How to Plan a Road Trip
Patrick and I have road tripped all over the United States, visiting 41 states and 28 national parks together (so far!).
And you can’t do that without some kind of a plan!
A plan to prioritize your dream and make it happen, a plan to be able to afford it, a plan so that you know where to go and what to do when you get there.
Thankfully, I love making a good plan! I love the dreaming stage, the planning stage, and the execution stage.
And today we’re going to walk you through some of the planning that makes it all come together!
Road Trip Planning
This is a good spot to touch on two different styles of road trips.
Mile Wide, Inch Deep :
Like in 2013 when we saw 13 National Parks and traveled just over 8,000 miles in a 6 week period.
This kind of road trip was perfect for us then. We got to SEE so much.
We had no problem with driving after dark most evenings, as we were only accommodating ourselves and a dog at that point.
We spent enough time at each national park to see the highlights and do a few hikes before moving on.
This road trip really helped us see much of the American West and pinpoint the places we want to return to.
Inch Wide, Mile Deep:
Closer to what we did in 2017 when our daughter was 18 months old.
We sat still longer, spending some days not even leaving the campsite to explore elsewhere.
It was slow, enjoyable, less stressful, and really fun to do as a family. We certainly didn’t SEE as much, but we had time to DO more.
If you’re juggling mobile work hours and a kid or three, you might lean this way!
So! Before you get carried away in planning waaaaaay too many stops on your road trip, really assess what you want your experience to be. Both styles are great, just really different!
Onward! Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to plan an awesome road trip!
1. Create your road trip bucket list
Where do you want to go?
Think big and think small - places across the world and those only a few states away.
Maybe somewhere your grandma talked about. Maybe a visit to a family member, or revisiting a place you saw when a you were a kid. Maybe somewhere you discovered through Instagram or Pinterest.
Sometimes putting your dream destinations on paper can give that little push needed to make something happen!
Patrick and I planned our first long road trip around seeing family members on the west coast, our second around national parks west of the Mississippi, and our third around national parks and big cities on the east coast and throughout the New England states.
Love national parks? Download and print our map and list of all the national parks in the United States to help in your planning!
2. Define your parameters - time and money
The two things everyone always wants more of, and the biggest constraints on never-ending vacations and getting to those dream destinations.
Figure out how much of each you have, and if you can somehow get more of either into your road trip fund.
For tips on stretching that money a little further, jump over to this post: 10 Budget Road Trip Tips: Cross Country Travel on the Cheap.
We recommend creating a road trip budget with the following categories: Fuel, Food, Accommodations, Entertainment, & Other.
In our experience, about 50% of our budget is consistently sucked up by fuel, while around 20% goes towards food, 10-15% towards entertainment, less than 10% towards our accommodations (read this to learn how to camp for free!), and around 10% on other random needs - check out this post for exact expense details on a recent four week road trip.
Of course, this varies greatly from family to family, depending largely on how you camp, how many miles you travel each day, how often you go out to eat, and the type of entertainment you find.
You’ll want to have an emergency fund set aside too, outside of your road trip budget, in case of mechanical or health issues that could come up while you’re adventuring.
3. Narrow Based on Time and Money
Looking at your bucket list, narrow down your destinations based on amount of time and money you have available.
The amount of time and money required can vary wildly depending on the type of road trip you’re looking for.
Are you driving your own camper around the country (more travel time but cheaper accommodations), or are you buying plane tickets to get across the country where you’ll then rent a vehicle and hotel rooms as you travel (less travel time but more money on tickets and accommodations)?
Making some of those major decisions upfront can help you quickly see what destinations are or aren’t possible.
4. Narrow Further Based on Season
Don’t forget to consider climate and seasons of the places you’ve now narrowed down to!
Some natural attractions are only able to be seen during certain times of the year - like the northern lights, or waterfalls that depend on early spring snow melt.
Some places get so miserably hot during the summer that you may not be able to enjoy hiking.
Other places have a hurricane season, or permanent winter road closures due to snow and ice.
And of course, many places are only open during their tourist season, or have only limited attractions during off-season.
So check over your bucket list again, and consider any of those seasonal based conditions that could affect your travel experience.
And then narrow that list down to your final destinations and general route!
5. can your fuel budget get you that far?
Once you have your estimate on the amount of money you can spend on fuel, do some math to figure out how many miles down the road that amount of money can get you.
Or do the opposite - set your dream destination and figure out how much gas money you’d need to get there. Use one of the formulas below.
You’ll need average fuel prices from the areas you’ll be traveling, and https://gasprices.aaa.com/ is a good resource for that.
If you’re starting with your fuel budget, use this formula:
Total Fuel Budget / Average Cost of Fuel per Gallon = Number of Gallons You Can Afford
Number of Gallons You Can Afford x Average MPG Your Vehicle Gets = Approximate Number of Miles You Can Afford to Travel
If you’re starting with the number of miles it takes to get to your dream destination and then home again, use this formula:
Approximate Number of Miles You Want to Travel / Average MPG Your Vehicle Gets = Number of Gallons of Fuel You’ll Need to Buy
Number of Gallons of Fuel You’ll Need to Buy x Average Cost of Fuel per Gallon = Approximate Cost of Fuel For This Trip
Do you have enough fuel money to get you to your destination (and then home again!), or do you need to go back a few steps?!
6. Plan major road trip stops
Once your destination is set, pull out some maps!
Check out possible stops along your route. Family member or friend’s house? National Parks? A city you’d like to explore?
Focus on those major draws that would be worth planning a route around.
7. Reassess your available time and money! Again!
Yes, one last check-in with that budget and available time. Fun, huh?
Plug all those major stops you’ve picked out into your preferred maps app, get the total miles you’ll need to travel, and again, see if you’re still in the ballpark of your fuel budget.
Then guesstimate how much time you might want to spend at each major stop (along with the drive time between stops of course!), and see if you’re in the ballpark on the amount of time you have for this road trip.
Eliminate road trip stops and destinations accordingly. (We know this is HARD!)
Look closest at those that are farthest off your path, or least interesting, or that you don’t actually care that much about experiencing but for some reason think that you should!
And, of course, don’t forget to have a few buffer days.
For enjoying cool state parks, dealing with car trouble, a day to get a hotel and binge watch a straight 7 hours of TV while you order room service, staying an extra day with out-of-state family members or friends, enjoying a bison jam, having the freedom to take a scenic route - you’re going to need a couple extra days in there!
There you have it. That’s been our process to successfully plan awesome road trips over the years while staying within our given time and budget limitations.
When we load up to leave for an adventure, having all the major stops, approximate time frames, a manageable budget, and the date we need to arrive home figured out ahead of time removes a lot of the stress and greatly improves the experience of our road trips.
If you’d like to be updated when we get another road trip related post out, or if you’d like to follow along on our next road trip, please SUBSCRIBE!
As always, thanks for reading!
Want to look back at this later? Pin it!
If this post helped you in planning your road trip, please share it around for us!
Click the share buttons below!