The Ultimate Guide to Planning Road Trips

car driving down tree-lined road_plan road tripRoad trips: The favored pastime for broke college students, family trips out west, and anyone else with some time to kill. Road trips might seem like the easiest of all trips to plan, but that’s where they have you fooled.

The perfect road trip is a careful alchemy of flawless planning and exciting spontaneity, with a heavy heap of patience in the face of unforeseen obstacles. Anything you can plan ahead of time, you should, because the road is going to throw you things you couldn’t have expected.

To help you hit the road with as little stress as possible, here’s a foolproof guide to the perfect road trip.

The Basics

Pick Your Destination and Timeline

When you start planning a road trip, you’ll likely either have a destination in mind, an area you want to drive through, or an idea of how long you want the trip to take. You’re ready to get planning once you’ve chosen all three. If you aren’t sure of the details yet, you can get some inspiration from websites, such as Roadtrippers, that have sample trips to get you started.

As you start to plan your trip, a good rule of thumb is to allot six to eight hours of driving time per day, maybe a little more if you have someone coming with you to trade off driving time. Sticking to this gives you a cushion for sightseeing along the way, and it means interruptions like traffic or construction won’t throw you off schedule.

Plot Out Planned Stops

Once you’ve gathered some ideas about where you want to go and the length of the trip, you can start to plot your exact route. Ideally, the cities or towns you’ll stop in will be six to eight hours from each other so you have somewhere to sleep at the end of a long day of driving.

Once your stops are in place, you can pick the activities or attractions to see along the way. These will factor into your timing. For example, if you’re going to see the Grand Canyon, devote at least a half-day to it. Pick a few must-see stops along the way (we’ve got some recommendations here) before you choose your final route. Planning your trip this way leaves some room for spontaneity, short enough drive time so you can make plenty of stops along the way, and flexibility to change the route if you want to.

For the best deal, we recommend booking your hotel rooms in each city ahead of time. This gives you a clear destination at the end of the day, and you won’t have to worry about the chances of hotels being booked up after a long day of driving.

Before You Leave

Set Your Budget

Before you leave, set an expectation for your trip budget. You can make a pretty good estimation for how much gas and lodging will cost (especially if you book your hotels ahead of time). After that, you’ll know how much you’ll have leftover for food and activities. Stocking up on snacks and packing a cooler is an easy way to cut back on food expenses. Stop at grocery stores along the way for sandwich items, pre-cut fruit and veggies, and other easy snacks to keep you going.

Pack Light, Pack Smart

You’ll also want to be strategic about what—and how—you pack. This is especially important if you have a lot of passengers or if you’re traveling with kids. Packing in clearly labeled packing cubes can help separate out dirty clothes, swimsuits, cold weather gear, or individual belongings so you don’t have to lug everyone’s suitcase into the hotel every night. Make sure that things you’ll want on the road (such as a blanket, a camera, or your wallet) are easy to get to.

You are no longer just driving a car—you’re in a road trip command hub. Think through everything you could potentially want while you’re driving and stash it all in the center console or in a car organizer. To get you started, grab a phone charger, trash bag, sunglasses, water bottle, music options, wet wipes, and paper towels.

Plan Your Entertainment

Think through podcasts, audiobooks, or music you might want for the drive and download them on your home (or hotel) Wi-Fi before you hit the road. With GPS navigation and destination research, you’ll already be churning through wireless data. Use Wi-Fi whenever possible so your cellular data doesn’t max out, rendering you without a navigation tool. (This is especially important if you’re driving solo!) Lastly, don’t be a distracted driver. Make that playlist ahead of time, or ask your copilot to make one for you.

In Case of Emergency

Take Your Car to the Mechanic Before You Go

Get a tune-up and an oil change before you leave. Ask your mechanic to check for any other things that might need attention before a long trip. Hilton suggests these seven car care tips to make sure your vehicle is ready for the open road.

Pack Important Documents

Make sure your car registration, insurance information, and any important phone numbers are printed out and stashed in the glove box. You’ll want to have phone numbers on hand should you have car trouble (fingers crossed this doesn’t happen!) and need to reach out to your insurance company or roadside assistance. Don’t assume you can rely on your phone apps; cellular data won’t be reliable on remote sections of the road. It’s also a good idea to also bring a paper map just in case. When there’s no cell service, you won’t want to be lost, miles away from the nearest gas station.

Bring Emergency Items

You should also prepare a bag of emergency supplies. You never know when you might need them. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • tools to change a tire (and make sure you know how to do this!),
  • jumper cables,
  • extra water and snacks,
  • blankets,
  • a flashlight,
  • a first-aid kit,
  • and a battery phone charger.

Check the weather for the trip before you leave, and make sure to stay updated on the road as well. Signing up for push notifications with a weather app that tracks your location is an easy way to make sure you know about any storms or weather events you may be driving up on. 

Some Apps to Smooth Things Over

  • Roadtrippers: This is an app and a website dedicated to planning the perfect road trip. It has pre-planned trips and guides to help you plan a custom trip from start to finish. Plus it provides links with a map to find off-the-beaten-path attractions and sights that are near you. We love checking in on this app for creative things to do or stellar restaurant recommendations for when we need to get off the road for a little while. You can even save your favorite spots in the app to revisit later.
  • OnTheWay: This app will help you find museums, restaurants, and unexpected attractions that are close to your route.
  • Yelp and TripAdvisor: These are always reliable for finding a restaurant, coffee shop, or anything else you might need during your travels.

The Key to a Successful Trip (Hint: It’s Your Attitude)

If there’s one thing that separates bad road trips from good ones, it’s attitude. A successful road trip requires patience mixed with spontaneity and the ability to not be unruffled when you don’t see a Starbucks nearby or you get stuck in traffic—again!—or when things generally don’t go your way. The journey is the point here, not just the destination, so try not to get frustrated at road blocks. Have a mental strategy to reset your attitude when you find yourself getting impatient. Maybe it’s a favorite podcast or a playlist you turn on when you need a boost. Or maybe it’s switching drivers or taking a short break for some fresh air.

No matter where the open road takes you, one of our hotel partners is sure to have a place for you to rest your head for the night. And we also have a list of the top destinations to see in all 50 states along the way. How many have you come across on your road-tripping adventures?