Top Tips for Planning a Road Trip

planning road trip roadside attractions travel

By Christy Johnson, founder & CEO of United Goods

Do you love a good road trip? I really, really do. And 2020–21 kinda offered the best opportunity and/or reason to take one, didn't it?

I feel weird about flying because of COVID, and you might, too. But since my husband and I haven't taken a vacation since 2018 (ack!), we've begun sketching out a roughly two-week U.S. road trip to embark on later this fall. I'm a planner by nature, and I thought it'd be fun to include you as I prep.

Following are eight of my tips, based on what I've experienced from past driving vacations.

1. Choose the style of route to take.

First, decide on how you'll go about your journey. Here are two options I usually consider:

  • Point A to point B. Think of point A as your home, and your point B as your "halfway mark." That way, you can choose stops along the first leg of the trip (A to B) as well as the places you'll see on the drive toward home (B to A). For example, you live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, like me, and you choose the "highlight" destination of your trip to be Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Then you can look at a map and pick three or four "must do" stops from your point A (home) to your point B (Grand Canyon). Then you can choose two or three stops for the second half of your trip from point B back to point A. That'll help you loosely map out your route.

    Then, once the route is roughly decided, you'll research more cities, restaurants, and/or roadside attractions to see on the entire drive. Find as many as possible to fill in the gaps (more on this in step #2).
     
  • Loop the loop. Another option is to think of your point A (your home) as the starting and ending point to your road trip. From there, you can decide how small or how large the loop is that expands out from your point A. That'll likely depend on how much time you have and what your budget is. Figure out your loop by looking for stops to visit as you drive.

    And know that a "loop" doesn't have to be a circle! A squares, triangle, or any wobbly, zig-zaggy shape can be a loop. Just as long as it's not an "out and back" linear path. No one wants to stare at the same landscape on the way home as they did on the first leg of the ride. Snore.

2. Pack your itinerary full.

Once your route is planned with a few "key" things you wanna see and do, now you can fill in the gaps. Stuff your schedule with sites and sights (ha). Once the trip has begun and you've got some miles under your belt, you can pare down if—as you approach the next planned stop—you decide, "Nah, we can skip that this time." It's better to have too many options than not enough. Long stretches in the vehicle can get dull. Besides, what's the point of a road trip if you're sitting for hours, only stopping to fuel up or use the restroom? You might as well see what's out there, and not just what you can gaze at from the front windshield.

While it might seem illogical to choose more than you know you'll be able to see, it's actually not. Rather than being too rigid, a full schedule allows you more easily flex your route. You can decide in the moment when you wanna pull off the highway and how much time to dedicate to different stops.

3. Put it in writing (either digital or on paper).

I'm not a techy person, so I can't share with you any cool apps or programs for mapping out a road trip with stops along the way. But I know they're out there! I've messed around with the Roadtrippers app in the past and had mixed results. If you have a tried-and-true resource for outlining your road trips, I'd love for you to share it with me.

Since I'm old-school, I simply jot down my "must" stops in a notebook. Once we hit (or skip) one, I really enjoy crossing it off the list. You can even write notes about what you thought about it afterward, in case you want to share your feedback with a friend or remember it for the future.

Another fun way to do this would be to buy a U.S. map (or print an online one), and mark your route and stops on it as you go. 

4. Know that you'll likely deviate.

As you go, you may see signs on the highway and/or talk to locals and discover there are other attractions or restaurants in the area you wanna explore. Remain flexible and leave wiggle room for these opportunities! These on-the-fly finds might end up being your favorite parts of your vacation. One year, on the highway home following a road trip to Chicago for Renegade Craft Fair, my husband and I spotted the Pink Elephant statue a visitor to our booth had told us about. We took the next exit we could, and got to hang out with Pinky (see my photo with this blog post)!

5. Consider your companions.

While it might be your ideal vacation to see as many "World's Largest" statues as humanly possible and to taste all of the regional delicacies a state has to offer (an obsession with trying boiled peanuts in South Carolina comes to mind…), it may test the limits of your co-pilot and/or passenger(s). So remember to check in from time to time to ensure that your idea of fun is also their idea of fun. 

6. Eat like a local.

While I understand the convenience of stopping at a chain restaurant, do try to seek out independent eateries as often as possible. You'll get to experience the city in a different way, help out its economy, and like I mentioned earlier, talk to locals if that's your jam. They might have some great recommendations for things you should try or hidden gems you'd never have known about otherwise. For example, my husband and I chatted with a couple at a whiskey bar in Seattle, and they told us about a now-favorite-of-ours Thai restaurant to check out at our next stop, Portland, Oregon. I'm so thankful for that conversation!

7. Be safe on the road.

Take turns behind the wheel, if possible, and ask whether or not the driver feels alert enough to continue. If everyone is tired, it's best to stop for the night to catch some Zs. Powering through is absolutely not worth the risk. 

8. Capture the moments.

Take lots of pics! Do not miss an opportunity to photograph at least one instant from every fun stop. This is another way you can kinda "map" your road trip once you're back home! That, and you'll have a record of where you were when you ate the best grilled cheese of your life/shopped the coolest indie record store/picked up the most fabulous handmade ceramic bowl. Because your friends will ask when you tell them of your travels, and you will forget over time. Haha. Even if you don't forget, it's still nice to have a visual record of your fabulous adventure!

 

There you have it: my top recommendations for planning a road trip. I'm sure there are so many more you could share. So tell me: What's your best tip? And where do you wanna go next? I'd love to know!

We love experiencing our State Icons in real life and hope you do, too!


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