Colorado sights covered in snow... in September. It was like a fairytale.

BONUS: Transfer Rental Cars

If you don't have your own car to do a road trip, don't fear. Look into transfer rental cars. A lot of times people rent cars for road trips to go from Point A to Point B, so the car ends up at different location then where it was originally rented from. A lot of rental companies will rent you the car for free if you'll drive it from Point B back to Point A for them. They'll give you a time limit based on the distance, but as long as you have it back at the dealership by then you're good. Free rental car! Just pay for your own gas.

Now obviously it will be very rare to find a route that fits into a road trip plan that you might have created. So this is an option more so for people who are open to whatever route is available. I think it makes it more exciting because you just go with the flow. For example, let's say you see an available route from Seattle to Los Angeles, and that sounds fun to you. Cool, book it! They've kind of already planned your route for you! Now you just figure out where you want to stop in between. It's exciting!

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