You’ve heard the stories of people hitting the road and exploring so many amazing destinations all during one trip. If you’re thinking about your own next trip and prioritize flexibility, spontaneity, as well as following your own schedule, you likely have road trip travel on the brain.
So, what is road trip travel?
It’s all about planning a long-distance journey on the road.
Road trip travel entices those who want to gain insight and perspective out on the open road, or those who prioritize fun, flexibility, and really reducing how much interaction there is with external parties. Whether you’re road tripping your way from North Island New Zealand to South Island, or you’re hitting the open road and heading across the southern United States on your way to the Grand Canyon, road trip travel will allow you to escape many of the restrictions other types of travel have and embrace travel at your own pace.
It’s not just about super long distance trips with multiple stops, either. Yes, that kind of travel is at the core of what people think about when looking into road tripping, but that’s not the only part. Road trip travel allows you to get off the beaten tourist path and really explore natural wonders and communities. You can do that over many miles and multiple stops or a weekend trip to see one special destination.
Keep in mind, though, road trip travel can have negative aspects, as well. Much of the work will rely on you, such as planning and, of course, the driving. Driving takes time. And while it can often be seen as more convenient because you have flexibility, it also means that some trips will take a lot longer. Additionally, traveling by car can end up being pretty expensive, depending on how gas prices are looking. You also need to worry about parking your car.
What’s happening to the road trip travel industry?
Many analysts show that road trip travel has reached new heights post-pandemic. Tourism is hitting a boom in 2022 and that is expected to continue to rise. This makes a lot of sense considering road trip travel really allows you to have more control of your planning, as well as reduce how much you need to interact with other people. Some surveys are showing that upwards of 80% of Americans took some sort of road trip during the summer of 2022.
The traveler of today has so much information at their fingertips. The ability to plan a road trip is much easier now than it was in the past. You can use Google Maps and other apps to map out your trip and connect via cellular to use GPS navigation or download the map for times you don’t have GPS connectivity. There are gas apps to help you find cheap gas. So many ways to find options for reasonably priced or totally 5 star accommodations.
Additionally, road trips let you change your mind. If you get to your destination and you’re just not feeling it, you can just drive away. Last-minute decisions are easy to make without throwing all your plans out of the window. Or, if you realize a destination deserves more time than you scheduled, you can adjust your plans to give it the time it deserves.
Since road trip travel can require a challenging combination of pre-planning mixed with flexibility needed, it can feel very overwhelming to a beginner, so let’s chat basics.
Determine Your Budget
Some folks plan the destination first, but I also like to start with my budget, especially when planning road trip travel. I tend to look at my travel funds divided into three categories: Pre-trip budget, During trip budget, Emergency budget.
Pre-trip budget: all of the expenses you need to cover before you leave for your trip, car repairs if required, insurance, emergency supplies, road meals, snacks and drinks, flights (if required).
During trip budget: all of the gas and tolls, accommodations, food on the road, tours and activities, and souvenirs.
Emergency budget: I recommend putting aside money for those “just in case” scenarios, like a lost or stolen credit card or cash, or unexpected expenses, like a traffic ticket. Maybe you want to add an activity you didn’t account for?
Choose Your Destination
Now that you have an idea of how much you can spend, you need to determine where you want to spend it! If you have a bucket list this is where you comb through it and decide which bucket list item fits your current budget travel goals.
Ask yourself a few questions:
- Why are you traveling?
- What time of year works best for you?
- Your car or rental car?
- Can you start your road trip from your home or do you want to fly somewhere?
- Do you want to escape the local weather?
- Do you want to experience a new-to-you culture?
- Do you want to learn something new?
Once you determine the answers to the above questions, it’ll help you narrow down what you want to do and see. Road trips require quite a bit of planning and this is a huge step in that process.
Once you’ve determined where you want to take a road trip, if it’s a destination you’re less familiar with, do some research to figure out what the average cost per day is there. Some places are fairly affordable and some are way more expensive than you thought.
Pick Your Must See and Do
You have your budget figured out and destination picked, so now is the fun part. You get to plan your itinerary. What do you want to see? What are your non-negotiables? Research your destination of choice and pick all of those attractions that make you excited to hit the road. Don’t worry about what everyone else is saying you need to see.
Obviously, you’ll need to have a good idea of starting and end point, but everything in-between is all about what you make of it. Make sure you account for detours or stops taking longer than expected. That kind of breathing room will come in handy on days where being in the car is harder than others. Road trips afford you a certain level of spontaneity, so building in flexibility will help you get the most out of your trip.
Also, be very mindful as you’re planning your trip to keep an eye on where these activities are so you can make sense of how much driving you’re signing up for. Ideally, you want to drive 4-6 hours a day, but some days might require much more if you have a must-see that is a bit out of the way.
Plan Your Route
Once you have all your must-see locations, plug them into a map app or grab a paper map and start plotting them. This will allow you to see which attractions can fit on the same day, as well as how far apart all of your attractions are.
This is when really understanding your budget and available time comes in handy, since your desired activities might require more time than expected.
Once you’ve plotted your itinerary and confirmed how many days you can spend road tripping, you can plan your route and build in time to and from activities, as well as get a better idea for if you will need to book accommodations or if you want to camp or sleep in your car (if legal).
Prep Your Wheels
What you do for this next step really depends on the answer you give to: your car or rental car.
If you’re renting a car, do just that. Find a car that works for you. Make sure you’re mindful of the terrain you’re visiting, as well as what will be comfortable for your party. Also, do you plan on sleeping in your car at all? If so, factor all of that in. You’ll also want to think about what kind of fuel it takes, if it’s automatic or manual, and what the gas mileage looks like for the make and model you chose.
If you’re driving your car, make sure you get your car inspected before heading out on the road. You want to avoid your car breaking down at all costs. This is a great time to have your tires checked out, as well, and confirm they are road worthy. Confirm the air conditioner and heater all work.
Regardless of if you are renting or driving your own car, it’s smart to have a road trip emergency supply kit. Include things like a first aid kit, jumper cables, flashlight, general tools, extra phone charger and portable charger, water, and blanket.
Also, make sure your insurance is up-to-date.
Pick Your Accommodations (Or Not)
This part really depends on you and what kind of trip you’re taking. Now that you’ve planned your route, you can decide on accommodations that work for you. I highly recommend planning accommodations prior to hitting the road since you never know if places will be sold out by the time you’re rolling up in your car.
That being said, booking accommodations does mean your trip will be a tad less flexible.
If you’re concerned about that level of flexibility, you can always look into camping options or places where it is legal and safe for you to sleep in your car, if that is something you’re comfortable doing.
I tend to book Airbnb-type accommodations during my travels since they often have fairly flexible arrival times and will have availability a bit more off the beaten path. Additionally, I like finding options with kitchen and laundry availability to help with overall costs and packing needs.
When it comes to food and drinks, I recommend having plenty of non-perishable goodies easily available during your road trip, as well as more than enough water. If you are on a strict budget or schedule, having this stuff prepped for convenience while on the road will be hugely advantageous.
If you don’t have much room for food and drinks or your diet requires less shelf-stable and more fresh food, make sure to account for that while planning your itinerary. Look for full service gas stations with a well stocked store or a local grocery store, even.
If your car has the room, you can look into buying as needed more perishable, fresh foods and place them in a cooler.
Pack Smart and Light
This one’s self-explanatory. Just make sure you pack with your vehicle and itinerary in mind. If possible, plan accommodations where you can do your laundry. Otherwise, just try not to overpack. You’re going to be in this car for a big chunk of your road trip. If the car is overpacked, it’ll be an uncomfortable ride. And it’ll definitely lack some of the convenience you’ll want for a road trip.
When in doubt, think layers. Always layers.
Get Travel Insurance
Don’t drive off without making sure you have travel insurance that’ll cover you in whatever your final destination may be. This isn’t just for big ticket international trips, either. Even road trips a few hundred miles from home can incur unexpected expenses. Your vacation is an investment and you should think about protecting it.
If you travel multiple times per year, you can also look into annual travel coverage.
Finally, you know I’m a planner. I like to try to plan out my entire trip, as well as all potential contingencies. That being said, road trip travel lends itself to spontaneity and really going off the tourist beaten path.
While you’re traveling the world by car, allow yourself to be inspired by what you see. Don’t be afraid to stop and explore the unexpected. If you see a beautiful lookout point, stop and take a photo. Fly your drone, if it is legal to do so. This is a trip of your own making. Embrace it.