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How to plan an epic road trip

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

There’s no better time than now to plan a road trip! Slow down, roll down the windows, and take the driver's seat. A little planning can set you up for a good time, so start here on your road trip journey.

Happy driving!

Set your intention

Do some inward reflection and ask yourself, "Why do I want to make this trip? What are my goals? What do I hope to see/do? How do I want to feel, and what do I want to get out of the experience?"

There are endless reasons why someone would want to hit the open road.

1. To go to a destination you've been dying to visit
2. To drive through/see "X" number of different states
3. To see specific attractions like beaches, farms, markets, etc.
4. To go on a themed journey (i.e., National Parks, restaurants, museums, weird roadside attractions)
5. To visit loved ones
6. To avoid the expenses of flying
7. To seek adventure and go where the wind blows you

    What are your expectations and idea of fun? 

    Secure the right vehicle!

    You might think this one’s obvious. But, just because you have a car doesn’t necessarily mean you’re all set to hit the gas pedal on a road trip. First, consider your vehicle's gas mileage and whether it'll fit the people and stuff you want to bring. If you plan to do some car camping, can the middle seats fold down so you can spread out a sleeping bag and snooze? 

    If your ride doesn't fit the bill, consider borrowing or renting one. Smaller vehicles often get better gas mileage, but SUVs are roomier, a feature that can make a big difference on longer drives. 

    If you're taking your car, bring it in for a service appointment to get an oil change or finally fix that (insert minor problem here). Making sure your vehicle is in top condition is critical to reducing stops and unexpected spending on the road. 

    Some drivers prefer road tripping in rental cars because they're regularly maintained and shouldn't require a pre-trip stop for a mechanical tune-up. Plus, rentals usually come with roadside assistance, so you can call for help if the vehicle breaks down, there's an accident, or you run out of gas.

    Pick a start and end point

    Knowing where you want to start and finish your trip is a good way to calculate how much time, money, and energy you’ll need. This step also allows you to better plan for stopping points along the way to avoid backtracking if you miss something cool. 

    Photo: Will Truettner

    Be realistic

    Though we want you to dream big and set out on the greatest journey you can think of, you’ll also thank yourself for setting realistic goals. It is possible to drive across the U.S. in two days, but would you really want to? There’s a difference between what you can do and what you would actually want to do. 

    It's easy to drive long stretches to get from one place to another, but taking regular breaks is important to stay hydrated, refuel, and enjoy the drive! Consider stopping every 2-4 hours to get gas, jog around a rest stop, and visit roadside attractions. We've all driven past something and thought, "Next time, I'm going to stop!" only to never follow through. This is your time! Make the stops!

    Plan your rest/stopping points

    While it’s fun to be a spontaneous free-spirit, it will provide some comfort and motivation to know where you’ll be stopping to rest or stay for the night. As we’re approaching the more popular summer season, make your hotel, hostel, or campground reservations in advance before they book up– especially if there’s a place you really want to stay! 

    Aside from rest/sleep spots, look into food stops too! From gas station snacks to cute local coffee shops or top-rated restaurants, create a list of places you might want to try. Stopping for good food is one of the best parts of any road trip. Make it count! (And don't forget to bring your leftovers along to enjoy as you go.)

    Finally, be aware of gas stations along the route, especially if you plan on driving through remote areas where they are few and far between. Fill up before long stretches. Gas prices these days are all over the place – use the GasBuddy app to find the cheapest places to stop. 

    Photo: Karl Fredrickson

    Things to avoid/consider

    Cost of tolls- Finding ways to avoid unnecessary expenses like tolls will help you save money to spend on the things you’d much rather put that money towards– experiences, food, lodging, etc. Search your route on Google Maps and checkout options without tolls. Some offer similar drive times. Others require longer drives, negating the benefits of avoiding tolls because they rack up higher gas mileage.

    Traffic– Certain times of day are better for open road driving than others. Early mornings before 6:00 a.m and after 6:00 p.m., for example, are usually quieter and less congested as they avoid peak rush hour times. 

    Sunrise/Sunset– Be aware of when the sun rises and sets. While some people are okay with driving in the dark, others might prefer broad daylight, which is usually the safer option to avoid wildlife and better view the road.

    Holidays– We've all ended up in stand-still traffic when road tripping on a holiday weekend. Events like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July can cause severe road congestion. Try to drive a day early or a day after the holiday to skip the crowds.

    Keep yourself busy and entertained

    Staring silently out the window and pretending you’re in a movie is fun for a little bit. But, you’ll likely want more entertainment than that! Luckily, there are bazillions of podcasts, playlists, and audiobooks to choose from! Check out our suggestions for great road trip entertainment

    And while these platforms can keep you entertained for hours, don’t forget you can always throw it back to old-school road trip games! 

    -Play 20 questions with people in the car.
    -Try to find license plates from all 50 states.
    -Pick a category and take turns naming things until someone hesitates or repeats something already said.
    -Play two truths and a lie.
    -Try I-spy, a classic perfect for road trips with little ones.

    The list goes on! Road trips are great opportunities to laugh and connect while keeping an eye on your surroundings. 

    Photo: Alyssa Teboda

    Expect the unexpected

    No matter how much planning you accomplish, there’s always a chance something unexpected happens– a detour you didn’t anticipate, a flat tire, delays, etc. In these situations, try to keep calm. Part of the fun and overall experience of a road trip is going with the flow and embracing your unique journey.

    Remember that you are at the wheel and can make decisions on the fly! Don’t hesitate to go off-script or toss the agenda out the window. Maybe you see a cozy bookstore or coffee shop somewhere you’re driving through and want to look inside. Or you spot a waterslide through the trees and have to don a suit and get wet. Give yourself the liberty to be spontaneous and enjoy it! These are often the most memorable road trip moments.

    Always keep safety in mind

    Keeping yourself and others safe should always be a priority. Here are some items you should consider packing in the car.

    -First Aid Kit
    -Jumper Cables
    -Portable Phone Charger
    -AAA card
    -Physical Map (in case you lose service)
    -Tire Gauge
    -Extra Gas Can
    -Quart of Motor Oil

    Embrace meeting people along the way

    Wherever your road trip takes you, you’ll encounter people in restaurants, shops, gas stations, and lodging accommodations. The connections you form and conversations with others can enhance your road trip experience and create lifelong memories. Be friendly– you never know what you might learn from the person standing next to you.

    Find awesome lodgings across America with KOA!

    Cover photo: Silas Baisch

    We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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