My family and I have been on a quest to visit all 50 states and capitals. Last year, we ticked off our 30th state! I absolutely adore these epic road trips and they are among my most cherished memories. Now that spring is here, you might be planning your family’s next vacation, so I thought it would be a perfect time to share some of our very best road trip planning tips. After brainstorming all my best tips and ideas, I’ve come up with a four post mini-series I’m calling Best Road Trip Ever.
My goal is to help connect you with resources, money-saving tips, and ideas you might not have thought of when planning your next road trip. Today, we’re going to talk about how to organize your best road trip itinerary. Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about structuring your vacation budget, ideas to keep your kids occupied (that don’t involve screens!), and important to-do’s that might not be on your list (but need to be).
So, let’s dive in and chat itineraries, because this is where it all starts! Make it too ambitious, and everyone’s a grump with a sore rump. Make it too boring, and everyone’s, well – bored. Today I’m going to give you 6 tips for making sure your itinerary will get everyone excited.
Tip #1: Figure out your Big Destinations.
This might be a single destination (like Disneyland), or it may include a couple big stops (think National Parks in Arizona and Utah). Knowing where you’re going is the first major step. My advice, if you’re able: broaden your horizons. If you live in Western Washington as I do, it’s easy to head down I-5 to California or I-90 towards Montana. But, what else can you do? Have you considered going North, to Canada – or maybe onto Alaska? Ever drive to South Dakota or Utah, just to see some place new? Another approach we’ve taken is to fly in to a major city and then rent a car. By doing this, 100% of your road trip is new sites, which makes it really interesting. A road trip is a chance to engage that wanderlust, so let your inner adventurer run wild a bit. I love nights with my family, brainstorming over maps!
Tip #2: Plot out a daily driving schedule that’s reasonable for your family.
Once we have our Big Destinations figured out, we’ll begin to figure out how to best connect the dots. The shortest route may not be the best route. My husband does an excellent job of considering a number of routes to a given destination. If we take this highway instead of that one, can we see this landmark? Or if we go 30 miles out of the way, maybe he can check out a college campus he’s always wanted to drive through? Or maybe if go along the coast, we can stop by a drive-in we saw on TV? And so on. No matter what, we love to use travelmath.com to calculate the driving distances between cities. We’ve discovered that 300 miles per day is generally our max, and we try not to do too many 300 mile days back-to-back. This is a sizable distance, but still allows for lots of stops along the way. Using that as a general benchmark, we’ll begin plotting city destinations along our route for meals and hotel stays. If your children are smaller, you might find our 300 miles a day too aggressive. If your children love being in the car or you’ve got a sweet ride with all the hookups (as Napoleon Dynamite might say), maybe you can manage 500 or more.
Tip #3: Consider building your itinerary on the Roadtrippers app.
Last year, I discovered the Roadtrippers app and it’s totally worth a mention! In the app, you can build out your itinerary. It will calculate driving distances and gas costs between your destinations. You can add in your hotels, restaurants you’d like to eat at, plus it will suggest points of interest along your route! It was free and a lot of fun to use. When you’re all done, you can save your trip (and even print or share it if you’d like). Roadtrippers also has some pre-planned routes if you’re stuck and in need of some inspiration.
Tip #4: Find some road trip stops that are worth your time.
While it’s certainly fun to just pull off the road whenever you see something that catches your eye, it’s also nice to have some road trip stops already planned. There are quite a few tourist traps out there, so I advise you do a little research before pulling over. The Roadtrippers app that I mentioned in the bullet point above has lots and lots of these points of interest for you to consider. Last year, I took the time to go through them, and waded through some reviews. Trip Advisor also has many. I really do find the reviews useful! It’s nice to get information from past travelers to know if the stop is worth your time (and/or money) or if you should keep on going. If you have friends local to the area you’re going, ask their opinions, too. It was also nice to have quite a few stops already planned because it worked to break up the day, and give us a chance to stretch our legs, use the bathroom, and refuel.
Tip #5: Build in some downtime.
One mistake a lot of people make on sightseeing trips is that they don’t account for how tiring it may be, particularly if kids are in tow. After some trial and error, my husband and I have learned the importance of what we call “down days.” They are exactly what they sound like: days where you can sleep in, putz around town, go for a swim, and replenish your energy. Take a look at your itinerary and figure out where you might want to add a down day or two. We often like to choose locations where the hotel is a bargain and may be close to town or things to do. Or maybe it’s a major city on the schedule where we’d like the chance to explore a bit more without having to pack up and leave the next day. These days are also useful for restocking your cooler, doing laundry (if you need to), or picking up any other supplies that may be dwindling. We really can’t emphasize enough the power of a well-placed down day in a busy schedule!
Tip #6: Give your itinerary some built-in flexibility.
One of the joys of a road trip is that you can pull off to the side of the road if you see something that catches your eye. We’ve pulled over to stand in a sunflower patch in North Dakota and watch wild turkeys, hear grasshoppers in the middle of a peanut farm in Alabama, or dip our feet into the Missouri River. I love these small moments when you can just stop and take in something very different from home. Besides the flexibility to make small changes, I encourage you to have some flexibility to make bigger changes, too. Last year, we had a few buffer days built in to the end of our trip. On a whim, I told my husband that I thought we could sneak in Wisconsin to our agenda. We’d never been there, and sure, it was a bit out of the way, but it felt so fun adding it in! It was everything I pictured – rolling green hills, red barns, and so much cheese. If our itinerary had been scheduled to the max, we wouldn’t have been able to have done that. Plus, it felt like a real adventure and it was my favorite destination on that trip!
Are you planning a road trip this summer? If so, where to? What other tips do you have for making sure your itinerary is rock solid? Make sure to stay tuned for the next post in this series – it’s all about the budget!