Are you ready to plan a road trip but don’t know where to begin? Taking a road trip vacation is something that most people will do at least once in their lifetime, but in today’s world, seems a bit more complicated. It wasn’t that long ago that you could just pile the kids into a car, pack some food, grab a few maps and go. While we all have visions of well-behaved kids singing family friendly songs in the back of the car while Mom & Dad cheerfully drive for hours, there are always the moments when you take the wrong turn, get stuck in a storm, or just want to jump out of the car for 5 minutes of alone time! A few years have passed since I first wrote 5 Tips for Planning Your Next Road Trip Adventure, and technology has certainly impacted the way we travel. So here’s 7 more tips that I hope you find helpful for your next road trip.
1. Read, Read, Read. Each time we make a decision about where to go on our next vacation, I spend a great deal of time reading everything I can get my hands on about the destination. Even in this digital age, who doesn't love having a good travel book to flip through and dog-ear the pages? I often visit my local library to browse through a variety of travel books before making a purchase. The DK Eyewitness Travel Guide USA is perfect to have on hand, especially if you want to explore the USA but are not sure where to go. I love that the book is laid out by regions, which is helpful when planning a road trip. It’s filled with clear and easy to read maps, from A Tour of Central Park to a map with highlights of Skyline Drive. One of the first sections of the book, Discovering the USA, even offers suggestions for two and five day trips in cities and regions all across the country.
2. Plan to Vary Your Accommodations. As you begin mapping out your trip, finding accommodations is often the most time-consuming part. Most people tend to favor their favorite hotel chain when booking in an effort to maximize loyalty points. But also consider lower-priced alternatives, such as cabins, farms and the like, and which tend to work well with larger families. When my kids were younger, sometimes I think they were more excited about where we were staying than our actual destination for the day, and everything was judged by the quality of the swimming pool! Places like KOA or other family-owned campgrounds often can provide fun alternative accommodations at a fair price, including fully-stocked cabins and swimming pools. As a bonus, kids can get some outdoor time in nature and there are often evening activities for both kids and adults (we once did a local wine tasting at a KOA in South Carolina). KOA offers unique accommodations around the USA, such as a restored train caboose or an Airstream. Also consider vacation rentals, although these often come with a 2 or 3 night minimum. Be sure to book any National Park accommodations well in advance, as these popular spots are often reserved up to a year in advance.
3. Stock Up On Audio Books & Movies. Whether you download audio books or podcasts on a device, or rent a book on a CD from your local library before you leave, there is nothing like a good story to pass the miles and keep everyone in the car entertained. Titles that we have enjoyed over the years with our kids include the Percy Jackson series (The Lightning Thief, etc.) and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Consider renting a DVD/video games from Redbox, where you can rent and return movies at any location in the USA. With over 40,000 kiosks, you are sure to spot the big red box as you travel across the country.
4. There is An App for That. From finding cheap gas to having a personal tour guide, there are so many helpful apps to make your journey run smoothly. We recently discovered the GyPSy Guide while traveling on the Road to Hana in Maui, and it was the best $4.99 ever spent. Not only did we have our own personal tour guide, no data connection was required once the app was downloaded. With over 25 tours in the US and another 16 in Canada, it’s worth a look. Roadtrippers is another website that I love to use for exploring a route. Start with your desktop computer, then download the app when you are ready to hit the road. When visiting a city or a venue with large crowds, we have found Parking Panda to be super helpful to reserve a parking spot in advance. My husband loves the Gas Buddy app, helpful when you are always looking for the cheapest gas on the road, and Yelp, for finding highly rated places to eat that are nearby. Just remember that technology is not always 100% reliable when you are in the middle of nowhere, so traveling with an old fashioned road map is always a good idea.
5. Pack for Several Days at a Time. On our first big road trip, we had no organization with our luggage. Often, all 5 of us shared suitcases and it became an ordeal packing and unpacking at every stop. Since then, we’ve learned to pack for several days at a time, organized in one or two bags. Even if you aren't comfortable leaving suitcases in the car overnight, you won't have to dig through all the bags at each destination. Many travelers recommend packing cubes for even better organization. For longer trips, keep one central bag for dirty laundry to make it easy to wash clothes along the way (packing a travel size box box of laundry powder and bringing a supply of quarters also helped).
6. Plan for the Unexpected. I’m throwing this in here, even though my family would tell you that for several of our big road trips, there wasn't much extra time built into our schedule. My biggest lesson learned was in Utah, where my itinerary skipped over picturesque Canyonlands National Park, and we didn’t have any extra time to stop even though we passed right by on our way to Arches. Building in some down time can help for both kids and adults. Also, having a cooler filled with snacks and drinks in the car will allow more flexibility and help out in the event of an unexpected traffic jam or weather related driving delays.
7. Be Strategic When Visiting Popular Spots. Each time I planned a road trip, I found myself laying out the schedule on a calendar, which made it easier to plan travel between destinations. With the most popular national parks and other tourist spots, there are always certain days of the week that are less crowded. Check park or attraction websites to see if this information is available. National Parks in summer are often most crowded in the middle of the day, so getting an early start is a wise choice. While in Yosemite, for example, we found that an early morning start made all the difference between having a popular trail to ourselves for the first hour versus hiking with a hundred of our closest friends.
And if you are looking for some classic road trip ideas, take a look at my Get Up & Go Road Trip Ideas and Itineraries, which includes 4 family-tested road trips, like a 13 day road trip through the Southwest, or 19 days in California. You’ll find a general itinerary for each trip so that you can see the places we visited along the way. Safe travels!
Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of DK Eyewitness Travel Guide USA. This post contains affiliate links. As always, all opinions are my own.