How to Plan a Road Trip from Start to Finish

Choosing a travel timeframe, stocking up on supplies, and pre-planning lodging can make your time on the open road that much more enjoyable.

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family loading luggage into car
Photo: kate_sept2004 / Getty Images

There's nothing quite like a scenic road trip. Whether you opt to travel coast to coast or decide on a journey through a few of the country's National Parks, this travel style is a recipe for adventure—but your quest will require some planning. To get the most out of taking the scenic route, we tapped travel expert, Samantha Brown, the host of the Emmy Award-winning travel series, Places to Love on PBS, and Rakuten's Kristen Gall, a travel enthusiast and financial expert. Armed with their tips, all that's left for you to do is buckle up: Here's everything you need to know about choosing a destination, packing the car, budgeting accordingly, and staying safe on your trip.

Determine Your Destination

Just like any other vacation, the first step in planning a road trip is always determining your destination, says Brown. Ensuring that you've selected the right time of year to visit your locale of choice is just as important. Brown—who has over 20 years of travel experience and has visited over 250 cities in 62 countries—shares that everything from the area's weather patterns to its tourist season needs to be considered. "For instance, a road trip through the beautiful mountain towns of Colorado might be too treacherous in the winter months," she says. "Going up the coast of Maine in July means you will be moving at five miles per hour with all the traffic."

Decide Your Travel Duration

Your overall travel timeframe is also key and will depend on who you will take the trip with you and how long you (or they) can stand to be inside a car. "With young children, I never drove more than four hours a day since the joy was the journey, not the destination," says Brown. "Daily, we planned one big excursion and a stop for a meal or two." Keep in mind that a road trip's joy tank will deplete fast if you push it; keeping in mind your limits, then, should help travelers evaluate the number of miles they wish to explore.

Purchase Real Maps

When was the last time you held a physical paper map? Since we now rely mostly on our smartphones' built-in GPS systems, you probably can't even remember. However, Brown insists that road trippers purchase a paper map to keep on hand. "Relying on tiny maps on the screen of your phone that you constantly must zoom in and out of is absolutely maddening," she says, noting that interrupted cell service and dead zones often render cellular guides ineffective. "A [physical] map gives you the whole view—an entire perspective that is reassuring and allows you to make decisions about changes in routes more easily."

Create a Travel Budget

After you plot out your along-the-way and final destinations, choose the journey's duration, and stock up on a map or two, it's time to calculate your travel costs. Building a budget before you hit the open road—be sure to factor in everything from gas, tolls, lodging, food, and any sightseeing expeditions—is key, says Gall, who also advises factoring in an emergency fund (anything can happen while you're on your journey). Whoever provided the car for the trip should pay less across other categories, adds Brown, considering the notable mileage (and potential damage) they are adding to their vehicle; this is especially true if they are also handling the driving. If you, the passenger, can't help with driving, consider buying a few extra lunches or dinners, she explains.

Pre-Plan Lodging

Pre-planning your lodging is both a safe and cost-effective way to road trip. "Map out the general areas where you plan to stop and lodge at the end of a long driving day," says Gall. "The distance should depend on your comfortability with drive times and factor in areas that can provide safe, clean accommodations." She advises hotel chains like Marriott, Hilton, and Best Western, as they have many facilities across the country. However, if you're seeking truly unique experiences (or want a property with a kitchen), consider Airbnb or VRBO. A pro tip? Plan to arrive at your hotel or rental around the dinner hour, says Brown, particularly if you're not a fan of night driving. This way, you are off safely off the roads and can unwind with a good meal and some downtime.

Pack Efficiently

What you bring with you on the road is just as important as where you go. Along with your camera, cell phone, and their necessary batteries and chargers (plus SD cards, if applicable), it's important to bring a few personal essentials, like toilet paper, toiletries, a blanket, and warmer coat. Packing clothing suited to where your headed is another no-brainer; place your garments in a packing cube if you're short on trunk space. For road trips with the family, Brown suggests packing a stiff bristle brush to rid your car's interior of crumbs. Bringing refillable bottles can save on water costs, as well as plastic, during your road trip. And, of course, snacks are essential—in fact, we think they are one of the best parts of hitting the open road. For foods and beverages that need to be chilled, bring along a small cooler.

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