37 Must-Know Road Trip Hacks I Learned from Driving Through 48 States

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Ahh, nothing quite a long road trip. One lasting several days, weeks, or possibly even months! These 37 best road trip tips cover -

  1. The Planning Stage
  2. Sightseeing along the way
  3. Tips for an extended stay on the road
  4. How to keep socially sane
  5. Safety issues

These tips are based on our experience road-tripping across 47 US states and 4 Canadian provinces! Our road trips were all long! They included -

  • Three weeks in California and Arizona
  • Five and a half months across the Western US and Canada
  • Four and a half months - coast to coast and back!
  • Two and a half months in Washington, Oregon, California, and Utah
  • Two and a half months driving from Los Angeles to Alaska and back!
  • A month of touring the Rockies

We road-tripped as a family, starting when the boys were aged 5 and 7. On our last trip to Alaska, they were 14 and 16! Time flies! And now, without further ado, our tips!

Planning Stage

1. Don't be afraid of the long road trip

It's doable. Promise. Even with kids.

I know many people who fantasize about a long road trip and never fulfill their dreams. Don't let that be you. Go out there and do it. You'll have fun and create memories that will last your entire life.

And if at all possible - make it long.

In our experience, it takes time to get into the "road trip ambiance," to shed off the stress and worry of everyday life, and get into the right state of mind.

That's why I think a decent road trip should last at least weeks, preferably months. And don't worry, at least in North America, I guarantee you'll never run out of things to do and see or roads to travel.

2. Research your route

The essence of road-tripping is about freedom. The freedom to move where you want, when you want. As one of the ultimate road trip songs says,

"We can pack tomorrow, tonight let's flip a coin. Heads Carolina, tails California."

I am so all for that! I love that song!

However - spontaneity does not negate research and planning. 

There's such a wealth of information available online; it would be a shame to drive past this incredible attraction and miss out on it, wouldn't it? I always thoroughly research the area we plan to be going through.

I use sites like Roadside America and Trip Advisor to provide me with unusual ideas for small stops along the road, too. I try to document everything in my notes - or at least keep it somewhere in my head.

3. Have a plan in place

Based on my research, I do create a plan. I have a spreadsheet outlining our route, including all those places - big and small - that I found while researching.

I jot down the mileage we'll need to cover every day and the time it could take to make sure it's even feasible. That way, I don't have to flip coins to decide our route. At least, not daily 😉

Sometimes, it's easier to know where you're going next.

4. Be spontaneous

Yes, I know. I just said how vital planning was. I'm not changing my mind here. On the contrary, I firmly believe good planning allows you to be flexible and spontaneous.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said -

A plan is nothing but planning is everything

The more time you invest in the planning stage, the more familiar you'll be with your route, including the various attractions and alternatives to them.

Then, once you hit the road, you can decide and be more spontaneous with your choices.

After all, if you choose to do X, you're giving up on doing Y. Which could be a great decision! It's easier to make that decision when you know what X and Y mean.

5. Don't book motels in advance (usually)

In other words, stay flexible. That goes hand in hand with the spontaneity we just mentioned.

Now, there's a reason for me to qualify this with "usually."

There are times and places where booking in advance makes sense. It makes a lot of sense. The list includes -

  • Holidays
  • Popular national parks
  • Other super popular destinations
  • Weekends
  • Festivals
  • Any combination of the above

Book in advance if your road trip takes you to Yellowstone National Park and you want to spend a night or two inside the park. Do that even if you think you'll stay in West Yellowstone, Gardiner, or Jackson. If you don't, you could end up without a place to stay - or have to pay exorbitant prices for accommodation.

6. Allocate time for mundane everyday tasks

If your trip is going to last for a week or more, you'll need time for the following -

  1. Washing clothes
  2. Shopping in a supermarket
  3. Going to the ATM or possibly the bank
  4. Just generally unwinding

The longer the road trip, the more free time you'll need. Avoid creating a tight schedule of sightseeing for every day. You won't be able to accomplish that and will end up exhausted from trying.

Some of our road trips were so long we had to stop for haircuts!

Getting a haircut on a road trip

7. Take weekends and holidays into account

I mentioned these briefly when talking about booking accommodation in advance. There's more to holidays than that, of course.

Holidays mean attractions will be busy, and roads will be congested.

If you're going through Monterey on Memorial Day, expect the aquarium to be very crowded. And if you're driving out of Denver at the beginning of Labour Day weekend, know that you'll get stuck in traffic on the i-70—two authentic examples from our road trips.

Now, these things happen on long road trips. You're on the road, and the nation goes on holiday. The trick is to know that in advance and plan around it. Try to spend the busy days resting, away from busy roads and crowded museums.

Even better, stay put in one town and enjoy local celebrations. Like we did on this 4th of July, in Jackson, WY -

4th of July while road tripping

8. Don't be fooled by Google Maps time estimates

I've helped many people plan their road trips, so I often see this happening.

You want to get from Los Angeles to Page, AZ, on the same day so you can rent a boat on Lake Powell the next morning.

Great. That's doable.

Just don't think it will take you 8 hours and 23 minutes - which is what Google Maps says it is. Don't assume you can spend 2 hours sightseeing in the Grand Canyon on the way and maybe stopping in Seligman along Route 66 for ice cream because you only have eight and a half hours of driving time.

Realistically, you'll be lucky if it will take only nine and a half hours to cover the distance.

Why? Because you can't drive for eight hours straight. You need to stop for gas, bathroom breaks, food, etc. That adds at least another hour.

And then there are those notorious LA traffic jams. That estimate that Google Maps gives you does not consider your starting location in LA or traffic issues leaving the city.

In real life? The last time we were in LA and headed east towards Arizona, it took us three hours to get out of the LA afternoon rush hour gridlock.

So, while Google Maps is a great tool, remember to adjust its time estimates to your real-life circumstances. As a rule of thumb, add 10% to its estimate. 15-20% if you're traveling with young children.

9. Prepare for toll roads

You can avoid toll roads if you like - but sometimes they're just the easier route to take in a not-very scenic area.

Find out in advance how you're supposed to pay and gear up. Alternatively, avoid those roads when planning your route.

10. Get your travel papers in order

No, you don't need a passport to cross US states. However, when we go on a long road trip, I make sure to keep the following where I can find them -

  1. Driver license (of all available drivers)
  2. Car registration papers (rental agreement in our case)
  3. Passports - in case we'd like to cross the border

What's more, I take photos of all of the above and make sure I have them stored online for safekeeping. You never know when a bag - or the entire car - might get stolen. It's best to have copies.

If you're renting a car like us, here's another time-saving tip: Take a photo of the vehicle's license plate. You'll be asked for that plate number every time you stop for the night in a motel. It's easier to browse through your phone than to go outside and look. I made that photo my home screen image when we were on a long road trip.

11. Get your meds and prescriptions in order

Depending on whether you're traveling in your own country or not, you may need to get medications for the entire trip in advance.

Even if you're an American taking a road trip to the US, some types of medication may have limitations on where you buy them.

Talk to your doctor and/or pharmacist in advance to ensure you have all the medications you need and the documentation required to get more of them.

Sightseeing along the way

12. Look for scenic byways

Whenever I plan a long road trip, I go to the official Scenic Byways website and check the states that we're about to go through. If possible, I will work at least one or two on our route.

Give yourself time to explore these byways. They are often dotted with interesting points where you can stop for scenery or attractions.

13. Try to work national parks into your plans

National Parks are always worth a stop. Always.

In the planning stage, I search Google Maps for national parks along the route. I look for national monuments, national historic sites, etc. Anything that the National Parks Service runs.

Visiting Canyonlands National Park in Utah
Visiting Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Now, here's the thing.

Some of these park units are worth dedicating several days to. If you're going through Yellowstone National Park and this is your first visit, you should allocate a minimum of three days for that detour. Check out my post about Yellowstone to see why.

Other places may only require 1-2 hours to see in full. Or maybe half a day. My point is to take a few minutes to check beforehand so you can plan accordingly.

Oh, and do yourself a favor and buy the National Parks Pass. You can get it in the first park unit you'll visit or order it online in advance. It costs around $80 per vehicle and will cover your future visits to any NPS units for a year. It's a bargain for any long road trip in the US.

14. Some state parks are worth visiting too

State parks are trickier.

Many state parks are not worth going out of the way for. They're recreation areas designated by various states. This is great if you're a local who wants to spend the weekend fishing and ambling by a lake, but it's not worth a stop during a road trip.

Some state parks are worth a detour during a road trip. To mention just a few of our favorites  -

  • Custer State Park, South Dakota
  • Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
  • Point Lobos State Park, California
  • Ecola State Park, Oregon
  • Watkins Glen State Park, New York
  • Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

And there were many, many more. So do your research and allocate time to the better state parks, too.

15. Follow the seasons

Some places are perfect during some seasons but not so much in others. Traveling, you have at least some ability to go to the right place at the right time.

For example, it was during a July heatwave when we first visited New England. Not so much fun. We celebrated the 4th of July in Maine and headed out west to cooler areas.

When we returned in early October, New England was entirely magical. Fall colors and crisp, clear air. This is the view we had from Mount Washington -

Mount Washington

16. Look for festivals and special events

Don't let the crowds deter you. Festivals can be the secret ingredient that would make your road trip perfect. It can be a local Pumpkin Festival or 4th of July parade, a State/County Fair, or something as big as the Balloon Fiesta, which we attended in Albuquerque -

Balloon Fiesta

Whenever I plan a road trip, I actively look for festivals and fairs along our route and in nearby states. Some events are well worth going out of the way for. We have great memories of many such occasions.

17. Look for wildlife sighting opportunities

Wildlife is always a huge attraction on a road trip. We've seen over 100 bears in the wild during our travels. Our animal sightings included bison, elk, moose, pronghorn antelopes, beavers, snakes, bald eagles, seals, sea lions, and whales.

While many sightings are spontaneous, there are ways to increase the odds of seeing animals.

  • Hike in national parks.
  • Find out where animals are usually sighted and go there.
  • Go out at dusk and dawn.
  • Take tours such as whale-watching cruises.

Petting a baby alligator on a swamp tour in Louisiana
Petting a baby alligator on a swamp tour in Louisiana

18. Check opening hours ahead of time

Imagine going out of your way to visit a special museum only to find out they're closed on Mondays. And yes, you arrived on a Monday.

You're not likely to stick around while on a long road trip, so you'll miss out on that museum. Checking their hours ahead of time could have given you some flexibility. You could have rushed things a little to make it a day earlier or spent an extra day along the way to make it a day later.

19. Have time for unplanned detours and adventures

You never know - and that's part of the fun on a road trip!

During one of our road trips, we stopped for the night in a small motel in a tiny town in Wyoming. The owner was fascinated by our adventure and the fact that we had been traveling with two young boys.

The following morning, she introduced us to her husband, who turned out to be a drag racing instructor. We spend the next couple of hours with racing cars and trucks - quite an adventure and an unexpected one! Fortunately, we had the time for it.

So, don't rush things, and enjoy the unexpected opportunities during your journey.

While on the road

20. Download maps in advance

You won't always have access to online data as you're crossing vast empty spaces with few inhabitants. This means an online navigation app like Waze could run out of map resources.

Now, usually, this isn't much of an issue. If an area is so remote that it has no cell reception, that usually also means there won't be too many turns to take along the way. It would be best if you had no trouble finding your way relying on signposts. That's how we crossed the Alaska Highway.

To be on the safe side, here's what we always do.

Start your navigation app when you still use the motel's WiFi or some other internet connection. Let it download the map for your day's journey, and only then head out. This shouldn't take more than a minute or two.

21. Watch the weather forecast

Weather and the elements are always part of a long road trip.

During our road trips, we've encountered tornado warnings, snow, hailstorms, massive forest fires, and more. It's part of the adventure!

Just keep an eye on the forecast for the area you're going through. Watch the fire situation if you're traveling in the West during summer or fall. We've had to change our plans more than once due to severe smoke conditions - to the point of roads being closed.

22. Get a cooler

A spacious cooler is a must-have in your vehicle. Ice is easy to get at any motel you overnight at - or in gas stations. It's such an easy way to keep fresh food with you on the road. Which brings me to my next tip -

23. Have snacks and drinks in the vehicle

A cold drink is a godsend when you're driving for 3-4 hours straight without a break. Fresh fruit, string cheese, or other healthy snacks can revive both driver and passengers.

We always carry both fresh and dry snacks with us. We stock up every few days and ensure we never run out of snacks and drinks for the kids or the grownups.

24. Eat right while on the road

It's too easy to fall into the junk food trap when road-tripping. Don't do that.

Here's how we keep eating healthy on long road trips -

  • Eating out? Always order a salad first - even McDonald's has them.
  • Buy plenty of healthy food and prepare your meals. A healthy sandwich from wheat bread, low-fat cheese, and lots of veggies makes a great - and cheap - lunch or dinner.
  • Keep your snacks healthy, too. You can buy pre-washed and pre-cut fruit and vegetables and keep them in your cooler. Delicious and very beneficial!

25. Don't carry too much stuff

This is something we've learned over several trips. It's easy to pack too much - and it's not necessary. You can do your laundry on the road, which is not a problem. We do that once or even twice a week. This means there's no need to carry too many sets of clothes.

26. Use a plastic drawer set to organize things

On the first day of any long road trip, we buy a Sterilite plastic organizer with several spacious see-through drawers. It's great for storing all those little things we always need while on the road.

Utensils, plastic bags, socks, first aid - whatever we might need while on the way are kept in that storage device.

The back of our minivan

27. Keep things inside baskets

Cheap plastic baskets cost only a few dollars and are great for storing shoes and other large items in the back of an SUV/minivan. We try to get the collapsible ones. That way, we can store them flat and pop them out when we need additional compartments in the back of the vehicle.

28. Document the trip

Consider getting a road camera for the trip. It's fun to document the drive, and it can also come in handy should you get involved in an accident.

29. Backup your photos

We take lots of photos pretty much every day of a long trip. Mainly just using our phones. A week into the trip, the phone usually gets filled up.

We used to manually back up everything on our laptop at the end of every day. Fortunately, it's much easier now, as our phones back up everything directly to Google Photos when we connect to the WiFi at the end of every day.

People Issues

30. Plan activities for the whole family

If you're traveling with kids, plan to make sure they don't get too bored. Our kids loved taking the Junior Ranger programs in every park we visited.

They each have a collection of over 60 Jr Ranger badges and patches! I can highly recommend that for kids aged 4-12.

Generally, ensure the mix of activities is balanced so people of all ages feel they're doing something fun every day. Sitting in the car without anything to do, day after day, isn't enough.

31. Don't overcrowd the vehicle

When spending 5-12 hours a day in the exact vehicle, everyone must have enough personal space.

In our experience, a 7-seater was excellent for a family of four. I wouldn't have liked to take a long road trip in a smaller vehicle.

32. Arrange to meet people on the way

Whether you meet friends and family or other traveling families via a Facebook group or forum, don't miss out on a chance to meet people.

When on a long road trip, it's good to get some variety and get the chance to talk to people other than your trip mates.

33. Consider Couchsurfing

We found Couchsurfing a great way to meet new people, get to know locals and gain fantastic, memorable experiences. Read my guide about Couchsurfing as a family to learn more about our experiences.

Here are a few more safety tips

34. Know your driving limitations

Long road trips often cover a considerable distance. That's part of their appeal.

Don't be rushed to cover more distance than you can do safely. Just how much depends on your driving abilities and experience.

Be mindful of your limitations and how they change. If the weather turns bad or you feel tired - don't push it. Safety comes first, and a road accident is the most significant risk on a long road trip.

35. Check your car regularly

Modern vehicles are very good at letting you know how they're doing. Keep an eye on the car and ensure it's current on oil changes, etc. If you don't have an air pressure monitor, check your tire pressure manually regularly.

You're putting a lot of strain on your vehicle when road-tripping. This usually isn't a problem with newer cars, but with older ones, it can be.

36. Mountain driving and other special conditions

Road-tripping is likely to take you through some fantastic scenery. It could also mean going through types of terrain that you may not be used to driving through in your daily life. I'm talking specifically about mountain passes.

If you're from a flat area and don't have mountain driving experience, refresh yourself on the basics of mountain driving. Know how to use the lower gears of your vehicle. Don't go too fast; use pullovers to let faster drivers take over safely.

37. Watch for wildlife on the road

This is a good rule, pretty much anywhere where there's wildlife. However, when road-tripping, you're more likely to drive through areas where wildlife could be an issue.

Bison on the road in Yellowstone NP
Bison on the road in Yellowstone NP

Take special care when driving early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Look for signs warning you against the presence of animals. They're there for a reason.

38. Don't leave valuables in the car

In the end, the real danger is from humans - not animals. Other than traffic accidents, as a traveler, you're also more at risk for burglary and theft. Follow these basic rules -

  1. Lock your car when you leave it.
  2. Take the most essential valuables (wallet and phone) with you.
  3. Avoid leaving cameras, laptops, and other valuables in the car - and cover them if you are forced to leave them in the vehicle.

You can also look into insurance, but we never take one. We accept the risk of theft as part of the traveling experience and "cover ourselves." So far, I'm happy to say we have never had anything stolen from us during more a year and a half of road-tripping in the US and Canada.

39. Carry first aid with you

Having a small first aid kit in the car is always a good idea. You never know when someone will get a small cut or minor injury. It's easier to have that with you rather than start looking for a pharmacy in the middle of nowhere.

Please don't go overboard with it, though. Unless you're a paramedic, you're not likely to need much more than some antiseptic and band-aids.

Have fun!

Hey, that is actually sort of a tip, too! Try to get into the road trip mood. For us, that usually takes a day or two, but once we're "in the zone," there's nothing quite like it—just rolling from one beautiful place to another, leaving your worries behind you!

How about your road trip tips?

I'd love to hear from fellow road-trippers! Do you have your special tips for a successful road trip experience? Please don't be shy and leave them here in a comment!

Thank you in advance for sharing this post on social media. Here are a couple more images for Pinterest.

Like the rest of the photos in this post, they were all taken during our road trips -

37 tips that will make your road trip a success - based on 18 months of road tripping in the US and Canada

37 tips that will make your road trip a success - based on 18 months of road tripping in the US and Canada

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  1. I really appreciate your advice that on really long drives it is better to have more space! About a week ago, I was talking to my sister, and she mentioned that she wants to plan a big road trip for both of our families. I think it would be great if we could all drive together so that we can bond. We should look into busses or minibusses that could hold all of us comfortably.

  2. Thank you for sharing! I am currently planning a month long road trip through Washington, Oregon, and California for next summer! This will be the second trip my four travel mates and I will make!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your memory of your adventures. I learned so much from you. Nature is one God’s beautiful creations. Through nature, God is able to teach us, speak to us, and provide for us. God bless you for encouraging us to follow your footstep.

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