How To Plan A Road Trip: A 10-Step Guide

Whether it’s good music, the opportunity to appreciate scenic views, or the chance to deepen connections with loved ones, road trips allow for unique experiences you wouldn’t otherwise find. We’ll help you navigate ten easy steps on “How To Plan A Road Trip” so you can lay stress aside and focus on what matters.

The escape from the daily grind and the promise of unforgettable memories call us toward the open road. But with any great adventure, a little planning goes a long way.

Blue Ridge Parkway - America's favorite road trip.

How To Plan A Road Trip: 10 Simple Steps

Setting out on a spontaneous road trip, planning to follow the open road wherever it might lead, might seem like the epitome of freedom and adventure. Even so, the unknown and lack of forethought can quickly turn into an overwhelming ordeal.

After all, no one wants to run out of essentials or have a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. Basic planning doesn’t mean curbing spontaneity. Instead, it helps you predict turns in the road ahead. This guide to planning a road trip hopes to offer such reassurance.

The Journey Is As Important As The Destination

One last tip before we dive into our recommended ten steps: Remember that your journey is as important as your destination. It’s a simple truth, but one that is essential for fully enjoying your next road trip.

With that reminder to set the stage, let’s explore how to plan a road trip.

Step 1: Define Intent For Your Road Trip

There are many great reasons to plan a road trip. Still, it is important to reflect on why you are planning a road trip because that might dictate how you approach your trip. Consider some of these questions:

  • Is your goal to spend time with family and friends? If so, what attractions and activities would they enjoy along your trip?
  • Is your goal to decompress and disconnect from your job? If so, do you value an action-packed itinerary? Or would you prefer long stretches of open roads with good music or books and podcasts to listen to?
  • Are you looking for outdoor adventures along the way? Do you hope to incorporate hiking and camping into your road trip?
  • Do you prefer passing through big cities or small towns?

Decide What You Want Out of Your Road Trip

The key is to do enough reflection to understand your true objectives. In doing so, you will find a balance between relaxation and exploration. Whether you want to visit family, go sightseeing, find new adventures, or experience new cultures, a little self-reflection goes a long way.

It’s okay to develop a basic itinerary and goals if you want to, but allow time for detours and unexpected slow-downs along the way. Sometimes, a tight itinerary will cause you to lose joy along the journey. And remember, the journey is as important as your destination.

In fact, you might even say that the journey is the essence of a good road trip.

While you might worry about how to plan a road trip, don't forget to stop and enjoy the journey.

Step 2: Craft Your Itinerary

Once you understand why you are setting out on a road trip, to begin with, developing a basic itinerary is a logical next step in your planning. Even so, building an itinerary is easier said than done.

Research Destinations

You might want to start planning your itinerary based on your starting point, but you will likely be more successful starting with the end in mind.

Do you even know where you are going? That’s the first thing you need to decide. Are you road-tripping to see family? If so, you might elect to take the most direct path possible. On the other hand, if you are road-tripping across Maine to spend time at Acadia National Park, you might allow for a more scenic route.

Still undecided? Keep in mind that picking a destination doesn’t eliminate your freedom. Instead, picking a destination only exercises your freedom.

Plot Your Intended Route

Once you decide on where you are going, you can then work backward to plan your trip. We recommend using online platforms and apps on your phone. Even a tool as simple as Google Maps will show you different routes you might take.

And there are other tools you might consider, like a website called TV Food Maps that helps you identify local eateries featured on various TV shows. I would also bookmark some key websites, like Recreation.Gov, the official site for booking activities managed by the federal government (like hiking or canoeing permits).

  • Researching Destinations: Use online platforms, apps, and local insights
  • Plotting Your Route: Utilize tools like Google Maps and prioritize must-visit spots while considering road conditions
This lighthouse in Maine is the perfect spot to stop on a road trip.

Step 3: Set A Budget

As much as we love family adventures and road trips, some activities are simply out of budget. And that’s OK!

The important thing is to plan a trip that makes sense for your situation. Just remember that there are a ton of activities that you can do for free (at least very cheaply).

How Much Money Do You Want To Spend?

Before you finalize your itinerary, ensure you’ve established a budget. This will help highlight which activities are within reach and which items are out of reach. And if spreadsheets and budgets make you sweat, don’t worry. There are a few ways to approach this step.

You can go the detailed route and develop a budget that lists every potential expense, such as fuel, lodging, food, tolls, entrance fees, souvenirs, and more. This is helpful for some people, especially those on a tight budget. It is also helpful if there are several big activities you want to do, but you need to iron out specifically what you can afford.

Alternatively, you can list a budget by day. You must consider things like which nights you might need lodging vs. which nights you might stay with family and friends. Even so, this is a more streamlined approach to developing your budget. Then, each day, you need to track your spending inside that day’s budget.

For example, you might map out a day-by-day family budget that looks something like this:

  • Saturday Budget: $300 (Stay at Hotel)
  • Monday Budget: $50 (Stay with Family)
  • Tuesday Budget: $50 (Stay with Family)
  • Wednesday Budget: $50 (Stay with Family)
  • Thursday Budget: $300 (Stay at Hotel)
  • Total Budget: $750

Money-Saving Tips and Tricks

While travel can get expensive, there are things you can do to save a few bucks. First, we always recommend using a reputable cash-back rewards card for your purchases. You won’t get rich doing this. Still, when you combine credit card rewards with hotel and gas station rewards programs, you can at least make a small dent in recouping your budget.

We also recommend that you shop around before choosing a hotel. It’s very easy to go straight to the hotel website to book your travel. For some people, this makes sense. If you value the rewards program and your comfort with the chain, go for it.

On the other hand, sites like Priceline sometimes offer deals that aren’t published anywhere else. Check out our comparison of Expedia vs. Priceline to learn more about Priceline’s Express Deals and Price Breakers.

If you are really in a tight spot, schedule your trip so that you can sleep in your car on your road trip for a few hours before continuing to your end destination.

Lastly, don’t forget to pack non-perishable snacks and plenty of water for your trip. This one is hard for me because I treat myself to snacks as a reward for making it through long sections of driving. Even so, bringing your water and snacks will help you save money.

North Carolina is a fantastic place to road trip, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or along the Outer Banks.

Step 4: Plan Your Stops

Once you’ve planned your route and finalized your budget, the real fun begins. It’s time to pick out all of the fun things that you want to do along the way.

Attractions Along The Way?

When we talk about attractions, we aren’t necessarily talking about amusement parks, though those can be fun, too. Every state offers state parks and national parks where you can go hiking, camping, and participate in other outdoor activities. The trick is to identify those opportunities along your route.

And of course, plan for those amusement parks and other big-time attractions as your budget allows. Also keep in mind that tourist towns like Branson, MO, and Myrtle Beach, SC, have so many shows that sometimes you can bundle discounts.

Sporting events can serve as another nice stop while traveling. My favorite memories involve football, basketball, and baseball games with friends and family. TV is great for convenience, but the in-person experience is incomparable. Visiting stadiums as you travel is one fun way to immerse yourself in local culture.

Meals, Stretching Legs & Avoiding Fatigue

Of course, not every stop requires a pre-planned activity. Sometimes, it is good to stretch your legs and grab something cold to drink. This is another area where a little planning goes a long way.

  • Do you have a preferred gas station?
  • Do you like to stop at interstate rest areas or in small towns along your route?
  • Do you want to sit down to eat or eat on the road?
  • Do you need space to walk a pet?

Decide on these things beforehand. That doesn’t mean you have to plan every stop, but knowing where you want to stop will help you make decisions along the way.

Regardless, ensure that you avoid fatigue. Drowsy driving is unsafe, so don’t try to be a road warrior that never stops. Keep in mind that the journey is just as important as the destination. Take plenty of stops, and don’t think twice about it.

Stay rested and hydrated, and give your legs some room to roam.

Don't forget to stop and stretch your legs while road tripping.

Step 5: Choose Your Accommodations

When discussing how to plan a road trip, accommodations will likely be the most expensive part of your trip. You might not need a hotel, but if you plan to stop along the way, it is important to plan where you might stop.

You can find gas stations and fast food, but you might not be able to find a good hotel.

Book Ahead vs. On-The-Fly

At the very least, you should know which towns and cities might be good spots to stop. You can decide whether to book ahead or find somewhere on the fly, but some stretches of road will have very few accommodations.

For this reason, this is the one thing we always plan, even when the trip itself is more spontaneous. In our minds, this is important to understand. Your decisions don’t have to be completely preplanned or completely spontaneous.

You can find a middle ground where you have a basic plan that makes your life easier without compromising the freedom of your road trip.

Unique Charm? Camping Options?

If you do plan to stop along the way, there are options. Many state and national parks offer campsites. And while these campsites usually require a small fee, they are significantly cheaper than a hotel. Camping is a great option if you already have the right equipment and want to create a memorable experience with your co-travelers.

Camping might be an especially fun option if you are traveling with your kids. There’s not much more memorable than a campfire and s’mores.

If camping is not your thing, we encourage considering options other than the traditional hotel. And we aren’t just talking about your typical Airbnb. Instead, do a little research to see if you can find

  • Typee camping
  • Trains converted to lodging
  • Airstreams for rent
  • Glamping Domes

Naturally, you can also use Airbnb to find that cute little cottage or log cabin.

Glamping offers a nice change of pace.

Step 6: Prepare Your Vehicle

As you move past planning and approach your trip, it is important to make sure your vehicle is ready to go. There are basic maintenance checks that need to be done, but you should also make sure you pack all road trip essentials.

Maintenance Checks

While vehicle maintenance might seem daunting, completing routine maintenance goes a long way toward extending the health and safety of your vehicle. It is best to invest the time and money on the front end rather than find yourself stranded on the back end.

Fortunately, most pre-trip inspections are straightforward. Have your local maintenance shop check the following items:

  • Brakes
  • Tires
  • Wipers
  • Oil
  • Other Essential Fluids

Packing Essentials

Once your vehicle is primed and ready to go, it’s time to focus on your packing list. Yes, you must pack your clothes and toiletries, but that’s not what we highlight here. Invest the time to plan out all of your road trip essentials.

Road trips have many benefits, but sometimes your drive might get a little long. And heaven forbid you hit any traffic jams along the interstate. Yes, you need to be ready to roll with the punches, but packing road trip essentials may help you do just that.

Wondering how to plan a road trip? Pack well. Here are some road trip essentials to consider:

  • Carry a first-aid kit
  • Pack layers of clothes so you can stay comfortable.
  • Pack games and entertainment options
  • Pack your favorite non-perishable snacks
  • Have enough water to stay hydrated
Pack essentials like a first aid kit when planning for a road trip.

Step 7: Plan For Safety & Health

We’ve all heard family or friends tell us to “be safe” when we leave for a road trip. And while they are well-intended, the comments communicate more care than provide any actionable advice. Still, there are some things you can do to stay safe on the road.

Stay Safe on The Road

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is battle fatigue. Start your trip well rested, and make frequent stops along the way. Don’t trip to be a never-stop warrior at the expense of your safety or the safety of others on the road.

And whether you prefer super cold sodas or a nice, hot, well-caffeinated coffee, utilize whatever tools you need to stay alert.

Aside from battling fatigue, it’s also important to be weather-aware. Sometimes, it just makes sense to pull over for a while, and it is easier to do that if you know what is headed in your direction.

Lastly, practice simple, safe driving by following the speed limit and leaving sufficient space between you and the cars around you.

Step 8: Embrace The Unexpected

Road trips are cheaper than flying and offer more of an independent adventure, but road trips also have their downsides. The pros and cons of taking a road trip all revolve around the lack of structure. Road trips offer freedom, but you must also roll with the punches.

Roll With The Punches

Your attitude makes all the difference here, which is why it is so important to remember that road trips are as much about the journey as the destination. Sometimes, you have to change up your plans a little, take a detour, or even stop for the night earlier than intended. Thats ok.

Even so, we recommend considering roadside assistance, like AAA, or an AAA alternative. Roadside assistance offers peace of mind and can help when unfortunate incidents like a flat tire occur.

Tossing a football is a nice activity when you need a break.

Step 9: Document Your Journey

Years from now, you might look back on your road trip as a fun and exciting adventure in life, but you might not remember many details. Document your journey so that you can enjoy the memories for years. Everyone carries a camera around in their pocket these days, so make full use of your smartphone.

Capture Memories Through Photos, Journals, Or Videos

Still, you should think through where to store your photos and videos. Will they live in the camera roll on your phone? Will you post them on social media and delete them from your phone? Or will you save the photos in a specific location in the cloud?

Most people don’t think about these things, but doing so might save your memories for years to come. We also recommend that you consider a road trip journal, which you can add to over time as you take more and more road trips.

Step 10: Consider Road Trip Apps While Traveling

Lastly, make use of the many road trip apps which will make your trip easier. Some of these apps are obvious, like map apps that you use in your everyday life. But there are other apps worth considering. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Best iOS Map – Apple Maps
  • Best Android Map – Google Maps
  • Best for Route Planning – Roadtrippers
  • Best for Finding Gas – GasBuddy
  • Best For Hotel Deals – Expedia
  • Best To Save Travel Itinerary – TripIt
Beautiful fall foliage along road.

Tips For How To Plan A Road Trip – Summarized

Whether you prefer to plan by the hour or follow a spirit of spontaneity, a little planning goes a long way to ensuring a successful road trip. And keep in mind that we don’t look at planning as the opposite of freedom. In fact, a little planning enables you to experience the road trip of your dreams.

So, let’s recap how to plan a road trip:

  1. Define intent for your road trip
  2. Craft your itinerary
  3. Set a budget
  4. Plan your stops
  5. Choose your accommodations
  6. Prepare your vehicle
  7. Plan for safety and health
  8. Embrace the unexpected
  9. Document your journey
  10. Consider using road trip apps while traveling

After You Plan Your Road Trip – Hit The Road!

Road trips are all about freeing your mind from daily burdens, experiencing the world around you, and enjoying good company. Once you’ve finished the steps above, it’s time to hit the open road and enjoy your journey! Safe travels, and let us know how it goes!

Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.