The “Great American Road Trip” is often a travel bucket list item. But before you buckle up to hit the road, we’ve rounded up advice from guidebook authors, travel bloggers and others to help you map out a successful journey. Get road-trip ready with these planning tips, and let the wanderlust ensue.
BEFORE YOU GO
Make a packing list
As on any big adventure, organization is key, so creating a packing list that you can check off as you go can be a big help. Be sure to include essentials such as extra prescription medication and chargers for phones, laptops and other electronics. Consider items you may need for a lengthy trip, such as a small container of laundry detergent if you plan to wash clothing along the way.
Secure your home
The last thing you want to be worried about while you’re on the road is your home, so make sure you lock all doors and windows, turn off appliances, throw out perishable food and take out the trash. For added security, set lights on timers and consider adding indoor and outdoor cameras that you can check from a mobile device. You should contact the U.S. Postal Service and put a hold on your mail delivery, and leave your key with a trusted friend or neighbor who can check on your home and retrieve any packages that may arrive.
Get your vehicle serviced
If you decide to drive your own vehicle, “you should absolutely make sure your vehicle is in good shape before heading out on a road trip,” says Sanna Boman, editor-in-chief at Roadpass Digital. “Check your tires, fluid levels, lights, battery and so on. It may even make sense to take your car in for a quick service and oil change.”
Lock in your lodging
Before you hit the road, review and confirm reservations you booked at hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or vacation rentals. Because most reservations are confirmed via email, save a phone screenshot of your confirmation number or print out a copy so you have a backup in case cell service isn’t available. Make note of the cancellation policy as well, so you know how far in advance you need to cancel a reservation if your trip timing changes.
Download direction apps
You can download a variety of free navigation apps such as Google Maps, Waze and MapQuest. Each offers different features, such as multiple route options, live traffic alerts, information on nearby restaurants and attractions and even gas prices in different areas. You can download the apps prior to your trip and try them out during smaller excursions to see which you prefer. Some apps allow you to download maps to your device as a backup plan. “Before you leave, download offline maps, especially in less populated areas where cell service can be hard to come by,” says writer and photographer Peter Stringer, cofounder of the travel blog Amazing America.
Set a trip theme
Take your road trip fun up a notch by building your itinerary around a theme that interests you and your travel companions. “Perhaps you love roller coasters, craft beer, geocaching or history museums. Plan your trip around whatever your theme is,” Boman says. “There are plenty of checklists available for things like national parks, but you can easily make your own list and check off each new niche place you visit.”
Perfect your playlist
Good tunes are an essential part of the road trip experience, and Boman has a tip on making that music playlist extra special: pre-trip collaboration. “If you’re traveling with other people, a fun way to switch up the music in the vehicle is to collaborate on a road trip playlist,” Boman says. “Everyone in the car adds their favorite songs before the trip, and then you can play it on shuffle when you hit the road. This is a great way to discover new music and share your own favorites with your friends.” Boman recommends downloading the playlist offline before your trip in case you hit areas with spotty cell service. Check out our AARP Spotify Playlists, created by musicians just for Members Only Access.
Plan your podcasts
Show up at your next stop with knowledge about the local history, culture and attractions by downloading a destination podcast for along the way or listen just to get inspired to seek out new adventures. There are many travel-specific options to choose from, including National Parks Traveler Podcast, Wanderlust: Off the Page and Zero to Travel. Or pick a pop culture, true crime or lifestyle podcast. Ashley Rossi, managing editor at Roadpass Digital, says her favorite is Armchair Expert by actor Dax Shepard, but there are dozens of others.
Have a literary listen
Those long hours in the car can be the perfect time to catch up on your reading list. Download an ebook and soak up the story as the miles roll by. Many celebrities, musicians and politicians record their own autobiographies, so you can hear their stories spoken in their own words, and other books are narrated by well-known actors. Or course, not everyone in the car may be interested in the same selections, so poll your riders ahead of time, and make sure passengers bring earphones along to listen to alternative shows or music if they prefer.
Pack the right kind of snacks
Tasty snacks are essential to any road trip, and bringing them along can save time and money on your trip. Pack a cooler with ice packs that can be refrozen at hotels or other lodging along the way. In addition to sugary and salty nibbles and drinks, include water, fruit, veggies and protein-packed snacks to hydrate, refuel and nourish.
Keep an atlas handy
Most navigation apps help offer a foolproof driving experience, but Jessica Dunham, author of Moon Route 66 Road Trip and The Open Road: 50 Best Road Trips in the USA, says it’s wise to keep another road trip favorite handy: a hard copy of an atlas. “Always, always, have an up-to-date atlas in the vehicle with you before you depart,” she says. “I like to mark my route in yellow highlighter on the atlas, so I can visualize what it looks like and where I’m going.”
Pack a road trip supply bag
Nothing’s worse than hitting the road in your new rental car or van only to realize you forgot your favorite road trip items, such as a car charger, a GPS device or a seat cushion. Stringer suggests adding a rental car bag to your packing list. His go-to items include a pair of USB cables for charging, a lighter adapter (older cars may not have easily accessible USB ports) and a smartphone mount. One thing to note is that in many rental vehicles, the actual lighter part (which gets hot when pressed in) has been removed.
Road trips do come with the downside of long hours in the same seat or position, which can lead to back or leg pain. Adjust your seat — and possibly add or purchase a seat cushion — to help keep you comfortable for long periods of sitting. Rossi says her family’s solution is a tried-and-true cushion.
Pack your E-ZPass
Don’t forget your toll-pass transponder, such as E-ZPass or SunPass. “You do save money [by bringing it], especially in areas like the Northeast which have expensive bridges and tolls,” Rossi says. “It also saves you time from having to pay individual toll bills that arrive by mail after your trip.”
Plan to take the scenic route
Sure, sometimes you may need to quickly get from point A to B, but the draw of the Great American Road Trip is the chance to see the best of the U.S. — and most times you won’t find that on the major highways, so keep that in mind when you map out your route. Stringer says state routes have numerous hidden gems. “California’s 395 runs from Death Valley to Lake Tahoe and is full of amazing attractions along the way,” he says. “If you’re leaf peeping in the fall, New Hampshire’s Kancamagus highway has a well-earned reputation as one of the country’s most scenic drives. And if national parks are your thing, Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 cuts through the [state’s] amber canyons, aspen forests and alpine peaks.”
aren’t clear, call your insurance agent to inquire about your plan’s rental car coverage. “I have never gotten the insurance offered by rental car companies because my own insurance coverage is quite good,” notes Dunham.
Find clean rest stops
One stop at a dirty restroom is enough to learn your lesson, but Dunham has a piece of advice to avoid that situation: “I have great luck at places like Love’s and Flying J’s,” she says. “These are national chains of rest and refueling stops with the same amenities at every location: gas pumps, clean bathrooms, convenience stores, showers and even dog parks. They are well-lit and are usually open 24 hours.” Another option? Clean-bathroom apps. Mobile applications such as The Stanker, Charmin’s Sit or Squat and Flush can help you scout bathroom stops when Dunham’s suggestions are out of reach.
Save on gas
Boman offers these tips for keeping your pocketbook happy: “I would recommend using a fuel price app like GasBuddy to shop around for the best deals,” she says. “Also, don’t pack more than you need for your trip since the added weight will increase fuel usage. This is also a good time to slow down and enjoy the drive. Steady acceleration, consistent speed and cruise control can all help make you a more fuel-efficient driver.” Waze and Google Maps can search for lower-priced gas stations. You might think that higher octane in premium gas will keep your car running more smoothly, but in tests done by AAA, cars designed to run on regular gas showed no improvements in power, fuel economy or emissions when filled with premium.
And mind your gas meter
It’s easy to get so swept away by the scenery you forget to check your gas tank levels — but this oversight can leave you in dire straits, as Stringer found out after nearly getting stranded in a blizzard in Yellowstone National Park. “Especially when road tripping the Southwest or national parks, always be cognizant of your gas tank and the weather,” he says. “In places like Death Valley or the mountains, you may have to drive 100 miles or more without access to a gas station.”
Brake less, coast more
Every time you brake, you waste the gas you just used to get to that speed. The more you can coast or avoid the surging and slowing of crowded traffic, the higher your gas mileage will be. Get in the habit of accelerating gently, coasting toward red lights and stop signs and trying to use the brake a little less.
Even one moving violation can increase auto insurance premiums for years, so keep an eye on your odometer as those wide, open roads can lead to tickets. Try to avoid a rate hike by asking your insurer for forgiveness; taking a driving class, such as AARP’s Smart Driver course; or plea bargaining to a lesser offense.
Find spontaneous stops
Yes, you have your road trip planned out, but don’t forget time for spontaneity — and that’s where roadside oddity apps such as Atlas Obscura or Roadtrippers (a Roadpass app) can help. “Open the [Roadtrippers] app, zoom in on the area you’ll be traveling through and take your pick of quirky roadside attractions, fun museums, scenic hikes and more,” Boman says. Another option to keep handy? AllTrails. This app helps you find nearby hikes and filter by time or mileage — the perfect way to stretch your legs mid-drive.
few trash bags handy to stow wrappers, hand wipes, tissues, receipts, etc. You might consider packing a small, rechargeable car vacuum.
Play some games
Depending on your group dynamic, it can be fun to pass travel time with car-friendly games. Have a bag handy with trivia cards, Mad Libs sheets or travel-themed bingo cards to pass around. If you have younger kids in the car, there are travel game books and activity packs available, or you can stick to some tried-and-true road trip activities such as keeping track of the state license plates along the way, “I Spy” and word association games.
Be realistic about drive times
One of the most common mistakes people make when planning their road trip route? Overdoing it on drive time. “While it’s certainly possible to drive 500 miles or more in a day, that might not give you enough time to see and do much along the way,” Boman says. “I personally find that 200 to 300 miles per day is ideal if you’re traveling in an area with activities along the way, but it can vary based on things like road conditions and weather.”
Take great photos
Keep your road trip memories alive and well after that rental car return with some of Stringer’s hard-earned photography advice. “Have a little patience. Photography is all about light, and especially in national parks, the horizon can change on a moment’s notice,” he says. “Sometimes you can get drastically different photos from the same location within a matter of minutes. Avoid harsh midday sun and shadows. The middle of the day is the best time for driving, while early morning and magic hour through sunset are great times to break out the camera.”
Dine like a local
Build in time for stopping at restaurants. Dunham says local guidebooks offer some of the best tips on restaurants. Or you can always ask a hotel concierge or visitor center representative. Don’t miss the chance to experience a signature staple. “I like to stop at any regional chains along my route that have a cult following, like Buc-ee’s [in the South] or Wawa [on the East Coast],” Rossi says. Love’s is also a good, regional choice.
Factor in Fido
Road trips can be even more fun with Fido in tow but bringing a dog does require a bit more planning. “Make sure you build in extra pit stops and research activities that are pet-friendly,” Rossi says. “Not all national parks are as pet-friendly as you might think, but plenty of state parks are.” When booking your stay, you’ll need to check with hotels, motels, Vrbo and other lodging options regarding their pet policies. Most of the time, if they do allow pets, it’s an additional charge, so read the fine print.
Last but not least, get your zzz’s
It may sound obvious, but getting proper sleep is paramount to a safe trip. According to research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period nearly double their risk for an accident. AAA suggests that drivers schedule a break every two hours or every 100 miles, travel with an alert passenger and take turns driving. When feeling drowsy, if possible, pull into a rest stop for a quick nap — at least 20 minutes but no more than 30 minutes — to recharge before getting back behind the wheel.
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