A few months ago, I started planning my first American road trip. I soon found out that my project was neither quick nor easy. Planning a trip is a process, and figuring out the key details of your journey is crucial. But don’t let this intimidate you! With the right approach, planning your adventure can be a breeze, and you will be on the road in no time.
To share what I learned during my own planning, I created this step-by-step guide to preparing for a road trip. No matter where you want to go or how long you want to be there, if you are craving the open road and want to mark a few destinations off your bucket list, this post is for you!
Step 1: Choose Your Destinations
Before you do anything else, you need to decide where you want to go. Start with a few must-see destinations. What are the most essential places for you to visit on your trip?
Keep in mind any additional stops you may want to add to this list, but first, start small. Also check if these places will be open to the public when you plan on visiting. The last thing you want to do is pull a Clark Griswold and find out after a long drive that your final destination is closed.
Step 2: Decide How Long You Want Your Trip To Be
How long do you want to spend on the road? A week? A month? Start with an approximate length of time for your trip in total.
This will eventually help you determine how long you will stay at each stop. Are you someone who doesn’t like spending more than 24 hours in one place, or will you want to take your time at each destination? Either way, be sure that you will have enough time in your trip to visit each place on your list.
Step 3: Determine Your Budget
Whether you are independently wealthy or counting your pennies, considering expenses is a key phase when planning a trip. First, decide how much you are willing to spend. What is the maximum amount you are willing to pay during your trip?
Once you have that number in mind, determine the nonnegotiable expenses on your journey like gas, lodging, and food, jotting down approximate totals for each category. With the money you have left in your budget, consider other activities or souvenirs you will want to buy. This can include park fees, concert tickets, or even collectible mugs from each stop on your journey.
Don’t forget to save some extra money for unplanned expenses for anything from car issues to an impromptu casino night.
Step 4: Decide What You Want To Do
Write down all the activities you want to do during your trip. If you are visiting a national park, will you be hiking, camping, kayaking, or even taking a guided horseback ride? If you are visiting a city, will you be going on tours, seeing shows, visiting museums, or just exploring the streets on foot?
Each of these takes time and money that you need to consider in your plan. It’s a good idea to check that these activities are within your budget before you get your heart set on them. Or if there is something on the pricier side that you are dying to do, reconsider your budget for the trip and figure out how you can squeeze it in.
Again, it is critical that you verify that these activities will be available to you during the time of your visit. Some locations may not be open to visitors during different seasons or days of the week.
I experienced this pitfall when planning my own road trip. Dead set on visiting Zion National Park, I soon learned that we would likely be unable to hike either of the park’s most iconic trails. We were too late to get a permit to trek to the top of Angel’s Landing, and the Narrows were often flooded that time of year due to snowmelt.
Reluctantly, I removed this destination from our itinerary. Although I was disappointed we wouldn’t be able to see this majestic place, I was glad I did the proper research beforehand rather than invest in a trip blindly and realize too late that it would be a bust.
Step 5: Plan Your Route
With easy-to-use GPS apps, deciding on a route may not seem like a necessary step anymore. However, creating a visual of your route can help you determine the order in which you visit each destination on your list.
A tool I found useful for this is Google Maps. Viewing the website from a desktop or laptop allows you to input each stop during your trip in the order you plan on visiting them. The program will then calculate how far each stop is from the next and how long it will take you to drive there. From here, you may recognize that visiting these places in a different order will save you time.
Using software like this one can help you ensure that your road trip is an efficient one, wasting no time on the road. Additionally, you may notice nearby attractions that you want to add to your journey.
Step 6: Plan Your Itinerary
Now comes the fun part! Once you have an idea of when you will be visiting each place, you can begin crafting a schedule of your drive and planning activities for each stop.
After forming a basic idea of how long you plan to be in each location, you should also consider how long you want to drive each day. If you aren’t sure you want to take on an especially long drive at once, you may need to add an extra stop to your trip, a place to rest for the night before continuing your drive the next day.
Once you decide how much time your visits and drives will take, you can start planning activities. Start with a basic schedule with plenty of white space for things you plan to do. Designate time for necessary tasks like driving, stopping for food and gas, checking into your hotel or campsite, etc. With all the time remaining, you can write in your ideas for must-do activities like hiking trails, visiting museums, or just exploring the area.
Having a basic itinerary on hand will help you and your fellow road trippers stay on track and get in all the fun you can at each spot. You can also block out free time for spontaneous adventures along the way or some hours of much-needed rest.
Step 7: Start Making Reservations
In order to avoid the ultimate road trip nightmare, reserve important things like lodging, restaurants and attractions early. What could be worse than spending a whole day driving just to find out that the hotel you planned on stopping at is already full? As soon as you have an itinerary for each day of your trip, save a spot for all the essentials at each location.
This goes for campsites, too. While some may prefer first-come, first-served campgrounds, I always choose sites that can be reserved, giving me peace of mind that I will have a place to stay once I get there.
Step 8: Gather Your Gear
Spend some time making a checklist to ensure that you have everything you need before you start your long drive. Start with basic travel items like clothes, toiletries and chargers. In case of emergency, store a set of jumper cables somewhere in your car. You don’t want to get lost in the middle of nowhere with a dead battery!
Since you will be on the road for a while, be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks along with books or games to keep you busy. Check out this link for a full list of road trip packing essentials.
If you plan on car camping, make sure you have all the gear necessary to sleep outside. This includes a tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags and any other items you can’t sleep without. If you’re traveling on a budget, it is not a bad idea to prep some meals to store in a cooler and heat up at your site with a camping stove. For all car camping must-haves, read through this helpful article.
Step 9: Hit the Road!
Now that you have all the details of your trip planned and you have everything packed, you are ready to get started on your big adventure! The work is done, and now it’s time to celebrate and enjoy the journey.
Wherever you plan on going, you should feel confident that you are prepared for anything and ready to take on the road ahead.