5 Essential Tips for Planning a Road Trip

From On the Road to Travels with Charley, road trips are an iconic part of American culture, and hitting the road is a great way to see the United States. No plane tickets, no hassle, no sweat—all you need is a set of wheels and some gas money.

But the endless possibilities can be intimidating for novice travelers planning a road trip (and spending a week in the car is not for the faint of heart). Here are a few road-tested tips for the first time around.

Decide Where—and How—You Want to Travel

If you’ve been dreaming of exploring Route 66, craving New England seafood, or planning an escape to the Pacific Northwest, grab a guidebook and buy a map. But figuring out how you want to travel is just as important as the destination.

Sit down with your travel buddy (or yourself), and imagine your perfect day: are you driving from dawn to dusk, or stopping every hour? Eating at restaurants or making sandwiches at picnic areas? Even if it means giving up some travel objectives, sticking to a road-trip style that keeps you happy is a recipe for success.

Light blooming over California's desert stretch of Route 66.
How you want to travel is as important as where you want to travel. Photo © Maciej Bledowski/iStock.

Think About Money

Figure out how much cash you have for the trip, then subtract the essentials (like gas). But as with most discussions of money, trip budgeting is more about priorities than hard numbers.

If posh bed and breakfasts are your idea of heaven, set aside funds for special accommodations—but if you could care less about where you sleep, staying at campgrounds can free up dollars for experiences that matter to you.

Eating new foods can be a fabulous part of any road trip, but using restaurants for every meal can be hard on the wallet—if you’re concerned about stretching funds, choose the places that matter the most, and consider hitting the grocery store in between treats.

A tent in a field with the sun rising over a range of mountains.
Camping on a road trip can get you closer to nature and save you hundreds on accommodations. Photo © Kuhnmi/Flickr CC-BY.

Make it a Mission

Ask any trip leader—great adventures require purpose. It might seem strange to create a mission statement for a week (or weekend) on the road, but it’s a great way to focus your trip, whether it’s a solo adventure or a friend vacation.

Taste the specialties of Missouri’s greatest diners. Meet pinball fanatics in every state. Discover some of the country’s overlooked history—or just commit to a week of zen-like relaxation. Anything will do, but the best travel missions are personal, because they’ll take you beyond the tourist circuit, which is where great trips begin.

Young couple in a car reading Moon New England Road Trip
Keep some possibilities open as you find your way. Photo © jacoblund/iStock.

Plan—but Not Too Much

If you’re headed to a popular area in high season, save yourself some hassle and book campgrounds and hotels in advance. Make key restaurant reservations, and get a broad idea of where you’re headed.

But enjoying time on the road means keeping some possibilities open, so give yourself some space to discover unexpected towns and take your time along the way. If you’re winging it, bring a book with plenty of accommodations options, and download a few apps that offer last-minute hotel booking so you can find an impromptu place to crash.

Get Beyond the Car

Slowing down from highway speed offers an entirely different perspective on a landscape, whether you’re exploring the desert or visiting New England villages. Road trips might be all about the wheels, but pack an alternate means of transport to mix it up a little—bring a bicycle, roller blades, or just a pair of running shoes. It’s the perfect way to stretch your legs, explore, and reduce the environmental impact of your vacation.

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A van driving through the Southwest with text reading 5 Essential Tips for Planning a Road Trip.