I love travel of all kinds – but I have a particular fondness for road trips. A lot of this is due to my childhood memories of piling in the car with my mom, dad, and sister and heading to Disneyland or Yellowstone or Canada. While travel by plane is certainly efficient and exciting in its own right, there’s a certain level of freedom and exploration that you get when you travel the country by car.
You can stop as you feel the whim (or spot something cool off the highway – like the caves in Bend we randomly went in). You have more flexibility to change up your plans or route. You can experience the scenery in a more intimate way than by simply flying over.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that my husband and I have a goal of taking our kids to visit all 50 US states and capitals by the time they graduate. We’ve completed the first two of the big road trips needed to accomplish this and along the way, we’ve learned some things that have worked well (as well as things we hope to change for future road trips!).
As we approach the summer, I thought I’d share 7 ideas for planning your best road trip ever.
Tip #1: Alternate long drive days with short drive days
One of the ingredients to a successful road trip is an itinerary that isn’t too rigid or punishing! Once my husband and I map out the number of states we want to visit, we begin to plot on a calendar how each individual driving day should look. We love using travelmath.com (it’s free) to calculate approximate mileages between cities.
As we travel with our small kids, we generally don’t want to travel more than say, 300 miles on any given day (to give you a rough idea, 300 miles traveled at an average of 60 mph will take you roughly 5 hours). We strive to alternate longer drive days with shorter and even several NO drive days to recoup. On our Yellowstone trip, we definitely had some days that had far too much car time back to back and we found it left us exhausted. Remember: this is a vacation!
Tip #2: Allow some flexibility in your itinerary
On our trip last year, we knew we’d be hitting some big cities we’ve always wanted to see and that we wouldn’t want to rush through (for instance, New Orleans, Nashville, and Atlanta). Identify those “big cities/spots” in your travel plan and make sure to allow for an extra night or two to just chill, explore the city at day and night, and slow your pace a little.
Building days like this into your plan gives you an opportunity to allow some spontaneity in your trip – maybe take up spur of the moment rafting excursion, check out a quirky museum, or pop by a nearby city that the locals are telling you to check out.
Tip #3: Add a place or two to see “just because”
I love visiting places that I’ve always wondered about, but aren’t necessary top travel destinations. Last year, we took a trip that had us cut through the Southern states, from Atlanta through Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and onto Texas. Maybe not the trip most people from the PNW would plan, but it’s always been a part of the country I wondered about.
I have to say, it was easily our most memorable trip ever. I now have an image in my mind of these places I’d only ever read about. And, we want to go back!
Here’s another example: we decided to dip our route into Chattanooga, Tennessee so we could see the choo-choo. Who knew it was actually a kitschy hotel?
Use your road trip to indulge that wanderlust and curiosity a bit. Why not?
Tip #4: If possible, start a trip from a new city
One of the hindrances of road trips, particularly when you live in Washington State as I do, is you always have to go through the same states to get somewhere new. This can make the first part of the trip a bit boring, until you get into new territory.
Last year, we decided to fly into Austin and start our trip there, using a family reunion we were already planning on attending as a starting point. The beauty about starting from a new city is the entire road trip is new scenery! We got to see more “new” states faster and it was a very fun twist on the standard road trip. (The picture above was taken at a gas station just inside the Oklahoma border. I always imagined Oklahoma as being brown, flat and dusty. Surprise! It’s lush, got gently rolling hills and basically a very beautiful state!)
Is this the most frugal way to vacation? Probably not. Thanks to air miles we racked up, we basically flew for free in and out of Austin, but we did have to rent a car, which added a few hundred dollars to our trip.
Tip #5: Make use of sites like Yelp to identify top destination spots – and tourist traps
I’m a HUGE fan of Yelp, especially when traveling out of town. It can be easy to get caught up with “must do” attractions and hot spots, but Yelp can help you suss out what’s the real deal…and what you can skip.
For instance, Terry had heard that the Jack Daniels’ distillery was in Lynchburg, Tennessee. After reading some reviews, I learned that the tour was not only free, but top notch. I also quickly found out about a wonderful Southern-style restaurant called Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House in town that many reviewers had recommended. Thanks to these tips, I was able to make reservations just in time. (And yes, the food *was* amazing!)
Tip #6: Don’t try to do it all on a single trip
If you’re like me, you want to do everything, see everything, go everywhere! But this does not make for a relaxed or enjoyable trip. Pick some highlights that matter to you and take notes on what you’d like to come back and do on a later trip.
I actually have a box full of brochures and maps of places to consider for future road trips expressly for this purpose!
Tip #7: Select a theme or over-arching goal for your trip
For fun, try to bring some cohesion to your trip! You might make it all about National Parks and seeing as many beautiful landscapes as you can. Or maybe you want to trip focusing on historical sites significant to the Civil War. On our last trip, my husband insisted we stop at several colleges. (I ended up getting out of the car to take MANY photographs of football stadiums!) Of course, we have to make a stop at every US state capitol building too!
For our future trips, we’re thinking about grouping states in a way that will both make sense for the itinerary as well as give us a good sense of that part of the country. (We’re hoping to do the New England states together and the Midwest states together, for example.)
I ran these tips by my husband and he heartily agreed with all of them! He also suggested to consider how much time and money you’ll have for your trip. If you only have five days, your itinerary is likely going to be more focused than if you have five weeks.
While a good road trip takes some planning and preparation to pull off, I believe it can be one of the best family vacations you’ll take.
I’d love to hear about some of your road trips! What tips would you add to my list? Can you describe the general itinerary of your best-ever road trip? Are you planning a trip for this summer? Please share!
PS – Want more road trip content? I’ve got a lot!
- 21 Things we Did on our Road Trip through the South
- Tips for Getting Organized & Saving Money on your Road trip
- How to Make a Vacation Planning Folder (great for road trips!)
- Free National Parks Entrance Days for 2017
- Road trip Tip: US State Capital Passport Stamps (more on our 50 states/50 capitals goal)
- Our Yellowstone Roadtrip Report
- 12 Free Roadtrip Printables (keep the kids busy in the car!)
- Free Junior Ranger Program for Kids (US National Parks)
- Free National Parks Entrance Annual Pass – 4th Graders