Tips for Planning the Perfect Summer Road Trip

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INSIDER SECRET: Road trips can be meticulously planned or spontaneous. Just make sure you have the basics covered before hitting the road. 

When I recently asked a friend who lives in LA to meet me in Phoenix, she complained that the price of flights didn’t justify a weekend getaway. “Then just drive,” I suggested. Never have I seen her so perplexed. “But that’s like six hours,” she said.

It’s tough to figure out why a person who would spend the same amount of time on a trip by air wouldn’t agree happily to the idea of unencumbered cruising through pristine South California desert, but I understand that road trips just aren’t for everyone.

Although flying is my jam when time is limited (or oceans must be crossed), I love road trips. They are, hands down, the best way to travel. You listen to music you like, get off the highway on small country roads, take detours to see weird sights, and eat whatever snacks you’re in the mood for. Whether you’re traveling with your family, with friends or solo, road trips are awesome.

Enjoying the colorful sunset at Lake Chapala during a road trip to Mexico

Planning a road trip can seem a bit overwhelming. Over the years, my husband and I have created many systems and checklists to ensure that our trips are seamless and that we’re comfortable (actually, excited) before pulling out of the driveway. It all comes down to preparation and expectation. Here’s what works for us . . .

Take Time to Prepare

Feeling safe and secure is the foundation of a good road trip. Here are some suggestions for a pre-road trip checklist.

  • Determine your budget — It’s easy to blow through a lot of money if you’re not paying attention. Also, make sure you’re making the most of your spending by using a credit card that earns points on food and gas.
  • Take your car in for a general tune-up — Before a road trip, I’ll usually ask my mechanic to change the oil and rotate tires (if needed). There is peace of mind in knowing your car is in good shape before setting off.
  • Figure out your roadside assistance plan — It was a sad day when my parents informed me that they were no longer paying for my annual AAA membership. You might never need it, but on the off chance that you get a flat tire or run out of gas, it’s nice to know how to call for help.
  • Calculate how large your gas tank is — You can synchronize your gas stops with bathroom/food/stretching breaks to maximize your travel time. Plus, it’s nice to know if that half a tank of gas will get you to the next gas station (so you can avoid that call for roadside assistance).
A slight detour on our drive to Oaxaca: Checking out the cars at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.

Plan Your Route

  • Get out the map and mark it — It might feel a bit old school to rely on a physical map, and your GPS or phone will usually be good enough for directions. Yes, Google Maps is perfect when you know your exact destination, but if you’re looking to find a cool, unique route across multiple states, looking at a map is the way to go. We’ve found multiple hot springs, a date farm, and many weird and fantastic places to stop along the way by opening up an atlas.
  • Figure out your gas stops — I promise that when you’re driving through Wyoming and you see a sign that says, “Next gas station 215 miles ahead,” you will be very happy that you filled up in Cheyenne instead of pressing your luck with a quarter of a tank.

Pack the Essentials

Keeping yourself and your co-pilot happy is key. Watching the scenery can be entertaining for many hours but what happens when the conversation inevitably fades and you’ve still got four hours in the dark until you get to your hotel or campsite?

  • Download podcasts — What on earth did we do before podcasts were a thing? Regardless, we now have a solution to boredom. From murder mysteries to con-man confessions to answering questions about the nature of the universe, podcasts give endless entertainment (and are endless conversation starters).
  • Bring snacks — To avoid eating gas station food all day, it’s nice to have snacks in the car. Planning out meals in advance helps save time on pit stops for food. Plus, it’s nice to be able to reach into the back seat when you’re hungry.
  • Create a comfortable space —The beauty of traveling in your own vehicle is that you’re not limited to a small carry-on. You can bring anything you want. Even if I know we are staying in a hotel or at a friend’s house, I like to bring a pillow and a light blanket for the car.

Relax and Allow for Some Detours

One of the benefits of driving is that you control your own destiny. My husband, Spencer, is notorious for saying, “Hey, let’s take the scenic route. It actually only adds 20 minutes to our trip.” Guess what? Twenty minutes usually amounts to anywhere from 45 minutes to six hours. But it’s OK if you don’t arrive at your destination in record time. It’s more about seeking out adventure.

Do you love road trips too? Or would you rather just get to your destination as quickly as possible? Any fun road trips planned for the summer? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

All images courtesy of the author. For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, please subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.

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