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How to plan a road trip

Don't leave home without this guide.

So you’ve got the itch to hit the open road, see sites unknown, feel the wind in your hair as you pursue greener pastures. Road trips are romantic because they promise freedom, wide-open spaces and a relatively cheap way to get from point A to point B.

Our guide is short and sweet, because we believe that the best way to plan a road trip is to avoid overthinking it. Instead, keep the safety basics in mind, formulate a framework and decide upon a destination. It should be smooth cruising from there.

Road trips during the COVID-19 pandemic

After being cooped up for weeks, a road trip can be a wonderful way to go on vacation, to benefit your mental health and feed your need for exploration.

Here are our best tips for planning a road trip while COVID-19 is still considered a public health emergency:

  • Research state restrictions beforehand. Each state has its own unique policies in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s imperative that you research this beforehand. For example, if you drive to New York from Illinois and plan to stay longer than 24 hours, you are required to quarantine for 14 days.
  • Pack meal kits in your car. Indoor dining may not be an option, depending on where you go. So along with nonperishable food items for backup, we recommend bringing napkins, flatware and paper plates. That way, if you need to have a spontaneous picnic on the side of the road, you’ll be prepared.
  • Don’t leave home without plenty of PPE. Hand sanitizer, masks and disposable gloves should be within easy reach (read: not at the bottom of your suitcase). Stock up beforehand to avoid running out during your trip.
  • Take a test upon return. Visit a private or public testing facility to make sure you don’t bring COVID along when you return home. Most places will let you make a reservation in advance. Have a plan in case you test positive — you’ll need to quarantine for at least two weeks if that’s the case.

Keep in mind that most travel providers, from hotels to tour operators, have instituted their own precautions. For example, most hotels are offering bag breakfasts to-go, rather than an open buffet. If you’re nervous about taking that road trip, it may help to carefully read through each provider’s specific policy, to find out how they’re addressing customer concerns.

Planning your road trip

We’ve done it dozens of times, and lived to tell the tale. Here are four steps to planning that perfect road trip:

1. Decide on your destination.

Your road trip could have more than one destination, depending on how much time you have. But making a list of specific endpoints is key, because all of your other planning will revolve around that.

2. Plot your route.

After you know where you want to go, it’s time for a heart-to-heart with the map. Pinpoint your starting location and ultimate destination, to get an idea of mileage and time estimates. A paper map, which you can buy from Amazon or AAA, can be a great way to understand the distance between cities, and the surrounding geography.

  • Pro tip: Rand McNally paper maps are classic — and extremely reliable. You can pick these up at Barnes and Noble, your local bookstore or online.

One you’ve got your basic route, then you can look at major cities and interesting towns that may be nearby.

How to plan a road trip with Google Maps

Google maps is a handy tool when you’re in the brainstorming phase of planning a road trip, because you can tap into Google’s mega-database for info about locations, roads, nearby businesses and so much more. Our only gripe is that there’s no way to easily save your road trip for later. To plan a complicated road trip, with layers of research and planning, check out My Maps (also by Google).

That said, planning a multi-stop road trip with Google Maps is a breeze:

  1. Click on the blue Directions icon.
  2. Enter your starting point and destination.
  3. Click Add destination.

To reorder your stops, simply click and drag each location. From there, you’ll be able to see the total mileage and hour estimate.

  • Pro tip: Click Options to turn on settings that’ll help you avoid highways, tolls and ferries.

If you’re playing around with an itinerary on your computer, click Send directions to your phone to email or text yourself the route.

3. Visit state and national parks along the way.

Did you know that there are nearly 11,000 state and national parks in the US? It’s true — and you pay for them with your tax dollars.

While planning your road trip, scan the map for nearby parks, where you could go a hike or spend an afternoon admiring mother nature’s bounty. If you’re short on time, you could benefit from stopping at designated overlooks, where a parking lot is provided for road trippers to pull over and take in the view.

If you’re driving through the west, you may be near Yellowstone or Glacier National Park. California-bound? Swing by Yosemite or Death Valley National Park.

The East Coast is notable for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Everglades National Park and Shenandoah National Park. But all that’s a small taste! The National Park service has a great tool that can help you locate national parks by state.

4. Make note of activities and attractions at each stop.

If you have wiggle room in your budget, we recommend spending it on guided tours along the way — an efficient and super-fun way to get a feel for the local culture when you’re just passing through. For example, roadtrippers staying overnight in Jackson Hole could make time for a guided fly-fishing trip. We also love booking food tours, and tours of distilleries and breweries to get a taste of local flavor.

Booking a tour is also a fabulous way to get face time with a local — the tour guide.

Some of our favorite sites for booking tours are Viator and TourRadar. We especially like Viator, because you can filter your search by duration and time of day. It also lets you search specifically for tours that are good for avoiding crowds and practicing COVID-19 safety measures.

What if I don’t have a car?

If you don’t have an automobile of your own, here are your options:

  • Rent a car. Car rental companies like Enterprise and Orbitz let you pick up the car in one location, and drop it off at another — though you may be charged an extra fee for this. Also keep in mind that some car rental companies charge by the mile, depending on the terms of your agreement. Look for discounts and deals that can help you save money on this expense.
  • Rent an RV. Sites like Outdoorsy and RVShare are like Airbnb for RVs, letting you borrow somebody else’s RV to take care of your transportation and accommodations all at once. Rentals can start as low as $60 per day for RV camping around the US.
  • Take a train or bus. Use a website like Omio or Wanderu to book train and bus travel within the US, with classic travel providers like Amtrak, Greyhound and Megabus.

Road trip packing list

There’s nothing worse than being far from home without the items you need to have a good time. Here’s our round-up of road trip essentials:

  • Sunglasses. Squinting into blazing sunlight — and oncoming traffic — is a special kind of torture. Sure, you can buy some funky frames at a gas station along the way. But you’ll save money and prevent fashion faux pas by bringing a pair of favorite shades.
  • Phone charger. You don’t need to be an avid reader of horror stories to understand the importance of this one. Remote road. Broken down car. Dead cell phone. Even if there’s not an actual emergency, road trips are a great time to call family and friends for a catch-up chat.
  • Playlist. Whether you groove to a mixtape, CD or digital playlist like Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music, a good playlist will get you a long way. “Lady Sunshine” by Appleby, “LA Freeway” by Jerry Jeff Walker and “Fast Car” by Tracey Freeman are three of our road trip faves.
  • Snacks. On road trips, it’s totally acceptable to munch even if you’re not hungry. Granola bars, popcorn and dried fruit are classic road trip snacks, though you could also stroll the snack aisle of the grocery store and let your heart decide.
  • Reusable water bottle. Save money — and the planet — by avoiding plastic water bottles. Choose a reusable one with a built-in filter, so you can fill up at gas stations, restaurants and rest stops for free.
  • Comfy clothes. Leave your skinny jeans at home. On your road trip, dress in stretchy separates, and bring layers in case your companion likes more AC or heat than you prefer.
    • And shoes! We recommend sandals or slide-on sneakers, so you can take ’em on and off easily. Also, make sure they’re comfortable! This will allow for spontaneous sidetracking, on foot.
  • Spare cash. This one comes from my mama — always travel with cash. That way, if something happens to your credit card (you lose it, or it gets frozen by the bank), you can buy gas and food until you get the problem resolved.
  • Car manual. Double check that you have the manual handy, so that you can quickly diagnose any warning lights that pop up on your dashboard.

It’s also a good idea to pack a roadside emergency kit, which should contain a flashlight and spare batteries, roadside flares and other emergency items to navigate unexpected challenges. Don’t forget to top off your fluids, especially antifreeze if you’re traveling during winter, and get your oil changed before setting out.

  • Tip: An AAA Plus Membership costs $117 yearly and includes 100 miles of free towing, and free fuel delivery if you run out on the road. This might be worth investing in, if only for the peace of mind.

If you’re driving in a cold climate, bring blankets, and backup gear like hats and mittens. We also recommend that solo travelers bring pepper spray.

How to save money on your road trip

  • Consider camping. It’s free to camp on National Forest land. If you can spare a few bucks, most campsites cost between $15 to $20 each night. Car camping is best for travelers that don’t mind a more rustic road trip experience.
  • Look for friends and families with spare rooms. Remember your second cousin, Susie? Or great uncle Harold? If you have extended family members or friends near your route, it’s worth checking to see if you can crash with them along the way. You might be surprised at the hospitality you encounter.
  • Use a travel credit card. Get cashback and points when you buy gas and pay for accommodations with a travel credit card. For example, the Costco Anywhere Visa awards up to 4% cashback on gas, with no annual fee. If you open a card that comes with a bonus, you could even benefit from a lump sum of cash — like the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card, which gives you $25,000 points as a welcome offer if you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days.
  • Pack your own snacks in advance. It’s almost always cheaper to buy bulk snacks at the grocery store, rather than individual at the gas station.

If you’re renting a car, look for one with an MPG of over 28 for optimal fuel efficiency, like a Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze or Toyota Camry.

Read about our road trip experiences

Case study: Roslyn's experience

Roslyn McKenna profile photo
Roslyn McKenna
Insurance Publisher, Finder US

I’ve taken many small trips and a few cross-country trips with pets. This is the best advice I’ve learned over the years.

  • Plan ahead. Book a hotel or rental that allows pets to avoid any surprises when you arrive. And if you can’t find a hotel or restaurant that advertises as pet-friendly, don’t be afraid to ask. I once walked into a Hardees and asked if they wouldn’t mind if I brought the dog in since it was hot outside. My dog happily sat under the table snuffling around for dropped french fries while we ate.
  • Go for a test drive. If this is the first time your pet will be in the car for longer than it takes to get to the vet, try a longer drive before you’re stuck in the car for hours. When we took one of our cats to the vet for the first time, he chewed right through a temporary cardboard carrier before we’d left the driveway. We found out that we needed a sturdy plastic carrier he couldn’t escape. But our dog is just fine sitting in his bed and napping for eight hours.
  • Know your pet. If your dog gets carsick, skip their breakfast the morning before the road trip. If your cat freaks out in the car, put their favorite blanket in the carrier. You can also do carrier training in advance if your cat hates being confined, or ask your vet to prescribe a mild sedative to calm your pet down.
  • Take your dog outside for a break every four to six hours. Though some dogs can hold urine longer, it’s often a good idea to take them out more often than normal to avoid an accident in the car. It’s good to stretch your legs often too. And leash up your pup before you open the car door to avoid an escape attempt. I’ve found state welcome centers are the perfect spot for a doggy break.
  • Don’t drive for more than 12 or 14 hours total. Your pets will probably start to go crazy after much longer, and your cat will need to get to a litterbox soon.
  • Don’t take cats out of carriers. Even if you think your cat will be fine hanging out in the seat next to you or riding on your shoulder, they’re at risk of escaping or getting stepped on. Cats usually won’t use the bathroom in an unfamiliar place anyway, so don’t worry about bringing out the litter box until you get to your destination.
  • Secure pets in the car. I like to put the cat carriers facing inwards in the back seat and strap them into the seatbelts so they can’t tip over or pop open. For the dog, I fold down the seats, put his dog bed in the middle of the back seat and brace his bed with low, heavy luggage that keeps him from sliding around. You can also use a dog kennel or get a dog harness that doubles as a seatbelt for extra safety.
  • Bring a few extra supplies. I recommend keeping these items in your car at all times: paper towels, garbage bag, extra towel or blanket, a favorite toy, dog bed, water bottle, water bowl, disposable litter box, extra leash, treats and poop bags. A can of wet cat food is also perfect for luring escaped pets.
  • Get a tuneup. If you know your tire pressure is getting low or you’re worried about that check engine light, go take your car to the mechanic now. Take it from me, it’s really uncomfortable to wait for a tow truck with your dog by the side of the road when it’s 90 degrees outside.
  • Update pet IDs. Consider this awful scenario: If your pet escaped during a road trip, how would they get home? Make sure all pets have collars with updated ID tags and their mircochip contact info is up to date. I also recommend using a breakaway collar in case of escape, which prevents your pet from getting stuck on something they can’t break free from.

Case study: Amy's experience

Amy Stoltenberg profile photo
Amy Stoltenberg
Writer, Finder US

Amy’s September 2020 road trip

Over an extra long Labor Day weekend, my brother and I road tripped from Minneapolis to Boise, with pit stops in Roosevelt National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Reserve. It was a stunning showcase of the drop-dead gorgeous western turf of our United States.

Since I spend all day on the computer, I didn’t want to plan the trip while staring at a screen. So we bought a McNally Atlas to plot our route, and it was a game changer. Here’s why:

  • We didn’t have cell service for most of the drive. North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are marvelous for being remote, but that means my phone was out of commission. A paper map is necessary for when modern technology conks out.
  • My brakes started screeching in the Tetons. The descent on Teton Park Road into Jackson was scenic but terrifying (side note: sedans and perilous mountain passes aren’t friends.) We needed to cross back into Idaho the next day, but our nerves were shot. So we referenced the paper map, and found an alternate highway that follows Snake River into the Palisades Reservoir. Not only did we skip the scary mountain pass, we were amazed by the unbelievable beauty of the Palisades. It reminded me of the coast of Italy, with layers and layers of blue mountains above sapphire water.
  • Paper maps allow you to truly customize your road trip. Google Maps is most concerned with getting you from here to there — it doesn’t care so much about the in-between. Using the McNally allowed us to plan the route based on what we wanted to see, like the small ski town in Idaho recommended by our aunt and the legendary Sawtooth Wilderness.

A final word — though National Parks offer perfectly framed natural wonders, we found that the very best and most memorable views were hidden off dirt roads. It’s kind of a cliche, but it’s true: When you can, opt for county roads and smaller local highways rather than main freeways. You’ll be amazed at what you find along the way.

Bottom line

The best moments on road trips are the unexpected ones — discovering the world’s yummiest waffles at a random diner or a driving into a literal sunset. But coming up with a basic plan in advance will help you make the most of your stateside vacation.

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