The Ultimate Road Trip Planner is your all-in-one resource to help you plan a road trip and enjoy the journey.
Are road trips in your travel plans? If they are, your mind is probably on the destination, and not how you’re getting there. I’m a firm believer that, when you take a road trip, the drive itself is an important part of the experience.
You’re planning a road trip, and in the romanticized vision in your head, you jump in the car and GO. The windows are down, the radio’s up, and you shout “see ya’ when I see ya'” to the neighbors as you head off towards the horizon, not a care in the world.
And then you realize you don’t have any idea where you’re going, you’re thirsty with nothing to drink, the battery on your phone dies, the radio station is filled with static, all the hotels are booked everywhere and you’ve got piles of trash at your feet, so you turn around and head back home with your taillights between your legs.
When you’re planning on taking a road trip, planning should be the operative word, but you don’t have to lose any of your spontaneity. In fact, with a couple of handy checklists, you can be off and exploring in no time.
I admit; I’m a little obsessed with checklists. I’m the type of person that will add something to a to-do list that I’ve already done just so I can cross it off. One of the reasons I love camping is because it feeds my need to organize. We’ve got tent bins and kitchen bins and campsite bins and I start planning the menu a week in advance. I’m a veritable freak when it comes to planning a weekend outdoors, so you can imagine what I’m like when planning a road trip.
That’s why I am eminently qualified, if I do say so myself, to provide a road trip planner and share a few suggestions for making your getaway as smooth as possible. The most important thing is to have fun, and with these preparations, you’ll be ready to explore like the carefree roadtripper you’ve always envisioned yourself to be.
With these comprehensive road trip planner tips, you can make your next trip smooth sailing, or at least calm the waters a little bit.
Before you dive in, I should let you know that I’m a bit obsessed with road trips (I even wrote two books). That means I’m starting with a rose-colored windshield, and I automatically think the journey is just as much fun as the destination. Whether you share my romanticized vision or utter “Bah Humbug” at the mere thought of driving, these tips should help smooth the way.
Ultimate Road Trip Planner
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Road Trip Prep: Before You Go
When you’re getting ready to hit the road, there are a few things you should take care of before you leave. These simple steps will take any worry off your mind so you can truly enjoy your road trip.
Let someone know you’ll be gone
Before you leave let someone know that you’ll be gone and for how long. Even better if he or she can check in on your home every now and then, just to make sure the place doesn’t seem like it’s empty, even if it is.
Get a timer for your lights
Whether you’ve got a smart home, a digital timer, or just an old fashioned dial timer (what we have), setting the lights to turn on and off according to your regular pattern also keeps your home from seeming empty. This is particularly important when the days grow shorter.
Put your mail / paper on hold
If you’re going to be gone longer than a few days be sure to put your regular deliveries on hold. For one thing, if your letter carrier has to jam in this week’s circulars on top of last week’s they’ll be none too happy.
Clean out your refrigerator
Unless you’re running a science experiment, cleaning out your refrigerator before a long trip is a really, really good idea.
Take out the trash
Take your auto in for a checkup
Getting the tires checked, the oil changed, testing the battery, etc., will give you some priceless peace of mind before you head out.
Download music and podcasts
Take advantage of your home wifi to download your playlist and podcasts before you go. That way when you run into static-land you’ve got something to keep you entertained besides the passing scenery.
Check for tolls
If you’re going to be driving near or through some big cities, check for tolls in advance. Unfortunately, there’s no nationwide system. If you take a lot of road trips you can sign up for TollSmart ($10/yr). You can plug in where you’re going and it will show you where and how much the tolls are. If you’re traveling in the Northeastern part of the country and now Central Florida, an E-ZPass wiill work with most toll systems. California uses FasTrak, Colorado uses a different system, and Oklahoma has an orphaned 13.3-mile two-lane stretch. (The whole thing is really a mess and I need to write a post just about paying tolls!)
Know Where You’re Going
GPS is an awesome tool, but it is just a tool. Take some stress out of the directions by mapping out your route ahead of time. This will make sure you won’t be surprised when the voice in the phone tries to take you down that one-lane dirt road (it’s happened to me a few times!).
TLTip: Before you go, download GasBuddy. This free app helps you find the cheapest gas, roadside restaurants, and even bathrooms! Check out our GasBuddy guide to learn how to use this awesome tool.
Road Trip Planner Essentials
When you’re planning a road trip there are a few items that are absolute essentials. If you have these items and nothing else you can have a happy road trip. These are not your wants; these are your needs. Many of these can be stored in your trunk organizer or in your center console so next time you want to take off and go, you can.
1. Paper Maps
GPS is wonderful, and most of the time you can count on it to get you where you want to go. However, on a road trip you may drive in less populated areas and that signal can disappear.
This is especially true if you’re using the GPS on your phone. I’ve got AT&T (for now), and their signal drops pretty much any time I’m outside of an urban area (hence the “for now” statement). The whole section of northeastern Iowa is not covered!
Plus, GPS eats up your phone battery like Chicagoans eat deep dish. That’s why it’s always good to have paper maps. Your best bet, if you plan on traveling a lot by car, is to invest in an atlas. Rand McNally is pretty much the standard. Plus maps are just plain cool.
TLTip: When you enter a new state stop at a visitor’s center. They’ll have free road maps that will have more detail than an atlas. While you’re there you can pick up brochures for local attractions and, if it’s staffed, get some advice on fun places to go.
2. Car Charger
You never know when you’re going to find an outlet, so your best bet is to get a car charger. I recommend getting a dual charger so both the driver and passenger can charge at the same time.
Have you seen how expensive water is at gas stations? Yowza. Fill a large container or two and bring a refillable bottle. You’ll save a ton of money (and the environment).
Speaking of saving money, a good cooler is one of the best investments you can make. Cut up some veggies and throw in some lunch meat and cheese and you can make sandwiches on the go. It’s much better for you and cheaper than fast food.
You can also throw in your beverage of choice. Instead of buying ice, which melts too quickly and makes everything soggy, fill an empty gallon most of the way with water and freeze it before you go. The large block won’t melt as quickly, and once it does you’ve got drinking water!
I’m a big, huge, gigantic fan of Coleman Xtreme coolers. After three days in 90 degree weather the chicken broth I’d brought on our honeymoon camping trip was still frozen.
For the car I recommend getting a smaller cooler that’s just for beverages. You’ll be getting in and out of it a lot and that makes it less efficient.
5. First Aid Kit
You don’t need a big first aid kit, and you can even make one yourself. I picked up a pencil case and added bandages, cotton swabs, gauze, an Ace bandage, tweezers, small scissors, a cold/hot compress and triple antibiotic cream. We also bring along a small bottle of ibuprofen and migraine-strength medicine for my husband. If you prefer to buy one, Amazon’s got a wide selection of First Aid Kits.
6. Emergency Roadside Kit
If you have a car, this is a must whether you’re going on a road trip or not! (Say yes, mom.) There are various kits available, but at the bare minimum you’ll want to have jumper cables, a flashlight, flares or triangle reflectors, extra washer fluid, and some basic tools. Edmunds has a good list so you can create your own, or you can purchase a pre-made kit.
7. Ice Scraper
I know. I hate this one, too. Of course, there are many parts of the country where you don’t need an ice scraper. (Note to self: plan next road trip to one of these places.)
In addition to the flashlight in the Emergency Roadside Kit that’s in the trunk, I like to have at least one more in the glove box. If you have to get into the trunk to get the flashlight when it’s already dark then you’re, well, in the dark.
Keep a set of back-up batteries for that flashlight.
10. Trash Bag
Next time you get a plastic bag from the grocery store put it back in the car after it’s been emptied. You’re going to accumulate wrappers and papers and JUNK, and now you’ve got a place to put all of it.
TLTip: Get a plastic cereal container, or if you’re taking a longer trip, a pet food container, to use for your trash. You can put extra bags in the bottom as a replacement any time one fills.
11. Baby Wipes
Keep some baby wipes in your car and you can clean up anywhere, any time. They’re gentle enough for a baby’s bottom, so they’re going to be gentle enough for your hands, your face, and your steering wheel.
12. A Flexible Attitude
This – THIS – is by far THE MOST IMPORTANT ESSENTIAL FOR ANY ROAD TRIP. Yes, I’m screaming at you. I feel that strongly about this.
This is especially important during the holidays, when stress is already a bit high. If you can go with the flow, then you can turn the trip there and back into more happy memories. Just like at a wedding, when you’re on a road trip something always happens. Things don’t always go according to plan, no matter how much you’ve planned things out. Roll with it, and by the time you get home you’ll have some unforgettable memories and a much richer life.
Road Trip Planner Wishlist
This may be the most important road trip planning list of all. Sure, figuring out what to do before you go is important, and you don’t want to leave any of the essentials behind, but traveling is all about hoping and making dreams come true, so no road trip would be complete without a wishlist.
These are the items you could probably do without on your road trip, but you really don’t want to leave them behind. And then there are a few that make great presents (just sayin’).
Unless your car comes equipped with one, it’s good to invest in a separate GPS. Your cell phone may not have service and the battery could die. We’ve had good luck with Garmin. They now come with unlimited lifetime maps so you don’t have to worry (as much) about the map being inaccurate.
If your holiday travel plans include some side trips, consider these a back-up for the talking part of your phone. If you get separated you can still communicate with these babies, old-school style. They’re not even too terribly expensive. This pair of Motorola has 22 channels and a 23-mile range and runs about fifty bucks.
Keeping a picnic basket in the car means that when you see a perfect vista for lunch (if you’re lucky enough to be traveling in warmer climates) you can pull over and enjoy it. You’ll also have the utensils to eat in your room, if family gets to be too much or you just can’t wait to dig into those leftovers. We’ve got one that has a fleece blanket inside so we can spread out anywhere.
Not enough seeing? Keep some chairs in your trunk and you won’t have to sit on that rickety ancient thing that’s been languishing in the attic. While you can get a chair with a foot rest, all you really need is a cup holder (it’ll pack smaller, too).
This is on my own wishlist. Imagine leaving the ice behind because you’ve got a cooler you can plug in to your car. There are several options available (since I haven’t used one yet I can’t personally recommend one).
A Bigger Car
Just kidding! (Although to fit all of this in, plus the cooler and snacks and suitcases, etc., we could probably use one…)
A Big, Huge, Giant SD Card
This, for me, is actually a need, not a want. Whether you’re taking photos with your phone or your camera, make sure you’ve got enough memory to capture everything you want to remember. I always have my laptop and external hard drive with me, but downloading is a pain so I keep a 32gb card in both my cell and my DSLR. This is especially true if you want to shoot any video.