Over the years we have taken hundreds of roadtrips. We’ve had many fun times trying to figure out and plan our adventures. Being prepared has helped us enjoy our trips and get the most out of our time in each place. We also had many epic fails and lessons learned executing some of our plans :-). But probably the most important thing we’ve learned is that if you want a fun and relaxing roadtrip, do your homework ahead of time. Here are some tips on how to design an epic roadtrip.
To begin, search Pinterest, TripAdvisor, Yelp and travel blogs to figure out the best places to go in the area, things to do, places to eat, any other relevant items. Make sure to read people’s reviews and comments, those are really helpful when trying to decide if something is worth seeing or doing.
Once you know where you want to go, check place’s website (if available) for details. There is a plethora of information out there about travel destinations, but always verify information on the official site, if available. This is especially true for places like national and state parks and other remote destinations. There could be construction and weather related road closures, special events that close down parks, varying hours of operations depending on the season.
For example, on the recent trip through Portland, I wanted to check out Columbia River Gorge; however, when I looked it up I found out that all exits along the gorge were closed due to construction. So, I got to go to Mt. Hood instead.
Here are some of the most important things to research before leaving on your trip:
- days/hours of operation
- admission cost
- road closures (this affects a lot of park roads)
- dress code (some places have dress codes, like Vatican)
Also, if you’re going to parks or nature sites, check wildlife and safety tips.
Even with all of the research you will still have surprises come up on your trip – just take them in stride and keep moving. Recently, we decided to do a hike at Mt. Rainier. We picked a highly rated one with beautiful pictures online and the lowest elevation gain we could find. Despite all of that, the hike turned out to be majorly strenuous and the beautiful pictures we saw online were all from one picturesque spot along a 5-mile trek. We still enjoyed ourselves and when we caught our breath after climbing 1,200-foot elevation in a quarter of a mile we laughed at our out-of-shape selves.
We usually research places to eat for locations. We look for local recommendations of food types and places to eat and create a shortlist of places. We’ve learned that having options and knowing places saves time. This is especially true in more remote locations or internationally where choices may be limited. The point is not to plan every meal, just research options or must haves.
Photographer’s tip – check out the best time of day for photography of each place, especially the ones where you really want good shots. You’ll want to avoid times with big shadows, or shots against the sun. These can make a huge difference in your photos.
2| Calculate Daily Drive Time
On any roadtrip, the time you spend in the car each day is really important – you want to minimize it, so that you have time to actually enjoy the stops along the way. On average, we try to have about 3 hours or less in the car each day. Sometimes that’s not doable, but that’s our usual guideline when planning a trip. Make sure you calculate drive times with all stops and traffic hours (Google Maps on the computer are great for that).
Try to have one or two major things for each day along the way with other smaller items intertwined. This will help break up the driving time and give you something to look forward to while in the car. We usually schedule a nice hike or a fun destination to check out each day.
Make sure you plan for meals each day – when you’re eating out, meals can consume a lot of time. If you stop for three full meals a day, that could take up to three hours out of your schedule. We try to do one sitdown meal and two that are quicker, grab something and go type stops.
Another trick to reduce drive time is finding hotels that don’t make you backtrack your route. But don’t overdo it, it’s best to stay a couple nights in the some location, changing hotels every day is tiresome.
3 | Create an Itinerary
We highly recommend putting together an itinerary for your roadtrip, don’t just mark a bunch of cool places on a map and then drive. You’ll learn some places require reservations or appointments, others close early or open late, places get crowded or run out of parking. You need to be aware of all of that. If your intent is to hit a lot of places along the way, having a plan really helps, it reduces the stress and helps avoid decision paralysis.
Your itinerary should include locations you’re driving to in order of stops, hours of operation for places your going to and any other notes that may be relevant.
We usually put addresses and phone numbers, pictures of places and driving time from place to place, sometimes even information about each stop so we know what to expect. This helps us remember why we wanted to stop at a location – sometimes offline maps won’t tell you enough about the place to know if it’s worth a stop and if you don’t have reception, you won’t be able to research on the fly. Having quick notes about what’s cool about each stop comes in handy.
Why plan? One of the worst things when traveling is group indecision – when you don’t know what to do next or where to go. It’s very frustrating and can lead to wasted time. This may not be that big of a deal to you if you like to take it slow on trips and just relax, but if you’re like us and explore a number of places on each trip, you want to be prepared.
Now, making a plan, does not mean you have to stick to the plan or you’re on a schedule – we always change our plans on the fly, but at least we’re prepared and have the information to make decisions and change things as needed.
4 | Download Google Maps
Always remember to download maps for offline use. Since we travel through a lot of areas of limited or no reception this is a must. It will download starred places, driving maps and locations to your phone and allow you to use your GPS even without cell reception. It will also work in airplane mode if you’re traveling overseas and don’t have a connection. The only things that will not work on offline maps are the details about locations and walking directions.
If you’re using your phone as GPS, which I highly recommend, then make sure to mark all possible stops on your roadtrip in the app as starred places. This is really helpful when you’re picking the next location. You can just look on the map and see what’s next on your roadtrip and what the best driving order is.
Since we usually favorite more places than we actually visit, one thing we started doing recently, is changing the starred places to Visited list. Google Maps is great about that, you can have Favorites, Want to Go, Starred or your own custom name lists.
5| Download Travel Apps
Many national parks and locations have apps that help visitors get around and show the latest information, as well as road and trail maps. Check them out.
Some tourist places even have automated tour apps that you can purchase. We used them for The Big Island and Oahu and they were great. These are location-based audio guides that connect stories with places. Just like having a tour guide in the car with you!
There are also a few apps out there for hikers, including All Trails (easily searchable database of virtually all hiking trails in the US) and Gaia GPS (topographical maps that allow you to plan and track routes).
6| Check the Weather
This one seems obvious, but I have ended up buying jackets, gloves, hiking boots and other items on many trips because I didn’t watch the weather carefully enough. Weather can also influence where you go and how long you stay there. If you are planning a roadtrip a few months in advance, use average weather data to get an idea of what to expect. It’s not perfect, but it will get you in the ball park.
7 | Driving Tips
If you are taking a roadtrip in another country, this adds a different element to your trip planning. Checkout these posts for additional tips and tricks.
If you’re renting a car, make sure to research what kind of a car you will need. A four wheel drive (for mountain roads or dirt roads), a compact car (for driving in old cities where roads are narrow and parking is an issue), or an SUV to fit more people/luggage. I always check whether the car has a backup camera, makes it much easier to parallel park or backup. Also, make sure to take all of your car accessories if you’re renting the car. This includes chargers, phone holder, etc.
8 | ‘Steal’ and Revise
Roadtrips are a ton of fun, they’re also a lot of work to plan, so if you don’t feel like planning, ‘steal’ someone else’s research for your roadtrip and then revise to fit your needs :-). Check out a few of the itineraries we’ve done for our recent trips, you’re welcome to ‘steal’ any of them:
- 10-Day Roadtrip through Colorado’s Mountains
- Iceland – 6 Days in the Land of Fire and Ice
- The Ultimate Oregon Coastline Roadtrip
- The Ultimate 6-day Roadtrip Around Hawaii’s Big Island
- European Itinerary Part 3 – Munich, Bavarian Alps and the Rhine Valley
What are things you have learned on roadtrips? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
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