Planning a Road Trip: The Complete Guide

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For many travelers, nothing beats a good old-fashioned road trip—you’re treated to scenic views along your journey, you have the flexibility to stop wherever and whenever you please, you can set your own schedule, it’s usually less expensive than flying, and you can pack as many bags (and liquids!) as your heart desires. It’s no wonder 73 percent of Americans would rather road trip to their destination than fly, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Ford.

As with any mode of transportation, there’s no shortage of tricks and tips to help make your road trip experience more enjoyable, efficient, safe and cost-friendly. Whether you’re prepping for your first time or you’re a bona fide veteran, your next road trip is sure to benefit from our complete planning guide.

Planning Your Trip

You can learn a lot about a traveler based on his or her road trip style. Some road trippers are content throwing a last-minute backpack in the trunk and letting their mood dictate the route and final destination. Others pre-plan every last detail for weeks, mapping out each rest stop and which sights to visit along the way. Most fall somewhere in the middle, combining a rough plan with a little carefree flexibility. And that’s the beauty of road tripping: it literally puts you in the driver’s seat, allowing you to control almost any variable except traffic, road construction, weather, and speed limits.

The destination and time of year you’re going should be taken into account when deciding how much or little to plan ahead. “During holidays and peak summer travel seasons, travelers should plan out their trip in advance, including booking their hotels and scheduling their activities,” says Jeanette Casselano, AAA spokesperson. “If travelers are going to remote areas, they may even want to schedule their stops for gas and food.”

Additionally, if you’re heading to a city that’s hosting a special event (such as a festival, conference, or concert), it’s a wise move to pre-book your hotel room, rental or campsite—otherwise, you could end up sleeping in your vehicle upon arrival. For some road trippers, this is a right of passage; for others, a mistake they won’t soon repeat.

“Some attractions and parks have capacity limits, so plan those in advance if there is a must-do activity on your trip,” suggests Casselano. The same advice holds true for activities and national parks that require pre-purchased tickets or have a permit lottery system. 

Renting vs. Driving Your Own Vehicle

A couple weeks before your road trip, you’ll need to evaluate whether your vehicle is the most appropriate option for not only the road trip you’re planning, but the destination itself—and then determine if you need to rent a different vehicle before you hit the road. For instance, if you’re going camping or skiing, does it have enough cargo space for all your gear? If you’re heading to a mountainous region, will you need four-wheel drive or a higher ground clearance? If your car is leased, will this trip put you over your allotted mileage and result in extra charges from your dealership down the road? Is your vehicle older, unreliable, or in need of repairs? Are you headed to the beach, where a convertible would be more fun? There’s a lot to assess, so take your time and consider all vehicle specs accordingly.

And if you do decide to drive your own vehicle, make sure it’s up-to-date on maintenance in order to minimize the risk of a breakdown or accident. “Our cars have become so complex, it can be difficult to change out wiper blades or a headlamp yourself, let alone determine if your car is mechanically sound," says Fix.

Have a trusted mechanic check the tires and pressure, brakes, battery, engine, wiper blades, and top off engine oil and fluids as needed. Also, be sure to book your appointment far enough in advance of your road trip to allow adequate time for any repairs.

Aerial picture taken with drone flying over a traffic road in the coast with cliffs.
Artur Debat / Getty Images

What to Bring

With luggage only limited by the amount of cargo space your vehicle has, it can be tempting to pack everything but the kitchen sink when embarking on a road trip. Resist the urge and instead focus on practicality.

For starters, AAA recommends keeping an emergency kit in your vehicle. Consider the below list of things to include (depending on location and season), and be sure to replenish any depleted items as needed:

  • Cell phone and car charger
  • First-aid kit
  • Blanket
  • Drinking water and snacks for everyone in the car, including pets
  • Flashlight with extra fresh batteries
  • Rags, paper towels, or pre-moistened wipes
  • Basic set of tools, along with duct tape and car emergency warning devices (such as road flares or reflectors)
  • Ice scraper/snow brush/shovel
  • Jumper cables/jump pack
  • Traction aid, such as sand, salt, or non-clumping cat litter
  • Tarp, raincoat, and gloves
  • Paper map or printed directions (in case GPS or Wi-Fi aren’t working)

“If you’re heading from a warm climate to a cold climate, make sure to bring a snow brush, ice scraper, and hand warmers,” suggests Lauren Fix, an ASE-certified technician, race car driver and award-winning author of three automotive books. “And if you’re going into the mountains, you will need snow chains. If you’re heading from cold climate into warm, make sure to have washer fluid, paper towels, and glass cleaner to clean the bugs off your windshield.”

Next, you’ll need to pack clothes, toiletries, medications, prescription glasses or contacts, electronic devices and their corresponding chargers (camera, laptop, tablet, fitness watch, etc.), and any other necessities. Depending on the weather and your itinerary, don’t forget coats, rain jackets, hiking boots, an umbrella, and sunglasses. Plus, you’ll need to pack the required equipment for any planned or impromptu activities, such as swimsuits, beach and pool gear, and tennis rackets or golf clubs.

“If you are traveling with small children, bring extra food, supplies, and changes of clothes, and plan stops more frequently and around their feeding and nap schedule,” advises Casselano. It’s also a good idea to pack board games, a deck of cards, books, toys, a tablet filled with movies, their favorite pillow or blanket, and stuffed animals to keep little ones busy during the drive.

Budget-Friendly Tips

While traveling by car tends to be inherently cost-conscious, there are at least 10 ways to save money on a road trip that you may be overlooking. The following habits will help make your wallet even happier.

Be flexible. “Road trips are most popular during the summer and during the winter holidays when school is out of session,” says Casselano. “These are also the times of the year when travel is more expensive.” When possible, choose to travel during shoulder season or during the week for better deals on hotels and attractions.

Bring your own snacks. Snacks and road tripping go hand-in-hand, but purchasing food and drinks at each rest stop adds up fast. Instead, plan ahead for your cravings, and load up on your favorites at a big box retailer before you hit the road. You can also pack a cooler to keep everything fresh.

Download helpful apps. Don’t be shy about leaning on technology to act as your co-pilot. Use them to find the lowest gas prices (GasBuddy, which also made our list of the eight best travel apps for a Great American road trip), the least-expensive routes (TollGuru), the least traffic, and construction (Waze), and the nearest public restroom (Flush).

Shop around for rentals. If you decide renting a car is the way to go, follow these tips to save the most: compare prices at various locations around the city (airport locations typically cost the most), consider discount brands, namedrop your memberships (such as AAA or Costco), and reserve the most economic car tier you and your travel companions will feel comfortable driving in (you may even luck out with an upgrade due to supply/demand on the day you pick it up).

Increase fuel efficiency. Aside from saving at the pump, you can also manage your fuel efficiency by avoiding roof-based luggage when possible (which makes the car less aerodynamic), driving at or below the speed limit, using cruise control on long stretches of open road, and keeping your tires properly inflated.

There’s a palpable sense of excitement when hopping in the car for a road trip that truly stands apart from other forms of transportation. The open road is positively brimming with possibilities, so feel free to choose the road less traveled. With each trip, you’ll gain a better sense of how to plan, what you’ll tweak next time, and, most importantly, where the next adventure will take you.

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