There is nothing quite like the open road laid out before you and at your back as you drive off for a road trip adventure.
Road trips are one of those things that we tend to romanticize, mostly because of novels, albums, and films. In reality, a road trip can be a huge pain. You get lost. There’s a lot of traffic. It gets boring in the car. Everyone always wants to stop. Properly preparing for a road trip is the only way to have a shot at the sort of idyllic road experience the stories talk about. Even today, with smart devices and smart cars, not preparing for a road trip is like asking for it to be nightmare. Luckily, even though there may seem like a lot of steps, it’s very easy to do.
Below, we list our ten top travel tips on preparing for a road trip. Culled from experience, research, and common sense, they can make all the difference. People love the freedom and surprise the open road has to offer, but not all surprises are delightful diners or giant balls of twine. They can be road closures, flat tires, or worse. By following our list, you can do a lot to head off those problems. Those that can’t be avoided will be much less stressful to deal with, because you will already have a solution in mind. You’ll be able to play it off you like you are just a free-wheeling, go-with-the-flow type of traveler, despite the fact that it took some effort.
A Bit About Taking a Road Trip
In a world with high-speed trains, luxury cruise liners, first-class flights, and other sorts of luxury options, you might wonder who would want to take a road trip? Sure, it makes sense if you are moving to California or something like that. But just for fun? You might say, “no way!” If so, you are likely the victim of a road trip where not nearly enough preparation was done.
Why Even Take a Road Trip?
Traveling by car may not be the most luxurious or even economical way to travel, but it’s definitely one of the most fun. A journey that once used to take individuals months to complete can be done in a week. And there’s no hunting, except for a good burger joint or a clean hotel. When it comes to road trips, the journey is just as important as the destination. Literally. Traveling by car allows you to really see the world as you pass by it. It allows you to take detours and digressions, discovering amazing things that not many know about. It’s also an intimate way to travel.
A road trip across the country is far more intimate than a romantic luxury cruise. It’s just you and your partner, working together to get where you are going. You share a very small space and a clear objective. Done right, a road trip can be a life-changing experience. This is why there are so many songs, movies, and books about taking one. You feel more connected to your destination because you’ve not left the ground or cruised across the open sea. You get to experience your journey which, if you’re really lucky, can be better than experiencing the destination.
Preparing for a Road Trip Step by Step
While it would be nice to just pick up and go, there are plenty of things you'll need to consider when preparing for a road trip. We've made this step-by-step guide to ensure you reach your destination safely.
1: Print Out Maps and Itineraries
We live in an age of technological miracles. One such work of scientific voodoo is that we can ask our cars or our phones for directions, and they answer from space. Still, like any gadget, GPS is a useful tool but can fail you when you need it most. So, when you do drive through those stretches of the country with poor-to-no signal, you will have the paper copies to fall back on.
Make sure that you both print out the maps themselves and the turn-by-turn directions, so no matter where you are, you’re covered. Of course, if you are serious road-tripper, then perhaps a travel Atlas of your preferred region or the entire United States is a worthwhile investment. Keep your GPS as your primary wayfinding method, but keeping hard copy maps is great way to make sure you never stay lost.
2: Pack Light…
All forms of transportation have the same problem when it comes to luggage: space. On planes, trains, and, yes, even automobiles, you have limited room to store your stuff. When preparing for a road trip, you need to take into account the space available and pack accordingly. However, if you overdo it with your luggage you could cramp your style or at least the interior of the car. So, you need to take into account the things you are going to do, the climates you are going to visit, and how long you will be away. Once you have a rough idea of these things, make a checklist of the items and outfits you’ll need. And then you’re ready to pack.
Let’s say your road trip will consist of three stops. The first is in a national park for a hike. The second is in a big city for a night of dinner and the theater. The third is to the coast for some sun, surf, and sand. Packing with options in mind, you could end up filling the entire trunk, leaving no room for anything you pick up along the way. Instead, try to commit bring clothes you can re-wear. For example, you can wear a blazer and jeans combo on your night out. It’s a casual but smart look. You could then wear those same jeans, with a different shirt and shoes, on the hike. If something happens, such as a cold snap, you can still pick up any items you need on the road. There will be plenty of room for that if you pack lightly when preparing for a road trip.
3: …but Leave Room for Lots of Entertainment
There are two reasons to take a road trip over other forms of travel. The first is usually economical (though the cost of gas can easily compete with train or airfare). The second is so you can actually see the country you are passing through. The joy of a road trip is the freedom of the open road with great swathes of natural splendor or human-crafted wonders. But, after you’ve seen a dozen rolling hills or stretches of farmland, the mind does start to wander. Similarly, as great as it feels to hit the open road at the start of a trip, hour sixteen in a car can be less than thrilling. To help avoid road trip fatigue, make sure you have plenty of entertainment in the car.
Naturally, the majority of car-based entertainment is audio only. Still, there are plenty of options to choose from when preparing for a road trip. You’ll definitely want to craft some great mega-playlists of all your favorite songs. But also consider podcasts or audiobooks. You can find ones the tell stories or are funny or teach you something. It’s a way to not just distract the mind but actually engage it during the long stretches of just driving. If you have kids or a lot of people, headphones are the key. Passengers can watch movies, play games, or listen to their own things. Meanwhile the driver can still listen to the tunes or whatever else she wants to. It’s also a great way to create some personal space in cramped conditions, especially for really long road trips.
4: Minimize Unnecessary Stops…
Say, summer is here, and you and your beloved are finally going to take that cross-country road trip you’ve always dreamed about. It will take four days of nine hours of driving apiece. You hit the road, and not a half-hour into the trip, someone has to go the bathroom. An hour after that, someone is hungry. An hour or so after that, you have to stop and fill the tank. And so on. Unnecessary stops can not only add hours to your travel time, but it ruins the momentum of a road trip. Instead of feeling like a fun adventure, it feels like a poorly-planned hassle on the worst bus line ever. So, it is imperative that when preparing for a road trip, you do everything you can to avoid unnecessary stops.
It may feel a bit like one of those old family road trip movies, at least in the beginning before things go haywire. You have to make sure everyone has what they need. Do they have snacks? Anyone have to go to the bathroom? And so on. Yet, doing this will ensure that you can make the most of your time on the road. You can try to pre-plan stops, but you can’t predict everything. When you do stop, anticipate your needs. Fill up every time you stop somewhere. If you take a bathroom break, grab some to-go dinner for eating on the road. Keep spare batteries and charging cords so the kids’ tablets or your devices don’t conk out on you. This way, it will ensure that you will have plenty of time to enjoy both your destination and the journey getting there.
5: …but Plan for ‘Extra’ Time
One of the great advantages of the road trip is that you are free to deviate from your schedule or path whenever you want. Preparing for a road trip is a necessary part of enjoying one, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow a minute-by-minute schedule. If you have a ten-day vacation, plan a five- or six-day road trip. This will give you the freedom to adjust your plans accordingly. Maybe it’s raining or too crowded at your first stop, so you leave early. Then, at the next stop, you have such a good time you stay two extra days! That’s the freedom a road trip provides, but you have to allow for it. Of course, you also have to allow for the chances of something far less fun happening.
If you were on a train or a bus that broke down, it would be up to the company to get you where you are going. If your car breaks down, you’re just stuck. While we’ll get into the ways to deal with that specific problem later, you also want to allow some time for repairs should you need them. Especially in places off the beaten path, it could take a day or two to get your vehicle fixed. If you don’t plan for extra time, this will ruin your vacation. If you have three or four extra days to play with, you can make the best of your unscheduled detour and get back on the road to finish the trip you started, worry-free. Allowing for flexibility is one of the best ways to go about preparing for a road trip.
6: Avoid the Road Less Traveled (Mostly)
Human beings, as a species, are explorers at heart. The road trip is an homage to that history, where we take to the road to see what we can find. However, what we sometimes forget is that exploring can be dangerous for everyone. Taking into consideration just the natural dangers you can face, going where people haven’t before is risky. So, when preparing for a road trip don’t deliberately try to go out of your way to take the road less traveled. Stick to main roads, simple directions, and clear destinations. While it might seem like fun to turn off the highway into a dirt road in the desert or the woods, it won’t be six hours later when you’re lost with no food or water or gas.
This is not to say that a road trip shouldn’t be about exploring. However, you can choose well established destinations that are new to you. Especially if you have a lot of places to visit, getting lost isn’t charming but a setback that can be avoided. In the winter it can be even more risky, because you have to contend with the elements. You might be alright camping out in or near your car on a cool summer night. In late autumn? You risk hypothermia. So, unless you are really prepared to rough it, stick to places prepared for tourists and well-traveled routes. Identify these as you go about preparing for a road trip.
7: Join a Hotel Rewards Program
It is highly possible, with two people sharing the driving duties and limited stops, that you could travel across the country in less than 48 hours. Of course, in doing this, you miss everything good about what a road trip should be. You will want to travel with a purpose, but if you’re rushing past everything bleary-eyed and manic, what was the point? This is subjective, but any more than eight or nine hours in a car seems like too much.
However, hotel-hopping can be expensive. In order to mitigate that when preparing for a road trip, join a hotel rewards program for a chain that services the areas through which you’ll travel. You can enjoy the discounts or perks during your stay and seeing one of the hotels can be your “sign” to stop for the night. In order to make the most of your road trip, you will want to give yourself time outside of the car. Otherwise, instead of the vehicle of your freedom it will feel like a prison cell on wheels.
8: Make Sure Your Roadside Assistance is Top-Notch
As mentioned above, when preparing for a road trip you need to plan for delays, digressions, and good-old-fashioned breakdowns. If the latter should befall you, it could completely torpedo your vacation. However, if you have prime roadside assistance as one of the tools in your toolkit, you’ll be in much better shape. There are things you can handle yourself, such as a flat tire or running out of gas. At least, as long as you are in place where spare tires and fuel are easy to come by. With a premier roadside assistance service, help will never be too far away.
In order to make sure that your roadside assistance service meets muster, you’ll have to do your homework as you are preparing for a road trip. First and foremost, you will want to make sure that they service the areas where you will be traveling. Second, you need to make sure you are away of what your service package includes and what costs extra. For example, you might have “free” towing but only for about three miles. In the city, that’s usually more than enough. However, if you break down on a road trip, you could need a tow for ten times that distance. The best thing to do is to increase your coverage shortly before the trip and then reduce it back to the levels you need at home.
9: Be Safe, Drive in Shifts
Driving a car takes skill and practice, and a long-distance trip can seem like a challenge. For some, the thrill of a road trip isn’t scenic views nor a leisurely trip. No, it’s about getting to where you are going as quickly as possible. Sometimes people try to drive for nine hours, ten hours, or more. This isn’t just an un-fun way to take a road trip, it can be very dangerous. Tired driving can be just as dangerous as other impaired driving in general. However, if you add being in unfamiliar territory on top of it, you risk making a truly dangerous mistake.
Of course, there is an easy solution when preparing for a road trip. If you are taking a solo road trip, be sure to give yourself frequent breaks. Plan to stop often and stop immediately if you find yourself getting tired. If you have a partner or partners on the trip, share driving duties. Alternate at regular intervals to keep the driver fresh and alert. It can also be a great way to schedule your stops in order to minimize unneeded detours. When you travel on mass transit, others are usually responsible for your safety. When on a road trip, you are the captain of your ship and safety is everyone’s responsibility.
10: Always Have a Back-Up Plan
In the military there is a saying: failing to plan is planning to fail. This is true in all aspects of life, including preparing for a road trip. However, sometimes things happen that no amount of preparation could foresee. Let’s say that you were planning a road trip somewhere and weather, a natural disaster, or something even more unexpected happened. This isn’t a flat tire, thrown rod, or anything that can be fixed. Without a back-up plan, your only option would be to just turn around and head home. Another great thing about a road trip is that you can reroute very easily.
When preparing for your road trip look at a number of different destinations, and one or more of those could be part of the back-up plan. It may be your second choice, but if you need to change your plans, you’ll still have somewhere to go. Or, if you didn’t plan for any other options, find a nice restaurant, get your maps out, and see what you can find. Because as much promise as the open road holds, it’s all the better when you have actual destinations in mind. Luckily, in a car your options are myriad and exciting.
Preparing for a road trip may sound like more work than it needs to be, but you will be grateful for all the planning if you need it.
These tips can help you ensure that when you embark on a road trip, you will have every base covered. If you worry that this will kill the spontaneity or free-wheeling tone of the trip, fear not. Because the luxury of having a plan is that, if you so choose, you can throw it out. You may plan for a bunch of extra time for detours or break downs but really not need them. In cases like these, you can toss out the plan and have an adventure on the way home. It’s always better to have a destination you can deviate from than to wander around aimlessly hoping to find something cool. A hectic or stressful drive is fun for no one, which is why preparing for a road trip means it will be more likely to be fun.
What do you think? Are there any good tips we missed? Share your thoughts, suggestions, and experiences in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media so your friends can get in on the conversation.
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